Before the housing market crash, economists warned that record low-interest and mortgage rates were fueling a housing bubble.
Unfortunately, those fears were both overlooked and underestimated.
Now, an advisory council to the U.S. Federal Reserve is warning the Fed that its record $85 billon-a-month stimulus and ultra-low interest rates are fueling new bubbles in student loans and farmland.
"Recent growth in student-loan debt, to nearly $1 trillion, now exceeds credit-card outstandings and has parallels to the housing crisis," according to minutes of the council's Feb. 8 meeting.
In addition, "agricultural land prices are veering further from what makes sense," the council said. "Members believe the run-up in agriculture land prices is a bubble resulting from persistently low interest rates."
What You Absolutely Need to Know About Money (Part 6)
Our last chapter was about how the U.S. Federal Reserve was created and why. But it ended with an extreme example of how the universal central banking model works today.
As another domino threatened the house of cards holding up European banks, more money had to be pumped into Cypriot banks so their doors didn't close and rapid contagion wouldn't implode all of Europe, and then the world.
Only this time was different.
The European Central Bank (ECB) reached straight into Cypriot bank depositors' pockets and stole about $6 billion from them. The "how" isn't important. It's a simple equation, as revealed in Part V. Governments are the backstoppers of central banks; that's where their authority ultimately comes from.
Why did the ECB steal depositors' money? So they could turn around and lend that and more to the insolvent banks to keep them alive. It's the latest twist in the old "extend and pretend" game.
The big question is, how did banks get so big and so dangerous in the first place?
Or, how did stodgy traditional banking morph into "casino banking" on a global scale?
Here's how it started...
There's More Than One Way for the Fed to End QE
The market has been looking ahead to the inevitable end of the U.S. Federal Reserve's quantitative easing (QE) program with considerable apprehension.
Most market observers expect the end of the Fed's QE asset-purchasing program to immediately result in a sharp sell-off in bonds and higher interest rates.
This is expected to hit the mortgage-backed securities (MBS) market, where the Fed has been very active, quite hard.
As part of a policy to communicate more openly with the markets, Chairman Ben Bernanke and the Fed have been regularly launching QE exit strategy trial balloons into the market to see how quickly they get shot down.
The latest exit strategy that has been gaining traction is the idea of "tapering" QE asset purchases so that there isn't a sudden halt to supply of money flowing from the Fed into the Treasury and MBS markets. The markets seem to be pretty sanguine about the tapering idea, although there has been no specific suggestion on timing.
Instead, the markets have been concentrating on how the Fed will get rid of all of the assets it has accumulated on its balance sheet during the QE program.
Prepare for Years of "QE Forever' with Ben Bernanke at the Helm
When Ben Bernanke testified before Congress Tuesday and Wednesday, he staunchly defended his easy- money policies like quantitative easing, or "QE Forever."
"We do not see the potential costs of the increased risk-taking in some financial markets as outweighing the benefits of promoting a stronger economic recovery," the Federal Reserve chairman said.
Bernanke added the central bank takes "very seriously" the excessive risk-taking its dovish policies could provoke and is watching markets carefully.
He maintained that the bank's accommodative monetary policy has "supported real growth in employment and kept inflation close to our target [2%]."
But some Fed officials are growing concerned about quantitative easing - the Fed's purchases of $85 billion in securities a month - and believe it would be prudent to slow or stop the buying well before the end of 2013. Esther George, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, is one of the biggest hawks in the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) this year, citing unease about economic stability and inflation.
"While I share the objectives [of the FOMC]," George said in a Feb. 12 speech at the University of Nebraska Omaha, "I dissented because of possible risks and the possible costs of these policies exceeding their benefits...While I have agreed with keeping rates low to support this recovery, I know keeping interest rates near zero has its own consequences."
Despite the increasingly anxious sentiment, as long as Bernanke remains at the helm, QE Forever will be the policy. Here's why.
What Every Investor Should Know About the End of QE
Equity markets around the world yesterday expressed their distaste for the possible end of the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing (QE) policy.
Share prices tumbled from New York to Tokyo. Even resource-rich Australia and emerging markets, including China, saw shares decline following the release of the minutes of last month's Federal Open Market Committee meeting.
What upset the markets was a discussion at the January FOMC meeting about when and, more importantly, how to end the current QE policy.
As someone put it on Bloomberg Radio yesterday, "Would the markets have been happier if the FOMC was ignoring the issue of how to end QE?"
To understand how ending the QE policy might affect the economy and markets, investors need to understand how QE operates.
FOMC Preview: Will the Fed Continue its $85B/Month Bond-Buying Program?
Investors will be looking to the Federal Reserve Wednesday for clues about how long it might continue its bond-buying program aimed at pushing interest rates down.
The Federal Open Market Committee is expected to release a policy statement at 2:15 p.m. Wednesday, the second day of its two-day meeting.
In keeping with a practice it began last January, the first meeting of the new year will highlight the FOMC's long-term goals and monetary policy.
