While the heads of many investors are spinning these days – because of the record levels of the markets on the one hand, and the explosive evolution of bitcoins on the other hand – they are losing sight of the most important development in monetary history. A woman is about to take the lead of the most powerful central bank in the world. For many market watchers, this development can be considered a blessing for the financial markets. Finally some peace in the financial household!
Alas. We will need to disappoint you. Yellen was and is the right hand of Bernanke. Even more, she was at the root of some of the more unconventional measures taken by the central banker when the financial crisis hit in 2008. Lowering the short-term interest rates to almost zero percent, for example, or buying back government and real estate debt from banks, better known as ‘Quantitative Easing’. Those measures were put in place to make sure the United States’ impressive mountain of debt didn’t implode under its own pressure. The goal was to avoid a depression like the one we experienced in the 1930s, but the core of the problem – the debt burden – has not been dealt with. The problem was displaced … to the Fed’s balance sheet.
The above chart, the Fed’s monetary base, screams more than a thousand words. And although Bernanke carries the responsibility, it is mostly Janet Yellen that delivered this result. If you look closely at the chart, by the way, you will see that the Fed’s balance sheet is blowing up fast. This is the result of the new, goal-oriented QE: the Fed will only tighten its monetary policy when certain goals are met. At this point, these goals mainly include an unemployment level below 6.5% and inflation to be above 2%. As long as neither of them are reached, the Fed is not going to stop its accommodative policies. Even tempering QE (tapering), which is something that a lot of market watchers pointed out as a possibility in recent months, would not be on the agenda.
Even more, we are expecting the buyback program to pick up speed more than anything else. Not only is the Fed not attaining its current targets, but also the market is going to test Janet Yellen in 2014. Most newcomers to the job of Chairman of the Fed have to go through this. However, 2014 is going to be a more turbulent year than 2013 as well. More volatility in combination with (strong) corrections will push the leading lady of the Fed out of her comfort zone.
Although she will be new to the job, Janet Yellen will surely stand her ground. The expected reaction from the Fed’s top exec could bring a whole new dimension to the monetary policies of the Federal Reserve. Janet Yellen was not afraid to color outside the lines in her proposals already. So there is no doubt in our minds that she will continue to do so when it is necessary. And what might that look like? Well, it has been described in many studies that extreme conditions sometimes call for extreme measures. A stock market crash can be moderated by direct purchases from the Fed, for example. In the United States this is still considered as an extreme measure, but in Japan, the central bank is already applying this tactic to the financial markets for months through supporting and buying listed stocks and ETF’s.
Another measure we are reading more and more about these days is the negative deposit rate. If the Fed would implement this, banks would be forced to make their reserves work for them, and pump excess capital into society through new loans and financing. However, the banks are not excited to do this of course. They are still licking their wounds and quite comfortable in their current position – borrowing at almost zero percent and investing in risk free government bonds with an interest rate of a few percent. Yellen will probably not change a lot about this situation, however. Many people forget the shareholders of the Fed are private banks in the US, not the government as is the case in Europe.
Finally, there remains the direct injection of money into the economy by the Federal Reserve. The image of Bernanke’s helicopter, with which he has been associated for the last few years; figuratively dropping dollar bills from helicopters, referring to a statement from Milton Friedman. This means that citizens are literally being rewarded to stimulate the economy. Now they are pumping fresh dollars into the banks, but those dollars are not going anywhere (for now), which causes a delay in the economic impact. If the people, however, got the money directly, the possibility of spending and stimulating the economy increases. It wouldn’t surprise us if Yellen takes monetary policy to that level, as she has always been in favor of giving a voice to the people. This would not be a United States first, however, as former president George W. Bush gave every American family a check after the crisis.
Ultimately, Janet Yellen can be considered a champion of accommodative monetary policies aimed at avoiding another economic depression. All necessary means will justify the cause. While Bernanke is considered more as a conservative dove always trying to keep all parties satisfied, Yellen comes across as a more decisive dove that wants to shine in the monetary arena during her term. So please hold on for unconventional and new measures from the Fed. The other side of the coin, however, is that these measures will sooner or later get out of hand, with the necessary consequences for the financial markets and your capital. Please take timely precautions when it comes to reckless monetary measures and policies.
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