Of all the new terms that have been invented since the beginning of the crisis in 2008, quantitative easing is perhaps the most bizarre. A purely technical term, it has entered into everyday language as ‘QE’. Monetary policy has taken centre stage as the main tool governments have to do something about growth and QE is it.
Tucked away in the small money supplement of the FT weekend was a long piece on QE. Its discussion of the effects of quantitative easing is worth commenting on. QE is basically a monetary stimulus programme, where central banks create money and use it to buy assets from banks and other financial institutions. The main thing central banks have bought are government bonds. Holders of bonds have therefore exchanged them for cash and that cash is what the governments hope will be spent in ways that stimulate the economy. QE was dreamed up at a time when interests were so low that they couldn’t really go any lower, making a traditional monetary policy response to an economic downturn impossible. The standard approach had been to cut interest rates in a downturn, raise them when the economy seemed to be overheating. Unable to do that with rates so low, QE was the radical alternative.
QE has been striking by its ubiquity: it has been the key policy response of the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan. What is surprising is how prevalently it has been used but how sceptical people are of its effects. The idea is that cash injected into the economy would generate new economic activity. There is little evidence, however, that QE has done that. Banks have tended to use the money to boost their capital ratios rather than to increase lending to businesses. Companies have sat on increasing piles of cash. QE in general is seen as having had little effect on the real economy.
Where has its impact been felt? After all, the US Federal Reserve has been buying $85bn a month of US government bonds since it started its QE. Intervention on such a huge scale cannot be free of effects. According to the FT, the main impact of QE has been on asset prices rather than on the real economy as such. These prices have risen considerably, boosting the wealth of those who own such assets. Predictably enough, that means the already very wealthy. The FT cites a Bank of England study that finds that in the UK, the top 5% of households hold 40% of the assets whose price has risen most because of QE. The central banks’ policy of printing money has inflated some asset prices, to the great benefit of those that hold them.
For everyone else, the effect has been more mixed. By keeping interest rates at very low levels, QE has obviously favoured the lenders over the savers. All those hoping to earn some return on their savings have been disappointed. Home owners, especially those with big mortgages, have been happy. This view of QE helps us understand some of the curious features of this current economic downturn: as the real economy data continues to give cause for real concern (unemployment remains high, growth is anaemic, business investment remains very low), the price of fine art, the best wines and the high end properties in London, Paris and New York have all soared. With low interest rates and with central banks injecting so much liquidity into the bond markets, investors are looking for some return wherever they can. And that includes in a Monet or a large house in Neuilly or Richmond.
The best defence of QE cited by the FT was that things could have been worse without it. It returned confidence to markets and investors, and so helped us avoid the complete collapse that could have occurred in 2008 or 2009. As the FT admits, this argument is difficult to prove: “we just don’t know what would have happened without QE”. It is surprising that a policy with such obvious distributional effects has not been the subject of greater debate or disagreement. This is perhaps because the term itself is so euphemistically technical. Or because it has been carried out by central banks whose place is somewhat outside the terrain of partisan politics. It may also be that governments have been good at convincing people that there is no alternative to QE, which is tantamount to saying that they have no way of tackling problems in the real economy directly but can only work through asset prices.
This, of course, is not true. Governments could intervene far more directly in the economy. However, QE sits alongside the view that governments are fiscally constrained and need to reduce their outgoings as much as possible. Fiscal austerity combined with QE gives us the policy mix for the current period: a massive boost in the prices of assets owned by the wealthiest section of society and extensive cuts in government spending on public services. However technical it may sound, there is nothing ideologically neutral about QE and its effect.