London: Quantitative easing (QE), which saw major central banks buying government bonds outright and quadrupling their balance sheets since 2008 to $15 trillion, has boosted asset prices across the board. That was the aim: to counter a severe economic downturn and to save a financial system close to the brink. Little thought, however, was put into the longer-term consequences of these actions.
From 2008 to 2015, the nominal value of the global stock of investable assets has increased by about 40%, to over $500 trillion from over $350 trillion. Yet the real assets behind these numbers changed little, reflecting, in effect, the asset-inflationary nature of quantitative easing. The effects of asset inflation are as profound as those of the better-known consumer inflation.
Consumer price inflation erodes savings and the value of fixed earnings as prices rise. Aside from the pain consumers feel, the economy’s pricing signals get mixed up. Companies may unknowingly sell at a loss, while workers repeatedly have to ask for wage increases just to keep up with prices. The true losers though are people with savings, which see their value in real purchasing power severely diminished.
John Maynard Keynes famously said that inflation is a way for governments to “confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens." Critically, inflation creates much social tension: “While the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. The sight of this arbitrary rearrangement of riches strikes not only at security, but at the confidence in the equity of the existing distribution of wealth."
Asset inflation, it turns out, is remarkably similar. First, it impedes creative destruction by setting a negative long-term real interest rate. This allows companies that no longer generate enough income to pay a positive return on capital to continue as usual rather than being restructured. Thus the much-noted growth of zombie companies is one consequence of asset price inflation. Thus also the unreasonable leverage and price observed in real estate, with the credit risks it entails for the future.
Second, it also generates artificial winners and losers. The losers are most found among the aging middle class, who, in order to maintain future consumption levels, will now have to increase their savings. Indeed, the savings made by working people on stagnant wages effectively generates less future income because investable assets are now more expensive. The older the demographics, the more pronounced this effect. Germany, for instance, had a contraction of nearly 4% of gross domestic product (GDP) in consumer spending from 2009 to 2016.
The winners are the wealthy, people with savings at the beginning of the process, who saw the nominal value of their assets skyrocket. But, as with consumer inflation, the biggest winner is the state, which now owns through its monetary authority, a large part of its own debt, effectively paying interest to itself, and a much lower one at that. For when all is accounted for, asset inflation is a monetary tax.
The most striking similarity between consumer price inflation and asset inflation is its potential to cause social disruption. In the 1970s workers resulted to industrial action to bargain for wage increases in line with price increases.
Today, the weakened middle class, whose wages have declined for decades, is increasingly angry at society’s wealthiest members. It perceives much of their recent wealth to be ill-gotten, not resulting from true economic wealth creation, and seeks social justice through populist movements outside of the traditional left-right debate. The quantitative easing monetary disruption almost certainly contributed to the protest votes that have been observed in the western world.
The central banks now bear a large responsibility. If they ignore the political impact of the measures they took, they will exacerbate a politically volatile situation. If, on the other hand, the gains made by the state from QE can be channelled to true economic wealth creation and redistribution, they will have saved the day.
This is entirely possible. Rather than debating how and how fast to end quantitative easing, the central bank assets generated by this program should be put into a huge fund for education and infrastructure. The interest earned on these assets could finance real public investment, like research, education and retraining.
If the proceeds of QE are invested in growth-expanding policies, the gain will help finance tomorrow’s retirements, and the government-induced asset inflation can be an investment, not simply a tax. Bloomberg View