We had just finished our latest essay The Hole in Jackson Hole, when we got this article from Bloomberg: Fed Moves Toward Open-Ended Bond Purchases to Satisfy Bernanke. In our essay we presented our arguments that LSAPs (QE) have been ineffective in stimulating the economy. The Bloomberg article, however, suggests some new LSAP will be coming soon (something we agreed with as a result of our analysis of Bernanke’s speech).
LSAPs were introduced to manipulate interest rates because the traditional tool for doing this, the Effective Federal Funds Rate (EFFR), became ineffective when it reached the zero lower bound. Since the EFFR was designed to manipulate short-term rates and these were effectively at zero, the Fed used LSAPs to affect longer dated maturities, eventually lowering rates across the entire yield curve to the 30-year bond. All have recently touched historic lows.
As we argued, there has been no observable effect of LSAPs on the employment situation. Bloomberg speculates that the Fed will soon introduce an LSAP policy that is open ended. Its goal will not be to acquire a certain class of assets in a specified quantity in a specified period of time as previous LSAPs have done, but to set an economic target for the program rather than an asset target. Jim Rickards suggested they would do this several months ago, targeting a certain level of GDP. Bloomberg suggests they may target a certain level of unemployment – say 7%.
In an economic environment where GDP and employment are in a cyclical downturn one might assume they will return to historic norms. If however, there are structural changes in the economy, this assumption is invalid. In our essay we showed a thirty year downtrend in GDP and employment growth. We argued that this is structural since it it spans four recessions or business cycles.
Bernanke’s bet is the recovery has a cyclical basis. We argue it has a structural basis*. If Bernanke is wrong and sets a policy objective for levels that are no longer relevant due to structural changes, then he will have created an open-ended ticket to money creation at the Fed bounded by a goal that is unattainable. But what is worse, he cannot realize that the failure of his policy is based on a fundamental misreading of the economy. Rather the danger is he will misread the situation as Paul Krugman has done and feel that the problem simply requires more money to be thrown at it.
We find today, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard arguing in The Telegraph in his essay Era of ‘jobs-targeting’ begins as Fed launches QE3, that the employment situation is due to a structural change. He quotes Bernanke’s concern as:
a grave concern, not only because of the enormous suffering and waste of human talent it entails, but also because high levels of unemployment will wreak structural damage on our economy that could last for many years
Then he quotes Minneapolis Fed chief Narayana Kocherlakota as saying that the lack of jobs skills imply less slack than assumed – known as an upward shift in the “Beveridge Curve”. The problem is “structural”.
In The Hole in Jackson Hole, Figure 4 shows that for the current ‘recovery’, the year-over-year change in GDP is at trend. This we interpret to mean the full recovery has happened and current employment numbers are the ‘new normal’. To support this notion, we note Ambrose’s statement America’s output is now well above its previous peak in late 2007, unlike Japan and most of Europe. If output has fully recovered, there is no room for any significant expansion in employment. Indeed, the larger levels of unemployed – the actual levels, not the official levels – will prove to be a drag on economic expansion as these people will require social service support while remaining unproductive.
The implication then for a QE program that targets a level of employment is that this level will be reached only when sufficient people drop out of the labour force to reduce the numbers and not by job creation. We have a nagging feeling, not that QE will not be effective since we believe it won’t be, but that it will actually damage the economy at an accelerating rate. We’re thinking about it.