Normal Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

A scorpion asks a frog to ferry it across a river. The frog tells the scorpion he fears being stung. The scorpion promises not to sting the frog saying if I did so we would both drown. Considering this, the frog agrees, but midway across the river the scorpion stings the frog, dooming them both. When the frog asks why, the scorpion replies that it was in its nature to do so.

On February 20, 2019, the Federal Reserve released the minutes from their January policy (FOMC) meeting. As leaked last week by Fed Governor Loretta Mester, and discussed HERE, it turns out that in January the committee did indeed discuss a process to end the systematic reduction of the Fed’s balance sheet, better known as Quantitative Tightening (QT).

Within the minutes was the following sentence:

Such an announcement would provide more certainty about the process for completing the normalization of the size of the Federal Reserve balance sheet.”

The message implies that when the process of reducing the balance sheet ends the Fed’s balance sheet will be normalized. Is that really the case?

The New Normal

Before discussing the implications regarding the present size of the Fed’s balance sheet, we help you decide if the balance sheet will truly be normal come later in 2019. The graph below plots the Federal Reserve’s Adjusted Monetary Base, a well-correlated proxy for the Fed’s balance sheet, as a percentage of GDP. The black part of the line projects the current pace of reduction ($50 billion/month) through December.

(Click on image to enlarge)

Data Courtesy: St Louis Federal Reserve

As shown, even if the Fed reduces their holdings through the remainder of the year, the balance sheet will still be nearly three times larger as compared to the economy than in the 25 years before the financial crisis. Would you characterize the current level of the balance sheet as normal?  

Implications

If you answered no to the question, then you should carefully consider the implications associated with a permanently inflated Fed balance sheet. In this article, we discuss three such issues; inflation, safety/soundness, and future policy firepower.

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