What If the Fed Throws a QE3 and Nobody Comes?

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To date, the stock market has largely shrugged off the evidence of oncoming recession, in the confidence that the Federal Reserve will easily prevent that outcome and defend the market from any material losses. On that point, it is helpful to remember that the real economic effects of Fed actions in recent years have been limited to short-lived bursts of pent-up demand over a quarter or two. Not surprisingly, as interest rates are already low, and risk-premiums on more aggressive assets are already remarkably thin, the impact of quantitative easing around the globe continues to show evidence of diminishing returns.

With the help of some preliminary work from Nautilus Capital, the following charts present the market gains, in percent, that followed versions of quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, and the Bank of England on their respective stock markets (measured by the S&P 500, the Dow Jones EuroStoxx Index, and the FTSE Composite, respectively). In order to give QE the greatest benefit of the doubt and account for any “announcement effects,” the advances in each chart are based on the 3-month, 6-month, 1-year and 2-year gains in each index following the initiation of the intervention, plus any amount of gain enjoyed by the market from its lowest point in the 2 months preceding the actual intervention. The effects of most interventions would look weaker without that boost.

fed qe operations

ecb bond purchases

boe asset purchasing

Remember that quantitative easing “works” through central bank hoarding of long-duration government bonds, paid for by flooding the financial markets with currency and reserves that essentially bear no interest. As a result, investors in aggregate have more zero-interest cash, and feel forced to reach for yield and speculative gains in more aggressive assets. Of course, in equilibrium, somebody has to hold the cash until it is actually retired (in aggregate, “sideline” cash can’t and doesn’t “go” anywhere). Increasing the quantity simply forces yield discomfort on more and more individuals. The process of bidding up speculative assets ends when holders of zero-interest cash are indifferent between continuing to hold that cash versus holding some other security. In short, the objective of QE is to force risky assets to be priced so richly that they closely compete with zero-interest cash.

Understanding this dynamic, it follows that QE will have its greatest impact on financial markets when interest rates and risk-premiums have spiked higher. If interest rates are low already, and risky assets are already priced to achieve weak long-term returns (we estimate that the S&P 500 is likely to achieve total returns of less than 4.8% over the coming decade), there is not nearly as much room for QE to produce a speculative run. Leave aside the question of why this is considered an appropriate policy objective in the first place, given the extraordinarily weak sensitivity of GDP growth to market fluctuations. The key point is this – QE is effective in supporting stock prices and driving risk-premiums down, but only once they are already elevated. As a result, when we look around the globe, we find that the impact of QE is rarely much greater than the market decline that preceded it.

To illustrate, each of the Fed, ECB and BOE quantitative easing interventions since 2008 are presented below as a timeline. The shaded area shows the amount of market gain that would be required to recover the peak-to-trough drawdown experienced by the corresponding stock index (S&P for Fed interventions, EuroStoxx for ECB interventions, FTSE for BOE interventions) in the 6-month period preceding the quantitative easing operation. The lines plot the 3-month, 6-month, 1-year and 2-year market gain following each intervention, adding any gain from the low of the preceding 2 months, to account for any "announcement effects." Technically, the lines should not be connected, since they represent the gains following distinct actions of different central banks, but connecting the points shows the clear trend toward less and less effective interventions, with the most recent interventions being flops. Notice also that central banks have typically initiated QE interventions only when the market had somewhere in the area of 18% or more of ground to make up.

boe qe 2008 to 2012

Of all the experiments with QE, the round of QE2 from late-2010 to mid-2011 was most effective, in that stocks recovered their prior 6-month peak, and even some additional ground. Yet even with QE2, the Twist and its recent extension, as well as liquidity operations such as dollar swaps and so forth, the S&P 500 is again below its April 2011 peak, and was within 5% of its April 2010 peak just a month ago (April 2010 is a particularly important reference for us, since that is that last point that the ensemble methods we presently use would have had a significantly constructive market exposure). The largely sideways churn since April 2010 reflects repeated interventions to pull a fundamentally fragile economy from the brink of recession, and recessionary pressures are stronger today than they were in either 2010 or 2011. Investors seem to be putting an enormous amount of faith in a policy that does little but help stocks recover the losses of the prior 6 month period, with scant evidence of any durable effects on the real economy.

In short, the effect of quantitative easing has diminished substantially since 2009, when risk-premiums were elevated and amenable to being pressed significantly lower. At present, risk-premiums are thin, and the S&P 500 has retreated very little from its April 2012 peak. My impression is that QE3 would (will) be unable to pluck the U.S. out of an unfolding global recession, and that even the ability to provoke a speculative advance in risky assets will be dependent on those assets first declining substantially in value.

Our economic problems run far deeper than what can be healed by more reckless bubble-blowing by the Federal Reserve. At the center of global economic turmoil is a mountain of bad debt that was extended on easy terms by weakly regulated lenders with a government safety net. Global leaders have done all they can to protect the lenders at the expense of the public – to make good on the bond contracts of mismanaged financial institutions by breaking the social contracts with their own citizens. The limit of this unprincipled madness is being reached.

The way out is to restructure bad debt instead of rescuing it. Particularly in Europe, this will require numerous financial institutions to go into receivership, where stock will be wiped out, unsecured bonds will experience losses, senior bondholders will get a haircut on the value of their obligations, and loan balances will be written down. Bank depositors, meanwhile, will not lose a dime, except in countries where the sovereign is also at risk of default. Even there, depositors will probably not lose any more than they would if they held sovereign debt directly. In the U.S., the pressing need continues to be mortgage restructuring, and an emerging recession is likely to bring that issue back to the forefront, as roughly one-third of U.S. mortgages exceed the value of the home itself.

Liquidity does not produce solvency. Bailouts from one insolvent entity to another insolvent entity do not produce solvency. Efforts to stimulate growth will not produce solvency if a large fraction of the economy is overburdened with debt obligations that cannot be repaid. What will produce solvency is debt restructuring. The best hope is that global leaders will recognize the necessity and move ahead with debt restructuring in an orderly way, particularly in the European banking system. The worst nightmare is that global leaders will deny the necessity and belatedly discover that they have squandered the last opportunity to avoid a disorderly finale.

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About John Hussman PhD