QE and its role in the Dollar shortage, zombie banks and productivity woes

by Shaun Richards

Overnight there have been some intriguing releases from the BIS or Bank for International Settlements, which if you were not aware is the central bankers central bank. The BIS has, although it would not put it like that been reviewing some of the problems and indeed side-effects of the QE ( Quantitative Easing) era, So what does it tell us? Well one major point links to yesterday’s post on India and indeed to the travails of Argentina and Turkey.

The second defining feature is the rise of foreign currency US dollar credit . US dollar-denominated debt securities issued by non-US residents have been the key driver of this trend, surpassing bank loans for the first time in the second half of 2017 . The overall amount of dollar credit to the non-bank sector outside the United States has climbed from 9.5% of global GDP at end-2007 to 14% in the first quarter of 2018. Since end-2016, however, the growth in dollar credit has been flat.

So the US Dollar has been used as a new form of carry trade as people and businesses choose to borrow in it on a grand scale. Also as global GDP has been growing the 14% is of a larger amount. But to me the big connection here is the way that this pretty much coincides with plenty of US Dollars being available because the US Federal Reserve was busy supplying them in return for its QE bond purchases. Correlation does not prove causation but the surge fits pretty well and then it ends not long after QE did. Or more precisely seems to have faded after the first interest-rate increase from the Fed.

The question to my mind going forwards is will we see a reversal in the QT or Quantitative Tightening era? The supply of US Dollars is now being reduced by it and we wait to see what the consequences are. But it is hard to avoid noting the places that seem to be as David Bowie and Queen would put it.

It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about
Watching some good friends screaming, ‘Let me out’
Pray tomorrow gets me higher
Pressure on people, people on streets

Things seem set to tighten a little further tomorrow should the Fed tighten again as looks likely.

Zombie Companies and Banks

This development has been brought to you be the financial world equivalent of Hammer House of Horror. All the monetary easing has allowed companies to survive that would otherwise have folded, or to put it another way the road to what is called “creative destruction” or one of the benefits of capitalism was blocked. A major form of this was the way that banks were bailed out and some of them continue to struggle a decade later but also took us down other roads. For example the debt model of the Glazers at Manchester United looked set to collapse but was then able to refinance more cheaply in the new upside down world. Ironically it was then able to thrive at least financially as in football terms things are not what they were.

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The BIS has its worries in this area too.

In this special feature, we explore the rise of zombie companies and its causes and consequences. We take an international perspective that covers 14 countries and a much longer period than previous studies.

It is willing to consider that the era of lower interest-rates and bond yields which covers my whole career and some has had consequences.

A related but less explored factor is the drop in interest rates since the 1980s. The ratcheting-down in the level of interest rates after each cycle has potentially reduced the financial pressure on zombies to restructure or exit. Our results indeed suggest that lower rates tend to push up zombie shares, even after accounting for the impact of other factors.

So cutting interest-rates for an economic gain looks to have negative consequences as time passes. How might that work in practice? The emphasis below is mine

Mechanically, lower rates should reduce our measure of zombie firms as they improve ICRs by reducing interest expenses, all else equal. However, low rates can also reduce the pressure on creditors to clean up their balance sheets and encourage them to “evergreen” loans to zombies . They do so by reducing the opportunity cost of cleaning up (the return on alternative assets), cutting the funding cost of bad loans, and increasing the expected recovery rate on those loans. More generally, lower rates may create incentives for risk-taking through the risk- taking channel of monetary policy. Since zombie companies are risky debtors and investments, more risk appetite should reduce financial pressure on them.

The reason for the emphasis is that in essence that is the rationale for QE. That is something of a change on the past but as inflation as measured by consumer inflation mostly did not turn up the central banks got out their erasers and deleted that bit. It has been replaced by this sort of thing which links to the Zombie companies and banks theme.

In addition, QE can stimulate the economy by boosting a wide range of financial asset prices. ( Bank of England )

Note the use of the word can so that even the Take Two version can be erased! But the crucial point is that yet again the Zombies are on the march via central banking support. I guess most of you have already guessed the next bit.

Visual inspection suggests that the share of zombie firms is indeed negatively correlated with both bank health and interest rates.

Why are Zombies such a problem?

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The have negative effects on economic life.

a higher share of zombie firms could depress productivity growth,

Could? Later we get more of a would as we see an old friend called “crowding out” return to the picture.

Zombies are less productive and may crowd out growth of more productive firms by locking resources (so-called “congestion effects”). Specifically, they depress the prices of those firms’ products, and raise their wages and their funding costs, by competing for resources.

But there is a deeper consequence.

We find that when the zombie share increases, productivity growth declines significantly, but only for the narrowly defined zombies………. The estimates indicate that when the zombie share in an economy increases by 1%, productivity growth declines by around 0.3 percentage points.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here. The first is the role of the BIS in this which in some ways is welcome but in others less so.  The former is an admittal of some of the side-effects of easy monetary policy but the latter is the way we are getting it a decade late. Or in the case of Japan a couple of decades or so late! To my mind intelligence also involves an element of timeliness. Although to be fair to do quantitative research you do need an evidence base. The catch as ever for the evidence in economics is the way that some many things are varying not only with each other but also with themselves over time. Or if you prefer heteroskedasticity and multicollinearity.

As to the issues they tend to be on the back burner because they are inconvenient for the establishment. The career path of economists at central banks is unlikely to be improved by research into the collateral damage of its policies especially ones which it may not be able to reverse. At the moment both ZIRP and QE are in that category even in the US. So should the period of QT lead to the issue below rising in volume get ready for the claims that it could not have been expected and is nobody’s fault.

I need a dollar dollar, a dollar is what I need
Hey hey
Well I need a dollar dollar, a dollar is what I need
Hey hey

On that subject I note that a bank borrowed 563 million Euros from the ECB overnight which is odd with so much Euro liquidity around. Next we come to the issue of the productivity puzzle which seems likely to have a few of its pieces with zombie companies on it. The same zombie companies and especially banks that have been so enthusiastically propped up. Time for some Cranberries.

Zombie, zombie, zombie, ei, ei
What’s in your head?
In your head
Zombie, zombie, zombie