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Unconventional Monetary Policy on Stilts

NEW YORK – With most advanced economies experiencing anemic recoveries from the 2008 financial crisis, their central banks have been forced to move from conventional monetary policy – reducing policy rates via open-market purchases of short-term government bonds – to a range of unconventional policies. Although the zero nominal bound on interest rates – previously only a theoretical possibility – had been reached and zero-interest-rate policy (ZIRP) had been implemented, growth remained anemic. So central banks embraced measures that didn’t even exist in their policy toolkit a decade ago. And now they are poised to do so again.

The list of unconventional measures has been extensive. There was quantitative easing (QE), or purchases of long-term government bonds, once short-term rates were already zero. This was accompanied by credit easing (CE), which took the form of central-bank purchases of private or semi-private assets – such as mortgage- and other asset-backed securities, covered bonds, corporate bonds, real-estate trust funds, and even equities via exchange-traded funds. The aim was to reduce private credit spreads (the difference between yields on private assets and those on government bonds of similar maturity) and to boost, directly and indirectly, the price of other risky assets such as equities and real estate.

Then there was “forward guidance” (FG), the commitment to keep policy rates at zero for longer than economic fundamentals justified, thereby further reducing shorter-term interest rates. For example, committing to maintain zero policy rates for, say, three years implies that interest rates on securities with up to a three-year maturity should also fall to zero, given that medium-term interest rates are based on expectations concerning short-term rates over the next three years. Capping things off, there was unsterilized currency-market intervention to boost exports via a weaker currency.

These policies did indeed reduce long- and medium-term interest rates on government securities and mortgage bonds. They also narrowed credit spreads on private assets, boosted the stock market, weakened the currency, and reduced real interest rates by increasing inflation expectations. So they were partly effective.