QE3 Options

June 18th, 2011
in Announcements, Op Ed

money shower

Guest Author: Edward Harrison, Credit Writedowns (See bio at end of article.)

The second round of quantitative easing is drawing to a close. Legitimately, the QE2 trade was ‘officially over’ in late March. My comments from March about a potential QE3 are still operative:

My sense from the totality of Fed communications - from both hawks and doves - is that they will stick to their original timetable and then pause. At that point they have to decide whether to mop up the excess reserves. If the economy is OK, they will start to sell Treasuries. If the economy is too fragile they will simply do nothing and wait. If the economy really sucks, the QE3 speculation can begin. The timetable depends entirely on the economy, of course. And Bernanke has said so. Bottom line: we are a long way away from either QE3 or raising rates. Over the near term, it's a question of what to do after QE2 is over.

Follow up:

Unfortunately, the US economy has weakened somewhat since that time and so the speculation about QE3 has gathered apace. Let me say a few words on this topic here. But, before I do so, let’s review How Quantitative Easing Really Works.

  1. Quantitative easing is simply large scale asset purchases (LSAP) by the central bank. The central bank is permitted by law to purchase a wide range of assets including but not limited to Treasury securities, mortgage-backed securities, or municipal bonds.
  2. In QE1, the Fed purchased nearly $1.75 trillion of Treasury, agency, and agency mortgage-backed securities through the LSAP programs.
  3. The second round of quantitative easing was concentrated on purchases of medium-maturity Treasury securities only, meaning the Fed bought these securities in exchange for reserve deposits it had created expressly for that purpose.
  4. As such, QE2 Is Equivalent to Issuing Treasury Bills. As John Cochrane recently stated, “With near-zero short-term interest rates, and bank reserves paying interest, money is exactly the same thing as short-term government debt. A bank doesn't care whether it owns reserves or three-month Treasury bills that currently payless than 0.1 percent.”
  5. In engaging in quantitative easing, the Fed has not intended to perform a lender of last resort role. Rather, as both Brian Sack and Janet Yellen have attested, the Fed's intention has been to artificially suppress risk premia to support economic activity.
  6. Therefore, all QE2 does is drain the real economy of interest income by swapping an interest-bearing government liability for an essentially non-interest bearing government liability, offset by changing interest rate expectations, which alter private portfolio preferences, and lower risk premia, leading to credit growth, leverage and speculation, forces which should pump up the real economy.

So, what about QE3? My sense is that political pressures to remove both fiscal and monetary stimulus are too much to bear – both from politicians as well as from internal Fed dissent. In late March when the Fed hawks were trying to grab the bully pulpit to disabuse us of the possibility of QE3, I said pressure from the hawks would anchor the debate on QE such that QE2 would end as anticipated, followed by economic weakness without an immediate QE3. We are now experiencing that weakness. But I expect the economy would have to be in or near recession before the Fed acts with more QE.

Barry Ritholtz has a good post up by Invictus on this topic, Revisiting Bernanke’s 2002 Playbook, using Ben Bernanke’s 2002 helicopter speech for clues as to what one could expect if QE3 were implemented at some point in the future.

Now, I parsed part of this speech in December of last year. My conclusion was this:

Judging from Bernanke's previous writing, he seems to think a combination of fiscal and monetary stimulus are what are needed to prevent debt deflation from becoming entrenched in a way that turns cyclical unemployment into structural unemployment. Based on Bernanke's commentary on 60 Minutes last night, I believe he will continue to prescribe more cowbell, "nonstandard means of injecting money", unless political forces or internal dissent stop him.

-The government has a printing press to produce U.S. dollars at essentially no cost

Here’s the part Invictus focuses on that I did not. I have underlined the part relevant to QE3:

So what then might the Fed do if its target interest rate, the overnight federal funds rate, fell to zero? One relatively straightforward extension of current procedures would be to try to stimulate spending by lowering rates further out along the Treasury term structure–that is, rates on government bonds of longer maturities. There are at least two ways of bringing down longer-term rates, which are complementary and could be employed separately or in combination. One approach, similar to an action taken in the past couple of years by the Bank of Japan, would be for the Fed to commit to holding the overnight rate at zero for some specified period. Because long-term interest rates represent averages of current and expected future short-term rates, plus a term premium, a commitment to keep short-term rates at zero for some time–if it were credible–would induce a decline in longer-term rates. A more direct method, which I personally prefer, would be for the Fed to begin announcing explicit ceilings for yields on longer-maturity Treasury debt (say, bonds maturing within the next two years). The Fed could enforce these interest-rate ceilings by committing to make unlimited purchases of securities up to two years from maturity at prices consistent with the targeted yields. If this program were successful, not only would yields on medium-term Treasury securities fall, but (because of links operating through expectations of future interest rates) yields on longer-term public and private debt (such as mortgages) would likely fall as well.

You should recognize much of this argument from Randy Wray’s post highlighting the fact that QE2 was the equivalent of issuing treasury bills. However, if you recall I mentioned in November that the FOMC considered offering unlimited quantitative easing to target long-term interest rates. Ultimately, one can influence the price or the quantity of something, but not both. And the Fed decided to influence quantity when its stated aim during QE2 was to influence price. Ostensibly this was because of political pressure. Read the Invictus piece because it is clear from Bernanke’s writing there that he really thinks fiscal policy is more effective than quantitative easing to the degree you want to add stimulus. And it is also clear that the US has the same political problems regarding budget deficits and fiscal policy as the Japanese.

