Quantitative easing, which saw major central banks buying government bonds outright and quadrupling their balance sheets since 2008 to $15 trillion, has boosted asset prices across the board. That was the aim: to counter a severe economic downturn and to save a financial system close to the brink. Little thought, however, was put into the longer-term consequences of these actions.
From 2008 to 2015, the nominal value of the global stock of investable assets has increased by about 40 percent, to over $500 trillion from over $350 trillion. Yet the real assets behind these numbers changed little, reflecting, in effect, the asset-inflationary nature of quantitative easing. The effects of asset inflation are as profound as those of the better-known consumer inflation.
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Consumer price inflation erodes savings and the value of fixed earnings as prices rise. Aside from the pain consumers feel, the economy’s pricing signals get mixed up. Companies may unknowingly sell at a loss, while workers repeatedly have to ask for wage increases just to keep up with prices. The true losers though are people with savings, which see their value in real purchasing power severely diminished.
John Maynard Keynes famously said that inflation is a way for governments to “confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.” Critically, inflation creates much social tension: “While the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. The sight of this arbitrary rearrangement of riches strikes not only at security, but at the confidence in the equity of the existing distribution of wealth.”
Asset inflation, it turns out, is remarkably similar. First, it impedes creative destruction by setting a negative long-term real interest rate. This allows companies that no longer generate enough income to pay a positive return on capital to continue as usual rather than being restructured. Thus the much-noted growth of zombie companies is one consequence of asset price inflation. Thus also the unreasonable leverage and price observed in real estate, with the credit risks it entails for the future.
Second, it also generates artificial winners and losers. The losers are most found among the aging middle class, who, in order to maintain future consumption levels, will now have to increase their savings. Indeed, the savings made by working people on stagnant wages effectively generates less future income because investable assets are now more expensive. The older the demographics, the more pronounced this effect. Germany, for instance, had a contraction of nearly 4% of gross domestic product in consumer spending from 2009 to 2016.