Five Myths About the Federal Reserve
Business + Economy

Five Myths About the Federal Reserve

iStockphoto/Reuters/The Fiscal Times

Few would still argue against the assertion that the Federal Reserve has been central to the financial stabilization and economic recovery from the 2008 crisis. They fixed the plumbing and are now trying to incentivize animal spirits to pump water through the pipes. The debate has now migrated to exit strategies and whether the accumulating side effects of exceptional monetary accommodation outweigh incremental benefits.

Nonetheless, it is the Fed, so views are heated, and many misperceptions persist. The concept of money-printing resonates strongly and intuitively with almost everyone, but most of the intuitive reactions to the Fed’s QE are turning out to have been wrong. Here are some of the major myths that linger.

1. Money printing increases the money supply. The Fed does not control the money supply; they control base money (or inside money), which is a small fraction of the broader money supply. In our fractional reserve system, the banks (loosely defined) control the other 90% or so of the money supply (a.k.a. outside money). And the banks have not been lending. This is why the money supply has not grown rapidly in response to years now of QE.

2. QE is “pumping cash into the stock market." The truth is, little of this money finds its way into the stock market. When the Fed implements QE, they are buying low-risk US Treasuries and agency mortgages from the market, mostly from banks. About 82% of the money the Fed has injected since QE started has been re-deposited with the Fed as excess reserves. With the remaining 18%, banks have tended to buy other fixed income assets of a slightly riskier nature—moving out on the risk spectrum for a bank doesn’t mean jumping into equities, especially given the near-death experience that most of them have just experienced.

Of course, not all of the US Treasury bonds (USTs) and mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) injected into the economy were purchased from banks. And some of the money does end up in equities. But, really, not all that much. The other big holders of USTs/MBSs who’ve been selling to the Fed for the most part have fixed-income mandates too, and they are also unlikely to take the cash from the Fed and cross over into equities with it.

So, the natural question is why—if the above is true—have equities gone up so much in response to QE? The simple answer? Psychology and misconception.

By taking an aggressive stand, the Fed signaled a positive message to markets: “I’ve got this.” The confidence that the Fed would do everything it could to protect our economic downside stabilized animal spirits. Then it slowly but surely enabled risk-taking to re-engage. The fact that so many people believe that the Fed would be “pumping money into the stock market,” and because so many buy into the “don’t fight the Fed” aphorism (notwithstanding September 2007 to March 2009), the effect of the Fed's message was that much more powerful.

In short, this largely psychological effect on markets—one that I had initially underestimated—bought time for household balance sheets to heal and is allowing fundamentals to catch up somewhat with market prices.

3. QE will create runaway inflation. “Yet” has become the favorite word of the inflationistas. As in, “Oh, it’ll come, just hasn’t yet.” And the magnitude of that expected inflation has been dialed down from ‘hyperinflation’ to ‘high inflation.’

But some continue to hang on. The most extreme inflationistas insist that it is here now and the Fed is cooking the books. The reality, of course, is the Fed has nothing to do with the compilation of US inflation statistics, which is done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Moreover, for those who are worried that all departments of government are conspiring against the American people, you would also have to believe the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is in on it, too. MIT runs the Billion Price Project, a means of testing, using broad-based Internet price sampling techniques, the extent to which the government’s measure of CPI reflects reality.

But, there really has been no inflation, even with rounds of QE and interest rates stuck at zero. What we have learned in this crisis has driven home the points that the lending and borrowing that drive the money supply are more sensitive to risk appetite than they are to the price of money.

Is it possible that this will end in a bout of inflation? Yes. But the odds are lower than consensus had been thinking and they are dropping fast, as inflation continues to be well anchored and people come to understand better how the transmission mechanism of monetary policy actually works.

4. QE is the reason we have high oil/gasoline prices. This very deeply held view is just as deeply mistaken. As the chart below shows, post crisis/post QE, oil prices on average (red line) have gyrated around $80 to 90 per barrel with no ascending trend. The ascending trend came well before we knew what QE even was, in the 2002-2007 period. And the most rapid phase of its rise took place as the Fed was raising rates from 2004-2006.

Paying high prices makes all of us angry, and it feels good to have someone to lash out at, but, alas, reality disagrees.

What, then, caused the rise in the price of oil? In brief, the rise of China after it joined the WTO in 2002 and investor allocations to commodities as a “new asset class,” with trend followers, speculators, and prop desks front-running the pack. Remember this was a period in which leverage was building and speculative juices flowing full steam.

In any event, it’s pretty clear it was not a result of the Fed and QE.

5. QE has debased the dollar. Good luck convincing people this hasn’t been the case. This is an excellent example of repeating a falsehood until it becomes accepted as true.

Again, roll tape…

This is the trade-weighted broad-dollar average. It, much like the oil chart above, shows all the action took place before QE and the crisis. From 2002 to 2007, the Big Dollar, as currency specialists like to call it, depreciated some 20%. And the fastest depreciation came…that’s right, when the Fed was raising policy rates. Since the crisis oil has been roughly unchanged, with gyrations suspiciously similar to those of oil.

Bottom line: Anyone alleging debasement is working from hearsay and priors, not the scorecard. And there are some pretty high-profile people still throwing around the ‘debasement’ word.

In fairness, the Fed did assume that their exceptional monetary accommodation might result in some depreciation of the dollar. But because the US is a closed economy (exports and imports make up a relatively small share of GDP) the Fed felt—correctly in my view—that it should be setting monetary conditions based on the larger domestic economy. And if dollar depreciation were to ensue, so the thinking went, it would at the margin be positive for US growth, as long as the depreciation was orderly.

Why, then, did the dollar depreciate so much in the 2002-2007 period? For pretty much the same reasons that the price of oil went higher: It was a period of risk-taking, leverage, and deepening optimism regarding emerging markets. All three factors led to dollar selling -- and that was well before QE ever made its first appearance in the US.

In sum, much of the received wisdom surrounding the Fed and the effects of its actions is misplaced. Through repetition and ex-ante biases, deep misunderstandings have become engrained in market psychology.

Importantly however, the recent rise in the dollar and fall in commodities suggest that these long-held misguided views are becoming dislodged. There is plenty of risk ahead and the Fed’s task is far from easy or over. But the Fed, for the most part, is ahead of the curve. Make sure you and your views don’t get caught behind it.