Tapering delayed: another historic moment for the FED?

Yesterday evening, Money 2.0 was on the agenda in the Arminius church in Rotterdam. It was an evening in which I briefly outlined some of the major developments and lessons from monetary history to the audience. This coincided with an announcement of the Federal Reserve Board on their monetary policy, that may prove to become a historic case in point.

Balancing the amount of money against economic activity
I explained that history learns us that the amount of money in a society needs to balance the economic activity. The role of central banks is to monitor both and make serious judgment calls as to whether or not contract or expand the so-called monetary base. Expanding too much may lead to high inflation, and a more restrictive approach can lead to deflation. Finding the right balance is thus the essence of monetary policy.

I sketched that each country has in the past experienced a different learning curve in executing monetary policy. These differences help to explain why the German central bank (and the ECB, in its first years of existence) tend to be restrictive and careful not too expand the money base, while the FED appears to lean towards easing the money supply. As if to prove my point, at that very moment, the FED informed the markets that they were delaying their planned contraction of the monetary base until the economy would be seriously better.

Now, let's see where this might be coming from.

Different lessons lead to different central bank styles
First, we will look at the situation in Germany between the two World Wars. Germany had to pay France a huge amount of money as 'repair' payments for the damage done in the war. A sequence of events in 1922 however makes it clear that the Germans will have a hard time paying back their money. And as a part of the conflict between France and Germany, the Germans start printing money, to finance a strike in the industrial area of the Ruhr. The cumulative effect of the developments - see Kindleberger-  was hyperinflation and even the Dutch still recall this (some of us are still holding worthless million mark notes of those days).

Now, let's have a look at the United States at the end of the 19th century. We can see a depression, deflation and a shortage of money. And there is a serious debate as to the use of gold or silver as a standard to base the currency on. This discussion even filters down to a book, the Wizard of Oz, as Hugh Rockoff explains here. In short, the US experience is that you have to be careful not to have a shortage of money.

As both memories linger on in the collective minds, we can thus see that the German central banking approach is not to ever encounter high inflation again. They tend to be on the careful side and tried their utmost to instill this sense of discpline in the European Central Bank. Meanwhile, the FED is making sure not to ever encounter a shortage of money again, so are expanding their money base more easily.

Delayed tapering: a historic moment ?  
When the FED yesterday announced that they were not yet going to contract the money base, this came as a surprise to the market. Earlier this year, Bernanke had explained that the FED would slowly start contracting the money supply. So he caught the market off guard. And in a few years, we can determine if that was indeed a historic moment. I think it was.

The FED-announcement above all marked the beginning of an unclear policy. So far the FED has been careful to explain and predict its own moves to the market by providing so-called forward guidance. While a bit unconventional, the market has been getting used to this guidance and has also responded to the earlier announcement of more restrictive monetary policy. This response may in turn have led the FED to change its previous opinion on the timing of tapering.

What may happen now is that the market and the FED get entangled in a dance where neither party knows whether to lead or to follow. Both are looking at each other while trying to find out if the economy itself is getting in a better or worse shape, as a result of their dancing. Rather than leading the dance, based on the music, the FED is now adapting to the dance partner as well.

It's this ambiguity of the FED and increased unpredicatbility that may well make yesterdays announcement a historic one.