A speech by Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell scheduled for Thursday offers a reminder of just how dramatically once-slow-moving monetary forces have accelerated due to the devastating economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic.
This time last year, President Donald Trump was vehemently criticizing Powell on Twitter for setting interest rates too high, as U.S. economic growth slowed and the national debt swelled past $22 trillion.
This time last year, then-Bank of England Governor Mark Carney delivered a speech at the Fed’s annual Jackson Hole Economic Symposium in Wyoming warning the U.S. dollar’s status as the de facto global currency contributes to an unsustainable international economic and monetary regime. He argued that world leaders should create a “synthetic hegemonic currency,” potentially provided “through a network of central bank digital currencies.”
Fast forward to now, and the Jackson Hole conference has been forced to go virtual because of the coronavirus. Trump’s economic stewardship, including a U.S. stock market that many investors now say is propped up by the Fed’s $3 trillion of freshly printed money, has become a core issue in the 2020 presidential election. The national debt now stands at $26.5 trillion. Digital currencies are now being studied and pursued by central banks in China, the U.S. and just about everywhere else. Goldman Sachs recently warned the dollar risked losing its dominant reserve status.
“The pandemic has sped up key structural trends and triggered substantial market swings,” strategists for the $7 trillion money manager BlackRock wrote this week. “The policy revolution was needed to cushion the devastating and deflationary impact of the virus shock. In the medium term, however, the blurring of monetary and fiscal policy could bring about upside inflation risks.”
As the spread of the coronavirus earlier this year triggered lockdowns and quarantines, the global economy this year entered its deepest recession since the early 20th century.
When markets from stocks to bitcoin swooned in March, the Fed slashed interest rates close to zero and has since announced plans to buy U.S. Treasury bonds in essentially unlimited amounts while providing emergency liquidity for money markets, Wall Street dealers and corporations.
“The road ahead is highly uncertain,” Fed Governor Michelle Bowman said Thursday in a speech in Kansas.
'No easy way out' for Powell
Many investors are betting on bitcoin as a hedge against the potential debasement of the U.S. dollar, but Fed officials say deflationary forces might be stronger because of an expected drop off in demand from consumers and households.
Analysts for Bank of America, the second-biggest U.S. bank, wrote earlier this week in a report that bond market traders expect the Fed to adopt a “major new policy framework aimed at better achieving its 2% target” for annual inflation. As of the last reading, the central bank’s preferred measure of consumer price increases registered just 0.9%, so the baseline expectation is the Fed would let inflation rise well above 2% so that the average over a long period of time gets closer to the target.
Read more: Bitcoin Risks Deeper Drop if Dollar Rebounds
“Let us be optimistic and say it takes three years to create some inflation,” Matt Blom, head of sales and trading at the digital-asset firm Diginex, wrote Wednesday in an email. “We would need to drive it above 3.5% and maintain it there for years before we are able to use an average calculation.”
It’s unclear what Fed scenario is already priced into the market, but Bank of America's Athanasios Vamvakidis, a foreign-exchange analyst, wrote that there is “no easy way out” for Powell and his colleagues.
“Without inflation eventually acting as a budget constraint, we see risks for recurring and worsening bubbles, with further divergence between Wall Street and Main Street,” Vamvakidis wrote.
What Powell’s speech could say about the dollar’s future
Crypto traders will focus in the short term on what the Fed’s speech might mean for bitcoin prices, which have surged almost 60% in 2020, far exceeding this year’s 7.7% year-to-date gain in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index of U.S. stocks.
But the Fed’s actions could also have implications for ether, the native token of the Ethereum blockchain, where entrepreneurs are developing alternative currencies and semi-autonomous lending and trading networks that might one day replace the current financial system. There’s also a fast-growing business in dollar-linked “stablecoins,” with the amount doubling this year to $13 billion.
“So much has changed,” said Joe DiPasquale, CEO of the cryptocurrency-focused hedge fund BitBull Capital. “There is this danger of the U.S. [dollar] in the future no longer being the world's reserve currency. We are in a much worse position than we were in a year ago.”
Mati Greenspan, founder of the cryptocurrency and foreign-exchange analysis firm Quantum Economics, wrote this week that Powell’s return to Jackson Hole comes at a time when “people are just starting to ask questions about the intrinsic value of money.”
“U.S. authorities have just taken on an inordinate amount of debt, more than they could possibly ever hope to pay back,” Greenspan wrote. “So the only viable option is to decrease the value of that debt by way of monetary debasement. It's despicable and dangerous, but the only other option is austerity, which is too unpopular for any public servant to mention at this time.”
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