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?
In August 2012, the ECB president, Mario Draghi, said that the ECB would ‘do whatever it takes‘ to hold the single currency together and support the weaker economies, such as Greece, Portugal and Spain. At the same time, he announced the introduction of outright monetary purchases (OMTs), which would involve purchasing eurozone countries’ bonds in the secondary markets. There were no limits specified to such purchases, but they would be sterilised by the sale of other assets. In other words, they would not increase the eurozone money supply. But despite the fanfare when OMTs were announced, they have never been used.
Today, the eurozone economy is struggling to grow. The average annual growth rate across the eurozone is a mere 0.5%, albeit up from the negative rates up to 2013 Q3. GDP is still over 2% below the peak in 2008. Inflation is currently standing at 0.8%, well below the 2% target. The ECB’s interest rate (‘main refinancing operations rate’) is 0.25%.
The recovery is hindered by a strong euro. As the chart shows, the euro has been appreciating against the dollar. The euro exchange rate index has also been rising. This has made it harder for the eurozone countries to export.
So what can the ECB do to stimulate the eurozone economy? Other central banks, such as the Bank of England, the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan have all had substantial programmes of quantitative easing. The ECB has not. Perhaps OMTs could be used without sterilisation. The problem here is that there are no eurozone bonds issued by the ECB and hence none that could be purchased, only the bonds of individual member countries. Buying bonds of weaker countries in the eurozone would be seen as favouring these countries and might create a moral hazard.
Reducing interest rates is hardly an option given that they are at virtually zero already. And expansionary fiscal policy in the weaker countries has been ruled out by having to stick to the bailout conditions for these countries, which require the pursuit of austerity policies.
One possibility would be to intervene in the foreign currency market by buying US and other countries’ bonds. This would drive down the euro and provide a stimulus to exports. This option is considered in the Jeffrey Frankel article.
Why the European Central Bank should buy American The Guardian, Jeffrey Frankel (13/3/14)
Draghi holds course in face of deflation threat Reuters, Paul Carrel and Leika Kihara (13/3/14)
ECB’s Draghi: Strong Euro Pulling Down Euro Zone Inflation Wall Street Journal, Christopher Lawton and Todd Buell (13/3/14)
Draghi Bolstering Guidance Seen as Convincing on Rates Bloomberg, Jeff Black and Andre Tartar (13/3/14)
ECB president Mario Draghi counters euro upswing Financial Times, Claire Jones (13/3/14)
Turning Japanese? Euro zone exporters must hope not Reuters, Neal Kimberley (14/3/14)
Prospect of ECB QE drives eurozone bond rally Financial Times, Laurence Mutkin (12/3/14)
Statistical Data Warehouse ECB
Winter forecast 2014 – EU economy: recovery gaining ground European Commission: Economic and Financial Affairs DG
AMECO online European Commission: Economic and Financial Affairs DG
- Why is the ECB generally opposed to quantitative easing of the type used by other central banks?
- What is meant by ‘sterilisation’? Why does sterilisation prevent OMTs being classed as a form of quantitative easing?
- Would it be possible for OMTs to be used without sterilisation in such as way as to avoid a moral hazard for the highly indebted eurozone countries?
- Is the eurozone in danger of experiencing deflation?
- What are the dangers of deflation?
- Why does the ECB not cut its main refinancing rate below zero?
- If the ECB buys US bonds, what effect would this have on the euro/dollar exchange rate?
- Would purchasing US bonds affect the eurozone money supply? Explain.
- What other means are there of the ECB stimulating the eurozone economy? How effective would they be likely to be?
Japan’s general election on 16 December was won by the centre-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led by Shinzo Abe. It gained a two-thirds majority in the lower house. It returns to power after losing to the Democratic Party in 2009. Previously it had been in office for most of the time since 1955.
The LDP has promised to revive the flagging Japanese economy, which has been suffering from years of little or no growth and returned to recession last quarter. Economic confidence has been damaged by a dispute with China about the sovereignty over some small islands in the East China Sea. The economy, whose exports make up some 13% of GDP, has suffered from the global slowdown and a high yen. The yen has appreciated against the dollar by around 40% since 2007.
The economy has also suffered from the shutdown of all its nuclear reactors following the earthquake and tsunami last year. Nuclear power accounted for over 30% of the country’s electricity generation.
Mr Abe promises to revive the economy through fiscal and monetary policies. He plans a fiscal stimulus package in early 2013, with increased government expenditure on infrastructure and other public-works. He also wants the Bank of Japan to increase its inflation target from 1% to 3% and to achieve this through various forms of monetary easing.
