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《经济学人》美联储再次紧急降息:能平复市场担忧吗?

2020 年 03 月 17 日 • 经济学人,经济金融

经济学人网站【经济金融】板块中这篇题为《The Federal Reserve acts again: can it soothe the markets?》的文章关注的是 3 月 15 日星期天美联储两周内第二次降息,试图平复市场对新冠疫情的担忧。

The Economist, Finance and economics 2020.

美联储本计划在 3 月 17 和 18 日召开常规政策会议,但在 3 月 15 日星期天美联储就紧急下调利率 100 个基点至 0-0.25% 的目标区间,这是美联储两周内第二次降息。

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文章认为,美联储周日迫不及待地降息是因为在两个重要的金融市场中遇到了紧急的问题——抵押证券市场和美国库券市场

一般来说,面对经济衰退、战争和当前的全球疾病大流行时,投资者会争相购入安全的美国库券来避险,由此国库券价格上涨、收益率下跌。但上周国库券的价格居然和股票等其他风险资产一样下跌了。不寻常的一幕也出现了——到期日相近的国库券出现了价差。在正常情况下,对冲基金和其他金融机构可以通过套利来消除这种价差,但上周随着它们从市场中撤退拥抱现金,市场套利失灵了。

为了帮助这些机构增加流动性,美联储一直在购买国库券,周末美联储称会扩大购买规模,至少再购买 5,000 亿美元的国库券和 2,000 亿美元的抵押证券。

文章认为,美联储此次大规模购买资产的举措不是 QE (量化宽松),而是一种“稳定”市场之举。如果此次资产购买行为是另一轮 QE 的话,那美联储不需要特地赶在周末紧急宣布。

美联储主席鲍威尔称,美国第二季度经济可能收缩。尽管如此,鲍威尔不认为负利率是“合适的”,美联储可能寻求获得合法许可以进一步购买安全的政府债券以外的资产。

文章还提到,日本央行在四年前就曾实施过负利率,并一直在通过 ETFs 购买股票。虽然日本在控制疫情方面比欧洲和美国更为成功,但在疫情发生前日本经济就已经在收缩了。

3 月 16 日,日本央行称它将在 9 月前购买 2 万亿日元(约 190 亿美元)的公司债券和商业票据,并将 ETFs 购买额从每年 6 万亿日元增加到 12 万亿日元。有分析指出,日本央行在上周就已开始大量购入 ETFs,但这并未阻止日本股市暴跌。

鲍威尔在周日的讲话中指出,央行可以降低借贷成本和提升市场流动性,但无法直接向受疫情影响的家庭和企业提供帮助。鲍威尔认为财政政策同样重要,希望正在酝酿中的财政政策能够有效。

The Federal Reserve acts again: can it soothe the markets?

Sunday night special
The Federal Reserve acts again: can it soothe the markets?

Other central banks follow up with emergency measures
Finance and economics
Mar 16th 2020

Central banks are not known for their spontaneity. They do not tear up their calendars lightly. And when they do, it is not usually a good sign. Both the Bank of Japan and America’s Federal Reserve were scheduled to hold policy meetings later this week. But neither felt they could wait that long.

On March 15th—a Sunday—the Fed cut its benchmark interest rate by a full percentage point, lowering it to the range of 0-0.25%, as low as it has ever gone. It was the central bank’s second emergency cut outside a scheduled meeting in less than a fortnight. The Fed also made it cheaper and more convenient for banks to borrow directly from its “discount” window (an option banks have traditionally avoided because it makes them look desperate). And to ease the shortage of dollars evident in the currency-swap market, it lowered the cost of the swap lines it has extended to central banks in the euro area, Japan, Britain, Canada and Switzerland.

