QE by any other name — Part I
The essence of the interventionist policy is to take from one group to give to another. It is confiscation and distribution.“ — Ludwig von Mises, Human Action
In less than a year, we have witnessed an unprecedented monetary policy rollercoaster by the Federal Reserve, which began with a momentous U-turn in the central bank’s guidance in January, and has continued to escalate ever since. It is easy to forget that less than a year ago, all official statements and market expectations were aligned with sustained tightening, while repeated rate cuts were considered highly improbable, to say the least. Equity investors were almost coming to terms with the idea of policy normalization and the Fed was seen by conservative market observers and economists as one of the very few at least somewhat responsible central banks, as it did make some progress in shrinking its balance sheet, as opposed to the ECB and the BoJ. However, this entire tightening experiment came to an abrupt and early end, when Fed chief Powell made it clear that he intended to follow in the footsteps of his peers and decisively return to the accommodative policies of the past.
Thus, the tightening phase was stopped and once again we saw interest rate cuts, as well as liquidity injections in the repo market. All the while, the market reaction was lukewarm at best, with volatility persisting at high levels and recent economic data still raising serious concerns over an upcoming recession. At the same time, the Fed went to great lengths to highlight that all recent easing measures were not the result of recession fears. For instance, Mr. Powell characterized the two interest rate reductions this year as a mere preemptive “insurance” move, to protect and sustain the economic expansion, which should not be construed as a warning sign of economic trouble ahead. To the contrary, he insisted that the US remains on a firm footing and there is nothing to worry about.
However, now, all these efforts by the US central bank to play down the significance of its interventions are bound to become a lot harder. In mid-October, the Fed officially restarted its debt purchases. In a move that brings its policy direction full circle, the bank went from shedding of $50 billion a month from its balance sheet, to buying $60 billion of Treasury bills every month. The purchases will continue until “at least the second quarter of next year”, while it’s possible that their pace might be increased and their duration extended even further.
Once again, in anticipation of the reactions to this measure, officials were quick to highlight that “these actions are purely technical measures” and “do not represent a change” in its monetary stance. Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan insisted that the decision “is not intended to create more accommodation or create more stimulus”. As for Chairman Jerome Powell himself, he went out if his way to stress that the move “in no way” represents a resumption of quantitative easing (QE). Instead, he argued, these asset purchases, that have nothing to do with the ones we saw after the 2008, are meant to ensure there is enough liquidity in the financial system to prevent further spikes in short-term lending markets, like the sudden cash shortages we saw in September that pushed the fed funds rate way out of its target range.
Nevertheless, despite all the assurances and all the attempts to downplay the meaning of the move, many investors and analysts saw it for what it is. As one Wall Street analyst put it in a note to his clients, the new strategy “sure sounds like QE”. And of course, he is not alone in this realization. As outlined in detail in a previous article specifically on the recent repo market turmoil, the “technical measure” justification rings rather hollow, as what began as emergency and “one off” cash injections (as officials described them at the time) has morphed into much larger scale policy shift. And while it is true that the Fed now targets short-term bills over longer-term Treasury debt, as it did under QE, the fact remains that the cash that is set to be injected into the system still amounts to at least $400 billion, that will be added to its already massive $4 trillion balance sheet. Since September alone, the Fed’s balance sheet already grew by over $185 billion, and that’s even before the new purchases began.
The intent, therefore, makes little difference, and it hardly matters if the aim of the Fed is to spur the economy or to simply add some “technical” support in the plumbing of the overnight market, if the result is the same. As an analysis by Benjamin Ong, head of the Financial Standard Intelligence Unit, put it: “The US$60 billion in monthly T-bill purchases compare with the US$85 billion the Fed was buying monthly before it was tapered by US$10 billion per month to $75 billion in December 2013” and at the end of day, “QE or not QE, the Fed’s latest move should help steepen the yield curve, weaken the US dollar and support the equity markets as it had done in the past.”
Claudio Grass, Hünenberg See, Switzerland
In the upcoming second part, we examine the consequences of the return to the easing path, while we also look at the impact on long-term investors and savers.
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