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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.
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.
Equity markets around the world Wednesday expressed their distaste for the possible end of the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing (QE) policy. Share prices tumbled from New York to Tokyo. Here's what every investor needs to know.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As central bankers gathered Tuesday for the last policy meeting of the year, expectations were high that Fed Chief Ben Bernanke and his cohorts will announce a large scale asset purchase plan to replace the soon-to-end Operation Twist, introduced in September 2011.
The Fed hopes additional stimulus will finally boost growth and the employment level. With the current unemployment level at an elevated 7.7% -- a number that economists say will be revised higher in the coming weeks - the weak labor market remains a grave concern.
At recent meetings, the Fed indicated that it will continue QE3, the policy of buying $45 billion in mortgage-backed securities each month until it sees a significant and sustained improvement in the employment scene - which is unlikely to come anytime soon.
Together with Operation Twist, the two programs added some $85 billion in long-term bonds to the Fed's balance sheet each month.
The aim, the Fed said in a statement, "should put downward pressure on longer-term interest rates, support mortgage markets, and help to make broader financial conditions more accommodative."
The central bank has also stressed it would employ its other policy tools "if the labor market does not improve substantially."
While the Fed did not elaborate on what those tools are, it maintains it still has plenty of ammo left and stands ready to pull the trigger when and if necessary.
It looks like now is the time.
They're winging it.
In a talk before a Harvard Club audience, Fisher presented a candid assessment about all the levers the Fed has been pulling in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. And that includes the recently announced QE3.
"Nobody really knows what will work to get the economy back on course. And nobody-in fact, no central bank anywhere on the planet-has the experience of successfully navigating a return home from the place in which we now find ourselves. No central bank-not, at least, the Federal Reserve-has ever been on this cruise before."
I don't know about you, but the idea that four years and trillions of dollars into this quantitative easing voyage we're still sailing without a compass isn't just appalling.
Yet this ship of fools sails on.
The problem is, Fisher is right: QE3 won't work. QE1 and QE2 didn't fix this mess. Nor will QE4, QE5, onwards to infinity.
What's more, there's a cottage industry of pundits and consultants who'll agree.
Trouble is, just like Fisher and his colleagues at the Fed, none of them can tell you why it won't work.
That's what we're going to do here today.
We'll start by giving you the lowdown on how this nation's central bankers view "Quantitative Easing." Then we'll show you how the Fed thinks QE is supposed to work.
Finally, we'll punch some (actually, many) holes in in the Fed's hull by discussing why it's not working.
We'll even demonstrate what could still be done to fix this wretched mess.
America's savers, many of whom are retired or nearing retirement, would beg to differ.
You see, low rates at the Fed - which has pledged to keep its interest rates near zero at least through 2015 - means low rates on conventional savings vehicles like bank accounts, certificates of deposit, and money market funds.
Those rates affect $10 trillion in savings-like products, costing savers billions of dollars.
For example, if a saver had $100 in a savings account in 2008 that paid 0.35% interest, she'd have just $102 today. But with inflation, $100 worth of goods in 2008 now costs $107.
That's a loss of 5% in four years, the sort of math that eats away at a retiree's standard of living.
And the rates of 2008 look fantastic compared to what's available now.
The Fed's actions have pushed down interest rates to microscopic levels. The average savings account interest rate has fallen one-third in the last year alone, to 0.08%.
The average yield on five-year CDs last month dropped below 1% for the first time ever. Back in 2007, five-year CDs provided a yield of 4%.
And yet in a speech he gave at the Economic Club of Indiana on Monday, Bernanke said his policies are helping savers.
That's because Bernanke pledged on Sept. 13 that QE3 -unlike the stimulus programs before it - will continue for an unlimited timeframe.
QE3 has already led to a rally in commodity prices, like the previous Fed stimulus actions.
But this time the inflationary surge will get much, much worse.
"If the governments and central bankers continue to flood the world with cheap money, it has to translate into some kind of inflation," Money Morning Global Investing Strategist Martin Hutchinson recently explained. "We started with asset inflation. But my sense is that the transition from asset inflation to consumer inflation will happen very quickly."
With median income levels at averages not seen since the mid-90s, U.S. households need to prepare their savings to survive higher prices - especially while interest rates remain near zero.
Unfortunately, it appears this environment is exactly what Ben Bernanke has in mind.
"Not only will they tolerate higher inflation, not only will they wish for higher inflation, but they actually may target higher inflation," PIMCO CEO Mohamed El-Erian told CNBC ofthe Fed. "This is a historical bet that our kids will be reading about in history books."
Here's what Bernanke has planned.
But even though the market quickly jumped to five-year highs, stocks fizzled shortly thereafter.
And that leaves investors wondering whether this market has staying power.
"The question now is if investors feel brave enough to continue to buy stocks at such elevated levels," Fawad Razaqzada, market strategist at GFT Markets wrote in a note to investors. Investors looking for a safer route should focus on companies that can thrive on their own merits -- even without an intoxicating shot of QE3.
Companies that make products we have to have - the necessities of life, in other words -- tend to be more resistant to market ups and downs.
Let's take a look at three companies that have delivered steady, reliable returns for decades -- with or without QE1, QE2, QE3 or, someday, QE99.
Equity and commodity markets cheered the Fed's move. Stocks rallied and analysts raised precious metals price forecasts.
QE3 differs from the first two rounds in that it is an aggressive open-ended purchase program of $40 billion per month of mortgage-backed securities. The buying is slated to continue until we reach substantial and sustained improvement in the U.S. economy, which won't be a short-term achievement.
The program aims to lower long-term interest rates, stoke consumer demand and bring down the elevated unemployment rate.
But some opponents think the latest stimulus measure from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke will fail to achieve any of that.
In fact, the QE3 doubters have a lot to say - and anyone with money in the markets right now should pay attention to what could happen.