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The Fed's Fierce Battle Plan


In dropping rates to zero, Bernanke is attacking the recession head-on. And his approach may well lead to a recovery by late 2009

This is war. On Dec. 16, the Federal Reserve announced it was stepping up what amounts to a shock-and-awe campaign against the most dangerous economic downturn in decades. In an unprecedented move, the Fed cut its short-term interest rate target to essentially zero while committing to buy mortgage bonds and other assets on a massive scale. The goal: to provide cheaper credit to every part of the economy, starting with housing.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke initially underestimated the fast-moving crisis, but now he's deadly serious. As a student of the Great Depression, Bernanke does not want to go down in history as the Fed chairman who allowed the U.S.—and possibly the world—to slip into the worst slump since the 1930s.

Will the new battle plan work? Most likely yes—eventually. The Fed's monetary weaponry, in combination with the fiscal artillery of the incoming Obama Administration, are so potent that if they are used to their full extent they can almost certainly generate an economic recovery, potentially starting in the second half of 2009. The problem is that today's all-out attack on recession may well generate a surge of unwanted inflation in 2010 or after. But the Fed seems to regard that as an acceptable price to pay to avoid disaster now.

True, the Fed has finally reached the end of the line on cutting rates—they can't go below zero. But it remains essentially unlimited in how much it can stimulate the housing market and broader economy by buying up mortgage-backed securities, Fannie Mae (FMN) and Freddie Mac (FRE) corporate debt, and other assets. The Fed's early efforts are already showing some success. Since it said in late November that it would buy such securities, 30-year mortgage rates have fallen to 5.2% from 6%, and refinance applications have more than tripled. The Dec. 16 announcement will greatly expand these purchases.

What's more, starting in early 2009, the Fed will pump money into markets for student, auto, credit-card, and small-business loans in hopes of helping those parts of the economy. All told, the Fed's assets—a measure of how much the Fed has lent, directly and indirectly—could go as high as $5 trillion, says Ed Yardeni of Yardeni Research. That's up from $2.2 trillion now. And the range of assets the Fed is permitted to acquire in an emergency is almost unlimited. "It could buy a herd of cattle in Texas if it so desired," says Paul Ashworth, senior economist in the Toronto office of consultant Capital Economics.

These moves are so sweeping that they almost overshadow what would ordinarily be the biggest news of all: the Fed's Dec. 16 cut in its target federal funds rate to a range from zero up to 0.25%, the lowest in its history. The funds rate is what banks charge each other for loans to meet reserve requirements. In fact, the Fed's target had become irrelevant in recent weeks because what banks actually charge each other for those loans had already fallen to almost zero. That's because of the huge surplus of reserves that the Fed has injected into the financial system.

Critics of the Fed say the central bank is running unacceptable risks of losses by itself and ultimately by taxpayers while propping up an unsustainable reliance on debt. "It's 100% wrong. It's going to make the situation worse," says Peter Schiff of Euro Pacific Capital, a brokerage in Darien, Conn. "In the short run, it does postpone some of the pain, but the economy is going to be in worse shape a year from now. Eventually we will have hyperinflation, where the dollar loses almost all its value."

That, however, is a minority view. Most economists think that inflation is the last thing the Fed needs to worry about right now. According to New York University economist Mark L. Gertler, who collaborated with Bernanke on research during the Fed chief's Princeton years: "We are in an incredibly dangerous situation. Now is the time to be aggressive. There's no danger of inflation. It's almost insane that people are talking about it now." Even with all the Fed's heroic measures, predicts Merrill Lynch (MER) senior economist Drew Matus, "the recession is going to be a long one, and the recovery is not going to be a big one."

One reason for optimism—mild optimism, anyway—is that Bernanke has learned from the mistakes committed by the Fed during the Depression and the Bank of Japan during that nation's Lost Decade of the 1990s. In 1999, when he could afford to be undiplomatic, Bernanke asked in a book he contributed to whether Japan's monetary policy was "a case of self-induced paralysis," and he praised President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "willingness to be aggressive and to experiment."

When the economy does begin to recover, perhaps in the second half of 2009 or possibly later, the Fed will have a very different problem on its hands: how to soak up all of the excess liquidity it has created so it doesn't stoke inflation or some new asset bubble. In a Dec. 17 research note, Yardeni wrote: "After one bubble bursts, the only way to get out of the resulting recession, and to avoid a depression, is to create another bubble." That's not what anyone wants, but it's certainly better than the alternative—a downturn that would rival the Great Depression.

Coy is BusinessWeek's Economics editor.

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