Forget Competing Theories … What Do the Facts Say about Quantitative Easing?
Paul Krugman says that QE, expansive monetary policy and inflation help the little guy (the 99%) and hurt the big banks (the 1%).
Of course, followers of the Austrian school of economics dispute this argument – and say that it is only the big boys who benefit from easy money.
As hedge fund manager Mark Spitznagel argues in the Wall Street Journal, in an article entitled “How the Fed Favors The 1%”:
The relentless expansion of credit by the Fed creates artificial disparities based on political privilege and economic power. [We have repeatedly pointed out that Fed policy increases inequality.]David Hume, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher, pointed out that when money is inserted into the economy (from a government printing press or, as in Hume’s time, the importation of gold and silver), it is not distributed evenly but “confined to the coffers of a few persons, who immediately seek to employ it to advantage.”
In the 20th century, the economists of the Austrian school built upon this fact as their central monetary tenet. Ludwig von Mises and his students demonstrated how an increase in money supply is beneficial to those who get it first and is detrimental to those who get it last. Monetary inflation is a process, not a static effect. To think of it only in terms of aggregate price levels (which is all Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke seems capable of) is to ignore this pernicious process and the imbalance and economic dislocation that it creates.
As Mises protégé Murray Rothbard explained, monetary inflation is akin to counterfeiting, which necessitates that some benefit and others don’t. After all, if everyone counterfeited in proportion to their wealth, there would be no real economic benefit to anyone. [Remember, even Keynes himself - and Ben Bernanake - said that inflation is a stealth tax.] Similarly, the expansion of credit is uneven in the economy, which results in wealth redistribution. To borrow a visual from another Mises student, Friedrich von Hayek, the Fed’s money creation does not flow evenly like water into a tank, but rather oozes like honey into a saucer, dolloping one area first and only then very slowly dribbling to the rest.
The Fed doesn’t expand the money supply by uniformly dropping cash from helicopters over the hapless masses. Rather, it directs capital transfers to the largest banks (whether by overpaying them for their financial assets or by lending to them on the cheap), minimizes their borrowing costs, and lowers their reserve requirements. All of these actions result in immediate handouts to the financial elite first, with the hope that they will subsequently unleash this fresh capital onto the unsuspecting markets, raising demand and prices wherever they do.”
The Fed is transferring immense wealth from the middle class to the most affluent, from the least privileged to the most privileged. This coercive redistribution has been a far more egregious source of disparity than the president’s presumption of tax unfairness ….
Before we start down the path of arguing about the merits of redistributing wealth to benefit the many, why not first stop redistributing it to the most privileged?”
Two economists, Seth B. Carpenter and Selva Demiralp, recently posted a discussion paper on the Federal Reserve Board’s website, titled “Money, Reserves, and the Transmission of Monetary Policy: Does the Money Multiplier Exist?” [Here's the link.]
[The study states:] “In the absence of a multiplier, open market operations, which simply change reserve balances, do not directly affect lending behavior at the aggregate level. Put differently, if the quantity of reserves is relevant for the transmission of monetary policy, a different mechanism must be found. The argument against the textbook money multiplier is not new. For example, Bernanke and Blinder (1988) and Kashyap and Stein (1995) note that the bank lending channel is not operative if banks have access to external sources of funding. The appendix illustrates these relationships with a simple model. This paper provides institutional and empirical evidence that the money multiplier and the associated narrow bank lending channel are not relevant for analyzing the United States.”
Did you catch that? Bernanke knew back in 1988 that quantitative easing doesn’t work. Yet, in recent years, he has been one of the biggest proponents of the notion that if all else fails to revive economic growth and avert deflation, QE will work.
Indeed, Fed policy itself has killed the money multiplier by paying interest on excess reserves. And a large percentage of the bailout money went to foreign banks (and see this). And so did most of money from the second round of quantitative easing.
Forget Theory … What Do the Facts Show?
But let’s forget ivory the tower theories of either neo-Keynesians like Krugman or Austrians … and look at the evidence.
Similarly, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich points out that quantitative easing won’t help the economy, but will simply fuel a new round of mergers and acquisitions:
A debate is being played out in the Fed about whether it should return to so-called “quantitative easing” — buying more mortgage-backed securities, Treasury bills, and other bonds — in order to lower the cost of capital still further.
The sad reality is that cheaper money won’t work. Individuals aren’t borrowing because they’re still under a huge debt load. And as their homes drop in value and their jobs and wages continue to disappear, they’re not in a position to borrow. Small businesses aren’t borrowing because they have no reason to expand. Retail business is down, construction is down, even manufacturing suppliers are losing ground.
That leaves large corporations. They’ll be happy to borrow more at even lower rates than now — even though they’re already sitting on mountains of money.
But this big-business borrowing won’t create new jobs. To the contrary, large corporations have been investing their cash to pare back their payrolls. They’ve been buying new factories and facilities abroad (China, Brazil, India), and new labor-replacing software at home.
If Bernanke and company make it even cheaper to borrow, they’ll be unleashing a third corporate strategy for creating more profits but fewer jobs — mergers and acquisitions.
