Posts Tagged ‘quantitative easing’

May 28th, 2012

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Drowning in Debt? QE making you Queasy? Try Monetary Dialysis

As Spain heads to debtors prison, questions are being asked about the viability of the whole Euro project. It’s become clear that a large scale monetary union without fiscal integration, is not a viable long-term structure. Distortions in interest rates and currency levels are good for some but not for others. Add in the corruption of the entire financial system and you have a recipe for disaster that impacts everyone.

Quantitative easing is also not working. Why not?

Quantitative Easing first entered popular language during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Central banks, specifically the US Federal Reserve (FED) and the Bank of England (BoE), tried to provide stimulus to their economies by buying securities from banks, with a goal to reduce monetary conditions and, thereby, hoping to induce an increase in lending and hopefully, as a result, new economic activity.

As interest rates fell to zero, the Fed began QE1 in November 2008 with a $600 billion purchase of Mortgage-backed securities (MBS). It did this by creating new credit in its own account and then exchanging this for the MBS held by the banks. The purpose of this was threefold: to improve bank balance sheets, raise the price of securities (and therefore reduce interest rates along the yield curve) and stimulate new borrowing. This was not an entirely new policy, as Japan had been engaged in the same process for over 10 years, though with limited success. The Bank of England followed suit in March 2009 and started buying UK Government bonds and a limited amount of other high-grade assets.

The initial impact was felt in the asset markets with the price of stocks, bonds and commodities all rising. In fact, rising commodity prices were seen as an unwelcome side effect of QE, given that QE was supposed to boost lending and, therefore, economic activity, specifically new jobs. Banks were supposed to be lending these excess reserves, not speculating in financial markets. The reality was that banks had no interest in lending and businesses and consumers had little interest in borrowing. The central bankers had failed to note that they were in the middle of a huge debt bubble and that `trying to offer new debt into a market saturated with the stuff was hardly going to be a winner.

There is no doubt QE helped restore confidence to the financial markets and, as a side effect, helped steady the general economy. Whether it actually worked in the manner it was supposed to, is highly debatable. As Bank of England governor, Mervyn King, stated when giving evidence to the UK Treasury Committee on QE,

“I can’t guarantee that it (QE) means that bank lending will rise, but what I do believe is that it won’t fall as far as it might otherwise have done”.

In terms of impact, the US bailout of the auto industry had more success with over 1m jobs saved. Whilst the financing aspects were contentious, the outcome has been positive. As Obama aides noted, direct government funding enabled the auto industry to survive and this would not have happened if it had been left to the market. Setting aside the merits of saving the US auto industry, what was crucial and different about this policy was that it involved direct stimulus into the real economy, where people are employed to make products.

As Nouriel Roubini noted, the US Government would have been better off just spending the new credit used for QE directly into the economy. He suggested, in a co-authored 2011 paper, that there should be a massive infrastructure rebuild ($1.2 trillion) in the US, which would create jobs and lay the foundation for “a more efficient and cost-effective economy”. He further noted that the crisis had been exacerbated by “inadequate action” by policymakers who had an “inadequate understanding of what ails us”.

It’s clear that policymakers have not stepped back and tried to understand both the causes and outcomes of the crisis. In a debt deflating environment, no amount of new debt is going to help the problem. Until the bad debt has been cleared, new investment is unlikely to happen and the economy dies a slow death. One option that hasn’t been considered, as Roubini alludes to, is to actually stimulate the real economy directly i.e. the economy that produces real goods and services. Governments can actually print new money and spend it directly into the economy through infrastructure projects. That way the money directly enters the economy and supports real economic activity, in a way that QE was supposed to do but never did.

We actually proposed this type of policy in 2011, immediately after the devastating February 22nd Christchurch Earthquake. A direct injection of $5 billion of new money was suggested, as a way of financing new and necessary infrastructure for the rebuild of the city. At that time, this was calculated to save around $200 million a year in financing costs and avoid further increases in government debt.

Ironically, the Minister of Finance rejected this, on the grounds that it may cause “an adverse combination of high inflation, arbitrary wealth transfers and a loss of confidence in the creditworthiness of New Zealand”. This response supports Roubini’s position that policymakers simply do not understand the problem. In the case of New Zealand, the Minister of Finance seems to be quite happy to keep borrowing money and worsening the financial position of the country.

As has been seen, inflation is non-existent in a debt deflating economy. Of course, any new injections of new money must be carefully monitored and be at a level which is not likely to cause over stimulation of the economy. As Willem Buiter, a former external member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee notes, an injection of base money “even in huge amounts, need not become inflationary ever”. Buiter goes on to state that “any inflationary increase impact of the enlarged stock of base money on the stock of bank credit or broad money can be neutralized by either raising bank reserve requirements, or by raising the remuneration rate on excess reserves held by banks”.

