The Federal Reserve of United States led by Chairman Ben Bernanke has decided to start tapering or go slow on its money printing operations in the days to come.
Currently the Fed prints $85 billion every month. Of this $40 billion are used to buy mortgage backed securities and $45 billion are used to buy American government bonds. Come January and the Fed will ‘taper’ these purchases by $5 billion each. It will buy mortgage backed securities worth $35 billion and $40 billion worth American government bonds, every month. The American central bank hopes to end money printing to buy bonds by sometime late next year.
The Federal Reserve started its third round of money printing(technically referred to as Quantitative Easing(QE)- 3) in September 2012. The idea, as before, was to print money and pump it into the financial system, by buying bonds. This would ensure that there would be enough money going around in the financial system, thus keeping interest rates low and encouraging people to borrow and spend money.
This spending would help businesses and in turn lead to economic growth. With businesses doing well, they would recruit more and thus the job market would improve. Higher spending would also hopefully lead to some inflation. And some inflation would ensure that people buy things now rather than postpone their consumption.
Unlike the previous rounds of money printing, the Federal Reserve had kept QE 3 more open ended. As the Federal Open Market Comittee(FOMC) of the Fed had said in a statement issued on September 13, 2012 “ If the outlook for the labor market does not improve substantially, the Committee will continue its purchases of agency mortgage-backed securities, undertake additional asset purchases, and employ its other policy tools as appropriate until such improvement is achieved in a context of price stability.”
Now what did this mean in simple English? Neil Irwin translates the above statement in The Alchemists – Inside the Secret World of Central Bankers “We’ll keep pushing money into the system until the job market really starts to improve or inflation starts to become a problem. And we will act on whatever scale we need until we achieve that goal. We’re not going to take the foot off the gas, that is, until some time after the car has reached cruising speed. Markets had been eagerly speculating about the possibility of QE3. Instead, they got something bigger: QE infinity.”
In a statement issued on December 13, 2012, it further clarified that it was targeting an unemployment level of 6.5%, in a period of one to two years. And the hint was that once the level is achieved, the Federal Reserve would start going slow on money printing.
The unemployment rate for November 2013 came in at 7% as employers added nearly 203,000 workers during the course of the month. This is the lowest the unemployment level has been for a while, after achieving a high of 10% in October 2009. The Federal Reserve’s forecast for 2014 is that the rate of unemployment would be anywhere between 6.3 to 6.6%. Given this, it was about time that the Federal Reserve started to go slow on money printing.
History has shown us that continued money printing over a period of time inevitably leads to high inflation and the destruction of the financial system. Hence, going slow on money printing “seems” like a sensible thing to do. But there are several twists in the tail.
The unemployment rate of 7% in November 2013, does not take into account Americans who have dropped out of the workforce, because they could not find a job for a substantial period of time. It also does not take into account people who are working part time even though they have the education and experience to work full time.
Once these factors are taken into account the rate of unemployment shoots up to 13.2%. The labour participation ratio has been shrinking since the start of the finanical crisis. In 2007, 66% of Americans had a job or were looking for one. The number has since shrunk to around 63%. To cut a long story short, all is not well on the employment front.
What about inflation? The measure of inflation that the Federal Reserve likes to look at is the core personal consumption expenditure (CPE). The CPE has been constantly falling since the beginning of 2013. At the beginning of the year it stood at 2%. Since then the number has constantly been falling and for October 2013 stood at 1.11%, having fallen from 1.22% a month earlier. This is well below the Federal Reserve’s target level of 2%. In 2014, the Federal Reserve expects this to be around 1.4-1.6%. And only in 2015 does the Fed expect it touch the target of 2%.
The point is that the Federal Reserve hasn’t been able to create inflation even after all the money that it has printed over the last few years, to keep interest rates low. A possible explanation for this could be the fact that the disposable income has been falling leading to a section of people spending less, and hence, lower inflation. As Gary Dorsch, editor of Global Money Trends newsletter points out in his latest newsletter “For Middle America, real disposable income has declined. The Median household income fell to $51,404 in Feb ‘13, or -5.6% lower than in June ‘09, the month the recovery technically began. The average income of the poorest 20% of households fell -8% to levels last seen in the Reagan era.”
Given this, instead of the inflation going up, it has been falling. The benign inflation might very well be on its way to become a dangerous deflation, feels CLSA strategist Russell Napier.
Deflation is the opposite of inflation, a scenario where prices of goods and services start to fall. And since prices are falling, people postpone their consumption in the hope of getting a better deal at a lower price. This has a huge impact on businesses and hence, the broader economy, with economic growth slowing down.
Deflation also kills stock markets. As Napier wrote in a recent note “Inflation has fallen to 1.1% in the USA and 0.7% in the Eurozone and we are now perilously close to deflation…Investors are cheering the direct impact of QE on their equity valuations, but ignoring its failure to produce sufficient nominal-GDP growth to reduce debt…When US inflation fell below 1% in 1998, 2001-02 and 2008-09, equity investors saw major losses. If a similar deflation shock hits us now, those losses will be exacerbated, since the available monetary responses are much more limited than they were in the past…We are on the eve of a deflationary shock which will likely reduce equity valuations from very high to very low levels.”
Albert Edwards of Societe Generale in a research note dated December 11, 2013, provides further information on why all is not well with the US economy. As he writes “So far, S&P 500 companies have issued negative guidance 103 times and positive guidance only 9 times. The resulting 11.4 negative to positive guidance ratio is the most negative on record by a wide margin. The highest N/P ratio prior to this quarter was Q1 2001, at 6.8…The margin cycle is turning down, profit forecasts over the next few weeks will be eviscerated. To me, this is consistent with recession.”
What these numbers tell us is that all is not well with the American economy. Over the last few years it has become very clear that the only tool that central banks have had to tackle low growth is to print more money.
Given this, it is more than likely that the Federal Reserve will go back to printing as much as it is currently doing or even more, in the days to come. The FOMC has kept this option open. As it said in a statement “However, asset purchases are not on a preset course, and the Committee’s decisions about their pace will remain contingent on the Committee’s outlook for the labor market and inflation as well as its assessment of the likely efficacy and costs of such purchase.”
In simple English, what this means is that if the need be we will go back to doing what we were. As The Economist magazine puts it “It is entirely possible that the tapering decision will prove premature. The Fed terminated two previous rounds of QE, only to restart them when the economy faltered and deflation fears flared. The FOMC’s forecasts have repeatedly proved too optimistic. Two years ago it thought GDP would grow 3.2% in 2013; a year ago, that had dropped to 2.6%, and it now looks to come in around 2.2%..”
We haven’t seen the end of the era of easy money as yet. There is more to come.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on December 19, 2013.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)