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Fed Tightening U.S. Interest Rates? Give Us a Break!

Interest-Rates / US Interest Rates Dec 17, 2009 - 12:25 AM GMT

By: Axel_Merk

Interest-Rates

At the end of its scheduled two-day meeting, the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee (FOMC) confirmed it will leave its target range for the federal funds rate unchanged and is on schedule to phase out various special liquidity programs. The Fed also confirmed it will continue to buy mortgage backed-securities (MBS) and expects to gradually slow the pace of these purchases; the Fed expects the entire $1.25 billion of MBS purchases to be executed by the end of the first quarter of 2010.


Numerous observers have pointed out how this is a sign that the Fed is about to tighten access to credit. With due respect, this may be plain wrong. When the Fed engages in security purchases, be they MBS or government bonds, the Fed is increasing its balance sheet, thus adding a permanent stimulus that will remain unless withdrawn or otherwise sterilized. The Fed is not only keeping its bloated balance sheet, but expanding it further until the end of the first quarter of 2010.

The FOMC states: "With substantial resource slack likely to continue to dampen cost pressures and with longer-term inflation expectations stable, the committee expects that inflation will remain subdued for some time." In our assessment, this is about as clear as the Fed will ever be that there is no intent on tightening anytime soon despite recent signs of an economic pickup. The reasons given are resource slack and longer-term inflation expectations:

  • It is rather controversial whether the resource slack will indeed be able to guarantee inflation will be contained. The 1970s are proof that the resource slack is not a good predictor of inflation. Some on the FOMC hold this view, as evidenced in past FOMC minutes, but it is not the prevailing view.
  • The Fed relies on stable long-term inflation expectations. Because the Fed is ultimately responsible to manage long-term inflation expectations, the Fed is waging its credibility that it will be able to tighten when the time comes. In our assessment, a rather risky, if not irresponsible approach to monetary policy. It should be noted that in recent weeks long-term inflation expectations have inched above what is perceived the traditional target range for the Fed; at this stage, the FOMC might brush such warning signs aside, as they might argue it doesn't constitute a trend, yet.

Specifically, note that the Fed does not list improved economic and financial conditions as a condition to tighten, but only as a reason to phase out additional liquidity facilities. The Fed's balance sheet, when adding MBS purchases and commitment to buy securities, net of phased out liquidity programs, has continued to grow.

As a result, it seems that the Fed may indeed halt the massive balance sheet expansion at the end of the first quarter of 2010, but such a break is not indicative of tightening, but a pause at an extraordinarily accommodative level.

In our assessment, the Fed is continuing to ease at a time when the European Central Bank (ECB) has already withdrawn liquidity and central banks ranging from Australia to Norway have raised interest rates. It seems rather unlikely to us that the Fed will have a tighter policy than the ECB in 2010. Of course, the eurozone faces challenges in Greece, Ireland and Spain, amongst others; but the U.S. will also face substantial headwinds, for example, commercial real estate. Ultimately, the global tightening wave many market observers are predicting in 2010 may be far weaker than priced into the markets.

We manage the Merk Absolute Return Currency Fund, the Merk Asian Currency Fund, and the Merk Hard Currency Fund; transparent no-load currency mutual funds that do not typically employ leverage. To learn more about the Funds, please visit www.merkfunds.com.

By Axel Merk

Chief Investment Officer and Manager of the Merk Hard and Asian Currency Funds, www.merkfund.com

Mr. Merk predicted the credit crisis early. As early as 2003 , he outlined the looming battle of inflationary and deflationary forces. In 2005 , Mr. Merk predicted Ben Bernanke would succeed Greenspan as Federal Reserve Chairman months before his nomination. In early 2007 , Mr. Merk warned volatility would surge and cause a painful global credit contraction affecting all asset classes. In the fall of 2007 , he was an early critic of inefficient government reaction to the credit crisis. In 2008 , Mr. Merk was one of the first to urge the recapitalization of financial institutions. Mr. Merk typically puts his money where his mouth is. He became a global investor in the 1990s when diversification within the U.S. became less effective; as of 2000, he has shifted towards a more macro-oriented investment approach with substantial cash and precious metals holdings.

© 2009 Merk Investments® LLC

The Merk Asian Currency Fund invests in a basket of Asian currencies. Asian currencies the Fund may invest in include, but are not limited to, the currencies of China, Hong Kong, Japan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.

The Merk Hard Currency Fund invests in a basket of hard currencies. Hard currencies are currencies backed by sound monetary policy; sound monetary policy focuses on price stability.

The Funds may be appropriate for you if you are pursuing a long-term goal with a hard or Asian currency component to your portfolio; are willing to tolerate the risks associated with investments in foreign currencies; or are looking for a way to potentially mitigate downside risk in or profit from a secular bear market. For more information on the Funds and to download a prospectus, please visit www.merkfund.com.

Investors should consider the investment objectives, risks and charges and expenses of the Merk Funds carefully before investing. This and other information is in the prospectus, a copy of which may be obtained by visiting the Funds' website at www.merkfund.com or calling 866-MERK FUND. Please read the prospectus carefully before you invest.

The Funds primarily invests in foreign currencies and as such, changes in currency exchange rates will affect the value of what the Funds owns and the price of the Funds' shares. Investing in foreign instruments bears a greater risk than investing in domestic instruments for reasons such as volatility of currency exchange rates and, in some cases, limited geographic focus, political and economic instability, and relatively illiquid markets. The Funds are subject to interest rate risk which is the risk that debt securities in the Funds' portfolio will decline in value because of increases in market interest rates. The Funds may also invest in derivative securities which can be volatile and involve various types and degrees of risk. As a non-diversified fund, the Merk Hard Currency Fund will be subject to more investment risk and potential for volatility than a diversified fund because its portfolio may, at times, focus on a limited number of issuers. For a more complete discussion of these and other Fund risks please refer to the Funds' prospectuses.

The views in this article were those of Axel Merk as of the newsletter's publication date and may not reflect his views at any time thereafter. These views and opinions should not be construed as investment advice nor considered as an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy shares of any securities mentioned herein. Mr. Merk is the founder and president of Merk Investments LLC and is the portfolio manager for the Merk Hard and Asian Currency Funds. Foreside Fund Services, LLC, distributor.

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