Few investment managers and analysts have produced better research regarding QE2 than Hoisington Management. Their latest monthly letter is a gem as always and helps clarify the negative impacts of QE2. Many academics have attempted to justify the Fed’s actions by making unrealistic arguments about “inflation expectations”. They argue that the Fed has helped generate economic recovery by altering expectations of deflation and therefore creating inflationary expectations which theoretically results in higher economic output. The evidence, from the impacts of QE2, however, tell a very different real world story. It is a story about the higher cost of credit, a muted “wealth effect” from equity prices and a dangerous rise in the cost of input prices. Hoisington succinctly argues this point in convincing fashion:
“Clearly, Fed actions have affected stock and commodity prices. The benefits from higher stock prices accrue very slowly, are small, and are slanted to a limited number of households. Conversely, higher commodity prices serve to raise the cost of many basic necessities that play a major role in the budget of virtually all low and moderate income households.
For example, in late 2010 consumer fuel expenditures amounted to 9.1% of wage and salary income (Chart 2).”
“In the past year, the S&P GSCI Energy Index advanced by 14.6%.Since energy demand is highly price inelastic, it seems there is little alternative to purchasing these energy items. Thus, with median family income at approximately $50,000, annual fuel expenditures rose by about $660 for the typical family. In late 2010, consumer food expenditures were 12.6% of wage and salary income. In the past year, the S&P GSCI Agricultural and Livestock Commodity Price Index rose by 40%. If we conservatively assume that just one quarter of these raw material costs are ultimately passed through to consumers, higher priced foods will have added another roughly $626 per year of essential costs to the median household budget. These increased costs could be considered inflationary, however, with wage income stagnant, higher food and fuel prices will act like a tax increase. Indeed, the approximately $1300 increase in food and fuel prices is equal to 2.6% of median family income, an amount that more than offsets the 2% reduction in the social security tax for 2011.
Reflecting the inflationary psychology of the higher stock and commodity prices, mortgage rates and municipal bond yields have risen significantly since QE2 was first proposed by the Fed chairman, increasing the cost and decreasing the availability of credit for two sectors with serious underlying problems. Also, Fed policy has pushed most consumer time, money market, and saving deposit rates to 1% or less, thereby reducing the principal source of investment income for most households. Clearly the early read on QE2 is negative for the economy.
In a November speech in Frankfurt, Germany, Dr. Bernanke said that the use of the term “quantitative easing” to refer to the Federal Reserve’s policies is inappropriate. He stated that quantitative easing typically refers to policies that seek to have effects by changing the quantity of bank reserves. These are channels that the Chairman considers relatively weak, at least in the U.S. context. Dr. Bernanke goes on to argue that securities purchases work by affecting yields on the acquired securities in investors’ portfolios, via substitution effects in investors’ portfolios on a wider range of assets. This may well be true, but the substitution effects are just as likely to be detrimental (i.e. the adverse implications of increasing commodity prices and rising borrowing costs for some and reducing interest income for others). Importantly, the Fed has no control over these substitution effects.
In his reputation establishing 2000 book, Essays on the Great Depression, Dr. Bernanke argues that “some borrowers (especially households, farmers and small firms) found credit to be expensive and difficult to obtain. The effects of this credit squeeze on aggregate demand helped convert the severe, but not unprecedented downturn of 1929-30 into a protracted depression.” Interestingly, when QE2 drives up borrowing costs for homeowners and municipalities, thereby restricting credit, the Fed is creating (according to Dr. Bernanke’s book) the exact same circumstance, albeit on a reduced scale, that helped cause the great depression— rather bizarre!
For the past twelve years the Fed’s policy response to economic problems has been to pump more liquidity. These problems included: (1) the failure of Long Term Capital Management in 1998; (2) the high tech bust in 2000; (3) the mild recession that began with a decline in real GDP in the fall of 2000; (4) 9/11; (5) the mild deflation of 2002-3; (6) the market crisis and massive recession and housing implosion of 2007-9, and now, (7) the lack of a private sector, self-sustaining recovery.
The Fed diagnosed each of these events as being caused by insufficient liquidity. Actually, the lack of liquidity was symptomatic of much deeper problems caused by their own previous actions. The liquidity injected during these events led to a series of asset bubbles as the economy utilized the Fed’s largesse to increase aggregate indebtedness to record levels. The liquidity problems arose as the asset bubbles burst when debt extensions could not be repaid and generally became unmanageable. Each succeeding calamity or bust reflected reverberations from prior Fed actions.
While governmental directives to Fannie and Freddie to increase home ownership clearly also played a role, the Fed supported this process by providing excessive liquidity to fund the housing bubble as well as other unprecedented forms of leveraging of the U.S. economy. The heavy leveraging and the associated asset bubbles, however, produced only transitory and below trend economic growth. Similarly, like its predecessors, QE2 is designed to cure an overindebtedness problem by creating more debt.
In addition to failing to revive the economy permanently, major unintended consequences have arisen. The LTCM bankruptcy created a $3 billion loss, a very modest amount in view of the sums required by subsequent bailouts. The Fed’s reaction to LTCM served to give market participants a signal that the Fed would backstop those regardless of whether they engaged in or enabled bad behavior. Also, Fed actions have conditioned Wall Street to seek Fed support whenever stock prices come under downward pressure. In fact, the process of leaking out QE2 began in the midst of a stock market sell off.
Well-intentioned actions to promote growth and fine tune the economy by micromanagement have instead produced failure. Although the Fed had little choice in massively supporting financial markets in 2007/8, no Fed intervention would have been a more long-term productive stance in the previous economic events. QE2 is another example of flawed Fed policy operations.”
Mr. Roche is the Founder and Chief Investment Officer of Discipline Funds.Discipline Funds is a low fee financial advisory firm with a focus on helping people be more disciplined with their finances.
He is also the author of Pragmatic Capitalism: What Every Investor Needs to Understand About Money and Finance, Understanding the Modern Monetary System and Understanding Modern Portfolio Construction.