Quantitative easing is off the table for the Fed at the moment because of Friday's GDP report. According to the Commerce Department U.S. second quarter GDP growth was 1.5%, which is mediocre, but not bad enough to justify another round of money printing stimulus.
The stock market has been juiced up on a number of occasions since June on rumors of impending QE3. There is always connected to phrase like "the Fed will do more to help the economy." The mainstream press never raises the question of why does the Fed need to do more to help the economy. If its program worked, the economy should have recovered. If they don't, doing more of the same thing isn't likely to accomplish much. A need for a third round of QE certainly implies that the first two weren't effective — at least in creating economic growth. Could it be that printing money out of thin air doesn't really create lasting wealth?
All the U.S. fans of quantitative easing should look across the pond at what is taking place in the UK. Its second round of QE was started last October. Yet, Britain has fallen into and remains in recession. It doesn't look like it will exit the recession by the end of the year either. So much for QE being a panacea for saving an economy.
The best case for the ineffectiveness of QE though comes from Japan. Japan has maintained a zero interest rate policy since 1999 (the U.S. had done so since 2008). After ten years of economic decline and malaise Japan began implementing quantitative easing in the early 2000s. The ten years that followed were also a period of economic decline and malaise. The Japanese stock market peaked in 1989 and over twenty years later it is still down more than 75% from its high (investors who fought the Bank of Japan are glad that they did). The various stimulus programs raised stock prices temporarily, but they eventually fell to lower lows.
The stimulus bag of tools that central banks use is meant to be effective when there is a cyclical downturn in the economy. However, they will not work if the problem is structural — and that is exactly what Japan has been dealing with since 1990 and Europe and America are dealing with today (and probably since 2000). We are at the end of the Keynesian era, where credit can no longer be extended to greater levels without creating a subsequent collapse and the economy can't grow without continual stimulus from the central banks and massive government deficits. This is sharply evident in the case of Greece and Spain at the moment, but it is just as true in the U.S., UK and Japan.
The Fed can't just cavalierly decide to engage in more QE as is. It will need to do so if there is a major financial incident in the EU and it can't waste its bullets. It is inevitable that there will be such a crisis and the Fed knows it. Mario Draghi's assertion on Thursday that the ECB will do everything possible to save the euro was nothing but meaningless bravado. The crisis in Europe has been going on for over two years now and despite numerous bailouts and half a dozen support schemes it keeps getting worse. During the entire time, the powers that be in the EU have said that they would do everything to save the euro. Sometimes "everything" just isn't enough.
The Fed also has the problem of looking political if it acts before the election. While it is true that the Fed has acted before elections in the past, it actions weren't being closely scrutinized back then. Nor were its policies politically controversial. The House of Representatives just passed the Federal Reserve Transparency Act of 2012 by 327-98. This legislation would produce a full audit of the Fed. While it might not pass the Senate this time around, eventually it will. The Fed has already been audited once and is increasingly being scrutinized.
While the Fed will almost certainly be doing quantitative easing again, but it won't happen until either the problems in Europe become a full-fledge global credit crisis or the U.S. economy is in an obvious recession. In either case, it will not be something to cheer about.
Author: "Inflation Investing - A Guide for the 2010s"
Organizer, New York Investing meetup
This posting is editorial opinion. There is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.