Why QE2 + QE Lite Mean The Fed Will Purchase Almost $3 Trillion In Treasurys And Set The Stage For The Monetary Endgame
Recently the debate over when QE2 will occur has taken a back seat over the question of what the implications of the Fed's latest intervention in monetary policy will be, as it is now certain that Bernanke will attempt a fresh round of monetary stimulus to prevent the recent deceleration in the economy from transforming into outright deflation. Whether or not the Fed will decide to engage in QE2 on its November 3 meeting, or as others have suggested December 14, and maybe even as far out as January 25, the actual event is now a certainty. And while many have discussed this topic in big picture terms, most notably David Tepper, who on Friday stated that no matter what, stocks will benefit from QE2, few if any have actually considered what the impact of QE2 will be on the Fed's balance sheet, and how the change in composition in Fed assets will impact all marketable asset classes. We have conducted a rough analysis on how QE2 will reshape the Fed's balance sheet. We were stunned to realize that over the next 6 months the Fed may be the net buyer of nearly $3 trillion in Treasurys, an action which will likely set off a chain of events which could result in rates dropping all the way to zero, stocks surging, and gold (and other precious metals) going from current price levels to well in the 5 digit range.
A Question of Size
One of the main open questions on QE2, is how large the Fed's next monetization episode will be. This year's most prescient economist, Jan Hatzius, has predicted that the minimum floor of Bernanke's next intervention will be around $1 trillion, which of course means that he likely expects a materially greater final outcome from a Fed that is known for "forceful" action. Others, such as Bank of America's Priya Misra, have loftier expectations: "We expect the size of QE2 to be at least as much as QE1 in terms of duration demand." As a reminder, QE1, when completed, resulted in the repurchase of roughly $1.7 trillion in Treasury and MBS/Agency securities. It is thus safe to assume that the Fed's QE2 will likely amount to roughly $1.5 trillion in outright security purchases. However, as we will demonstrate, this is far from the whole story, and the actual marginal purchasing impact will be substantially greater.
A Question of Composition
Probably the most important fact that economists and investors are ignoring is that QE2 will be accompanied by the prerogatives of QE Lite, namely the constant rebalancing the Fed's balance sheet for ongoing and accelerating prepayments of the MBS/Agency portfolio. This is a critical fact, because once it becomes clear that the Fed is indeed commencing on another round of monetization, rates will collapse even more beyond recent all time records (and if we are correct, could plunge all the way to zero). What is very important to note, is that as Bank of America's Jeffrey Rosenberg highlights, a material drop in rates, which is now practically inevitable, is certain to cause a surge in mortgage prepayments of agency securities: "Our mortgage team highlights a 100 basis point decline in rates would raise the agency universe of mortgages refinanciability from currently about half to over 90%." (full report link)
The fact that declining rates creates a feedback loop on prepayments, which in turn results in more security purchases and even lower rates, is most certainly not lost on the Fed, and is the primary reason for the formulation of QE Lite as it currently exists. Indeed, those who follow the Fed's balance sheet, are aware that the MBS/Agency book has declined from a peak of $1.3 trillion on June 23, to $1.246 trillion most recently, a decline of $53 billion, which has been accompanied by $25 billion in Bond purchases, resulting in such direct FRBNY market involvements as $10 billion weekly POMOs. These, in turn, are nothing less than a daily pump of liquidity into the Primary Dealers (who exchange bonds boughts at auction for outright cash) by the Fed's Open Market Desk, which then liquidity is used to the PD community to bid up risk assets.
