Tuesday, November 09, 2010

PragCap: Understanding The Mechanics of a QE Transaction

Want to have your mind blown? The link above demonstrates how the Federal Reserve implements its policy of Quantitative Easing - it is not what those on TV lead you to believe (this is not a defense of Bernanke.....please don't misunderstand).

Here is an excerpt:

Before we begin, it’s important that investors understand exactly what “cash” is. “Cash” is simply a very liquid liability of the U.S. government. You can call it “cash”, Federal Reserve notes, whatever. But it is a liability of the U.S. government. Just like a 13 week treasury bill. What is the major distinction between “cash” and bills? Just the duration and amount of interest the two pay. Think of one like a checking account and the other like a savings account.

This is a crucial point that I think a lot of us are having trouble wrapping our heads around. In school we are taught that “cash” is its own unique asset class. But that’s not really true. “Cash” as it sits in your bank account is really just a very very liquid government liability. What is the difference between your checking and savings account? Do you classify them both as “cash”? Do you consider your savings accounts a slightly less liquid interest bearing form of the same thing a checking account is?

What is a treasury note account? It is a savings account with the government. So now you have to ask yourself why you think cash is so much different than a treasury note? What is the difference between your ETrade cash earning 0.1% and that t note earning 0.2%? NOTHING except the interest rate and the duration. You can’t use your 13 week bill to pay your taxes tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a slightly less liquid form of the exact same thing that we all refer to as “cash”. They are both govt liabilities and assets of yours.

When you own a t note you really just traded your “cash” for a slightly less liquid form of the same exact thing. If the Fed buys those t notes from you they give you back your cash minus the interest rate. That’s all there is to it. No change in the money supply. No change in anything except the rate of interest you were earning. If the government removes t notes then all they’re doing is altering the term structure of their liabilities. They’re not changing the AMOUNT of liabilities.

Scott Dauenhauer, CFP, MSFP, AIF