Quarles is clearly uncomfortable with that kind of framing, judging by his need to interject that the Fed’s bond buying should be seen “not as a way of supporting the issuance of Treasuries, but as a way of supporting a functioning market in Treasuries.” But as much as he tries to draw a distinction, those two things are effectively one and the same. As I wrote last week, Fed Chair Jerome Powell and his colleagues could be much more forceful on the need for more fiscal spending if they wanted. All they would have to do is pledge to increase their monthly purchases of Treasuries in line with certain policy initiatives, such as extra unemployment benefits or funding for state and local governments. But that would give away the game, which is why they consistently describe their bond buying in terms like “market functioning.”
Quarles also took the rare step of walking back his remarks, saying at an event less than 24 hours later that “I wouldn’t want the comments that I made today about thinking about Treasury market structure to suggest that I think that there’s some need for some permanent backstop of the Treasury market in normal times.”
It’s hard to not interpret them in that way, but leaving that aside, I’d be curious what “normal times” means to Quarles and other Fed officials. There’s little doubt that its Treasury purchases — or even just the threat of ramping them up — helps to keep benchmark yields right about where the central bank wants them. And the Fed considers rock-bottom long-term borrowing costs as a complement to keeping the fed funds rate near zero to boost the economy. So is normal when the central bank is raising interest rates again? That, in turn, would mean U.S. inflation “has risen to 2% and is on track to moderately exceed 2% for some time,” per its new framework. That could be quite a while, indeed.
Unprecedented has the been the most overused word in 2020. However, the sheer scale of the changes that have taken place makes the current set of monetary and fiscal conditions unsuitable for direct historical comparison. In order to truly comprehend the breadth of the challenge we need to have some very long-term historical perspective.Click HERE to subscribe to Fuller Treacy Money Back to top