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Opinion: The Federal Reserve is stuck in quantitative-easing hell

Opinion: The Federal Reserve is stuck in quantitative-easing hell

The central bank’s short-term buying of securities could morph into long-term easing

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell

Imagine doing the same thing over and over again, with little progress and no relief. Sounds like most people’s vision of hell — or the Federal Reserve’s current predicament. 

Since September, the central bank, through the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, has been purchasing securities hand over fist to alleviate short-term pressures in the overnight money markets. It has used repurchase (“repo”) and reverse repurchase (“reverse repo”) agreements to provide liquidity and keep overnight borrowing rates from spiking. 

But these complex money market operations already have caused the Fed to buy a net $400 billion worth of securities, after Chairman Jerome Powell shrank the Fed’s balance sheet by $700 billion. That “normalization,” which also included raising the federal funds rate through late 2018, is now effectively dead and the Fed’s balance sheet is growing again.

Powell and the Fed have repeatedly denied this is a new phase of “quantitative easing (QE),” three rounds of which added $3.6 trillion to the Fed’s balance sheet in the years after the financial crisis. And indeed, in the earlier rounds of QE, the central bank bought Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities of various maturities. The current buying has been focused on Treasuries with maturities of 12 months or less. 

On the way: QE4

But that may not continue, says Danielle DiMartino Booth, CEO and chief strategist at Quill Intelligence, a Dallas-based boutique research firm. Booth, who worked on both Wall Street and in the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, has been a critic of Fed policies since the central bank pushed fed funds down to near zero and launched its three rounds of QE after the financial crisis. (She also was one of the few people to connect the dots between the housing bust and Wall Street before the crisis hit.)

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