The Fed is Heading for Another Catastrophe – Roach

With so much dry kindling, it will not take much to spark the next conflagration.

By Stephen Roach

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (Project Syndicate) – America’s Federal Reserve is headed down a familiar — and highly dangerous — path. Steeped in denial of its past mistakes, the Fed is pursuing the same incremental approach that helped set the stage for the financial crisis of 2008-2009. The consequences could be similarly catastrophic.

Consider the December meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, where discussions of raising the benchmark federal funds rate were couched in adjectives, rather than explicit actions.

In line with prior forward guidance that the policy rate would be kept near zero for a “considerable” amount of time after the Fed stopped purchasing long-term assets in October, the FOMC declared that it can now afford to be “patient” in waiting for the right conditions to raise the rate. Add to that Fed Chair Janet Yellen’s declaration that at least a couple more FOMC meetings would need to take place before any such “lift-off” occurs, and the Fed seems to be telegraphing a protracted journey on the road to policy normalization.

This bears an eerie resemblance to the script of 2004-2006, when the Fed’s incremental approach led to the near-fatal mistake of condoning mounting excesses in financial markets and the real economy. After pushing the federal funds rate to a 45-year low of 1% following the collapse of the equity bubble of the early 2000s, the Fed delayed policy normalization for an inordinately long period. And when it finally began to raise the benchmark rate, it did so excruciatingly slowly.

In the 24 months from June 2004, the FOMC raised the federal funds rate from 1% to 5.25% in 17 increments of 25 basis points each. Meanwhile, housing and credit bubbles were rapidly expanding, fueling excessive household consumption, a sharp drop in personal savings, and a record current-account deficit — imbalances that set the stage for the meltdown that was soon to follow.

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