Posted on

Fed Officials Debated Rate Liftoff in 2015, Offering Lessons for Today

The Federal Reserve lifted interest rates from near-zero in 2015 after years of holding them at rock bottom following the 2008 global financial crisis. Transcripts from their policy discussions, released Friday, show just how fraught that decision was.The debate that played out then is especially relevant at a time when the central bank has again slashed interest rates practically to zero, this time to fight the pandemic-induced economic downturn. The concerns that officials voiced over lifting rates in 2015 — that inflation would not pick up, and that the labor market had further to heal — proved prescient in ways that will inform policy …

Read More

Posted on

Market Edges Toward Euphoria, Despite Pandemic’s Toll

“It’s not as obvious a bubble as 20 years ago,” said Jay Ritter, a finance professor at the University of Florida who studies initial public offerings. “But we’re close to bubble territory.”The market appears overheated by another gauge that investors often use to determine how cheap or expensive a stock is: its price relative to the profits it’s expected to make. Currently, the so-called price-to-earnings ratio for S&P 500 companies is above 22, and has been for much of the year. The last time the market was consistently above that level was in 2000.Small Investors Pile InThe appetite …

Read More

Posted on

The Year the Fed Changed Forever

WASHINGTON — As Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, rang in 2020 in Florida, where he was celebrating his son’s wedding, his work life seemed to be entering a period of relative calm. President Trump’s public attacks on the central bank had eased up after 18 months of steady criticism, and the trade war with China seemed to be cooling, brightening the outlook for markets and the economy.Yet the earliest signs of a new — and far more dangerous — crisis were surfacing some 8,000 miles away. The novel coronavirus had been detected in Wuhan, China. Mr. Powell and his colleagues were …

Read More

Posted on

Banks Can Resume Buybacks and Pay Dividends if They’re Profitable, Fed Says

The Federal Reserve on Friday said that the financial system’s biggest banks had the wherewithal to withstand a severe economic shock from the pandemic, and that they would be able to return more money to shareholders early next year as long as they show that they are profitable.In June, the Fed put temporary caps on shareholder payouts by the nation’s biggest banks, including JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, barring them from buying back their own stocks or increasing dividend payments. Regulators were trying to ensure that banks remained strong enough to keep lending as …

Read More

Posted on

What Is 13-3? Why a Debate Over the Fed Is Holding Up Stimulus Talks

As markets melted down in March, the Federal Reserve unveiled novel programs meant to keep credit flowing to states, medium-sized businesses and big companies — and Congress handed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin $454 billion to back up the effort.Nine months later, Senate Republicans are trying to make sure that those same programs cannot be restarted after Mr. Mnuchin lets them end on Dec. 31. Beyond preventing their reincarnation under the Biden administration, Republicans are seeking to insert language into a pandemic stimulus package that would limit the Fed’s powers going forward, potentially keeping it from lending to businesses and municipalities in …

Read More

Posted on

Fed Leaves Rates Unchanged and Commits to Ongoing Bond Purchases

WASHINGTON — Federal Reserve officials pledged to help the economy through the painful pandemic era, making clear at their final meeting of the year that the central bank would continue cushioning businesses and households by keeping interest rates at rock bottom and buying government-backed debt for the foreseeable future.The Fed’s chair, Jerome H. Powell, said at a news conference after the meeting that the central bank would keep its effort to bolster demand going “for some time,” adding that the “the next few months are likely to be very challenging.”The Fed cut interest rates to near-zero in March …

Read More

Posted on

Fed Closes Out Wild Year as All Eyes Focus on Bond-Buying Program

The Fed is also low on new tricks, but not entirely out of them. Officials could, as early as this week’s meeting, change the way they are buying bonds in order to have more of an economic impact.Policymakers are mulling whether to shift toward longer-term debt and away from short-term notes. That wonky maneuver may seem technical, but it could have the effect of holding down borrowing costs on things like mortgages and business loans and, in doing so, set the stage for stronger growth.Updated Dec. 16, 2020, 11:50 a.m. ET“The economy is far more sensitive to longer-term …

Read More

Posted on

Janet Yellen Set to Lead Treasury Department Under Biden

WASHINGTON — Janet L. Yellen became an economist at a time when few women entered the profession and fewer still rose in a male-dominated environment. She is now poised to become the first female Treasury secretary and one of few people to ever have wielded economic power from the White House, the Federal Reserve and the president’s cabinet.

