Roughly two years after it launched the biggest and broadest monetary-stimulus campaign in modern history, the Federal Reserve is in the process of withdrawing its support for the U.S. economy. The most delicate element of the plan is likely to be shrinking its record balance sheet -- something that ended up roiling financial markets the last time policy makers did it. The plan for quantitative tightening, as it’s known, was released May 4.
1. What’s quantitative tightening?
The easy answer is that it’s the opposite of quantitative easing, or QE. Milton Friedman had proposed a type of QE decades ago, and the Bank of Japan pioneered its use in 2001 after it had run out of conventional ammunition -- lowering its benchmark short-term interest rate to zero. In QE, a central bank buys bonds to drive down longer-term rates as well. As it creates money for those purchases, it increases the supply of bank reserves in the financial system, and the hope is that lenders go on to pass that liquidity along as credit to companies and households, spurring growth. QT means reducing the supply of reserves.
2. How does that happen?
By the Fed letting the bonds it’s purchased reach maturity and run off its balance sheet. It effectively created the money it used to buy the bonds out of thin air. Then the Treasury Department “pays” the Fed at the maturity of the bond by subtracting the sum from the cash balance it keeps on deposit with the Fed -- effectively making the money disappear. To meet its spending obligations, the Treasury needs to replenish that cash pile by selling new securities. When banks buy those Treasuries, they reduce their own reserves, thus draining money from the system and undoing what was created in QE.
3. Have central banks made this switch before?
Not often. The BOJ let its balance sheet shrink in 2006-07, in what many regard in hindsight as a premature tightening of policy amid Japan’s continuing battle with deflationary pressures. The European Central Bank also allowed its asset holdings to drop in 2013-14 following a surge during the euro crisis. The Bank of England said in May that it would consider active selling of its bond holdings, rather than simply letting them reach maturity, as other central banks have done. The Fed used QE for the first time in the midst of the 2008 financial meltdown and during the weak recovery that followed, then implemented QT once it thought the economy was sufficiently strong. The tightening lasted for a little less than two years, from 2017 to 2019.
4. What has the Fed decided this time?
The Fed’s asset holdings -- mostly Treasuries and mortgage bonds backed by government agencies -- more than doubled during the pandemic, to about $8.9 trillion from $4.2 trillion. That total stopped rising by April, after the Fed completed a “taper” of those purchases. At the May 3-4 policy meeting, the Fed decided to shrink the balance sheet at a maximum monthly pace of $60 billion in Treasuries and $35 billion in mortgage-backed securities, after an initial few months at a slower pace. The $95 billion pace is nearly double the peak rate of $50 billion the last time the Fed trimmed its balance sheet from 2017 to 2019.
5. What does that mean for the economy?
As the QT process takes money out of the financial system, borrowing costs rise -- just as QE drove interest rates down, QT can be expected to put pressure on them to go up. And, along with the expected steep trajectory of interest-rate hikes by the Fed, they had already indeed begun to surge. Ten-year Treasury yields in May went above 3% for the first time since 2018. And mortgage rates had soared, with 30-year fixed rate offerings exceeding 5% in April to reach the highest since 2010 -- hurting demand for housing.
6. How did markets react last time?
Quite a bit differently than the Fed anticipated. Then-Chair Janet Yellen said in June 2017 that “this is something that will just run quietly in the background over a number of years,” and that “it’ll be like watching paint dry.” While QT started without a hitch in October 2017, just three months later bonds slid across the globe and stocks dropped, possibly in response to a combination of Fed QT and the European Central Bank signaling it might be open to altering its own stimulus policy. By November 2018, some market participants were arguing the Fed had shrunk bank reserves too drastically, leaving lenders scrambling for cash and roiling money markets. The dollar strengthened, putting pressure on emerging-market borrowers that had built up dollar-denominated debt. Premiums on developing nations’ bonds soared. U.S. junk-rated corporate debt also saw spreads over Treasuries gap wider in late 2018.
7. What did the Fed do then?
At first, it kept to its QT policy, with Powell -- by then Yellen’s successor as chair -- at one point saying the program was on “automatic pilot.” But after the S&P 500 Index tumbled almost 16% over three weeks in December 2018, the Fed blinked. It abandoned rate hikes in January and went on to announce the phasing out of QT in March 2019.
8. Did that calm markets down?
Not entirely. In September 2019, rates surged in the repo market, a key source of short-term funding, prompting the Fed to inject short-term liquidity in its first such operation in a decade. The following month, policy makers said they’d ramp up purchases of Treasury bills to maintain an ample supply of bank reserves.
9. So it’ll be market mayhem all over again?
Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers once said the four most dangerous words in markets are “it’s different this time.” But circumstances have changed from the last time the Fed went through policy normalization. For one thing, the day-to-day operational framework for the Fed has been tweaked, such that it commits to keeping “ample” reserves in the system. The Fed said on May 4 that “to ensure a smooth transition,” it intends “to slow and then stop the decline in the size of the balance sheet when reserve balances are somewhat above the level it judges to be consistent with ample reserves.” Powell told Congress in early March the process would take about three years, implying roughly $3 trillion or more in reductions, given the plan the Fed later unveiled.
10. Any new safety valves?
Yes, this time the Fed has new tools it can use to avert at least some short-term strains in financial markets. Last year, it introduced the Standing Repo Facility, which can provide as much as $500 billion of cash overnight to the banking system. A separate facility offers dollars to other central banks around the world. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York can also mount unscheduled domestic repurchase agreements. A sustained spike in use of the facilities could serve as a signal of trouble ahead. But with U.S. fiscal policy tightening in 2022 as pandemic-relief spending winds down, and with the impact of geopolitical dangers, not to mention the still-persistent pandemic, difficult to predict, there could yet be other strains that combine to hit financial markets.
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