Thus, inflationary concerns can be set aside when this double-sided process is undertaken. This type of intervention has been called “Monetary Dialysis”, where clean money comes into the system (newly minted e-notes) and replaces or causes a reduction in debt money (bank credit) in order to keep the money supply at a prescribed level. The key is that the process is managed within the same framework that current monetary conditions are dealt with. No new legislation is required and the process can begin immediately. The RBNZ is already developing a new suite of macro-prudential tools and will be well placed to manage this policy shift.

In this process, all the objections raised by the Minister of Finance are dealt with. Infrastructure is rebuilt, people are employed, goods and services are provided, inflation is stable and money is saved, as there are no financing costs incurred. This really is the ultimate point: its is not about not having enough money, it is whether you have surplus labour (unemployment) and resources (capacity in the economy). This was the stark lesson of the Great Depression and it’s incredible that it still hasn’t been properly understood.

As to the creditworthiness of New Zealand, it is more likely that this will improve, as the overall level of debt falls and the productive economy recovers. What’s not to like about that?

 

December 11th, 2011

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To Print or Not to Print?

 

“To be, or not to be, that is the question,

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them.”  Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1.

It seems, after nearly 30 years of deregulated markets, that we face a sea of troubles ourselves. An extreme global debt deleveraging is upon us, the numbers too outrageous to even consider. Not only have we consumed beyond our means, we have mortgaged our future. Whereas once credit was difficult to come by and banks conservative in their lending (can you pay this back?), the brave new world brought us access to unlimited treasures, all paid for on a credit system, which had limited restraint.

As financial models became more complex and debt could be packaged, securitised and sold off, all sense of restraint was lost. Who owed whom was lost in a parallel universe of metaphor: swap, hedge, collateral, obligation, repurchase. Repaying principal and interest, in the old fashioned sense was put to one side. Can you afford the interest? Don’t worry about the principal, that will pay itself off as the price rises! Can’t afford the interest? Don’t worry, we’ll lend that to you as well, or have a holiday (from interest that is….keeps charging but pay it some other time). Tick, tock, tick, tock.

Maybe Hamlet wasn’t as crazy as he sounded.

As I explained in a previous post on the Euro, deleveraging debt is a painful process. As debts are written off, the money supply contracts, causing a contraction in the general economy. This creates a spiral where demand for new credit drops and this causes further losses to business, resulting in more job losses and so on. Traditionally, this has been dealt with by the lowering of interest rates, which hopefully stimulate demand for credit and reduce interest burdens. Sadly, this doesn’t work until the overhanging debt has been cleared out, by which time unemployment has risen and economic output has contracted to severe levels.

The road to austerity is a self-fulfilling process. Clearing the debt mountain will take many years and, perhaps, like Japan, it could be a decade or more. During that time people will be unemployed, machines will sit idle and resources will be untouched. In the 1930s governments stood back, waiting for the miracle of the market. None came. That is not a road we want to travel down.

As the shadow banking system starts to fall apart, it is time to plan and look forward to building a stable and local supply of money to see us through the hard times. Continuing to rely on overseas capital and ever increasing borrowing is a road to ruin. Our gross debt will hit $90 billion  by 2016, according to Treasury forecasts. The government talks of returning to surplus by 2015 but that is very optimistic. Even then we will still carry this debt for many years to come.

So is printing new money and spending it directly into the economy a better idea? I talked about this in a recent interview with Kim Hill and Radio NZ National, which you can catch here.

RadioNZ National Kim Hill interview

I have had an incredible amount of positive feedback since the interview and, interestingly, from a very wide range of people. There were a few comments about “funny money”, including a little pop from Nevil Gibson at the NBR. My answer to that is if you think this is funny money, try explaining the nearly $4 trillion that’s been used to buy debt off US banks! The feedback has confirmed the following: that there needs to be a clearer explanation on how the money creation process actually works (even though the RB has published on this here), that inflation needs to be better understood and that people are extremely concerned about the way the financial system is structured. We will be working on producing a simpler explanation to those issues.

In the meantime, around the world, there is a lot of new work being undertaken around the quantitative easing process and how that is not really working. Sushil Wadhwani (Goldman Sachs and MPC member in the UK) and economist (and former colleague of mine) Michael Dicks have looked at more direct interventions into the economy, noting that QE is a very roundabout way of trying to stimulate an economy. They look at directing lending to companies from the central bank and, more interestingly, at simply giving households a voucher to spend. You can read the brief paper here. Their proposals are in the right direction but do not go far enough. Nouriel Roubini recently wrote that direct spending on new infrastructure in the US would be much more useful than simply buying toxic bonds off failing banks.

