Mounting Pressure

The most striking facet of today’s trading was that the stock market actually reacted to the Fed’s announcement, which was precisely as universally expected: no change in anything but the technical language about where the economy currently stands. It wasn’t a huge reaction, but the fact that the S&P actually dropped 5 points on the news is mind-boggling to me because it implies that some people were expecting big things out of the Fed today.

To be sure, the arrow of action on the Fed is clear and pointed to ever-increasing amounts of liquidity, but this wasn’t ever on the docket for today. However several Street economists have predicted, plausibly I think, that when Operation Twist expires in December (partly because the SOMA will run out of short-dated Treasuries to sell) the Fed might keep going with the buying leg of the Twist – effectively increasing the monthly outright purchases of paper to $85bln (including Treasuries) from $40bln (all mortgage paper) currently.

Operation Twist has been a useless operation from the standpoint of monetary policy – it has neither added nor subtracted liquidity from the system. It may have had some value from the standpoint of asset-market-maintenance policy, by removing duration from the market and forcing investors to accept more risk for the same amount of reward. So it may be the case that Twist had some effect, but mostly a bad effect since it certainly doesn’t seem from market pricing that investors have been timid about taking risk. And I suppose it ought also be observed that “asset-market-maintenance” isn’t part of the legislative mandate of the Federal Reserve. However, legislators can be generous when markets are being pumped up – it’s when the air goes out that they’re unhappy.

Weirdly, though, I would prefer Operation Twist, which has little impact, to what is likely to replace it (additional QE).

Policymakers globally are growing increasingly bold about quantitative easing. In Europe today, ECB President Draghi told German legislators that outright bond purchases by the ECB “will not lead to inflation. In our assessment, the greater risk to price stability is currently falling prices in some euro-area countries. In this sense, OMTs are not in contradiction to our mandate: in fact, they are essential for ensuring we can continue to achieve it.” (See also this story.)

Central bankers are getting bold, but I’m not sure I understand why. They clearly see the connection between QE and inflation – fending off deflation was the purpose of QE2 and Draghi is clearly indicating the same even though core inflation in the Eurozone has risen from 0.8% in 2010 to 1.5% now (see chart below, source Bloomberg). That’s not exactly flashing red signals on inflation, but it is utterly fantastic to suggest that it indicates deflation is a greater risk.

In the U.S., QE3 and the likely acceleration of QE3 later this year is happening in the context of year-on-year rises in median new home sales prices (released today) and existing home sales prices (released last week) of over 11%, as the chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows. Note that the existing home sales data is much more dependable on a month-to-month basis, because the number of existing homes and existing home sales swamps the number of new homes sold, but both show the same, clear trend. Home prices are now rising nearly as fast, nationwide, as they did in the bubble years.

For the record, the all-time record one-year price rise in existing home sales was 17.4% in May, 1979. Of course, in May 1979 core inflation was rising at 9.4%. In fact, with the exception of the last phases of the bubble of the early ‘Aughts, existing home sales prices are rising at the fastest margin above core inflation ever, as the chart below shows (Source: Bloomberg; Enduring Investments calculations)

Policymakers, and investors, seem to be numb to the threat of additional QE for one of two reasons. Either it is because of the belief that prior QE did not cause inflation (incorrect, as illustrated above and by the statements of intentionality of the policymakers themselves) or because they’re buying the line that QE is only adding to “sterile” excess reserves.

I think that this is dangerously sanguine. In fact, although it is true that QE initially results in greater excess reserves only, and these have only slowly trickled into transactional money, I think there’s reason to believe that adding more QE may increase that pace of transmission. Picture a large cylindrical vat, open on top with a small valve at the bottom. The water in the vat represents excess reserves, and the water trickling out through the valve is transactional money.

Many things can affect the pace at which the vat water flows through the valve – lending opportunities tied to credit demand and credit quality, disincentives to lend such as Interest on Excess Reserves (IOER), and moral suasion in both directions. Crank IOER to 25%, and all of the water poured into the vat remain as sterile excess reserves and QE is just reliquifying the banking system. Put IOER at a 10% penalty rate, and all of the water going in the top will flow out of the bottom very quickly – and all of the other water that’s already in the vat, too.

But even if you don’t adjust the valve at all, the greater weight of water in the cylinder, as you keep adding more water, will increase the flow out of the valve. Adding more QE is akin, economically, to increasing the weight of water in the cylinder.

The parallel economic concept is that a greater of excess reserves increases the opportunity cost of reserves. The average return on assets for a bank gradually declines as more of these assets become excess reserves rather than required reserves against lent funds. Leverage also declines, with the result (as I have pointed out before) that return on equity suffers. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows the return on equity for large banks (those with more than $10bln in assets). You can see that while bank earnings have recovered significantly from the nadir of the crisis, they also appear to have leveled off at around 8% compared to the 15% that was the consistent standard prior to 2007.

The lending officers in these banks, although they’re being told to increase the quality of their loans, are being told more and more to also increase the quantity of their loans. They cannot do both, but as the pressure of too many reserves on the balance sheet builds, the pressure to make more marginal loans increases as well. This is the part of the valve that the Fed cannot control, and where danger lies going forward. The multiplier may well respond, eventually, to the weight of the reserves themselves.

  1. Jim H.
    October 25, 2012 at 9:38 am

    ‘Central bankers are getting bold, but I’m not sure I understand why.’

    To paraphrase an old saying from the commodity pits, ‘There are old bankers, and bold bankers, but there are no old, bold bankers.’

    Even when you can print your own ante, doubling down isn’t such a great idea.

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