The Absolute Return Letter November Letter
In his masterpiece The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money John Maynard Keynes referred to what he called the ‘euthanasia of the rentier’. Keynes argued that interest rates should be lowered to the point where it secures full employment (through an increase in investments). At the same time he recognised that such a policy would probably destroy the livelihoods of those who lived off their investment income, hence the expression. Published in 1936, little did he know that his book referred to the implications of a policy which, three quarters of a century later, would be on everybody’s lips. Welcome to QE.
Now back to QE – the topic of this month’s Absolute Return Letter. Over the past couple of years it has gradually become the consensus view that QE has failed because it hasn’t created the economic growth that everyone was hoping for. I find that view overly simplistic and naïve in equal measures. QE – or broadly similar monetary policy initiatives – has saved the world from a nasty and potentially very damaging financial meltdown not once, but twice – following the Lehman bankruptcy in the autumn of 2008 and during the depths of the Eurozone crisis in the second half of 2011. It is not clear at all (because it is impossible to quantify) how much worse off we would have been without QE, but worse off – in terms of GDP growth – we almost certainly would have been. Estimates range from 5% to 15% below actual numbers, but nobody really knows.
QE’s effect on asset prices
The second indisputable effect QE has had is on asset prices. The central banks’ unprecedented buying of bonds have had a material, and overwhelmingly positive, effect on asset prices – to the point where more and more people worry that we are in the process of forming a new bubble.