THE US Federal Reserve’s decision to undertake a third round of quantitative easing, or QE3, has raised three important questions. Will QE3 jump-start the country’s anaemic economic growth? Will it lead to a persistent increase in risky assets, especially in US and other global equity markets? And will its effects on gross domestic product (GDP) growth and equity markets be similar or different?
Many now argue that QE3’s effect on risky assets should be as powerful, if not more so, as that of QE1, QE2 and "Operation Twist", the Fed’s earlier bond-purchase programme. After all, while the previous rounds of US monetary easing have been associated with a persistent increase in equity prices, the size and duration of QE3 are more substantial. But, despite the Fed’s impressive commitment to aggressive monetary easing, its effects on the real economy and on US equities could well be smaller and more fleeting than those of previous QE rounds.
Consider, first, that the previous QE rounds came at times of much lower equity valuations and earnings. In March 2009, the S&P 500 index was down to 660, earnings per share (EPS) of US companies and banks had sunk to a financial-crisis low, and price/earnings ratios were in the single digits. Today, the S&P 500 is more than 100% higher (hovering near 1,430), the average EPS is close to $100 and p/e ratios are above 14.
Even during QE2, in the summer of 2010, the S&P 500, p/e ratios and EPS were much lower than they are today. If, as is likely, economic growth in the US remains anaemic in spite of QE3, top-line revenues and bottom-line earnings will turn south, with negative effects on equity valuations.
Moreover, fiscal support is absent this time: QE1 and QE2 helped prevent a deeper recession and avoid a double dip, respectively, because each was associated with a significant fiscal stimulus. In contrast, QE3 will be associated with a fiscal contraction, possibly even a large fiscal cliff.
Even if the US avoids the full fiscal cliff of 4.5% of GDP that is looming at the end of the year, it is highly likely that a fiscal drag amounting to 1.5% of GDP will hit the economy in 2013. With the US economy now growing at a 1.6% annual rate, a fiscal drag of even 1% implies near-stagnation in 2013, though a modest recovery in housing and manufacturing, together with QE3, should keep US growth at about its current level in 2013.
But there is no broader rebound under way. In both 2010 and 2011, leading economic indicators showed that the first-half slowdown had bottomed out, and that growth was already accelerating before the announcement of monetary easing. Thus, QE nudged along an economy that was already recovering, which prolonged asset reflation.
By contrast, the latest data suggest that the US economy is performing as sluggishly now as it was in the first half of the year. Indeed, if anything, weakness in the US labour market, low capital expenditures and slow income growth have contradicted signals in the early summer that third-quarter growth might be more robust.
Meanwhile, the main transmission channels of monetary stimulus to the real economy — the bond, credit, currency and stock markets — remain weak, if not broken. Indeed, the bond-market channel is unlikely to boost growth. Long-term government bond yields are already very low, and a further reduction will not significantly change private agents’ borrowing costs.
The credit channel also is not working properly, as banks have hoarded most of the extra liquidity from QE, creating excess reserves rather than increasing lending. Those who can borrow have ample cash and are cautious about spending, while those who want to borrow — highly indebted households and companies (especially small and medium-sized enterprises) — face a credit crunch.
The currency channel is similarly impaired. With global growth weakening, net exports are unlikely to improve robustly, even with a weaker dollar. Moreover, many major central banks are implementing variants of QE alongside the Fed, dampening the effect of the Fed’s actions on the dollar’s value.
Perhaps most important, a weaker dollar’s effect on the trade balance, and thus on growth, is limited by two factors. First, a weaker dollar is associated with a higher dollar price for commodities, which implies a drag on the trade balance, because the US is a net commodity-importing country. Second, any improvement in GDP derived from stronger exports leads to an increase in imports. Empirical studies estimate that the overall impact of a weaker dollar on the trade balance is close to zero.
The only other significant channel to transmit QE to the real economy is the wealth effect of an equity-market increase, but there is some circularity in the argument that QE3 will lead to a persistent rise in equity prices. If persistent asset reflation requires a significant GDP growth recovery, it is tautological to say that if equity prices rise enough following QE, the resulting increase in GDP from a wealth effect justifies the rise in asset prices. If monetary policy’s transmission channels to the real economy are broken, one cannot assume that QE will have a significant effect on economic growth.
Fed chairman Ben Bernanke has recently emphasised the importance of an additional channel: the confidence channel, through which the Fed’s commitment to maintaining generous monetary conditions for longer could improve private spending. The issue is how substantial and durable such effects will be. Confidence is fragile in an environment characterised by ongoing deleveraging, macro uncertainties, weak labour market growth and a fiscal drag.
In short, QE3 reduces the tail risk of an outright economic contraction, but is unlikely to lead to a sustained recovery in an economy that is still enduring a painful deleveraging process. In the short run, QE3 will lead investors to take on risk, and will stimulate modest asset reflation. But the equity-price rise is likely to fizzle out over time if economic growth disappoints, as is likely, and drags down expectations about corporate revenues and profitability.
© Project Syndicate, 2012