The Lemmings of QE

NEW HAVEN – Predictably, the European Central Bank has joined the world’s other major monetary authorities in the greatest experiment in the history of central banking. By now, the pattern is all too familiar. First, central banks take the conventional policy rate down to the dreaded “zero bound.” Facing continued economic weakness, but having run out of conventional tools, they then embrace the unconventional approach of quantitative easing (QE).

The theory behind this strategy is simple: Unable to cut the price of credit further, central banks shift their focus to expanding its quantity. The implicit argument is that this move from price to quantity adjustments is the functional equivalent of additional monetary-policy easing. Thus, even at the zero bound of nominal interest rates, it is argued, central banks still have weapons in their arsenal.

But are those weapons up to the task? For the ECB and the Bank of Japan (BOJ), both of which are facing formidable downside risks to their economies and aggregate price levels, this is hardly an idle question. For the United States, where the ultimate consequences of QE remain to be seen, the answer is just as consequential.

QE’s impact hinges on the “three Ts” of monetary policy: transmission (the channels by which monetary policy affects the real economy); traction (the responsiveness of economies to policy actions); and time consistency (the unwavering credibility of the authorities’ promise to reach specified targets like full employment and price stability). Notwithstanding financial markets’ celebration of QE, not to mention the US Federal Reserve’s hearty self-congratulation, an analysis based on the three Ts should give the ECB pause.