The Fed's big gamble: Here's what could go wrong
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 6:13 PM
-- The Federal Reserve is making a high-stakes bet in the hope of getting the economy steaming along again. Nobody is sure the Fed's best efforts will work, and they may actually backfire.
The Fed announced a plan to buy $600 billion in government debt, aimed at driving already low long-term interest rates even lower. The central bank would buy the debt in chunks of $75 billion a month through June of next year.
Economists call it "quantitative easing." The latest package gets the name "QE2" - like the ship - because it's the second round. The Fed spent about $1.7 trillion from 2008 to earlier this year to take bonds off the hands of banks and stabilize them.
Here's how it's supposed to work this time: The Fed buys Treasury bonds from banks, providing them cash to lend to customers. Buying so many bonds also lowers interest rates because demand for Treasurys leads to higher prices and lower yields. Interest rates on consumer loans are tied to Treasury yields. Lower rates entice people to take out a mortgage or another loan.
At the same time, lower interest rates make relatively safe investments like bonds and cash less appealing, so companies and investors take the cash and buy equipment or other investments, like stocks. The S&P 500 takes off and Americans celebrate with a shopping spree. Businesses see a rise in sales and begin hiring again, and a virtuous cycle of more spending and more hiring ensues.
But many analysts and even supporters of the plan see dangers. It could make the weak dollar even weaker and lead to trade disputes with other countries. It could lead bond traders to believe that inflation will run wild, and they derail the Fed's efforts by pushing rates higher. Many investors argue that it may create bubbles as hedge funds and other speculators borrow cheaply and make even bigger bets on stocks, commodities and markets in developing countries like Brazil.
"It's a desperate act," says Jeremy Grantham, co-founder of the investment firm GMO. Grantham says it's a clear message from the Fed to the rest of the world: "The U.S. doesn't care if the dollar weakens."
Here is a look at two ways the Fed's strategy could go wrong:
As word trickled out over recent months that the Fed was planning a new round of bond purchases, the dollar sank. It hit a 15-year low to the Japanese yen Nov. 1. Why? In the simplest terms, a country that cuts interest rates makes its currency less attractive to the worlds' investors. The interest rate is also the investors' yield, the payout they receive. When that yield falls, the world's banks move their money into countries with higher rates. They may exchange U.S. dollars for Australian dollars then invest the money in higher-paying Australian bonds.
"The Fed aims to push up the prices of stocks, bonds, real estate, and you name it," says Bill O'Donnell, head of U.S. government bond strategy at the Royal Bank of Scotland. "Everything is going to go up but the dollar."
A drop in the dollar can help companies like Ford that sell their products abroad. When the dollar weakens against the euro, for example, one euro buys more dollars than before. Foreign customers notice the price of the Explorer they've been eyeing is lower in their currency, yet Ford still pockets the same number of dollars for every sale.