Will US Federal Reserve ease back on stimulus?
- 18 September 2013
- From the section Business
Eyes across the globe will be trained on Washington on Wednesday as the Federal Reserve concludes its two-day meeting.
US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke is expected to announce an end to the central bank's extraordinary stimulus efforts.
Fed watchers believe that the bank will begin to slow down its purchase of $85bn of bonds monthly.
This would indicate that Fed officials think the US economy is back on track.
Markets have been primed to expect a slowdown in the bank's efforts at quantitative easing, in a move known as a "taper", ever since Mr Bernanke hinted at a pullback in front of Congress in June.
"A small taper seems to be what the market is expecting," says former Fed economist Joseph Gagnon, who thinks the central bank will pull back its bond purchases to somewhere between $70bn and $75bn a month.
But the challenges confronting the Fed are vast as it tries to navigate a completely new situation: how to return to normal, five years after the housing market collapse and subsequent recession forced the bank into new and untested stimulus tools.
In the middle-class suburb of Wayne, New Jersey, both the impact of the Fed's policies over the past few years and the conundrum the bank currently faces are fully on display.
'They'll never go lower'
To see the Fed's stimulus efforts in action, look no further than David and Julianne Philp.
They've lived in the same quaint white house on a leafy side street in Wayne for the past 17 years.
In the middle of the recession, David lost his job.
"By 2009, I'd been out of work for about 14 months and we needed to save money," says David.
So, after seeing an advertisement about low mortgage rates - rates that were lowered as part of the Fed's initial efforts to stimulate the economy, in the wake of the housing market collapse - David and Julianne decided to refinance their home.
"The rate went from 5.25% in 2009 to 4.5%," says David, which allowed the couple to stay afloat during those lean years.
"After we refinanced in 2009, we thought, 'Well, they'll never go any lower than that,'" says David.
But of course, rates did go lower, because of the Fed's extraordinary efforts to lower longer-term mortgage rates by buying mortgage-backed securities as part of quantitative easing.
Once more, the couple did the maths - and figured out that another refinancing effort could help them.
This time around, the rate on their 30-year mortgage was lowered to 3.785%, which allowed them to save more than $300 a month on mortgage payments. Additionally, they could pay off credit card debt that had accumulated during the recession.
"We just wanted to get back on our feet, feel good about our money situation and start saving," says Julianne.
Now, they can repaint their home, go out to dinner and begin saving for the future college tuition of their two daughters, aged nine and 12.
"This was our first summer in a long time when were able to not worry," says Julianne.
'A dramatic increase'
The US economy was also relatively worry free this summer, with job growth holding relatively constant at 160,000 a month and good, if not great, GDP figures.
The Fed's efforts to boost consumer spending by keeping mortgage rates low and then lower seems to have worked, as the Philps and others like them recover from the wounds of the recession and begin to find themselves with extra cash on hand.
But the question remains: is the US economy strong enough to continue to grow without the Fed's extraordinary efforts?
Wendy Nastasi, the mortgage broker who helped the Philps with their refinancing, worries that the tap might be prematurely turned off.
"We've seen a dramatic increase in mortgage rates, almost overnight," says Ms Nastasi.
Over the summer, the rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage rose one percentage point, and already the number of US homeowners looking to refinance has plunged from 17% in early 2013 to just 2% today.
"You're going to see what improvements we're seeing in the housing market stall," cautions Ms Nastasi.
This stall could have a knock-on impact.
"If you have fewer mortgage refinancings, that suggests that households will have less cash than otherwise to spend on a variety of goods and services," says John Lonski, chief economist at Moody's Capital Markets.
Mr Lonski says that since consumer spending makes up two-thirds of US economic activity, a slowdown in refinancing could have profound effects.
'I've been out of work nine months'
So this is the tightrope walk that the Fed must negotiate.
On the one hand, Mr Bernanke and his fellow central bankers worry about keeping their foot on the accelerator for too long, potentially leading to higher inflation.
But take their foot off too soon and they risk prematurely slamming on the brakes of a fragile US recovery.
"Personally, I think it is too soon to taper, because the economic data have been disappointing and inflation is below target," says Mr Gagnon, who is now at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a think tank in Washington DC.
"But I think several members of the committee are nervous about buying so many bonds."
At the Park Wayne Diner, just a few minutes away from the Philps' house, the difficulties of the situation are on full display.
Owner John Stoupakis says that business has been good, but not great.
"I think the economy is going to be better, but it's not where it's supposed to be - here, business has been off," he says as he surveys his busy, if not bustling, dining room.
Diner patron Jerry Eisenberg says he's impatient for the Fed to stop its stimulus efforts.
As a retiree, he says low interest rates have hurt his savings.
"We could feel a little more freer to spend [if rates were higher]," he says.
"To make money on savings, you have to take risks now."
But for others, the situation remains grim.
"I haven't worked in nine months, I'm looking for anything that will pay me," says 30-year-old Travis Nonn.
"If the economy's improving, you can't prove it by me."