Dangers of endless quantitative easing
August 06 2021 12:28 AM
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Inflation readings in the United States have shot up in recent months. Labour markets are extremely tight. In one recent survey, 46% of small-business owners said they could not find workers to fill open jobs, and a net 39% reported having increased their employees’ compensation. Yet, at the time of this writing, the yield on ten-year Treasury bonds is 1.24%, well below the ten-year breakeven inflation rate of 2.4%. At the same time, stock markets are flirting with all-time highs.
Something in all this does not add up. Perhaps the bond markets believe the US Federal Reserve when it suggests that current inflationary pressures are transitory and that the Fed can hold policy interest rates down for an extended period. If so, growth – bolstered by pent-up savings and the additional government spending currently being negotiated in Congress – should be reasonable, and inflation should remain around the Fed’s target. The breakeven inflation rate also seems to be pointing to this scenario.
But that doesn’t explain why the ten-year Treasury rate is so low, suggesting negative real rates over the next decade. What if it is right? Perhaps the spread of the Covid-19 Delta variant will prompt fresh lockdowns in developed countries and damage emerging markets even more. Perhaps more nasty variants will emerge. And perhaps the negotiations in Congress will break down, with even the bipartisan infrastructure bill failing to pass. In this scenario, however, it would be hard to justify the stock-market buoyancy and breakeven inflation rate.
One common factor driving up both stock and bond prices (thus lowering bond yields) could be asset managers’ search for yield, owing to the conditions created by extremely accommodative monetary policies. This would explain why the prices of stocks (including “meme stocks”), bonds, cryptocurrencies, and housing are all a little frothy at the same time.
To those who care about sound asset prices, Fed Chair Jerome Powell’s announcement last week that the economy had made progress toward the point where the Fed might end its $120bn monthly bond-buying programme was good news. Phasing out quantitative easing (QE) is the first step toward monetary-policy normalisation, which itself is necessary to alleviate the pressure on asset managers to produce impossible returns in a low-yield environment.
The beginning of the end of QE would not please everyone, though. Some economists see a significant downside to withdrawing monetary accommodation before it is clear that inflation has taken off. Gone is the old received wisdom that if you are staring inflation in the eyeballs, it is already too late to beat it down without a costly fight. Two decades of persistently low inflation have convinced many central bankers that they can wait.
And yet, even if monetary policymakers are not overly concerned about high asset prices or inflation, they should be worried about another risk that prolonged QE intensifies: the government’s fiscal exposure to future interest-rate hikes.
While government debt has soared, government interest payments remain low, and have even shrunk as a share of GDP in some countries over the last two decades. As such, many economists are not worried that government debt in advanced economies is approaching its post-World War II high. But what if interest rates start moving up as inflation takes hold? If government debt is around 125% of GDP, every percentage-point increase in interest rates translates into a 1.25 percentage-point increase in the annual fiscal deficit as a share of GDP. That is nothing to shrug at. With interest rates normally rising by a few percentage points over the course of a business cycle, government debt can quickly become stressful.
To this, thoughtful economists might respond, “Wait a minute! Not all the debt has to be rolled over quickly. But that is no reason for complacency. The average maturity for government debt is much lower in other countries, not least the US, where it is only 5.8 years. Moreover, what matters is not the average debt maturity (which can be skewed by a few long-dated bonds), but rather the amount of debt that will mature quickly and must be rolled over at a higher rate. — Project Syndicate



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