Yves here. While Ilargi discusses how a follower of Minsky would predict that QE would end badly, Keynes, a successful speculator, gave more detailed explanation of why low interest rates were a trap in his General Theory. As Nathan Tankus wrote in a 2013 post:
Since Bernanke started talking about “tapering off” Quantitative Easing, the bond markets have freaked out. This is a very logical reaction.
Before last month, it seemed like QE would go on indefinitely. Once that belief was shaken – even in the slightest fashion – everyone ran to the exits. Bernanke and other Federal Reserve economists appear bewildered by this phenomenon. The impression one gets from their follow-up comments is that they wished they could ask bond speculators “did you read the damn speech?” The answer, of course, is no and for good reason.
All investors need to know is the conditions under which QE (and for that matter, the Zero Interest Rate Policy) will be pursued has changed. Now the substantive change may actually be relatively minor, but that’s irrelevant to speculators. The reason is very simple: those holding assets with longer maturities will take huge capital losses with relatively small changes in interest rates (As a reminder: it is basic “bond math” that a change in interest rates send bond prices in the reverse direction. A rise in interest rates makes bond prices fall and a fall in interest rates make bond prices rise). It is better to exit now when those future changes are uncertain then take even more massive losses.
This is the logic behind the actual “liquidity trap” presented by Keynes in his general theory. Specifically, Chapter 15 entitled “The Psychological and Business Incentives To Liquidity.” Here he argues that every fall in the interest rate relative to what is commonly believed to be a “safe” rate increases the “risk of illiquidity”. The the “risk of illiquidity” is the risk of holding an asset not easily convertible into money at “book” value (this also means an asset is more or less “liquid” based on the relative easiness to convert into money “book” value). Further, rather then seeing interest as a return to “waiting”, Keynes argues that it is “a sort of insurance premium to offset the risk of loss on capital account”.
How can one evaluate the uncertainties relative to the “insurance”? By what has been subsequently known as “Keynes’s square rule”.
The square rule was defined by Keynes in this chapter as “an amount equal to the difference between the squares of the old rate of interest and the new” (mathematically represented as Δi = i2 ). If interest rates (at that maturity) are expected to rise faster then a squaring of itself, it means your capital losses (market price of the bond or investment) will fall faster then the increase in the rate of return (and vice versa).
Based on this understanding, a liquidity trap is not a short term rate of interest at zero but a uniform expectation that interest rates will rise to such an extent that the rate of return on a bond or equity won’t preserve your principal and thus a refusal by anyone but the central bank to buy bonds at such a high price (i.e., low interest rate).
Keynes says explicitly in chapter 15 that “what matters is not the absolute level of r but the degree of its divergence from what is considered a fairly safe level of r, having regard to those calculations of probability which are being relied on” (r being the rate of interest). Why this confusion has resulted has many complex historical reasons, not least of which is economists disinterest in actually reading and comprehending what was written more then five years before them…
….if the interest rate rises too fast those “middle-class people” will take much larger losses on the value of many of their assets than they will get back in interest….That is without even taking into account the higher borrowing costs that many would most likely face. Remember also that at such low interests rates “too fast” is actually a very small increase. To go back to Keynes:
If, however, the rate of interest is already as low as 2 per cent., the running yield will only offset a rise in it of as little as 0.04 per cent. per annum. This, indeed, is perhaps the chief obstacle to a fall in the rate of interest to a very low level. Unless reasons are believed to exist why future experience will be very different from past experience, a long-term rate of interest of (say) 2 per cent. leaves more to fear than to hope, and offers, at the same time, a running yield which is only sufficient to offset a very small measure of fear.
The “reason” in our current situation, whether justified or not, was Quantitative Easing. It is quite reasonable for participants to panic once the hope is removed and all that is left is fear. QE was bad policy but once it was done, it could only be ended very gradually. Tapering may prove to be as ad-hoc and inadvisable as QE itself.
By Raúl Ilargi Meijer, editor-in-chief of The Automatic Earth. Originally published at Automatic Earth
Central bankers have promised ad nauseum to keep rates low for long periods of time. And they have delivered. Their claim is that this helps the economy recover, but that is just a silly idea.
