Washington: The US Federal Reserve’s balance sheet is poised to exceed $4 trillion, prompting warnings its record easing is inflating asset-price bubbles and drawing renewed lawmaker scrutiny just as Janet Yellen prepares to take charge.

The Fed’s assets rose to a record $3.99 trillion on 11 December, up from $2.82 trillion in September 2012, when it embarked on a third round of bond buying.

Fed policymakers meet on Tuesday and Wednesday to decide whether to start curtailing the $85 billion monthly pace of purchases.

“Among Fed officials, there’s discomfort in the sense that the portfolio could grow almost without limit," former Fed vice chairman Donald Kohn said last week during a panel discussion in Washington. Kohn said there was discomfort in the potential financial stability effects and added: “There’s some legitimacy in those discomforts."

Fed governor Jeremy Stein has said some credit markets, such as corporate debt, show signs of excessive risk-taking, while not posing a threat to financial stability.

Representative Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the House committee that oversees the Fed, said last week he plans the most rigorous examination and oversight of the Federal Reserve in its history.

“While any effort to rewrite the law establishing Fed powers lacks support from Democrats who control the Senate, the scrutiny is undesirable for central bankers who believe independence is priceless," said Laura Rosner, a US economist at BNP Paribas SA in New York.

‘Not Welcome’

“It’s not a welcome development that a lot more time and focus is spent on answering questions from Congress," said Rosner, a former researcher at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Lawmakers may also use the size of the balance sheet to draw attention to concerns they have about the Fed’s responsibilities and growing role in financial regulation.

Chairman Ben Bernanke, whose second four-year term ends next month, has quadrupled Fed assets since 2008 with bond purchases intended to lower long-term borrowing costs and reduce unemployment. The vice chair Yellen, who may win Senate confirmation this week to replace Bernanke, is a supporter of the policy.

The Fed has said it will keep buying bonds until the outlook for the labour market has improved substantially. About 34% of economists surveyed by Bloomberg on 6 December predicted the Fed will start reducing purchases this month, while 26% forecast January and 40% said March.

The Fed’s balance sheet exceeds the gross domestic product (GDP) of Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy. It’s enough to cover all US federal government spending for more than a year. It could pay off all student and auto loans in the country with $2 trillion to spare, Fed data show.

Third Round

The third round of quantitative easing probably will total $1.54 trillion before it ends, bringing the balance sheet to $4.36 trillion, according to economists in the survey.

“This is a stimulus of the first order. It’s just unprecedented," Alabama Republican Senator Richard Shelby said in an interview last week. “The Fed is an independent body, but we can point out what they’re doing."

Jeffrey Lacker, president of the Richmond Fed and a critic of the Fed’s bond buying, said in a 9 December speech he expects the Fed policy makers to discuss reducing purchases at this week’s meeting. “Adding to the balance sheet increases the risks associated with exiting stimulus," he said.

Shelby, a five-term senator and past chairman of the banking committee sees a real risk the balance sheet will ignite inflation. So far, there’s little sign that’s happening: a measure of prices watched by the Fed rose 0.7% in October from a year earlier, below the central bank’s 2% target and the least in four years.

Japan, Europe

At 22% of the $16.9 trillion US economy, the balance sheet is surpassed by those of other major central banks as a percentage of GDP, according to third-quarter data compiled by Haver Analytics in New York. In the eurozone, the figure is 24%, and in Japan, it’s about 44%.

That doesn’t mollify Republican critics. When Yellen started to make global comparisons at her Senate confirmation hearing last month, Shelby interrupted her. “I’m asking about the Federal Reserve of the United States of America," he said.

Yellen is set to take over amid warnings that assets from leveraged loans to farmland are showing signs of froth. The Fed and other US banking regulators have said they want to crack down on underwriting standards in the market for high-risk, high-yield loans.

Mutual Funds

Non-bank lenders such as mutual funds, hedge funds and pools of collateralized loan obligations, bought $630 billion of the loans this year, surpassing the 2007 peak of $581.5 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“Potential losses on the Fed’s investments are also cause for concern and something we will be watching," Representative John Campbell, a California Republican who leads the House Financial Services subcommittee on monetary policy and trade, said in February.

The Fed sent a record $88.4 billion to the US Treasury in 2012 and $75.4 billion in 2011, up from $31.7 billion in 2008. Most of the income was from interest on assets bought under the quantitative easing programme.

The risk for the Fed is that rising interest rates reduce the value of its bond holdings, potentially causing losses if the central bank had to sell the securities back into the open market. Losses are dangerous for the Fed from a political perspective because they would be a risk to its independence, said Roberto Perli, a partner at Cornerstone Macro Lp in Washington.

Deficit Spending

Campbell and Hensarling also say the Fed’s purchases of government debt are encouraging deficit spending by allowing the government to borrow cheaply. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note has averaged 2.31% this year, compared with a 6.61% mean over the past half century. “The Fed’s additional extraordinary purchases of Treasury bonds have supported the Obama administration’s trillion-dollar deficits," Hensarling said at a 12 December hearing.

Yellen says bond purchases have put Americans back to work. “Asset purchases helped the private sector add 7.8 million workers since 2010 and boosted home prices and auto sales," Yellen said in her confirmation hearing, adding that the progress will let the central bank get back to more normal monetary policy.

Jobless Rate

The jobless rate has fallen to 7% from a 26-year high of 10% in October 2009. Since then, the economy has regained most of the jobs it lost during the 18-month recession ended in June 2009.

“The balance sheet is growing because that’s how the Federal Reserve thinks it’s going to accomplish the mandates that Congress gave to it for full employment and price stability," Kohn, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy in Washington, said in an interview last week.

Still, policymakers haven’t spurred the growth they expected. Officials forecast 2013 growth of 2% to 2.3% in September, down from a 2.3% to 2.8% estimate in March.

“QE turned out to be a safety net, a floor, a way to catch the economy to keep it from crashing," said Steve Blitz, chief economist at ITG Investment Research Inc. in New York. “A safety net to catch a falling economy is not the same thing that can springboard the economy to a higher rate of growth." Bloomberg

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