Posted on Thursday, November 4, 2010
WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve, getting ahead of the battles that will dominate national politics over the next two years, moved Wednesday to jolt the economy into recovery with a bold but risky plan to pump $600 billion into the banking system.
A day earlier, Republicans swept to a majority in the House on an antideficit platform, virtually guaranteeing that they would clash with the Obama administration over the best way to nurture a fragile recovery.
The action was the second time in a year that the Fed had ventured into new territory as it struggles to push down long-term interest rates to encourage borrowing and economic growth. In a statement, the Fed said it was acting because the recovery was “disappointingly slow,” and it left the door open to even more purchases of government securities next year.
The Fed is an independent body, its policy decisions separated from the political pressures of the day. But it acted with a clear understanding that the United States, like many other Western countries, seems to have taken off the table many of the options governments traditionally use to give their economies a kick, particularly deficit spending.
The Republicans regained control of the House for the first time in four years in part by attacking the stimulus plan — begun by the Bush administration and accelerated by President Obama — as a symbol of government spinning out of control, contributing to a dangerously escalating national debt.
This political reality has left Washington increasingly reliant on the Fed to take action, though its chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, has said the Fed cannot fix the problem alone.
But in stepping in so aggressively, the Fed is taking risks. The action not only expands the Fed’s huge portfolio of Treasury bonds, it makes it a target of a Congress whose new members include some who are hostile to the Fed’s independent role.
On Wall Street, analysts said the move appeared to be a balancing act that met expectations and stock prices rose.
Ordinarily the Fed’s main tool for spurring economic growth is to lower short-term interest rates. But those rates are already near zero. With no more room to go, it has to find another route to stimulate demand.
That route is to buy government bonds, which increases demand for them and raises their prices, pushing long-term interest rates down. “Easier financial conditions will promote economic growth,” Mr. Bernanke predicted in an essay for Thursday’s Washington Post.
Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, the outgoing chairman of the House Republican Conference, said shortly after the announcement that the Fed was overstepping its bounds. “Diluting the value of the dollar by continually increasing the supply of money poses an incalculable risk,” he said. “Instead, Congress needs to embrace progrowth fiscal policies to stimulate our economy rather than masking our fundamental problems by artificially creating inflation.”
In making that argument, Mr. Pence and his allies are replaying a dispute that permeated Washington in the mid-1930s, when the economy was crawling out of the Great Depression. Conservative Democrats pushed Franklin D. Roosevelt to cut back on spending, and argued for tight monetary policy. Many economists argue that the result was a second downturn just before the outbreak of World War II, but others say the conditions today differ in so many ways that the comparison is misleading.
While the Fed step was telegraphed to the markets in recent weeks, most experts had expected $300 billion to $500 billion in purchases of Treasury debt. Still, the pace — $75 billion a month for eight months — disappointed some investors.
The Fed said it would also continue an earlier program, announced in August, of using proceeds from its mortgage-related holdings to buy additional Treasury debt, at a rate of about $35 billion a month, or $250 billion to $300 billion by the end of June.
So in total, the Fed will buy $850 billion to $900 billion, just about doubling the amount of Treasury debt it currently holds.
If the Fed’s bet is right, lower long-term rates should ripple through the markets, pushing down rates for mortgages and corporate bonds. That could encourage homeowners to refinance into cheaper mortgages, though it would not help the millions of Americans facing foreclosure. It could push businesses to make investments instead of sitting on piles of cash.
In a sign of its willingness to do even more, the Federal Open Market Committee, the central bank’s policy arm, left open the possibility of even more purchases beyond June, saying it would “adjust the program as needed to best foster maximum employment and price stability.”
Only one committee member dissented, for reasons that are similar to the complaints that some Republicans are likely to raise. Thomas M. Hoenig, an economist who is president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, said he believed the decision could create more risk for the financial system by enticing too much borrowing.
There are other risks, as well. The actions are likely to further drive down the dollar. That could worsen trade and exchange-rate tensions that have threatened to unravel cooperation among the world’s biggest economies.
Moreover, the Fed is exposing itself to the risk that the assets it has acquired could shrivel in value when interest rates eventually rise. That could reduce the amount of money the central bank turns over to the Treasury each year, and expose the Fed, already vulnerable for its failure to prevent the 2008 financial crisis, to even more criticism.
On Wednesday, the standoff between the parties was on display as the two sides argued over tax cuts and the desirability of government investment to create jobs.
It was this impending gridlock that might have pushed Mr. Bernanke to move, said Laurence H. Meyer, a former Fed governor. “Bernanke has said that fiscal stimulus, accommodated by the Fed, is the single most powerful action the government can take for lowering the unemployment rate, when short-term rates are already at zero,” Mr. Meyer said. “He has nearly pleaded with Congress for fiscal stimulus, but he can’t count on it.”
But Leonard J. Santow, an economic consultant, said he feared that the Fed was reacting to one mistake — the failure of fiscal policy — by adding another. “The main problem is on the fiscal side, and there is nothing wrong with the Fed chairman making budget recommendations and admitting there is not a great deal left for monetary policy to achieve when it comes to stimulating the economy,” he said.
One of the main questions raised by the Fed’s action was whether it had waited too long. While economists disagree on that, the Fed’s announcement completed a U-turn. Earlier, speculation was that the Fed would gradually raise interest rates and tighten the supply of credit, as it would normally do after a recession..
But this downturn and its painful aftermath have been anything but normal. Markets were set back in the spring by the European debt crisis. By late summer, as continuing high unemployment, slow growth and low inflation became clear, Mr. Bernanke became convinced that the Fed needed to act again. NYT By DAVID E. SANGER and SEWELL CHAN