The 2008 global financial crisis resulted in an economic meltdown of unprecedented strength and length, adversely affecting economies worldwide. Dramatic declines in GDP coupled with rising unemployment and falling consumer confidence sought immediate attention to prevent the resulting recession from turning into a more serious and prolonged slump. Interest rates were cut and fiscal stimulus packages announced in an attempt to boost growth and jobs. When interest rates could no longer go down further, the UK introduced quantitative easing for the first time in the country in 2009.
Till date the Bank of England has committed a total of £375 billion to quantitative easing whereas the US Federal Reserve is currently purchasing $85 billion of securities per month on top of the $2.3 trillion expansion of its balance sheet since 2008. The graph below shows how the total assets of the central banks in the developed economies of Australia, Canada, Denmark, the euro area, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, UK and US have evolved since 2006. The sharp hike is the impact of quantitative easing and followed by a persistent increasing trend as the policy continues. Recently, the Fed has announced the prospect of tapering its asset purchases, planning to reduce its bond-buying program this year and end it completely in 2014. The market reaction to the announcement was strong resulting in a sharp sell-off in currencies, stocks and bonds. This subsequent investor sentiment led the Fed to restate its objectives namely that bond-purchases will not halt until the economy strengthens. This essentially means that unless economic indicators like output, employment and consumption improve, there will be no reduction in the purchase of bonds. Therefore, it seems that the Fed’s tapering plan may not materialize as initially envisaged.
It should be noted that the final step in quantitative easing entails a reversing of the bonds purchased, which usually takes the form of allowing the bonds to mature and redeem over time so that they naturally roll off the balance sheet. In this way, there has been no extra cash created. This is done when the economy is on the path to recovery and no further stimulus is needed. It is also worthwhile to note that it has been five years since the Fed conducted the first round of quantitative easing in 2008 but there is no sign of reaching the final stage. Let alone reversing the bonds purchased, the Fed cannot even announce the possibility of just ending bond purchases by next year without invoking extreme market reaction, in the light of which it had to clarify, restate and emphasize that the stop would occur only if economic indicators justified and allowed it. In these circumstances a realistic timeline for this quantitative easing plan to achieve the last stage cannot really be seen. As a reality check then, it is fair to question how this action is any different from the printing of money carried out by Germany in the 1920s and more recently in Zimbabwe. The British government and the Fed both insist that their case is different, as they are conducting a temporary short-term policy. However, actions speak louder than words and in light of the current situation this can no longer be passed off as just a temporary policy.