What is quantitative easing?
Quantitative easing is a monetary policy tool used by central banks to increase the money supply in the economy. It is typically used when traditional monetary policy tools, such as adjusting interest rates, are not effective in boosting economic growth or when the economy is facing deflationary pressures. QE is done by purchasing financial assets from commercial banks, such as government bonds or mortgage-backed securities, in exchange for newly created reserves. This injection of reserves into the banking system is intended to stimulate lending, which in turn should boost economic activity and help to achieve the central bank's policy objectives. Lower interest rates can also encourage borrowing and spending.
The use of QE became more widespread in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008, when central banks around the world were forced to implement a range of unconventional monetary policies to support their economies. QE was seen as a way to provide additional monetary stimulus when interest rates were already close to zero and conventional monetary policy tools had become less effective.
One of the key ways in which QE differs from conventional monetary policy is in the way that it affects the money supply. In a conventional monetary policy regime, the central bank sets short-term interest rates in order to influence the borrowing and lending behavior of commercial banks, and therefore the overall level of economic activity. In contrast, QE directly increases the money supply by creating new reserves and injecting them into the banking system.
The impact of QE on the economy can be divided into two main channels: the portfolio channel and the lending channel. The portfolio channel refers to the effect that QE has on the prices of financial assets, such as bonds and equities. By purchasing large quantities of these assets, central banks can push up their prices and reduce their yields, making them less attractive to investors. This can encourage investors to seek higher returns elsewhere, leading to increased demand for riskier assets such as equities or corporate bonds. In theory, this can boost asset prices and stimulate economic activity by increasing the wealth of investors and encouraging them to spend more.
The lending channel, on the other hand, refers to the effect that QE has on the availability and cost of credit. By providing commercial banks with additional reserves, QE can make it easier and cheaper for banks to lend to households and businesses. This can help to stimulate economic activity by increasing the availability of credit, encouraging investment and consumption, and boosting economic growth.
The effectiveness of QE in achieving these objectives is still the subject of much debate among economists. Some argue that QE has been successful in supporting the economic recovery and preventing deflation in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Others argue that it has had limited impact on the real economy and has mainly benefited the financial sector.
One of the main criticisms of QE is that it can lead to inflationary pressures in the economy. By increasing the money supply, QE can lead to higher levels of aggregate demand, which in turn can lead to higher prices and inflation. This is particularly concerning in economies that are already experiencing high levels of inflation or that have a history of hyperinflation.
Another concern is that QE can create asset bubbles in the financial markets, as investors are encouraged to take on more risk in search of higher returns. This can lead to unsustainable increases in asset prices, which can eventually lead to a market crash and a financial crisis.
Despite these concerns, central banks around the world continue to use QE as a tool to support their economies. The Federal Reserve, for example, implemented several rounds of QE in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and the European Central Bank has also used QE to support the eurozone economy in recent years.
The concept of quantitative easing was first introduced by the Bank of Japan in the early 2000s, in response to a prolonged period of economic stagnation and deflation. At the time, interest rates were already near zero, leaving the central bank with limited options for stimulating the economy through conventional monetary policy tools. In response, the Bank of Japan began purchasing large amounts of government bonds and other assets, effectively increasing the money supply and lowering interest rates further.
Following the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, many other central banks around the world also adopted quantitative easing as a way to combat the economic downturn. In the United States, the Federal Reserve launched several rounds of QE, purchasing trillions of dollars' worth of government bonds and other assets. Similarly, the European Central Bank (ECB) implemented a large-scale QE program in 2015, purchasing government bonds and other assets in an effort to combat low inflation and sluggish economic growth in the eurozone.
Here's how quantitative easing works:
Central bank purchases assets: The central bank purchases financial assets, such as government bonds or mortgage-backed securities, from banks and other financial institutions. This increases the amount of money these institutions have available to lend.
Increased money supply: As the central bank purchases these assets, it creates new money in the economy. This increases the money supply, making it easier for businesses and individuals to borrow money.
Lower interest rates: With more money available to lend, interest rates will typically decrease. Lower interest rates can stimulate economic activity by encouraging borrowing and spending.
Boost in economic growth: With more money available and lower interest rates, businesses are more likely to invest and expand, and consumers are more likely to spend. This can lead to increased economic growth and job creation.
While quantitative easing can be an effective tool to stimulate economic growth, there are also potential risks associated with it. Here are some of the key risks:
- Inflation: One of the main risks of QE is that it can lead to inflation. By increasing the money supply, QE can drive up prices as there is more money chasing the same amount of goods and services. If inflation gets out of control, it can erode the purchasing power of consumers and lead to economic instability.
- Asset bubbles: QE can also lead to asset bubbles as investors seek higher returns in riskier assets. This can drive up the prices of stocks, real estate, and other assets to unsustainable levels, which can ultimately lead to a crash and financial instability.
