Quantitative easing, credit easing and enhanced credit support aren’t working; here’s why.

Quantitative easing – expanding base money in circulation (mainly bank reserves with the central bank by purchasing government securities) – isn’t working in the US, the UK or Japan.  Credit easing – outright purchases of private securities by the central bank, which can either be monetised or sterilised – is achieving little in the US or the UK, although it has not been pushed too hard yet.  Enhanced credit support in the Euro Area – providing collateralised loans on demand at maturities up to a year at the official policy rate – is not working either.  These policies are not improving the ability and willingness of banks to lend to the non-financial sectors.  They have had little positive impact on the corporate bond market. It is not surprising why this should be so, once we reflect on the actions and the conditions under which they are taking place.

In a nutshell: quantitative easing (QE), credit easing (CE), and enhanced credit support (ECS) are useful when the problem facing the economy is funding illiquidity or market illiquidity.  It is useless when the binding constraint is the threat of insolvency.  Today, liquidity is ample, even excessive.  Capital is scarce.  Capital is scarce first and foremost in the banking sector.  A panoply of central bank and government financial interventions and support measures have ensured, at least for the time being, the survival of most of the remaining crossborder banks.  It has not done enough to get them lending again on any scale to the household and non-financial enterprise sector.

Sure, as the economy weakens, the demand for credit is racing the supply of credit down, but there can be no doubt that many firms and households are credit-constrained, and cannot find external finance either from the banks or from the capital markets.  Only the larger enterprises, and those with a good credit track record have access to the capital markets.  Small and medium-sized firms and new firms without a credit track record cannot go the the markets.  So with zombie banks and highly selective access to the corporate bond markets, we are set for a slow and anaemic recovery.

This is made worse by the poor state of household finances in many western countries.  With property prices down and banks tightening credit conditions, households have suddenly woken up to the true horror of their highly indebted state.  Fear and caution have taken over from optimism and an instinctive belief in the sustainability of a consumption plan financed through Ponzi finance made possible through house prices rising at a proportional rate in excess of the interest rate on housing debt.  This rediscovery of prudence by households has lead to a form of Ricardian equivalence that makes tax cuts ineffective and limits the multiplier from public spending increases.  Many highly indebted households have reduced their consumption to a (generally socially defined) ‘subsistence’ level.  Any additional income is saved or used to pay down debt.

Quantitative easing

The central bank buying longer maturity government securities will help when the underlying problem is too high a value of risk-free long-term interest rates.  That, however, is not the problem.  If anything, long-term risk-free rates continue to be surprisingly and damagingly low. So outright purchases of government securities by the central bank do nothing to alleviate liquidity pressures on banks, let alone the banks’ capital shortage.  They are no more than a sop to the ministry of finance and its deficit financing preoccupations.  At best, such monetisation of the public debt will, if it not expected to be reversed,  have a ‘fiscal’ effect – helicopter money.  But if households are saving their windfalls, even this will fail to boost the economy.

Credit easing

The central bank purchasing private securities outright will help if there are liquidity problems in the markets for these securities, making for excessive spreads over corresponding maturity risk-free rates. Apart from that, such outright purchases help only if the central bank pays over the odds for the securities and thus helps recapitalise the banks.  No doubt the massive past liquidity injections by the central banks of Japan, the US, the Euro Area, the UK and elsewhere in Europe have taken the liquidity spreads out of the corporate bond yields.  Corporate borrowing through issuance in the markets is running at a high level, even in the Euro Area.  Much of this substitutes for bank finance that is no longer available.  If the authorities believe that the spreads of corporates over Treasuries are still in excess of what is warranted by differences in default risk, they should by all means buy more corporate debt.  If they believe, as I do, that these spreads are likely to be a fair reflection of credit risk differentials, then even credit easing is a waste of time.

Enhanced credit support

Enhanced credit support to the banks, along the lines of the ECB/Eurosystem making a humongous volume of collateralised loans to the banks (like the €442bn worth of one-year maturity repos at 1.00% performed recently) likewise only works if the Euro Area banking system suffers from a shortage of liquidity or if the ECB/Eurosystem offer too generous terms for these loans (as I have argued they do).  Euro area banks take the ECB’s liquidity and re-deposit most of it with the ECB rather than using it to engage in new lending.  Euro Area banks are among the most zombified by their capital inadequacy and excessive leverage.

Throughout the north-Atlantic region, the problem is not that the banks are illiquid.  They are short of capital.  Many of them would be insolvent but for the anticipation of further government support, on top of the massive support already given to the sector.  In addition, while the fiscal authorities are prompting banks to raise more capital and have injected public capital in the wonkiest banks and while central banks are injecting liquidity in the economy on a scale never seen before, regulators and supervisors are often forcing banks to act procyclically, by building up their liquid assets now and by aggressively deleveraging now.  Surely, if ever St. Augustin’s prayer – Lord give me chastity, but not yet – was appropriate, it is now for banks.

That banks are drowning in liquidity is apparent from the divergent behaviour of the stock of bank reserves with the central bank. which is increasing fast, and the broad money stock held outside the financial sector (for these purposes, the non-bank financial sector is just the off-balance sheet segment of the banking sector and should be consolidated with it).  As pointed out by Ben Broadbent of Goldman Sachs (where I am an advisor – all views and opinions expressed are strictly and emphatically my own and not those of any organisation I am associated with etc.), the increase in M4 outside the financial sector in the UK has recently been much smaller than the growth of commercial bank reserves with the bank of England.  Similar patterns exist in the US and in the Euro Area.

Conclusion

Pushing on a string is difficult.  Pushing a zombie on a string is even harder. Pushing a zombie bank on a string is impossible. Unless the balance sheets of the banks are strengthened sufficiently, through massive further injections of capital, the removal of toxic assets and much lower leverage, unconventional monetary policy will not work. The banking system in the north-Atlantic region is not facing a liquidity shortage – it has got liquidity coming out of its ears.  It is facing a capital shortage.  Much of it still totters on the edge of insolvency.  Recapitalising banks slowly through large spreads on low business volumes and through quasi-fiscal subsidies extended by the central banks in their financial support operations will take years – years of impaired intermediation and abysmally restricted external finance for households and non-financial corporations.

Recapitalising the banks and paying off private household debt through high unanticipated inflation would be possible, but undesirable.  I propose a combination of mandatory recapitalisation of the banks and a debt Jubilee for the household sector to remove the two key obstacles to an economic revival.  The mandatory recapitalisation would be first through new equity issuance in the market, then though mandatory debt-to-equity conversion and similar haircuts for unsecured bank creditors, and last through increased government equity stakes.  All these capital injections should take the form of tangible common equity.  Anything else would be cosmetic.

Subsequent regulation of the banking sector (broadly defined to include all highly-leveraged entities with serious maturity and/or liquidity mismatch on their balance sheets) will then be necessary to prevent a recurrence of the disaster we are now struggling through.

In preparation for the Jubilee, I am going long in ram’s horns.  In good Torah/Biblical tradition, we should have one of these every 49 or 50 years.  We skipped a few.  Let’s have a big one now.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website

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