They go up, they go down. It doesn't sound confusing. But it is. Even for economists. Just ask James Bullard, the president of the St. Louis Federal Reserve.
Let's step back for a moment. What does the Federal Reserve do exactly? The story you usually hear is all about interest rates. The Fed raises rates when the economy is too hot, and lowers them when it's too cool. But there's a problem. The Fed can't cut short-term interest rates now. They've been stuck at zero since 2008. But longer-term interest rates aren't. So the Fed has tried to push those longer rates down to spur stronger growth.
The big question now is whether the Fed should do more. This shouldn't be a big question if the Fed believes its own economic projections -- which show inflation staying too low and unemployment too high for years to come. So why did the Fed basically sit pat at its latest meeting? For one, Ben Bernanke wants to see more data confirming a slowdown before doing more. For another, James Bullard -- and some other FOMC members -- don't think the Fed needs to do more.
Bullard thinks Europe is doing the Fed's job for it. Or something. Here's what Bullard had to say recently about why he doesn't think further easing is called for:
Treasury yields have gone to extraordinarily low levels. That took some
of the pressure off the FOMC since a lot of our policy actions would be
trying to get exactly that result.
In other words, the Fed doesn't need to push down long-term interest rates because long-term interest rates have already been pushed down by investors looking for a financial safe haven. This would be right if the point of Fed policy was lower interest rates. But the point of Fed policy isn't lower interest rates.
The point is more growth. Lower interest rates only matter insofar as they promote more growth. Lower interest rates do not matter unto themselves. Think about it this way. Interest rates might fall for good or bad reasons. The Fed buying bonds is a good reason. Investors buying bonds due to fears of eurogeddon is a bad reason. They are not equivalent.
Don't take my word for it. Ask the markets. The chart below from Bloomberg gives us a sense of how much inflation markets have expected in five years time.
So-called breakevens just take the borrowing costs on normal Treasury bonds and subtract the borrowing costs from inflation-protected Treasury bonds. That difference should be a decent proxy of expected inflation. That's not always the case because inflation-protected Treasury bonds are traded so little that they're prone to fairly violent swings.
But why do we care about inflation? Well, when the Fed pushes up growth, it also pushes up inflation. Breakevens have jumped dramatically whenever the Fed has eased -- whether that was QE2 in late 2010, Operation Twist in late 2011, or extended guidance in early 2012. But breakevens are falling dramatically now. In other words, markets expect less growth and less inflation right now. That's a weeee bit different than what happens when the Fed eases.
And that brings us to the paradox of interest rates. (Feel free to skip to the next paragraph for the big reveal, if your'e so inclined.) Take a look at the breakeven chart again. Whenever the Fed eases, it says that it's trying to reduce long-term borrowing costs. For breakevens to rise while Treasury yields fall, inflation-protected Treasuries would have to fall even more. Now, that's happened a bit. But not enough to explain the rise in breakevens.
In other words, Treasury yields rise when the Fed eases. Huh? Isn't the whole point to lower interest rates? Technically, yes. But if the Fed succeeds in reducing borrowing costs, that increases inflation. And when inflation increases, investors demand higher yields on Treasuries. So if the Fed succeeds, we'd expect interest rates to rise. If the Fed fails, we'd expect interest rates to fall. It's an upside down world.
There's no big mystery why our economic recovery hasn't felt like much of one. The Fed has run far too tight a policy for far too long. The worst part is that too many Fed officials don't seem to understand that. They think policy has been loose. That's a shame.
Maybe it's time for them to start doing the opposite.
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Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.