As QE2 Ends, Will the U.S. Economy Sink or Swim in Its Wake?
Published: June 23, 2011 / Author: Mendoza College
One week from today, QE2 — the moniker for the Federal
Reserve’s controversial bond-purchase program — will end its seven-month
voyage. The question now, say economists, is how far and fast the
program’s conclusion will impact the U.S. economy.
Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, spoke at
a press conference yesterday after the latest meeting of the Federal Open
Market Committee (FOMC). Bernanke confirmed the end of QE2, and he confirmed
there will not be a QE3 program — even as the Federal Reserve reduced its
economic growth forecasts for 2011 and 2012.
The idea behind the Quantitative Easing program, launched by
the Fed in November 2011, was simple enough: The Federal Reserve,
would buy up to $600 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds. To do this, it would have
to essentially print money, thus injecting liquidity into the
While the process of executing QE2 was simple, its
underlying goals were more complex. Like the first QE program that ran
between December 2008 and March 2010, the primary goal was to boost the
economy. QE1 did that with a much larger scope, purchasing $300 billion in
Treasury securities, $175 billion in agency bonds, and $1.75 trillion — that’s
with a T — of mortgage-backed securities (the bad paper in which we all got an
unwelcome education back in 2008).
Compared to QE1, QE2 was smaller in scope, but still tricky
to navigate. That’s because anytime the government prints money, you run the
risk of inflation. The Federal Reserve had to balance the need to boost the
economy versus driving up inflation rates.
The effects of QE2 have been arguably mixed — which is why
economists aren’t sure exactly what will happen when the program officially
ends on June 30.
Here’s how QE2 was supposed to work: When governments print
money, interest rates are supposed to drop because the Fed makes it cheaper to
borrow dollars. Interest rates did indeed decline, which was good news for
small businesses because loan and mortgage rates (if a business could obtain
such loans) stayed low.
The downside of all the new greenbacks? More money for the
same number of services and goods means prices will go up. The Fed would argue
that a little inflation would be a good thing, since there were signs last year
that despite QE1 and other programs, deflation was still a real
Deflation may sound good if you’re shopping at the grocery
store. But if you own the grocery store or all of the farms and factories that
supply the grocery store? Not so much. Lower revenues mean cutbacks and
layoffs, thus sending the economy into a downward spiral.
Another effect of QE2 was the weakening of the U.S. dollar,
because boosting the supply of a currency makes it cheaper to buy. In
principle, a weaker dollar makes our exports cheaper and more attractive
to overseas markets. Of course, our weaker dollar also means we buy less goods
to import, something in which our partners in the global economy were less than
Indeed, this may be why the end of QE2 was so well-defined,
instead of open-ended like these programs usually are. The Fed needed to
reassure U.S. trading partners that this plan was not going to become some
sort of status quo in the world markets.
When Bernanke announced QE2 in November, here’s what he
predicted the effects of QE2 would be:
“Stock prices rose and long-term interest rates fell
when investors began to anticipate the most recent action. Easier financial
conditions will promote economic growth. For example, lower mortgage rates will
make housing more affordable and allow more homeowners to refinance. Lower
corporate bond rates will encourage investment. And higher stock prices will
boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur
spending. Increased spending will lead to higher incomes and profits that, in a
virtuous circle, will further support economic expansion,” Bernanke wrote
in a Washington Post op-ed.
So, based on these goals, did QE2 work? It depends on which
of these predictions you examine. The S&P 500 rose eight percent and
consumer wealth did rise as well, though both factors showed signs of slowing
this spring. The same holds true for consumer confidence, which spiked in 2010
then dropped back to more pessimistic levels this year.
Then there were outright misses for QE2: consumer spending
went from a 3.2 percent annual rate to its current two percent rate. Disposable
income was rising at 0.8 percent in November, and now its only going up at 0.6
Bernanke is well aware of the shortcomings of QE2, and in
Wednesday’s press conference admitted he didn’t have “a precise
reason” why the recovery has been so slow.
In the face of such a wishy-washy performance, it’s a little
hard to predict the effects of QE2’s end. Here’s what will likely be the most
immediate impacting events on your business.
Most economists agree that the equities markets, which
reacted well to the inception of QE2, will definitely correct themselves. The
question is how much. Estimates have been around a 25 percent drop in the stock
market over the next six months, though some think the drop will be much harder
and faster due to other pressures on the markets, while some economists think
that stock owners will be slower to switch to bonds and other commodities.
Bond yields will definitely rise (indeed, they’ve been
slowly rising, another sign QE2 wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be), which
means interest rates will go up, too. Yesterday the FOMC reiterated that the
prime interest rates will continue to stay in the 0-0.25 percent range into
next year, so that will keep those rates in check. Still, its going to be more
expensive to borrow.
Finally, without all the extra money being printed, the US
dollar will strengthen. Manufacturers will feel the pinch, since their goods
will be harder to sell overseas, but retailers will have more buying power for
imported goods–the mixed blessing when the dollar strengthens.
The overall trend in all the guesswork about the end of QE2
is that there are few economists and pundits who think there will be a massive
sell-off in the markets come July 1, so don’t look for a panic next week.
The final docking of QE2 will remove some
economic stop-gaps, true, but given the less-than-stellar effect of the program
in the first place, its absence may not be so keenly felt, either.