By Don Miller
With the economy in a tailspin, the U.S. Federal Reserve policymakers will today (Tuesday) almost certainly cut the benchmark Federal Funds rate from its current 1.0% to 0.5%.
So the question no longer seems to be whether the Fed will ease, but whether the move will make any difference.
The Fed has been hamstrung by a credit-market double-whammy: borrowers who are in limbo due to fears of soaring unemployment, and banks that have turned off the lending spigot. Even so, a U.S. economy facing its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression demands the central bank take decisive action.
That has led to a strong undercurrent of opinion among analysts that the Fed will pursue other measures to spark a moribund U.S. economy.
"We look for the accompanying statement to highlight that the main nexus of policy in the coming months will be quantitative easing operations, and we expect these operations to be aimed at lowering borrowing costs for households and businesses," Dean Maki, economist for Barclays Capital Management (ADR: BCS), told MarketWatch.com.
In other words, get ready for another attempt to kick-start bank lending by injecting more federal cash into the U.S. financial system.
One move the Fed could make is to buy massive amounts of U.S. Treasuries in an effort to keep yields from rising. Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke suggested in a Dec. 1 speech that the central bank might buy “longer-term Treasury or agency securities on the open market in substantial quantities.”
Bond market traders seemed to confirm that notion yesterday (Monday) by driving the price of 10-year Treasuries higher for a third straight day. The yield curve, the difference in yield between two-and 10-year notes, flattened as the difference between the two narrowed.
Driven lately by uncertainty over the Bush administration’s handling of the Big Three automakers’ bailout, investors have pushed yields on Treasuries to record lows. Treasury security yields last week reached the lowest levels since the U.S. started selling two, five, 10- and 30-year securities.
In a report issued last week, JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) predicted the yield on Treasuries in 2009 will be driven as low as 1.65% (from about 2.65% currently) amid “high uncertainty.”
Unloading stocks, corporate bonds and debt from mortgage-finance companies Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE), investors purchased $34.6 billion of Treasury securities in October, up from $20.7 billion in September, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
“You still have a massive paranoia in the marketplace and you’ve got that safety-at-any-cost mentality,” Jay Mueller of Wells Fargo Capital Management (WFC) told Bloomberg News. “People are not buying Treasury bills because they think the yields are attractive. They are buying them because they are afraid to put money anywhere else.”
According to Merrill Lynch & Co. (MER), U.S. government bonds have returned 12.4% so far in 2008. That’s the best return since 2000, when they gained 13.4%. Meanwhile, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index is down 40%, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average has lost 35%.
The Fed’s Arsenal
The Fed is pulling out every weapon in its arsenal to avoid deflation. A sustained drop in asset prices is the central bank’s worst fear since it could lead to more foreclosures and heightened economic chaos.
One undesirable side effect of the numerous economic stimulus packages is the potential for inflation and a decline in the dollar. Based on its actions, the Fed is apparently willing to take that risk.
In fact, speculation around the probable Fed interest rate cut knocked the greenback down to a two-month low against the euro, touching $1.3703 yesterday, the lowest it’s been since Oct. 14. With reduced demand for the dollar as a safe haven, the greenback dropped to a 13-year low against the Japanese yen and also lost ground to the British pound.
“We will stay in a low-interest-rate environment for some time,” Fabian Eliasson, vice president of currency sales at Mizuho Corporate Bank Ltd. in New York, told Bloomberg. “That will take away interest-rate play, and the dollar will suffer.”
After a four-month rally of 24%, consensus estimates for the dollar issued last week by Citigroup Inc. (C), Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), BNP Paribas SA and Bank of America Corp. (BAC), predicted further weakness against the euro.
After strengthening from July to November, the U.S. currency has retreated by 6.6% from a two-year high on Nov. 21, as measured by the trade-weighted Dollar Index. The dollar has fallen against the euro, yen, pound, Canadian dollar, Swiss franc and Swedish krona since peaking three weeks ago.
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