Rising balance sheet brings Fed closer to exit-plan overhaul

A decision by the Federal Reserve to expand its bond buying next week is likely to prompt policy makers to rewrite their 18-month-old blueprint for an exit from record monetary stimulus.

Under the exit strategy, the Fed would start selling bonds in mid-2015 in a bid to return its holdings to pre-crisis proportions in two to three years. An accelerated buildup of assets would also mean a faster pace of sales when the time comes to exit -- increasing the risk that a jump in interest rates would crush the economic recovery.

“There is certainly an issue about unwinding the balance sheet” in a way that “is effective and continues to support the recovery without creating inflation,” St. Louis Fed Bank President James Bullard said in an interview in October. The central bank might have to “revisit” the 2011 strategy, he added.

The Fed is already buying $40 billion a month in mortgage-backed securities to boost the economy, and policy makers meeting Dec. 11-12 will consider whether to purchase more assets. John Williams, president of the San Francisco Fed, has proposed adding $45 billion of Treasury securities a month.

The bigger the balance sheet, “the riskier the exit becomes,” Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker said during a Nov. 20 speech in New York. “That is something we need to think carefully about.”

Krishna Memani, director of fixed income at OppenheimerFunds Inc., said a too-rapid sale of assets risks disrupting the $5.2 trillion market for agency mortgage debt.

Finding Ways

“They have to find ways of unwinding the balance sheet without dumping all of it in the marketplace,” said Memani, who oversees a bond portfolio of about $70 billion, including about $6 billion of mortgage-backed securities.

The central bank has been extending the maturities of its assets with Operation Twist, a program to replace $667 billion of short-term debt with the same amount of longer-term bonds that expires this month.

A decision to expand purchases could push the total assets to $4 trillion by the end of 2013, said Michael Hanson, a senior U.S. economist at Bank of America Corp. Total assets stand at $2.86 trillion, up from $869 billion at the end of June 2007.

“The more they add to the balance sheet, the longer it will take to normalize,” said Hanson, who worked on designing tools that will be used in the Fed’s exit strategy as an economist in the monetary affairs division at the Board of Governors in 2009.

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