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No surprises from the Fed*

By Christine Rifflart

Not surprisingly, at its meeting on 29 and 30 October the Monetary Policy Committee of the US Federal Reserve decided to maintain its unconventional measures and to leave the federal funds rate unchanged. Since the end of 2012, the Fed has been making massive purchases of securities (government bonds and mortgage debt) at a rate of $85 billion per month. The aim is to put pressure on long-term rates and to support economic activity, including the real estate market.

The Federal Reserve, which is committed to a strategy of transparency and communication aimed at orienting investor expectations, also confirmed that it will hold the rate at between 0 and 0.25% so long as: the unemployment rate is greater than 6.5%; forecasts of inflation over 1 to 2 years do not exceed the long-term inflation target, set at 2%, by more than a half-point; and long-term inflation expectations remain stable. According to our forecast in October (see The United States: capped growth), the unemployment rate, which was 7.2% in September, could fall to 6.9% by end 2014. Finally, inflation, which was at 1.5% in the third quarter of 2013, should not exceed 1.8% in 2014. In these conditions, no rate increase is expected before the second half of 2015. Policy will thus remain particularly accommodating.

There is greater uncertainty about the withdrawal of the unconventional measures than about keeping long-term rates at artificially low levels. A cessation or reduction of these measures was announced last May and is thus expected by the markets, and in any case they were not meant to last. Between May and September 2013, foreign private and public investors had anticipated the beginning of their withdrawal and began offloading some of their securities. This influx of securities depressed prices and led to a one-point increase in long-term public rates in just a few weeks. But the fragile character of growth, inadequate job creation and especially the public relations efforts undertaken by the central banks to reassure the financial markets led to putting off the actual date the purchases are to be curtailed. Long-term rates fell once again, and have continued to fall in recent weeks following the October budget crisis.

If, in retrospect, it appears that it was premature to anticipate an early withdrawal of the unconventional measures, the question of timing still remains. In its press release, the Committee stated that any decision will depend on the economic outlook as well as on a cost-benefit analysis of the programme. However, the economic situation is not expected to improve in the coming months. If Congress reaches a budget agreement before December 13, this will certainly be on the basis of cuts in public spending. This new fiscal shock will further dampen growth and penalize the labor market yet again. The issuance of new debt, which was compelled in 2013 by the statutory debt ceiling, might then grow very slowly in 2014 due to budget adjustments. Faced with this moderate growth in the supply of securities, the Federal Reserve could reduce its own purchases to the benefit of other investors. This could help maintain equilibrium in the securities market without a sharp fall in asset prices.

This normalization of monetary policy instruments should not be long in coming. But there are risks involved, and a sharp rise in long-term rates cannot be excluded. The markets are volatile, and the events of May and June have not been forgotten. But much of the movement has already been taken on board by the markets. The Federal Reserve will therefore have to beef up its communication strategy (by for example announcing in advance the date and scope of its decision) if it is to succeed the difficult balancing act of maintaining a highly accommodative monetary policy while gradually dispensing with its exceptional measures to maintain low interest rates. Let us assume that the exercise will be a success. Long-term public rates, at 2.7% in third quarter 2013, should not exceed 3.5% by the end of 2014.

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*This text draws on the study “Politique monétaire: est-ce le début de la fin ?” [Monetary policy: Is it the beginning of the end?], which is to appear soon in the OFCE 2013-2014 outlook for the global economy.

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