The Fed’s Balance Sheet: The Other Exponential Curve
The Fed’s Balance Sheet: The Other Exponential Curve
As the threat of COVID-19 keeps millions of Americans locked down at home, businesses and financial markets are suffering.
For example, a survey of small-business owners found that 51% did not believe they could survive the pandemic for longer than three months. At the same time, the S&P 500 posted its worst first-quarter on record.
In response to this havoc, the U.S. Federal Reserve (the Fed) is taking unprecedented steps to try and stabilize the economy. This includes a return to quantitative easing (QE), a controversial policy which involves adding more money into the banking system. To help us understand the implications of these actions, today’s chart illustrates the swelling balance sheet of the Fed.
How Does Quantitative Easing Work?
Expansionary monetary policies are used by central banks to foster economic growth by increasing the money supply and lowering interest rates. These mechanisms will, in theory, stimulate business investment as well as consumer spending.
However, in the current low interest-rate environment, the effectiveness of such policies is diminished. When short-term rates are already so close to zero, reducing them further will have little impact. To overcome this dilemma in 2008, central banks began experimenting with the unconventional monetary policy of QE to inject new money into the system by purchasing massive quantities of longer-term assets such as Treasury bonds.
These purchases are intended to increase the money supply while decreasing the supply of the longer-term assets. In theory, this should put upward pressure on these assets’ prices (due to less supply) and decrease their yield (interest rates have an inverse relationship with bond prices).
Navigating Uncharted Waters
QE falls under intense scrutiny due to a lack of empirical evidence so far.
Japan, known for its willingness to try unconventional monetary policies, was the first to try QE. Used to combat deflation in the early 2000s, Japan’s QE program was relatively small in scale, and saw mediocre results.
Fast forward to today, and QE is quickly becoming a cornerstone of the Fed’s policy toolkit. Over a span of just 12 years, QE programs have led to a Fed balance sheet of over $6 trillion, leaving some people with more questions than answers.
This is a big experiment. It’s something that’s never been done before.
Kevin Logan, Chief Economist at HSBC
Critics of QE cite several dangers associated with “printing” trillions of dollars. Increasing the money supply can drive high inflation (though this has yet to be seen), while exceedingly low interest rates can encourage abnormal levels of consumer and business debt.
On the other hand, proponents will maintain that QE1 was successful in mitigating the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis. Some studies have also concluded that QE programs have reduced the 10-year yield in the U.S. by roughly 1.2 percentage points, thus serving their intended purpose.
Central banks … have little doubt that QE does operate in many ways like conventional monetary policy.
Joseph E. Gagnon, Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics
Regardless of which side one takes, it’s clear there’s much more to learn about QE, especially in times of economic stress.
The Other Exponential Curve
When conducting QE, the securities the Fed buys make their way onto its balance sheet. Below we’ll look at how the Fed’s balance sheet has grown cumulatively with each iteration of QE:
- QE1: $2.3 Trillion in Assets
The Fed’s first QE program ran from January 2009 to August 2010. The cornerstone of this program was the purchase of $1.25 trillion in mortgage-backed securities (MBS).
- QE2: $2.9 Trillion in Assets
The second QE program ran from November 2010 to June 2011, and included purchases of $600B in longer-term Treasury securities.
- Operation Twist (Maturity Extension Program)
To further decrease long-term rates, the Fed used the proceeds from its maturing short-term Treasury bills to purchase longer-term assets. These purchases, known as Operation Twist, did not expand the Fed’s balance sheet, and were concluded in December 2012.
- QE3: $4.5 Trillion in Assets
Beginning in September 2012, the Fed began purchasing MBS at a rate of $40B/month. In January 2013, this was supplemented with the purchase of long-term Treasury securities at a rate of $45B/month. Both programs were concluded in October 2014.
- Balance Sheet Normalization Program: $3.7 Trillion in Assets
The Fed began to wind-down its balance sheet in October 2017. Starting at an initial rate of $10B/month, the program called for a $10B/month increase every quarter, until a final reduction rate of $50B/month was reached.
- QE4: $6 Trillion and Counting
In October 2019, the Fed began purchasing Treasury bills at a rate of $60B/month to ease liquidity issues in overnight lending markets. While not officially a QE program, these purchases still affect the Fed’s balance sheet.
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit U.S. shores, however, the Fed pulled out all the stops. It cut its target interest rate to zero for the first time ever, injected $1.5 trillion into the economy (with more stimulus to come), and reduced the overnight reserve requirement to zero.
Despite receiving little attention in the media, this third measure may be the most significant. For protection against bank runs, U.S. banks have historically been required to hold 10% of their liabilities in cash reserves. Under QE4, this requirement no longer stands.
No End in Sight
Now that the Fed is undertaking its most aggressive QE program yet, it’s a tough guess as to when equilibrium will return, if ever.
After nearly two years of draw-downs, Fed assets fell by just $0.7 trillion—in a matter of weeks, however, this progress was completely retraced.
QE4 is showing that what goes up, may not necessarily come down.
Mapped: The State of Economic Freedom in 2023
How free are people to control their own labor, property, and finances? This map reveals the state of economic freedom globally.
Mapped: The State of Economic Freedom in 2023
The concept of economic freedom serves as a vital framework for evaluating the extent to which individuals and businesses have the freedom to make economic decisions. In countries with low economic freedom, governments exert coercion and constraints on liberties, restricting choice for individuals and businesses, which can ultimately hinder prosperity.
The map above uses the annual Index of Economic Freedom from the Heritage Foundation to showcase the level of economic freedom in every country worldwide on a scale of 0-100, looking at factors like property rights, tax burdens, labor freedom, and so on.
