Graced by Congress and by the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve is committed to using its balance sheet to inject more than $4 trillion into the economy. That is not a typo. And it is, in fact, likely to be substantially more than that by the time the pandemic crisis has subsided. This will not end up directly in the pockets of individuals, but it will flood the financial system with unprecedented amounts of money and provide a cushion and a floor for almost any tradeable asset.
And by any tradeable asset, that means money market funds, corporate bonds, municipal bonds, bank lines of credit, student loans, mortgage-backed securities, and according to Jerome Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, perhaps even stocks. Asked about the possible outer limits of what the Fed might buy, Powell said, with unusual candor, that in a time of pandemic, “We’re trying to create a bridge from our very strong economy to another place of economic strength, and that’s what our lending really does. It’s very broad. It’s across small, medium and large businesses.” And it extends as well to state and local governments strapped for cash as tax revenues evaporate. It extends, in fact, to just about everything and anything imaginable.
It is impossible to overstate how radical a departure from past precedent these moves are. During the Great Recession of 2008-2009, the Fed cut interest to zero (as it has now) and then began to experiment with what it called “quantitative easing” on a multi-trillion dollar scale; it began to buy up bonds and act as a lender of last resort to large financial institutions that were facing potential insolvency, and to European banks as well as the European Union faced its own crisis into 2011. But as innovative as that was, it took many months for the Fed to act then, after the financial crisis had already metastasized into an economic collapse, and its buying was limited to specific and rather arcane corners of the financial markets.