Commercial awareness: US ends QE

A look at this important economic and political decision from the Federal Reserve

In an interview for any business-related job or internship, or at a more informal recruitment or networking event, there's a good chance you'll have to show your commercial awareness by discussing a hot topic in business.

You might be asked for your opinion on an issue or series of events, or given an opportunity to talk about something you're interested in.

So while you don't need to memorise the current share price of each FTSE company every day, it's a good idea to make sure you're always familiar with some key current stories and ongoing issues in the business world - and have some thoughts of your own about them.

Current hot topic: the US ends quantitative easing (QE)

The US Federal Reserve, America's central bank and equivalent in some respects to the UK's Bank of England, has decided to end its quantitative easing (QE) programme.

QE is essentially the purchase of assets by a central bank in order to put more money into an economy. The Federal Reserve has spent over $3 trillion on buying mainly mortgage and treasury bonds, pieces of debt owed by property owners and the government, since the QE programme started in November 2008, just after investment bank Lehmann Brothers collapsed.

The aims

The main purpose behind the US QE programme was to encourage banks to lend money - the theory being that a drip-feed of Federal Reserve cash would enable them to offer loans to businesses and consumers at relatively low interest rates.

It was hoped that, in turn, reasonable bank lending would lead to corporate investment, to more jobs, to increased consumer spending, and thereby to economic recovery.

Has it worked?

The general consensus is that the US QE programme has broadly been a success. When it announced the end of the QE programme, the Federal Reserve, which monitors the US economy closely, was optimistic.

"Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in September suggests that economic activity is expanding at a moderate pace. Labor market conditions improved somewhat further, with solid job gains and a lower unemployment rate. On balance, a range of labor market indicators suggests that underutilization of labor resources is gradually diminishing. Household spending is rising moderately and business fixed investment is advancing...there has been a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market since the inception of its current asset purchase program," it said.

There are some ongoing problems in the US economy - for example, a slow housing market - but many think the post-financial crisis recession would have been considerably more severe without the cushion of QE.

Wall Street not Main Street?

However, some commentators have reservations about the apparent success of QE. Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan has voiced his scepticism about whether the programme has done much to solve America's economic problems.

At the time of the announcement he commented that he thought the programme had benefited banks more than the rest of the economy as they'd failed to put the money they'd received from Federal Reserve asset purchases into the real economy.

It's also been suggested by many commentators that the extra money has led to inflated asset prices, as banks invest QE cash in these rather than making loans, and overly buoyant financial markets, conditions that could lead to economic bubbles and even another market crash.

More broadly, quantitative easing has created an expectation that the Federal Reserve may act dramatically again to tackle economic issues, which could also contribute to market instability in the future.

What do you think?

Do you think that the US's economic problems have been solved or just delayed by quantitative easing?

Should quantitative easing funds be targeted at sections of the economy other than banks?

How much do you think central banks should intervene in the economy?

Image: Mike Renlund (