“Quantitative easing” was supposed to be an emergency measure. The Federal Reserve “eased” shrinkage in the money supply due to the 2008-09 credit crisis by pumping out trillions of dollars in new bank reserves. After the crisis, the presumption was that the Fed would “normalize” conditions by sopping up the excess reserves through “quantitative tightening” (QT) – raising interest rates and selling the securities it had bought with new reserves back into the market.
The Fed relentlessly pushed on with quantitative tightening through 2018, despite a severe market correction in the fall. In December, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said that QT would be on “autopilot,” meaning the Fed would continue to raise interest rates and to sell $50 billion monthly in securities until it hit its target. But the market protested loudly to this move, with the Nasdaq Composite Index dropping 22% from its late-summer high.
Worse, defaults on consumer loans were rising. December 2018 was the first time in two years that all loan types and all major metropolitan statistical areas showed a higher default rate month-over-month. Consumer debt – including auto, student and credit card debt – is typically bundled and sold as asset-backed securities similar to the risky mortgage-backed securities that brought down the market in 2008 after the Fed had progressively raised interest rates.
Chairman Powell evidently got the memo. In January, he abruptly changed course and announced that QT would be halted if needed. On February 4th, Mary Daly, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, said they were considering going much further. “You could imagine executing policy with your interest rate as your primary tool and the balance sheet as a secondary tool, one that you would use more readily,” she said. QE and QT would no longer be emergency measures but would be routine tools for managing the money supply. In a February 13th article on Seeking Alpha titled “Quantitative Easing on Demand,” Mark Grant wrote:
If the Fed does decide to pursue this strategy it will be a wholesale change in the way the financial system in the United States operates and I think that very few institutions or people appreciate what is taking place or what it will mean to the markets, all of the markets.
The Problem of Debt Deflation
The Fed is realizing that it cannot bring its balance sheet back to “normal.” It must keep pumping new money into the banking system to avoid a recession. This naturally alarms Fed watchers worried about hyperinflation. But QE need not create unwanted inflation if directed properly. The money spigots just need to be aimed at the debtors rather than the creditor banks. In fact regular injections of new money directly into the economy may be just what the economy needs to escape the boom and bust cycle that has characterized it for two centuries. Mark Grant concluded his article by quoting Abraham Lincoln:
The Government should create, issue, and circulate all the currency and credits needed to satisfy the spending power of the Government and the buying power of consumers. By the adoption of these principles, the taxpayers will be saved immense sums of interest. Money will cease to be master and become the servant of humanity.
The quote is apparently apocryphal, but the principle still holds: new money needs to be regularly added to the money supply to avoid an overwhelming debt burden and allow the economy to reach its true productive potential. Regular injections of new money are necessary to avoid something economists fear even more than inflation – the sort of “debt deflation” that took down the economy in the 1930s.
Most money today is created by banks when they make loans. When overextended borrowers pay down old loans without taking out new ones, the money supply “deflates” or shrinks. Demand shrinks with it, and businesses lacking customers close their doors, in the sort of self-feeding death spiral seen in the Great Depression.