Her expected nomination would come as rebuilding a U.S. economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic and saddled with high unemployment presents a central challenge for President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s administration.

While Ms. Yellen is not the type of firebrand nominee some progressives might have hoped for — she has warned that the United States is borrowing too much money, a fact that some liberals count against her — she has paid consistent, careful attention to inequality and labor market outcomes, even when doing so earned her backlash from lawmakers.

As the chair of the Federal Reserve from 2014 to 2018, Ms. Yellen also oversaw an extremely slow set of interest rate increases as she and her colleagues tested whether unemployment could fall further without leading to higher prices. Her patience drew criticism from inflation-wary economists at the time, but the policies laid the groundwork for a strong labor market and a record-long expansion that drove unemployment to its lowest rate in 50 years before the pandemic turned the world upside down.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, one of the most prominent progressive Democrats in Congress, wrote on Twitter that Ms. Yellen “would be an outstanding choice for Treasury Secretary.”

But she faces a steep challenge: As Treasury secretary, Ms. Yellen will be at the forefront of navigating the economic fallout created by a pandemic that continues to inflict damage. While growth is recovering from earlier coronavirus-related lockdowns, infections are climbing and local governments are restricting activity again, most likely slowing that rebound.

Ms. Yellen has been a clear champion of continued government support for workers and businesses, publicly warning that a lack of aid to state and local governments could slow recovery, much as it did in the aftermath of the Great Recession, when Ms. Yellen was leading the Fed.

“While the pandemic is still seriously affecting the economy, we need to continue extraordinary fiscal support,” she said in a Bloomberg Television interview in October. She called fiscal support early in the crisis “extremely impressive” but noted that key provisions had lapsed.

Unlike the independent Fed, Ms. Yellen as Treasury secretary would find herself in a much more political role — one that is likely to require negotiating with a Republican-controlled Senate. With Mr. Biden expected to push for additional economic aid, Ms. Yellen would be central to brokering a stimulus deal in a politically divided Congress that has so far failed to agree on another round of aid.

Ms. Yellen declined to comment on her expected nomination, which was reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal.

She would be the first woman to hold a job that has been dominated by white men — like Alexander Hamilton — throughout its 231-year history and would have held the government’s top three economic jobs, including leading the White House Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton administration.

A former academic who taught at the University of California, Berkeley, Ms. Yellen was also the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, a Fed governor and the Fed vice chair before becoming the central bank’s first female chair.

Ms. Yellen said she wanted to be reappointed when her term as Fed chair ended in 2018, but President Trump, eager to install his own pick, decided against renominating her.

By replacing Ms. Yellen, Mr. Trump broke with precedent. The previous three Fed chairs had been reappointed by presidents of the opposite political party.

Instead, Mr. Trump chose Jerome H. Powell, the Fed’s current chair, with whom Ms. Yellen could soon be working closely as Treasury secretary. The two still talk, and Ms. Yellen has consistently praised Mr. Powell’s performance at the Fed, suggesting they would have a good relationship.

Born in Brooklyn in 1946, Ms. Yellen was raised in Bay Ridge, a middle-class neighborhood across the waterfront from Staten Island. Her mother was a teacher who stayed home to raise Ms. Yellen and her brother. Her father was a family doctor. She was both valedictorian and editor of the newspaper at her high school.

She attended Brown University and went on to receive a doctorate from Yale. In an interview in 2013 with Simon Bowmaker, an economics professor at New York University, Ms. Yellen explained her rationale for becoming an economist, saying she had always liked the rigor of math but economics offered something more.

