Bernanke sets the printing presses to “GO” and walks away

The recent decision of the Federal Reserve to go ahead with a policy of QE3 by which they buy $40bn of mortgage and agency securities every month until further notice was dramatic and shocking in many regards:

  • Timing – Historically the Fed has sought to avoid making major policy moves in their last meeting before an election for fear of being seen to be acting politically. In 2008, there was a global crisis which required action – this is not the case in 2012.
  • Politics – Romney and many in the Republican Party have already made clear their opposition to Bernanke personally and to the policies of Quantitative Easing already adopted. Were Romney to be elected, he might choose to ignore the fact that Bernanke has been appointed until 2014 and seek to get him replaced. The Fed’s action can be interpreted as a major political snub at a critical juncture.
  • Economic justification – Both QE1 and QE2 were introduced at a time of clear weakness in the US  economy and significant financial market concerns about the possibility of deflation. So far this year, the US economy has been growing at about a 2% rate, unemployment has been declining gently and inflation expectations have been rising.
  • Size – At $40bn per month, the policy amounts to an annualised rate of QE of  half a trillion dollars. However, the reinvestment of principals and coupons and the continued working of Operation Twist (which followed QE2) mean that for the rest of this year the Federal Reserve will in fact be purchasing securities at an annualised rate of over a trillion dollars. These are astonishing amounts of money.
  • Transmission mechanism – In the press conference following the decision, Bernanke was asked about how he expected this policy to have real world effects. He repeated his  belief that by raising equity prices, companies would find it cheaper to invest. In addition, he said that because this time the Fed was buying mortgage securities, this would reduce mortgage costs in the economy, thus boosting house prices, so helping consumers to feel wealthier, which would encourage them to spend more. This trickle-down effect of previous QE policies from injecting money into financial markets moving into the real economy is widely believed not to have worked. It appears to benefit those in financial institutions whilst having little real economic impact.
  • Duration – By making QE3 open-ended and further insisting that the Federal Reserve would not begin to tighten policy until recovery was very firmly established, even at the risk of some higher inflation in the short term, Bernanke has made it very clear that continuous easing is now the default policy setting, probably for several years. Previous QE announcements were for set amounts of money over set periods of time – this is very different – money will continue to be printed until the economy recovers.

So the unlimited money printing of the Federal Reserve now sits alongside the unlimited buying of peripheral bonds by the ECB announced the week before  and the unlimited selling of its currency by the Swiss National Bank that has been in operation for a year. Central Banks – so long famed for their moderation and control in all things relating to money have set the printing presses to “GO” and walked away.

One conclusion that could be taken from this is that the Central Banks, who we hope are a little better informed about these things than the rest of us, are terrified, and that the state of the global economy and financial system is in fact far worse than anyone is prepared to admit.

The clearest market implications of this shocking move are to expect a weaker dollar (with so many more dollars now being printed) and a higher gold price. QE1 and QE2 were positive for equity prices, but the biggest beneficiaries were precious metals (gold and silver), oil and agricultural commodities. It is by no means clear that QE3 will do anything to boost real growth in the economy, and so the boost to equities may be more short-lived and less significant than previous rounds. Most interesting has been the recent moves in government bond markets where yields have risen as long-term expected inflation worries have begun to return.

From Heroes to Zeroes – 21st Century Central Banking

At the beginning of this century, the reputation of Central Banks in the West was at its apogee – over the previous 20 years inflation had been wrung out of the global economy by maintaining interest rates consistently higher than the rate of inflation. If inflation threatened to rise too sharply then raising rates by a few hundred basis points was sufficient to choke off consumer demand (since their mortgage repayments formed such a significant part of their disposable income) and slow the economy and inflationary pressures. Once this had been achieved, often requiring a quick recession, rates could be cut again and the restoking of consumer demand would reignite the economy. In short, it was apparent that Central Banking that had as its main target the control of inflation could be successful at only a small cost to growth. Politicians found themselves able to give up their desire to control interest rates for electoral purposes and give independence to their Central Banks. Central Bankers became Heroes!

The recession in the US following the bursting of the internet bubble and fears for the US economy following 9/11 however, saw the Fed cut US rates right down to 1% in 2002 and hold them there until 2004. 1% interest rates were much lower than seen in previous cycles and in hindsight were responsible for a massive inflation of the US housing market. Whilst the internet bubble was essentially financed by equity, since the new companies had no cash flow, the housing bubble was financed by debt. Debt-financed bubbles we now know inflate far further than equity-financed bubbles and then burst in a far more devastating fashion. Central Banks meanwhile, focussing only on the Consumer Price Inflation targets did not spot the bubble in the debt markets and so did not increase interest rates sufficiently to manage things better.

Following the 2008 meltdown in the global financial system and subsequent recession, Central Banks found that even interest rates that were effectively set at zero no longer helped to boost consumer demand. This was for two reasons, first consumers realised that they had already got too much debt and no longer wished to borrow more, even with low interest rates and secondly the all economic agents (banks, companies and consumers) had lost confidence in the future growth prospects of the economy that they did not want to lend, borrow or spend.

The Central Banks went back to their old textbooks to search for policy tools when interest rates can no longer be reduced and discovered Quantitative Easing (QE) which pushes money into the financial system in an effort to boost the demand for financial assets and thus stimulate the real economy. Many Zeroes of dollars, euros, yen and pounds have been created in this way. QE has almost certainly worked in the sense that economic growth in 2009, 2010 and 2011 would have been much worse without this policy, but it has not been enough to boost growth back onto a sustainable path. Worse still, repeated applications of QE seem to be less effective at doing this than the first effort. The scale of these interventions has brought forth much criticism of Central Banks in the US and the UK for creating the risks of hyperinflation from the creation of so much money. In Europe where monetary orthodoxy of the Bundesbank is enshrined in the ECB’s mandate, the Central Bank is criticised (outside Germany) for not doing enough to support the Eurozone economy.

For politicians, who are policy-constrained by huge fiscal deficits and debts, the only hope is that Central Banks solve their problems, but whilst Central Banks have the tools for fighting inflation, they do not have the tools for fighting deflation. They have done what they can (zero interest rates and QE) but have little more to offer bar providing liquidity to keep troubled banks alive and adding more zeroes to the money supply. The Age of the Heroic Central Banker is now behind us.