It is the 25th of February 2020

The Fed Has Created A "Monster" And Just Made A "Dangerous Mistake," Stephen Roach Warns

Stephen Roach is worried that the Fed has set the world up for another financial market meltdown. 

Lower for longer rates and the proliferation of unconventional monetary policy have created “a breeding ground for asset bubbles, credit bubbles, and all-too frequent crises, so the Fed is really a part of the problem of financial instability rather than trying to provide a sense of calm in an otherwise unstable world,” Roach told Bloomberg TV in an interview conducted a little over a week ago. 

To be sure, Roach’s sentiments have become par for the proverbial course. That is, it may have taken everyone a while (as in five years or so) to come to the conclusion we reached long ago, namely that central banks are setting the world up for a crisis that will make 2008 look like a walk in the park, but most of the “very serious” people are now getting concerned. Take BofAML for instance, who, in a note we outlined on Wednesday, demonstrated the prevailing dynamic with the following useful graphic:

Perhaps Jeremy Grantham put it best: “ the Greenspan/ Bernanke/Yellen Era, the Fed historically did not stop its asset price pushing until fully- fledged bubbles had occurred, as they did in U.S. growth stocks in 2000 and in U.S. housing in 2006.”

Indeed. It’s with that in mind that we bring you the following excerpts from a new piece by Roach in which the former Morgan Stanley chief economist and Yale fellow recounts the evolution of the Fed and how the FOMC ultimately became “beholden to the monster it had created”.

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From “The Perils of Fed Gradualism” as posted at Project Syndicate

By now, it’s an all-too-familiar drill. After an extended period of extraordinary monetary accommodation, the US Federal Reserve has begun the long march back to normalization.

A majority of financial market participants applaud this strategy. In fact, it is a dangerous mistake. The Fed is borrowing a page from the script of its last normalization campaign – the incremental rate hikes of 2004-2006 that followed the extraordinary accommodation of 2001-2003. Just as that earlier gradualism set the stage for a devastating financial crisis and a horrific recession in 2008-2009, there is mounting risk of yet another accident on what promises to be an even longer road to normalization.

The problem arises because the Fed, like other major central banks, has now become a creature of financial markets rather than a steward of the real economy. This transformation has been under way since the late 1980s, when monetary discipline broke the back of inflation and the Fed was faced with new challenges.

The challenges of the post-inflation era came to a head during Alan Greenspan’s 18-and-a-half-year tenure as Fed Chair. The stock-market crash of October 19, 1987 – occurring only 69 days after Greenspan had been sworn in – provided a hint of what was to come. In response to a one-day 23% plunge in US equity prices, the Fed moved aggressively to support the brokerage system and purchase government securities.

In retrospect, this was the template for what became known as the “Greenspan put” – massive Fed liquidity injections aimed at stemming financial-market disruptions in the aftermath of a crisis. As the markets were battered repeatedly in the years to follow – from the savings-and-loan crisis (late 1980s) and the Gulf War (1990-1991) to the Asian Financial Crisis (1997-1998) and terrorist attacks (September 11, 2001) – the Greenspan put became an essential element of the Fed’s market-driven tactics.

The Fed had, in effect, become beholden to the monster it had created. The corollary was that it had also become steadfast in protecting the financial-market-based underpinnings of the US economy.

Largely for that reason, and fearful of “Japan Syndrome” in the aftermath of the collapse of the US equity bubble, the Fed remained overly accommodative during the 2003-2006 period. The federal funds rate was held at a 46-year low of 1% through June 2004, before being raised 17 times in small increments of 25 basis points per move over the two-year period from mid-2004 to mid-2006. Yet it was precisely during this period of gradual normalization and prolonged accommodation that unbridled risk-taking sowed the seeds of the Great Crisis that was soon to come.

Today’s Fed inherits the deeply entrenched moral hazard of the Asset Economy. The longer the Fed remains trapped in this mindset, the tougher its dilemma becomes – and the greater the systemic risks in financial markets and the asset-dependent US economy.

Full post here

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Roach goes on to say that we're already seeing the beginnings of what may very well turn out to be a dramatic unwind as high yield rolls over and the emerging world struggles to cope with a soaring dollar (remember, even though EM has largely avoided "original sin" i.e. borrowing in dollars, at the sovereign level, corporates are another story). 

As an aside, those interested in a comprehensive account of what Roach covers in the article cited above are encouraged to reach David Stockman's "The Great Deformation."

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