Saturday, February 28, 2009

Fed Officials Weighing ‘Exit Strategy’ for End of Recession

The Federal Reserve’s efforts to bolster credit markets and revive growth pose a long-term risk of provoking inflation and worsening other problems that must be solved quickly when the crisis wanes, Fed policy makers said.

Central bank officials, after cutting interest rates almost to zero and more than doubling Fed assets to $1.9 trillion, should design an “exit strategy” that will enable them to steadily reduce credit, Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser said Friday. He spoke at a New York conference that included economists and five other Fed district bank presidents.

The Fed, already facing congressional criticism for invoking emergency power to expand its balance sheet, may face political pressure to keep interest rates low and credit abundant when economic growth resumes, Plosser said. Inflation may surge unless the Fed can withdraw monetary stimulus in a timely manner and fulfill its mandate to keep prices stable, he said.

“It is difficult to make credible commitments to price stability when the implementation of policy is disconnected from such an important policy objective,” Plosser said. “The absence of an exit strategy, or an entrance strategy, creates uncertainty.”

The need to start curtailing credit isn’t pressing, central bank officials said.

Economists’ Consensus

The consensus of economists surveyed by Bloomberg is for contraction of 5% in the first quarter of this year.

The economy will probably “shrink significantly in the first half of this year,” Boston Fed Bank President Eric Rosengren said at the U.S. Monetary Policy Forum, a conference sponsored by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the Brandeis International Business School. He doesn’t vote on the Federal Open Market Committee this year.

Some time in the second half of the year, growth will probably resume, the Fed officials said. The central bank will need to begin raising interest rates and shrinking its balance sheet to ensure liquidity provided during the crisis doesn’t stoke inflation, they said.

‘Wide Open’

“When things go back to normal, it is extremely important to get out of this business” of providing emergency credit, former Fed Governor Frederic Mishkin said. “It does leave you wide open to a lot of political problems.”

Government officials, reluctant to increase spending and compound the federal budget deficit, may push the Fed to expand the money supply to boost growth, he said.

High levels of unemployment may also discourage the Fed from quickly withdrawing credit. The jobless rate is forecast to remain above 8% through 2010, according to the Bloomberg survey.

Attending the conference along with Plosser and Rosengren were San Francisco Fed Bank President Janet Yellen, St. Louis Fed Bank President James Bullard, Minneapolis Fed Bank President Gary Stern and Chicago Fed Bank President Charles Evans.

The Fed’s lending programs are designed to wind down as markets strengthen, automatically shrinking the balance sheet.

The central bank provides credit at higher interest rates than private lenders, so borrowers will probably return to private markets when the crisis abates. Interest rates in the commercial paper market have fallen below the 2.24% the Fed charges to buy unsecured debt under its Commercial Paper Funding Facility.

Need to Swap

Other Fed programs will probably continue as the economy recovers, and many of the assets the Fed is buying, such as mortgage-backed securities, are long-term. The central bank may need to swap less-liquid assets on its balance sheet for Treasuries so it can more easily raise interest rates once the economy recovers, Plosser said.

He proposed the Fed seek an agreement with the Treasury Department to swap non-Treasury assets and non-discount-window loans for Treasuries, transferring credit risk to the U.S. fiscal authority. The move would provide the Fed with easier-to-sell securities, facilitating its efforts to tighten credit.

‘Last Resort’

Plosser, 60, a former economics professor who does not vote on policy this year, said policy makers must “clarify the criteria under which we choose to step in as a lender of last resort,” to prevent market-roiling speculation about the Fed’s intent. He also reiterated his support for the Fed to adopt an explicit numerical inflation “target” and commit to achieving the objective over a period of time.

Last week, the Fed released the first long-term forecasts by policy makers for inflation, economic growth and unemployment, moving closer to an inflation goal without making it explicit. That should help “reinforce inflation expectations of around 2 percent,” Yellen, 62, said.

The Fed’s inflation-fighting credibility sustained public confidence in price stability as the price of oil rose to a record last year, she said.

Continued attention to inflation should help moor price expectations amid signs of disinflation now, the Fed officials said.

Longer-term, as the economy rebounds, the central bank must reinforce that commitment to price stability, said Yellen, who votes on monetary policy this year. “The Fed must always be vigilant in guarding its inflation credibility.”

Source: Bloomberg

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