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The Fed’s Balance Sheet: The Other Exponential Curve

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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.

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Markets

Comparing the Speed of U.S. Interest Rate Hikes (1988-2022)

The effective federal funds rate has risen more than two percentage points in six months. How does this compare to other interest rate hikes?

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Line chart comparing the speed of interest rate hikes over cycles since 1988. The 2022 cycle is the fastest with the effective federal funds rate rising 2.36 percentage points in six months.

Comparing the Speed of U.S. Interest Rate Hikes

As U.S. inflation remains at multi-decade highs, the Federal Reserve has been aggressive with its interest rate hikes. In fact, rates have risen more than two percentage points in just six months.

In this graphic—which was inspired by a chart from Chartr—we compare the speed and severity of the current interest rate hikes to other periods of monetary tightening over the past 35 years.

Measuring Periods of Interest Rate Hikes

We used the effective federal funds rate (EFFR), which measures the weighted average of the rates that banks use to lend to each other overnight. It is determined by the market but influenced by the Fed’s target range. We considered the starting point for each cycle to be the EFFR during the month when the first rate hike took place.

Here is the duration and severity of each interest rate hike cycle since 1988.

Time PeriodDuration 
(Months)
Total Change in EFFR
(Percentage Points)
Mar 1988 - May 198914 3.23
Feb 1994 - Feb 1995122.67
Jun 1999 - May 2000111.51
Jun 2004 - Jun 2006243.96
Dec 2015 - Dec 2018362.03
Mar 2022 - Sep 2022 62.36

* We considered a rate hike cycle to be any time period when the Federal Reserve raised rates at two or more consecutive meetings. The 2022 rate hike cycle is ongoing with data as of September 2022.

The 2022 rate hike cycle is the fastest, reaching a 2.36 percentage point increase nearly twice as fast as the rate hike cycle of ‘88-‘89.

On the other hand, the most severe interest rate hikes occurred in the ‘04 – ‘06 cycle when the EFFR climbed by almost four percentage points. It took much longer to reach this level, however, with the hikes taking place over two years.

Timing Interest Rate Hikes

Why are 2022’s interest rate hikes so rapid? U.S. inflation far exceeds the Fed’s long-term target of 2%. In fact, when the hikes started in March 2022, inflation was the highest it’s ever been in the last six rate hike cycles.

Time PeriodInflation Rate at Start of Cycle
Mar 1988 - May 19893.60%
Feb 1994 - Feb 19952.06%
Jun 1999 - May 20001.40%
Jun 2004 - Jun 20062.89%
Dec 2015 - Dec 20180.30%
Mar 2022 - Sep 2022 6.77%

Inflation rate is the year-over-year change as measured by the Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) Index.

In contrast, three of the rate hike cycles started with inflation at or below the 2% target. Inflation was just 0.30% in December 2015 when the Fed announced its first rate hike since the global financial crisis.

Some criticized the Fed for raising rates prematurely, but the Fed’s rationale was that it can take up to three years or more for policy actions to affect economic conditions. By raising rates early and gradually, the Fed hoped to avoid surging inflation in the future.

Fast forward to today, and the picture couldn’t look more different. Inflation exceeded the 2% target for 12 months before the Fed began to raise rates. Initially, the Fed believed inflation was “transitory” or short-lived. Now, inflation is a top financial concern and there is a risk that it has gathered enough momentum that it will be difficult to bring down.

Balancing Inflation and Recession Risks

The Fed expects to raise its target rate to around 4.4% by the end of 2022, up from the current range of 3-3.25%. However, they don’t foresee inflation reaching their 2% target until 2025.

In the meantime, the rapid interest rate hikes could lead to an economic downturn. Risks of a global recession have increased as other central banks raise their rates too. The World Bank offers policymakers a number of suggestions to help avoid a recession:

  • Central banks can communicate policy decisions clearly to secure inflation expectations and, hopefully, reduce how much they need to raise rates.
  • Governments can carefully withdraw fiscal support, develop medium-term spending and tax policies, and provide targeted help to vulnerable households.
  • Other economic policymakers can help relieve supply pressures through various measures. For instance, they can introduce policies to increase labor force participation, enhance global trade networks, and bring in measures to reduce energy consumption.

Will policymakers heed this advice and, if so, will it prove sufficient to avoid a global recession?

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Technology

Visualized: The State of Central Bank Digital Currencies

Central bank digital currencies are coming, but progress varies greatly from country to country. View the infographic to learn more.

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Visualized: The State of Central Bank Digital Currencies

Central banks around the world are getting involved in digital currencies, but some are further ahead than others.

In this map, we used data from the Atlantic Council’s Currency Tracker to visualize the state of each central banks’ digital currency effort.

Digital Currency – The Basics

Digital currencies have been around since the 1980s, but didn’t become widely popular until the launch of Bitcoin in 2009. Today, there are thousands of digital currencies in existence, also referred to as “cryptocurrencies”.

A defining feature of cryptocurrencies is that they are based on a blockchain ledger. Blockchains can be either decentralized or centralized, but the most known cryptocurrencies today (Bitcoin, Ethereum, etc.) tend to be decentralized in nature. This makes transfers and payments very difficult to trace because there is no single entity with full control.

Government-issued digital currencies, on the other hand, will be controlled by a central bank and are likely to be easily trackable. They would have the same value as the local cash currency, but instead issued digitally with no physical form.

