The highest economic policy objective of the US is achieving maximum sustainable growth in the economy consistent with annual inflation around 2%.
If growth deviates from this desired path, either through overheating or recession, the government has two tools it can use to nudge the economy back toward trend:
—monetary policy, controlled by the Federal Reserve, which can relatively quickly alter the rate of growth of the money supply and thereby either energize or cool down activity
—fiscal policy–government taxing and spending–controlled by the administration and Congress, and which may be thought of as more strategic than tactical, since there are typically long lags between need and any legislative action.
As a matter of fact, the Fed has been calling for fiscal stimulus from Congress and the administration for several years–worrying that continuing monetary stimulus is increasingly less effective and even potentially harmful to the economy. Its pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
The Fed has been using two methods to keep rates low:
–it has kept the Federal Funds rate, the interest rate it sets for overnight bank deposits, at/near zero, and
–it has taken the unconventional step of putting downward pressure on rates of long-maturity instruments by buying a total of $4 trillion+ of government securities in the open market. This is called quantitative easing.
Donald Trump was the only candidate to address the problem of fiscal policy inaction, by promising giant fiscal stimulus through lower corporate tax rates plus a massive spending program to repair/improve infrastructure.
After Mr. Trump’s surprise win last November, the Fed seems to have breathed a sigh of relief and aanounced a series of interest rate hikes that would begin to return monetary policy closer to a normal amount of stimulus–based on the idea that Washington would also provide serious fiscal policy stimlus in 2017.
We’re now in month nine since the election, without the slightest sign of any action on the fiscal front, despite the fact that the Republicans hold the Oval Office and both houses of Congress. Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa) remarked last week that this is because no one expected Mr. Trump to win, so Congress made no plans to implement his platform. It hasn’t helped that, despite his campaign rhetoric, Mr. Trump has shown little grasp of, or interest in, the issue.
This leaves the Fed in an awkward position.
I think its solution will be to shift from raising the Fed funds rate to slowing down or stopping its purchases of securities farther along the yield curve. Although in a sense the Fed is already no longer buying new government bonds, it is taking the money it receives in interest payments and principal return from its current holdings and reinvesting that in new securities.
Its first step will be to reduce or eliminate such reinvestment–which will presumably nudge longer-term interest rates upward. Since the process is being so well advertised in advance by the Fed, it’s likely that most of the upward movement in rates will have occurred before the Fed begins to act. The most likely date for the Fed to more is in September.