Yesterday the Fed announced that it would begin to buy mortgage and other private debt securities — easily the most dramatic and unprecedented action in the Fed’s 95-year history.
Mortgages immediately fell a half-percent to 5.5 percent. An immense volume of loan-rate locks has pushed rates back up a bit today, but the decline is highly likely to resume. For the first time in the last 18 months’ credit-market nightmare the authorities have moved in front of the crisis, jumping past broken banks to fund the nation.
The Fed buys and sells short-term T-bills every day, managing monetary policy and short-term rates. However, the only prior Fed direct-purchase intervention to push down long-term rates was during and shortly after World War II, and that operation was limited strictly to Treasurys. This time the Fed will buy a wide spectrum of consumer credit, driving down rates, and will eventually reopen private markets in volume.
The Fed’s actual purchases will not begin until next week, but it said it would continue to buy "over several quarters." The Fed did not indicate any target for how far it intends to push down mortgage rates.
Why now? Two things. Last week marked the ultimate fracture in the credit markets: Treasury yields to the floor, rates for all other IOUs to the sky. No credit, no bottom for the economy. Previous efforts to cut the cost of credit (loaning cash to banks, Troubled Asset Relief Program injection of capital) had not yet worked and could not be expected to work in time. Second: The next 10 days will bring awful news of economic decline in November, and the first washout of Thanksgiving shopping in modern times.
Will it work? Oh my, yes. In my first week on a trading desk in 1983, the Fed entered the market in a surprise purchase of T-bills. An itty-bitty thing. A roomful of calm-to-bored pros leaped in the air, screeching, "The Fed is IN!" And so that roar went up yesterday. All-powerful. The Fed hasn’t spent a dime, but is already swinging a psychological hammer. The markets had priced for Great Depression II. "If the Fed is in, then we aren’t going to have another great depression. … If the Fed is in, what am I doing out?"
When will it work on the economy? When it does. Recessions cannot bottom without plentiful and cheap credit. Credit-sensitive industries lead the way — houses and autos will both take awhile, even with credit restored. Unemployment will not crest until the recession is over. Hence, the Fed will be in for "several quarters."
Where will the Fed get the money? If you or I print money, we go to jail. When staring at a possible Depression, the Fed is supposed to print money. It has infinite capacity to do so, and in this case is buying very high-quality IOUs that will rise in quality as the economy heals, can be sold then, or held to maturity. The main risk is off in the future: Next time we’re in a little trouble, the troubled will ask the Fed to buy again. Answer: only once every 95 years.
At your dinner table tomorrow someone will say: "Hang the Fed for this! Let the market work! Inflation is certain to follow! The dollar will crash! The Fed is a giant conspiracy! Gold, gold, gold!" Hand this individual a turkey bone and hope he chokes. No Heimlich until he admits the Depression was not cool.
How to play refinancing? Any deal that recaptures closing costs in a year or so after tax effects, do it! As always … closing costs are not deductible, interest saved is; hence savings are overstated. Calculate interest savings, not changes in payment distorted by amortization. Avoid points and origination (deductible only over the whole life of the loan). If you have an adjustable-rate mortgage, move now.
Whose idea was this? Many of us thought it was inevitable a year ago. The idea is in Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s book. I’m a zero on a scale of conspiracy theorists, but I have to believe that when Obama’s new team reviewed options with the exhausted group still in charge, somebody said, "What in hell are you waiting for?" If it was Hapless Hank Paulson’s work by himself, or not, hand that man some pie. It is Thanksgiving.
Lou Barnes is a mortgage broker and nationally syndicated columnist based in Boulder, Colo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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