Last week, the Governor of the Bank of England said This is the most serious financial crisis we have seen since the 1930s, if not ever. Well is it? Just like the 1930s the UK is in what we call a liquidity trap, a situation where monetary policy is unable to stimulate the economy either through lowering of interest rates or increasing money supply.
Liquidity traps occur when rates are reduced to the zero bound or thereabouts and cannot be reduced further. In real terms UK rates (base rate minus inflation) are negative 4% plus.
The liquidity trap is compounded when expectations of adverse events, either deflation or in the current situation, a lack of aggregate demand, are manifest. Firms are loathe to invest, households are constrained to spend, government spending is limited by a desire to resolve a fiscal debt crisis.
In the UK, the first round of Quantatitive Easing or asset purchases was essential to improve liquidity in the banking system at a time of crisis.
Inter bank lending was dessicated, LIBOR spreads were extending. The central bank was becoming not just the last lendor of resort but the only lender of resort. Action had to be taken to inject cash into the economy by undertaking a series of asset purchases predominantly gilts. The programme of some £200 billion was equal to 14% of GDP it had to be done.
This is not an argument for more asset purchases, for the exercise came at a price. QE forces up bond prices, pushes yields lower, punishes savers, places more pressure on sterling, increases import prices, leads to higher inflation, greater pressure on real incomes, a reduction in household spending, actually reduces demand and leads to lower growth.
Ten year gilt yields have fallen to 2.4% and thirty year gilt yields have fallen to 3.4%. But what does that mean? Gilts are mis priced, the real risk return on ten year gilts is negative. Effectively investors are paying the government to hold bonds.
Policy makers assume that lower interest rates at the longer end of the curve will lead to a higher level of investment. This is not the case. Any return on investment or payback calculation is a function of cash flows from a determined demand horizon.
Cost of capital does not feature in the basic investment model. Until the uncertainty about the forward level of demand and growth is cleared, investment plans will remain on the shelf.
The Bank of England suggests that QE increased GDP by between 1.5% - 2.0% but also led to an increase in inflation of between 0.75% and 1.5%. [Joyce M et al in the September Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin.] This is a highly speculative analysis.
If it were right, this would mean, that at best, the QE2 round of £75 billion would kick growth by just over 0.5% but increase inflation by over 1% on a pro rata basis according to the banks own figures.
One cannot be entirely confident in the bank’s hypothesis. QE led to a fall in gilt yields as a first round effect but thereafter the relationship between QE and the effect on growth and inflation is tenuous. The argument for further QE is intellectually weak and at best the potential economic impact minimal. The risks outweigh the return.
In fact I would argue that a further round of asset purchases merely oils the liquidity trap, digging a deeper hole, increasing the inflationary impact and reducing growth as investment plans are reigned back and household incomes are placed under greater strain. Sometimes the correct action is to do nothing, especially when it is more of the same toxic solution.
In 2008, writing about a zero interest rate policy, I wrote “Welcome to planet ZIRP. Unfortunately, we do not have a handbook, or fully understand the terrain. Our process of quantatitive easing, the plan to helicopter money may work but as a fire fighting option, it may be like dropping water into a desert, such are the fissures in the financial system." We just don’t really know what is achieved. So in the meantime we should say no to more QE and or asset purchases.