The initial reactions of markets to the election result were favourable. The stock market rose and the yen fell.
However, as the following articles discuss, there are dangers associated with Mr Abe’s policies. The expansionary fiscal policy will lead to a rise in the country’s general-government debt, which, at some 240% of GDP, is by far the largest in the developed world. This could lead to a loss of confidence in Japanese debt and a fall in the price of bonds on the secondary markets and a rise in government borrowing costs. Also, a depreciation of the yen, while welcomed by exporters, would increase the price of imports, including food and raw materials.
Changing of guard in Japan as PM concedes vote CNN, Yoko Wakatsuki, Brian Walker, and Hilary Whiteman (17/12/12)
LDP Win Clears Pipes for Japan Fiscal Spigot Bloomberg Businessweek, Toru Fujioka (17/12/12)
Economic implications of Japan’s election Huffington Post (16/12/12)
Japan economy contracts again Taipei Times (11/12/12)
Japan elections: Shares rise and yen weakens on Abe win BBC News (17/12/12)
Shinzo Abe’s challenges in reviving Japan’s economy BBC News, Puneet Pal Singh (17/12/12)
Can Shinzo Abe Save Japan? Slate, Matthew Yglesias (30/11/12)
Deflation only natural when politicians refuse to fix oversupplied Japan Japan Times, Teruhiko Mano (17/12/12)
New Year messages from Japan BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (18/12/12)
Japan – Muddling On Or Growing Stronger? Seeking Alpha, Anthony Harrington (12/12/12)
Japanese government unveils £138bn stimulus package The Guardian (11/1/13)
- Using macroeconomic data from sources such as sites 6, 7 and 9 in the Economics Network’s Economic Data freely available online, describe Japan’s macroeconomic situation over the past 10 years.
- Why has the Japanese yen appreciated so much in recent years?
- What forms could monetary easing take in Japan?
- Why might it prove difficult to stimulate the Japanese economy through fiscal and monetary policies?
- What undesirable side-effects might result from expansionary fiscal and monetary policies?
- What structural weaknesses are there in the Japanese economy that have hindered economic growth? What policies might the new Japanese government pursue in tackling these structural weaknesses?
Eurozone leaders met at a summit in Brussels on 28 and 29 June. Expectations ahead of the summit were low that any significant progress would be made on supporting eurozone banks and governments, on achieving more effective bank regulation or stimulating economic growth.
For once, EU leaders surprised markets by reaching a more comprehensive agreement than anticipated. The agreement has five key elements:
1. The use of funds from the soon-to-be launched eurozone bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), to lend to banks directly. Previously, funds had been made available to national governments to lend to their banks. This, however, increased the debts of the national governments, such as Spain, which made it harder for them to meet deficit and debt targets.
2. The setting up of a new banking supervisory body to impose common standards, such as capital adequacy requirements, on banks across the eurozone.
3. The use of the eurozone bailout fund to buy government bonds on the secondary market, provided governments are sticking to agreed deficit reduction measures. This would help to reduce interest rates on government bonds in countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece, currently having to pay interest rates 5 or 6 percentage points above those on German bonds.
4. A €120bn growth package to target EU money at small businesses, youth unemployment and infrastructure improvements. Most of the money would be from existing funds, such as EU Structural Funds, which are currently unused. There would be some additional funds, however, including €10bn to boost the lending capacity of the European Investment Bank.
5. A 10-year ‘roadmap’ towards greater fiscal union, including the creation of a eurozone treasury, which could limit overall spending by national governments.
Generally the agreement has been greeted positively, with stock markets in the eurozone and across the world rising significantly. But will the measures be enough to reassure investors over the coming weeks? Will they cure the problems of the eurozone or are they just one more, albeit larger, sticking plaster?
The following webcasts, podcasts and articles look at the agreement and the resulting prospects for the eurozone.
