Tag: quantitative easing

The Stock Market’s Embarrassing Fall after the Fed Reneged on the Taper

Unlike nearly everyone else, I have argued that the Fed’s latest round of “quantitative easing” is not why stock prices went up until recently, and that “tapering” Fed bond purchases would have had only a negligible effect on long-term interest rates.   

This was a testable hypothesis. If I was wrong, the Fed’s unexpected decision to back away from its previously-expected tapering of bond purchases would have been greeted by a significant, sustained rally in stock and bond prices. That didn’t happen. Instead, stocks fell for at least five days in a row and bond yields barely budged until stocks swooned (triggering a modest flight toward safe havens).

Before the Federal Reserve’s “surprise” at 2 p.m. on Wednesday September 18, nearly every financial reporter was confident the yield on 10-year Treasuries had increased to 2.86 percent from 1.66 percent in early May, simply because Fed officials hinted in May that they might begin to slow the pace of bond-buying by September. If that story had been true, we should have expected bond yields to retrace most of their rise as soon as the Fed removed that fear of the taper. Instead, the 10-year bond yield ended the week of the Fed announcement at 2.75 percent – no lower than the average yield in August (2.74) and merely a trivial 11 basis points lower  than the day before the Fed’s surprise.

Financial analysts and reporters were likewise certain the stock market had been terrified about the possible taper before September 18. If that was true, stocks should have soared for days or weeks on the supposedly terrific news that a taper was off the table. On the contrary, U.S. stocks were rising briskly for many days before the Fed meeting, but have since fallen persistently. A few hours of speculative stock gains on Wednesday the 18th were more than erased by Friday the 20th and stocks kept falling the following Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Reporters and analysts who claimed stocks had been shored up by quantitative easing were logically obligated to expect a stock boom from the Fed’s message of no change. When stocks instead moved in the wrong direction, baffled reporters tried to blame their bad forecasts on mysterious “uncertainties” about the taper although there is obviously less uncertainty now than before.

Anyone who bases investment decisions on trendy theories that fail to predict what actually happens is either a poor journalist or a poor investor who pays undue attention to poor journalists. The market’s thumbs down vote on the Fed’s gutless decision to stick with quantitative easing provides added evidence that QE never helped stocks or the economy, and that ending such an obviously unsustainable policy will one day be welcomed as the good news that it really will be.

The Federal Reserve vs. Small Business

Given all the attention that the Federal Reserve has garnered for its monetary “stimulus” programs, it’s perplexing to many that the U.S. has been mired in a credit crunch. After all, conventional wisdom tells us that the Fed’s policies, which have lowered interest rates to almost zero, should have stimulated the creation of credit. This has not been the case, and I’m not surprised.

As it turns out, the Fed’s “stimulus” policies are actually exacerbating the credit crunch. Since credit is a source of working capital for businesses, a credit crunch acts like a supply constraint on the economy. This has been the case particularly for smaller firms in the U.S. economy, known as small and medium enterprises (“SMEs”).

To understand the problem, we must delve into the plumbing of the financial system, specifically the loan markets. Retail bank lending involves making risky forward commitments, such as extending a line of credit to a corporate client, for example. The willingness of a bank to make such forward commitments depends, to a large extent, on a well-functioning interbank market – a market operating with positive interest rates and without counterparty risks.

With the availability of such a market, banks can lend to their clients with confidence because they can cover their commitments by bidding for funds in the wholesale interbank market.

At present, however, the interbank lending market is not functioning as it should. Indeed, one of the major problems facing the interbank market is the so-called zero-interest-rate trap. In a world in which the risk-free Fed funds rate is close to zero, there is virtually no yield be found on the interbank market.

In consequence, banks with excess reserves are reluctant to part with them for virtually no yield in the interbank market. As a result, thanks to the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policies, the interbank market has dried up (see the accompanying chart).

 

Without the security provided by a reliable interbank lending market, banks have been unwilling to scale up or even retain their forward loan commitments. This was verified in a recent article in Central Banking Journal by Stanford Economist Prof. Ronald McKinnon – appropriately titled “Fed ‘stimulus’ chokes indirect finance to SMEs.” The result, as Prof. McKinnon puts it, has been “constipation in domestic financial intermediation” – in other words, a credit crunch.

When banks put the brakes on lending, it is small and medium enterprises that are the hardest hit. Whereas large corporate firms can raise funds directly from the market, SMEs are often primarily reliant on bank lending for working capital. The current drought in the interbank market, and associated credit crunch, has thus left many SMEs without a consistent source of funding.

As it turns out, these “small” businesses make up a big chunk of the U.S. economy – 49.2% of private sector employment and 46% of private-sector GDP. Indeed, the untold story is that the zero-interest-rate trap has left SMEs in a financial straightjacket.

