Transmission Channels for the Fed’s QE2

What are the channels for QE2? In a recent post, David Beckworth outlines his frustration:

It has been frustrating to watch Fed officials explain QE2. The standard Fed story centers around the QE2 driving down long-term interest rates and stimulating more borrowing.

On the tip of my tongue, I can think of three direct channels: (1) the interest rate channel, which is the source of his frustration, (2) the wealth effect channel, and (3) the weak-dollar channel.

  1. The interest rate channel: the Fed lowers current and expected real borrowing costs to firms and households, thereby stimulating domestic demand via increased consumption and investment. Clearly, this is the most clogged channel, as it requires increased bank lending and leverage build.
  2. The wealth effect channel: the Fed drives up the price of riskless assets (bonds), forcing substitution toward risky assets (equities, corporate bonds, etc.), which raises household wealth (via asset price appreciation) and current consumption demand. This channel was highlighted publicly in October by Brian Sack at the 2010 CFA Fixed Income Management Conference:”Nevertheless, balance sheet policy can still lower longer-term borrowing costs for many households and businesses, and it adds to household wealth by keeping asset prices higher than they otherwise would be.” In my view (see chart below), this has been the strongest channel through which Fed policy has worked.
  3. The weak-dollar channel: the Fed prints money, thereby debasing the currency relative to global trading partners. The technicalities of a weak dollar policy prevent the Fed’s actions as directly being a weak-dollar policy; however, the short-term effect on the dollar was quite strong. In the end, though, we see that the Fed’s policy has had no accumulated impact on the dollar to date (see chart below). This policy still has some time to work through, since the Fed only recently initiated its quantitative easing program again. Furthermore, it’s unclear to me how the dollar will play out in 2011 (perhaps another post), since it’s really a relative game: Fed QE versus the European debt crisis, EM inflation expectations rising, or the like.

The chart below proxies the three channels using the 5y-5yr forward TIPS rate (1), the S&P 500 equity index (2), and the dollar spot index (3). The value of each channel is indexed to the September FOMC meeting for comparability.

The interest rate channel has been negative, as expected real yields increased 35% since the FOMC meeting, driving up expected borrowing costs. The wealth channel has been strong and positive. The S&P 500 gained 9% since the September FOMC meeting date, but the gains really started earlier, as speculators front-ran the Fed decision. Finally, the dollar channel fizzled out, as the dollar index (against major trading partners) is pretty much flat over the period.

I’d like to hear your input regarding other potential channels for Fed policy. But the data has, objectively, been surprising to the upside. Thus the growth outlook has improved. The chart below illustrates the Citigroup economic news surprise index (compared to Bloomberg consensus), which turned to the positive at the outset of November.

Many moving parts.

Rebecca Wilder

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