Quantitative easing, or when there’s nowhere left to run

Alasdair Macleod – 08 October 2011

Over the last few weeks there has been a growing realisation that the weaker members of the eurozone are caught in debt traps. When the “PIIGS” (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) signed up to the eurozone they gave up the right to devalue, which is the traditional and delusionary escape route for sovereign debtors. But when you come up against the realities of hard money, this route is blocked. A temporary solution has been to gets banks to buy government bonds, but the banks can take no more. This leaves us with a banking problem, but fortunately their solvency is being underwritten by the European Central Bank, without which the eurozone would have ground to a financial halt.

The ECB, together with the national central banks, can only support these banks by writing a blank cheque on itself, while using all means possible to conceal and play down the losses in the system. This essentially is what happens with the good-bank/bad-bank solution: if the bad stuff is carted away to be dealt with out of the public gaze leaving the good stuff behind, what is there to worry about?

We have to keep our fingers crossed that the ECB continues to succeed in co-coordinating this vital task, and indeed, its strongest suit is that we all want it to succeed. But this still leaves us with the unanswered question of how to resolve the sovereign debt traps.

The problem is global. The eurozone’s debt problems, which also extend to France and Belgium, have only become obvious because of the inflexibility of the euro. But debt traps have also closed on the US and the UK, who can try to print their way out of trouble. Both these governments are fully committed to monetary inflation as the means to conceal and defer their own financial difficulties. This is what quantitative easing is actually about: it is the way a government funds itself when markets are unable or unwilling to come up with the money required. You bypass markets by printing it for your own banks to lend to you.

The idea that QE is primarily to help the economy recover is Keynesian guff, a cover for the true reason. Without it, the US and UK would have to compete for global savings at far higher interest rates. What price $2 trillion in new Treasuries with no QE? What price £175 billion in new gilts? The debt trap has already sprung. And few investors yet seem aware of the irony that loading up banks with Treasuries and gilts is exactly what the eurozone banks have already done for the PIIGS. Whatever the current difficulties faced by European banks and the US and UK governments and their banking systems, there is only one option for all of them: buy time by printing yet more money. This is why the banking system in the eurozone and elsewhere will survive. Banks need governments as much as governments need them. The cost of this survival will be borne by the unwitting saver, who has been frightened into cash only to find it being debased more rapidly than before.

This makes the recent fall in gold and silver prices nonsensical. But then just as the investment community walked blindly into stock market losses, they are just as clueless about the inflationary implications of rescuing sovereign debt.

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Alasdair started his career as a stockbroker in 1970 on the London Stock Exchange. In those days, trainees learned everything: from making the tea, to corporate finance, to evaluating and dealing in equities and bonds. They learned rapidly through experience about things as diverse as mining shares and general economics. It was excellent training, and within nine years Alasdair had risen to become senior partner of his firm. Subsequently, Alasdair held positions at director level in investment management, and worked as a mutual fund manager. He also worked at a bank in Guernsey as an executive director. For most of his 40 years in the finance industry, Alasdair has been de-mystifying macro-economic events for his investing clients. The accumulation of this experience has convinced him that unsound monetary policies are the most destructive weapon governments use against the common man. Accordingly, his mission is to educate and inform the public in layman’s terms what governments do with money and how to protect themselves from the consequences.

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