BoE extends QE, fears 1930s re-run

August 6, 2009

John Kemp

– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own –

The Bank of England’s decision to continue with its asset purchase programme, or quantitative easing (QE), at the rate of 50 billion pounds per quarter in Oct-Dec, unchanged from Jul-Sep, shows bank officials are more worried about ending support for the recovery too soon than about risking inflation by leaving it too late.

The problem with QE is that you have to keep buying the same amount of assets each month to maintain the same monetary stance. With interest rates, the Bank can cut them and they stay cut. If asset prices drop with QE, it represents a tightening of monetary policy.

The Bank initially bought 75 billion pounds in the first 3 months (Apr-Jun) and then tapered this to 50 billion in the second three months (Jul-Sep) as the crisis engulfing the banking system and the rest of the economy eased. A cautious approach might have tapered the QE programme again to 25 billion in the final three months of the year before ending it entirely at the start of 2010. But the Bank opted to stick at 50 billion.

Critics point out that the programme has not achieved its announced objective of increasing bank credit and the amount of money in circulation. The rate of growth in M4, the broadest money supply measure, has risen only marginally. But that ignores the counterfactual of what would have happened to M4 in the absence of the programme — it might have fallen sharply.

Growth in the monetary aggregates is, in any event, mostly endogenous. It depends on demand for credit. In the current environment, where many households and businesses have little or no collateral, credit is impaired, and most are focused on paying down debt rather than adding to it, limited growth in M4 is not surprising. Trying to make it grow faster is like force feeding a duck to make foie gras — possible but unnatural.

QE has always been as much about restoring confidence, dispelling fears about deflation and ensuring a ready market for the safer securities banks hold as much as growing the money supply. On most of these measures it must be considered a qualified, if expensive, success. A full judgement will only be possible when the Bank has proved it can withdraw the excess liquidity in a timely manner to prevent an upsurge in inflation.

In the end, the decision to press on is driven by fears about the fragility of the current recovery, and the risk that if QE ends too soon, effectively tightening policy, whatever green shoots have emerged over the summer will be killed off by an autumn frost.

All recoveries are fragile and weak early on. While the rebuilding of inventories along the supply chain, often provides the initial boost, this must eventually be replaced by a more sustained increase in household and business expenditure.

But with their new focus on the experience of the 1930s, central bank officials worldwide are more worried than normal about doing anything to stall the recovery.

Looming over the debate is the experience of 1937, when the Federal Reserve responded to concerns about the amount of “excess liquidity” in the banking system and sharp rises in the price of some commodities, especially steel, by doubling reserve requirements on banks in the space of nine months. It effectively converted previously “excess” reserves against which the banks could lend into “required” reserves against which they could not.

The four-year old recovery (1933-1937) promptly collapsed amid tightening bank credit, and the United States suffered the second deep recession in a decade, with output not fully recovering until the onset of war in 1940-41 (https://customers.reuters.com/d/graphics/DSTMIRROR.pdf).

Anxious to avoid a repeat, it is no wonder that the Bank of England is in no hurry to tighten policy. While this level of QE must eventually generate inflationary pressures, the Bank judges, probably correctly, that it still has some time before policy needs to move to a more restrictive setting.

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