Lighting a fuse

The Fed quit quantitative easing more than a year ago, limiting total assets on its balance sheet to $4.5 trillion. But more than $2.5 trillion of cash injected into the financial system had been deposited straight back into the Federal Reserve system by banks as excess reserves, earning 0.25% p.a.

Fed Total Assets and Excess Reserves

Fresh money continued to leak into the financial system as banks drew down their excess reserves, highlighted above by the widening gap between Total Assets and Excess Reserves. In December 2015 the Fed doubled the rate payable on excess reserves to 0.50% p.a. The intention is clearly to attract more excess reserves and narrow the gap, or at least slow the rate at which excess reserves are being withdrawn to prevent further widening.

Easy money policies followed by central banks around the world are not achieving the desired result of reviving business investment. If we examine the Fed’s track record over the last two decades, sharp surges in business credit were accompanied by speculative bubbles — stocks ahead of the Dotcom crash and housing ahead of the GFC — with disastrous results. GDP failed to respond.

Business Credit Growth v. Nominal GDP

The latest rally in global markets is also driven by monetary easing, this time in China, with a massive surge in the money supply signaling PBOC intentions to print their way out of trouble (and into an even bigger hole).

Ineffectiveness of monetary policy in solving structural problems has often been described as “like pushing on a string”. But recent experience shows it is more like lighting a fuse.

This is a nightmare, which will pass away with the morning. For the resources of nature and men’s devices are just as fertile and productive as they were. The rate of our progress towards solving the material problems of life is not less rapid. We are as capable as before of affording for everyone a high standard of life …. and will soon learn to afford a standard higher still. We were not previously deceived. But to-day we have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand. The result is that our possibilities of wealth may run to waste for a time – perhaps for a long time.

~ John Maynard Keynes: The Great Slump of 1930

Will the stock market collapse when QE is withdrawn?

This chart in Westpac’s Northern Exposure chart summary implies that US stocks rely on Fed balance sheet expansion (QE) for support.

Fed Securities Held Outright v. S&P 500

The curve shows an almost perfect fit. There are just two things wrong with it. First, the scales on the left and right sides of the chart are not proportionate: the scale on the left compares a 9 times increase to a 3 times increase on the right. Second, while the Fed has expanded its balance sheet to more than $4 Trillion, a large percentage of that money has washed straight back to the Fed — deposited by banks as excess reserves.

Fed Total Assets and Excess Reserves

The impact on the working monetary base (monetary base adjusted for excess reserves) is far smaller: a rise of 66% (or $544 billion) over the past 7 years.

Fed Total Assets minus Excess Reserves compared to Working Monetary Base

A chart since 1985 shows nominal GDP (GDP before adjustment for inflation) normally expanded between 5% and 7.5% a year outside of recessions. But NGDP has not recovered above 5% after 2008. This may be partly attributable to lower inflation, but the Fed would clearly want to see NGDP above 5% — roughly 3% real growth and 2% inflation.

Working Monetary Base Growth compared to NGDP

We can also see that growth of below 5% in the working monetary base is often precursor to a recession, 1995/1996 being one exception. The second is when the Fed took their foot off the gas pedal too early, after QE1 in 2010, but were able to resume in time to head off a major contraction. They have been far more circumspect the second time and are likely to maintain monetary base growth North of 5%. Too sharp a slow-down would be cause for concern.

When we calculate the ratio of total US stock market capitalisation to the working monetary base [blue line] it is apparent that market response to the increase in monetary base is far more cautious than it was in 1998/1999.

Working Monetary Base Growth compared to NGDP

With Forward Price to Earnings Ratios for the S&P 500 and Nasdaq close to their long-term average (Westpac Northern Exposure, Page 118), I consider the likelihood of the QE taper precipitating a major market collapse to be remote.

Fed excess reserves shrinking

Commentators have highlighted the fact that bank excess reserves held on deposit at the Fed — and on which banks are paid interest at 0.25% p.a. — are declining. This would suggest that bank lending is rising, increasing inflationary pressure.