But, of course, Bernanke has no input into fiscal policy and right now fiscal policy is a dead issue in Washington. Interest rates are already zero percent. So, Bernanke has decided to fall back on the only thing he has left and print money.

-Does Ben Bernanke Believe The Stuff He Writes?

Therefore, as I stated at the end of the recent post on Raghuram Rajan’s views on monetary policy, if the economy swoons the Fed will be forced to take more drastic action and that means targeting rates with an unlimited supply of QE as well as other measures.

In the November post on the FOMC considering offering unlimited quantitative easing to target long-term interest rates, I further commented the following:

the Federal Reserve understands it could have done more but is actually only committed to QE-lite as I have called this round of QE. Likely, political constraints or internal dissent explains why the Fed took this route. Here is what the Fed could have done:

QE3 is still a pretty long way off. But these are the types of policy moves one could expect, something to keep in mind if the economy weakens further.

Related Articles

The Government has a Printing Press to Produce U.S. Dollars at Essentially No Cost by Edward Harrison

QE2:  Captainblogain, your Ship is Sinking by Warren Mosler

De-Financializing the Economy by Rick Davis

QE2 End Games - Mr. Bernanke's Dilemma by Rick Davis

QE2:  Extend or End? by Dirk Ehnts

China Stops Buying U.S. Debt?  Could be a Good Thing by Michael Pettis

The Week Ahead:  Hype About End of QE2 is Overblown by Jeff Miller

The Great Debate©:  Inflation or Deflation? by Robert Huebscher

Will There be Life After QE2? by Steven Hansen

QE2 is a Double Edged Sword by Steven Hansen

USA Funding Growth Worldwide by Steven Hansen

Unconventional Monetary Policy and Central Bank Communications by Janet Yellen

Yellen Says QE Saved Us - Who Can Prove Her Wrong by John Lounsbury



Edward Harrison Edward Harrison is the founder of Credit Writedowns and a former strategy and finance executive with twenty years of business experience. He started his career as a diplomat and speaks six languages, a skill he uses to provide a more global perspective. Edward holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College. He is a regular contributor at Seeking Alpha, Naked Capitalism, and Roubini Global Economics. Edward has often spoken on television and radio in the US, the UK, Canada and Russia.

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  1. Douglas W Roberts Email says :

    I have a question. Under what circumstance - and what would be the advantage - of buying bonds and injecting the money into the economy. We've been told that the QE we've seen so far has been bonds bought and put into the Fed portfolio. I don't think I understand this.

  2. Admin (Member) Email says :

    Doug - - -

    Your question is one that a vast majority of intelligent readers could also have asked. I'll give you my answer. Perhaps others will add different perspectives.

    The Fed buys bonds from the banks (the Fed is prohibited by law from buying directly from the Treasury)after the banks have bought from the Treasury.

    The stated object is to increase liquidity in the banking system so that credit can be made available for lending (to businesses and consumers).

    For QE2 the achievements have been
    1. The Fed has created new money (the famous but inaccurately named "printing press" - credit has been created, no currency has been printed).
    2. The new "money" has, in effect, been used to fund some of the federal deficit.
    3. The banks have replaced the "money" (available credit) that they gave to the Treasury for the securities originally purchased.

    The overall result? The Fed has created money to fund part of the federal deficit and the banks have increased the liquidity of their Tier 1 assets. (Actually it's now cash, or actually Federal Reserve credits, which are as good as cash.)

    So the achieved results of QE2 have been:

    1. The Fed has monetized $600 billion of federal debt.
    2. The banks have increased their reserves at the Fed by $600 billion.

    In a gross oversimplification: The Fed has been bailing out the banks and the federal government. The improved liquidity in the real economy has been negligible.

    There is one additional aspect of QE1. In that program the Fed bought non-Treasury securities from the banks, mostly mortgage backed securities. The banks were relieved of more than $1 trillion of MBS (for which valuations were problematic) and replaced them with reserve credits at the Federal Reserve. Again, no significant increase in liquidity in the real economy occurred - this was just a bold-faced bank bail-out.

    I am among those who feel that the bank bail-out was an error. They should have been allowed to fail with government as conservator to preserve the functioning portions of finance. The captains of the great financial titanics should have gone down with their ships.

    The real economy should have received most of the $10 -$13 trillion (or some necessary part of it) that has been poored into keeping the bankers wealthy. Debts should have been written down to market levels of real assets and the losses should have come out of the banks.

    What has happened in the U.S. and around the world, assets have not been marked down to real values and the real economy is making up for the losses.

    Very simply, Wall Street plays while Main Street pays.

    To be sure, there is a possible road down the middle here where there are shared losses between lenders and debtors. Such a path would probably the best, but we don't seem to have any modern King Solomons in the world to effect such an outcome. Presumably, a properly operating bankrutcy system for the banks would have been the Solomonic force. But we didn't go that way. At least not yet.

    John Lounsbury

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