A Return To Normality?
One factor that led (ultimately) to the end of the Weimar Republic and the breakout of World War II was the hyperinflation that ensued when the Republic tried to print enough money to buy itself out of trouble. True, in those days, national currencies were pegged to the gold standard, but society placed trust in the fiat currencies that nation states proffered.
With interest rates at zero (or below!) and no sign of a recovery in sight, some central banks adopted a risky policy called quantitative easing (QE) to inject liquidity into the banking sector in the hope that by priming the pump, banks would offer loans to businesses and the economy would jump back into life. The idea behind QE was that the central bank created electronic money and engaged financial institutes to use it to buy certain asset classes, earning commissions that they could use to loan out to business. The assets held by the central bank attracted interest and (generally) appreciated in value. The idea was that once the magic had been weaved, the electronic money generated would be taken out of the system, thereby eliminating the hyper-inflation risk. We shall see.
The last to the QE party was the European Central Bank. The ECB has announced that it has ended its QE programme, after a gradual reduction in the monthly investments over time. The ECB’s QE programme was worth €30 billion a month in asset purchases. The scheme started in 2015 and has churned €2 trillion since then.
The ECB and other central banks have accumulated vast asset portfolios during their QE activities. They are all pledged to slim down their holdings (one assumes back to pre-crisis levels) which means many trillion Dollars’ worth of assets will be fed back into markets. This potentially risks a Bear market in these assets unless the unwinding process is handled very conservatively.
The interest that central banks have made from “their” investments has been paid back to their respective Treasuries, representing a windfall for them since the cash, literally, came out of nothing. QE runs the risk of undermining faith in the whole international financial system – a fact not lost on central bankers. It is to be hoped that the genie can be safely coaxed back into the bottle.