When Easy Money Ends

LONDON – The departure of US Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke has fueled speculation about when and how the Fed and other central banks will wind down their mammoth purchases of long-term assets, also known as quantitative easing (QE). Observers seize upon every new piece of economic data to forecast QE’s continuation or an acceleration of its decline. But more attention needs to be paid to the impact of either outcome on different economic players.

There is no doubting the scale of the QE programs. Since the start of the financial crisis, the Fed, the European Central Bank, the Bank of England, and the Bank of Japan have used QE to inject more than $4 trillion of additional liquidity into their economies. When these programs end, governments, some emerging markets, and some corporations could be vulnerable. They need to prepare.

Research by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that lower interest rates saved the US and European governments nearly $1.6 trillion from 2007 to 2012. This windfall allowed higher government spending and less austerity. If interest rates were to return to 2007 levels, interest payments on government debt could rise by 20%, other things being equal.

Governments in the US and the eurozone are particularly vulnerable in the short term, because the average maturity of sovereign debt is only 5.4 years and roughly six years, respectively. The United Kingdom is in better shape, with an average maturity of 14.6 years. As interest rates rise, governments will need to determine whether higher tax revenue or stricter austerity measures will be required to offset the increase in debt-service costs.