Thursday, December 22, 2011

QE Under Disguise

 How long does a long-term refinancing operation (LTRO) have to be to become quantitative easing (QE)?

By Stephen Lewis, Monument Securities
LONDON (Dow Jones)--How long does a long-term refinancing operation (LTRO) have to be to become quantitative easing (QE)? This is a question for all those market commentators who propagate the notion that the ECB was engaging in QE by the backdoor when it conducted its three-year LTRO yesterday. After all, this was not the first time the ECB had resorted to LTROs. In May 2009 the ECB's Governing Council decided to provide liquidity through a one-year LTRO. This action was not hailed then as the ECB's version of QE, though QE policies were highly topical since both the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England had recently introduced them with much fanfare. Perhaps we are expected to believe that because this week's operation was for a three-year term, rather than for one year only, it was more like QE than the ECB's previous liquidity-supplying actions. Where, then, is the dividing-line to be drawn between LTROs that are not QE and those that are? Or could it be that when the ECB's Anglo-Saxon critics spent years castigating it for its failure to adopt QE, it had all along been conducting what was, in effect, QE? Whatever the answers, it can hardly represent a game-changing revolution in ECB thinking that it has extended the term over which it is prepared to undertake refinancing operations.
This discussion, in fact, prompts a deeper question regarding the appropriate criteria by which to judge whether a central bank is engaging in QE. The phrase 'quantitative easing' arose in recognition of the direct effects that measures falling under this heading have on the quantity of money, as opposed to the cost of credit. For a central bank action to constitute QE, there ought, therefore, to be an observable impact on a monetary aggregate. Unfortunately, in practice, it is well-nigh impossible to distinguish the effects on money supply of the central bank's QE from those of a multitude of other influences affecting the outcome, even in those countries where central banks are avowedly pursuing a QE policy. In any case, the baseline, that is, what would have happened in the absence of the central bank action, is purely hypothetical. Because of the practical difficulty in applying a results-based test for QE, central banks have taken to using the impact of their actions on their own balance sheets as the criterion for determining whether those actions constitute QE. Thus, the Bank of England refers to its QE as 'the programme of asset purchases financed by the issuance of central bank reserves'. If a rise in the central bank's reserves is the result of its operations, then those operations are QE. For the markets, however, QE has come to mean central bank buying of government bonds. This may well be because such purchases have figured prominently in the QE of the Fed and the Bank of England. But a central bank's buying of government bonds is not necessarily financed by an increase in its reserves. In the Fed's current 'Operation Twist', for example, the central bank is financing its purchases of long-dated government securities by selling some of its holdings of shorter-dated government notes and bonds. These transactions are not regarded as QE because it is obvious that the Fed's operations are not aiming to increase the aggregate volume of US Treasuries it holds or the size of its balance sheet. However, the original 'Operation Twist' in the 1960s also failed the QE test, though less obviously because the Fed was then financing its purchases of longer-dated government securities by selling down its holdings of Treasury bills.
The ECB will not be financing its latest LTRO by selling any of its recently-acquired government bonds but there could yet be substantial shifts in the composition of its liabilities, without any increase in their volume, to accommodate the extension of liquidity through the LTRO. The maturity of a €141.9bn short-term loan from the ECB to lenders will offset part of the increase in reserves that would otherwise stem from the three-year operation. But that is unlikely to be the only consequential adjustment in the ECB's balance sheet. Until the full picture emerges with publication of the ECB's next weekly report, it is hard to judge what the balance sheet impact of the LTRO might have been.
Whether the banks which have entered into LTRO arrangements with the ECB take advantage of their enhanced liquidity to buy government bonds or not will have no bearing on the effect the LTRO has on the ECB's liabilities. Further, Mr Draghi has never endorsed the view that the reason why the ECB decided to conduct the LTRO was to provide banks with funds to purchase government bonds. The notion that the ECB had been trying to deliver support to peripheral government bond markets, via the commercial banks, gained credence largely from comments from Mr Noyer, of the Bank of France, in the weekend following the EU summit. That was a critical juncture for French policymakers, struggling to defend France's 'triple-A' credit rating. Market judgment on the summit's outcome was in the balance. The governance reforms had been positively received but the meeting had been thin on proposals to stabilise euro zone markets in the near term. In such circumstances, it is understandable that Mr Noyer should have been eager to emphasise the possibilities opened up by the ECB's 8 December decisions aimed at strengthening banks' liquidity.
Certainly, the financial markets were disposed to believe the euro zone authorities were delivering what investors most wanted, support for the peripheral government bond markets. So the story evolved that the ECB had dramatically changed tack by embracing QE and that this would unleash substantial bank buying of hitherto shunned government bonds. In fact, what the banks will do with the liquidity they have gained through the LTRO is far from clear. Mr Nicastro of Unicredit today declared his bank would boost lending to industry and households. The ECB will be pleased to hear that but, recently, the correlation has been low between what banks say they are doing and what shows up in the lending data.