Thursday, November 11, 2010

Much Ado About Easing

"Quantitative Easing" is the latest thing to get in a tizzy about these days. Everyone seems to have an opinion on quantative easing, either in favor (deflation-countering inflation is a good thing) or opposed (depreciation is a bad thing).

An investment analyst whose work I recommend, Nicholas Vardy, the "Global Guru," recently jumped on the QE bandwagon. The sentiment among global growth prognosticators has recently turned bullish. The question for Vardy is, "So what really has changed since the end of the summer?" And his answer, "of course, is quantitative easing." What is the effect of quantitative easing? "An extra $600 billion sloshing around global financial markets has two effects. First, it devalues the dollar, sending dollar-denominated commodity prices higher. Second, with interest rates forced down, investors are sent on a desperate chase for yield, driving up the prices of all assets in emerging markets."

The problem with this argument is, so-called quantitative easing does not cause $600 billion to begin sloshing around financial markets. It doesn't slosh around anywhere but the Fed's primary dealers' balance sheets. Now these primary dealers are commercial banks, and the money they have credited to them by the Fed, in exchange for the Treasuries they sell, is money which is added to their balance sheets. Hence, there is $600 billion more sloshing about there, not on the financial markets. For that money to enter financial markets, these banks have to lend. That is the way our two-tier banking system works. Now, the question is, are there market players out there willing to borrow, and put up the necessary collateral, in order to come by that additional $600 billion, in order to drive up securities prices on financial markets? That is the missing link that must be shown to exist in order for fears of depreciation to be grounded.

Vardy's second point, regarding lower interest rates and the "desperate chase for yield," is more to the point. Indeed, this is the primary effect of "quantitative easing," which is to flatten the yield curve from the long end. By doing this, the Fed may well be trying to force banks to lend more because the alternative, profits gained from borrowing at zero interest to buy interest-yielding treasuries, will narrow. I think that is the Fed's end game, not fomenting inflation/depreciation, which depends on a lot more than simple quantitative easing. But the Fed could achieve such a goal more quickly and surely by simply raising interest rates at the short end, thus flattening the yield curve from that side, which would do much to encourage lending. After all, the October 2010 Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey doesn't show any increased lending activity at all. When such lending activity does increase, that is when we need to start worrying about inflation, depreciation, and cutting back on the Fed balance sheet.

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