Doha, July 8th 2013 - A tapering of Quantitative Easing (QE) by the US Federal Reserve (“the Fed”) may hurt global growth, according to QNB Group. While the evidence is mixed on how much support QE provides to the US economy, the Fed’s announcement on June 19 of its intention to start tapering QE later this year has produced a strong negative reaction in global financial markets with 10-yrs US bond yields jumping 40 bps following the announcement. On June 26, US real GDP growth for the first quarter of 2013 was revised down from 2.4% to 1.8%. QNB Group forecasts the remainder of 2013 to be even weaker, with overall US real GDP growth to be in the range of 1%-1.5%. Under these conditions, QE tapering would inevitably result in an additional drag on economic growth through higher interest rates and lower investment. This may hurt global growth prospects as long-term interest rates rise globally over the coming months to adjust to this new post-QE world.
The Fed’s purchase of long-term assets started soon after the onset of the great recession brought about by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. The goal of this unconventional monetary policy has been to reduce long-term interest rates in order to stimulate economic growth. More recently, the Fed has become even more specific in its QE by purchasing each month US$45 billion of long-term US government bonds and US$40 billion of mortgaged-backed securities. According to Fed statements, this policy will continue until unemployment falls below 6.5% and provided inflation remains below the Fed target rate of 2%. It was therefore surprising that the Fed hinted at a tapering of the purchase of long-term securities later this year, based on its own rather optimistic projections for the US economy.
US Unemployment Rate and S&P 500 Index
(% labor force and index)
The evidence on the QE impact on the US economy is mixed. While QE has undoubtedly contributed to the US recovery and a reduction of the unemployment rate from its peak of 10% in October 2009, it has also resulted in a rapid surge in share prices that many commentators believe are not justified by underlying fundamentals (see figure). Part of the problem with QE is that it injects liquidity indiscriminately into financial markets. Whether that liquidity is then used to finance higher economic activity or purchase financial assets crucially depends on financial intermediaries, including commercial banks. So far, it seems financial intermediaries have favored financial assets (divorcing them from their fundamentals) at the expense of increased lending to the private sector. QE tapering could bring this behavior to an abrupt end.
There is, however, a more worrisome aspect of QE tapering that could negatively impact US economic growth going forward. The exceptionally-low interest rate environment brought about by QE has unleashed a recovery in the economy mainly driven by the wealth effect of higher asset prices (both shares and home prices). If QE tapering results in a significant rise in long-term interest rates as it has been the case in the last few weeks, this wealth effect could be reversed, leading to lower consumer confidence and a reversal of the US recovery seen so far. This may explain why a number of Fed officials rushed in recent days to backtrack on the Fed’s announcement on June 19 and to reassure markets that QE tapering would only start once there is additional evidence of a strong recovery. The downward revision in the first quarter real GDP growth reduced expectations of a strong US recovery and thus partly calmed market fears about QE tapering.
What happens in the US has, of course, immediate spillover effects on the rest of the global economy. Not surprisingly, the jump in US long-term interest rates was mirrored throughout global bond markets. As a result, concerns about the negative impact of higher interest rates on global economic growth also led to further capital flight from emerging markets, an appreciation of the US dollar, and lower commodity prices. What was surprising was the fact that worse-than-expected news on the US real GDP growth ended up calming financial markets as it implied a delay in the Fed’s QE tapering. According to QNB Group, these developments may hurt global growth going forward and bring about additional volatility in global financial markets.