Sunday, September 2, 2012

Wallace Neutrality... don't fight the Fed

Miles Kimball gave me some help on understanding Wallace Neutrality, which in turn might help me understand more where Stephen Williamson is coming from when he says QE is irrelevant. I asked Miles:
I'm not sure if I entirely understand the Wallace neutrality argument.
If I may paraphrase, does it mean something like... the Fed could buy a bunch of stocks on the NYSE, and they might be able to push their prices up (their dividend rates down). But if they did so, the price of these stocks would rise above their intrinsic value and profit-seeking agents would immediately take the opposite side of the trade, thereby pushing the purchased stocks' value back to their intrinsic value. So in order for the Fed to permanently increase stock prices above their intrinsic value, there must be some sort of "friction" that prevents profit-seeking agents from taking the other side of the trade. Is that what it means?
Yes... You said it very well.
That's a relief. Sometimes I have troubles translating the somewhat Spockian language of formal economics into words that are more comfortable to me, that being the daily lingua of the marketplace, trading, and investing.

To further re-translate, I'd say the idea of Wallace Neutrality falls in the same boat as the old trader's adage... don't fight the Fed. If traders believe the Fed is all-powerful and too strong to trade against, then the Fed can effectively change assets prices above or below what they should otherwise be. If traders think they can fight the Fed, then the Fed can't change asset prices - traders will collectively take the other side of any Fed action, canceling out any Fed-induced price changes. What "friction" motivates traders to believe they can or can't fight the Fed?

Here is my older post on Stephen Williamson's QE irrelevance. The frictions I point to in that post are the Fed's size relative to other actors in asset markets and the Fed's ambivalence to profits/losses in a environment in which all other actors are hypersensitive to profits/losses. In other words... don't fight the Fed. It's massively big and doesn't care if it loses on the trade.

Brad DeLong had a comment on the idea of Wallace Neutrality here. Miles goes into the idea of Wallace Neutrality again here.

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