The ranking categorizing scores of 80+ as free economies, 70-79.9 as mostly free, 60-69.9 as moderately free, 50-59.9 as mostly unfree, and 0-49.9 as repressed.
Measuring Economic Freedom
This ranking uses four broad categories with three key indicators each, both qualitative and quantitative, to measure economic freedom.
- Rule of law: property rights, judicial effectiveness, government integrity
- Size of government: tax burdens, fiscal health, government spending
- Regulatory efficiency: labor freedom, monetary freedom, business freedom
- Open markets: financial freedom, trade freedom, investment freedom
The 12 indicators are weighted equally and scored from 0-100. The overall score is then determined from the average of the 12 indicators.
Here’s a closer look at every country’s score:
|#5||🇳🇿 New Zealand||78.9|
|#15||🇰🇷 South Korea||73.7|
|#24||🇦🇪 United Arab Emirates||70.9|
|#25||🇺🇸 United States||70.6|
|#28||🇬🇧 United Kingdom||69.9|
|#45||🇨🇷 Costa Rica||66.5|
|#47||🇨🇻 Cabo Verde||65.8|
|#48||🇧🇳 Brunei Darussalam||65.7|
|#56||🇲🇰 North Macedonia||63.7|
|#59||🇻🇨 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||63.5|
|#63||🇧🇦 Bosnia and Herzegovina||62.9|
|#65||🇩🇴 Dominican Republic||62.6|
|#66||🇧🇸 The Bahamas||62.6|
|#74||🇸🇹 São Tomé and Príncipe||61.5|
|#79||🇱🇨 Saint Lucia||60.7|
|#81||🇨🇮 Côte d'Ivoire||60.4|
|#88||🇹🇹 Trinidad and Tobago||59.5|
|#98||🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||58.3|
|#101||🇬🇲 The Gambia||57.9|
|#107||🇸🇧 Solomon Islands||56.9|
|#111||🇧🇫 Burkina Faso||56.2|
|#114||🇸🇻 El Salvador||56.0|
|#116||🇿🇦 South Africa||55.7|
|#136||🇱🇰 Sri Lanka||52.2|
|#140||🇵🇬 Papua New Guinea||51.7|
|#148||🇸🇱 Sierra Leone||50.2|
|#153||🇬🇶 Equatorial Guinea||48.3|
|#157||🇨🇩 Democratic Republic of the Congo||47.9|
|#166||🇨🇫 Central African Republic||43.8|
|#176||🇰🇵 North Korea||2.9|
Only four countries in the world have a score of 80 or above, Ireland, Singapore, Switzerland, and Taiwan, categorizing them as completely free economically.
Let’s now look at things from a more regional perspective.
From a regional perspective, Europe ranks the strongest in economic freedom.
Despite being a powerhouse within Europe, Germany ranks 10th in the continent, with a score of 73.7. One of the categories Germany scored the weakest in was government spending (28.3/100). Over the last three years, government spending has averaged 49% of GDP.
Ireland ranks third globally, scoring particularly high in categories like property rights and judicial effectiveness. The country also has no minimum capital requirement—which is typically a banking regulation and corporate law issue determining how many assets an organization must hold—making it attractive for businesses to set up shop on the Emerald Isle.
Currently, Africa is the continent with the least economic freedom in the world, however, it is also the region with the highest potential for economic growth. A booming population, and thus, labor force, are promising for future innovation. In fact, it’s anticipated that Africa will see an increase of 2.5 billion people by the end of the century.
The lowest scoring country in Africa is Sudan, a country under further strain thanks to rife civil conflict. Historically, economic development has been constrained by rampant corruption and a lack of institutional capacity.
Conversely, Botswana registered the highest score on continental Africa (64.9), ranking higher than countries like France and Italy.
In the Americas, the United States ranks 3rd regionally—25th overall—with a score of 70.6. The report attributes the categorization of U.S. as only “mostly free” to issues like inflation, increasing government debt, and unchecked deficit spending. Public debt currently sits at a figure equivalent to more than 128% of GDP.
In South America, Chile comes out on top, ranking above many other economic powerhouses like the U.S., the UK, and Japan. However, the 2021 election of a new Constitutional Assembly could risk the current economic state, as it favors a much more socialist approach to the economy.
East Asia and Oceania
China’s score is among the lowest in East Asia & Oceania, ranking 154th in the world categorizing it as a repressed economy. The ruling Chinese Communist Party routinely exercises direct control over economic activity. China’s protectionist stance towards foreign investment and a plethora of trade tariffs imposed by other nations also factor in here.
In India, where public debt is equivalent to about 84% of GDP, fiscal health is the worst-scoring category. Additionally, much of the economy remains quite informal; a large share of people work in jobs without tax slips, recorded income, or formal contracts protecting them, which challenges labor freedoms.
The Middle East and Central Asia
It may come as no surprise that the United Arab Emirates has the highest score in the Middle East. The UAE has implemented various measures and initiatives, such as tax exemptions, duty-free zones, streamlined business registration processes, and flexible regulatory frameworks to encourage entrepreneurship and foreign direct investment. As well, the top individual and corporate tax rates in the country are 0%.
Türkiye’s lowest scoring category relates to judiciary effectiveness and the rule of law. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has already been in power for two decades, recently won the country’s election, again cementing his authority over Turkish politics. This makes it unlikely that Türkiye’s economic freedom score will recover in the short to medium term.
Where Does This Data Come From?
Source: The Index of Economic Freedom from the Heritage Foundation
Data notes: A number of countries were not ranked due to unavailable data or other factors, like ongoing war, that made it difficult to properly assess the economy. These countries include: Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Liechtenstein, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.
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