The economy is slowing down again despite interest rates being lower than ever: What is the government going to do next? Here is the answer, by NY Times Reporter Sewell Chan:
“The challenges the Federal (Reserve Bank) faces aren’t going to get any easier in the coming months,” said Carl E. Walsh, a professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “The choices ahead are only getting worse as the economy seems to be slowing down.” Professor Walsh was quoted in the New York Times Thursday, August 12, 2010 edition, Section B1
Sewell Chan’s August 12, 2010 NY Times article introduces us to a new term, “Quantative Easing”, and says that after lowering short term interest rates, about the only thing that the Federal Reserve can do is to pursue a policy of “Quantitative Easing”. According to Mr. Chan, Quantitative Easing is a controversial and uncertain central bank tactic. There is little modern historical precedent by which Quantitative Easing can be studied and analyzed by economists to predict results.
Mr. Chan explains that because short term interest rates are already close to zero, that now the Federal Reserve Bank’s last and final option is more “Quantative Easing”. Will it work?
What is “Quantative Easing”? Simply put, it is the printing of additional money to purchase financial assets in the market place, by using government money to buy instruments held by investors. The instruments purchased by the Government Treasury in “Quantitative Easing” are things such as (a) mortgage backed securities (b) buying/cashing out debts owed by the government such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac obligations/bonds and (c) buying Treasury Securities like government bonds.
How does “Quantative Easing” seek to help the economy? My understanding is that Quantitative Easing intentionally creates some inflation as it increases the money supply, and thus with more money rolling around, there is an incentive to invest it by lending it to others. People and investors who now have this freshly borrowed cash then go on spending sprees, and it is these sprees which are supposed to stimulate economic growth by more lending to people who buy things with the newly borrowed proceeds.
In short, more people buying things with borrowed money increases demand for goods and services and such. Increased demand keeps prices for goods and services higher, which is supposed to offset the deflation of prices of goods and services that is occurring in this recession. (See following blog post describing why deflation is “bad”)
Shortly put, deflation is supposed to be “bad” during a recovery from economic recession because deflation will result in a further economic slowdown as people conserve their cash and do not spend it in order to wait for lower prices on everything from TVs to cars to houses to ocean cruises.
This would be a “Second Wave” of “Quantitative Easing” as the Federal Reserve Bank already took a first “Quantitative Easing” step between January 2009 and March 2010 by printing money in the amount of $1.725 trillion (that is 1,000,000,000,000!) dollars to purchase $1.25 trillion in mortgage-backed securities (essentially buying mortgages from private investors), $175 billion in debts owed by government-controlled entities like Fannie Mae (more mortgages) and $300 billion in Treasury securities.
Here are the pros and cons:
Pros of “Quantitative Easing” to buy mortgages and investment instruments held by private investors when lowering interest rates doesn’t seem to be getting the job done to stimulate the economy: Sewell Chan of the NY Times writes that the Federal Reserve Bank’s Chairman Ben Bernanke is an astute student of the Great Depression and that Mr. Bernanke has long argued that the central bank (The Federal Reserve Bank) has the additional tool of Quantitative Easing which should be somewhat readily used to avoid deflation in prices, as deflation will slow, stop or reverse a recovery as people look at cash as an investment in and of itself instead of spending the cash. For example, if you know that the $500 TV set will reduce to $475 in six months (a mere 5.0% deflation in price) then you are more inclined to wait six months to purchase. If you know that your $300,000 home you are looking at buying will decrease 5.0% in one year to $285,000 then you will keep in renting one additional year and will not buy the home, thus stagnating the housing market.
Cons of “Quantitative Easing” More conservative voices (according to the NY Times Swell Chan) propose that the Federal Reserve Bank should not go out into the marketplace to buy mortgages, and that the most aggressive steps taken should be to lower short term interest rates (please note that short term interest rates are almost zero!)
Problem #1: Those economists wary of “Quantitative Easing” say that in a “perfect storm” of circumstances, Quantitative Easing can lead to 1970s style “stagflation” as the government floods the economy with too much available money when it buys out the debt obligations of (a) mortgage backed securities (b) debts owed by government entities to investors such as Fannie Mae bonds and (c) Treasury securities, in an atmosphere when the economy is operating at a reduced level, because there is a surplus or bumper crop of money floating around, but not so much to buy.
Problem #2: According to economists skeptical of “Quantitative Easing” say that further purchases of mortgages, government debts and treasury bills by the Federal Reserve will undermine faith in the US dollar as an accepted stable world currency and the safety of the US Treasury bill as keeping ahead of inflation because it fosters “perceptions of monetizing indebtedness,” according to Mr. Chan’s analysis of economist Kevin M. Warsh, in that it looks like it is the printing of money to pay off the public debt. “On a very simple level [with Quantitative Easing], the Federal Reserve Bank is printing money so the Treasury can spend more than it’s collecting in tax revenues…these are highly unusual circumstances, so no one is too worried about it [right now]. But it is always a temptation to use the central bank to finance government expenditures.”
Mr. Chan writes that economist Kevin M. Warsh notes that the Federal Reserve already has purchased 2.3 trillion worth of debt which includes vast sums of Treasury Bills, perhaps too much. The Treasury Bills are essentially a large share of the national debt. (Note that the Chinese probably now hold the remaining balance. That is a none too funny note for another day). Mr. Warsh notes that the Federal Reserve Bank’s institutional credibility is at stake, if it threatens the currency’s stability to pursue domestic growth.
Problem #3: Economists wary of Quantitative Easing relate that economists “don’t have a lot of good historical episodes in modern economies to know exactly what the effects of quantitative easing are.” Mr. Chan quotes Professor Walsh.