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The Quantitative Easing Is(n't) Working

It's been more than a month since the Federal Reserve released details of its latest quantitative easing. That isn't enough time for statistics and surveys to show how the plan is working, but there are indicators showing how markets have responded.

The New York Fed statement detailing the plan leads off with:

On November 3, 2010, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) decided to expand the Federal Reserve's holdings of securities in the System Open Market Account (SOMA) to promote a stronger pace of economic recovery and to help ensure that inflation, over time, is at levels consistent with its mandate.

In other words, the goals are to increase inflation and goose the recovery, which implies keeping interest rates low. A basket of exchange-traded funds should give a good snapshot of how things are going.

PowerShares DB US Dollar Index Bullish (NYSE: UUP  ) tracks the performance of the dollar against a basket of currencies. SPDR Gold Shares (NYSE: GLD  ) follows the price of gold and PowerShares DB Agriculture (NYSE: DBA  ) is keyed to a basket of agricultural commodities. If the market is expecting higher inflation in the U.S., investors should expect to see lower prices for the dollar index and higher prices for gold and commodities.

iShares Barclays 20+ Year Treasury (NYSE: TLT  ) follows long-term Treasury bond prices. iShares Barclays Aggregate Bond (NYSE: AGG  ) and Vanguard's Total Bond Market (NYSE: BND  ) track baskets of bonds intended to reflect the entire bond market.

The table shows prices just after the plan details were released and for Friday's close.

Fund Nov. 3 Close Dec. 10 Close
PowerShares DB US Dollar $22.14 $23.10
SPDR Gold $131.57 $135.41
PowerShares DB Agriculture $29.73 $30.15
iShares Barclays 20+ Year Treasury $98.58 $93.15
iShares Barclays Aggregate Bond $107.84 $105.30
Vanguard Total Bond Market $82.48 $80.32

Results are mixed. Gold and agricultural commodity prices have increased, scoring two for inflation expectations. But the dollar has strengthened. More than half the dollar bull fund is measured against the euro, so its performance is from weakness in the eurozone and dollar strength.

The bond indicators aren't showing as much success. All three funds decreased in price, meaning interest rates increased, after the Fed spilled the beans on its plan. My Foolish colleague Morgan Housel covered 10-year Treasury yields and also found it's getting more expensive to borrow money.

At least in the short term, the Fed is succeeding on its goal to make stuff more expensive. Based on interest rates, goosing the economy isn't looking so good.

The old market adage of "don't fight the Fed" is tough to apply when the Fed is fighting itself. Buying Treasuries adds upward price pressure, but higher inflation expectations counter that with upward interest rate pressure. As long as QE is in play, some inflation protection makes sense. Whenever the price support from QE ends, holding long-term bonds will not be a pleasant experience.

Share your opinion below and kick in 10 cents for Foolanthropy.

Fool contributor Russ Krull has no position in any security mentioned. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (7)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On December 13, 2010, at 7:26 PM, DDHv wrote:

    As far as I can see, Keynsian economic stimuli only work under special circumstances.

  • Report this Comment On December 13, 2010, at 9:38 PM, MegaEurope wrote:

    "All three funds decreased in price, meaning interest rates increased, after the Fed spilled the beans on its plan."

    On the other hand, if the Fed didn't do QE2, interest rates might have increased way more. There is no way of knowing what might have happened.

  • Report this Comment On December 14, 2010, at 1:10 PM, nuggerb wrote:
  • Report this Comment On December 14, 2010, at 7:03 PM, rd80 wrote:

    @DDHv - One day, maybe someone will figure out how to identify those special circumstances. ;)

    @MegaEurope - Good point. I do think it's fair to claim the inflationary push from QE2 is a counter to the increased bond demand. But, I don't think anyone can say for sure which side of the tug-of-war has more impact or factor in all the market forces that set interest rates.

    @nuggerb - Thanks for the link. Are you the artist?

    Thanks for the comments and the boost for Foolanthropy.


  • Report this Comment On December 21, 2010, at 6:55 PM, rfaramir wrote:

    My interpretation of the presented table by reading the results in bottom to top order:

    People are fleeing bonds and escaping to gold (or any commodity), because they see that the dollar is dying.

    The only upside is that the Euro is doing even worse.

    The people have wised up to QE(n). Ben should stop now. It will only get worse from here. But he won't.

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