Market talk suddenly turns to specter of QE4

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Slow rate hike wouldn't hurt economy: Strategist

Market chatter about what the Federal Reserve's next steps will be suddenly has shifted from when it will raise rates to when it will offer more stimulus.

Mind you, no one believes the U.S. central bank is about to start printing money again anytime soon. However, there is talk that faced with a slowing global economy and a domestic market dependent on cheap debt, it's only a matter of time before the spigots get turned on once more.

"The Fed is not going to raise rates. They are at zero forever," said Peter Schiff, head of Euro Pacific Capital and one of the most well-known and impassioned of all the Wall Street Fed critics. "The Fed is not done with QE, they're just getting started. The Fed is doing QE4, QE5. This is a never-ending process."

The "QE" reference, of course, is to quantitative easing, the bond-buying program that added about $3.7 trillion to the Fed's now-$4.5 trillion balance sheet since late 2008. Three rounds of QE, plus the balance sheet-neutral Operation Twist, have helped boost the stock market dramatically, with the rising more than 190 percent off the March 2009 lows. But the impact on the real economy has been less tangible.

In addition to the previous rounds of QE, the Fed has kept its key interest rate near zero, holding down lending rates and keeping borrowing costs low for the $8 trillion in debt the government has added since the financial crisis.