In defense of QE

A long-time reader and professional investor responded both to the critical if tentative substance as well as the spirit of inquiry in which I posted “The Age of QE” yesterday. Our reader’s company is devoted to private equity investment and he has asked me to withhold his name for professional reasons; I thought readers interested in the subject would appreciate his response. He writes:

I want to offer some perspective on QE. As an investor and professional participant in the markets and a conservative, I thought I would try to offer something of a defense of the Fed and its decision to pursue what has been called QE, printing or what I remember being called open market purchases in my macroeconomic classes. The opposing case is typically what I think of as a populist case that doesn’t really reflect an understanding of some important topics which inhere to a functioning capitalist economy and, very importantly, our fractional reserve banking system and the need for liquid (i.e. functioning) markets with a bid and offer.

Let’s first consider a world without the Fed and without QE. In effect this is what we experienced, briefly, when Lehman went bankrupt, when Washington Mutual was seized by the FDIC (and lots of other banks essentially became insolvent). If you think about it, when that happens – markets freeze and liquidity evaporates — savers lose all of their savings. Depositors at a bank are savers. Buyers of money market mutual funds are savers. When Lehman went bankrupt, their related money market mutual funds “broke the buck” – they were worth less than par.

The only thing that prevented this phenomenon from spreading was the willingness of the Fed and the Treasury to replace the banks as providers of liquidity and backstop deposits and so forth.

During the Depression, the Fed did nothing like QE and the Treasury wanted to force liquidation of excess assets and inventories and debts. The result is economic cataclysm, especially in a leveraged economy with a fractional reserve banking system. Banks cannot liquidate and satisfy their depositors need for cash. Deposits are borrowings for the bank. They in turn lend out the money they have on deposit to generate a return, and this pays savers a return. But when an economy goes into recession, this system malfunctions because the credit that originally justified the loan can no longer support it. This is the natural course of the business cycle. But the banking system on the way down is equivalent to the problem of a fire in a crowded theater. Everybody cannot get out at once. Not even close. It’s a fire in a vault really. Those lines of depositors waiting to take their money out cannot be satisfied.

It is easy to castigate the Fed and the Treasury for “bailing out” lenders and management teams, but the truth is more complicated. They were backstopping a system which holds the savings for the vast majority of Americans. As for the continuance of QE, I would revert to the Depression data and again observe that the Fed allowed the money supply to collapse by 1/3. This was devastating to the economy. Allowing monetary contraction through forced liquidation (which is the policy antidote to QE) would be beyond cataclysmic – it would make the Depression or today’s Greece a walk in the park. Unemployment would be 30%, people’s savings would be wiped out all at once – and the beneficiaries would be a tiny fraction of wealthy who would be able to buy assets for pennies from desperate sellers.

The primary criticism viz QE is that we are destroying the dollar and sowing the seeds of inflation. Maybe. But we are currently not inflating. At all. Commodity prices are falling or have fallen dramatically – gold, oil, you name it. The dollar has strengthened viz its alternative currencies, including gold and silver. There may be particular areas of price rises, but that means it’s not a uniform monetary phenomenon. Measured inflation is tame. One of the “inputs” which drives inflation is something called monetary velocity, or the speed with which people spend their money on items. As it did in the depression, it has collapsed. During the depression, it was this particular input which was responsible for the collapse in the money supply. You can think of QE as effectively offsetting the decline in velocity.

Monetary authorities always dance on the head of a pin in this way, trying to balance all of these inputs and avoid catastrophe. It’s a difficult task.

The truth is, the deflationary forces in the global economy are extraordinary. Technology, innovation, credit, freer movement of capital and labor – all of these forces have combined to create massive excess capacity in most of the world. This is fundamentally deflationary. Those who long for deflation are being a bit glib (which we would get without monetary intervention, believe me). William Jennings Bryan railed about being nailed to a cross of gold. That’s deflation that arises from the gold standard – truly hard money). He was a populist. In today’s world, modest deflation would – as it always does – redound to the benefit of lenders (unless it also consumed them to in a deflationary spiral , as it likely would in the end). Rapid inflation is to the benefit of borrowers at the expense of lenders. There is a reason why all of these quasi populist, socialist third world countries inflate and destroy their currencies rather than deflate. Stable, predictable and modest inflation is probably best for us all, dancing on the head of the pin.

All in all, while he gets tremendous criticism (as did Volker, Greenspan and now does Yellen), Bernanke probably deserves a great deal of credit and a big thank you from all of us, wealthy, middle and lower classes. Middle classes have been more significantly damaged by tax policy and Obamacare than anything else (i.e. fiscal transfers away from them). But the Fed really has preserved the stability of the banking and monetary system from which we all derive extraordinary benefit.

So how do we get out of this difficult, zombie economy we are in? True, real economic growth that derives from our natural competitive advantages – technological applications which yield productive and rapid growth in output (energy is the most important example) and fuel domestic industrial development and job growth. Cheap energy is our long term way out. And we need to buy time with measures like QE and some fiscal relaxation through middle class tax relief.

I wrote back that I really hadn’t thought about inflation so much as “accommodative” policy accommodating absurd federal spending. Our friend responded:

I read your post as being a bit open. You suggested that nobody has really talked about it and you were searching for a populist case against QE, but you identified one in the Post article.

I tend to think the populist case is that it is a boondoggle for the 1% while the 99% have their savings get eroded. My observation is that QE and bank recapitalizations which deter deflation and support modest inflation benefit borrowers and depositors, which is a majority. The beneficiaries of modest deflation would be lenders at the expense of borrowers. And in the case of spiraling/spiking deflation (which is a likely case versus modest deflation) everybody would lose except only hard asset and cash holders with no debt (the VERY wealthy). No analysis on this topic is perfect, but the empirical evidence from the 1930s suggests that rampant deflation and monetary shrinkage is much more damaging to the populist than QE and maintenance of the banking system.

I think the linkage of monetary accommodation to aggressive fiscal spending doesn’t really work in this case. It is true that we engaged in massive fiscal expansion and unprecedented deficit spending in 2009 and 2010. On the other hand we have been reducing the fiscal deficit substantially since then and this is actually contractionary. Reducing the deficit from 10% of GDP to 4% of GDP is still very contractionary and a very big drag on growth. One can argue about the components of that contraction as a policy matter being poor choices (tax increases to pay for bad social spending, to your point). But I wouldn’t link the Fed’s expansionary policy to our fiscal policies and choices.

Those choices are really the product of a badly flawed and broken budget process “managed” by a Democratic Senate led by Harry Reid and abetted by President Obama. The Fed doesn’t have much to do with it.

UPDATE: Our reader recommends Niall Ferguson’s column about monetary policy in the Wall Street Journal today. It is behind the Journal’s subscription paywall but accessible here via Google.

STEVE adds: This is a good analysis of the case in favor of QE, and I find it compelling.  One factor that ought to be mentioned as to why the enormous monetary growth hasn’t led to inflation, in addition to the factors mentioned above, is the collapse in “velocity,” i.e., the speed with which money turns over in the economy basically.  This factor—”V” in the famous basic equation of monetarism that Friedman made famous, “MV=PQ”—fell sharply during the recession of 2008-2010, and has kept falling since then.  You can see the chart from the Federal Reserve below.  I believe this is unprecedented in the history of Post-WWII recessions, but I haven’t gone back and looked.  There are some reasons to think a new, lower level of velocity might endure, but if it doesn’t?