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The Fed’s Balance Sheet: The Other Exponential Curve

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Fed Balance Sheet

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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Central Banks

How Global Central Banks are Responding to COVID-19, in One Chart

What policy tools are global central banks implementing to combat the economic effects of COVID-19? We compare the responses of 29 countries.

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How Global Central Banks are Responding to COVID-19

When times get tough, central banks typically act as the first line of defense.

However, modern economies are incredibly complex—and calamities like the 2008 financial crisis have already pushed traditional policy tools to their limits. In response, some central banks have turned to newer, more unconventional strategies such as quantitative easing and negative interest rates to do their work.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, central banks are once again taking decisive action. To help us understand what’s being done, today’s infographic uses data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to compare the policy responses of 29 systemically important economies.

The Central Bank Toolkit

To begin, here are brief descriptions of each policy, which the IMF sorts into four categories:

1. Monetary Policies

Policies designed to control the money supply and promote stable economic growth.

Policy NameIntended Effect
Policy rate cutsStimulates economic activity by decreasing the cost of borrowing
Central bank liquidity supportProvides distressed markets with additional liquidity, often in the form of loans
Central bank swap linesAgreements between the U.S. Fed and foreign central banks to enhance the provision of U.S. dollar liquidity
Central bank asset purchase schemesUses newly-created currency to buy large quantities of financial assets, such as government bonds. This increases the money supply and decreases longer-term rates

2. External Policies

Policies designed to mitigate the effects of external economic shocks.

Policy NameIntended Effect
Foreign currency interventionStabilizes the national currency by intervening in the foreign exchange market
Capital flow measuresRestrictions, such as tariffs and volume limits, on the flow of foreign capital in and out of a country

3. Financial Policies for Banks

Policies designed to support the banking system in times of distress.

Policy NameIntended Effect
Easing of the countercyclical capital bufferA reduction in the amount of liquid assets required to protect banks against cyclical risks
Easing of systemic risk or domestic capital bufferA reduction in the amount of liquid assets required to protect banks against unforeseen risks
Use of capital buffersAllows banks to use their capital buffers to enhance relief measures
Use of liquidity buffersAllows banks to use their liquidity buffers to meet unexpected cash flow needs
Adjustments to loan loss provision requirementsThe level of provisions required to protect banks against borrower defaults are eased

4. Financial Policies for Borrowers

Policies designed to improve access to capital as well as provide relief for borrowers.

Policy NameIntended Effect
State loans or credit guaranteesEnsures businesses of all sizes have adequate access to capital
Restructuring of loan terms or moratorium on paymentsProvides borrowers with financial assistance by altering terms or deferring payments

Putting Policies Into Practice

Let’s take a closer look at how these policy tools are being applied in the real world, particularly in the context of how central banks are battling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Monetary Policies

So far, many central banks have enacted expansionary monetary policies to boost slowing economies throughout the pandemic.

One widely used tool has been policy rate cuts, or cuts to interest rates. The theory behind rate cuts is relatively straightforward—a central bank places downward pressure on short-term interest rates, decreasing the overall cost of borrowing. This ideally stimulates business investment and consumer spending.

If short-term rates are already near zero, reducing them further may have little to no effect. For this reason, central banks have leaned on asset purchase schemes (quantitative easing) to place downward pressure on longer-term rates. This policy has been a cornerstone of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s (Fed) COVID-19 response, in which newly-created currency is used to buy hundreds of billions of dollars of assets such as government bonds.

When the media says the Fed is “printing money”, this is what they’re actually referring to.

2. External Policies

External policies were less relied upon by the systemically important central banks covered in today’s graphic.

That’s because foreign currency interventions, central bank operations designed to influence exchange rates, are typically used by developing economies only. This is likely due to the higher exchange rate volatility experienced by these types of economies.

For example, as investors flee emerging markets, Brazil has seen its exchange rate (BRL/USD) tumble 30% this year.

In an attempt to prevent further depreciation, the Central Bank of Brazil has used its foreign currency reserves to increase the supply of USD in the open market. These measures include purchases of $8.8B in USD-denominated Brazilian government bonds.

3. Financial Policies for Banks

Central banks are often tasked with regulating the commercial banking industry, meaning they have the authority to ease restrictions during economic crises.

One option is to ease the countercyclical capital buffer. During periods of economic growth (and increased lending), banks must accumulate reserves as a safety net for when the economy eventually contracts. Easing this restriction can allow them to increase their lending capacity.

Banks need to be in a position to continue financing households and corporates experiencing temporary difficulties.

—Andrea Enria, Chair of the ECB Supervisory Board

The European Central Bank (ECB) is a large proponent of these policies. In March, it also allowed its supervised banks to make use of their liquidity buffers—liquid assets held by a bank to protect against unexpected cash flow needs.

4. Financial Policies for Borrowers

Borrowers have also received significant support. In the U.S., government-sponsored mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have announced several COVID-19 relief measures:

  • Deferred payments for 12 months
  • Late fees waived
  • Suspended foreclosures and evictions for 60 days

The U.S. Fed has also created a number of facilities to support the flow of credit, including:

  • Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility: Purchasing bonds directly from highly-rated corporations to help them sustain their operations.
  • Main Street Lending: Purchasing new or expanded loans from small and mid-sized businesses. Businesses with up to 15,000 employees or up to $5B in annual revenue are eligible.
  • Municipal Liquidity Facility: Purchasing short-term debt directly from state and municipal governments. Counties with at least 500,000 residents and cities with at least 250,000 residents are eligible.