The Central Bank likely will reiterate the goal it has maintained all of last year: boosting the stagnant U.S. economy.The Fed's first meeting of 2013 comes after an extraordinarily busy year, capped by two key moves in December.
That's when the Fed said it would continue spending $85 billion a month on bond purchases to keep interest rates low. At the same time, the Fed set unemployment and inflation "thresholds" instead of a date when the central bank expected to be able to raise interest rates.
Will the Fed End QE This Summer?
Amid all of the hoopla over the Standard & Poor's 500 Index touching 1,500 on Friday, it seems few people noticed that the yield on 10-year U.S. Treasury bonds has risen to within a couple of basis points of 2%. That is nearly 30 basis points higher than it was one month ago and 10 basis points higher than one year ago.
It seems as if the bond market is beginning to price in higher inflation at the long end of the yield curve, and that is something that has got to be worrying the Fed.
Successive rounds of quantitative easing (QE) have added a lot of liquidity to the U.S. economy and this has been repeated globally with massive amounts of liquidity being pumped into the market by the Bank of Japan (BOJ), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Bank of England (BOE).
The Bank of Japan has committed itself to further aggressive easing under pressure from the newly elected government headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Even if BOJ Governor Masaaki Shirakawa has any second thoughts about additional easing, he will keep them to himself.
Did the Fed Just Admit QE3 Has Been a Major Failure?
After four years of quantitative easing programs, including QE3 just last fall, U.S. Federal Reserve officials have started voicing doubts about its effectiveness and concerns that it is distorting the markets.
And it's not just the Fed's hawks, such as Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher and Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser, speaking out against the bond-buying extravaganza.
Doves like Atlanta's Dennis Lockhart and moderates like Kansas City's Esther George have expressed concerns about QE3 as well.
"I do think the growth of the Fed's balance sheet could have longer-term consequences that are worrisome. While I've supported these policy decisions to date, I acknowledge legitimate concerns," Lockhart said in a speech in Atlanta on Monday.
According to the minutes of the December Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, several members "thought that it would probably be appropriate to slow or to stop purchases well before the end of 2013, citing concerns about financial stability or the size of the balance sheet."
If in fact sentiment within the FOMC is turning against QE3, then the easy money spigot that has helped fuel the stock market and other investments could be switched off sooner than most expected, which could have a sharp impact on the markets.
FOMC Meeting: What the Fed Policy Changes Mean For You
The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting ended yesterday (Wednesday) with two important changes to Fed monetary policy.
First, the central bank said it would increase the amount of quantitative easing by replacing Operation Twist, which ends Dec. 31, with outright purchases of long-dated Treasury bonds.
Under Operation Twist, every month the Fed sold $45 billion in short-term Treasury bonds and notes and bought $45 billion of long-term Treasury bonds in an effort to keep long-term interest rates low.
Because the Fed funded its purchase of long-term bonds with the sale of short-term bonds and notes, no new money was created.
However, outright purchases of long-term bonds will create new money-$45 billion every month-and, by concentrating its buying at the long end of the yield curve, the Fed should be able to keep long-term interest rates low.
The Fed also said it will continue to purchase $40 billion of mortgage-backed securities each month, creating a total of $85 billion in new money from these operations monthly.
That means QE4 is here.
Starting in January, the Fed will be more than doubling the amount of money it is pumping into the economy. Happy New Year!
Second, the Fed set unemployment and inflation "thresholds," instead of setting a date for when the central bank expects to be able to raise interest rates. What this means is that the Fed will not raise interest rates unless unemployment is 6.5% or less or inflation is more than 2.5%.
By setting thresholds where monetary policy might change, the Fed is attempting to improve its communications with the public.
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Today's FOMC Meeting Ends with Major Change
After today's Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, the Fed announced it would expand the third round of its bond buying with fresh stimulus, replacing the soon to expire Operation Twist, set to end Dec. 31.
And in an additional unprecedented move from the central bank, interest rate decisions will now be tied to the unemployment rate and inflation.
About a half hour into the release, the Dow Jones Industrial Average staged a near 65-point rally - but then lost that gain and ended down nearly 3 points at 13,245.45.
Here's a breakdown of the FOMC meeting outcome.
Today's FOMC Meeting: QE4As expected, the FOMC meeting ended with a replacement for Operation Twist, the expiring program introduced in 2011 of swapping short-term Treasuries for longer dated ones. The goal of Operation Twist was to lower long-term interest rates to stimulate the U.S. economy.
The new asset purchase program is an extended arm of the Fed's familiar quantitative easing programs, and has thus been dubbed QE4.
Now with QE3 and QE4 together, the Fed will purchase a whopping $85 billion a month of Treasury securities, stacking the Fed's portfolio with government-backed investments for an extended period.
The buying spree will remain intact until the unemployment rate falls below 6.5% and inflation projections remain no more than half a percentage point above 2% for two years out.
The Fed also left interest rates at rock-bottom historic lows near zero, as was also expected.
While these moves were widely expected, what wasn't expected was the Fed's forward-looking guidance.
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