COLUMN-Grand-dad, what's a rate hike?: James Saft

Thu Oct 17, 2013 5:09pm EDT

(James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

By James Saft

Oct 17 (Reuters) - Like corded telephones, it is looking like our grandchildren will someday need to have the concept of rate hikes explained to them.

Seriously, someone needs to put a Federal Reserve statement with an interest rate hike into a time capsule so future civilizations can know that once upon a time monetary policy could become something known as 'tighter'.

And as for the taper, which only recently we were expecting, that too may take quite a while.

In fact, now that we have what passes for a budget deal in Washington, we, and the Fed, can get on with the important business of counting the four top reasons not to taper.

REASONS NOT TO (EXPECT A) TAPER

1. There was never economic justification.

There probably wasn't sufficient justification to tighten conditions back in August, before this mess transpired. Inflation was too low and job growth and labor force participation too anemic. Tightening now would require some new, positive reason, or an over-riding commitment to risk management and bubble prevention.

2. There is no new, positive reason, quite the reverse.

The government shutdown did real damage to the economy, both directly, and more importantly indirectly. Consumer confidence suffered, which is reflected in the buzz coming out of the retail sector.

A study carried out by Macroeconomic Advisors attempted to put the cost of three years of crisis-driven budget negotiations and fiscal policy and came up with a sobering conclusion: it has shaved about 1 percentage point off of output a year. Borrowing costs are higher than they otherwise would be, and discretionary spending lower. (here)

3. You think this is over? This isn't over.

Despite what anyone may say, we are going to be going down the budget impasse road yet again sometime soon. That not only increases the risk of default, it raises and extends the pause in consumption and investment the budget morass has already caused. All of this makes it possible that Fitch Ratings, which put the U.S. on ratings watch for a possible downgrade of its AAA-rating, will actually pull the trigger.

4. Even the hawks don't like chicken any more.

When arch-hawk Richard Fisher of the Dallas Fed comes out saying the taper has "all been swamped by fiscal shenanigans," as he did on Thursday, you know we are on hold for some time. True, Esther George of the Kansas City Fed came out again in favor of tapering, but wider support in the near term should be hard to find.

WHO IS MINDING THE STORE?

None of this makes a taper in December entirely impossible. There is a press conference then, and now that we have the government collecting data once again it is possible we'll see some figures that could be used in justification.

But that data is instead more likely to reflect deteriorating conditions, as the impact of the budget mess makes itself felt.

To be sure, there would be a certain poetry in Ben Bernanke beginning the taper, and he does have December and January meetings at which this could be done, with a press conference slated for December.

In the absence of really strong data, however, the temptation has to be to wait at least until March, which has a press conference and will be Janet Yellen's first bite at the apple.

Tapering is supposed to be as much about communication as action, so there could be a justification in allowing the person who will bear the load to do the explaining.

Of course, by March we will have more opportunities to shoot ourselves in the foot by defaulting, or by otherwise creating pointless uncertainty over our ability to govern ourselves.

You could, of course, construct a good argument that the Fed should be tapering anyway. That it is not its job to insure the U.S. economy against malpractice by its duly elected representatives. And that, moreover, the longer we continue with QE the more the negative side-effects pile up. Specifically, QE fosters poor allocation of capital and the formation of bubbles, and does it while disproportionately benefiting the wealthy and financial intermediaries.

Those are reasonable arguments, and just might be true, but they are unlikely to prevail.

More likely the economy will continue to struggle, Washington will continue to throw sand in the wheels and the Fed will do what the Fed does, which is to support asset prices and financial markets.

A return to "normal" may take a very, very long time. (At the time of publication, Reuters columnist James Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund. For previous columns by James Saft, click on ) (Editing by James Dalgleish)

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