WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve Board's latest policy statement is raising questions about the central bank's commitment to the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, which has struggled to attract interest from investors in recent months.
The policy statement is the central bank's primary method of communicating its assessment of economic conditions. The facility was highlighted in the previous two statements but was conspicuously absent from Wednesday's version. Instead, the Fed issued a more generic show of support for its broader portfolio of liquidity facilities.
"The Federal Reserve is facilitating the extension of credit to households and businesses and supporting the functioning of financial markets through a range of liquidity programs," according to the statement.
The Talf is a centerpiece of the Obama administration's efforts to nurse financial markets back to health. Officials from the Fed and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (which makes the loans under the facility) continue to work diligently on the program and are dedicating more staff members to the effort. But observers said its absence from the statement is a sign that it might not be the marquee program it was just a month ago.
"They're getting realistic," said Oliver Ireland, a former Fed lawyer who is now a partner at Morrison & Foerster LLP. "They probably have recognized the need to think of other ways to fund retail credit and foster lending."
Chris Low, the chief economist at First Horizon National Corp.'s FTN Financial, said the Fed is backing away in the face of persistent skepticism from investors who would participate.
"The Fed is clearly disappointed in the lack of enthusiasm about the Talf program," he said. "By leaving Talf out of the statement," the Fed "indicated either a lack of concern — maybe the economy is recovering OK without it — or an inability to address investor concerns at this time."
The New York Fed received $4.7 billion of loan requests when the program launched in March. Requests declined to just $1.7 billion last month. The next round of requests is scheduled for Tuesday.
Part of the problem is investor reluctance to get too close to the government for fear of uncomfortable scrutiny from Congress and others.
The Fed lends to investors, which use the money to buy securities backed by consumer loans. The goal is to liquefy the markets for consumer debt by giving investors an incentive to buy the securities. Assets initially eligible for the program included securities backed by auto, card, student and small-business loans. The Fed is considering expanding the program to include commercial and possibly residential mortgage-backed securities, but so far it has made no move on those fronts.
Despite the disappointing interest from investors, the program has had some positive effects on the market, including declining spreads on certain asset-backed securities.
Some observers cautioned against reading too much into the statement — since it has already mentioned the facility several times, the central bank may have felt less compelled to highlight it again. "The program is more well known now," said Scott Valentin, an analyst at Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group Inc. "People know it exists, so maybe they felt they didn't need to mention it."