An Overview of Unconventional Monetary Policies

The excellent research edifice at the Bank of International Settlements have conjured up one of those papers which needed to be written (by Claudio Borio and Piti Disyatat) on the back of the myriad of different monetary policy responses we have observed in the contex of the economic crisis. The abstract and conclusion look as follows;

(my emphasis throughout)

The recent global financial crisis has led central banks to rely heavily on “unconventional” monetary policies. This alternative approach to policy has generated much discussion and a heated and at times confusing debate. The debate has been complicated by the use of different definitions and conflicting views of the mechanisms at work. This paper sets out a framework for classifying and thinking about such policies, highlighting how they can be viewed within the overall context of monetary policy implementation. The framework clarifies the differences among the various forms of unconventional monetary policy, provides a systematic characterisation of the wide range of central bank responses to the crisis, helps to underscore the channels of transmission, and identifies some of the main policy challenges. In the process, the paper also addresses a number of contentious analytical issues, notably the role of bank reserves and their inflationary consequences.


In the wake of the current financial crisis, monetary policy will probably never be the same again. Central banks have been forced to review their implementation frameworks and to try out policies that, only a few years back, were not on their radar screens. They have been operating in unchartered waters, outside their “comfort zone”. In the process, unconventional monetary policies have become the focus of much discussion and heated debate. In this paper, we have provided a unified framework to think about and classify unconventional monetary policies, considered the analytical issues they raise, with particular reference to the transmission mechanism, and briefly assessed some of the key policy challenges.
We have stressed several analytical points.

First, unconventional monetary policies fall under the broader category of balance sheet policy, whereby the central bank uses its balance sheet to affect asset prices and financial conditions beyond the short-term interest rate. Thus, they are not unconventional in their essence, with foreign exchange intervention being a very familiar form of such policies.

Second, balance sheet policies can be decoupled from interest rate policies. This reflects the fact that the level of the short-term interest rate can be set independently of the amount of bank reserves in the system. Third, the main channel through which balance sheet policy operates is by altering the composition of private sector balance sheets, exchanging claims that are imperfect substitutes for each other. By altering the risk profile of private portfolios, such as through the purchase of less liquid or risky assets or by being prepared to lend at more attractive terms than the markets, the central bank can reduce yields and ease financing constraints.

Fourth, because of this, in our view the outsized role often attributed to banks’ excess reserves in discussions of balance sheet policy is not warranted. Since excess reserves are very close substitutes with short-term claims on the central bank or the government, what the central bank buys and the credit it extends are more important than how these operations are financed. Finally, balance sheet policy should be the considered in the broader context of the consolidated public sector balance sheet. Importantly, central banks have a monopoly over interest rate policy, but not over balance sheet policy.

While we have not examined in depth the effectiveness of balance sheet policies, it would be hard to deny that they have helped to stabilise conditions and cushion the fall in aggregate demand. There is evidence that central bank purchases of government bonds have lowered their yields, although they seem to be subject to “diminishing returns”, once the surprise factor wears off. And policies targeting interbank markets or private sector securities have been successful in narrowing risk spreads and supporting borrowing activity there.

At the same time, balance sheet policies raise a number of challenges for central banks. As central banks move away from the simplicity and well-rehearsed routine of interest rate policy, they face much trickier calibration and communication issues. As they substitute for private sector intermediation, they may favour some borrowers over others, tilting the level playing field, and could risk making the private sector unduly dependent on public support. As they purchase government debt, they come under pressure to coordinate with the public sector debt management operations. And as their balance sheets expand and they take on more financial risks, central banks risk seeing their operational independence and anti-inflation credentials come under threat in the longer term. As a result, questions about coordination, operational independence and division of responsibilities with the government loom large. These costs suggest that unconventional monetary policies should best be seen as special tools for special circumstances. The costs also point to the need for appropriate governance arrangements, designed to limit the risk that the central bank anti-inflation priorities are undermined in the medium term. And they put a premium on early exits, as soon as economic conditions permit.

I have only scanned the paper and thus not really given it the attention it probably deserves, but one of the things I found most interesting, (especially in the light of the my recent inquiry into the matter with respect to the ECB), is that while I agree that exit strategies is first and foremost a communication exercise they will also become a concrete operational challenge.

More generally, the discussion on the transmission channel from unconventional monetary policy as split into two between the signalling channel and the broad portfolio channel (operational/market channel) is interesting and provides a good framework through which to understand the current initiatives by monetary policy makers. The paper also pulls out the classic, as it were, about how the Fed and the ECB differs in their response because the former has focused extensively on the non-bank sector (asset backed securities and government bonds) whereas the latter has mainly focused on the the banking sector (i.e. through fixed-rate full-allotment refinancing operations with maturities of up to 12 months).

Again, it is difficult to argue with the underlying argument here in the sense that it is clearly borne out in the data. The problem with the ECB, as I have argued before, is the extent to which banking finance is indirectly funding the purchase of government bonds and thus what happens to sovereign spreads in the Eurozone when the refinancing offers taper off into 2010. That is a subject for a different entry. For now, I leave you with this instructive paper from the BIS; it is well worth a look.

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