If there were awards for the most controversial investment terms, "quantitative easing" (QE) would win the top prize. Experts disagree on nearly everything about the term—its meaning, its history of implementation, and its effectiveness as a monetary policy tool.

The U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of England have used QE to weather financial crises. In fact, the U.S. has had three iterations: QE, QE2, and QE3. The Bank of Japan was the first to try it out and has been using QE for years, while the European Central Bank (ECB) has also used it to stimulate economic growth in the eurozone. So what's the big deal about QE—and does it work?

Key Takeaways

  • Quantitative easing (QE) is a form of unconventional monetary policy used by central banks as a way to quickly increase the domestic money supply in hopes of spurring economic activity.
  • Quantitative easing involves a country's central bank purchasing longer-term government bonds, as well as other types of assets, such as mortgage-backed securities (MBS).
  • The U.S. Federal Reserve used QE following the 2008-09 financial crisis and again in 2020 in response to the economic shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Economists tend to agree that QE works, but caution that too much of it can be a bad thing.

Quantitative Easing (QE) Basics

Quantitative easing effectively allows central banks to dramatically increase the size of their balance sheets, which also increases the amount of credit available to borrowers. To make that happen, a central bank issues creates new money and uses that to purchase assets from commercial banks. These then become new reserves held at these banks. Ideally, the funds the banks receive for the assets will then be loaned to borrowers at attractive rates. The idea is that by making it easier to obtain loans, interest rates will remain low and consumers and businesses will borrow, spend, and invest.

According to economic theory, the increased spending leads to increased consumption, which increases the demand for goods and services, fosters job creation, and, ultimately, creates economic vitality. While this chain of events appears to be a straightforward process, remember that this is an oversimplification of a more complex topic.

In the United States, the Federal Reserve serves as the nation's central bank.

Quantitative Easing (QE) Challenges

Closer analysis reveals just how nuanced the term quantitative easing is. For instance, Ben Bernanke, renowned monetary policy expert and chairman of the Federal Reserve, draws a sharp distinction between quantitative easing and credit easing: "[Credit easing] resembles quantitative easing in one respect: It involves an expansion of the central bank's balance sheet. However, in a pure QE regime, the focus of the policy is on the quantity of bank reserves, which are liabilities of the central bank; the composition of loans and securities on the asset side of the central bank's balance sheet is incidental." Bernanke also points out that credit easing focuses on "the mix of loans and securities" held by a central bank.

Despite the semantics, even Bernanke admits that the difference in the two approaches "does not reflect any doctrinal disagreement." Economists and the media have largely disregarded the distinction by dubbing any effort by a central bank to purchase assets and inflate its balance sheet as quantitative easing. This leads to more disagreements.

Does Quantitative Easing Work?

Whether quantitative easing works is a subject of considerable debate. There are several notable historical examples of central banks increasing the money supply. This process is often referred to as "printing money," even though it's done by electronically crediting bank accounts and it doesn't involve printing.

While spurring inflation to avoid deflation is one of the goals of quantitative easing, too much inflation can be an unintended consequence. Germany (in the 1920s) and Zimbabwe (in the 2000s) engaged in what many scholars refer to as quantitative easing. In both cases, the result was hyperinflation. However, many modern scholars aren't convinced that the efforts of these countries qualify as quantitative easing.

In 2001-2006, the Bank of Japan increased its reserves from five trillion yen to 35 trillion yen. Most experts view the effort as a failure. But again, there is debate over whether or not Japan's effort can be categorized as quantitative easing at all.

Economic efforts in the United States and the United Kingdom during 2009-10 also met with disagreement over definitions and effectiveness. European Union countries are not permitted to engage in quantitative easing on a country-by-country basis, as each country shares a common currency and must defer to the central bank.

There is also an argument that QE has psychological value. Experts can generally agree that quantitative easing is the last resort for desperate policymakers. When interest rates are near zero but the economy remains stalled, the public expects the government to take action. Quantitative easing, even if it doesn't work, shows action and concern on the part of policymakers. Even if they cannot fix the situation, they can at least demonstrate activity, which can provide a psychological boost to investors.

Of course, by purchasing assets, the central bank is spending the money it has created, and this introduces risk. For example, the purchase of mortgage-backed securities runs the risk of default. It also raises questions about what will happen when the central bank sells the assets, which will take cash out of circulation and tighten the money supply.

Even the invention of quantitative easing is shrouded in controversy. Some give credit to economist John Maynard Keynes for developing the concept; some cite the Bank of Japan for implementing it; others cite economist Richard Werner, who coined the term.

The Bottom Line

The controversy surrounding QE brings to mind Winston Churchill's famous quip about "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Of course, some experts will almost certainly disagree with this characterization.