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What Every Investor Should Know About the End of QE

Equity markets around the world yesterday expressed their distaste for the possible end of the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing (QE) policy.

Share prices tumbled from New York to Tokyo. Even resource-rich Australia and emerging markets, including China, saw shares decline following the release of the minutes of last month's Federal Open Market Committee meeting.

What upset the markets was a discussion at the January FOMC meeting about when and, more importantly, how to end the current QE policy.

As someone put it on Bloomberg Radio yesterday, "Would the markets have been happier if the FOMC was ignoring the issue of how to end QE?"

To understand how ending the QE policy might affect the economy and markets, investors need to understand how QE operates.

Here's How QE Works

The Fed creates credit ("prints" money – the Fed doesn't actually print money, but creates credit electronically), which it then uses to purchase Treasury notes and mortgage-backed securities from its member banks through the Federal Reserve Trading Desk. Treasury notes and mortgage-backed securities wind up on the Fed's balance sheet while the money created by the Fed ends up on the banks' balance sheets.

What impact does this have on the economy?

First, by purchasing large amounts of long-term Treasury notes and mortgage-backed securities, the Fed pushes long-term interest rates lower. We can see this by the record low mortgage rates that are beginning to pull the housing market out of its doldrums. You can thank the Fed for that.

Second, the cash that banks realize from the sale of their Treasury notes and mortgage-backed securities to the Fed should, in theory, get loaned out to individuals and businesses to fund investments and accelerate economic activity.

Unfortunately, even though banks are flush with cash and despite evidence that banks are easing their lending standards somewhat, loan growth is slowing.

Bankers argue that there isn't enough demand for loans from creditworthy borrowers. Potential borrowers argue that the banks will not lend to them.

The real issue is that interest rates are so low that banks cannot be adequately compensated for taking the risk of lending money. The higher the interest rate a bank can charge on a loan, the looser its definition of "creditworthy" will be – up to a point. No one is creditworthy if inflation is out of control.

Banks are more willing to lend to homebuyers because the loan is backed by a hard asset –
the property being mortgaged.

But making a loan against business receivables or making an unsecured loan is another story. When there is such a small return on capital, lenders are more concerned about the return of capital.

So much of the money so thoughtfully supplied by the Fed through QE sits on bank balance sheets as excess reserves held at the Fed. The money never goes anywhere and, except for holding down long-term interest rates and bolstering the housing market through low mortgage rates, has a minimal impact on the overall economy.

Whatever Happens to QE, ZIRP Remains

The FOMC meeting discussions last month centered on how to end QE by reducing or ending asset purchases. Several proposals were entertained, including adopting a flexible approach to asset purchases depending upon the latest economic data or to hold the Treasury notes and mortgage-backed securities already purchased for a longer period of time.

For investors, the key point is that if the Fed stops or even just slows its purchase of Treasury notes and mortgage-backed securities from its member banks, long-term interest rates will rise.

But because the Fed has already said it intends to keep short-term interest rates (Fed funds) at zero (zero-interest-rate policy or ZIRP), short-term rates should remain unchanged. This is called steepening the yield curve.

For investors thinking about buying or refinancing a home, the end of QE will certainly mean higher mortgage rates.

Investors who own long-term bonds or bond funds will see capital losses as bond prices decline. Money market funds, which rely on short-term instruments, are not likely to be affected.

There are a few ways for investors to take advantage of higher long-term interest rates, including ProShares Short 20+ Year Treasury ETF (NYSE: TBF), which goes up when long-term U.S. Treasury notes go down in price (up in yield).

The ProShares Ultra Short 20+ Year Treasury ETF (NYSE: TBT) is a leveraged ETF that aims for twice the return of TBF. Direxion Daily 20+ Year Treasury Bear 3x Shares (NYSE: TMV) seeks three times the inverse return on the NYSE 20+ Year Treasury Bond Index.

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  1. Taxedenough | February 21, 2013

    Article didn't mention seniors who are getting screwed out of interest payments on their savings.

    • Jeff Uscher | February 22, 2013

      Taxedenough, that was beyond the scope of this article but I agree with you 100%.

  2. Walter Baltzley | February 22, 2013

    The problem lies on the demand side of the macro-economic equation…something the FED has no influence over…only CONGRESS can influence demand. Congress does this by purchasing goods directly from companies, hiring, entitlements, tax-credits, grants, and student loans. This puts money in the hands of consumers…which they use to buy goods and services, allowing manufacturers to expand and hire more people.

    Unfortunately, the combination of foreign outsourcing, automation, organization "flattening", and non-retirement has created such an enormous imbalance between supply and demand for labor, that has never been seen before in all of history. PLUS, not only does our money have to support our own workforce, but also that of China, India, and the rest of the developing world…because companies will not hire domestically until all the cheap labor in those countries is employed.

  3. Jeff Pluim | February 22, 2013

    The banks are not lending because they know that the interest rates are going to go up and they cannot afford to lend out long-term money at low interest rates when they are having to pay out higher interest rates to future depositors.
    Example: they take a depositor's $1million and pay the depositor 2%. If they turn around and lend out that money at 4% they will be making 2% on the transaction.
    But then when interest rates go up, the depositor decides that he wants a higher return on his money, say 4%. But the bank has lent out that money at 4% and so will be losing money after administration costs. So the banks are not lending until the interest rates go up, so that they do not get caught in the interest rate squeeze.
    Until interest rates go up to a more reasonable market level that is not maneuvered by the Government agencies, lending is and will be at a stand-still.

  4. K.Mathibe. | June 24, 2013

    Can't banks use interest rate swaps thou?

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