If we are correct in our assumption that on November 3, the Fed will announce a $1.5 trillion new asset purchase program, the implications of the previous observation will be dramatic. We additionally believe, that unlike QE1, the Fed will be far less specific as to the composition of purchases this time around, specifically for the aforementioned resion. As the Fed adds an additional $1.5 trillion in total assets, and as 10 Year rates, and thus 30 year cash mortgage rates, drop, the prepayment frequency of the Fed's existing MBS/agency book will surge, until it approaches and surpasses BofA's estimated 90% in a very short period of time. And courtesy of its QE Lite mandate, the Fed will purchase not only $1.5 trillion of US Treasurys as part of its new QE2 mandate, but will actively be rolling those MBS and Agencies put to it by the general public. As a result, it is our belief that over the six months beginning on November 3, the Fed will end up purchasing almost $3 trillion in US Treasurys in total. This can be summarized visually as follows:
As the chart shows, while the Fed's balance sheet grows from its current level of $2.3 trillion to $3.8 trillion, it is what happens to the Treasurys held outright by the Fed that is most disturbing: from $800 billion, we expect this number to surge to nearly $3.6 trillion in just over half a year, a massive increase of almost $3 trillion. The implications of this asset "transformation" on the Fed's balance sheet, not to mention those of US retail and foreign investors, and capital markets in general, will be dramatic.
One of the main problems facing the Fed in indirectly monetizing US Treasurys (keep in mind the proper definition of monetization is the Fed buying bonds directly from the Treasury, as opposed to using Primary Dealer middlemen, which is how it operates currently), is that there simply are not enough bonds in circulation to be bid, under its current regime of operation! Readers will recall that as part of existing SOMA guidelines, the Fed is limited to holding at most 35% of any specific marketable CUSIP. Furthermore, applying the SOMA limit to the $2 trillion in upcoming next twelve month issuance, means that in the interplay of the prepayment feedback loop coupled with collapsing rates, the Fed will need to either change the cap on the SOMA 35% limit, or the Treasury will need to issue far more debt to keep up with the sudden expansion in the Fed's outright, and not just marginal, capacity for incremental debt. Priya Misra summarizes this conundrum facing the Fed best:
We examine the Treasury market to analyze which part of the curve might benefit the most from Fed buying if it embarks on QE2. The constraints will come in term of the 35% SOMA limit as well as current outstandings and issuance profile. Table 5 provides the breakdown of average SOMA holdings and eligible dollar amount outstanding by sector. We estimate that in the nominal coupon universe, there is currently $1.3trillion in outstanding eligible issues for the Fed to buy. We compute eligible number of issues as the amount the Fed can buy without breaching its SOMA limit of owning 35% of the issue size. Considering that the Fed has not purchased 0-2 year securities in either QE1 or the reinvestment program so far, the eligible universe reduces to $935billion. Interestingly, $560bn of this is in the less than 7 year sector.
While the total eligible securities may seem like a low number in the context of QE2, we expect $2.1tn in gross issuance over the next year. Adding 35% of this gross issuance to the total, the Fed will have $1.67tn in eligible nominal outstanding to purchase without breaching the 35% limit. However, depending on the total size of QE2, much of the buying might have to be concentrated in the 2-7 year sector. To the extent that the Fed wants to keep long end rates low, it might have to increase the 35% SOMA limit, or the Treasury could change issuance.
We believe that the resolution to the limited supply question will be found promptly, as the last thing the US government and Treasury need is to be told that they need to issue more debt. We are confident they will obligly handily. From a purely structural perspective, suddenly the entire UST curve, and not just the "belly", will be offerless, as the Fed will now have a mandate of buying up virtually every single bond available in the open market, and then some! What this means is that rates will promptly plunge, and while many have noted the possibility that the 10 Year drops below 1% upon the formal announcement of QE2, we believe there is a very high probability that even the long-end can see rates drop substantially below 1%, while the 10 Year approaches 0%. Keep in mind that this move will not be predicated upon inflation expectations whatsoever (and in fact we believe this is merely the first step to an outright monetary collapse also known in some textbooks as hyperinflation), but merely as a means of frontrunning Ben Bernanke, as the entire bond market goes offerless, knowing full well that the Fed will buy any bond below its theoretical minimum price of 0% implied yield (we leave it to our readers to determine what this means price-wise on the curve). It also means that the Fed will finally cross the boundary into outright monetization, as Bernanke will be forced to directly bid for any new paper emitted by the US Treasury, to maintain the tempo of its purchases.
