Bernanke sidesteps immediate QE3, but not off the table

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke

 “When we convened in Jackson Hole in August 2007, the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) target for the federal funds rate was 5-1/4 percent. Sixteen months later, with the financial crisis in full swing, the FOMC had lowered the target for the federal funds rate to nearly zero, thereby entering the unfamiliar territory of having to conduct monetary policy with the policy interest rate at its effective lower bound. The unusual severity of the recession and ongoing strains in financial markets made the challenges facing monetary policymakers all the greater.

Today I will review the evolution of U.S. monetary policy since late 2007. My focus will be the Federal Reserve’s experience with nontraditional policy tools, notably those based on the management of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet and on its public communications. I’ll discuss what we have learned about the efficacy and drawbacks of these less familiar forms of monetary policy, and I’ll talk about the implications for the Federal Reserve’s ongoing efforts to promote a return to maximum employment in a context of price stability.

Monetary Policy in 2007 and 2008

When significant financial stresses first emerged, in August 2007, the FOMC responded quickly, first through liquidity actions--cutting the discount rate and extending term loans to banks--and then, in September, by lowering the target for the federal funds rate by 50 basis points. 1 As further indications of economic weakness appeared over subsequent months, the Committee reduced its target for the federal funds rate by a cumulative 325 basis points, leaving the target at 2 percent by the spring of 2008.

The Committee held rates constant over the summer as it monitored economic and financial conditions. When the crisis intensified markedly in the fall, the Committee responded by cutting the target for the federal funds rate by 100 basis points in October, with half of this easing coming as part of an unprecedented coordinated interest rate cut by six major central banks. Then, in December 2008, as evidence of a dramatic slowdown mounted, the Committee reduced its target to a range of 0 to 25 basis points, effectively its lower bound. That target range remains in place today.

Despite the easing of monetary policy, dysfunction in credit markets continued to worsen. As you know, in the latter part of 2008 and early 2009, the Federal Reserve took extraordinary steps to provide liquidity and support credit market functioning, including the establishment of a number of emergency lending facilities and the creation or extension of currency swap agreements with 14 central banks around the world.2 In its role as banking regulator, the Federal Reserve also led stress tests of the largest U.S. bank holding companies, setting the stage for the companies to raise capital. These actions--along with a host of interventions by other policymakers in the United States and throughout the world--helped stabilize global financial markets, which in turn served to check the deterioration in the real economy and the emergence of deflationary pressures.

Unfortunately, although it is likely that even worse outcomes had been averted, the damage to the economy was severe. The unemployment rate in the United States rose from about 6 percent in September 2008 to nearly 9 percent by April 2009--it would peak at 10 percent in October--while inflation declined sharply. As the crisis crested, and with the federal funds rate at its effective lower bound, the FOMC turned to nontraditional policy approaches to support the recovery.

As the Committee embarked on this path, we were guided by some general principles and some insightful academic work but--with the important exception of the Japanese case--limited historical experience. As a result, central bankers in the United States, and those in other advanced economies facing similar problems, have been in the process of learning by doing. I will discuss some of what we have learned, beginning with our experience conducting policy using the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet, then turn to our use of communications tools.

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