May 11th, 2011

QE2, Treasuries, Rampant Paranoia

Today, for some reason, I was thinking it was the day that Certain People have decided was Rapture Day. Of course I was wrong. Today is the 11th. Rapture Day is the 21st. Silly me.

I do _not_ believe what these people are saying! I am being facetious. But I do truly love watching people commit to a Truly Silly Idea, Be Wrong (duh), and then see what they do after. Suicide, of course, is Not Cool, but some of the rationalizations people come up with for why they weren't really wrong (or are right now that they have modified certain salient details) are awe inspiring.

QE2 is a term of art for "quantitative easing, round 2". What that means, for people who have better things to do with their time than wonk it up with the finance crowd is the government bought a bunch of government debt from itself (that's the "Treasuries" part) in an effort to make sure there was enough money out there to keep the economy ticking along. QE2 is about to wrap up and there are no official, public plans for QE3 (yet). As a predictable result, there are some people who are ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED that inflation is going to take off like a rocket. The rationale is as follows (roughly):

the government must issue debt (to roll over expiring debt, add new debt, etc.)

someone has to buy that debt

the government won't buy it from itself any more (since QE2 is ending)

no one else wants those turds, at least not at ultra-low interest rates

thus interest rates will rise until someone decides they do want to buy those turds at that price

The "no one else wants those turds" assertion is supported by pointing out that the government has been the big buyer of treasuries in the course of QE2. The theory is that if someone else wanted them, they would have bought them instead.

The problem with that theory is that if you are borrowing from yourself, you're a lot more inclined to give yourself a great rate on the loan: such a great rate that no third party will be interested in competing with you. Depending on how treasury auctions are structured, while the government is known to be buying, no one else would bother to bid -- and no one would have any real insight to what would happen when the government is no longer buying.

This would go a long ways to explaining why there is such a wide variety of expectations as to what will happen when QE2 ends -- and so much rampant paranoia associated with a lot of those expectations. Paranoia that strikes me as at least as realistic as the idea that the 21st will be Rapture Day.