Fed acted because Congress is lameSeptember 13, 2012: 12:59 PM ET
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, and Abbott Laboratories, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks.
In a move that will forever be known as QE3 because it's the Federal Reserve's third round of asset purchases, the central bank pledged Thursday to buy $40 billion of mortgage-backed securities a month.
Now let's be honest. The economy isn't in great shape. But things aren't as dire as they were in 2008.
Even though Fed chairman Ben Bernanke recently referred to the high level of joblessness as a "grave concern," it was far worse not that long ago. The current unemployment rate is 8.1%, down from a peak of 10% in October 2009 -- shortly after the Great Recession officially ended. So we are heading in the right direction.
Sure, the recovery in the job market and broader economy has been painfully low and slow. Barbecue-like if you will. But it is still a recovery. Heck, even the housing market seems to be doing a lot better than a year ago. So did we really need more QE right now?
Many investing experts and economists don't think so -- even though the market seems to have an appetite for liquidity (and perhaps destruction?) that's as insatiable as the people-eating plant Audrey II from "Little Shop of Horrors." (Feed me, Benjamin!)
But if any politician dares to complain about the Fed -- and believe me they will -- I have these two words of advice: Zip it!
It seems painfully clear that Bernanke and other Fed members are worried about the possibility that lawmakers will muck things up later this year by doing what they do best: Nothing.
Bernanke has gone out of his way numerous times in speeches and appearances on Capitol Hill to point out that monetary policy, i.e. the setting of interest rates by the Fed and asset-purchase programs like the QE trilogy and Operation Twist, can only do so much. The Fed cut its key short-term rate to near zero in December 2008 and it has remained there ever since. Long-term Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already near historic lows.
What's needed to get the economy back on track is not more liquidity. It's fiscal action by Congress. Getting the federal debt load under control, while simultaneously making sure that budgets for the government's most vital programs, be that defense, education or social safety nets for the poor, are not eviscerated. Reforming an antiquated tax code. Regulating industries that need more oversight, while not going overboard with too many onerous rules.
Bernanke can't change any of that. But with politicians too busy trying to get re-elected than actually governing, the Fed has no choice but to act more aggressively. There are legitimate fears that the lame duck (or is it just lame?) Congress will fail to reach an agreement before the end of the year to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff of automatic spending cuts and higher taxes.
In other words, the Fed may feel compelled to act merely to prevent a significant economic slowdown that could occur in the early part of 2013.
"QE3, QE4 or QE5 may not do much to boost the economy. The bigger issues are concerns about the election, regulation and the fiscal cliff," said Wilmer Stith, manager of the Wilmington Broad Market Bond Fund (ARKIX) in Baltimore. "But there hasn't been this much political uncertainty since the Great Depression and this is the worst possible time to have it. If we fall off the fiscal cliff, we'd likely enter another recession."
The irony here is that the Fed has often been criticized for being too reactive as opposed to proactive.
It's fair to suggest that Bernanke should have done a better job of connecting the dots and recognizing that the housing bubble was going to lead to major economic problems, instead of maintaining like he did in front of Congress in March 2007 that "the impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the subprime market seems likely to be contained."
But Bernanke seems to have learned his lesson and now realizes that the bigger risk is to sit and wait. It would be a mistake to assume that everything will work out okay in Congress.
If the Fed isn't there to reassure the markets and big foreign owners of our debt like China and Japan that it has a plan to keep rates low in the event the economy grinds to a complete standstill, bond yields could quickly shoot higher. And then the comparisons to the most debt-laden nations in Europe would quickly become more apt.
Sure, fears of the fiscal cliff could be for naught. Lawmakers could reach a last-minute deal that actually helps the economy. This could turn out to be the 2012/2013 equivalent of the Y2k computer bug fears that some thought would bring the economy to a halt in 2000. (Paging Dr. Ed Yardeni!)
There are also valid concerns that Bernanke may be simply inflating yet another asset bubble by keeping rates artificially low for this long. Still, inflation is not a significant concern at the current time -- even though more QE could lead to a weaker dollar and another spike in oil prices.
Sadly, Bernanke is in a no-win situation. He is correct to point out that fiscal reforms are now more important than further monetary easing. Too bad his cries are being ignored by our nation's least and dimmest on Capitol Hill. As if his own job wasn't hard enough, Bernanke has to provide more stimulus for the economy because Congress seems unwilling to do so. Sad.