The Psychology Of QE Is Far More Important Than The Amount Of It

What would happen if M1

John Hussman has an interesting take on "Quantitative Easing!" vs "Quantitative Easing" in his latest monthly missive Counting the Chickens Twice

After decades of successfully navigating complete market cycles, my greatest investment mistake (particularly between 2012 and 2017) was to underestimate the extent to which the idea of quantitative easing would infect the minds of investors and abolish their discernment.

As a policy, quantitative easing is very straightforward: the Federal Reserve buys interest-bearing Treasury securities, and pays for them with zero interest base money (currency and bank reserves) that someone has to hold at every moment in time until that base money is retired.

That’s it. That’s the entire mechanism by which QE has any hope of “supporting” the stock market. Investors become so uncomfortable holding a zero-interest asset that they feel compelled to get rid of it by purchasing some other asset that they imagine will provide them with a better return.

Quantitative easing does nothing more than replace interest-bearing government liabilities with zero-interest government liabilities. That certainly doesn’t seem to be enough to reliably hold $60 trillion of stock market capitalization at the most extreme valuations in history.

That’s exactly what I thought.

My epiphany came in late-2017. I had been so focused on the fact that there’s no reliable mechanism linking the Fed’s balance sheet to the stock market that I had missed one essential fact: investors don’t care. It became clear that there are actually two forms of “quantitative easing,” and the second type of quantitative easing is the powerful one. It’s what my Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh might describe as a “mental formation.” 

Using the italic notation of my friend Ben Hunt at Epsilon Theory (a must-read), it’s what we might call Quantitative Easing!

Does anyone think investors care that the total amount of corporate bonds purchased by the Fed during the pandemic amounted to just $14 billion, in a $22 trillion economy, with $11 trillion of nonfinancial corporate debt and $60 trillion of equity securities? No, they do not. Do they care that Fed purchases of unbacked corporate securities were authorized only using CARES funding provided by the Treasury, and that such purchases are otherwise illegal under the Federal Reserve Act? No they do not. Why? Because it isn’t the mechanism of quantitative easing that investors care about. What they care about is Quantitative Easing!

And because Quantitative Easing! is purely a mental formation, the only thing that alters its effectiveness is investor psychology itself.

The key to navigating Quantitative Easing! and Fed policy in general is to recognize that their effect on the stock market relies almost entirely on speculative investor psychology. See, as long as investors are inclined to speculate, they treat zero-interest money as an inferior asset, and they will chase any asset with a yield above zero (or a past record of positive returns). Valuation doesn’t matter because investors psychologically rule out the possibility of price declines in the first place.

But when investors become risk-averse, even briefly as in early-2018, late-2018, and early-2020, they do allow for the possibility of large negative price changes. At that point, a yield above zero isn’t enough. Moreover, if investors are inclined toward risk-aversion, safe liquidity is viewed as a desirable asset rather than an inferior one. As a result, creating more of the stuff may not support the market at all.

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