NEW YORK – The United States Federal Reserve’s decision to undertake a third round of quantitative easing, or QE3, has raised three important questions. Will QE3 jump-start America’s anemic economic growth? Will it lead to a persistent increase in risky assets, especially in US and other global equity markets? Finally, will its effects on GDP growth and equity markets be similar or different?
Many now argue that QE3’s effect on risky assets should be as powerful, if not more so, than that of QE1, QE2, and “Operation Twist,” the Fed’s earlier bond-purchase program. After all, while the previous rounds of US monetary easing have been associated with a persistent increase in equity prices, the size and duration of QE3 are more substantial. But, despite the Fed’s impressive commitment to aggressive monetary easing, its effects on the real economy and on US equities could well be smaller and more fleeting than those of previous QE rounds.
Consider, first, that the previous QE rounds came at times of much lower equity valuations and earnings. In March 2009, the S&P 500 index was down to 660, earnings per share (EPS) of US companies and banks had sunk to a financial-crisis low, and price/earnings ratios were in the single digits. Today, the S&P 500 is more than 100% higher (hovering near 1,430), the average EPS is close to $100, and P/E ratios are above 14.
Even during QE2, in the summer of 2010, the S&P 500, P/E ratios, and EPS were much lower than they are today. If, as is likely, economic growth in the US remains anemic in spite of QE3, top-line revenues and bottom-line earnings will turn south, with negative effects on equity valuations.