- Currency devaluation: QE can lead to a devaluation of a country's currency, as the increased money supply can lower the value of the currency relative to others. This can make imports more expensive and reduce a country's purchasing power in the global economy.
- Moral hazard: By bailing out banks and other financial institutions with QE, it can create a moral hazard where these institutions take on excessive risk in the future, knowing that they will be bailed out again if things go wrong.
- Political interference: QE can also be subject to political interference, with politicians pressuring central banks to use QE to achieve political goals rather than for economic purposes. This can undermine the independence of central banks and lead to inefficient economic policies.
Does quantitative easing work?
Whether quantitative easing works or not is a matter of debate among economists. Here are some of the arguments for and against its effectiveness:
Arguments for the effectiveness of QE:
- Increased money supply: QE can increase the money supply, which can make it easier for businesses and individuals to borrow money, leading to increased spending and investment.
- Lower interest rates: QE can lower interest rates, making it cheaper for businesses and individuals to borrow money, which can stimulate economic activity.
- Boost in asset prices: QE can boost asset prices, such as stocks and real estate, which can make consumers and businesses feel wealthier, leading to increased spending and investment.
- Stimulating demand: By increasing the money supply, QE can stimulate demand, which can lead to increased economic growth and job creation.
Arguments against the effectiveness of QE:
- Limited impact on the real economy: Some economists argue that QE has limited impact on the real economy, as the increased money supply may not translate into increased spending and investment, especially if banks are reluctant to lend.
- Asset bubbles: QE can lead to asset bubbles, as investors seek higher returns in riskier assets, which can ultimately lead to financial instability.
- Risk of inflation: QE can lead to inflation, which can erode the purchasing power of consumers and lead to economic instability.
- Dependency on central bank policy: QE can create a dependency on central bank policy, with the market relying on further QE to maintain asset prices and stimulate economic growth.
Overall, the effectiveness of QE depends on a range of factors, including the economic conditions, the scale and timing of the program, and the specific policies implemented by central banks.
Real-world examples of quantitative easing
There have been several real-world examples of quantitative easing implemented by central banks around the world. Here are some examples:
- United States: The U.S. Federal Reserve implemented multiple rounds of QE in response to the 2008 financial crisis. The first round, in 2008, involved the purchase of $600 billion in mortgage-backed securities and other debt. In subsequent rounds, the Fed purchased more than $2 trillion in government debt and mortgage-backed securities.
- Japan: The Bank of Japan has implemented multiple rounds of QE since the 1990s, with the most recent program beginning in 2013. As of 2021, the Bank of Japan continues to pursue an aggressive QE policy, with purchases of government bonds and other assets totaling around 160 trillion yen per year.
- European Union: The European Central Bank (ECB) implemented a QE program in 2015 to address low inflation and weak economic growth. The program involved the purchase of government bonds and other assets, totaling over 2.6 trillion euros by the end of 2018.
- United Kingdom: The Bank of England implemented a QE program in 2009 in response to the financial crisis. The program involved the purchase of 200 billion pounds in government bonds and was expanded to 375 billion pounds in subsequent years.
- Switzerland: The Swiss National Bank implemented a QE program in 2015 to address deflation and a strong Swiss franc. The program involved the purchase of government bonds and foreign currency, with the central bank's balance sheet growing to over 800 billion Swiss francs by 2021.
These examples demonstrate the different ways in which central banks have implemented QE in response to economic conditions and policy objectives.
Quantitative easing is often described as "printing money," but it is not the same as physically printing paper money.
In QE, a central bank creates new money electronically and uses it to purchase financial assets, such as government bonds, from banks and other financial institutions. The goal is to increase the money supply and stimulate economic growth by making it easier for businesses and individuals to borrow money and invest.
However, the new money created through QE does not necessarily translate into an increase in the physical supply of money, such as banknotes and coins. Instead, it adds to the reserves of the banks that sold the financial assets to the central bank. These banks can then use these reserves to increase their lending and investment, which can stimulate economic activity.
In summary, QE does involve the creation of new money by a central bank, but it is not the same as physically printing paper money. The new money is created electronically and used to purchase financial assets in order to increase the money supply and stimulate economic growth.
In conclusion, Quantitative easing is a monetary policy tool used by central banks around the world to stimulate economic growth and manage monetary policy. While its effectiveness in achieving its objectives is still the subject of much debate among economists, QE has been used successfully in countries such as Japan and the United States to support their economies during times of crisis. However, there are also concerns about the potential inflationary pressures, asset bubbles, and unintended consequences associated with QE. As such, it is important for policymakers to carefully consider the potential risks and benefits of QE when implementing this policy tool.