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Quantitative easing, explained

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“The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Open Market Committee shall maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.”

-Federal Reserve Act Section 2A

            Maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates are the responsibilities of the Federal Reserve (the Fed) often known as its “dual mandate.” Achieving these goals is no minor feat. The economy is a complex and unpredictable structure, dependent not only on the performance of businesses, but also slave to human behavior. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb famously wrote, “Think of the economy as being more like a cat than a washing machine.”

So how is the Fed expected to tame this dynamic and volatile system? American monetary policy until late 2008 consisted of adjusting the monetary supply through the sale and purchasing of short term treasury bills, affecting interest rates by setting their overnight risk-free rates and attempting to control public expectations and actions through public statements.

The post-great recession global economy, however, has not been as responsive to these conventional forms of monetary policy. The Fed has maintained a historically large monetary supply, and risk free interest rates close to 0% since the great recession, yet the economy is still resisting maximum employment and healthy inflation rates.

To supplement these insufficient strategies, central banks have turned to Quantitative Easing. Quantative Easing (QE) has become somewhat of a buzzword used to describe a range of policies. It is therefore difficult to construct a concrete definition. A good starting place, however, is thinking of it as any non-traditional monetary strategy consisting of purchasing long-term assets, particularly when short-term risk-free interest rates are close to 0%.

QE1, the first round of American quantitative easing, was essentially a bailout where the Fed acquired mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and funded government sponsored enterprises (GSE). By purchasing mortgage backed securities—a risky long term asset held by many banks at the time of the great recession—they provided relief to banks who were in danger of turning illiquid. Housing oriented GSEs were financed in order to create credit for investments in real estate.

Notice that QE1 resembles fiscal policy more than monetary policy. Without passing an official stimulus through congress, the Fed managed to inject money into the economy and provide incentives for investment. Our definition of Quantitative Easing can thus be updated to reflect this function.

The second and third rounds of Quantitative Easing were extensions to QE1 with one addition. The Fed purchased longer-term treasury bills. These auxiliary rounds of QE had the effect of continuing to increase the monetary base and lowering long-term interest rates, thereby incentivizing even further investment.

Quantitative Easing is any non-traditional monetary policy, which stimulates the economy through the purchase of long-term assets, particularly when traditional monetary policy has failed. The purchase of long-term assets stimulates the economy by lowering long-term interest rates and increasing the money supply, which in turn incentivize lending and investing.

Recently, QE has been used by central banks all over the world, most notably, the Bank of England, Bank of Japan, and the Fed. However, this strategy is not without its critics. Detractors argue that QE weakens the effects of traditional monetary policy and puts central banks in danger of run-away inflation. While these dangers do exist, it is clear that traditional monetary policy is no longer sufficient to reach desired interest rates. While QE may not be the final solution, it has so far seemed effective.

Traditional monetary policy has not been enough to lift us from our global recession. It is clear that central banks need an additional tool to stimulate a healthy economy. QE will be around at least until a new alternative is found. Whether it actually stimulates the economy or simply inflates the prices of assets remains to be seen.

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