As we have noted above, the immediate implication of the vicious (or virtuous if you are Ben Bernanke) feedback loop of collapsing rates, prepayments, and accelerating UST purchases, is that mid-and long-term rates will likely promptly approach zero, as every UST holder realizes they are now the marginal price setter in a market in which there is a bid for any price. The Fed will merely render the traditional supply/demand curve meaningless, and any bonds offered for sale at any price will be bid up by Brian Sack. The implication on stock prices is comparably obvious: to readers who have been confounded by the impact on stocks when there is $10 billion worth of POMOs in a week, we leave to their imagination what the impact on 4x beta stocks will be once the Fed floods the market with $90 billion worth of weekly liquidity, which is what we calculate to be the peak repurchase activity between the months of January and March, as QE2 ramps up to its full potential. In this vein, analysts such as Deutsche's Joe LaVorgna who this Friday came out with a note advising clients not to "Fight the Fed" (link) may take the message to heart. After all, if this last attempt by the Fed to spur asset price inflation, in which Bernanke is effectively telling the consumer that a house can be had for no money down, and for no interest ever, thereby eliminating the risk of price deprecitation, fails, it is game over.
And speaking of game over, we dread to look at a chart of the DXY in early 2011. The dollar will plunge, pure and simple, as the Fed makes it clear that it will not tolerate currency appreciation. Also, don't forget that as a side effect of QE2, another component that will surge in addition to Fed Treasury holdings, will be excess reserves held by the banks. If we are correct in estimating that the Fed's assets will explode to $3.8 trillion, then bank excess reserves will skyrocket by a factor of 150% from the current $1 trillion to well over $2.5 trillion. The immediate casualty of this will be the US Dollar: one needs to look no further than 2009 to see what happened to the DXY when excess reserves increased by $1 trillion, in order to extrapolate what happens when it becomes clear that Bernanke is prepared to put any amount of liabilities on the Fed's balance sheet in its latest reflation attempt. And if anyone had doubts about the Fed being able to successfully absorb $1 trillion in excess reserves accumulated through QE1, all those concerns will be put to rest once the number hits $2.5 trillion, or more.
Which brings us to gold. Needless to say, once the full "all in" realization of just what QE2 means for risk assets and capital markets sets in, gold (and other physical commodities) will promptly go from its current price of $1,300 to a number well in the five-digit range. We leave it up to our readers to provide the actual digits.
In summary, David Tepper may well be right that stocks will benefit from QE2, as will Bonds and as will commodities. In fact, every asset class will explode in a supernova of endless liquidity. To be sure, all of this will be very short lived. Very soon, all those assets denominated in fiat paper, will promptly collapse in the great black hole of reserve currency devaluation, as it becomes clear that the Fed will stop at nothing to win the race of global currency debasemenet. And of course, none of this is to be confused for an actual improvement in the economy, as QE2 will result in a dramatic and irreversible deterioration in the US, and thus global, economy, which, once the initial euphoria from QE2 recedes, will promptly progress to isolationism, protectionism, currency wars and exponentially accelerating monetization of each and every asset class, thereby rendering price discovery irrelevant, as central banks around the world stampede into irrelevant capital market, each buying up as much of everything as their printing presses will allow them, until the ink runs dry.
