Fed's mortgage-backed securities buy on agenda as officials begin taper talk

Published Tue, Jul 27, 2021 · 05:50 AM

New York

POLICY hawks at the Federal Reserve are setting their sights on scaling back the US central bank's massive intervention in the mortgage market as home prices soar. But the Fed leadership doesn't sound convinced by arguments in favour of a hasty exit strategy.

The debate - over whether to taper the Fed's purchases of mortgage-backed securities (MBS) faster than its buying of Treasury debt - will probably be near the top of the agenda when officials gather on Tuesday and Wednesday this week to discuss next steps for policy.

Economists surveyed by Bloomberg expect them to leave their support in place and be silent on taper timing in their statement, released at 2 pm Washington time Wednesday. Pressure on Fed chairman Jerome Powell to begin scaling back bond buying sooner rather than later has probably eased amid concern that spread of the coronavirus Delta variant could sap the economic recovery.

The central bank is holding interest rates near zero and currently buying US$80 billion of Treasuries and US$40 billion of agency MBS each month, as part of the crisis-era bond-buying programmes it relaunched last year, at the onset of the pandemic. Economists expect it to begin scaling back purchases later this year, or early in 2022.

First, Fed officials must decide on when and how to begin doing so. A key question is whether to taper purchases of Treasuries and MBS at similar rates or, alternatively, prioritise reductions in purchases of MBS, given the state of the housing market.

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"The agenda for this next meeting is probably to start hashing out some of the logistics," said Aneta Markowska, chief financial economist at Jefferies in New York. "On timing, it's still too early to make decisions, but I think the focus is going to be on those operational details." Unprecedented cash payments by the US government to households, record-low mortgage rates and changing consumer preferences have conspired to fuel a pandemic boom in housing. The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller US National Home Price Index rose 14.6 per cent in the 12 months through April, according to the latest available numbers, marking the fastest pace of increase on record in data from 1988.

The surge is dividing the central bank's policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) into two camps.

In one, "several participants saw benefits to reducing the pace of these purchases more quickly, or earlier than Treasury purchases, in light of valuation pressures in housing markets," according to the record of the FOMC's last policy meeting in mid-June.

"Several other participants, however, commented that reducing the pace of Treasury and MBS purchases commensurately was preferable because this approach would be well aligned with the committee's previous communications or because purchases of Treasury securities and MBS both provide accommodation through their influence on broader financial conditions," the meeting minutes said.

Fed-watchers are about evenly split on which path policy makers will choose, with slightly more than half expecting them to taper MBS purchases faster, according to results of a Bloomberg survey conducted July 16-21.

Fed Governor Christopher Waller and the presidents of the Boston, St Louis, Kansas City and Dallas Fed banks have all suggested in recent public remarks that such a course of action may be appropriate.

Mr Waller said in television interview last month of the proposal: "Right now, the housing market is on fire. They don't need any other unnecessary support, so I would be all in favour of that."

But some of the central bank's top leaders don't sound convinced. New York Fed President John Williams and Chicago Fed President Charles Evans have also emphasised in recent public comments that the central bank's MBS purchases are not intended to support the housing market in particular.

"Mortgage-backed securities purchases really work a lot like Treasury purchases," Mr Powell told the House Financial Services Committee on July 14. "They aren't especially important in what's happening with housing prices." Mr Williams had offered a similar view two days earlier, arguing while speaking with reporters that "both of them affect interest rates, therefore both of them affect the cost of housing". The thinking among Fed officials who favour a proportional tapering of Treasuries and MBS purchases goes like this, according to Ms Markowska: The two securities are the most important assets in the US financial system, and removing both from public portfolios through central-bank buying forces investors into other assets and drives down risk premiums across markets. That, in turn, reduces rates paid by mortgage borrowers. BLOOMBERG

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