QE2 is a Double-Edged Sword

The USA elections are over with few surprises, and the FOMC (Federal Reserve governing board) released its meeting statement confirming the known secret that the Fed was going to purchase another $600 billion of longer term treasuries.  No surprises so far today.  But, as will be discussed later in this article, because of possible unintended consequences, surprises may come later. 

Quantitative easing (QE) is the purchase of government debt by another government agency (or, in the case of the Fed, a de facto government agency) in effect to negate the issuance of the debt in the first place.  The question remains, at this point in time while the economy is relatively stable, if the purchase of additional debt will have any beneficial effects on the economy.  Certain economists believe that low interest rates are one of the primary tools to stimulate any economy.

The meeting statement with the most important elements highlighted:

Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in September confirms that the pace of recovery in output and employment continues to be slow. Household spending is increasing gradually, but remains constrained by high unemployment, modest income growth, lower housing wealth, and tight credit. Business spending on equipment and software is rising, though less rapidly than earlier in the year, while investment in nonresidential structures continues to be weak. Employers remain reluctant to add to payrolls. Housing starts continue to be depressed. Longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable, but measures of underlying inflation have trended lower in recent quarters.

Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability. Currently, the unemployment rate is elevated, and measures of underlying inflation are somewhat low, relative to levels that the Committee judges to be consistent, over the longer run, with its dual mandate. Although the Committee anticipates a gradual return to higher levels of resource utilization in a context of price stability, progress toward its objectives has been disappointingly slow.

To promote a stronger pace of economic recovery and to help ensure that inflation, over time, is at levels consistent with its mandate, the Committee decided today to expand its holdings of securities. The Committee will maintain its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its securities holdings. In addition, the Committee intends to purchase a further $600 billion of longer-term Treasury securities by the end of the second quarter of 2011, a pace of about $75 billion per month. The Committee will regularly review the pace of its securities purchases and the overall size of the asset-purchase program in light of incoming information and will adjust the program as needed to best foster maximum employment and price stability.

The Committee will maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and continues to anticipate that economic conditions, including low rates of resource utilization, subdued inflation trends, and stable inflation expectations, are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate for an extended period.

The Committee will continue to monitor the economic outlook and financial developments and will employ its policy tools as necessary to support the economic recovery and to help ensure that inflation, over time, is at levels consistent with its mandate. 

Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Ben S. Bernanke, Chairman; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; James Bullard; Elizabeth A. Duke; Sandra Pianalto; Sarah Bloom Raskin; Eric S. Rosengren; Daniel K. Tarullo; Kevin M. Warsh; and Janet L. Yellen.

Voting against the policy was Thomas M. Hoenig. Mr. Hoenig believed the risks of additional securities purchases outweighed the benefits. Mr. Hoenig also was concerned that this continued high level of monetary accommodation increased the risks of future financial imbalances and, over time, would cause an increase in long-term inflation expectations that could destabilize the economy.

The bottom line is the Fed will grow its balance sheets to $2.6 trillion.  And you might be thinking more detail is needed.  Well, simulateously, the NY Fed issued the following statement which filled in the details of the types of securities to be purchased:

On November 3, 2010, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) decided to expand the Federal Reserve’s holdings of securities in the System Open Market Account (SOMA) to promote a stronger pace of economic recovery and to help ensure that inflation, over time, is at levels consistent with its mandate. In particular, the FOMC directed the Open Market Trading Desk (the Desk) at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to purchase an additional $600 billion of longer-term Treasury securities by the end of the second quarter of 2011.

The FOMC also directed the Desk to continue to reinvest principal payments from agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities into longer-term Treasury securities. Based on current estimates, the Desk expects to reinvest $250 billion to $300 billions over the same period, though the realized amount of reinvestment will depend on the evolution of actual principal payments.

Taken together, the Desk anticipates conducting $850 billion to $900 billion of purchases of longer-term Treasury securities through the end of the second quarter. This would result in an average purchase pace of roughly $110 billion per month, representing about $75 billion per month associated with additional purchases and roughly $35 billion per month associated with reinvestment purchases.

The Desk plans to distribute these purchases across the following eight maturity sectors based on the approximate weights below:

Nominal Coupon Securities by Maturity Range* TIPS**
2.5-4 Years 4-5.5
5% 20% 20% 23% 23% 2% 4% 3%

*The on-the-run 7-year note will be considered part of the 5½- to 7-year sector, and the on-the-run 10-year note will be considered part of the 7- to 10-year sector.
**±TIPS weights are based on unadjusted par amounts.

Under this distribution, the Desk anticipates that the assets purchased will have an average duration of between 5 and 6 years. The distribution of purchases could change if market conditions warrant, but such changes would be designed to not significantly alter the average duration of the assets purchased.

To provide operational flexibility and to ensure that it is able to purchase the most attractive securities on a relative-value basis, the Desk is temporarily relaxing the 35 percent per-issue limit on SOMA holdings under which it has been operating. However, SOMA holdings of an individual security will be allowed to rise above the 35 percent threshold only in modest increments.

Purchases associated with balance sheet expansion and those associated with principal reinvestments will be consolidated into one set of operations to be announced under the current monthly cycle. On or around the eighth business day of each month, the Desk will publish a tentative schedule of purchase operations expected to take place through the middle of the following month, as well as the anticipated total amount of purchases to be conducted over that period. The schedule will include a list of operation dates, settlement dates, security types to be purchased (nominal coupons or TIPS), the maturity date range of eligible issues, and an expected range for the size of each operation.

The Desk expects to conduct the November 4 and November 8 purchase operations that were announced on October 13, and it plans to publish its first consolidated monthly schedule on November 10 at 2:00 p.m.

Purchases will be conducted with the Federal Reserve’s primary dealers through a series of competitive auctions operated through the Desk’s FedTrade system. Consistent with current practices, the results of each operation will be published on the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s website shortly after each purchase operation has concluded. In order to ensure the transparency of our purchase operations, the Desk will also begin to publish information on the prices paid in individual operations at the end of each monthly calendar period, coinciding with the release of the next period’s schedule.

Econintersect remains concerned about the low interest rate policies as it leaks investments from the USA to emerging economies.  There are concerns that the low dollar is pushing money into foreign markets creating potential bubbles.  Some specific examples:

1.  Jose Sergio Gabrielli, Petrobras CEO, said today that the increased liquidity was great news for them.

2.  Commodities have had one of the steepest increases in history over the past 18 months.

3.  The trade deficit with China has increased by 54 % in 2010, as shown in the following table.    

Active link from graphic:  Data Dissemination Branch          Data Table:  U.S. Census       

Mohamad El-Erian, CEO of PIMCO, writes in a Financial Times article that QE2 may backfire because, rather than increasing economic activity in the U.S., it will have unintended consequences:

 Without meaningful structural reforms, part of the Fed’s liquidity injection will leak right out of the US and result in yet another surge of capital flows to other countries.

The rest of the world does not need this extra liquidity, and this is where the second problem emerges. Several emerging economies, such as Brazil and China, are already close to overheating; and the eurozone and Japan can ill afford further appreciation in their currencies.

Despite polite rhetoric to the contrary in the lead up to the Group of 20 leading economies summit in Korea this month, other countries are likely to counter what they view as an unnecessarily disruptive surge in capital flows caused by inappropriate and short-sighted American policy. The result will be renewed currency tensions and a higher risk of capital controls and trade protectionism.

  Unfortunately, QE is a double edged sword.

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