At this point we refuse to pass ethical judgment on the Fed's actions. The Fed will do this action regardless of what happens on that other fateful event scheduled to take place on November 3. If it does not, asset prices will collapse leading America into a deflationary vortex of deleveraging, and Bernanke is fully aware of this. The only reason the market has found some validation to the September risk asset surge, is the "certainty" of QE2. Were this to be taken away, stocks would plunge, as would all other assets. And since the Fed is uncontrollable, and unaccountable to anyone, it is now impossible to prevent this line of action, whose outcome is what some may be tempted to call, appropriately so, hyperinflation. The direct outcome will be an explosion in all asset prices, although we continue to believe that of all assets, gold will continue to outperform both stocks and bonds, as recently demonstrated. Those who are wishing to front-run the Fed in its latest and probably last action, may be wise to establish a portfolio which has a 2:1:1 (or 3:1:1) distribution between gold, stocks and bonds, as all are now very likely to surge. We would emphasize an overweight position in gold, because if hyperinflation does take hold, and the existing currency system is, to put it mildly, put into question, gold will promptly revert to currency status, and assets denominated in fiat, such as stocks and bonds, will become meaningless.
And while Zero Hedge refuses to condemn what is now openly an act of war against the US middle class and the country's holders of dollar-denominated assets, by Ben Bernanke, who is fully aware what the implications of QE2 will be, we were delighted to read a brief note by none other than Bank of America's Jeffrey Rosenberg, who analyzes the costs of QE2, and comes to a politically correct conclusion which recapitulates everything said previously.
The costs of QE 2 in our view however go beyond the cost benefit analysis Chairman Bernanke highlighted in his Jackson Hole speech. There, the Chairman highlighted two key risks to additional purchases of longer-term securities. First, that they do not know with precision the effect of changes in Fed holdings of securities on financial conditions. On this point we have emphasized on numerous occasions that the main consequences of QE1 to date have been financial asset inflation. Further purchases under QE2 hence in our view would likely be limited in impact to furthering this process of asset inflation. However, the costs of even further asset inflation would likely accelerate the risks associated with what we characterize as conditions conducive to the growth of a credit bubble: low global yield levels, tight credit spreads, and an excess of demand for credit relative to supply. While those characteristics create asset inflation and form the backdrop of our near term bullish outlook on risky asset class performance, the risks of sparking future credit bubbles with their attendant systemic risk consequences grows under a scenario of QE2, in our view.
It’s the (lack of) confidence, stupid
The second risk highlighted in Jackson Hole by the Chairman concerns the confidence effects of Fed’s ability to exit accommodative policy and shrink the size of its balance sheet. While we agree with the notion that the key risk is one of confidence, the confidence impact of greater near term importance may lie less with concern over the Fed’s eventual ability to exit and more with what expanding QE2 says about the Fed’s confidence in its ability to utilize monetary policy to address deflationary risks.
Bernanke acknowledged that fiscal policy needs to be part of the policy response and that “Central bankers alone cannot solve the world’s economic problems.” In our assessment, further liquidity injection beyond some additional marginal transmission mechanism into mortgage refinancing or housing affordability would achieve little impact on the real economy. Much of the liquidity benefit of QE1 for the commercial side of the economy already remains on display in the form of very high rates of corporate refinancing activity. Additional rate declines from QE2 would add only marginally to those trends well underway. For smaller corporates or small business, QE1 did little to expand lending, though QE1 likely did prevent even further declines in lending. However, QE alone appears incapable of leading to expanding lending as the problems today shift from one of supply to one of demand. Chart 5 illustrates the stabilization of lending and how most of the Fed’s expanded balance sheet remains in the form of cash, not loans. Chart 6 shows that even as banks have eased underwriting standards, the demand for loans remains low.
Rather than liquidity – and its potential augmentation from expanding QE - the key issue behind the inability to see credit expansion and the weakness of monetary policy more broadly to affect a more positive economic outlook is confidence. And this leads to our final cost analysis on QE2. Where confidence stands as the key issue for the economy, expanding QE2 may end up doing more damage than good as the confidence loss from a Fed indicating its fears of deflation through expansion of QE2 as well as the follow on loss of confidence from the diminishing impact of further QE leads to a loss in confidence whose costs outweigh those of the benefits of further reductions in long term rates.
Perhaps at this point it is prudent to recall what the first definition of credit is:
1. Belief or confidence in the truth of something.
By that defintion, America's "credit" has ran out.