Last week, at her press conference, Federal Reserve Chair, Janet Yellen said continued low inflation was a "mystery."
She's referring to Quantitative Easing (QE) and the lack of the economic evidence that it worked. The Fed bought $3.5 trillion of bonds with money it created out of thin air in an extraordinary "experiment" to avoid repeating the mistakes of the deflationary Great Depression. Milton Friedman was the leading scholar in this arena, proving the damage done by a shrinking money supply during the 1930s.
The money supply is a "demand-side" economic tool. A lack of money inhibits demand, while a surplus of money (more than the economy needs to grow) can cause inflation. The idea of QE (which has been tried unfruitfully for more than a decade in Japan) was to boost "demand-side" growth. And, yet, inflation and economic growth have both been weak. In other words, demand did not accelerate.
So forgive us for asking, but after unprecedented expansion of banking reserves and the Fed balance sheet, with little inflation, is it really a "mystery?" Or, is it proof of what we believed all along: QE didn't work?
We get it. Just the fact that the US economic recovery started in 2009 and stock prices went higher is all some need to convince themselves that QE worked. But no one knows what would have happened without QE.
Back in 2008, even Janet Yellen knew there were problems with QE. During a December 2008 Fed meeting, she said there were "no discernible economic effects" from Japanese QE. Back then she was a Fed Governor and this was said during internal debates about whether to do QE. Today she leads the Fed and bureaucracies can never admit failure. So, the lack of inflation becomes a "mystery."
Conventional Wisdom is so convinced that QE worked, it can't see anything as a failure. QE supposedly pushed up stock prices and drove down interest rates, while at the same time boosting jobs.
As for the lack of demand-side growth, the explanations are confusing. Yellen says low inflation is a mystery, others say it's because of new technologies, global trade, and rising productivity. Slow real GDP growth is blamed on global trade, a Great Stagnation in productivity and the lack of investment by private companies. QE gets credit for the things that went up, but things that didn't are explained away, denied, or determined to be mysteries.
We have promoted an alternative narrative that agrees with the 2008 Janet Yellen – QE didn't work. It flooded the banking system with cash. But instead of boosting Milton Friedman's key money number (M2), the excess monetary base growth went into "excess reserves" – money the banks hold as deposits, but don't lend out. Money in the warehouse (or in this case, credits on a computer) doesn't boost demand! This is why real GDP and inflation (nominal GDP) never accelerated in line with monetary base growth.
The Fed boosted bank reserves, but the banks never lent out and multiplied it like they had in previous decades. In fact, the M2 money supply (bank deposits) grew at roughly 6% since 2008, which is the same rate it grew in the second half of the 1990s.