What’s clear is that more and more economists and policy analysts are realising that QE is a sop to the banks, boosting their balance sheets and stock prices, at the expense of the taxpayer. Clearly this is a misallocation (and perhaps misappropriation) of taxpayer funds. Furthermore, even with trillions of $ of QE, there has been no inflationary effects at all. This is important to note when considering the direct injection of new money, as we have proposed, for the Christchurch rebuild.

As I noted in this recent piece for ChangeNZ, as long as there is surplus labour and resources, there will be no inflationary effects from new money. This has been confirmed from business sources, who note the economy is limping along at between 33-50% of capacity. So there is little concern over the direct effects of the new money in raising prices. The indirect effects through the banking system are also likely to be minimal, given a very low demand for credit across the economy. Indeed, with debt deleveraging in full swing, we are likely to see further reductions in debt, offsetting any new potential demand for credit. Still, credit numbers will need to be watched carefully and, at the same time, it’s important to note that the amount we are suggesting is only $5 billion. Ultimately the goal is a strong and locally managed financial system with price stability. That is something we have not had, despite the continuing myth of a central bank induced low inflationary environment. The time is right to consider an alternative way forward.

Perhaps we should leave the final words to Hamlet, as we ponder the road ahead:

The undiscovered country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have,

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pitch and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action..…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

August 13th, 2009

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Central Bank Chant: I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles……

Pretty bubbles in the air.
They fly so high,
Nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams,
They fade and die.
Fortune’s always hiding,
I’ve looked everywhere,
I’m forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air.
Never did I believe the mighty Hammers would have understood the machinations of central banking so well. Maybe they knew?
Reading the recent Fed statement, one may feel that the lessons of the recent crisis have not been fully understood or learnt. That’s the problem with the ability to print new money to replace old. It gives a feeling of relief and so help the markets to recover, in fact recover strongly. But there is nothing here that suggests the policymakers know what they are doing.
Crisis dealt with? For now.

June 3rd, 2009

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$ out of favour as reality sinks in

It’s been nearly 9 months since the $ started to show signs of meltdown fever. Except the meltdown was the rush to buy $ as a hedge against collapsing markets and disappearing credit lines.

In the last few months we have seen markets bottom and even recover some poise, aided and abetted by the action of nearly last resort, quantitative easing. There was nothing left in the toolbox really.

So far so good in some respects. The S+P has rallied 37% off its lows…….mind you its lows were 57% down from the highs and the index still stands 42% off the highs of the last few years. Not that the numbers really matter. The main news is that markets are functioning…still.

And the $ balloon has finally burst with QE signaling a chance to sell the $ without worrying what the equity markets were doing. The Kiwi$ has rallied 32% from its March low even outpacing the hammered Pound, up 21% from its low of $1.35.

Markets can do very strange things. Even whilst the $ was rallying to extreme highs against all currencies, no one really wanted to own it. Now people really really don’t want to own it.

This is all very well but this type of volatility is impossible to manage. How can any investment manager talk about average returns of 10% a year when markets are moving at this rate. How can any business hedge currency risk when currencies are moving like this.

The bigger problem for the US is trying to stop the snowball effect that may happen if markets really decide to dump the $. The noises coming from China may be regarded as monetary brinksmanship but with Russia, looking very wolflike these days, nibbling in behind, it’s becoming a more serious issue.

There’s a lot of politics involved in this but the positioning is clear: the US is weak not just economically but militarily. The exhausting foray into Iraq has stretched the US war machine as well as seriously impacting on its reputation. Historically the ability to create coin or currency was usually backed up by military power. One of the first actions by invading nations was to replace the local currency with its own.

This makes currency both a political and economic issue. So whilst there is unlikely to be any immediate change in the $ role as global reserve currency, there is no doubt that the dance of change is underway.

The short term problem for China is its huge ownership of US bonds and other paper. So they wouldn’t be happy with a complete collapse right now but it seems like less money will be staying in $ and more will be finding a new home whilst they work out how a new global currency system might operate.

But with GM falling apart and US unemployment rising to severe levels, concerns over the health of the $ will only continue to mount.

About

"I’m a Londoner who moved to Christchurch, New Zealand in 2002. After studying economics and finance at Manchester University and a couple of years of backpacking, I ended up working in the financial markets in London. I traded the global financial markets on behalf of investment banks for 11 years. Since moving to NZ, I have been an angel investor, budget advisor, director, trustee, mentor and business consultant. I'm currently a Councillor at Christchurch City Council and a Trustee of the Volunteer Army Foundation and the Christchurch Arts Festival Trust. I write about the intersection of economic, social and environmental issues."

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