Thursday, March 19, 2009

Fed Ups Balance Sheet $1.2 Trillion: Irresponsible, Or Just What The Economy Needs?

With the recent announcement that the Federal Reserve plans to buy up $1.2 trillion in mortgage backed securities and other financial instruments, there has been a economic divide created. On one side Americans will benefit from reduced mortgage rates, however, opponents to the decision argue that this will lead to major inflation and devalue the savings of responsible Americans. It seems that anyone "responsible" is getting victimized in all these stimulus measures. Furthermore there is always the worry that the foreign buyers of our debt will be turned off by our actions and decide to stop buying these assets, or even worse sell off what they already own. For more on this, read the following blog post from Tony Straka.

Word has probably spread around by now that the Federal Reserve is going to buy everything in America that's not nailed down, throwing another $1,150,000,000,000 lifeline at markets. (Click here to see what a trillion looks like.)

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) yesterday informed the public that it will expand its dominating position in the MBS market, throwing an additional $750 billion there. The buying spree does not end there. Having arrived at zero interest rate policy 3 months earlier the Fed now hopes to control interest rates by monetizing US Treasuries equalling $300 billion. Stirring still more Bourbon in the punch bowl the Fed will also up its portfolio of agency debt by another $100 billion.

Markets rallied on the news with Treasuries shedding up to 51 basis points. Gold outshone everything and spurted more than $50 on the FOMC's news that will ultimately lead to higher inflation rates despite the FOMC statement that said,
In light of increasing economic slack here and abroad, the Committee expects that inflation will remain subdued.
Surprisingly chairman Ben Bernanke and his troops are more worried about possible deflation despite the Fed's balloning balance sheet that will pass the $3 trillion mark this year.
Moreover, the Committee sees some risk that inflation could persist for a time below rates that best foster economic growth and price stability in the longer term.
Latest CPI figures show a different picture. Inflation rose to 0.5% (January: 0,4%) or 6% annualized in February.

GRAPH: Gold reacted with the biggest jump seen in decades, rising more than $50 after the Fed released more measures that are designed to fuel monetary inflation. Chart courtesy of
Economists were up in arms about the Fed's measures. Stephen Stanley of RBS Greenwich Capital said via the WSJ blogs:
The agency MBS market is close to $4 trillion, so the Fed will end up owning almost one-third of the agency mortgage market. If this was a “rigged market” (to quote one of my learned colleagues on the mortgage desk) before, what should we call it now?! … $50 billion per month in Treasuries pales in comparison to new supply. Just to flesh that point out, we project that auctions of 2’s, 3’s, 5’s, 7’s, and 10’s will total $150 billion in March. In essence, even if all the purchases are limited to 2’s to 10’s, the Fed’s program will merely be a third of the new supply (and far short of one-third of the total market, as is the case for agency MBS).
Morgan Stanleys David Greenlaw said,
Even with energy prices having flattened The Fed’s Treasury purchases will absorb a very significant portion of the amount of gross issuance that we anticipate to occur over the next six months… The Fed’s announcement signals a clear intent to continue to drive mortgage rates lower and we expect them to meet this objective. This could represent a powerful source of stimulus for the household sector of the economy. In 2008, the average mortgage rate on the outstanding stock of loans was about 6.50%. So, if the Fed brings 30-yr fixed rate mortgages down to 4.50% and all homeowners are able refi, the aggregate permanent cash flow savings would be on the order of $200 billion per year.
Bloomberg summed it up in the lead of their coverage:
By committing to buy Treasuries and double his purchases of mortgage debt, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke signaled his determination to avoid a repeat of the Great Depression and his willingness to pump as much cash into the economy as needed to end the current crisis.
I conclude nothing has changed in the Fed's perception that new fiat money will also solve this crisis. Taking gold's reaction as the canary in the coal mine markets will recognize that the Fed is on the way towards hyper inflation. As in the Weimar republic the US central bank spins up the presses to monetize the debt. At the end of the Weimar republic one percent of government income came from taxes and 99% came fresh from the printing presses.

President Barack Obama may have no other choice than to take this route as foreign investors grow wary about the capability of the USA to serve its debts and we may see less participation in Treasury auctions also for the reason that sovereign wealth funds will spend a bigger portion domestically as nearly every nation is confronted with the economic downturn. For the time being gold investments may turn out again to be the safest asset to hold.

UPDATE: says one trillion greenbacks could fund an inflation-adjusted New Deal twice over. Check out their way of visualizing what one trillion can buy and be in for a dose of reality.

I especially liked this one. Do you still say this crisis is manageable? Illustration courtesy of

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