Saturday, August 14, 2010

Quantitative Easing

The figures keep coming in — and lately, as you may have noticed, they have not been looking too good. The chief problem seems to be that both consumers and producers are more interested in paying down debt than in expanding consumption or production. Some talk about double-dip recession. Some talk about deflation.

Ben Bernanke says the Fed has not exhausted its supply of tools for fighting such threats, but he has not been especially specific. Presumably he is referring to quantitative easing, a central bank policy that, essentially, creates a bit (hopefully only a bit) of inflation and makes the "security" of Treasury bonds less attractive by further lowering the already low rates of interest they currently pay.

The recent Fed announcement that proceeds from mortgage backed securities now beginning to bring in some earnings would be reinvested in Treasuries does not really count as quantitative easing, since it does not really increase the money supply. It suggested, though, that the Fed might be willing to purchase securities with newly created money — how much, or how soon, is anybody's guess.

There are a couple of problems, though, with quantitative easing. One is the possibility that it could stimulate inflation without prompting any increase in productive business activity. If that happened, prices would go up while unemployment stayed high — stagflation, seventies style — and people certainly would feel poorer. Those on fixed or limited incomes would be poorer.

More likely, though, it would accomplish nothing at all — the experience of the Bank of Japan when it used quantitative easing in an attempt to get Japan out of its "Lost Decade" of the nineties and the recession of 2000-2001. While a cheaper dollar ought to stimulate exports, it's just as likely to spark a trade war. Every country in the developed world is trying to export its way out of the current mess, and it's illogical to think they all could succeed.

I'm inclined to think the Fed really is out of ammo, so we're going to have to depend on Congress making intelligent fiscal policy. Since I'm not making predictions anymore, I'll let you decide for yourself how likely it is that that will happen.