“I care about people,” she said. “I discovered that economics was of enormous relevance to our lives and had the potential to make the world a better place.”

She met her husband, George A. Akerlof, an economist who is now a Nobel laureate, while working in a research position at the Fed in 1977.

Ms. Yellen has spent her post-Fed years at the Brookings Institution, occupying an office close to Ben S. Bernanke, who preceded her as Fed chair, and other former Fed officials. They call their corridor the “F.O.M.C., Former Open Market Committee,” a play on the central bank’s rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee.

Ms. Yellen is a Keynesian economist, which means she believes markets have imperfections and sometimes need to be rerouted or kick-started by government intervention.

As Fed chair, she gave important speeches — including one at the storied annual conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo. — advocating continued watchfulness and wariness when it came to financial overhauls instituted after the 2008 crisis. She has struck a concerned tone about regulatory rollbacks under the Trump administration.

“It is certainly appropriate to simplify regulations that impose unnecessary burdens, particularly on small community banks,” she said in 2019. “But I’m greatly concerned that the regulatory work needed to address financial stability risk has stalled. There have been some worrisome reversals.”

She is relatively moderate on many topics, including trade. Mr. Akerlof recalled in a biographical note in 2001 that when he met her: “Not only did our personalities mesh perfectly, but we have also always been in all but perfect agreement about macroeconomics. Our lone disagreement is that she is a bit more supportive of free trade than I.”

Ms. Yellen has been a major influence on leading officials at the Fed. John C. Williams, who worked for her in San Francisco, now leads the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Mary C. Daly, who now leads the San Francisco Fed, cites Ms. Yellen as a key mentor.

That, along with Ms. Yellen’s experience working with Mr. Powell, could help facilitate the kind of close relationship needed between the Fed and Treasury, which are collaborating on a variety of crisis response programs.

Henry M. Paulson Jr., who served as Treasury secretary under President George W. Bush, praised the selection. He said Ms. Yellen “will have a tough job ahead of her, but she has the experience, talent, credibility and relationships with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to make a real difference.”

While the other leading contenders for the job also had extensive experience that spanned fiscal and monetary policy, Ms. Yellen was seen as well placed to make it through Senate confirmation, even if Republicans maintain control of the chamber.

Lael Brainard, another top candidate for the role, is the only remaining Fed governor from the Democratic Party on the seven-member board, which currently has two open slots. She might have been difficult to replace at the Fed: Nominees have been hard to confirm over the past decade, and the Senate may remain under Republican control.

While leading the Fed, Ms. Yellen at times had a testy relationship with congressional Republicans. In one instance, Representative Mick Mulvaney, then a South Carolina Republican, said Ms. Yellen was overstepping her boundaries by talking about inequality.

“You’re sticking your nose in places that you have no business to be,” Mr. Mulvaney said at a hearing in 2015.

But in many ways, those conflicts underline how much Washington has changed over the past five years. Fed officials now regularly talk about inequality, entirely unchallenged. The central bank has formalized policies much like Ms. Yellen’s patient approach to interest rate-setting as its official stance, which it explicitly hopes will foster more inclusive growth.

“It seems like a pretty subtle shift to most normal human beings,” Ms. Yellen said of that move. But “most of the Fed’s history has revolved around keeping inflation under control. This really does reflect a decisive recognition that we’re in a very different environment.”

Reporting was contributed by Michael D. Shear, Jim Tankersley, Alan Rappeport and Thomas Kaplan.

Posted on

Mnuchin Cites Principles in Clawing Back Fed Money. Democrats See Politics.

WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin broke sharply with the Federal Reserve this week, choosing to end a variety of programs aimed at helping markets, businesses and municipalities weather the pandemic and asking the central bank to return the funds earmarked to support those efforts.

Mr. Mnuchin said his decision was driven by a deference to what he believed was Congress’s intent when it allocated the funding, a desire to repurpose the money toward better uses and a belief that markets no longer needed them. But his actions, which will limit the incoming Biden administration’s ability to use those programs at scale, seem driven by politics.