Longer-term Implications

Central bank responses to COVID-19 have been wide-reaching, to say the least. Yet, some of these policies come at the cost of burgeoning debt-levels, and critics are alarmed.

In Europe, the ECB has come under scrutiny for its asset purchases since 2015. A ruling from Germany’s highest court labeled the program illegal, claiming it disadvantages German taxpayers (Germany makes larger contributions to the ECB than other member states). This ruling is not concerned with pandemic-related asset purchases, but it does present implications for future use.

The U.S. Fed, which runs a similar program, has seen its balance sheet swell to nearly $7 trillion since the outbreak. Implications include a growing reliance on the Fed to fund government programs, and the high difficulty associated with safely reducing these holdings.

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Central Banks

The Anatomy of the $2 Trillion COVID-19 Stimulus Bill

A visual breakdown of the CARES Act, the $2 trillion package to provide COVID-19 economic relief. It’s the largest stimulus bill in modern history.

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The Anatomy of the $2 Trillion COVID-19 Stimulus Bill

The unprecedented response to the COVID-19 pandemic has prioritized keeping people apart to slow the spread of the virus. While measures such as business closures and travel restrictions are effective at fighting a pandemic, they also have a dramatic impact on the economy.

To help right the ship, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — also known as the CARES Act — was passed by U.S. lawmakers last week with little fanfare. The act became the largest economic stimulus bill in modern history, more than doubling the stimulus act passed in 2009 during the Financial Crisis.

Today’s Sankey diagram is a visual representation of where the $2 trillion will be spent. Broadly speaking, there are five components to the COVID-19 stimulus bill:

CategoryTotal AmountShare of the Package
Individuals / Families$603.7 billion30%
Big Business$500.0 billion25%
Small Business$377.0 billion19%
State and Local Government$340.0 billion17%
Public Services$179.5 billion9%

Although the COVID-19 stimulus bill is incredibly complex, here are some of the most important parts to be aware of.

Funds for Individuals

Amount: $603.7 billion – 30% of total CARES Act

In order to stimulate the sputtering economy quickly, the U.S. government will deploy “helicopter money” — direct cash payments to individuals and families.

The centerpiece of this plan is a $1,200 direct payment for those earning up to $75,000 per year. For higher earners, payment amounts will phase out, ending altogether at the $99,000 income level. Families will also receive $500 per child.

There are three other key things to know about this portion of the stimulus funds:

  1. There will be a temporary suspension for any student loan held by the federal government. This means no payments required and no interest accrued until the end of September, 2020.
  2. Borrowers with federally backed loans can request forbearance on mortgage payments for up to six months.
  3. There will be an expansion of unemployment benefits, including a four-month enhancement of benefits. This plan includes freelancers, workers in the gig economy, and furloughed employees.

Big Business

Amount: $500.0 billion – 25% of total CARES Act

This component of the package is aimed at stabilizing big businesses in hard-hit sectors.

The most obvious industry to receive support will be the airlines. About $58 billion has been earmarked for commercial and cargo airlines, as well as airline contractors. Perhaps in response to recent criticism of the industry, companies receiving stimulus money will be barred from engaging in stock buybacks for the term of the loan plus one year.

One interesting pathway highlighted by today’s Sankey diagram is the $17 billion allocated to “maintaining national security”. While this provision doesn’t mention any specific company by name, the primary recipient is believed to be Boeing.

The bill also indicates that an inspector general will oversee the recovery process, along with a special committee.

Small Business

Amount: $377.0 billion – 19% of total CARES Act

To ease the strain on businesses around the country, the Small Business Administration (SBA) will be given $350 billion to provide loans of up to $10 million to qualifying organizations. These funds can be used for mission critical activities, such as paying rent or keeping employees on the payroll during COVID-19 closures.

As well, the bill sets aside $10 billion in grants for small businesses that need help covering short-term operating costs.

State and Local Governments

Amount: $340.0 billion – 17% of total CARES Act

The biggest portion of funds going to local and state governments is the $274 billion allocated towards direct COVID-19 response. The rest of the funds in this component will go to schools and child care services.

Public and Health Services

Amount: $179.5 billion – 9% of total CARES Act

The biggest slice of this pie goes to healthcare providers, who will receive $100 billion in grants to help fight COVID-19. This was a major ask from groups representing the healthcare industry, as they look to make up the lost revenue caused by focusing on the outbreak — as opposed to performing elective surgeries and other procedures. There will also be a 20% increase in Medicare payments for treating patients with the virus.

Money is also set aside for initiatives such as increasing the availability of ventilators and masks for the Strategic National Stockpile, as well as providing additional funding for the Center for Disease Control and expanding the reach of virtual doctors.

Finally, beyond the healthcare-related funding, the CARES Act also addresses food security programs and a long list of educational and arts initiatives.

Hat tip to Reddit user SevenandForty for inspiring this graphic.

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