Fed Chairman Bernanke has already been hinting that the Federal Reserve is ready to begin a third round of Quantitative Easing, in an attempt to prevent the stagnant US economy from slipping into another recession. Quantitative Easing, in which the Fed buys US debt, is another way of saying that the Fed is planning to monetize the debt – which is a euphemism for printing a bunch of money and inflating our currency and making our money worth less.
There is some possibility that the Fed will wait to take action until after the election, in order to try to avoid making Fed policy a political issue during the campaign.
Chairman Bernanke's term ends in 2014, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has already indicated that he will not renominate Mr. Bernanke as chairman.
In the short term, a QE3 policy could temporarily help to keep interest rates low – a result which many in the mortgage and real estate industries would no doubt welcome.
At the same time, quantitative easing is, by definition, inflationary. QE2 seems to have had the effect of doubling the official inflation rate from 1.5% to 3%. Price inflation will affect virtually everything, including house prices. Again this is something that many people in our industry would welcome, but we should be careful what we wish for. When the cost of something goes up but its value does not, our money buys less of it.
What effect would a QE3 likely have on home sales? Average household income (in inflation-adjusted dollars) has fallen by $4000 in the last 4 years. An inflationary monetary policy would further exacerbate that problem. People are paying more, relative to their incomes, for basics like food and energy, reducing their ability to save to buy a home. Home price inflation would make it worse for buyers, and wouldn't even help sellers -- because the value of higher prices would be negated by inflation.
More importantly, the US debt now stands at $16 trillion – a number which exceeds the size of our entire economy – and it is growing every day. We are "fortunate" that, largely because of the problems of the European economy, U.S. Treasury debt is still considered a relatively safe haven, which means the Treasury Dept. is able to borrow at very low interest rates. Another round of quantitative easing may temporarily make us feel better (when the Fed buys Treasuries, the Treasury Department does not have to sell as much of its debt on the open market), but after the party ends, the inevitable hangover comes. A 10 year treasury currently pays 2.78%. But in 2000 -- just 12 years ago -- the rate was 6.03%. If the Treasury's cost of borrowing were to return to 2000 levels, it would raise our interest payments on the today's national debt by a breathtaking $520 billion annually.
As Friedrich Hayek (Nobel Prize winner in Economics and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom) warned, "I do not think it is an exaggeration to say history is largely a history of inflation, usually inflations engineered by governments for the gain of governments."
As I said, we in the mortgage industry should be careful what we wish for.