Oh, for the casual potency of a Fed policymaker

Making off-hand remarks with the coiled power of a jungle cat.

Minutes released from the last Fed meeting have sent markets into a dive. The minutes in question can be found in full here, but this is the really important bit:

a number of participants stated that an ongoing evaluation of the efficacy, costs and risks of asset purchases might well lead the committee to taper or end its purchases before it judged that a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labour market had occurred

In other words, it has become official that there might (just might) be a limit to the amount of money the Fed hands out. At the moment it's about $85bn a month, and a number of national banks had seemed to believe this could go on for ever. Here's James Mackintosh in the FT:

the scale of the belief in the Fed’s willingness to print money is unprecedented, and backed up by loose policies from the Bank of England, Swiss National Bank and, investors expect, Japan. Only the European Central Bank resists.

So some believed, some doubted, but now Schrödinger's box has been opened, and the cat is a real cat, and not in fact the kind that will live forever. Cue panic.

Well it's kinda maybe been opened. Some people think the comments may have been misinterpreted. Here's Sean Callow of Westpac, in a note to clients:

“We wouldn’t leap to conclusions over the trajectory of QE4, which Fed officials in recent days have suggested would likely be sustained at least into the second half of 2013”

So what's the takehome message? Well, the fact that the markets reacted so dramatically on the news suggests a worrying vulnerablity to the odd ambigious comment from a Fed policymaker. Must be nice to have all that power.

Bernanke on legs. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.