I don’t usually read Robert Peston, now the BBC’s economics editor, but I came across this piece he wrote for their website on the end of the ongoing US quantitative easing (QE) programme. Here he makes the case, overall, that even though QE did not cause hyperinflation (yet!) it could still prove ‘toxic’ because it ‘inflates the price of assets beyond what could be justified by the underlying strength of the economy’. Basically every line of the piece includes something that I could dispute, but I will try and focus on the most important issues.
The first problem is that Peston takes a hardline ‘creditist’ view that not only is QE mainly supposed to help the economy through raising debt/lending, but by raising it in specific, centrally-planned areas (e.g. housing). When we find that QE barely affected lending, it seems to Peston that it failed. But QE does not raise lending to raise economic activity—QE raises economic activity through other channels, which may lead to more lending depending on the preferences of firms and households.
In his 2013 paper ‘Was there ever a bank lending channel?’ Nobel prizewinner Eugene Fama puts paid to this view. He points out that financial firms hold portfolios of real assets based on their preferences and their guesses about the future. QE can only change these preferences and guesses indirectly, by changing nominal or real variables in the economy. For example, extra QE might reduce the chance of a financial collapse, making riskier assets less unattractive. But when central banks buy bonds investors find themselves holding portfolios not exactly in line with their preferences and they ‘rebalance’ towards holding the balance of assets they want: cash, equities, bonds, gilts and so on. This is predicted by our basic expected-profit-maximising model and reliably seen in the empirical data too. It’s good because it implies that monetary policy can work towards neutrality.
This doesn’t mean Peston is right to be sceptical about the benefits of QE. QE has worked—according to a recent Bank of England paper buying gilts worth 1% of GDP led to .16% extra real GDP and .3% extra inflation in the UK (2009-2013), with even better results for the USA. The point is that it works through other channels—principally by convincing markets that the central bank is serious about trying to achieve its inflation target or even go above its inflation target when times are particularly hard. This is not an isolated result.
The second issue is that Peston claims QE isn’t money creation:
Because what has been really striking about QE is that it was popularly dubbed as money creation, but it hasn’t really been that. If it had been proper money creation, with cash going into the pockets of people or the coffers of businesses, it might have sparked serious and substantial increases in economic activity, which would have led to much bigger investment in real productive capital. And in those circumstances, the underlying growth rate of the UK and US economies might have increased meaningfully.
But in today’s economy, especially in the UK and Europe, money creation is much more about how much commercial banks lend than how many bonds are bought from investors by central banks. The connection between QE and either the supply of bank credit or the demand for bank credit is tenuous.
That is not to say there is no connection. But the evidence of the UK, for example, is that £375bn of quantitative easing did nothing to stop banks shrinking their balance sheets: banks had a too-powerful incentive to shrink and strengthen themselves after the great crash of 2008; businesses and consumers were too fed up to borrow, even with the stimulus of cheap credit.
This is extremely misleading and confused. He suggests that printing cash and handing it out would boost the ‘underlying’ growth rate, which is nonsense—the ‘underlying’ growth rate is driven by supply-side factors. He claims that money creation is identical with credit creation, when they are separate things, and he has already pointed out that creating money doesn’t always lead to more credit. We have already seen how credit is not the way QE affects growth, despite what economic journalists like Peston seem to unendingly tell us. Indeed, it seems quite clear that the great recession caused the credit crunch, rather than the other way round.
His ending few paragraphs are yet stranger:
But the fundamental problem with QE is that the money created by central banks leaked out all over the place, and ended up having all sorts of unexpected and unwanted effects. When launched it was billed as a big, bold and imaginative way of restarting the global economy after the 2008 crash. It probably helped prevent the Great Recession being deeper and longer. But by inflating the price of assets beyond what could be justified by the underlying strength of the economy, it may sown the seeds of the next great markets disaster.
It’s not clear at all why Peston thinks that QE would inflate asset prices beyond what could be justified. I’ve written at length about this before. The money a trader gets from selling a gilt to the Bank of England is completely fungible with all their other money. There is no reason to expect they will put this money in an envelope and save it for a special occasion. They try and hold the same portfolio of assets as they did before. Through various channels (including equity prices -> investment) QE raises inflation and real GDP and surprise surprise these are exactly the things that asset prices should care about.