If that was all it needed to do, it could probably have waited until its regular meeting on March 17th and 18th. But it also faced a more urgent problem in two of the most important financial markets in the world: those for mortgage-backed securities and American Treasury notes. In times of crisis, such as recessions, wars or today’s covid-19 pandemic, investors flock to American Treasuries as a safe haven, driving their prices up and their yields down. But on occasions last week, the price of Treasuries had fallen alongside those of risky assets, such as shares (which tumbled again in Asia and in early European trading on March 16th). And unusual gaps had emerged between the prices of closely matched securities, such as Treasuries of similar maturities. Yields had become “wiggly”, as Darrell Duffie of Stanford University described it to the Financial Times.

Ironing out those wiggles is usually the job of hedge funds and other financial institutions that buy the cheaper instrument and sell its more expensive cousin. But this kind of arbitrage seemed to break down last week as financial institutions withdrew from the market and clung to cash. In response, the Fed first tried making it easier for these institutions to finance themselves. Then it began buying more Treasuries itself, accelerating a previously planned schedule of purchases. At the weekend, it said it would buy on a far greater scale, purchasing at least $500bn of Treasuries and $200bn of mortgage-backed securities, at whatever pace is necessary to smooth out the market.

Jerome Powell, the Fed’s chairman, was immediately asked if this buying amounted to “quantitative easing”, the term applied to the Fed’s previous rounds of asset-buying during the Great Recession. But although the purchases look, swim and quack like QE, they have a different purpose: quantitative stabilising, not easing. QE, which is a way to loosen monetary policy when interest rates are already as low as they can go, can be necessary even when markets are functioning smoothly. Conversely, stabilising markets is sometimes necessary even when rates are higher than zero. (Indeed, one member of the Fed’s policymaking board, Loretta Mester, was in favour of the asset purchases but against cutting interest rates by a full percentage point.) Simply put: if these purchases were merely another round of QE, the Fed would not have needed an unscheduled weekend meeting to announce them.

Will further measures be necessary? Mr Powell pointed out that the economy was likely to shrink in the second quarter, as firms and people hunker down to avoid infection. Growth could be as low as -5%, at an annual pace, according to Goldman Sachs. Efforts to slow the spread of the virus also inevitably slow the economy. In China, which has gone further than most to contain the pandemic, industrial production shrank by 13.5% in January and February, compared with the previous year.

Nonetheless, Mr Powell does not think that negative interest rates are likely to be “appropriate”. Nor is the Fed seeking legal permission to buy a wider range of assets, beyond the safe, government-backed securities it is now allowed to purchase.

The Bank of Japan cannot afford to be so particular. It introduced negative interest rates more than four years ago and has been buying equities, through exchange-traded funds (ETFs), for even longer. Although Japan has been more successful than Europe or America in slowing the spread of the covid-19 virus, its economy was already shrinking before the epidemic emerged. On March 16th its central bank said it would buy corporate bonds (and commercial paper) worth ¥2trn ($19bn) by September and double its purchases of ETFs from ¥6trn to ¥12trn a year. But as Marcel Thieliant of Capital Economics, a consultancy, points out, the central bank had already begun buying ETFs at a furious rate over the previous week and that did not stop Japan’s stockmarket plunging.

Other central banks have followed the Fed’s lead: the Bank of Korea and the Reserve Bank of New Zealand also cut rates on March 16th. Central banks, as the Fed’s Mr Powell pointed out on Sunday, can ease borrowing costs and improve liquidity. But they cannot provide more direct help to households and small firms that are suffering during the outbreak. In both America and Japan, central banks are now waiting for a more concerted fiscal response to the covid-19 crisis. “We do think the fiscal response is critical,” Mr Powell said, “we're happy to see that [fiscal] measures are being considered and we hope they are effective.”

One of the most famous meetings in Fed history was held on a beautiful weekend in October 1979. Known as the “Saturday night special”, it heralded a brutally effective campaign against inflation. The covid-19 virus is not a dragon that central banks can slay. But Mr Powell will hope his Sunday night special proves equally effective in quelling the pandemic’s disturbing financial side-effects.

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