QE1, 2, and Operation Twist: The Explanation to End all Others

Quantitative Easing and Operation TwistNormally, the Federal Reserve aims to achieve its objectives by controlling the rate at which banks lend to each other overnight.  This is called the Fed Funds rate.  They do this through verbal intervention (stating what they want the rate to be) and by buying and selling short term treasury securities.  Prior to starting Quantitative Easing (QE1), the Fed lowered the Fed funds target to a range of 0.0% – 0.25%. To maintain this target, the Fed bought short-term treasuries, which increased the supply of money looking for a temporary “home” putting downward pressure on the Fed Funds Rate. (Need a longer explanation of traditional monetary policy? Go here.)

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What Caused them to do something different after the financial crisis?

Two things:

  1. After the financial crisis the Fed had not achieved the desired effect on economic growth and employment despite taking the rate effectively to zero. They had basically “run out of ammunition” with this traditional policy tool.
  2. Credit markets, and specifically the market for Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS or the market where home loans are bought and sold by banks and other investors) were starting to freeze up.  There was a concern that if the Fed did not step in that buyers and sellers of these instruments would not transact at any price.


What is Quantitative Easing (QE) and How does it Differ from Traditional Monetary Policy?

Its when the Fed uses a specified “quantity” of money to expand the range of securities it will buy, instead of focusing purely on short term securities to influence the fed funds rate. The range of securities includes treasuries with longer maturities as well as other instruments that the Fed is not traditionally involved in such as Mortgage Backed Securities.

To enact normal monetary policy and lower interest rates the Fed will buy short term treasuries which mature quickly, turning into cash from the Treasury.  To enact QE, the Fed is buying longer term securities.  Technically they could sell these longer term securities at anytime, however this would defeat the purpose of QE.  As a result these these securities expand the Fed’s balance sheet dramatically and represent a long term increase in the money supply.


What is the Difference Between QE1 and QE2?

Two things:

  1. The “quantity” of money that was used in the programs.  In QE1 which started in late 2008 the Fed injected over $1.25 Trillion into the economy.  In QE2 which started in late 2010, the Fed injected $600 Billion into the economy.
  2. The types of assets the Fed Purchased.  In QE1 the Fed purchased primarily Mortgage Backed Securities which are pools of home loans which are packaged up and then bought and sold by investors in the market. In QE2 they purchased Treasury Securities similar to what they purchase through their normal operations, but with longer maturity dates (they were focused on influencing long term interest rates instead of just short term).

Why the differences?

While both QE1 and QE2 were about stimulating the economy and trying to avoid a deep recession, QE1 had another goal as well. After the financial crisis there was a lack of trust among the participants in the credit markets and specifically in the market for Mortgage Backed Securities.  As a result the Fed felt that the market was in danger of freezing up if they did not intervene.  This is why the Fed targeted that market specifically because in addition to any stimulus affect it had on the economy, they felt that it would stabilize the market.


What is Operation Twist?

Operation twist is the Fed selling short term treasuries that they hold and then using the money from those sales to purchase longer term securities.  As the Fed is selling short term securities adding to their supply on the market, this should cause short term interest rates to rise.  As they are buying longer term securities with that money this should cause long term interest rates to fall.  The word “twist” comes from the fact that taking short term rates up and long term rates down “twists” the yield curve.  It also comes from the fact that the first time this was tried was in 1961 when Chubby Checkers record “The Twist” had recently been #1 on the record charts.

In the more recent operation twist since the financial crisis, there has been so much demand from worried investors parking their money in short term treasuries, that short term rates have not risen noticeably as a result of the Fed’s selling of short term maturities.


What’s the Difference Between Quantitative Easing and Operation Twist?

Quantitative Easing is an outright purchase with new money that is created by the fed, so it is an injection of new money into the economy that was not there before.  New money is not created with operation twist, as the proceeds from the sale of the short term treasuries are used to buy the longer term treasuries.  This makes operation twist less potent than quantitative easing but it also reduces the risk that the Fed will “overshoot” and cause inflation to rise above a level that they are comfortable.

Have a question about QE or operation twist that we didn’t answer?  Hit us up on the comments section below.

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David Waring

David Waring

David Waring was the founder of LearnBonds.com and has been a major contributor to the extensive library of investing news and information available on the site. Until the launch of Learnbonds.com in late 2011 there was no single site on the internet catering exclusively to the individual bond investor. This was true even though more individuals own stocks than bonds. Learn Bonds was launched to fill that gap.


    • Hi Fahad, Thanks for the comment. All else being equal quantitative easing should weaken the US dollar as more dollars are flowing out into the economy, increasing the supply. All else being equal operation twist should be dollar neutral as the Fed is buying long term bonds (which increases the supply of dollars) and selling short term bonds (which decreases the amount of dollars by the same amount). Hope that helps. Let us know if there are any other questions. Best Regards, Dave
    • Hi Fahad, We expect the Fed to announce the continuation of quantitative easing and to increase the monthly buying from $30 Billion currently to $45 Billion a month. Best Regards, Dave
  1. Hi. Firstly I think this whole series is excellent. I have a degree in Economics but I still find this subject extremely complicated / unclear / misunderstood – you do a great job of making it more understandable. I have a difficult question for you though – to what extent has the Fed distorted the long end of the bond curve? i.e. 10 and 30 year bond yields are incredibly low. Does this reflect an extremely negative outlook on economic growth from bond market investors? Or does it just reflect the fact that the Fed has artificially lowered rates via Operation Twist and QE2? I suppose one way of looking at it would be the compare the total amount of QE done on the long end of the bond curve (not even sure which maturities they have targeted) with the outstanding stock of debt. It’s important because a lot of equity market investors look at the 10 year / 30 year yield as having lots of informational value on what investors expect for future economic growth. But I wonder if we can still ‘trust’ this given the unprecedented manipulation over the last 4 years. Any thoughts you have would be very interested – and well done again on such a great series.
  2. Your explanation is very clear but what is ultimately the point of twisting the yield curve? If I’m not mistaken conventional economic theory suggests that higher interest rates reduce expenditure so how would this boost the economy in the short term? Does it make investors more likely to buy short-maturity corporate bonds resulting in more liquidity?
  3. Great note. Why is the US currency strengthening rather than weakening when QE3 is still operational at the moment?

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