Central Bank Digital Currencies Worldwide

105 countries are currently exploring centralized digital currencies. Together, they represent 95% of global GDP. The table below lists the data used in the infographic.

CountryStatusUse Case
NigeriaLaunchedRetail
The BahamasLaunchedRetail
JamaicaLaunchedRetail
AnguilaLaunchedRetail
Saint Kitts and NevisLaunchedRetail
Antigua and BarbudaLaunchedRetail
MontserratLaunchedRetail
DominicaLaunchedRetail
Saint LuciaLaunchedRetail
Saint Vincent and the GrenadinesLaunchedRetail
GrenadaLaunchedRetail
SwedenPilotRetail
LithuaniaPilotRetail
UkrainePilotUndecided
KazakhstanPilotRetail
RussiaPilotRetail
ChinaPilotBoth
ThailandPilotBoth
Hong KongPilotBoth
South KoreaPilotRetail
Saudi ArabiaPilotWholesale
United Arab EmiratesPilotWholesale
SingaporePilotWholesale
MalaysiaPilotWholesale
South AfricaPilotBoth
CanadaDevelopmentBoth
BelizeDevelopmentUndecided
HaitiDevelopmentBoth
VenezuelaDevelopmentBoth
BrazilDevelopmentRetail
TurkeyDevelopmentRetail
IranDevelopmentRetail
BahrainDevelopmentWholesale
IndiaDevelopmentBoth
MauritiusDevelopmentBoth
BhutanDevelopmentBoth
CambodiaDevelopmentRetail
IndonesiaDevelopmentBoth
PalauDevelopmentBoth
AustraliaDevelopmentBoth
JapanDevelopmentBoth
SpainDevelopmentRetail
FranceDevelopmentBoth
NetherlandsDevelopmentRetail
SwitzerlandDevelopmentWholesale
ItalyDevelopmentUndecided
GermanyDevelopmentUndecided
EstoniaDevelopmentRetail
LebanonDevelopmentRetail
IsraelDevelopmentRetail
Euro AreaDevelopmentBoth
United StatesResearchRetail
MexicoResearchRetail
GuatemalaResearchUndecided
HondurasResearchUndecided
Trinidad andd TobagoResearchUndecided
ColombiaResearchUndecided
PeruResearchUndecided
ParaguayResearchUndecided
ChileResearchRetail
IcelandResearchRetail
UKResearchBoth
MoroccoResearchRetail
GhanaResearchRetail
NamibiaResearchUndecided
EswatiniResearchBoth
MadagastarResearchRetail
ZimbabweResearchUndecided
ZambiaResearchUndecided
TanzaniaResearchUndecided
RwandaResearchUndecided
UgandaResearchUndecided
KenyaResearchRetail
TunisiaResearchWholesale
OmanResearchUndecided
KuwaitResearchRetail
JordanResearchUndecided
GeorgiaResearchRetail
BelarusResearchUndecided
NorwayResearchRetail
Czech RepublichResearchUndecided
PakistanResearchRetail
NepalResearchUndecided
BangladeshResearchUndecided
MyanmarResearchUndecided
LaosResearchBoth
VietnamResearchUndecided
MacauResearchUndecided
TaiwanResearchBoth
PhilippinesResearchRetail
New ZealandResearchRetail
VanuatuResearchUndecided
FijiResearchUndecided
TongaResearchUndecided
PalestineResearchRetail
JordanResearchUndecided
AustriaResearchWholesale
HungaryResearchRetail
BermudaInactiveUndecided
Sint MaartenInactiveRetail
CuraçaoInactiveRetail
ArgentinaInactiveUndecided
UruguayInactiveRetail
DenmarkInactiveRetail
AzerbaijanInactiveUndecided
EgyptInactiveUndecided
North KoreaInactiveUndecided
FinlandInactiveRetail
EcuadorCancelledRetail
SenegalCancelledRetail

When aggregated, we can see that the majority of countries are in the research stage.

central bank digital currencies by status

We’ve also divided the map by region to make viewing easier.

Africa

Africa digital currencies

Asia

Asia digital currencies

Europe

Europe digital currencies

Middle East

Middle East digital currencies

South America

South America digital currencies

North America

North American digital currencies

What are the Benefits?

A major benefit of government-issued digital currencies is that they can improve access for underbanked people.

This is not a huge issue in developed countries like the U.S., but many people in developing nations have no access to banks and other financial services (hence the term underbanked). As the number of internet users continues to climb, digital currencies represent a sound solution.

To learn more about this topic, visit this article from Global Finance, which lists the world’s most underbanked countries in 2021.

The 9%

Just 9% of countries have launched a digital currency to date.

This includes Nigeria, which became the first African country to do so in October 2021. Half of the country’s 200 million population is believed to have no access to bank accounts.

Adoption of the eNaira (the digital version of the naira) has so far been relatively sluggish. The eNaira app has accumulated 700,000 downloads as of April 2022. That’s equal to 0.35% of the population, though not all of the downloads are users in Nigeria.

Conversely, 33.4 million Nigerians were reported to be trading or owning crypto assets, despite the Central Bank of Nigeria’s attempts to restrict usage.

Status in the U.S.

America’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, has not decided on whether it will implement a central bank digital currency (CBDC).

Our key focus is on whether and how a CBDC could improve on an already safe and efficient U.S. domestic payments system.
– Federal Reserve

To learn more, check out the Federal Reserve’s January 2022 paper on the pros and cons of CBDCs.

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