Thursday, April 24, 2014
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La impotencia de la Reserva Federal

CAMBRIDGE.– El reciente anuncio de la Reserva Federal de Estados Unidos sobre la ampliación de su «Operación Twist» con la compra de $267 mil millones adicionales en bonos de largo plazo del Tesoro durante los próximos 6 meses –para completar un total de $667 mil millones este año– no tuvo prácticamente ningún impacto sobre las tasas de interés ni los precios de las acciones. La falta de respuesta del mercado fue un importante indicador sobre la inutilidad de la flexibilización monetaria como herramienta para aumentar la actividad económica.

La Fed ha informado repetidamente que hará todo lo posible para estimular el crecimiento. Esto derivó en un plan para mantener las tasas de interés de corto plazo casi en cero hasta fines de 2014, así como a una enorme flexibilización cuantitativa, seguida por la Operación Twist, en la que la Fed sustituye bonos de corto plazo del Tesoro por otros de largo plazo.

Estas políticas lograron reducir las tasas de interés de largo plazo. El rendimiento de los bonos de 10 años del Tesoro es ahora del 1,6%, cuando a principios de 2011 era del 3,4%. Si bien es difícil saber qué parte de esta disminución reflejó una mayor demanda de bonos del Tesoro por parte de inversores globales reacios al riesgo, las políticas de la Fed indudablemente merecen parte del mérito. Las menores tasas de interés de largo plazo contribuyeron al modesto crecimiento del 4% en el índice bursátil S&P 500 durante ese período.

Es improbable que la Fed logre reducir más las tasas de largo plazo. Su nivel es actualmente tan bajo que muchos inversores temen, justificadamente, que estemos frente a una burbuja en el precio de los bonos y las acciones. El resultado podría ser una suba importante de las tasas de largo plazo impulsada por el mercado, que la Fed no podría evitar. Un cambio en las preferencias de cartera de los inversores extranjeros que los apartara de los bonos de largo plazo podría disparar fácilmente una suba de ese tipo en las tasas.

Además, si bien las acciones de la Fed han ayudado a los tenedores de bonos y acciones, no resulta claro que hayan estimulado la actividad económica real. La economía estadounidense aún avanza con dificultad, su crecimiento es muy lento y la tasa de desempleo, elevada. Si bien la economía ha estado creciendo durante tres años, el nivel del PBI es solo el 1% mayor que hace casi cinco años, cuando comenzó la recesión. La tasa de crecimiento del PBI solo alcanzó al 1,7% en 2011, y su valor actual no es significativamente mayor. De hecho, los datos recientes muestran disminuciones en el ingreso real de las personas, una caída en crecimiento del empleo, y menores ventas minoristas.

El impacto principal de la flexibilización monetaria generalmente resulta en un estímulo a la demanda de vivienda y, por lo tanto, al volumen de construcción. Pero esta vez, a pesar de las tasas de interés históricamente bajas de las hipotecas, los precios de las viviendas han continuado disminuyendo y son ahora un 10% menores que hace dos años en términos reales. El nivel de inversión residencial real es aún menos de la mitad de lo que era antes de la recesión. La Fed ha notado que problemas estructurales en el mercado de la vivienda han afectado su capacidad para estimular la economía a través de esta vía.

La inversión empresarial también es débil, aún cuando las grandes corporaciones cuentan con grandes disponibilidades de efectivo. Con tanta liquidez interna, estas empresas no son sensibles a las reducciones en las tasas de interés de mercado. Al mismo tiempo, muchas pequeñas empresas no consiguen acceder a créditos, ya que los bancos locales de los que dependen no cuentan con el capital adecuado, debido a las pérdidas acumuladas por los créditos comerciales inmobiliarios. Estas pequeñas empresas tampoco se ven favorecidas por las menores tasas de interés.

La flexibilización monetaria de la Fed contribuyó temporalmente a debilitar al dólar, lo que estimuló las exportaciones netas. Pero la caída del dólar se ha visto recientemente revertida por la huida global hacia la seguridad por parte de los inversores que abandonan el euro.

Incluso si la economía estadounidense continúa dando traspiés en los próximos meses, es poco probable que la Fed haga algo más antes de fin de año. Las siguientes acciones políticas para ayudar a la economía deben provenir del Congreso y el ejecutivo de EE. UU. luego de las elecciones de noviembre.

De todas maneras, ya queda claro lo que debe hacerse. La sombra de un fuerte aumento en las tasas impositivas sobre los ingresos personales y corporativos, programada para entrar en vigor automáticamente a principios de 2013, debe ser eliminada. El aumento proyectado del déficit fiscal de largo plazo debe revertirse poniendo freno al aumento de las transferencias a los jubilados de clase media. Una reforma impositiva fundamental debe fortalecer los incentivos, reducir los «gastos fiscales» distorsivos, y aumentar los ingresos. Finalmente, la relación entre gobierno y empresas, actualmente muy combativa, debe mejorar.

Si esto ocurre en 2013 la economía estadounidense podrá retornar a una senda más normal de expansión económica y crecimiento del empleo. En ese punto, la Fed podrá centrarse en lo que constituye su mandato fundamental: evitar el aumento de la inflación. Hasta ese momento, es impotente.

Traducido al español por Leopoldo Gurman

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  1. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    I would like to draw attention to Per Jacobsson Lecture by Dr. Reddy dated 24th June, Professor Levine’s seminal paper on lack of independence of the financial regulatory authority and Robert Schiller’s allusion to the Code of Ethics for financial innovation in providing stewardship to the society’s assets.

