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Weekly Commentary: The quantitative easing quandry

Posted Sun, March 25, 2012 by Greg Womack

A trillion here, a trillion there and, pretty soon, you have a nice market rally.

Through a program called quantitative easing, central banks around the world have flooded the world economy with the equivalent of trillions of U.S. dollars. Quantitative easing involves central banks making large-scale purchases of debt – usually government or mortgage debt – and paying for that debt by creating money out of thin air, according to The New York Times. The hope (and remember, hope is not an investment strategy) is that with more money sloshing around the global economy, interest rates will drop and that will stimulate demand and increase economic growth.

If all goes according to plan, the economy will recover and then the central banks will sell the bonds they purchased and “destroy” the money they received for selling the bonds. When the whole cycle is completed, the net effect is no new money is created, according to the BBC. Optimists say this is an appropriate activity for central banks when the economy faces major hurdles. Pessimists say the central banks are unlikely to turn off the spigot and we could end up with runaway inflation.

And, yes, it’s a big spigot. Just between the U.S. and the United Kingdom, more than 2.5 trillion dollars of new money has been created since 2008, according to Reuters and the BBC.

On top of that, the European Central Bank made more than 1 trillion euro available to banks in the form of cheap three-year loans in just the past few months. The hope (there’s that word again) is that banks will use this money to lend and invest, and, thereby, boost the economy, according to Bloomberg.

All this “easy money” has helped fuel a strong start to many of the world’s stock markets this year. The big question is, will this easy money be the bridge that gets the world economy back on a self-sustaining growth path or is it simply keeping the patient addicted to an unsustainable monetary policy?

Effectively answering questions like this keeps our job very interesting! 



Data as of 3/23/12

1-Week

Y-T-D

1-Year

3-Year

5-Year

10-Year

Standard & Poor's 500 (Domestic Stocks)

   -0.5%

11.1%

  6.3%

19.3%

-0.5%

2.1%

DJ Global ex US (Foreign Stocks)

-1.6

11.2

-7.9

16.1

-3.9

5.4

10-year Treasury Note (Yield Only)

2.2

N/A

3.4

2.7

4.6

5.4

Gold (per ounce)

0.4

5.7

15.6

20.6

20.5

18.8

DJ-UBS Commodity Index

-1.5

2.4

-13.6

8.0

-3.1

3.9

DJ Equity All REIT TR Index

-0.4

8.6

13.5

37.3

-0.9

10.3

Notes: S&P 500, DJ Global ex US, Gold, DJ-UBS Commodity Index returns exclude reinvested dividends (gold does not pay a dividend) and the three-, five-, and 10-year returns are annualized; the DJ Equity All REIT TR Index does include reinvested dividends and the three-, five-, and 10-year returns are annualized; and the 10-year Treasury Note is simply the yield at the close of the day on each of the historical time periods.
Sources: Yahoo! Finance, Barron’s, djindexes.com, London Bullion Market Association.
Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Indices are unmanaged and cannot be invested into directly. N/A means not applicable.

QUANTITATIVE EASING HAS LED TO A STEALTH “TAX” ON SAVERS in what’s been called “financial repression,” according to Bloomberg. As mentioned above, one goal of quantitative easing is to lower interest rates. On that score, it’s succeeded since interest rates are super low all along the yield curve. Unfortunately, there’s a problem with that – interest rates on many bonds and savings accounts are lower than the rate of inflation. This means savers are losing purchasing power (the stealth tax) while debtors are able to pay back their debts in inflated (i.e., “cheaper”) dollars. Savers are effectively being “financially repressed.”

 The public debt of the U.S. is more than $15 trillion, according to the Treasury Department. The annual interest expense on that mountain of debt is more than $400 billion. Not surprisingly, the government wants to keep interest rates low because that will keep their interest payments low. Also, by tolerating some inflation, that debt pile can be paid back in inflated dollars. So, who loses in this deal? It’s the diligent American saver who lives below their means and has to endure very little interest on their savings.

 

Government policy makers are well aware that their actions are, to some extent, helping debtors at the expense of savers. They also know that in this complicated, global economy, there’s no easy way to make everybody happy and still get us out of the fiscal hole we’re in. Knowing that, we’ll keep doing our best to help you prosper.

Weekly Focus – Just for Fun

If you could spend one year traveling around the U.S. and Canada, how many different bird species do you think you could see? Well, there’s actually an informal competition that does just that and it’s called a Big Year. Last year, a movie starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson chronicled the Big Year exploits of three men who tried to set a new Big Year record in 1998. Sure enough, one of the men set a new record of seeing 748 bird species that year. Check out the movie and you’ll never look at birding quite the same.

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Tags : quantitative easing , stock market , investing , advice , Greg Womack , Oklahoma , Edmond


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Jeff is a portfolio strategy assistant specializing in equity options. He provides valuable analysis...

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