Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Quantitative Easing: Pushing on a String?

John Hussman has published another in his series of weekly articles that is a must read. In the article titled "Bernanke Leaps into a Liquidity Trap" he describes his opinion of what should be expected from more expansion of the 'monetary base' or quantitative easing. One of his points is...

Certain economic equations and regularities make it tempting to assume that there are simple cause-effect relationships that would allow a policy maker to directly manipulate prices and output. While the Fed can control the monetary base, the behavior of prices and output is based on a whole range of factors outside of the Fed's control. Except at the shortest maturities, interest rates are also a function of factors well beyond monetary policy. 

Analysts and even policy makers often ignore equilibrium, preferring to think only in terms of demand, or only in terms of supply. For example, it is widely believed that lower real interest rates will result in higher economic growth. But in fact, the historical correlation between real interest rates and GDP growth has been positive - on balance, higher real interest rates are associated with higher economic growth over the following year. This is because higher rates reflect strong demand for loans and an abundance of desirable investment projects. Of course, nobody would propose a policy of raising real interest rates to stimulate economic activity, because they would recognize that higher real interest rates were an effect of strong loan demand, and could not be used to cause it. Yet despite the fact that loan demand is weak at present, due to the lack of desirable investment projects and the desire to reduce debt loads (which has in turn contributed to keeping interest rates low), the Fed seems to believe that it can eliminate these problems simply by depressing interest rates further. Memo to Ben Bernanke: Loan demand is inelastic here, and for good reason. Whatever happened to thinking in terms of equilibrium? 

Hussman expects the effect of expanding the monetary base will be to...

"have little effect except to provoke commodity hoarding, a decline in bond yields to levels that reflect nothing but risk premiums for maturity risk, and an expansion in stock valuations to levels that have rarely been sustained for long (the current Shiller P/E of 22 for the S&P 500 has typically been followed by 5-10 year total returns below 5% annually). The Fed is not helping the economy - it is encouraging a bubble in risky assets, and an increasingly unstable one at that. The Fed has now placed itself in the position where small changes in its announced policy could have disastrous effects on a whole range of financial markets. This is not sound economic thinking but misguided tinkering with the stability of the economy."