What it does do is help create the illusion of a recovering economy. But that is mostly achieved by making price discovery impossible, not by increasing productivity or wages or innovation or anything like that. What we have is the financial system posing as the economy. And a vast majority of people falling for that sleight of hand.
Now the central bankers come face to face with Hyman Minsky’s credo that ‘Stability Breeds Instability’. Ultra low rates (ZIRP) are not a natural phenomenon, and that must of necessity mean that they distort economies in ways that are inherently unpredictable. For central bankers, investors, politicians, everyone.
That is the essence of what is being consistently denied, all the time. That is why QE policies, certainly in the theater they’re presently being executed in, will always fail. That is why they should never have been considered to begin with. The entire premise is false.
Ultra low rates are today starting to bite central bankers in the ass. The illusion of control is not the same as control. But Mario and Janet and Haruhiko, like their predecessors before them, are way past even contemplating the limits of their powers. They think pulling levers and and turning switches is enough to make economies do what they want.
Nobody talks anymore about how guys like Bernanke stated when the crisis truly hit that they were entering ‘uncharted territory’. That’s intriguing, if only because they’re way deeper into that territory now than they were back then. Presumably, that may have something to do with the perception that there actually is a recovery ongoing.
But the lack of scrutiny should still puzzle. How central bankers managed to pull off the move from admitting they had no idea what they were doing, to being seen as virtually unquestioned maestros, rulers of, if not the world, then surely the economy. Is that all that hard, though, if and when you can push trillions of dollars into an economy?
Isn’t that something your aunt Edna could do just as well? The main difference between your aunt and Janet Yellen may well be that Yellen knows who to hand all that money to: Wall Street. Aunt Edna might have some reservations about that. Other than that, how could we possibly tell them apart, other than from the language they use?
The entire thing is a charade based on perception and propaganda. Politicians, bankers, media, the lot of them have a vested interest in making you think things are improving, and will continue to do so. And they are the only ones who actually get through to you, other than a bunch of websites such as The Automatic Earth.
But for every single person who reads our point of view, there are at least 1000 who read or view or hear Maro Draghi or Janet Yellen’s. That in itself doesn’t make any of the two more true, but it does lend one more credibility.
Draghi this week warned of increasing volatility in the markets. He didn’t mention that he himself created this volatility with his latest QE scheme. Nor did anyone else.
And sure enough, bond markets all over the world started a sequence of violent moves. Many blame this on illiquidity. We would say, instead, that it’s a natural consequence of the infusion of fake zombie liquidity and ZIRP rates.
The longer you fake it, the more the perception will grow that you can’t keep up the illusion, that you’re going to be found out. Ultra low rates may be useful for a short period of time, but if they last for many years (fake stability) they will themselves create the instability Minsky talked about.
And since we’re very much still in uncharted territory even if no-one talks about it, that instability will take on forms that are uncharted too. And leave Draghi and Yellen caught like deer in the headlights with their pants down their ankles.
The best definition perhaps came from Jim Bianco, president of Bianco Research in Chicago, who told Bloomberg: “You want to shove rates down to zero, people are going to make big bets because they don’t think it can last; Every move becomes a massive short squeeze or an epic collapse – which is what we seem to be in the middle of right now.”
With long term ultra low rates, investors sense less volatility, which means they want to increase their holdings. As Tyler Durden put it: ‘investors who target a stable Value-at-Risk, which is the size of their positions times volatility, tend to take larger positions as volatility collapses. The same investors are forced to cut their positions when hit by a shock, triggering self- reinforcing volatility-induced selling. This is how QE increases the likelihood of VaR shocks.’
QE+ZIRP have many perverse consequences. That is inevitable, because they are all fake from beginning to end. They create a huge increase in inequality, which hampers a recovery instead of aiding it. They are deflationary.
They distort asset values, blowing up prices for stocks and bonds and houses, while crushing the disposable incomes in the real economy that are the no. 1 dead certain indispensable element of a recovery.
You would think that the central bankers look at global bond markets today, see the swings and think ‘I better tone this down before it explodes in my face’. But don’t count on it.
They see themselves as masters of the universe, and besides, their paymasters are still making off like bandits. They will first have to be hit by the full brunt of Minsky’s insight, and then it’ll be too late.