Rene Magritte’s 1929 painting “The Treachery of Images,” depicts a tobacco pipe with a caption that reads “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” (French for “This is not a pipe”). Everyone who has taken a course in modern art knows that Magritte’s exercise in contradiction was meant to draw a distinction between a real thing and a representation of that thing. Perhaps we should send Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell a beret and an easel as he is attempting a similarly surrealistic take on monetary policy.
Early last week, the Chairman announced a new, as yet unnamed, Fed program through which the bank will now buy regular amounts of short-term U.S. government debt. Seeking to counter the rumblings that a new form of quantitative easing would be seen as an admission that the economy may be in trouble, Chairman Powell asserted during the annual meeting of NABE on October 8, “This is not QE. In no sense is this QE”. In other words, “Ceci n’est pas QE.”
On Friday, the New York Fed put some meat on the bone by detailing that the program will buy $60 billion per month of Treasury Bills, at least through the second quarter of next year. (R. Miller & C. Condon, Bloomberg) In addition, at least through January 2020, the Fed will continue with $75 billion in overnight repurchases and $35 billion in term repurchases twice per week. (N. Timiraos & P. Kiernan, Dow Jones Newswire) As a result, it is estimated that the Fed’s balance sheet will reach roughly $4.2-$4.3 trillion some time in Q2 2020. Of course, since the actual size of the purchases required to keep interest rates from rising could be much larger, the Fed’s balance sheet could be significantly larger as well.
The Fed even put out a Frequently Asked Questions page last week that among other things highlighted how the current moves differ from the original version of QE in 2008. It stresses that whereas the old version of QE was designed to spur economic growth in a sluggish economy, the current moves are simply designed to patch leaky financial pipes that are very much removed from the real economy. A statement on the FAQ page reads, “These operations have no material implications for the stance of monetary policy,” and should not have “any meaningful effects” on household and business spending or the overall level of economic activity. Instead, the Fed just wants to make sure there is enough cash sloshing around the system — because lately there hasn’t been.