Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Quantitative Easing Explained (badly)
There’s a little video making the rounds on the Internet called, “Quantitative Easing Explained.” It’s cute, but don’t be fooled by the cuteness because it’s got pretty much everything all wrong. The video has two robot-like cartoon characters talking about quantitative easing and it starts off by saying that quantitative easing is nothing more than the Fed “printing a ton of money.” That’s the first dose of misinformation. Quantitative easing is NOT about printing money; but it IS about adding new reserves to the banking system. Moreover, reserves are not even part of the money supply and when they’re in the banking system they generally just tend to sit there earning some pittance of interest. There’s no “printing of money” going on; this is a huge misstatement.
Then the characters try to purport that deflation is good because it gives people more purchasing power, i.e. it lowers the cost of things and that allows consumers to buy more. Hell, if you listen to these characters you’d get the idea that all policy—monetary and fiscal—should be focused solely on creating massive deflation because everyone would somehow benefit. This is so wrong it’s ridiculous. What the robots ignore is that in a deflation wages are falling, too, so the real cost of goods and services actually rises. Debt becomes harder to service and asset prices fall (in the current reality home prices are falling, which are most household’s largest asset), so wealth falls. Less wealth means less ability to consume. You get poorer!
The characters try to refute the Fed’s claim that things are deflating by pointing out that prices for such things as food, gas, health care, tuition, taxes, subways, stocks and bonds are all rising. They’re trying to make the case that what we are really experiencing now is inflation, not deflation. Yes, some of those things are rising in price, but there are other items on the Consumer Price Index that are still falling, like housing, apparel and recreation. All told, inflation as measured by the CPI is up 1.1% versus last year. That’s not exactly some out of control hyperinflation.
The video then gets into an area where the full ignorance of its creators goes on display, when it starts talking about monetary operations. Monetary operations are mechanism by which the Fed sets rates or conducts quantitative easing. The characters say that the Fed executes QE by “printing money then buying the Treasuries.” In reality, it’s the total reverse: the Fed buys Treasuries by crediting reserve accounts, simple as that. In other words, reserves are a byproduct of asset purchases, in this case, Treasury purchases. There is no creating money and then buying of bonds.
Their confusion doesn’t end there. They say that the Fed could buy the bonds directly from the Treasury, but doesn’t. Instead, they go on to say, it buys from Goldman Sachs. (Goldman is used throughout the video as a metaphor for greedy Wall Street.)
The fact is, if the Fed bought from the Treasury it would have zero effect on reserve balances because the money would go into the Treasury’s account at the Fed rather than into the banking system, where the Fed wants the reserves to go. Therefore, in order for the Fed’s operations to have any chance of success it MUST buy bonds from the public and not the Treasury because it wants reserve credits to go into the banking system. You or I can buy bonds from the Treasury, but that’s a whole different thing. WE are not trying to affect monetary policy, the Fed is.
The video then makes the totally false claim that the Fed pays Goldman Sachs the worst price for the bonds. This is wrong, wrong, wrong. The way the Fed conducts monetary operations is that it will indicate its intentions and it will buy from dealers at the best price/lowest yield offered. What these guys say is all made up. They’re clearly on a propaganda mission here.
Toward the end they say that the Fed’s first quantitative easing program (QE1),conducted last year, was a failure because it didn’t create jobs or stop the housing market crisis. There’s probably some truth to that, however, it did stabilize the commercial paper market and other vital sectors of the capital markets and it probably helped boost stocks, which have climbed 80% since last year. Housing prices have stopped declining pretty much and the private sector has added about 1 million jobs. Much of this was due to the stimulus and automatic stabilizers, but to flat out state that QE1 was a failure, is just wrong.
The Internet is great, there’s a lot of good information out there, however, you have to be careful because it’s loaded with stuff like this: a lot of bad and misleading information that may be cynically designed to promote an agenda or advance someone's personal ideology. This clearly is an example.