The economy was supposed to fire on all cylinders in 2015. Sufficient time had passed for the often-mentioned lags in monetary and fiscal policy to finally work their way through the system according to many pundits inside and outside the Fed. Surely the economy would be kick-started by: three rounds of quantitative easing and forward guidance; a record Federal Reserve balance sheet; and an unprecedented increase in federal debt from $9.99 trillion in 2008 to $18.63 trillion in 2015, a jump of 86%. Further, stock prices had gained sufficiently over the past several years, thus the so-called wealth effect would boost consumer spending. But the economic facts of 2015 displayed no impact from these massive government experiments.
Since the introduction of unconventional and untested monetary policy operations like quantitative easing (QE) and forward guidance, an impressive amount of empirical evidence has emerged that casts considerable doubt on their efficacy.
Central banks in Japan, the U.S. and Europe tried multiple rounds of QE. That none of these programs were any more successful than their predecessors also points to empirical evidenced failure.
On QE's Utter Failure (or Why QE Hurts More Than It Helps)
This empirical data notwithstanding, a causal explanation of why QE and forward guidance should have had negative consequences was lacking. This void has now been addressed: Quantitative easing and zero interest rates shifted capital from the real domestic economy to financial assets at home and abroad due to four considerations:
- First, financial assets can be short-lived, in the sense that share buybacks and other financial transactions can be curtailed easily and at any time. CEOs cannot be certain about the consequences of unwinding QE on the real economy. The resulting risk aversion translates to a preference for shorter-term commitments, such as financial assets.
- Second, financial assets are more liquid. In a financial crisis, capital equipment and other real assets are extremely illiquid. Financial assets can be sold if survivability is at stake, and as is often said, “illiquidity can be fatal.”
- Third, QE “in effect if not by design” reduces volatility of financial markets but not the volatility of real asset prices. Like 2007, actual macro risk may be the highest when market measures of volatility are the lowest. “Thus financial assets tend to outperform real assets because market volatility is lower than real economic volatility.”
- Fourth, QE works by a “signaling effect” rather than by any actual policy operations. Event studies show QE is viewed positively, while the removal of QE is viewed negatively. Thus, market participants believe QE puts a floor under financial asset prices. Central bankers might not intend to be providing downside insurance to the securities markets, but that is the widely held judgment of market participants. But, “No such protection is offered for real assets, never mind the real economy.” Thus, the central bank operations boost financial asset returns relative to real asset returns and induce the shift away from real investment.
It is quite possible that corporate decision makers do not understand the relationships that cause QE and forward guidance to redirect resources from real investment to financial investment. It is also equally likely these executives do not understand that this process reduces economic growth, impairs productivity and hurts the rise in wage and salary income. But, does a lack of understanding of economic theory by key market participants render the causal relationships invalid?
Spence and Warsh elegantly argue corporate executives do not need to know these fundamental relationships. Here is their key passage: “Market participants may not be expert on the transmission mechanism of monetary policy, but they can deduce that the central bank is trying to support financial asset prices. The signal provided by central banks might be the essential design element.” Real assets market participants simply need to know that the central bank does not offer such protection. In other words, the corporate managers merely need to realize that one asset group is protected and the other is not.
On Monetary Policy's Endgame...
Our assessment is that monetary policy has no viable policy options that are capable of boosting economic activity should support be needed. In fact, the options available to the central bank, at this stage, are likely to be a net negative.
The extremely high level of debt suggests that the debt is skewed to unproductive and counterproductive uses. Debt is only good if the project it finances generates a stream of income to repay principal and interest. There are two types of bad debt: (1) debt that does not generate income to repay interest and principal (Hyman Minsky, “The Financial Instability Hypothesis”); and (2) debt that pushes stock prices higher without a commensurate rise in corporate profits (Charles P. Kindleberger, Manias, Panics and Crashes).
With the trajectory in the nominal growth rate moving down, U.S. Treasury bond yields should work lower, thus reversing the pattern of 2015 and returning to the strong downtrend in place since 1990.
The firm dollar will remain a restraining force on economic activity and should cause the year-over-year increase in the CPI to reverse later in the year. Under such circumstances, lower, rather than higher, inflation remains the greater risk. Such conditions are ultimately consistent with an environment conducive to declining long-term U.S. Treasury bond yields. In short, we believe that the long awaited secular low in long-term Treasury bond yields remains ahead.
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