In an unprecedented and controversial move, the Federal Reserve today announced the initiation of an open-ended round of Quantitative Easing (QE3) and extended the period for which it will keep rates between 0 and 1/4% to mid-2015.
Here is the paragraph from the FOMC statement that sums it up:
"....The Committee agreed today to increase policy accommodation by purchasing additional agency mortgage-backed securities at a pace of $40 billion per month. The Committee also will continue through the end of the year its program to extend the average maturity of its holdings of securities as announced in June, and it is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities. These actions...should put downward pressure on longer-term interest rates, support mortgage markets, and help to make broader financial conditions more accommodative."
Translating from Fed-Speak, the purchase of mortgage-backed securities is Quantitative Easing. Unlike QE1 and QE2, no dollar amount or time-limit was placed on the program. The Fed essentially announced it will be purchasing $40 billion in MBS per month until further notice.
This is a monster, huge, gargantuan change from prior operations. QE1 "cost" $1.7 trillion. QE2 was half a trillion, give or take. The new plan isn't really QE3, because it's never scheduled to end. It is an entirely different, frightening animal.
What makes it scary is contained in the next paragraph:
If the outlook for the labor market does not improve substantially, the Committee will continue its purchases of agency mortgage-backed securities, undertake additional asset purchases, and employ its other policy tools as appropriate until such improvement is achieved in a context of price stability. In determining the size, pace, and composition of its asset purchases, the Committee will, as always, take appropriate account of the likely efficacy and costs of such purchases.
Employment is weak and is expected to be despite the Fed's best efforts. In response, the Fed is opening the spigots even further and vowing to continue to do so until this failed strategy starts working. There's a certain willful spunkiness to the plan, but in terms of economics it's little short of bizarre.
Bottom Line: The Fed has made up new rules by lifting all restraints on existing policies. Should they desire different stimulus, the Fed will need to invent a whole new policy. It's a bullish move in the sense that pouring more money into the system inflates values. Stocks, gold, oil... basically everything except the dollar "should" go up in value.
Longer term we're now way, way into unknown territory. As Bernanke himself often says, monetary policy isn't a panacea. Then again, the same man just gave the economy the biggest injection it's ever seen. How will it all end? Literally nobody knows, but for now stocks are higher, bears are furious and bulls are giddily confused.
Also, the president just got re-elected. But that's a for a different column.