Guggenheim's Scott Minerd Discusses QE3... And QE4.... And QE5

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And so another frequently cited by Zero Hedge strategist, Guggenheim's Scott Minerd, steps up to the plate and makes the case that all those expecting an end to quantitative easing may well end up being disappointed (much to the joy of government darling - stocks; and more importantly the government's black horse - commodities). Minerd's speculation is based on what is glaringly obvious: the forced take down of commodity prices does nothing but provide the Chairman with the green light he so needs in order to proceed with further easing: "The case for extended low rates and possibly even QE3 grows stronger given the recent sharp declines in agriculture and energy prices. If price pressures from food and energy prove transitory, as Bernanke predicts, then inflationary expectations are likely to ease by the end of the year. A decline in inflation would certainly make the risk/reward trade-off for QE3 more attractive to the Fed chairman." Basically, the paradoxical outcome is that the lower the most "hated" commodities: crude, gold, silver drop, the higher the probability the Fed takes the step that sends them surging to new record levels. Elsewhere, Minerd once again follows our thinking: the econom is the primary catalyst for further easing (especially in light of fiscal easing being impossible under the current political breakdown): "What
would be Mr Bernanke’s motivation to endure the political fallout of
QE3? The same motivation for QE1 and QE2: namely, stimulating growth to
help employment recover. If economic growth stalls, this will become the
chairman’s primary motivation. Looking ahead, the expiry of tax cuts in
2011 and a government deficit reduction programme (likely to take
effect as early as 2012) will present real headwinds to growth." Lastly, doing a comp to that endless QE basket case demonstrates that at least from the Fed's perspective, the US has much more capacity for monetization as a percentage of GDP, to go on with LSAP for much, much longer: "The balance sheet of the Bank of Japan equals about 30 per cent of Japanese GDP. If the Fed were to hold as many assets on a relative basis, it could conduct a further $1,800bn worth of quantitative easing. That would amount to QE3, QE4 and QE5 (at the same size as QE2) just to get to where Japan is today. If US economic growth stalls, Mr Bernanke, an expert in all things deflationary, could view Japan as an imperfect but relevant precedent for further quantitative easing." And there you have it.

From Scott Minerd's FT OpEd:

There will be more monetary elixir after the end of QE2

In 1958, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith  was looking for a term to describe certain ideas that were commonly held, intellectually accessible and yet fundamentally flawed. To define such widely spread misconceptions he wrote: “I shall refer to these ideas henceforth as the conventional wisdom.”

As an asset manager, I’ve come to view conventional wisdom as the surest path to investment underperformance. One might even amend the old Wall Street saying to read: bulls make money, bears make money, but conventional wisdom gets slaughtered. Consensus opinion is generally a sign to get on the other side of the trade.

Recently, I’ve noticed a critical mass of groupthink growing round the expiration of the Federal Reserve’s asset purchase programme, dubbed QE2. After tripling its balance sheet in 2½ years, the conventional wisdom is that the era of quantitative easing should now give way to the era of inflation. As a result, the foregone conclusion is that US interest rates will rise and bonds will underperform significantly.

While I acknowledge the potential for rising rates, I don’t think the expiration of QE2 is the catalyst that most believe it to be. In fact, I believe US rates should remain range-bound at historically low levels for an extended period of time. I find it surprising how the majority of market watchers, lost in the obsession with QE2’s expiration, have so quickly dismissed the possibility of QE3.

As evidence, consider the Taylor rule, an economic formula that the Fed uses to model the appropriate Fed funds target interest rate. Given the current levels of unemployment and inflation, the Taylor rule says the rate should be negative 1.65 per cent, which of course is not practical. With the Fed’s target rate already at the zero bound, this suggests that Ben Bernanke may need to take further action at some point after QE2 expires. At a minimum, it means the Fed should refrain from any rate rises until such time that unemployment drops below 7.0 per cent (from 9.0 per cent currently) or core inflation more than doubles.

The case for extended low rates and possibly even QE3 grows stronger given the recent sharp declines in agriculture and energy prices. If price pressures from food and energy prove transitory, as Bernanke predicts, then inflationary expectations are likely to ease by the end of the year. A decline in inflation would certainly make the risk/reward trade-off for QE3 more attractive to the Fed chairman.

What would be Mr Bernanke’s motivation to endure the political fallout of QE3? The same motivation for QE1 and QE2: namely, stimulating growth to help employment recover. If economic growth stalls, this will become the chairman’s primary motivation. Looking ahead, the expiry of tax cuts in 2011 and a government deficit reduction programme (likely to take effect as early as 2012) will present real headwinds to growth. Layer on top of that the fact that 2012-13 is likely to be the end of the expansionary portion of the business cycle, and what’s left is a recipe for a serious economic slowdown or possibly even another recession.

Unless, of course, the Fed serves up more of its monetary elixir, which is why I believe the end of QE2 in June is nothing more than a pause to watch what happens in the real economy. In fact, even though his rhetoric downplayed any further expansion of its balance sheet, Mr Bernanke was careful in his recent press conference not to close the door entirely on QE3.

There are fears that the balance sheet of the Fed may be too large already, but this doesn’t square with the experience of Japan. At $2,600bn, the current Fed balance sheet represents approximately 18 per cent of US gross domestic product. By comparison, the balance sheet of the Bank of Japan equals about 30 per cent of Japanese GDP. If the Fed were to hold as many assets on a relative basis, it could conduct a further $1,800bn worth of quantitative easing. That would amount to QE3, QE4 and QE5 (at the same size as QE2) just to get to where Japan is today. If US economic growth stalls, Mr Bernanke, an expert in all things deflationary, could view Japan as an imperfect but relevant precedent for further quantitative easing.

In his concluding thoughts about conventional wisdom, Dr Galbraith said: “The ultimate enemy of conventional wisdom is circumstance.” The surprise circumstance in 2011 may be lower rates as US Treasuries and fixed income securities rally in the midst of growing uncertainty. Further down the road, if price pressures moderate, employment remains slow to recover and fiscal headwinds mount, then Mr Bernanke may find a compelling reason to fire up the printing presses again. Then, just like a bad Hollywood film series, we may end up talking about a sequel to QE1 and QE2. In other words, quantitative easing isn’t dead; it may just be slumbering.

Scott Minerd is chief investment officer at Guggenheim Partners