Since the beginning of 2009, central banks around the world have operated an extremely loose monetary policy. Their interest rates have been close to zero (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart) and more than $20 trillion of extra money has been injected into the world economy through various programmes of quantitative easing.
The most recent example of loose monetary policy has been in Japan, where substantial quantitative easing has been the first of Japan’s three arrows to revive the economy (the other two being fiscal policy and supply-side policy).
One consequence of a rise in money supply has been the purchase of a range of financial assets, including shares, bonds and commodities. As a result, despite the sluggish or negative growth in most developed countries, stock markets have soared (see chart). From March 2009 to May 2013, the FTSE 100 rose by 91% and both the USA’s Dow Jones Industrial average and Germany’s DAX rose by 129%. Japan’s NIKKEI 225, while changing little from 2009 to 2012, rose by 78% from November 2012 to May 2013 (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
The US economy has been showing stronger growth in recent months and, as a result, the Fed has indicated that it may soon have to begin tightening monetary policy. It is not doing so yet, nor are other central banks, but the concern that this may happen in the medium term has been enough to persuade many investors that stock markets are likely to fall as money eventually becomes tighter. Given the high degree of speculation on stock markets, this has led to a large-scale selling of shares as investors try to ‘get ahead of the curve’.
From mid-May to mid-June, the FTSE 100 fell by 6.2%, the Dow Jones by 2.6%, the DAX by 4.5% and the NIKKEI by 15%. In some developing countries, the falls have been steeper as the cheap money that entered their economies in search of higher returns has been leaving. The falls in their stock markets have been accompanied by falls in their exchange rates.
The core of the problem is that most of the extra money that was created by central banks has been used for asset purchase, rather than in financing extra consumer expenditure or capital investment. If money is tightened, it is possible that not only will stock and bond markets fall, but the fragile recovery may be stifled. In other words, tighter money and higher interest rates may indeed affect the real economy, even though loose monetary policy and record low interest rates had only a very modest effect on the real economy.
This poses a very difficult question for central banks. If even the possibility of monetary tightening some time in the future has spooked markets and may rebound on the real economy, does that compel central banks to maintain their loose policy? If it does, will this create an even bigger adjustment problem in the future? Or could there be a ‘soft landing’, whereby real growth absorbs the extra money and gradually eases the inflationary pressure on asset markets?
How the Fed bosses all BBC News, Robert Peston (12/6/13)
The great reversal? Is the era of cheap money ending? BBC News, Linda Yueh (12/6/13)
The Great Reversal: Part II (volatility and the real economy) BBC News, Linda Yueh (14/6/13)
The end of the affair The Economist (15/6/13)
Out of favour The Economist, Buttonwood (8/6/13)
Global financial markets anxious to avoid many pitfalls of ‘political risk’ The Guardian, Heather Stewart (13/6/13)
Dow Falls Below 15,000; Retailers Add to Slump New York Times, (12/6/13)
Global market sell-off over stimulus fears The Telegraph, Rachel Cooper (13/6/13)
Nikkei sinks over 800 points, falls into bear market Globe and Mail (Canada), Lisa Twaronite (13/6/13)
Global shares drop, dollar slumps as rout gathers pace Reuters, Marc Jones (13/6/13)
Yahoo! Finance: see links for FTSE 100, DAX, Dow Jones, NIKKEI 225
Link to central bank websites Bank for International Settlements
Statistical Interactive Database – Interest & exchange rates data Bank of England