QE Forever: The Fed’s Dramatic About-Face

“Quantitative easing” was supposed to be an emergency measure. The Federal Reserve “eased” shrinkage in the money supply due to the 2008-09 credit crisis by pumping out trillions of dollars in new bank reserves. After the crisis, the presumption was that the Fed would “normalize” conditions by sopping up the excess reserves through “quantitative tightening” (QT) – raising interest rates and selling the securities it had bought with new reserves back into the market.

The Fed relentlessly pushed on with quantitative tightening through 2018, despite a severe market correction in the fall. In December, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said that QT would be on “autopilot,” meaning the Fed would continue to raise interest rates and to sell $50 billion monthly in securities until it hit its target. But the market protested loudly to this move, with the Nasdaq Composite Index dropping 22% from its late-summer high.

Worse, defaults on consumer loans were rising. December 2018 was the first time in two years that all loan types and all major metropolitan statistical areas showed a higher default rate month-over-month. Consumer debt – including auto, student and credit card debt – is typically bundled and sold as asset-backed securities similar to the risky mortgage-backed securities that brought down the market in 2008 after the Fed had progressively raised interest rates.

Chairman Powell evidently got the memo. In January, he abruptly changed course and announced that QT would be halted if needed. On February 4th, Mary Daly, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, said they were considering going much further. “You could imagine executing policy with your interest rate as your primary tool and the balance sheet as a secondary tool, one that you would use more readily,” she said. QE and QT would no longer be emergency measures but would be routine tools for managing the money supply. In a February 13th article on Seeking Alpha titled “Quantitative Easing on Demand,” Mark Grant wrote:

If the Fed does decide to pursue this strategy it will be a wholesale change in the way the financial system in the United States operates and I think that very few institutions or people appreciate what is taking place or what it will mean to the markets, all of the markets.

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