Earlier this month, I penned an article asking if we "really shouldn't worry about the Fed's balance sheet?" The question arose from a specific statement made by previous New York Federal Reserve President Bill Dudley:
"Financial types have long had a preoccupation: What will the Federal Reserve do with all the fixed income securities it purchased to help the U.S. economy recover from the last recession? The Fed's efforts to shrink its holdings have been blamed for various ills, including December's stock-market swoon. And any new nuance of policy — such as last week's statement on "balance sheet normalization" — is seen as a really big deal.
I'm amazed and baffled by this. It gets much more attention than it deserves."
As I noted, there is a specific reason why "financial types" have a preoccupation with the balance sheet.
The preoccupation came to light in 2010 when Ben Bernanke added the "third mandate" to the Fed – the creation of the "wealth effect."
"This approach eased financial conditions in the past and, so far, looks to be effective again. Stock prices rose and long-term interest rates fell when investors began to anticipate this additional action. Easier financial conditions will promote economic growth. For example, lower mortgage rates will make housing more affordable and allow more homeowners to refinance. Lower corporate bond rates will encourage investment. And higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending. Increased spending will lead to higher incomes and profits that, in a virtuous circle, will further support economic expansion."
– Ben Bernanke, Washington Post Op-Ed, November, 2010.
As he noted, the Fed specifically targeted asset prices to boost consumer confidence. Given that consumption makes up roughly 70% of economic growth in the U.S., it makes sense. So, not surprisingly, when the economy begins to show signs of deterioration, the Fed acts to offset that weakness.