Webcasts and podcasts
Eurozone bends the rules to save single currency euronews (29/6/12)
Markets Like Euro Crisis Deal, Merkel Defensive Associated Press (29/6/12)
Eurozone crisis: ‘Breakthrough’ at summit BBC News, Gavin Hewitt (29/6/12)
EU summit outcome exceeds – low – expectations euronews (29/6/12)
Italy and Spain are main beneficiaries after EU summit euronews (30/6/12)
EU bank aid deal ‘better than expected, worse than needed’ euronews (29/6/12)
New eurozone deal ‘not enough’ BBC Today Programme, James Shugg (29/6/12)
Eurozone: ‘Massive concession’ from Angela Merkel BBC Today Programme, Gavin Hewitt and Robert Peston (29/6/12)
Eurozone bank bailout deal throws lifeline to Spain and Italy Guardian, Ian Traynor and Phillip Inman (29/6/12)
Spain lifeline after EU allows direct access to eurozone bailout funds Guardian (29/6/12)
Less disunion The Economist, Charlemagne’s notebook (29/6/12)
Eurozone agrees on bank recapitalisation BBC News (29/6/12)
Merkel defends compromise deal on eurozone banks BBC News (29/6/12)
A first, tentative step to salvation for the eurozone Independent, Leading article (29/6/12)
Analysis – Sharing a vision may be Europe’s biggest challenge Reuters, Alan Wheatley (3/7/12)
Eurozone bank agreement welcomed FT Adviser, Rebecca Clancy & Bradley Gerrard (2/7/12)
The real victor in Brussels was Merkel Financial Times, Wolfgang Münchau (1/7/12)
Finns, Dutch cast first doubt on EU summit deal EurActiv (3/7/12)
A Euro deal from Brussels BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (29/6/12)
Conclusions of the European Council (28/29 June 2012) European Council (29/6/12)
- What are the advantages of the ESF lending to banks directly? Are there any problems associated with the proposal?
- To what extent will the measures solve the problems of the eurozone? What else might need to be done?
- Are there any potential moral hazards contained in the proposals and how are they likely to be tackled?
- Explain the concept of ‘seniority’ in the following statement: “the debt owed by Spain to the EFSF, if and when it is transferred to the ESM, will not gain seniority”. Why might this be good for private financiers?
- If governments’ bonds are to be purchased by the ESM, what conditions are likely to be attached?
The European Central Bank does not provide direct support to eurozone countries by buying new bonds. However, it can give indirect support by helping banks buy such bonds. In a move announced on 8 December, the ECB will increase the maximum term of its ‘longer-term refinancing operations’ (LTROs) from the current 13 months to three years. In other words, it will effectively provide three-year loans to banks by purchasing banks’ assets on a ‘repurchase (repo)’ basis, whereby banks agree to buy back the assets at the end of the three-year term.
The hope is that banks will use these loans (at an annual rate of 1%) to purchase new bonds from countries such as Italy and Spain. If banks are more willing to buy them, this should help reduce the interest rate at which governments are forced to borrow. Banks would benefit from the ‘carry trade’, whereby they borrow at a low interest rate (from the ECB) and lend at a higher rate to governments by buying their bonds.
To encourage banks to take advantage of these new longer-term repos,the ECB announced that the assets it was prepared to purchase would include securitised assets with a rating of single A (the highest rating is AAA). In other words, it would accept assets with a ‘second-best rating’.
But although the scheme would allow banks to make a clear gain from a carry trade, banks may be reluctant to use such loans to increase their holdings of sovereign debt of countries with large debt to GDP ratios, given concerns in the market about the riskiness of such assets.
Articles and podcast
ECB repo extension a fillip for sovereigns Financial News, Matt Turner (15/12/11)
Doubts over ECB move to boost bond sales Financial Times, Tracy Alloway (15/12/11)
ECB Chief Plays Down Hopes for Bigger Bond Purchases Wall Street Journal, Tom Fairless And Margit Feher (15/12/11)
Eurozone crisis ‘misdiagnosed’ BBC Today Programme, George Magnus (16/12/11) (second part of podcast)
Banks snap up €500bn in loans from European Central Bank Guardian. Larry Elliott (22/12/11)
Analysis: ECB cash to give indirect boost via banks Reuters, Natsuko Waki and Steve Slater (22/12/11)
Demand for ECB loans rises to €489bn Financial Times, Tracy Alloway and Ralph Atkins (21/12/11)
ECB’s rescue of eurozone banks is temporary BBC News, Robert Peston (21/12/11)
ECB Press release
ECB announces measures to support bank lending and money market activity ECB (8/12/11)
- Explain how repos work. What is the difference between repos and reverse repos?
- What is meant by the term ‘carry trade’?
- Why may banks be unwilling to gain from the carry trade possibilities of the ECB’s new 3-year LTROs by using them to fund the purchase of new sovereign bonds? What risks are entailed by their doing so?
- How do these new long-term repo operations differ from quantitative easing? Explain whether or not the effect is likely to be similar
- What are the arguments for and against the ECB engaging in a round of substantial quantitative easing?