Consequences Remain from Quantitative Easing

Andy RosenbergerAndrew Rosenberger, CFA, Brinker Capital

Despite the now numerous iterations of quantitative easing, the full effects of large-scale asset purchases aren’t fully understood by market participants or policy makers. After four years of experimenting in this new Petri dish, markets understand how liquidity is created, but not where that liquidity ultimately flows to. Arguably, as evidence by P/E multiple expansion, new highs on the major indices, high yield credit spread at all-time lows, and a still sluggish economy, many believe that much of this liquidity has found its way into risky assets as opposed to the broader economy.

If we take a step back for a moment, there are three potential adverse consequences from quantitative easing (QE):

  1. Future inflation
  2. Negative political and/or sovereign perceptions
  3. Asset bubbles

To date, two out of those three adverse consequences haven’t been a problem. On the inflation front, TIPS breakeven rates are range bound, precious metal prices are falling, and lagging measures of inflation via governmental statistics are tempered. Similarly, although there have been some negative headlines surrounding the risks of QE, by no means are these rumblings excessive or prohibitive to policy continuation. However, what may present an issue is the persistence of increasing asset valuations.

5.23.13_Rosenberg_QEWhile many members of the Fed believe higher asset prices create a “wealth effect”, two recent bubbles suggest that the last thing policymakers need on their plate is another asset bubble. Finding the delicate balance between boosting wealth and not creating a new bubble suggests that the Fed will ultimately need to pullback on quantitative easing should price trends continue at their current pace. Thus, in a circular reference type of thought process, I worry that the regulator to higher equity prices may ultimately be higher equity prices in and of themselves. Said a bit differently, higher asset prices has the potential to cause concern for the Fed, resulting in a tapering off of quantitative easing, ultimately translating to a pullback in equity prices. Hence, higher equity prices may ultimately be the reason that central banks have to ease off of the pedal. Thus, in a “reflexivity” sort of way, rapidly rising asset prices may be bad for assets in the back of 2013 or 2014.

In today’s market environment, the name of the investing game is investing alongside the Fed. Naturally, one can then understand why the Federal Reserve “tapering” their quantitative easing is such a big deal. When the rules of the game change, it takes time for markets to understand the paradigm shift and transition from the easy liquidity from central banks. Our belief is that the Fed is well aware that it greatly influences markets and thus will try to make this transition as smooth as possible without pushing markets into bubble territory.

Balancing Act

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Brinker Capital

Concern lurched back into the market place last week, as the specter of an eventual withdrawal of the extraordinary measures the U.S. Central Bank has employed since the financial crisis, served to temporarily rattle markets around the globe. Although stocks rebounded smartly as the week drew to a close, from what had been the largest two-day selloff seen since November, the increase in volatility is noteworthy as it spread quickly across asset classes, highlighting the uncertainty that lingers below the surface.

Equities listed in the United States retreated from the five-year highs they had reached early last week following the release of the minutes of the most recent Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting as the voices of those expressing reservations about continuing the unprecedented efforts of the Central Bank to stimulate the U.S. economy grew louder. The concern of these members of the Committee stems from a fear that the current accommodative monetary policy may lead to “asset bubbles” (Bloomberg News) that would serve to undermine these programs. “A number of participants stated that an ongoing evaluation of the efficacy, costs and risks of asset purchases might well lead the committee to taper, or end, its purchases before it judged that a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market had occurred. The minutes stated.” (Wall Street Journal).

Tangible evidence of the unease these words created in the marketplace could be found in the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index, or VIX, which measures expected market volatility, as it leapt 19% in the aftermath of this statement representing its largest single-day gain since November 2011 (Bloomberg News). The reaction of investors to the mere possibility of the Fed pulling back its historic efforts illustrates the continued dependence of the marketplace on this intervention and highlights the difficulties facing the Central Bank in not derailing the current rally in equities when it eventually pares back its involvement.

A measure of the uncertainty surrounding the timing of the Federal Reserve’s withdrawal of its unprecedented efforts to support the U.S. economy was dispelled by St. Louis Fed President, James Bullard, in an interview he gave late last week. Mr. Bullard, currently a voting member of the FOMC, was quoted by CNBC, “I think policy is much easier than it was last year because the outright purchases are a more potent tool than the ‘Twist’ program was…Fed policy is very easy and is going to stay easy for a long time.”

Reports of statements made by The Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, earlier this month, which downplayed the potential creation of dangerous asset bubbles through the Central Bank’s actions, released Friday, helped to further assuage the market’s concerns. “The Fed Chairman brushed off the risks of asset bubbles in response to a presentation on the subject…Among the concerns raised, according to this person, were rising farmland prices, and the growth of mortgage real estate investment trusts. Falling yields on speculative-grade bonds also were mentioned as a potential concern” (Bloomberg News). Although the rhetoric offered by these members of the Federal Reserve in the wake of the release of the minutes of the FOMC was offered to alleviate fears, the text of the meeting has served as a reminder to the marketplace that the asset purchases currently underway, which total $85 billion per month, will be reduced at some point in the future, and as such, has served as a de facto tightening of policy.

Though investors appeared to be appeased by the words of Mr. Bullard as well as those of Mr. Bernanke, the steep selloff that accompanied the mention of a pull back of the Central Bank’s efforts is a reminder of the high-wire act the Fed is facing when it does in fact need to extricate itself from the bond market.