Most market watchers expect that Janet Yellen will grapple with two major tasks once she takes the helm at the Federal Reserve in 2014: deciding on the appropriate timing and intensity of the Fed's quantitative easing taper strategy, and unwinding the Fed's enormous $4 trillion balance sheet (without creating huge losses in the value of its portfolio). In reality both assignments are far more difficult than just about anyone understands or admits.
Unlike just about every other economist, I knew that the Fed would not taper in September because the economy is still fundamentally addicted to stimulus. The signs of recovery that have caused investors and politicians to bubble with enthusiasm are just QE in disguise. Take away the QE and the economy would likely tilt back into an even more severe recession than the one we experienced before QE1 was launched
Given the Fed's failure to initiate a tapering campaign in recent months (when it was highly expected) it is surprising that most people still believe that it will pull the trigger in the first quarter of 2014. But if the Fed could not take action in September, with Ben Bernanke at the helm and the nation as yet untraumatized by the debt ceiling drama and Obamacare, why should we expect tougher treatment from Janet Yellen? This is particularly true when you consider Yellen's reputation as an extreme dove and the uninspiring economic data that has come in recent months.
Rather than explicitly describing the possibility of a reduction of asset purchases, recent Fed statements have merely said that policy would be "adjusted" according to incoming data. It has never said what direction that adjustment may take. Yet somehow the market has concluded that an imminent reduction is the only possibility. But the opposite conclusion is more likely. Recession avoidance is really the Fed's only concern and it will always come down on the side of accommodation. Therefore an expectation for a 2014 taper is just wishful thinking.
But that does not mean that QE will go on forever. It will come to an end, but not because the Fed wants it to, but because the currency markets give it no choice. A dollar crisis would ultimately force the Fed's hand, and the longer the Fed succeeds in postponing the inevitable, the more damage its policy mistakes will inflict on our economy.
Get the Market Movements in Advance: William's Edge Webinar for Tuesday, March 11th, 2014 | John Ransom