“The law is very clear,” Mr. Mnuchin said in an interview on CNBC Friday. He defended his decision and suggested that the programs were no longer needed, because market conditions “are in great shape.”

But that view is not shared by the Fed, which quickly issued a statement expressing disappointment with the decision, calling the economy “still-strained and vulnerable.” It is worth noting that Mr. Mnuchin only publicly took the position that Congress meant for the programs to end after Dec. 31 once it became clear that President Trump had lost the election to Joseph R. Biden Jr.

By ending the programs — which have been funneling loans to medium-sized businesses and backstopping municipal and corporate bond markets — Mr. Mnuchin is taking away a source of economic support just as the new administration comes into office and as rising virus cases dog the recovery. By asking the Fed to return the money that enables the emergency efforts, he could make it harder for Democrats to restart them at a large scale and on more generous terms.

Chair Jerome H. Powell indicated the Fed would return the funds, in a letter to Mr. Mnuchin on Friday afternoon.

“It’s not just closing the store down for Biden,” said Ernie Tedeschi, a policy economist at Evercore ISI. “It’s burning the store down.”

Mr. Biden’s transition team criticized the move as trying to hamstring his ability to help the economy.

“The Treasury Department’s attempt to prematurely end support that could be used for small businesses across the country when they are facing the prospect of new shutdowns is deeply irresponsible,” Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for the transition, said in a statement.

Mr. Mnuchin’s decision came as a surprise to Mr. Trump, who was alerted to the decision shortly before Mr. Mnuchin’s letter was released on Thursday and who, on Friday morning, expressed some concern that the move could have a negative impact on the stock market, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to speak publicly. Asked if Mr. Trump had instructed Mr. Mnuchin to end the programs, Mr. Mnuchin’s spokeswoman said that it was “solely a Treasury decision based on what the law and congressional intent required.”

Here is a rundown of how these programs work, why Mr. Mnuchin says he is killing them, and why his arguments leave unanswered questions.

Mr. Mnuchin is pulling the plug on a set of Fed emergency lending programs, which the central bank can use to keep credit flowing in times of crisis. After the 2008 recession, Congress insisted that the Treasury secretary sign off on such efforts.

The Fed is loath to take credit losses, so Treasury has been providing a layer of money to cover any loans or purchases that go bad. It initially used the Exchange Stabilization Fund, a pot of unused money. But in March, Congress beefed up the Treasury’s capacity.

Mr. Mnuchin and lawmakers earmarked $454 billion to support Fed lending when they cut a deal on a government pandemic response package. The Fed can make money out of thin air, and it only needs a little bit of backing — $1 of insurance can be turned into as much as $10 in bond buying or business loans. The programs offered a big potential bang for the government’s buck.

Mr. Mnuchin ultimately earmarked $195 billion for specific loan programs. Not much of that capacity has been used. Some programs calmed market conditions merely by reassuring investors. The small and medium-sized business loan program had restrictive terms.

When Mr. Mnuchin said Thursday that he would end the five appropriation-backed programs at the end of 2020, he asked the Fed to give back all but $25 billion, which he is leaving to support already-made loans and bond purchases.

Mr. Mnuchin has said “it is very clear in the law” that the allocation-backed programs must end Dec. 31. That is not true.

The law states that the Treasury should not hand out money from its $454 billion pot after the end of 2020 — but it allows already-dedicated funds to remain available. Because the Treasury had handed hundreds of billions of dollars in insurance money to the Fed, the central bank theoretically has lots of capacity left to make loans and buy bonds.

The Fed’s lawyers have interpreted the law to mean that they can keep the programs running into 2021, supported by the existing Treasury backstop, as the central bank’s statement on Thursday indicated.

Mr. Mnuchin himself had previously suggested that the programs could be extended past the end of the year, writing in an October letter that the decision would hinge on market conditions.

