May 9, 2015

There’s a line of thinking to the effect that Quantitative Easing (QE) is not inflationary because it involves the exchange of one cash-like instrument for another. Taking the case of the US, the Fed’s QE supposedly adds X$ of money to the economy and simultaneously removes X$ of “cash-like” securities, leaving the total quantity of “cash-like” instruments unchanged. However, even putting aside the fact that many of the securities purchased as part the Fed’s QE programs are not remotely “cash-like” (nobody with a modicum of economics knowledge would claim that a Mortgage-Backed Security was cash-like), this line of thinking is patently wrong.

The simplest way for me to explain why it is patently wrong is via a hypothetical example that accurately reflects the situation in the real world. In my example, Jack is a securities dealer who deals directly with the Fed.

As part of a QE program the Fed wants to buy $1B of 2-year T-Notes with newly-created cash. Jack has $1B of T-Notes to sell, so a transaction occurs. If the Fed and Jack had simply swapped securities then there would be nothing inflationary about this transaction. Instead of holding the $1B of T-Notes yielding, say, 0.6%, Jack would be left with $1B of some other income-producing asset. However, what Jack is actually left with is a bank deposit containing 1 billion dollars of money earning 0%. Moreover, whereas he previously had no risk of suffering a nominal loss (assuming that he was prepared to hold the Notes to maturity), he now bears a low-probability risk of suffering a large nominal loss since only a tiny fraction of his $1B deposit is government guaranteed. Consequently, Jack will be quick to spend the money received from the Fed, most likely by purchasing some other bonds or perhaps by purchasing some equities.

Let’s assume that Jack uses half of the money received from the Fed to buy bonds from Bill and the other half to buy bonds from Ted. Bill and Ted are hedge fund managers. Following this transaction, Bill and Ted now each have the ‘problem’ of finding something to do with $500M of cash, because, like Jack, they can’t just leave such a large sum in a zero-interest bank deposit. They therefore quickly turn around and buy other assets, shifting the ‘problem’ of what to do with the cash to the sellers of those assets.

Get the picture? When the Fed injects money via its QE programs it is, in effect, passing a hot potato to securities dealers. The hot potato quickly gets handed off to other dealers and speculators, giving the demand for various financial assets an artificial boost along the way. Eventually the money will leak out of the bank accounts of large-scale speculators and begin to boost prices outside the financial markets, but, as we’ve seen, that process can take a long time.

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