One Bank Finally Admits The Fed’s “NOT QE” Is Indeed QE… And Could Lead To Financial Collapse

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from ZeroHedge:

After a month of constant verbal gymnastics (and diarrhea from financial pundit sycophants who can’t think creatively or originally and merely parrot their echo chamber in hopes of likes/retweets) by the Fed that the recent launch of $60 billion in T-Bill purchases is anything but QE (whatever you do, don’t call it “QE 4”, just call it “NOT QE” please), one bank finally had the guts to say what was so obvious to anyone who isn’t challenged by simple logic: the Fed’s “NOT QE” is really “QE.”

In a note warning that the Fed’s latest purchase program – whether one calls it QE or NOT QE – will have big, potentially catastrophic costs, Bank of America’s Ralph Axel writes that in the aftermath of the Fed’s new program of T-bill purchases to increase the amount of reserves in the banking system, the Fed made an effort to repeatedly inform markets that this is not a new round of quantitative easing, and yet as the BofA strategist notes, “in important ways it is similar.”

But is it QE? Well, in his October FOMC press conference, Fed Chair Powell said “our T-bill purchases should not be confused with the large-scale asset purchase program that we deployed after the financial crisis. In contrast, purchasing Tbills should not materially affect demand and supply for longer-term securities or financial conditions more broadly.” Chair Powell gives a succinct definition of QE as having two basic elements: (1) supporting longer-term security prices, and (2) easing financial conditions.

Here’s the problem: as we have said since the beginning, and as Bank of America now writes, “the Fed’s T-bill purchase program delivers on both fronts and is therefore similar to QE,” with one exception – the element of forward guidance.

The upshot to this attempt to mislead the market what it is doing according to Bank of America, is that:

  1. the Fed is continuing to “ease” even though rate cuts are now on hold, which is supportive of growth, higher interest rates and higher equities, and
  2. the Fed is loosening financial conditions by increasing the availability of, and lowering the cost of, leveragewhich broadly supports asset prices potentially at the cost of increasing systemic financial risk.

Putting the Fed’s “NOT QE” in context: so far the Fed has purchased $66bn of Tbills and may purchase $60bn per month through June 2020, which could result in an increase in the Fed’s Treasury holdings by about $500bn.

While we have repeatedly written in the past why we think the Fed’s latest asset purchase program is, in fact, QE, below we present BofA’s argument why we are right.

As Axel writes, there are two basic mechanisms how T-Bill purchases support longer-term security prices: the increase in cash assets and deposit liabilities on bank balance sheets, and the reduction of funding risk for leveraged buyers of Treasuries, MBS and other financed securities.

For those who have forgotten how the “asset reflation” pathway works, recall that the Fed either buys T-bills from investors such as money market funds, or from primary dealers who do not hold T-bills, but can buy them at auction to sell to the Fed. Buying from investors converts their T-bill holdings into new Fed cash, which in turn winds up on deposit in the banking system. If instead a primary dealer buys a Tbill at auction and sells it to the Fed, the transaction results in new Fed cash placed in the Treasury’s cash account, while the dealer balance sheet is unchanged, and the banking system balance is also unchanged. But once the Treasury spends the new Fed cash on a social security payment or a medical insurance bill, etc, the cash enters the banking system and increases the aggregate balance sheet of banks.

Either way, bank balance sheets expand and banks will need to (1) hold more HQLA (high quality liquid assets) against those deposits, and (2) put some of their new cash to work in longer-term securities such as mortgage-backed securities (or even stocks)? Although banks can be flexible in how they deploy the new cash, it is likely that a portion of it will go into bonds similar to what banks already hold (currently $1.8TN in MBS securities and $770bn in Treasuries, according to Fed H.8 data). And once bonds are bid, other investors have no choice but to reach for even riskier securities, such as stocks.

Meanwhile, while the Fed does not directly lend to leveraged investors, some of the increased cash on hand at banks will likely go into repo markets to fund overnight loans to potential buyers of long-term securities in Treasuries and mortgages. This, as BofA explains, is how the increase in reserves is designed to calm repo markets. The amount of bank lending in repo has increased by about 50% since the end of 2017.

Focusing just on the increasingly more important repo channel, which is one ingredient within overall financial conditions, is becoming more important as reliance on overnight funding and leverage continues to rise. This is because, as BofA shows in its “chart of the day”, while banks and security brokers have greatly reduced reliance on overnight funding as a result of Dodd-Frank, the rest of the market has approximately doubled its reliance on overnight funding since the 2008 crisis.

And while one can argue that the proper metric is repo funding as a percentage of Treasuries and MBS outstanding, the bigger picture is that if repo markets stopped functioning today, the amount of Treasury and MBS securities held outside of banks-dealers requiring liquidation (for lack of funding) would be about twice as large as 2008, and as BofA warns, “with today’s surprisingly low levels of liquidity in the “liquid markets” the impact could be massive.” In this context, BofA views the Fed’s purchase program as integral to the promotion of easy financial conditions and supportive of asset prices, which as Chair Powell himself admitted, is the second key criterion for QE.

At this point it is worth considering a critical, if tangential question: Why is the Fed so concerned about not signaling QE, and why are so many Fed fanboys desperate to parrot whatever Powell is saying day after day?

Simply said, there are several reasons why the Fed is making a great effort to let the world know that its security purchases are not QE and are not reflective of any change in monetary policy stance. The first is the obvious issue of signaling concern around the economic outlook which would run counter to its cautiously optimistic and often upbeat assessment. After all, why do QE if the economy has “never been stronger”, and the Fed was hiking rates as recently as a December. Included here are the concerns about running out of ammunition at the zero lower bound of rate policy. With negative rates increasingly off the table – until push comes to shove of course and the Fed is forced to cut below zero – QE is meant to be reserved as dry powder for a rainy day when conventional tools are exhausted (even if QE is in fact taking place this very instant).

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