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Beating up on the Fed used to make you an oddball. Does it still?

Bethany McLean
Slate
Nov 10, 2010

According to a pre-election Bloomberg poll, 60 percent of likely voters who self-identified as Tea Party members said they want to see the Federal Reserve either reined in or abolished. Rand Paul, the Republican senator-elect from Kentucky, campaigned in part on an anti-Fed platform. Fed-bashing is often shrugged off as something that oddballs do whenever the country hits hard economic times. But if that’s the case, then why is Jeremy Grantham railing against the Fed too?

Grantham, the chief investment officer of the big Boston money management firm GMO, is nobody’s idea of an oddball; he is a well-respected longtime professional. Yet he just wrote a report titled “Night of the Living Fed.” The cover page resembles a poster for a horror flick, complete with a subhead—”Something Unbelievably Terrifying!”—and scary captions: “Homes Destroyed! Runaway Commodities! Currency Wars!”

The thought process behind the anger at the Fed isn’t uniform. If Dante had nine circles of hell, then the Fed has three circles of doubters. The first circle is critical of the Fed’s current policies. The second circle thinks that the Fed has been a menace for a long time. The third circle wants to seriously curtail or even get rid of the Fed.

Let’s start with the first circle. The Fed recently announced that it will purchase $600 billion in longer-term Treasury bonds. This is known as “quantitiative easing.” The idea is that the Fed’s buying binge will increase demand for Treasuries and drive down interest rates, which in turn will encourage more borrowing, get the economy’s gears moving, and ultimately, if indirectly, chip away at the 9.6 percent unemployment rate. The current round of quantitiative easing is called “QE2″ because the Fed previously purchased some $1.75 trillion in Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities starting in early 2009, when the credit markets were frozen stiff. According to Paul Sheard, the chief economist at Nomura International, by the time the Fed completes QE2 (and assuming no changes in other asset levels) it will have expanded its balance sheet by a remarkable 221 percent from precrisis levels. That is a really big deal

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