Why QE is Not Working
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“The process by which money is created is so simple that the mind is repelled.” – JK Galbraith
By formally announcing quantitative easing (QE) “infinity” on March 23, 2020, the Federal Reserve (Fed) is using its entire arsenal of monetary stimulus. Unlimited purchases of Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities for an indefinite period is far more dramatic than anything they did in 2008. They also revived other financial-crisis programs like the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) and created a new special purpose vehicle (SPV), allowing them to buy investment-grade corporate bonds and related ETFs.
The purpose of these unprecedented actions is to unfreeze the credit markets, stem financial market losses, and provide some ballast to the economy.
Most investors are unable to grasp why the Fed’s actions have been, thus far, ineffective. In this article, I explain why today is different from the past. The Fed’s current predicament is unique as they have never been totally faced with zero-bound interest rates heading into a crisis. Their remaining tools become more controversial and more limited with the Fed funds rate at zero. My objective is to assess when the monetary medicine might begin to work and share my thoughts about what is currently impeding it.
All money is lent in existence
That sentence may be the most crucial concept to understand if you are to make sense of the Fed’s actions and assess their effectiveness.
Under the traditional fractional reserve banking system run by the U.S. and most other countries, money is “created” via loans. Here is a simple example:
- John deposits a thousand dollars into his bank
- The bank is allowed to lend 90% of their deposits (keeping 10% in “reserves”)
- Anne borrows $900 from the same bank and buys a widget from Tommy
- Tommy then deposits $900 into his checking account at the same bank
- The bank then lends to someone who needs $810 and they spend that money, etc…
After Tommy’s deposit, there is still only $1,000 of reserves in the banking system, but the two depositors they have a total of $1,900 in their bank accounts. The bank’s accountants would confirm that. To make the bank’s accounting balance, Anne owes the bank $900. The money supply, in this case, is $1,900 despite the amount of real money only being $1,000.
That process continually feeds off the original $1,000 deposit with more loans and more deposits. Taken to its logical conclusion, it eventually creates $9,000 in “new” money through the process from the original $1,000 deposit.
To summarize, we have $1,000 in deposited funds, $10,000 in various bank accounts and $9,000 in new debt. While it may seem “repulsive” and risky, this system is the standard operating procedure for banks and a very effective and powerful tool for generating profits and supporting economic growth. However, if everyone wanted to take their money out at the same time, the bank would not have it to give. They only have the original $1,000 of reserves.