Pawtucket Times

Printing trillions of dollars was probably a mistake

- Allison Schrager

The great quantitati­ve easing experiment was a mistake. It’s time central banks acknowledg­e it for the failure it was and retire it from their policy arsenal as soon as they’re able.

Since the global financial crisis of 2008, an integral part of central banks’ play book in the U.S., the U.K. and the European Union has been QE – the practice of buying up long-term bonds and mortgage-backed securities. QE is supposed to work by lowering long-term interest rates, which boosts demand and increases lending and risk-taking.

There is little to show in terms of the economic benefits of QE, but there are plenty of costs. Now central banks find their hands tied as they try to curb inflation with interest rate increases and quantitati­ve tightening, which means no more purchases of long-term bonds and mortgage-backed securities. But they’re finding that ending QE can itself be a threat to financial stability.

During the 2008 financial crisis, central banks were desperate to inject liquidity into the financial system. With the policy interest rate at zero, it needed to figure out another mechanism, so it bought long-term bonds and mortgage-backed securities, ballooning its balance sheet. That was supposed to be an emergency measure, but it went on for years. QE was followed by QE2 and then QE3 as the Fed became fearful that stopping would crash the bond markets.

About a decade later, just as the Fed’s balance sheet finally started to shrink, along came the pandemic and the biggest QE ever. It lasted well after the immediate crisis passed, even as inflation and the housing market started to heat up.

Looking objectivel­y at the evidence, it’s still not clear that all this bond buying ever did much for the economy. As Ben Bernanke once said, “The problem with Quantitati­ve Easing (QE) is that it works in practice but not in theory.”

In cases where a market is in trouble, having the central bank step in and buy bonds can provide needed liquidity. But using QE to boost the entire economy, to lower unemployme­nt or boost inflation, has a more dubious record. One study, called Fifty Shades of QE, assessed the many research papers that measure the impact of QE on the economy. It found that all the research coming from central banks view QE as a great success, but only half of the research from academics finds any benefits to economic output or inflation. When they do find some benefit, it tends to be smaller than the bank research claims.

Meanwhile, there are substantia­l costs. First there are direct costs: QE is essentiall­y taking a leveraged bet that won’t pay off if interest rates increase.

The Fed pays interest on the reserves it holds for banks, and it uses those reserves to finance its purchases of longterm bonds. Now that the interest rate has increased to fight inflation, the Fed must pay more for reserves than it’s getting from the bonds in its portfolio, and its losing money.

The indirect costs of QE could be even worse. Using QE to keep interest rates low distorts risk assessment since bonds are considered the risk-free assets in the economy – they’re used to price assets and act as a barometer on risk-taking. Long-term bonds are among the most systematic­ally important assets in the economy, and when their price is distorted, risk prices have less meaning.

The Bank for Internatio­nal Settlement­s published a paper arguing that lowering long-term rates made corporate debt cheaper, which propped up zombie companies. The Fed’s interferen­ce in the mortgage-backed-securities market during the pandemic may distort the housing market for years.

Hanno Lustig, a finance professor at Stanford’s business school, is concerned that suppressin­g government borrowing rates “jams the signal” markets would otherwise give when the government is borrowing too much. “Bond traders have an incentive to invest more in figuring out what the central bank will do, less in figuring out what the [market] fundamenta­ls are,” he said.

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