Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Macro: The End of QE-topia

Negative rate is much more than what it says on the label. One of the cornerstones of modern finance is what is called present value (PV). PV is used to evaluate real projects, value financial investments or price derivatives, you name it. Surprisingly, based on my personal experience, it appears many practitioners and investors are unaware of the fundamental assumption on which this all encompassing concept of PV is delicately balanced - an assumption of a properly functional lending and borrowing market. Without that, there is no mean to transfer values across time back and forth, and PV loses its real meaning. Negative rates makes one question the validity of this assumption.

Central banks, it appears, are having a hard time. Last week's BoJ's underwhelming policy outcome was scorned off by the markets with an emphatic rally in Yen and sell-off in JGBs. This week BoE is widely expected to kick-in with some Brexit easing, and the markets so far has greeted the possibility with a renewed sell-off in FTSE 100. ECB is also expected to up the ante with another QE extension sometime later this year, and the European equities do not seem overjoyed about it. To contrast, S&P 500 seems pretty much nonchalant about a plausible Fed hike. The usual QE-led risk rally, it appears, are drawing to an end. In fact a few are already calling out for a regime change - from QE to deflation dominance (or lack of demand).

In the wake of the Great Financial Crisis, most central bank carried out a massive amount of monetary stimulus. One way to track the global monetary stimulus beyond policy rates is to track the combined balance sheet of major central banks1, as we see below.

Few would argue against the unprecedented monetary stimulus led mostly by the Fed which served a crucial purpose during and after the crisis to restore confidence, liquidity and growth conditions. However, the effectiveness of QEs from other central banks have arguably been much weaker. ECB QE is so far hardly "successful".

Also, over time, the impact to real economy has grown visibly less dramatic. Below chart (left one) shows the growth in global major central bank balance sheet  vis-à-vis growth in M2 money supply as well as bank lending across major economies2. Since the abatement of the European Sovereign Crisis in Q3 2012, all the measures have started moving in lock-step. What is more, the magnitude of global M2 growth has been lower than central bank balance sheet growth, meaning less bang for the QE bucks. The bank lending growth has been even lower than that. It is hardly a surprise we started to have quite a bit of noise around the effectiveness of QE and monetary stimulus around that time and since.

It is not hard to see why. As the right hand chart3 shows, irrespective of what the central banks have been doing, the global private sector still continues with deleveraging (with some exception, like US corporates). The excess savings - especially for Euro area (and a large contraction in dis-savings in the US as well) clearly underscores the problem. This arguably is an expected outcome of a balance sheet recession - wherein the private sector, afflicted with too much debt and in a process to repair their balance sheet, will try to increase savings and desist from borrowing no matter how low the lending rates are pushed down by QE. This is less a question about pricing and more about the capacity and willingness to borrow. On top, the increased regulatory burdens and negative interest rates certainly did not help the banking sector much to upsize their loan books. The combined effect - anemic global demand and as a result, stunted global investments (not helped by pre-crisis built-up over-capacity in certain sectors) - was given a new moniker, secular stagnation.

Economies can be stimulated using many forms and jargon. But in any case, to boost demand it must work to enable the demand side to afford it. And this increase demand must be paid for by either increased debt (i.e. borrowing) or equity (like increased transfer or wage). Monetary policy, in practice, mostly tend to fund this increased demand through debt in its standard transmission channel through banks. In a scenario where many are focused on reducing leverage, it is no surprise that this will have a less-than-expected impact. Monetary policy can enhanced equity based spending as well, like through wealth effect or inducing an increase in wage through increased inflation expectation. While this has worked in the US, for the rest of the world, especially in Euro Area and in Japan, this has hardly been the case. The dis-inflation remains very much alive.

There are some recent trends, however, that is slowly becoming a theme - and it involves the other side of the stimulus coin. 2015 has been the first year after the extra-ordinary time during the crisis, that major global economies have experienced a reversal of a combined fiscal tightening (see below4 on the left). We are past the fiascoes like sales tax hike in Japan and the excessive focus on balanced budget in Europe. And a few countries like Canada and Japan have already stated fiscal stimulus as their explicit policy tools. US may see similar moves after the election. Of course the downside of the government playing the role of "consumer of the last resort" is that this comes at a cost of debt concentration at government sector. 

We are on a cusp right now. Global consumption, despite all the allegation, has shown considerable resilience (although much away from their pre-crisis period, see chart5 above on the right). What we want now, more than ever, is avoiding any policy mistake. Given the fragile nature and very low margin of error on the policy side, it will be hard to recover from one. We are past the days of equity rallies with every new round of monetary easing. Markets will focus more and more on the underlying growth. This growth will of course have some costs - the key policy issue will be how to allocate that in a balanced manner between the fiscal and monetary side of this. One-sided efforts from central banks - increasingly larger asset purchase from a rather finite pool in a world characterized by negative interest rates and safe asset shortage - is perhaps past its used-by date.

1. source: national central banks
2. source: national central banks, IMF, Bloomberg

3. source: national statistics offices, IMF
4. source: national statistics offices, national central banks

5. source: national statistics offices, Bloomberg

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