Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's $600 billion quantitative easing program has been roundly criticized in this country and around the world. So why is he doing it? Does he know something the rest of us don't? Mr. Bernanke claimed earlier this month in a Washington Post op-ed that "higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending." But, as Mr. Bernanke must know, the Japanese have been trying to influence their stock market for 20 years, with little effect on their economy. It is also unlikely, as some claim, that the Fed chairman is whipping up a stealth stimulus or orchestrating a currency devaluation. He knows these have been tried and are more likely to destroy jobs than create them.
I have a different explanation for the Fed's latest easing program: Without another $600 billion floating through the economy, Mr. Bernanke must believe that real estate (residential and commercial) would quickly drop, endangering banks. The 2009 quantitative easing lowered mortgage rates and helped home prices rise for a while. But last month housing starts plunged almost 12%. And in September, according to Core-Logic, home prices dropped 2.8% from 2009. Commercial real estate values are driven by job-creation and vacancy rates, both of which are heading the wrong way. Because of unexpectedly bad construction loans, the staid Wilmington Trust was sold to M&T Bank earlier this month in a rare "takeunder"—what Wall Street calls a deal done below a company's stock value, in this case by 40%.
In other words, real estate is at risk again.