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Double Bubble

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I’m sure there has been a huge number of search engine queries during the past few days, from people who are trying to find out what is meant by the term: “quantitative easing”.  My cynical, home-made definition of the term goes like this:

Quantitative easing involves the Federal Reserve’s purchase of Treasury securities as well as mortgage-backed securities from those privileged, too-big-to-fail banks.

The curiosity about quantitative easing has increased as a result of the release of the notes from the most recent meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) which boosted expectations that there will be another round of quantitative easing (often referred to as QE II).  On October 15, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke delivered a speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.  After discussing how weak the economic recovery has been (as demonstrated by lackluster consumer spending and the miserable unemployment crisis) Bernanke pointed out that the Fed’s current predicament results from the fact that it has already lowered short-term, nominal interest rates to near-zero.  He then noted that the federal funds rate will be kept low “for longer than the markets expect”.  Bernanke finally got to the point that people wanted to hear him discuss:  whether there will be another round of quantitative easing.  Here is what he said:

In particular, the FOMC is prepared to provide additional accommodation if needed to support the economic recovery and to return inflation over time to levels consistent with our mandate.  Of course, in considering possible further actions, the FOMC will take account of the potential costs and risks of nonconventional policies, and, as always, the Committee’s actions are contingent on incoming information about the economic outlook and financial conditions.

In other words:  They’re still thinking about it.  Meanwhile, former Secretary of  Labor, Robert Reich, wrote a great essay telling us that the Fed will go ahead with more quantitative easing.  After defining the term, Professor Reich added this important tidbit:

Problem is, it won’t work.  Businesses won’t expand capacity and jobs because there aren’t enough consumers to buy additional goods and services.

I’m sure that was a helluva lot more common sense than many people were expecting from a professor at Berkeley.  Beyond that, Professor Reich gave us the rest of the bad news:

So where will the easy money go?  Into another stock-market bubble.

It’s already started.  Stocks are up even though the rest of the economy is still down because money is already so cheap. Bondholders (who can’t get much of any return from their loans) are shifting their portfolios into stocks.  Companies are buying back more shares of their own stock.  And Wall Street is making more bets in the stock market with money it can borrow at almost zero percent interest.

When our elected representatives can’t and won’t come up with a real jobs program, the Fed feels pressed to come up with a fake one that blows another financial bubble.  And we know what happens when financial bubbles get too big.

Another bubble currently under expansion is the “junk bond” bubble.  Sy Harding wrote an important article for Forbes entitled, “Fed Still Blowing Bubbles?“.  Here is some of what he said:

The economy’s problems at this point don’t seem to be the level of interest rates, but the lack of jobs, dismal consumer confidence, and the unwillingness of banks to make loans.

However, just the anticipation of additional quantitative easing and still lower long-term interest rates has already potentially begun to pump up the next bubbles, as investors have moved out the risk curve in an effort to find higher rates of return. Money has been flowing at a dramatic pace into high-yield junk bonds, commodities, and gold.  And the stock market has surged up 12% just since its August low when talk of another round of quantitative easing began.  Meanwhile, the U.S. dollar has been trashed further on expectations that the Fed will be ‘printing’ more dollars to finance another round of quantitative easing.

Nevertheless, Sy Harding isn’t so sure that QE II is a “done deal”.  After making his own cost-benefit analysis, Mr. Harding reached this conclusion:

It’s a no-brainer.  Blow another bubble and worry about the consequences down the road.

Yet in his speech Friday morning Fed Chairman Bernanke did not go all in on quantitative easing, stopping short of announcing a new policy, saying only that the Fed contemplates doing more, but “will take into account the potential costs and risks.”

So uncertainty remains for a market that has probably already factored in a substantial new round of stimulus.

This raises an important question:  How will the markets react if the consensual assumption that there will be a QE II turns out to be wrong?

Bond guru, Mohamed El-Erian of PIMCO,  recently wrote a piece for the Financial Times, in which he asserted his conclusion that judging from the FOMC minutes, “it is virtually a foregone conclusion” that the Fed will proceed with QE II.  El-Erian described this anticipated action by the Fed as an effort to “push” investors “to move out on the risk spectrum and buy corporate bonds and stocks”.

Getting back to my earlier question:  If the Fed decides not to proceed with QE II, will the bubbles that have been inflated up to that point make such a large pop as to drive the economy toward that dreaded second dip into recession?  On the other hand, if the Fed does proceed to implement QE II:  What will be the ultimate cost to taxpayers for something Robert Reich describes as a “fake” jobs program “that blows another financial bubble” and accomplishes nothing else?

As Professor Reich has pointed out, the Fed itself is the one being “pushed” to take action here because “our elected representatives can’t and won’t come up with a real jobs program”.  Unfortunately, any “jobs program” initiated by the government has become a “third rail” issue with mid-term elections looming.   As I stated previously, if the economic crisis had been properly addressed two years ago, when the political will for an effective solution still existed, the Fed would not be faced with the current dilemma.  But here we are   .  .  .   just blowing more bubbles.


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