Money for Nothing: from QE to QT

During the crisis, central banks lowered interest rates dramatically during the stock market crash.  The Fed Funds Rate went from 5.25% July 2007 to 3.0% March 2008 (when Bear Stearns failed, most people remember Lehman, which failed in September).   That summer Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae failed and the FFR was lowered to 2% and then 1% in September and finally 0% was the official rate in December 2008.  All the while financial asset prices kept falling and the economy was hemorrhaging.  Soon after hitting 0% as the cost of money to the banking system, the Federal Reserve started Quantitative Easing, where the Federal Reserve would buy mortgage backed securities (as well as other tax-payer insured instruments) to provide ‘liquidity’ to the markets.   The stated goal was to increase the prices of assets (stocks, real estate, bonds) so that the “wealth effect” would spur people to spend money rather than save it.  Given the anemic pace of economic expansion, the primary effect QE has had has been to push up stock prices well beyond normal valuations.

While the US has ceased QE, raised interest rates off the 0% mark, and laid out a plan to shrink its balance sheet (taking liquidity away from the market); the European and Japanese central banks continue to buy assets. The Europeans buy corporate bonds and the Japanese buy everything including equities.  The ECB has expressed a desire to cease its purchases (stopping new liquidity into the market) starting in 2018, but have not committed to a schedule.  The chart above combines all the central bank’s asset purchases and projections into 2019 overlaid with global equities.  On the chart below, notice how the EM (emerging markets withdrew liquidity late 2015 to 2017—emerging market stock indices (EEM) fell 39% from Sept 2014 through Jan 2016).  Additionally we can observe the effect central bank purchases have had on interest rate spreads, giving investors the most meager additional interest for taking on additional risk.

The chart shows the Fed’s net reductions in liquidity and the Swiss, Japanese and Europeans declining levels of new liquidity to the marketplace.   Given that adding liquidity boosted asset prices, as additional liquidity slows and possibly reverses, it is not unreasonable to assume markets will become much more volatile as we approach that time.  We will likely see the effects of Quantitative Tightening (QT) beginning in, and throughout 2018.  One way to counteract this, would be for private investors to save/invest rather than spend this difference (approx. $1.2 trillion), but a reduction in consumer spending would bring its own problems.

central bank purchases 2019


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