Two events of considerable and related importance took place last week. The 2010 US midterm elections produced a seismic shift in the balance of power of the legislative branch, from Democrats to Republicans. And the Federal Reserve announced its long-anticipated plan to embark on a new program of quantitative easing. These two events give us considerable insight into how US economic policy is to be approached for at least the next twelve months and possibly longer.
The markets took a day to digest all the news as it unfolded over Tuesday and Wednesday, and then erupted for major across-the-board gains on Thursday. In fact, as it stands now 2010 is shaping up with potential to be another strong year in US equities following the performance in 2009. Years like 2009 and 2003 are rebound years – they come off the trough of a major bear market and often register calendar year gains over 30%. But sustaining that kind of strength into a follow-on year of double-digit growth is somewhat rarer (2004, for example, produced rather anemic returns for US equities in the mid-single digits). As of the Friday 11/5 close the Russell 3000 was up 12.9% year-to-date, and the market’s firm undertone suggests that a year-end “window dressing” momentum rally could conceivably take the indexes higher still.
Is it all justified? Let’s take a closer look at last week’s news events. We start with the Fed’s action because, quite simply, the Fed is where it’s at for just about any economic policy is likely to be enacted for the next year or more.
QE2, the new round of quantitative easing announced last Wednesday, will pump $600 billion of new money into the markets to purchase long-dated Treasury bonds. The Fed will do this to the tune of about $75 billion per month up through the end of the 2nd quarter in 2011. In addition the Fed will reinvest proceeds from existing securities (from the 2009 QE program) as they come due, meaning that in total its national balance sheet goes up by that $600 billion. Now, bear in mind that the Fed’s charter has a double mandate: promote policies that maintain healthy levels of employment in the economy and stable prices. The desired outcome, in this regard, would be for QE2 to stimulate new credit creation, spurring businesses to expand and hire new workers, while at the same time not triggering inflation beyond where it currently sits – about 1-2% per year.
That second goal – 1-2% inflation, is probably more likely than the first. Inflation may be a problem again one day, but for now the conditions needed for it to happen – either organic growth in household incomes leading to increased spending; or some kind of indexation between wages and prices like the catalyst that sparked the inflation of the early 1970s – is unlikely. On the other hand, for QE2 to make a meaningful dent in that sticky unemployment number will require a bit more heavy lifting. Not only will the eased credit conditions have to really induce companies to expand – but they will actually have to make proactive decisions to hire more US workers rather than, say, some combination of outsourcing and investing in more business automation to achieve productivity gains. It’s possible – but the case is awfully shaky.
As for that other event of last week – it is hard to say much else other than that we are likely to be in for a long period of legislative gridlock. Depending on your political point of view you may find that dismaying or comforting – but to the extent that any bold policymaking actions are going to have an impact on the economy next year those actions are much more likely to be originating from Ben Bernanke and his team than from Capitol Hill or the White House.