The Guardian notes:
Quantitative easing (QE) … have contributed to social unrest by exacerbating inequality, according to one City economist.
As the Bank of England considers unleashing a fresh round of QE, Dhaval Joshi, of BCA Research, argues the approach of creating electronic money pushes up share prices and profits without feeding through to wages.
“The evidence suggests that QE cash ends up overwhelmingly in profits, thereby exacerbating already extreme income inequality and the consequent social tensions that arise from it,” Joshi says in a new report.
He points out that real wages – adjusted for inflation – have fallen in both the US and UK, where QE has been a key tool for boosting growth. In Germany, meanwhile, where there has been no quantitative easing, real wages have risen.
Yves Smith reports that quantitative easing didn’t really help the Japanese economy, only big Japanese companies:
A few days ago, we noted:
When an economy is very slack, cheaper money is not going to induce much in the way of real economy activity.
Unless you are a financial firm, the level of interest rates is a secondary or tertiary consideration in your decision to borrow. You will be interested in borrowing only if you first, perceive a business need (usually an opportunity). The next question is whether it can be addressed profitably, and the cost of funds is almost always not a significant % of total project costs (although availability of funding can be a big constraint)…..
So cheaper money will operate primarily via their impact on asset values. That of course helps financial firms, and perhaps the Fed hopes the wealth effect will induce more spending. But that’s been the movie of the last 20+ years, and Japan pre its crisis, of having the officialdom rely on asset price inflation to induce more consumer spending, and we know how both ended.
….these macroeconomic analyses verify that because of the QEP, the premiums on market funds raised by financial institutions carrying substantial non-performing loans (NPLs) shrank to the extent that they no longer reflected credit rating differentials. This observation implies that the QEP was effective in maintaining financial system stability and an accommodative monetary environment by removing financial institutions’ funding uncertainties, and by averting further deterioration of economic and price developments resulting from corporations’ uncertainty about future funding.
Granted the positive above effects of preventing further deterioration of the economy reviewed above, many of the macroeconomic analyses conclude that the QEP’s effects in raising aggregate demand and prices were limited. In particular, when verified empirically taking into account the fact that the monetary policy regime changed under the zero bound constraint of interest rates, the effects from increasing the monetary base were not detected or smaller, if anything, than during periods when there was no zero bound constraint.
Yves here, This is an important conclusion, and is consistent with the warnings the Japanese gave to the US during the financial crisis, which were uncharacteristically blunt. Conventional wisdom here is that Japan’s fiscal and monetary stimulus during the bust was too slow in coming and not sufficiently large. The Japanese instead believe, strongly, that their policy mistake was not cleaning up the banks. As we’ve noted, that’s also consistent with an IMF study of 124 banking crises:
Existing empirical research has shown that providing assistance to banks and their borrowers can be counterproductive, resulting in increased losses to banks, which often abuse forbearance to take unproductive risks at government expense. The typical result of forbearance is a deeper hole in the net worth of banks, crippling tax burdens to finance bank bailouts, and even more severe credit supply contraction and economic decline than would have occurred in the absence of forbearance.
Cross-country analysis to date also shows that accommodative policy measures (such as substantial liquidity support, explicit government guarantee on financial institutions’ liabilities and forbearance from prudential regulations) tend to be fiscally costly and that these particular policies do not necessarily accelerate the speed of economic recovery. Of course, the caveat to these findings is that a counterfactual to the crisis resolution cannot be observed and therefore it is difficult to speculate how a crisis would unfold in absence of such policies. Better institutions are, however, uniformly positively associated with faster recovery.
But (to put it charitably) the Fed sees the world through a bank-centric lens, so surely what is good for its charges must be good for the rest of us, right? So if the economy continues to weaken, the odds that the Fed will resort to it as a remedy will rise, despite the evidence that it at best treats symptoms rather than the underlying pathology.
And remember, the Fed is providing enormous subsidies to the big banks with both interest rate spreads and interest on excess reserves. Neither program helps the little guy.
And see this.
QE Doesn’t Do Much But Goose the Stock Market
We’ve previously noted:
The stated purpose of quantitative easing was to drive down interest rates on U.S. treasury bonds.
But as U.S. News and World Reported noted last month:
By now, you’ve probably heard that the Fed is purchasing $600 billion in treasuries in hopes that it will push interest rates even lower, spur lending, and help jump-start the economy. Two years ago, the Fed set the federal funds rate (the interest rate at which banks lend to each other) to virtually zero, and this second round of quantitative easing–commonly referred to as QE2–is one of the few tools it has left to help boost economic growth. In spite of all this, a funny thing has happened. Treasury yields have actually risen since the Fed’s announcement.
The following charts from Doug Short update this trend:
Of course, rather than admit that the Fed is failing at driving down rates, rising rates are now being heralded as a sign of success. As the New York Times reported Monday:
The trouble is [rates] they have risen since it was formally announced in November, leaving many in the markets puzzled about the value of the Fed’s bond-buying program.