A Treasury spokeswoman said on Friday that Mr. Mnuchin had always believed Congress meant for the funding to sunset, and had planned to use Exchange Stabilization Fund money — plus the $25 billion that he is leaving with the Fed to cover existing loans — to extend the programs if needed.

That logic is hard to follow given Mr. Mnuchin’s belief that the law prevents new Fed lending backed by Congress’s money after Dec. 31. If that’s the case, it should also prevent new lending against the $25 billion, which comes from the same congressional pot, said Peter Conti-Brown, a lawyer and Fed historian at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Mnuchin also suggested that taking back the earmarked money would allow Congress to reroute it to other purposes in ways that “won’t cost taxpayers any more money.”

But the Congressional Budget Office, in assessing the budget impact of the money dedicated to Fed programs, found it to be nearly free of cost. The idea was that the loans the money backed would eventually be returned, and fees and interest earnings would cover any expenses. So if the money is clawed back and repurposed for spending — not lending — it would add toward the deficit for accounting purposes.

Top Republicans have suggested that leaving the programs operational for too long could distort markets, which is a genuine concern with such backstops. In his letter announcing his intent to close the programs, Mr. Mnuchin noted that normal market conditions prevail.

It’s true that corporate bond issuance has been rapid and states and localities are able to fund themselves at low rates. But virus cases are also spiking, suggesting that conditions could worsen and Fed backstops might again be needed.

Over the summer, Mr. Mnuchin agreed to extend the programs until Dec. 31 at a time when coronavirus infections were much lower than they are today, markets were functioning well, and companies were issuing bonds at breakneck speed.

Treasury’s move to claw back the funding limits Mr. Biden. The Fed and the next Treasury secretary can use the Exchange Stabilization Fund to back up bond purchases and business lending.

But it contains much less money than the government would have had with the congressional appropriation. That could hamper a goal that had been percolating among Democrats: to restart the programs, make them more generous and use them as a backup option if additional stimulus was tough to get through Congress.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said the request to end the programs and return the money was “fully aligned with the letter of the law and the intent of the Congress.”

Democrats reacted with outrage.

“It is clear that Trump and Mnuchin are willing to spitefully destroy the economy and make it as difficult as possible for the incoming Biden Administration to turn this crisis around and lead the nation to a recovery,” Representative Maxine Waters of California said in a letter.

Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.

Read More

Posted on

Mnuchin Plans to End Some Emergency Fed Facilities

WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he does not plan to extend several key emergency lending programs beyond the end of the year and asked the Federal Reserve to return the money supporting them, a decision that could hinder President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s ability to use the central bank’s vast powers to cushion the economic fallout from the virus.

Mr. Mnuchin on Thursday said he would not continue Fed programs, including ones that support the markets for corporate bonds and municipal debt and one that extends loans to midsize businesses. The emergency efforts expire at the end of 2020, but investors had expected some or all of them to be kept operational as the virus continues to pose economic risks.

The pandemic-era programs are run by the Fed but use Treasury money to insure against losses. They have provided an important backstop that has calmed critical markets since the coronavirus took hold in March. Removing them could leave significant corners of the financial world vulnerable to the type of volatility that cascaded through the system as virus fears mounted in the spring.

By asking the Fed to return unused funds, Mr. Mnuchin could prevent Mr. Biden’s incoming Treasury secretary from quickly restarting the efforts at scale in 2021.

“The Federal Reserve would prefer that the full suite of emergency facilities established during the coronavirus pandemic continue to serve their important role as a backstop for our still-strained and vulnerable economy,” the central bank said in a statement.

The emergency programs were backed by $454 billion that Congress appropriated in March as part of a broader pandemic response package. Because of the way the Fed’s emergency lending powers work, Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, needs the Treasury secretary’s signoff to make major changes to the programs’ terms. Extending the end date counts as one of those changes that need approval.

The decision to close the various programs and remove the funding appeared to come as a surprise to the Fed, which received a letter announcing the Treasury’s desire to claw the money back on Thursday afternoon.

