There is wide agreement among economists and market observers that the Federal Reserve’s aggressive interest rate hikes will cause economic growth to grind to a halt, leading to a recession. Less talked about is the risk of a financial crisis as the U.S. central bank simultaneously tries to shrink its massive balance sheet.
At the same time as it’s been raising rates, the Fed has been quietly trimming down its balance sheet, which swelled after the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. It reached a high of US$9 trillion in April 2022 and has since declined by about $240 billion as the Fed reduces its holdings of Treasury securities and other debt that it bought to avoid an economic meltdown early in the pandemic.
As a finance expert, I have been studying financial decisions and markets for over a decade. I’m already seeing signs of distress that could snowball into a financial crisis, compounding the Fed’s woes as it struggles to contain soaring inflation.
Fed Balance Sheet Basics
As part of its mandate, the Federal Reserve maintains a balance sheet, which includes securities, such as bonds, as well as other instruments it uses to pump money into the economy and support financial institutions.
The balance sheet has grown substantially over the last two decades as the Fed began experimenting in 2008 with a policy known as quantitative easing—in essence, printing money—to buy debt to help support financial markets that were in turmoil. The Fed again expanded its balance sheet drastically in 2020 to provide support, or liquidity, to banks and other financial institutions so the financial system didn’t run short on cash. Liquidity refers to the efficiency with which a security can be converted into cash without affecting the price.
But in March 2022, the Fed switched gears. It stopped purchasing new securities and began reducing its holdings of debt in a policy known as quantitative tightening. The current balance
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