Fed Excess Reserves- Weekly

The Fed is well aware of the situation

Fed Excess Reserves and Total Assets

…and has responded to the recent slow-down by scaling back asset purchases (quantitative easing). They are likely to track the decline of excess reserves to ensure that the impact on the working monetary base (monetary base minus excess reserves) is contained — along with inflationary pressures.

The last two times the Fed has ended a period of quantitative easing, the air has come out of the market balloon. Has this coming move been so telegraphed that the reaction will be different than in the past, or will we see the same result? Want to bet your bonus on it? Or your retirement?

~ John Mauldin

See graph at Mauldin Economics

John Mauldin: Effect of the taper

Impact of QE (or lack thereof) is reflected by excess reserves

JKH at Monetary Realism writes:

….there is a systematic tendency in the blogosphere and elsewhere to misrepresent the impact of QE in a particular way in terms of the related macroeconomic flow of funds…… Most descriptions will erroneously treat the macro flow as if banks were the original portfolio source of the bonds that are being sold to the Fed, obtaining reserves in exchange. This is not the case. A cursory scan of Fed flow of funds statistics will confirm that commercial banks are relatively small holders of bonds in their portfolios, especially Treasury bonds. The vast proportion of bonds that are sold to the Fed in QE originate from non-bank portfolios……. Many descriptions of QE instead erroneously suggest the strong presence of a bank principal function in which bonds from bank portfolios are simply exchanged for reserves. In fact, for the most part, while the banking system has received reserve credit for bonds sold to the Fed, it has also passed on credits to the accounts of non-bank customers who have sold their bonds to the banks. This is integral to the overall QE flow of bonds.

There is a simpler explanation of what happens when the Fed purchases bonds under QE. Bank balance sheets expand as sellers deposit the sale proceeds with their bank. In addition to the deposit liability the bank also receives an asset, being a credit to its account with the Fed. Unless the bank is able to make better use of its asset by making loans to credit-worthy borrowers, the funds are likely to remain on deposit at the Fed as excess reserves — earning interest at 0.25% per year. Excess reserves on deposit at the Fed currently stand at close to $1.8 trillion, reflecting the dearth of (reasonably secure) lending/investment opportunities in the broader economy.

Read more at The Accounting Quest of Steve Keen | Monetary Realism.

The 7 Reasons Why People Hate QE | Eric Parnell

Excellent article by Eric Parnell sets out the negative impacts of quantitative easing (QE):

  1. …the Fed has dramatically expanded its policy scope into areas that are normally the territory of fiscal policy. This has included specifically targeting selected areas of the economy such as the U.S. housing market including the aggressive purchase of mortgage backed securities (MBS)…
  2. ….the Federal Reserve has elected to provide direct and generous support to financial institutions and risk takers, some of which directly contributed to the cause of the crisis. Unfortunately, this subsidy is being funded by effectively taxing the income generating capability of the millions of Americans who are either retired or living on a fixed income…
  3. [QE] has forced Americans who had planned their lives and retirements around the ability to generate high quality and safe rates of return to now take on extraordinary risks to achieve these same goals.
  4. By flooding financial markets with liquidity, it has completely distorted the true price setting mechanism across all asset classes.
  5. It has forced many investors across all different philosophies and disciplines to significantly shorten their time horizons and holding periods associated with their investments.
  6. The daily direction of financial markets is no longer driven by economic or market fundamentals…..Instead, investment markets are now almost entirely at the mercy of what Chairman Bernanke or his associates on the Federal Reserve might say or not say on any given trading day.
  7. Lastly and even more broadly than investment market forces, QE has the detrimental effect of not allowing the economy to cleanse itself…… misses the very important point that recessions are actually good for an economy. This is due to the fact that it forces an economy that has become sloppy with the excesses from the previous expansion to work these excesses off and reallocate capital more efficiently.
  8. But writing an article such as this is the same as writing 7 Good Reasons Why People Hate Chemotherapy. We all dislike QE. QE is not something that central banks apply through choice. QE is something — like chemotherapy — they apply when they have no choice. QE is the lesser of two evils — the greater evil being a deflationary spiral like the Great Depression of the 1930s.

    The important lesson to take from this is: How to Avoid QE. Manage credit growth and the monetary base more conservatively during the good times. Remove the punch bowl just as the party gets going — so we don’t end up with a massive hangover when it’s over.

