Free Markets, Free People

quantitative easing

Observations: The QandO Podcast for 16 Sep 12

This week, Bruce, Michael, and Dale talk about the week’s events.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

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QEIII: It’s ON, bitches! (Text updated with more details)

Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, announced today that the Fed will embark on another round of Quantitative Easing, beginning immediately. The Fed will increase its holdings by an estimated $85 billion per month in securities, about half of which will be long-term Treasury bonds, and the remaining $40 billion or more will be agency mortgage-backed securities. The agency paper will be purchased with new cash, while the long-term Treasuries will be acquired in exchange for short-term Treasury paper, as a continuation of Operation Twist.

There is no ultimate target amount or end date specified for this round of easing. Essentially, the Fed will buy or exchange $1 trillion in securities per year, until chairman Bernanke says to stop. It is completely open-ended. Additionally, the Fed expects to keep interest rates at or near 0% until sometime in 2015.

Let’s be clear about what this announcement means: The Fed will print $500 billion per year in new money, and inject it into the economy by buying agency paper (Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, et al.), while also flooding the market with $500 billion of short-term paper in exchange for long bonds. That new money is not based on any realistic estimate of economic growth, or economic requirement to expand the money supply. It is pure, Keynesian monetary stimulus.

This will, of course, be done in a completely responsible way, and there is no threat whatsoever that this will cause an increase in inflation, and in any case, the Fed is fully prepared to sterilize this move at any time conditions warrant. Seriously, it’s best for the Fed to do this, and nothing could possibly go wrong.

Some may disagree.

Anyway, here’s some video of the first round of this open-ended QE being implemented:

qeiii

Image via Max Keiser

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Dale Franks
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Maybe I’m just an alarmist

In the Financial Times today, Martin Wolf comes out swinging (free registration required) against those who are afraid the Fed’s Quantitative Easing programs carry a danger of sparking serious inflation.

The essence of the contemporary monetary system is creation of money, out of nothing, by private banks’ often foolish lending. Why is such privatisation of a public function right and proper, but action by the central bank, to meet pressing public need, a road to catastrophe? When banks will not lend and the broad money supply is barely growing, that is just what it should be doing (see chart).

The hysterics then add that it is impossible to shrink the Fed’s balance sheet fast enough to prevent excessive monetary expansion. That is also nonsense. If the economy took off, nothing would be easier. Indeed, the Fed explained precisely what it would do in its monetary report to Congress last July. If the worst came to the worst, it could just raise reserve requirements. Since many of its critics believe in 100 per cent reserve banking, why should they object to a move in that direction?

Now turn to the argument that the Fed is deliberately weakening the dollar. Any moderately aware person knows that the Fed’s mandate does not include the external value of the dollar. Those governments that have piled up an extra $6,800bn in foreign reserves since January 2000, much of it in dollars, are consenting adults. Not only did no one ask China, the foremost example, to add the huge sum of $2,400bn to its reserves, but many strongly asked it not to do so.

Everything he says is correct, but that’s not really any help, because the implications are pretty severe, even if he’s completely right.

First, let’s assume the Fed can, via repos or changes in reserve requirements, sterilize the increase in the money supply. The problem then becomes when does the Fed do this sterilization. let’s go back to 1981-1982.  When the Fed was looking at monetary aggregates in the wake of the 1981 recession, they saw the money supply growing far faster than their target. At the time, the Fed’s primary tool was securities sales and purchases to control the rate of growth in the money supply directly, while letting the markets set interest rates. (Today, the fed primarily uses changes in the Discount Rate and Federal Funds target rate to run monetary policy.)

When the Fed saw those big increases in money supply, they immediately moved to sterilize the increases, to keep inflation in check.  Sadly, the lack of velocity in the money supply, i.e., its actual rate of use in transactions, was near zero. as a result, the Fed’s tightening threw the economy into another recession, with unemployment rising to 11%. The policy may have been correct, but the timing was wrong.

So, what guarantee do we have that the Fed will perform sterilization at precisely the right time? If they move too early, the economy shuts down, a la 1982.  Too late, and inflation takes off. Then the Fed would really have to tighten, which would probably result in another recession to wring out the extra inflation.

The trouble with the Fed is that monetary policy moves take 6-18 months to fully percolate through the economy. And they make these decisions based on economic data gathered in previous months. It’s like driving down the street by looking only at the rear-view mirror.

That makes proper timing by the Fed…hard.

