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The Fed Eases Off

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It was the biggest emergency economic stimulus in history and now it’s over. The U.S. Federal Reserve’s once-in-a-lifetime program to buy immense piles of bonds, month after month, in an extraordinary effort to restart a recession-deadened economy came to an end in October 2014 after adding more than $3.5 trillion to the Fed’s balance sheet – an amount roughly equal to the size of the German economy. The bond-buying program, called quantitative easing or QE, had been controversial since its start in 2009, as had the Fed’s decision in 2013 to gradually reduce the monthly economic boost, a plan that became known as the taper. Whether the Fed tapered too soon, given global economic weakness, or too late, given signs of bubbles in some markets, was hotly debated. But even after the taper’s end the Fed continued to pump support into the economy the old-fashioned way, by holding its interest rates near zero.

The taper began in December 2013 and ended with a final $15 billion purchase in October 2014. Before the taper began there had been anxiety over how global markets would react, and in fact currencies and stock markets in emerging markets fell steeply in mid-January 2014, as investors prepared for U.S. interest rates to rise. But markets rebounded, interest rates stayed low and the Fed stuck with its plan. Janet Yellen, the Fed chair, walked a fine line, assuring the markets that its benchmark interest rate would remain near zero for a “considerable time” after the taper’s end — a level that in ordinary times would be seen as a massive stimulus. As the taper ended, Yellen hinted that the Fed may hang onto the bonds for years, which could give the economy a QE-like boost even after QE itself has been tapered out. The Fed also announced it would reinvest the proceeds from its bonds, which would have the effect of a bit more stimulus.