But the biggest reason for the rise in interest rates was probably that the economy was, at last, growing faster. And that’s good news.
“Rates have risen for the reasons we were hoping for: investors are more optimistic about the recovery,” said Mr. Sack. “It is a good sign.”
Last November, after it started to become apparent that rates were moving in the wrong direction, Bernanke pulled a bait-and-switch, defending quantitative easing on other grounds:
This approach eased financial conditions in the past and, so far, looks to be effective again. Stock prices rose and long-term interest rates fell when investors began to anticipate the most recent action. Easier financial conditions will promote economic growth. For example, lower mortgage rates will make housing more affordable and allow more homeowners to refinance. Lower corporate bond rates will encourage investment. And higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending. Increased spending will lead to higher incomes and profits that, in a virtuous circle, will further support economic expansion.
As former chief Merrill Lynch economist David Rosenberg writes today:
So the Fed Chairman seems non-plussed that Treasury yields have shot up and that the mortgage rates and car loan rates have done likewise, even though he said this back in early November in his op-ed piece in the Washington Post, regarding the need for lower long-term yields:
“For example, lower mortgage rates will make housing more affordable and allow more homeowners to refinance. Lower corporate bond rates will encourage investment.”
But the Fed Chairman is at least getting what he wants in the equity market. Recall what he said back then — “higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending. Increased spending will lead to higher incomes and profits that, in a virtuous circle, will further support economic expansion.”
So now the Fed has added a third mandate to its charter:
1. Full employment
2. Low and stable inflation
3. Higher equity valuation
The real question we should be asking is why Ben didn’t add this third policy objective back in 2007 and save us from a whole lot of pain over the next 18 months?
And higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending.
Indeed, leading economic consulting firm Trim Tabs (25% of the top 50 hedge funds in the world use TrimTabs’ research for market timing) wrote on Wednesday:
The Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing programs have helped stock market participants, financial institutions, and large companies but have done little to address the structural problems of the economy, according to TrimTabs Investment Research.
“Quantitative easing is supposed to produce stronger economic growth and lower unemployment,” said Madeline Schnapp, Director of Macroeconomic Research at TrimTabs. “While QE1 and QE2 have worked wonders on the stock market, their impact on GDP and jobs has been anemic at best.”
Similarly, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes today:
The Fed no longer even denies that the purpose of its latest blast of bond purchases, or QE2, is to drive up Wall Street, perhaps because it has so signally failed to achieve its other purpose of driving down borrowing costs.
Unfortunately, a rising stock market doesn’t help the average American as much as you might assume.
Quantitative Easing Drives Up Food Prices
In case you’ve missed it, food riots are spreading throughout the developing world Already Tunisia, Algeria, Oman, and even Laos are experiencing riots and protests due to soaring food prices.
As Abdolreza Abbassian, chief economist at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), put it, “We are entering a danger territory.”
Indeed, these situations left people literally starving… AND dead from the riots.
And why is this happening?
A perfect storm of increased demand, bad harvests from key exporters (Argentina, Russia, Australia and Canada, but most of all, the Fed’s money pumping. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the below chart:
[Summers shows the share price of Elements Rogers International Commodity Agriculture ETN as a proxy for food prices generally.]
As you can see, it wasn’t until the Fed announced its QE lite program that agricultural commodities exploded above long-term resistance. And in case there was any doubt, QE 2 sent them absolutely stratospheric.
This isn’t really unexpected.
David Einhorn warned:
It is quite likely that QE2 will slow the economy by raising food and energy prices [because it is easier to generate these price increases]. [These price hikes] would act as a tax on consumers and businesses.
Karl Denninger wrote:
We have a Federal Reserve that, in the last two years, has printed and debased the currency of this nation by more than 100%, taking their balance sheet from $800 billion to more than $2 trillion. They now threaten, today, to do even more of that. This has resulted in insane price ramps in soft commodities ….
(“soft commodities” means food crops).
You Can’t Fix a Leaking Pool by Flooding It With More Water
We’ve noted that Keynesian economics cannot work when the economy has major structural defects which have not been addressed:
Keynes implemented his New Deal stimulus at the same time that Glass-Steagall and many other measures were implemented to plug the holes in a corrupt financial system. The gaming of the financial system was decreased somewhat, the amount of funny business which the powers-that-be could engage in was reined in to some extent.As such, the economy had a chance to recover (even with the massive stimulus of World War II, unless some basic level of trust had been restored in the economy, the economy would not have recovered).
Today, however, Bernanke … and the rest of the boys haven’t fixed any of the major structural defects in the economy. So even if Keynesianism were the answer, it cannot work without the implementation of structural reforms to the financial system.
A little extra water in the plumbing can’t fix pipes that have been corroded and are thoroughly rotten. The government hasn’t even tried to replace the leaking sections of pipe in our economy.
Quantitative easing can’t patch a financial system with giant holes in it.
One thing is for sure: stimulus would do a lot more good if it went directly to the people, instead of to the big banks who gather around the monetary spigot to siphon it off for their own benefit.