Perhaps the Fed will operate as if run by infinitely wise solons, who know precisely when to sterilize their quantitative easing, either through repo operations, or raising the banks’ reserve requirements appropriately.

If it doesn’t, however, we’re looking at either another steep recession, or a bout of serious inflation, follwed by another serious recession to tame the inflation.

Oh, and even if the Fed is that good, it doesn’t address the problem of how the Chinese will react to any increased currency risk they face by holding dollar-denominated securities if the value of the dollar falls in the FOREX. As Mr. Wolf admits, the Fed’s mandate has nothing to do with the foreign exchange value of the dollar.  So, maybe, the Chinese will decide to sell as much of their holdings in Treasuries as they can.  That implies a serious decline in treasury prices, and a concommittant rise in bond yields, i.e., interest rates. Aaaand, we’re back to a possibility of a steep recession again Especially if they do it while the Fed is already in the middle of money supply sterilization operations.

So, I guess the question is, “How much to you trust in the ability of the Federal Reserve to do exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time?” And, “How much do you trust the Chinese to go along with all this?”

Quantitative Easing II: Making No One Happy

The reactions to the Federal Reserve’s announcement that they would embark on a new, $600 billion round of quantitative easing is raising reactions from all around the world.

China:

Unbridled printing of dollars is the biggest risk to the global economy, an adviser to the Chinese central bank said in comments published on Thursday, a day after the Federal Reserve unveiled a new round of monetary easing.

Germany:

German Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle said on Thursday he was concerned at U.S. efforts to stimulate growth by injecting liquidity into its struggling economy.

“I view that not without concern,” Bruederle said, adding that a variety of measures were needed to solve the problem and it was not enough to pump in liquidity alone…

Bruederle also said there was some truth to the criticism that the United States was influencing the dollar’s exchange rate with monetary policy and voiced concern about increased protectionism in different forms around the world.

Brazil:

Brazilian officials from the president down have slammed the Federal Reserve’s decision to depress US interest rates by buying billions of dollars of government bonds, warning that it could lead to retaliatory measures.

“It’s no use throwing dollars out of a helicopter,” Guido Mantega, the finance minister, said on Thursday. “The only result is to devalue the dollar to achieve greater competitiveness on international markets.”

Brazil, especially, seems to be treating this as a currency devaluation war, and, according to the Financial Times, really doesn’t like that.

But the worries go far beyond trade and protectionism issues brought about by fears of devaluation.  It’s the domestic inflationary effects which have many–including me–worried:

Federal Reserve policies have put the US dollar the risk of crashing, which will hammer consumers through higher prices, strategist Axel Merk told CNBC…

“So we will have a cost-push inflation. We’re going to get inflation but not where Bernanke wants to have it. We’re not going to get wages to go up. We’ll get the price at the gas pump to go up instead.”

We’re right on a path towards high inflation and slow economic growth, otherwise known as “stagflation”.  Except that there’s a lot more monetary expansion this time than we experienced in the 1970s.  Maybe we’ll have to coin a new term, like “hyperstagflation”.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, it begins like this.

“So we will have a cost-push inflation. We’re going to get inflation but not where Bernanke wants to have it. We’re not going to get wages to go up. We’ll get the price at the gas pump to go up instead.”

Quantitative Easing, Round II, Approved

The Federal Reserve announced today that it would embark on a second round of “quantitative easing”, to the tune of $600 billion. This will join the previous round of $1.3 trillion over the last 18 months. For those of you who don’t know, Quantitative Easing is a monetary policy transaction, whereby the Federal Reserve buys securities from banks–usually US Treasury Notes and Bonds–with cash.   This infuses fresh cash into the monetary system. After this second round of Quantitative Easing, the Fed will have injected $1.9 TRILLION in cash into the monetary system.

Now, sadly, the Fed did not, and does not, just have $1.9 trillion in cash lying around in big vaults to take Scrooge McDuck money swims in when the mood takes them. But that’s not particularly a problem, since the Federal Reserve simply prints up the required amount of cash (or creates it electronically for funds transfers). In any event, the Fed buys the securities with money that is newly made for that purpose.

With that in mind, my advice to you is to collect all of the printed currency you can.  You will then need to package it in extremely tightly-wrapped bundles.  Yes, it is a bit troublesome to do, but you’ll find that it burns much longer and hotter that way, which works far better for either cooking or heating purposes.