Why Quantitative Easing is Inflationary

Why Quantitative Easing is Inflationary

On 23 March the Federal Open Markets Committee (FOMC) announced unlimited QE for both US Treasury stock and agency debt as well as however much liquidity commercial banks need.[i] While judging the expansion of the budget deficit to be inflationary, it is only inflationary to the extent that it is not financed by savers, either increasing the proportion of their savings relative to immediate spending, or to the extent they divert their savings from other investment media. In the latter case, citizens have been committing their savings more to equity markets than bond markets. The returns for discretionary portfolios managed on the public’s behalf have also found better returns in equities than in government and corporate bonds, though when assessing increasing investment risk Treasury stock is seen to be a safe haven in bond portfolios. Pension funds and insurance companies also allocate cash flow to US Treasuries and to the extent that this is the case, the issuance of further government debt is non-inflationary.

Furthermore, if a bank does not increase its balance sheet by expanding bank credit, its participation in the Fed’s QE programme is not inflationary either. For this to be the case, it would have to sell existing stock, call in loans or subscribe on behalf of clients.

By seeing them through a Nelsonian blind eye these factors give some encouragement to the Fed in funding the Treasury through QE, particularly since the statistics reflect a jump in savings, as the following chart from the St Louis Fed illustrates.

More correctly, the chart reflects the fall in spending when people locked down, as well as the $1,200 stimulus checks distributed to households at end-April, which marked the peak in the chart. Since then, there has been some downward adjustment, partly because some spending has returned, and the backlog of essential spending, such as property maintenance, is being addressed.

The evidence is not yet strong enough to claim this statistical shift in savings habits is permanent. Furthermore, being calculated as the percentage of personal disposable income that is not spent and given the high levels of personal debt throughout the population, much of these so-called savings will have disappeared into credit card and debt repayments. It is more likely that with rising unemployment and roughly 80% of the American salaried population living paycheque to paycheque, that far from there being a higher savings rate, personal finances have deteriorated so much that money is being withdrawn from savings on a net basis, to acquire life’s essentials. In fact, the savings rate is one of those unmeasurable economic concepts, and the reality is that Joe Average is worse off in today’s contracting economy and is drawing down on savings in order to subsist.

The non-inflationary element of QE then boils down roughly to increases in insurance company and pension fund investments in Treasury stock and the increase in bank holdings and reserves at the Fed not funded through the expansion of bank credit. 

But this creates another factor: the extent to which existing bond investments are sold in order to subscribe for Treasury stock inevitably undermines corporate bond markets and their ability to satisfy their funding requirements. 

And it is for this reason the Fed has appointed BlackRock to spearhead its purchases of corporate debt to ensure liquidity is available for those markets and to put a cap on risk premiums. Therefore, where banks do not expand credit to buy new Treasury stock, the Fed steps in to compensate with additional monetary inflation.

It has been necessary to go into the mechanisms behind funding government deficits in some detail to establish the inflationary consequences of QE, and to refute claims by monetary authorities and others that QE is either not or only partly inflationary, and so is consistent with the Fed’s mandate. No, with the exception of insurance and pension fund subscriptions, the Fed’s QE is almost pure monetary inflation.

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