The US Federal Reserve, like many other central banks, engaged in massive quantitative easing in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007/8. Over three rounds, QE1, QE2 and QE3, it accumulated $4.5 trillion of assets – mainly government bonds and mortgage-backed securities (see chart below: click here for a PowerPoint). But, unlike its counterparts in the UK, the eurozone and Japan, it has long ceased its programme of asset purchases.. In October 2014, it announced that QE was at an end. All that would be done in future would be to replace existing holdings of assets as they matured, keeping total holdings roughly constant.
But now this policy is set to change. The Fed is about to embark on a programme of ‘quantitative tightening’, already being dubbed ‘QT’. This involves the Fed reducing its holdings of assets, mainly government bonds and government-backed mortgage-related securities.
This, however, for the time being will not include selling its holding of bonds or mortgage-backed securities. Rather, it will simply mean not buying new assets to replace ones when they mature, or only replacing part of the them. This was discussed by the 75 participants at the joint meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) and Board of Governors on 14–15 March.
As the minutes put it: “Many participants emphasized that reducing the size of the balance sheet should be conducted in a passive and predictable manner.”
A more active form of QT would involve selling assets before maturity and thus reducing the size of the Fed’s balance sheet more rapidly. But either way, reducing assets would put downward pressure on the money supply and support the higher interest rates planned by the FOMC.
The question is whether there is enough liquidity elsewhere in the system and enough demand for credit, and willingness of the banking system to supply credit, to allow a sufficient growth in broad money – sufficient, that is, to support continued growth in the economy. The answer to that question depends on confidence. The Fed, not surprisingly, is keen not to damage confidence and hence prefers a gradualist approach to reducing its holdings of assets bought during the various rounds of quantitative easing.
Fed’s asset shift to pose new test of economy’s recovery, resilience Reuters, Howard Schneider and Richard Leong (6/4/17)
Federal Reserve likely to begin cutting back $4.5 trillion balance sheet this year Washington Post, Ana Swanson (5/4/17)
Why the Fed’s debate about shrinking its balance sheet really, really matters Money Observer, Russ Mould (7/4/17)
The Fed and ECB keep a cautious eye on the exit Financial Times (7/4/17)
Get ready for the Fed’s next scary policy change CBS Money Watch, Anthony Mirhaydari (5/4/17)
The Fed wants to start shrinking its $4.5 trillion balance sheet later this year Business Insider, Akin Oyedele (5/4/17)
Inside the Fed’s March Meeting: The Annotated Minutes Bloomberg, Luke Kawa, Matthew Boesler and Alex Harris (5/4/17)
QE was great for asset prices – will ‘QT’ smash them? The Financial Review (Australia), Patrick Commins (7/4/17)
Shrinking the Fed’s balance sheet Brookings, Ben Bernanke (26/1/17)
Selected data Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System
- Distinguish between active and passive QT.
- If QE is a form of expansionary monetary policy, is QT a form of contractionary monetary policy?
- Could QT take place alongside an expansion of broad money?
- What dangers lie in the Fed scaling back its holdings of government (Treasury) bonds and mortgage-backed securities?
- Why is it unlikely that the Fed will reduce its holdings of securities to pre-crisis levels?
- Why are the Bank of England, the ECB and the Bank of Japan still pursuing a policy of QE?
- What are the implications for exchange rates of QT in the USA and QE elsewhere?
- Find out data for the monetary base, for narrow money (M1) and broader money (M2) in the USA. Are narrow and/or broad money correlated with Federal Reserve asset holdings?
After promises made back in July 2012 that the ECB will ‘do whatever it takes’ to protect the eurozone economy, the ECB has at last done just that. It has launched a large-scale quantitative easing programme. It will create new money to buy €60 billion of assets every month in the secondary market.
Around €10 billion will be private-sector securities that are currently being purchased under the asset-backed securities purchase programme (ABSPP) and the covered bond purchase programme (CBPP3), which were both launched late last year. The remaining €50 billion will be public-sector assets, mainly bonds of governments in the eurozone. This extended programme of asset purchases will begin in March this year and continue until at least September 2016, bringing the total of asset purchased by that time to over €1.1 trillion.
The ECB has taken several steps towards full QE over the past few months, including €400 billion of targeted long-term lending to banks, cutting interest rates to virtually zero (and below zero for the deposit rate) and the outright purchase of private-sector assets. But all these previous moves failed to convince markets that they would be enough to stimulate recovery and stave off deflation. Hence the calls for full quantitative easing became louder and it was widely anticipated that the ECB would finally embark on the purchase of government bonds – in other words, would finally adopt a programme of QE similar to those adopted in the USA (from 2008), the UK (from 2009) and Japan (from 2010).
