Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker says the U.S. central bank's plan to buy hundreds of billions of dollars in government bonds probably won't do much to boost the economic recovery.
The Fed announced Wednesday that it would purchase $600 billion in Treasurys, aiming to lower long-term interest rates in an effort to spur spending and ultimately lower the U.S. unemployment rate, currently at 9.6 percent. The move comes on the heels of previous purchases of $1.7 trillion in mortgage and Treasury bonds.
Volcker told a business audience in Seoul that the Fed's bond plan is obviously an attempt to spur the U.S. economy but "is not the kind of action that's likely to change the general picture that I've described as slow and labored recovery over a period of time."
The Fed's move has caused worries in South Korea and other emerging markets in Asia. Those governments fear that lower interest rates in the U.S. will further push investors to seek higher returns overseas and that this tide of money will drive up their currencies and destabilize their markets.
Volcker served as Fed chief from 1979 until 1987 under presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and is currently chairman of President Barack Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board. He also warned that the U.S. won't find its way out of the economic doldrums through over-stimulation.
"The thought that you can create a prosperous economy by inflating is an illusion, in my judgment," he told reporters after his speech. "And we should never forget that. I thought we'd learned that lesson and I hope we continue to learn that lesson."
The Fed faces a dilemma in balancing the aim of boosting the economy now while avoiding fears of a future jump in inflation due to the monetary stimulus, said Volcker, who as central bank chairman hiked interest rates aggressively to tame inflation.
"The influence of this kind of action on longer term interest rates, in particular, is ambiguous because the immediate impact of buying bonds ought to be to drive bond prices up and interest rates down," he said. "But if people get concerned about longer run inflationary impacts, the effects go in the other direction."
In theory, the Fed's action is expected to lower interest rates because bond prices and interest rates -- also known as yields -- move in opposite directions. The yield is the fixed amount of annual interest paid to the owner of the bond expressed as a percentage of the bond price, so the extra demand created by the Fed's purchases should push bond prices up and lower the yield.
But when investors fear inflation will be higher in the future they demand that bonds pay a higher interest rate to protect their investment from the value-eroding effects of inflation.
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