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Second Quarter 2021, 
Vol. 103, No. 2
Posted 2021-04-15

More Stories of Unconventional Monetary Policy

by Christopher J. Neely and Evan Karson


This article extends the work of Fawley and Neely (2013) to describe how major central banks have evolved unconventional monetary policies to encourage real activity and maintain stable inflation rates from 2013 through 2019. By 2013, central banks were moving from lump-sum asset purchase programs to open-ended asset purchase programs, which are conditioned on economic conditions, careful communication strategies, bank lending programs with incentives, and negative interest rates. This article reviews how central banks tailored their unconventional monetary methods to their various challenges and the structures of their respective economies.

Christopher J. Neely is vice president and economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Evan Karson was a senior research associate at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis when this was written and is an associate economist at Moody's Analytics. The authors thank Mary Everett, Jane Ihrig, Etsuro Shioji, Tomohrio Tsuruga, and Toshiaki Watanabe for their helpful suggestions and Jacob Haas for excellent research assistance. 


Central banks worldwide responded to the Financial Crisis of 2007-09 with a variety of measures: emergency lending, conventional interest rate reductions, and eventually unconventional monetary policy (UMP). There is no hard and fast distinction among emergency lending, conventional monetary policy, and UMP; but emergency lending is narrowly focused and temporary, while monetary policy broadly and persistently changes interest rates and the availability of credit. Similarly, conventional monetary policy works through positive short-term interest rates, while UMPs influence medium- and long-term rates or facilitate credit in specific markets or—most broadly—use monetary policy in unusual ways to influence prices and economic activity.

Initial lending and monetary policy actions aimed to stabilize the financial sector, but central banks soon turned to stimulating growth with UMPs, which can be grouped into communication (i.e., "forward guidance" [FG]), asset purchases, conditional bank lending programs, and negative interest rates. Asset purchases and FG affect long-term interest rates and other asset prices. Conditional bank lending programs create incentives for banks to lend to the nonfinancial sector. Negative interest rates on deposits broadly affect asset prices in a manner similar to that of conventional declines in short-term interest rates. Foreign exchange management—that is, pegs and sterilized and unsterilized intervention—are not uncommon, even for developed economies, but might be considered UMPs. 

UMPs are usually implemented because short-term interest rates have reached the "zero lower bound" and central banks have little or no scope to lower them further. In such a low interest rate environment, central banks can still use UMPs, such as FG and asset purchases, to reduce long yields, raise stock prices, increase employment, and promote price stability. 

Short-term interest rates have rarely reached the zero lower bound in postwar history, but such events may be common in the future. Many observers believe the global economy faces a long-term, low interest rate environment in which conventional short-term interest rate tools may have limited scope to stimulate the economy (Summers, 2016). For example, the Bank of Canada's policy report forecasts that the neutral Canadian policy rate is now only 1.75 to 2.75 percent (Bank of Canada, 2020). In contrast, the Bank of Canada's overnight rate averaged 7 percent from 1960 through 2007. 

Central banks can implement unconventional policies quickly and flexibly, rendering those policies important contingency tools of stabilization policy, alongside conventional interest rate policy. Given that economists and policymakers widely perceive fiscal policy to be unwieldy and slow in practice, central banks have become "the only game in town" as Mohamed El-Erian described the Fed (Fischer, 2016). 

A great deal of research has examined the UMP effects on financial markets and the macroeconomy. The backbone of such research is a set of theoretical models that suggest how such policies might affect real activity and prices through asset prices. Several types of studies indicate that UMP announcements strongly influenced domestic and international asset prices, including sovereign and corporate bonds, exchange rates, and stock prices. These price effects changed lending and portfolio behavior of individuals and financial institutions. There is greater uncertainty about how UMP affects the real economy, but both calibrated dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models and structural vector autoregression studies imply that UMP significantly stimulated output and prices. Bhattarai and Neely (forthcoming) survey the literature on the theory of UMP and its effects on financial markets and the macroeconomy. 

Researchers have paid much less attention to the motivations, methods, and institutional details of the internationally varied unconventional programs than they have to the impact of such policies. Fawley and Neely (2013) describe and compare the quantitative easing (QE) and related maturity extension programs of the Federal Reserve (Fed), the Bank of England (BOE), the European Central Bank (ECB), and the Bank of Japan (BOJ) from 2008-12. During this period, all four major central banks provided unconventional monetary accommodation, although their efforts differed in extent and design. 

This article complements Fawley and Neely (2013) by describing the unconventional policies of major central banks both prior to the crisis and from 2013 through 2019, during which time the four major central banks faced different challenges. With a recovering economy, the Fed first reduced then removed additional unusual monetary accommodation before moving to normalize monetary conditions in 2014-18. Having pursued a milder easing campaign in 2008-12, the BOJ substantially increased accommodation in 2013, aggressively purchasing assets, lending to banks, and imposing negative deposit rates before eventually explicitly targeting long yields. The ECB used more aggressive measures, including negative deposit rates, conditional bank lending programs, and asset purchases in 2014-16 to counter undesired disinflation. Having aggressively eased policy in 2009-12, the BOE maintained steady but accommodative policies from 2013-16 and did not resume easing in earnest until after the 2016 Brexit vote. The coverage of this article ends at the end of 2019 because central banks shifted policies radically again in 2020:Q1 to respond to economic conditions associated with the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis. Haas, Neely, and Emmons (2020) cover those central bank reactions. 

To provide the reader with an understanding of the states of their respective economies and the stances of their monetary policies at the start of 2013, we briefly review the nonstandard policy measures of the Fed, the BOE, the ECB, and the BOJ from 2000 through 2012. The article will then review the policies of the major central banks from 2013 through 2019.

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