“I am requesting that the Federal Reserve return the unused funds to the Treasury,” Mr. Mnuchin said in the letter. He noted that he had been “personally involved in drafting the relevant part of the legislation” and believed it was Congress’s intent that the programs stop at the end of the year.

Earlier this month, Mr. Powell had said the central bank and Treasury were just beginning to discuss whether to extend the programs.

Mr. Mnuchin did agree to extend other emergency loan programs that are not backed by the congressional appropriation, including ones that service the short-term market for corporate debt, one for money market funds, and one that backstops government small-business loans.

The Fed avoids taking credit losses when extending loans, and throughout the pandemic crisis it has asked for Treasury backup for its riskier programs. If it returns any unused money that the Treasury has already dedicated to support the programs, as Mr. Mnuchin requested, the Biden administration will have less financial backup to restart the programs.

That’s because the congressional appropriation — $195 billion of which has been earmarked to specific Fed programs — cannot be used to make new loans after the end of the year. But while the law prohibits the Treasury from putting money into the Fed’s facilities after 2020, it does not obviously prevent the Fed from using already-earmarked Treasury funding to insure its own loans and bond purchases.

“The loans, loan guarantees and investing that the Treasury does is the applicable language,” said Peter Conti-Brown, a lawyer and Fed historian at the University of Pennsylvania. He said that while it may be possible to read the law as preventing new Fed loans, that is not the “obvious reading.”

The Fed and the next Treasury secretary do have an alternative to continue the programs: They could use money in the Treasury’s Exchange Stabilization Fund, which still contains about $74 billion in uncommitted funds, to back the programs. It is unclear exactly how much of the fund can be used, but the programs have not to date needed substantial capacity.

Mr. Mnuchin’s move could leave the government with fewer options to help the economy just as the new administration takes office.

“Treasury is right that a limited set of objectives have been achieved in terms of stabilizing bond markets,” Jason Furman, a prominent Democratic economist, said on Twitter. “But what is the downside to continuing them as insurance against worse developments?”

Many of the Fed’s programs, including one that buys state and local debt and another that encourages banks to lend to small- and midsize businesses, have been lightly used. But that is because they were designed as backstops — meaning that borrowers would likely only use them when times are bad.

And it is Mr. Mnuchin himself who has been conservative in setting the program’s terms. With a more permissive head at the Treasury, the terms could have been made more generous.

In fact, Democrats had been eyeing both the municipal bond-buying program and the Main Street lending effort for small- and medium-size businesses as potential backup options if it proves difficult to pass additional government relief. Without them, businesses and state and local governments would have one less potential source of help.

With coronavirus cases on the rise, the economy may sour again, making the programs more necessary. As recently as Tuesday, Mr. Powell warned of the potential for economic scarring and said that the economic recovery had “a long way to go.” But Treasury officials have expressed optimism that the economy is poised for a steady rebound and that the likely rollout of a vaccine by the end of the year further improves the economic picture.

Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, who had been pushing Mr. Mnuchin to end the programs, applauded the decision.

“These temporary facilities helped to both normalize markets and produce record levels of liquidity,” Mr. Toomey said in a statement. “Congress’s intent was clear: These facilities were to be temporary, to provide liquidity, and to cease operations by the end of 2020.”

Treasury’s move prompted concern from Democrats, some of whom said the Fed should simply refuse to return the money — a route it is unlikely to take.

Bharat Ramamurti, a Democrat who sits on the congressional oversight body in charge of reviewing the various Fed and Treasury programs, suggested on Twitter that, legally, the Fed was under no obligation to give back the funds.

“Under its contracts with Treasury, the Fed can and should reject the request,” he said. “While Secretary Mnuchin claims congressional intent was to halt all new loans at year-end, the text of the CARES Act doesn’t say that. At a minimum, the Fed can continue to make loans using the $195 billion in equity Treasury has already committed.”

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

Read More