UK Central Bank ‘addicted’ to £875bn bond-buying

The UK’s Central Bank has become “addicted” to quantitative easing, according to a report published on Friday by the Economic Affairs Committee in the House of Lords.

Committee chair Michael Forsyth said quantitative easing “is a serious danger to the long-term health of the public finances.”

The committee’s report “Quantitative easing: a dangerous addiction?” urges the Bank of England to explain in more detail “why it believes rising inflation will be a short-term phenomenon, and why continuing with its quantitative easing programme until the end of 2021 is the right course of action.”

The committee said it launched the inquiry for several reasons:

  • the quantitative easing programme has not been subject to sufficient scrutiny, including in Parliament, given its size, longevity and economic importance
  • to examine the extent to which quantitative easing has achieved its stated objectives, along with its effects on the real economy, growth and inflation
  • to examine the most significant risks to the public finances that might result from quantitative easing, given that the Bank of England now holds a substantial portion of the debt issued by the Government
  • to find out the Bank of England’s plans for quantitative easing in the future

Forsyth said: “The Bank of England has become addicted to quantitative easing.

“It appears to be its answer to all the country’s economic problems and by the end of 2021, the Bank will own an eye-watering £875bn of Government bonds and £20bn in corporate bonds.

“The scale and persistence of QE — now equivalent to 40% of GDP — requires significant scrutiny and accountability.

“However, the Bank has faced few questions until now.

“Going forward, the Bank must be more transparent, justify the use of QE and show its working.

“The Bank needs to explain how it will curb inflation if it is more than just short term.

“It also needs to do more to mitigate widening wealth inequalities that have resulted from rising asset prices caused by QE.

“We took evidence from a wide range of prominent monetary policy experts and practitioners from around the world.

“These included former central bankers from the Fed, the ECB and the Bank of Japan.

“We found that central banks all over the world face comparable risks.

“QE is a serious danger to the long-term health of the public finances.

“A clear plan on how QE will be unwound is necessary, and this plan must be made public.”

The committee’s other key findings and conclusions include:

  • During the course of the Committee’s inquiry, it became apparent that the Bank of England is widely perceived to be using QE to finance the Government’s deficit during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bank’s bond purchases were aligned closely with the speed of issuance by HM Treasury. If perceptions continue to grow that the Bank is using QE mainly to finance the Government’s spending priorities, it could lose credibility, and this would harm its ability to control inflation and maintain financial stability.
  • The Bank does not publish sufficient information on QE for the public and Parliament to hold it to account for its decisions. It must be more open about its “assessment processes” for calculating how much QE is necessary to meet its objectives and break down the effect of QE at each stage of the programme in order to show whether it achieved the Bank’s stated targets.
  • The Chancellor refused the Committee’s requests for him to publish the contractual document (the ‘Deed of Indemnity’) between HM Treasury and the Bank of England which sets out the taxpayer liability to cover any financial losses suffered by the Bank as a result of QE. It remains hidden from public scrutiny. The Committee calls again for its immediate publication.
  • The Bank has not set out a plan to reverse QE. First it said it would raise interest rates before reversing QE, but now it is considering reversing QE before raising interest rates. The Bank must set out its rationale for changing its policy and set out a clear exit strategy, particularly considering the growing debate on inflation.
  • QE has been effective at stabilising financial markets during periods of economic turmoil. However, it has had only limited impact on growth and aggregate demand over the last decade. Furthermore, there is little evidence to show that QE increased bank lending, investment, or that it had increased consumer spending by asset holders.
  • The Chancellor has updated the Bank of England’s mandate to support the transition to net zero carbon emissions. This risks forcing it into the political arena. The Chancellor must clarify the Government’s expectations.

The Central Bank responded by saying its bond purchases are made only to stabilise the economy and financial markets, in line with its public mandate.

“QE and the package of other measures announced over the past 18 months have lowered borrowing costs right across the economy, providing much needed support to all borrowers at a time of extreme economic stress,” said the Central Bank.

“It is wrong to suggest that the Monetary Policy Committee has pursued another policy, namely to finance the government’s borrowing during the crisis.

“The evidence does not support this assertion. Nor has the MPC ever suggested this was its policy.”