    Read more at The 7 Reasons Why People Hate QE – Seeking Alpha.

Central Banks’ Central Bank Warns About Rehypothecation Threats | Zero Hedge

Tyler Durden writes:

…….none other than the TBAC warned that the US is suddenly facing a $10+ trillion high quality collateral shortage in the next decade. As we have also explained, this is a major problem for the Fed which at current rates of QEeing, will monetize all Treasury duration exposure in roughly 5 years – at that point there will be virtually no collateral left and the Fed will be finally out of both tools and ammo.

I suspect that fiscal deficits will add sufficient new Treasury bonds to the pile, so that the Fed never has to run out of decent collateral.

Read more at Central Banks’ Central Bank Warns About Rehypothecation Threats | Zero Hedge.

Fed sticks to stimulus plan, worried about fiscal drag | Reuters

Pedro da Costa and Alister Bull at Reuters write:

The Federal Reserve stuck to its plan to buy $85 billion in bonds each month to push down borrowing costs and prop up the economy, citing risks to growth from recent budget tightening in Washington.

Read more at Fed sticks to stimulus plan, worried about fiscal drag | Reuters.

Richard Koo: Quantitative and Qualitative Easing

Richard Koo in his latest report makes that the point that central banks in the US and UK have not cured their economies of deflationary pressures, they have merely kicked the can down the road:

Central bank officials in the US and the UK claim quantitative easing has been a success because it prevented a Japan-like deflation. But as I noted in my last report (2 April 2013), the rate of Japanese wage growth four to five years after the bubble collapsed was roughly equal to the levels now being observed in the US. Deflation took root in Japan only after 1997, when the nation fell off the fiscal cliff following the Hashimoto administration’s ill-fated experiment with fiscal consolidation. That was seven to eight years after the bubble burst.

Read more at Richard Koo Quantitative and Qualitative Easing 2013 04 16.

Quantitative easing does not address the fundamental problems underpinning struggling western economies. | EUROPP

John Doukas questions the benefits of quantitative easing:

…excessive money supply fails to increase real economic activity because it raises the labour cost while it lowers the cost of capital. Depressing yields at home, as a result of quantitative easing, in an open economy setting, leads yield-seeking investors into higher-risk investments such as emerging markets.

Read more at Quantitative easing does not address the fundamental problems underpinning struggling western economies. | EUROPP.

Visible Hand Of The Fed | Business Insider

Lance Roberts writes:

While the Fed programs that we have witnessed since the financial crisis are historically unique — liquidity driven markets are not. We have witnessed the effects of excess liquidity in the bull market cycle prior to the 2008 financial crisis. The only difference during that cycle was that, through government intervention, real estate was turned into an ATM allowing mortgage equity withdrawals to be the liquidity source for the economy and the markets…….

Read more at Lance Roberts: Visible Hand Of The Fed – Business Insider.

Risk Seen in Fed Bond Buying | WSJ.com

KRISTINA PETERSON at WSJ writes:

The Federal Reserve should stop buying bonds, even as the central bank is poised to purchase more, according to a narrow majority of economists in a new survey by The Wall Street Journal……”It’s distorting market prices and creating problems in the future,” said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo Securities, who said the Fed’s bond-buying was making long-term Treasurys too expensive without significantly easing problems in the labor market. “The Fed needs to back away and let interest rates rise just a little bit,” he said.

If past performance is anything to go by, Fed quantitative easing (or bond buying) is ineffectual in lifting the employment rate. And the lower that they drive bond yields, the greater the backlash when yields eventually rise. Yields are likely to spike up rapidly as bond-holders attempt to offload positions in order to avoid massive capital losses.

via Risk Seen in Fed Bond Buying – WSJ.com.

Ray Dalio Explains The Rare Set Of Circumstances That’s Making Him Bearish On Markets | Business Insider

Joe Weisenthal reports on hedge fund guru Ray Dalio’s outlook:

His novel set of circumstances he sees is an economy that faces austerity (due to the Fiscal Cliff, etc.) coupled with a Fed that’s mostly blown its bazooka, and can’t get much more juice out of QE.

