Judgement day: the Fed chairman decides fate of US stimulus programme

An anxious waiting game.

The world stock markets are shaky as investors are cautious amid growing concerns that the US Federal Reserve may halt its favourite economic stimulus programme earlier than expected.

The US stocks opened lower this week, after reaching all-time highs last week. Now, financial media and analysts are putting the weak market down to a lack of economic security, after Fed officials suggested that the Federal Reserve might taper its bond buying programs.

Since September, the central bank has printed $85bn a month to purchase Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities, a policy known as quantitative easing. The programme’s life is contingent on the strength of the economy – the Fed is committed to ending it as soon as it detects substantial improvement in the outlook for US employment.

That said, it is no surprise that all eyes are on Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, who is scheduled to give his testimony on the US economic outlook before Congress on Wednesday. The speech might give some hints about the Fed's exit strategy.

When the Fed’s 19-member policy committee last met three weeks ago, officials emphasised that they could either increase or decrease the scale of their monthly bond purchases, depending on projections for the economy.

In the weeks since, positive news on the US economy has outweighed the negative, thanks to a stronger jobs market, and growth in retail sales.

So it is no surprise that investors across the globe paid attention when Chicago Fed President Charles Evans, a voting member of the Federal Open Market Committee, the policy-setting arm of the Fed, last week expressed optimism over the US economy, raising concerns that he would support tapering the quantitative easing policy earlier than expected.

The US central bank's massive asset purchases are considered the main driver of US economic growth, so with the latest news that the stimulus programme might be halted or at best, that bond buying will decrease, investors are becoming wary. As the US dollar retreated against major currencies Monday, there’s no doubt that today’s testimony will have a serious impact on the American economy as well as global finances.

Consequently, today will be an anxious waiting game.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. Photograph: Getty Images

Sandra Kilhof Nielsen is a freelance writer and former reporter for Retail Banker International, Cards International & Electronic Payments International.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.