The Impotence of the Federal Reserve

The US Federal Reserve’s recent announcement that it will buy an additional $670 billion of long-term Treasury bonds over the next six months had virtually no impact on either interest rates or equity prices. The market’s lack of response was an important indicator that monetary easing can no longer increase economic activity.

CAMBRIDGE – The United States Federal Reserve’s recent announcement that it will extend its “Operation Twist” by buying an additional $267 billion of long-term Treasury bonds over the next six months - to reach a total of $667 billion this year - had virtually no impact on either interest rates or equity prices. The market’s lack of response was an important indicator that monetary easing is no longer a useful tool for increasing economic activity.

The Fed has repeatedly said that it will do whatever it can to stimulate growth. This led to a plan to keep short-term interest rates near zero until late 2014, as well as to massive quantitative easing, followed by Operation Twist, in which the Fed substitutes short-term Treasuries for long-term bonds.

These policies did succeed in lowering long-term interest rates. The yield on ten-year Treasuries is now 1.6%, down from 3.4% at the start of 2011. Although it is difficult to know how much of this decline reflected higher demand for Treasury bonds from risk-averse global investors, the Fed’s policies undoubtedly deserve some of the credit. The lower long-term interest rates contributed to the small 4% rise in the S&P 500 share-price index over the same period.

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