  • Yields can’t go down anymore.
  • Austerity is coming.
  • Economy is running out of steam.
  • QE is losing its efficacy.
  • Rate turn probably finally coming late in 2013.

Read more at Ray Dalio Explains The Rare Set Of Circumstances That's Making Him Bearish On Markets – Business Insider.

Dangers of quantiative easing may be political more than technical

Glenn Stevens, governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, in an address to the Bank of Thailand today commented on the dangers facing central bank monetary policy:

For the major countries a further dimension to what is happening is the blurring of the distinction between monetary and fiscal policy. Granted, central banks are not directly purchasing government debt at issue. But the size of secondary market purchases, and the share of the debt stock held by some central banks, are sufficiently large that it can only be concluded that central bank purchases are materially alleviating the market constraint on government borrowing. At the very least this is lowering debt service costs, and it may also condition how quickly fiscal deficits need to be reduced. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that in circumstances of deficient private demand with low inflation or the threat of deflation. In fact it could be argued that fiscal and monetary policies might actually be jointly more effective in raising both short and long-term growth in those countries if central bank funding could be made to lead directly to actual public final spending – say directed towards infrastructure with a positive and long-lasting social return – as opposed to relying on indirect effects on private spending.

The problem will be the exit from these policies, and the restoration of the distinction between fiscal and monetary policy with the appropriate disciplines. The problem isn’t a technical one: the central banks will be able to design appropriate technical modalities for reversing quantitative easing when needed. The real issue is more likely to be that ending a lengthy period of guaranteed cheap funding for governments may prove politically difficult. There is history to suggest so. It is no surprise that some worry that we are heading some way back towards the world of the 1920s to 1960s where central banks were ‘captured’ by the Government of the day.

via RBA: Speech-Challenges for Central Banking.

Hat tip to Walter Kurtz at Business Insider.

What to do about the US currency war | Alan Kohler | Business Spectator

Alan Kohler writes about the Fed’s quantitative easing strategy which is effectively debasing the US dollar:

Because it is trying to reduce the world’s reserve currency, the Fed is effectively giving other countries two choices: either allow your currencies to appreciate against the US dollar and thus make your economies less competitive and crunch your export industries, or print money with us and risk (or perhaps guarantee) inflation.

It is a Hobson’s Choice, and like most other countries’ central banks, the Reserve Bank of Australia doesn’t quite know what to do.

The strategy is also debasing the more than $2 trillion of US Treasuries held by China and Japan, placing these Asian exporters in an awkward position. Repatriating their investments would send the dollar plummeting against the yuan and the yen, reversing their export advantage maintained over the last two decades through capital account inflows into US Treasuries. Capital inflows were used to offset the current account outflows and prevented the yen and yuan from appreciating against the dollar. If the flows reverse, the US will enjoy an unfair trade advantage from an under-valued dollar.

Methinks those who predict a globally dominant China with continued growth rates of 7% to 8% are a mite premature. …….Possibly a century or two.

Read more at What to do about the US currency war | Alan Kohler | Commentary | Business Spectator.

Global QE

Observation made by Philip Lowe, RBA Deputy Governor:

Since mid 2008, four of the world’s major central banks – the Federal Reserve, the ECB, the Bank of Japan and the Bank of England – have all expanded their balance sheets very significantly, and further increases have been announced in a couple of cases. In total, the assets of these four central banks have already increased by the equivalent of around $US5 trillion, or around 15 per cent of the combined GDP of the relevant economies. We have not seen this type of planned simultaneous very large expansion of central bank balance sheets before. So in that sense, it is very unusual, and its implications are not yet fully understood……

via RBA: Australia and the World.

Here Comes the Dollar Wave Again | WSJ.com

Wall Street Journal opinion on the impact of QE3 on Asia:

If Asia stays true to form, the world is in for a bout of foreign-exchange interventions — some coordinated, some not — in a quest for stability. Yet these interventions will only encourage greater speculative flows, as some investors start betting on the next policy move. This would be America’s problem, too, given the growing number of American businesses trading with Asia that will grapple with a chaotic exchange-rate system…….

via Review & Outlook: Here Comes the Dollar Wave Again – WSJ.com.