Rather than the ECB buying the government bonds centrally, each of the 19 national central banks (NCBs), which together with the ECB constitute the Eurosystem, will buy their own nation’s bonds. The amount they will buy will depend on their capital subscriptions the eurozone. For example, the German central bank will buy German bonds amounting to 25.6% of the total bonds purchased by national central banks. France’s share will be 20.1% (i.e. French bonds constituting 20.1% of the total), Spain’s share will be 12.6% and Malta’s just 0.09%.
Central banks of countries that are still in bail-out programmes will not be eligible to purchase their countries’ assets while their compliance with the terms of the bailout is under review (as is the case currently with Greece).
The risk of government default on their bonds will be largely (80%) covered by the individual countries’ central banks, not by the central banks collectively. Only 20% of bond purchases will be subject to risk sharing between member states according to their capital subscription percentages: the ECB will directly purchase 8% of government bonds and 12% will be bonds issued by European institutions rather than countries. As the ECB explains it:
With regard to the sharing of hypothetical losses, the Governing Council decided that purchases of securities of European institutions (which will be 12% of the additional asset purchases, and which will be purchased by NCBs) will be subject to loss sharing. The rest of the NCBs’ additional asset purchases will not be subject to loss sharing. The ECB will hold 8% of the additional asset purchases. This implies that 20% of the additional asset purchases will be subject to a regime of risk sharing.
As with the QE programmes in the USA, the UK and Japan, the transmission mechanism is indirect. The assets purchased will be from financial institutions, who will thus receive the new money. The bond purchases and the purchases of assets by financial institutions with the acquired new money will drive up asset prices and hence drive down long-term interest rates. This, hopefully, will stimulate borrowing and increase aggregate demand and hence output, employment and prices.
The ECB will buy bonds issued by euro area central governments, agencies and European institutions in the secondary market against central bank money, which the institutions that sold the securities can use to buy other assets and extend credit to the real economy. In both cases, this contributes to an easing of financial conditions.
In addition, there is an exchange rate transmission mechanism. To the extent that the extra money is used to purchase non-eurozone assets, so this will drive down the euro exchange rate. This, in turn, will boost the demand for eurozone exports and reduce the demand for imports to the eurozone. This, again, represents an increase in aggregate demand.
The extent to which people will borrow more depends, of course, on confidence that the eurozone economy will expand. So far, the response of markets suggests that such confidence will be there. But we shall have to wait to see if the confidence is sustained.
But even if QE does succeed in stimulating aggregate demand, there remains the question of the competitiveness of eurozone economies. Some people are worried, especially in Germany, that the boost given by QE will reduce the pressure on countries to engage in structural reforms – reforms that some people feel are vital for long-term growth in the eurozone
The articles consider the responses to QE and assess its likely impact.
The ECB makes its mind up: The launch of euro-style QE The Economist (22/1/15)
ECB unveils massive QE boost for eurozone BBC News (22/1/15)
Eurozone boost of €1.1tn in ‘shock and awe’ plan by Central Bank The Guardian, Heather Stewart (22/1/15)
European Central Bank unleashes quantitative easing Financial Times, Claire Jones (22/1/15)
11 questions you are too embarrassed to ask about Quantitative Easing Independent, Russell Lynch (22/1/15)
What the experts say about the ECB’s latest round of QE The Guardian, Julia Kollewe (22/1/15)
Mario Draghi’s QE blitz may save southern Europe, but at the risk of losing Germany The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (22/1/15)
The sad consequences of the fear of QE The Economist, Paul De Grauwe (21/1/15)
Will euro QE work? BBC News, Robert Peston (20/1/15)
ECB announces expanded asset purchase programme ECB Press Release (22/1/15)
Introductory statement to the press conference (with Q&A) ECB Press Conference, Mario Draghi, President of the ECB (22/1/15)
Webcast of ECB press conference, Mario Draghi, President of the ECB (22/1/15)
Previous blog posts
The fate of the eurozone (7/1/15)
Eurozone deflation risk (1/12/14)
Edging closer to full QE (6/9/14)
The ECB: tackling the threat of deflation (8/6/14)
Euro area economic and financial data ECB
- Why has the ECB been reluctant to engage in full QE before now?
- How has the ECB answered the objections of strong eurozone countries, such as Germany, to taking on the risks associated with weaker countries?
- What determines the amount by which aggregate demand will rise following a programme of asset purchases?
- In what ways and to what extent will non-eurozone countries benefit or lose from the ECB’s decision?
- Are there any long-term dangers to the eurozone economy of the ECB’s QE programme? If so, how might they be tackled?
- Why did the euro plummet on the ECB’s announcement? Why had it not plummeted before the announcement, given that the introduction of full QE was widely expected?