The Federal Reserve Board's controversial decision to rejigger its securities portfolio was right given the economy's weak outlook and the likely slowdown in consumer price inflation in 2012, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland says.
Mark Sniderman, chief policy advisor to Cleveland Fed President Sandra Pianalto, said in an interview Wednesday there were already signs that the latest unconventional monetary easing steps unveiled Sept. 21 were working.
A former head of economic research at the Cleveland Fed, Sniderman and Mark Schweitzer — the chief of the research division — alternate at meetings of the Fed's decision-making body.
"There's already some evidence the 'Twist' had the desired effect in terms of pushing the longer-term rates down," Sniderman said.
Lower mortgage rates since the Federal Open Market Committee's announcement show "there was some scope for policy to make some difference," he added.
Sniderman's remarks were the latest show of support for Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, who has been criticized internally and externally for the easy-money policies he has championed in response to the financial crisis.
They were the first from the Cleveland Fed since the committee announced it will sell $400 billion of its U.S. Treasury securities maturing in the next three years and replace them with longer-term bonds maturing in six to 30 years, a move dubbed "Operation Twist."
The program is meant to spur spending and economic growth by driving down borrowing rates.
Starting Oct. 3, the Fed also plans to halt the shrinkage of mortgage securities from its balance sheet, a move directed at helping the beleaguered housing sector.
Sniderman said the "policy action was appropriate" given the weak economic outlook. Despite some encouraging data this week from falling jobless claims and rising business spending, the Cleveland Fed believes the economy will continue to grow slowly through 2012.
Pianalto was one of seven officials voting in favor of "Twist," but it was opposed by three voters, who believe making credit cheaper won't help the economy and fear the move could ignite inflation. Highlighting the controversial nature of the action, senior Republican lawmakers sent a letter to Bernanke right before the committee last month, warning the independent agency that the move could do more harm than good.
Since the Fed's announcement, fixed mortgage rates have sunk to record lows. Mortgage-financing giant Freddie Mac's weekly survey showed the 30-year mortgage averaged 4.01% for the week ended Thursday, down from 4.09% the previous week and 4.32% last year.
The Cleveland Fed expects gross domestic product, the broadest gauge of the economy's performance, to grow between 2% and 3% in 2012. That is too low to bring significant improvement to an unemployment rate that is currently stuck above 9%. The weak economy should contribute to bringing down prices next year, Sniderman said.
The economist said he was surprised to see prices continuing to rise in August, when they stood at an annual 3.8%. He had expected inflation to come down following the decline in the price of oil, cotton and other commodities. Still, Sniderman believes consumer price inflation will slow in the coming months as wages remain low and average around 2% next year — which is where the Fed wants it.