In short, the Fed’s zero interest-rate policy has exacerbated a credit crunch that has been holding back the economy. The only way out of this trap is for the Fed to abandon the conventional wisdom that zero-interest-rates stimulate the creation of credit. Suppose the Fed were to raise the Fed funds rate to, say, two percent. This would loosen the screws on interbank lending, and credit would begin to flow more readily to small and medium enterprises.

The Fed’s New Round of Quantitative Easing

Last Thursday, the Fed announced its intention to proceed with another round of quantitative easing, or QE3. To summarize my reactions:

  1. By introducing another program to buy MBSs, to the tune of $40 billion per month, the FOMC is supporting the long-standing federal policy of special aid to housing, real estate and mortgage interests. These federal policies were the largest single contributor to the financial crisis. Why would the Federal Reserve want  to encourage continuation of these federal policies? Almost every economist, except those allied with housing interests, agrees that the mortgage-interest and real-estate tax deductions in the federal tax code should be eliminated or scaled back. I’ll wager that almost every Federal Reserve economist shares this view. The Federal Reserve says that it is apolitical but this decision is directly supportive of continuation of the current status of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This action is not monetary policy but fiscal policy, extending credit to a favored industry. This policy is crony capitalism, whether practiced by the federal government or by the Federal Reserve.
  2. The FOMC’s decisions create yet another exit problem for the Fed. If job growth picks up, or inflation rises, before every future FOMC meeting the market will wonder if the Fed will stop buying MBSs. The Fed has refused to offer any genuine guidance as to when the policy will end. Conversely, if job growth remains weak, market participants will wonder before every FOMC meeting whether the Fed will do more, or introduce some new and untried policy.
  3. In his press conference, Chairman Bernanke appropriately emphasizes the need for fiscal policies to stabilize federal finances. Yet, he is promising that the Fed can make a material contribution to bringing down unemployment. That promise reduces the pressure on Congress to act. Why should Congress deal with the tough political issues if the Fed can do the job, even if more slowly than if Congress acted?

Easy Money from the Federal Reserve Is Not the Solution for America’s Economic Problems

Allen Meltzer, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University, writes today in the Wall Street Journal about the Fed’s worrisome announcement that it will continue the easy-money policy of artificially low interest rates.

Professor Meltzer’s key point (at least to me) is that the economy is weak because of too much government intervention and too much federal spending, and you don’t solve those problems with a loose-money policy – especially since banks already are sitting on $1.6 trillion of excess reserves. (Why lend money when the economy is weak and you may not get repaid?)

Meltzer then outlines some of the reforms that would boost growth, all of which are desirable, albeit a bit tame for my tastes:

[T]he United States does not have the kind of problems that printing more money will cure. Banks currently hold more than $1.6 trillion of idle reserves at the Fed. Banks can use those idle reserves to create enormous amounts of money. Interest rates on federal funds remain near zero. Longer-term interest rates on Treasurys are at record lows. What reason can there be for adding more excess reserves? The main effect would be a further devaluation of the dollar against competing currencies and gold, followed by a rise in the price of oil and other imports. …Money growth (M2) reached 10% for the past six months, presaging more inflation ahead.

…What we need most is confidence in our future. That calls for:

  • Reducing corporate tax rates permanently to encourage investment (paid for by closing loopholes).
  • Agreeing on long-term reductions in entitlement spending.
  • A five-year moratorium on new regulations affecting energy, environment, health and finance.
  • An explicit inflation target between zero and 2% to force the Fed to pay more attention to the medium term and to increase public confidence that we will not experience runaway inflation.

The president is wrong to pose the issue as more taxes for millionaires to pay for more redistribution now. That path leads to future crises because higher taxes support the low productivity growth of the welfare state, delay the transition to export-led growth, and do not reduce future budget liabilities enough.

Meltzer’s final point about the futility of class-warfare taxes is very important. He doesn’t use the term, but he’s making a Laffer Curve argument. Simply stated, if punitive tax rates cause investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners to earn/declare less taxable income, then the government won’t collect as much money as predicted by the Joint Committee on Taxation’s simplistic models.

Of course, Obama said in 2008 than he wanted high tax rates for reasons of “fairness,” even if such policies didn’t lead to more tax revenue. That destructive mentality probably helps explain why not only banks, but also other companies, are sitting on cash and afraid to make significant investments.

But if you really want to understand how Obama’s policies are causing “regime uncertainty,” this cartoon is spot on.

Ben Bernanke: Central Planner

There’s a great piece in the spring issue of The Independent Review on Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke by San Jose State Professor Jeffrey Rogers Hummel.  Although a bit long, its well worth the read for anyone wanting to understand both Bernanke’s thinking and his actions during and since the financial crisis.