    That regulatory capture is pervasive and comprehensive, there is enough evidence both in the run up to the crisis as well as after it had mellowed and even in periods of tranquil. The financial markets helped by central bank advances have amassed assets that have compounded annual growth rate of 9% (even after the painful adjustments), whereas the world economy has not even grown by 3%. This apparent dysfunctional arrangement had raised the doubt that financial markets instead of propounding systemic stability, consumer protection and risk mitigation practices to benefit large sections of people may have actually not served the lofty goals of bringing financial service access to greater majority of people, who go through the pains of adjustment more than the larger institutions; in providing the balance between serving those sections who have less knowledge of the products on offer that could advance credit and could be actually used judiciously through a mode of smoothening consumption (not excessive leverage), the larger focus had shifted to misallocation of resources to housing and consumer credit at an alarming rate which is not sustainable. People who need to keep their financial savings in safe custody actually succumbed in this process with large scale erosion of their net worth. But more importantly the competitive efficiency of the global financial markets whose benefits should have flown unequivocally to the larger sections of the society actually petered to an excessive financialization that made some of the sovereign back-stops insufficient. The question of sovereign insolvency, which was never in doubt, has become a very common word and the moral hazard has multiplied its preponderance in recent times.
    The over-financialization has led to housing market crash and it is probably going to take a decade to even out the effects of excessive supply stemming from extreme leverage, but the effect of the same in the commodity markets needs a careful scrutiny. The over-financialization of the equity markets may be the next step in the making.
    Excessive financialization of the commodity markets as is evident in the component of money supply that moved to this segment had served the dual purpose of creating a virtual demand through credit conditions and therefore supporting a real supply that may not be actually consumed. The net impact of this has left a gaping hole in the balance sheet of large corporations operating in these markets, through erosion of equity and reserves, while the solvency could be maintained through financial instruments.

    We are living in times where regulatory capture is complete.

    Procyon Mukherjee

  2. CommentedDave Friedel

    While Bernanke has skillfully navigated the current environment with the monetary tools afforded to him with some creative liberty, he understands a centralized global solution must be arrived at sooner than later. Removing the uncertainty around the tax code for US businesses is only a small part of the problem and a more global approach to growth must be undertaken by rethinking the role of currency and nations as a whole.

    The fundamental basis of globalization and the mechanisms that govern the species must be addressed if meaningful, sustained advancement is to be achieved without the constant disruptive booms and busts which are becoming more common place. The base must be integrated, involved and a system of visibility and accountability needs to reach as far as the corporations themselves instead of archaic solutions to a problem which no longer is homogeneous in nature which may resonate with those of past generations and provide temporary relief but ultimately will result in greater dissonance. Soon we may reach the point where incremental advances from competitiveness no longer propels us meaningfully forward and only through cooperation will we reach the next level. Whether the base is ready for such innovation has yet to be seen without some sort of catastrophe to bring about change.

  3. CommentedDavid Doney

    I think the prescription merits some adjustments.

    An overly-indebted private sector is not spending as it should as it pays down debt and worries about the future. Corporations are sitting on this savings rather than investing it, not because of a bad relationship with government but because they worry about the solvency of their customers and face a shortfall in demand for their goods.

    Richard Koo explained this situation well when he discussed balance sheet recessions.

    GDP = C + I + G + NX

    With the C and I engines of GDP cavitating, G has to step up. Or we bring the jobs home to reduce a negative NX with a ban on offshoring and requirement for a 10 year plan to bring home the jobs.

    The key is eliminating the private debt albatross. To get consumers spending, let's write down their debt. The Fed can print money or the Federal government can borrow money at very low rates to pay down $1 trillion in student loans and $3 trillion in mortgage debt.

    Some wage driven inflation would help pay off debt in more plentiful dollars, as we did after WW2. If nominal wages are going up but debt is fixed, that is a good thing.

    Removing the cap on the payroll tax should cover the Social Security shortfall; we can also make some minor retirement age and cost of living adjustments.

    Letting the Bush income tax cuts expire for the wealthy now and others later would return us to Clinton tax rates, when the economy was fine.

    Yes, some tax expenditure reduction is a good idea, provided it is done progressively.

    Medicare is the big long-term concern and we'll need to go after the dozen or so cost drivers of private healthcare costs.

    But most importantly, in the short-run, government should step up demand and debt reduction. Infrastructure, clean energy, education reimbursement, etc.

    Once C is working, the rest follows.

  4. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    Monetary policy all along in times of crisis had been an approach towards experimenting with responses under different stimuli; it had never been a static continuation of instruments that have received the same set of responses, as in the present case, of heightened liquidity preference from corporates to the common man.

    I do not know how expansion of piles of cash in the balance sheet of S&P 500 and a market index that is buoyant by bond price escalation could be the primary indicator that reflect positivity of Fed actions while the real economic progress that comes from production and sales could be relegated to a tertiary activity in any economic analysis.

    The problem is too much liquidity chasing to few ideas in favor of economic progress.

    Procyon Mukherjee

  5. CommentedRichard Foosion

    >> The market’s lack of response was an important indicator that monetary easing is no longer a useful tool for increasing economic activity.>>

    That the Fed's inadequate actions did not do much does not mean that monetary easing is no longer a useful tool; it only means that inadequate actions are inadequate.

    >> The projected increase in the long-term fiscal deficit must be reversed by stemming the growth in transfers to middle-class retirees.>>

    The main issue here is healthcare costs. Transferring those costs from the government to retirees doesn't do anything for our overall economic health (govt plus citizenry). According to the CBO, costs would increase, mostly because Medicare has more buying power and lower overhead than alternatives.

    >> Fundamental tax reform must strengthen incentives, reduce distorting “tax expenditures,” and raise revenue. Finally, the relationship between government and business, now quite combative, must be improved.>>

    Business profits are at all time highs. That doesn't sound very combative to me.

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