By upping the ante once again in its gamble to revive the lethargic economy through monetary action, the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee is now compelling the rest of us to buy into a game that we may not be able to afford. At his press conference this week, Fed Chairman Bernanke explained how the easiest policy stance in Fed history has just gotten that much easier. First it gave us zero interest rates, then QEs I and II, Operation Twist, and finally "unlimited" QE3.
Now that those moves have failed to deliver economic health, the Fed has doubled the size of its open-ended money printing and has announced a program of data flexibility that virtually insures that they will never bump into limitations, until it's too late. Although their new policies will create numerous long-term challenges for the economy, the biggest near-term challenge for the Fed will be how to keep the momentum going by upping the ante even higher their next meeting.
The big news is that the Fed is now doubling the amount of money it is printing. In addition to its ongoing $40 billion per month of mortgage backed securities (to stimulate housing), it will now buy $45 billion per month of Treasury debt. The latter program replaces Operation Twist, which had used proceeds from the sales of short-term treasuries to finance the purchase of longer yielding paper. The problem is the Fed has already blown through its short-term inventory, so the new buying will be pure balance sheet expansion.
To cloak these shockingly accommodative moves in the garb of moderation, the Fed announced that future policy decisions will be put on automatic pilot by pegging liquidity withdrawal to two sets of economic data. By committing to tightening policy if either unemployment falls below 6.5% or if inflation goes higher than 2.5%, Bernanke is likely looking to silence fears that the Fed will stay too loose for too long. While these statistical benchmarks would be too accommodative even if they were rigidly enforced, the goalposts have been specifically designed to be completely movable, and hence essentially meaningless.