First, Prof. Hummel discusses the differences between Bernanke’s and Milton Friedman’s explanations for the Great Depression.  Those that debate whether Bernanke’s actions, especially the quantitative easings, would be approved of by Friedman will get a lot out of this discussion.  From this comparison, you get the point that Friedman was concerned about overall credit conditions and liquidity, whereas Bernanke is less focused on the monetary factors than on the impairment of credit intermediation, which explains his support of selective bailouts.

Hummel’s comparison of Greenspan and Bernanke is also insightful, particularly since many (myself included) often lump the two’s policies together.  From the analysis, it is clear that Greenspan falls into the Friedman camp, his “rescues” were of the financial system in general, and not of specific firms.

One might say a bailout is a bailout, so what’s the difference between rescuing the system and rescuing individual firms within the system?  Certainly that’s a view I have some sympathy for.  The “Greenspan put” was as much a contributor to reckless risk-taking as anything else.  Hummel, however, discuses why this difference ultimately matters, and why it shows Bernanke to fit the role of economic central planner.  In short, the facts are presented that during the financial crisis, Bernanke did not actually increase overall liquidity by much, he re-directed it to those firms he deemed most important.  This process of reducing liquidity to some sectors while re-directing it to others, arguably less efficient sectors, goes a considerable distance in explaining some of the decline in both aggregate demand and consumption in 2008.

Again, the piece is one of the more accessible and insightful I’ve read on Bernanke in quite a while.

Do Inflation Expectations Drive Consumption?

After proponents of the Federal Reserve’s second round of quantitative easing (QE2) abandoned the argument that QE2 would spur growth by bringing down interest rates (only after rates increased), the new defense became “we intended for rates to go up all along, as a result of increased inflation expectations.”  Since few would argue for increased inflation, or expectations of such, as an end in itself, the claim was that increases in inflation expectations would drive households to consume more, which would in turn causes businesses to hire more, bringing down the unemployment rate.  But does this chain of reasoning withstand empirical scrutiny?

It turns out looking at the historical data on inflation expectations, as collected at the University of Michigan, that inflation expectations and household savings rates (the inverse of consumption rates) are positively correlated.  Now of course correlation doesn’t mean causality,but what the data suggest is that instead of consuming more when inflation expectations increase, households have actually saved more.  This positive correlation also holds for the second half of the data series, so it’s not simply the result of a downward trend in either inflation or savings.

To review, the latest argument for QE2:  increase inflation expectations, which is assumed to increase consumption, which is hoped to increase employment.  The problem I’ve had all along with this position is that the only thing we know for certain is the first part, QE2 would increase inflation expectations.  The hope that it would increase consumption and hence employment was just that:  hope.  Given the disconnect we’ve seen between consumption and unemployment over the past 18 months, the third link in that chain is also a weak one.   So what do we have at the end of the day:  certain costs with fairly speculative and uncertain benefits.  And here I was thinking that reckless speculation was the sole province of the private sector.

Is the Federal Reserve Heading Towards Insolvency?

A recent statement from the Shadow Financial Regulatory Committee, points out that both rounds of quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve have dramatically altered the maturity structure of the Fed’s balance sheet.  Normally the Fed conducts monetary policy using short-term Treasury bills, which allows the Fed to avoid most interest rate risk.  In loading up its balance sheet with long-dated Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities, the Fed has exposed itself to significant interest rate risk.

Recall that the yield, or interest rate, on a long term asset is inversely related to its price.  So if you’re holding a mortgage that yields 5% and rates go up to 6%, then the value of that mortgage falls below par.  The same holds for Treasury securities.  I think  it is a safe assumption that rates will be higher at some point in the future.  When they finally do rise, and if the Fed still maintains a large balance sheet of long-dated assets, those assets will suffer losses.

Of course the Fed is not subject to mark-to-market rules and can avoid admitting losses by holding these assets to maturity.  But if the Fed, at some point in the future, wants to fight inflation, the most obvious way of doing so would be to sell off assets from its balance sheet.  It is hard to see the Fed engaging in substantial open-market operations without using its long-dated assets.  But if it is to sell these assets, it will have to do so at a loss (once again, because of higher rates).

Now the Fed claims to have other avenues by which to tighten, besides open-market operations.  For instance, it can raise the interest rate on excess reserves.  But then this would further erode the value of assets on its balance sheet.  Not to mention that they have to find the money somewhere to pay these higher rates on reserves.

Ultimately the Fed can continue to pay its bills, not out of earnings from its balance sheet, but by electronically crediting the accounts of its vendors and employees, but that would also be inflationary.  The real danger, again pointed out by the Shadow Committee, is that the Fed may avoid raising rates in order to minimize the losses embedded in its balance sheet.  One of the very real dangers from QE1 and QE2 is that the Fed has exposed itself to potential losses that are correlated with any efforts to fight inflation, raising serious questions as to its willingness to fight inflation.