Central Banks Are Turning into Investors – And Losing Money

The purpose of central banks around the world is to establish interest rates for regular banks and control the amount of currency that is in circulation. The amount of money being circulated into the economy will affect the level of inflation and the cost of consumer goods. Central banks also maintain a certain amount of reserve funds.

Since the financial crisis of 2007, however, central banks have become active in purchasing global equities and enlarging their investment portfolio. Instead of economic regulators, they have become major investors. The result has been a manipulation of global market prices while keeping interest artificially low using a policy called quantitative easing.

The Bank of Japan is currently holding 553.6 trillion yen in assets, which exceeds Japan’s entire GDP of 552.8 trillion yen. This is up from 125 trillion yen in 2013. The amassing of assets was meant to stimulate the economy and raise consumer prices. BoJ’s holdings currently comprise five times Apple’s entire market value and 25 times the market capitalization of its largest company, Toyota. BoJ’s holdings are larger than the GNP of India, Turkey, Argentina, Indonesia, and South Africa combined. This asset accumulation follows half-a-decade of economy stimulation a through spending spree designed to accelerate the pace of economic growth by pushing up prices.

The Bank of Japan has been purchasing these assets by mindlessly printing fiat currency for years, thereby lowering the value of the yen and increasing its debts.

Japan’s investment spree began in 2013 when it bought up large quantities of government bonds. This was intended to lower interest rates and encourage both consumers and business to pour more money into the economy by increased spending. Presently, The Bank of Japan is the country’s primary economic output. This type of investment binge by a central bank is unparalleled and may set a new precedent. Compared to the U.S., the Federal Reserve holds only 20 percent of U.S. GDP. Most European central banks hold assets equaling 40 percent of their GDP. And the Bank of Japan isn’t finished with its asset purchasing spree.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Bank of Japan have set a goal of 2 percent inflation, and the buying up of bonds and other assets is likely to continue until that goal is reached. When these bonds become due, however, they can only be paid with the purchase of new bonds, turning the Bank of Japan buying spree into a vicious cycle. Currently, the BoJ is paying 55 trillion yen annual to pay for maturing bonds.

Okasan Securities Co.’s chief economist, Nobuyasu Atago, admits this is an unchartered economic territory. “There’s a vague sense of unease when the holdings keep getting larger, but it’s unclear at what level things should stop.”

The Bank of Japan is not the only central bank with problems. The Swiss National Bank reported a first-quarter loss of 6.8 billion Swiss francs, compared to a 7.9 billion francs profit for the first quarter of last year. The SNB continued its loses in the third quarter, reporting a loss of 12.94 billion Swiss francs as the value of its foreign investment holdings dropped significantly. Its total foreign investments total 753 billion francs. Higher interest rates in the United States and in the eurozone reduced the value of the SNB’s bond portfolio, while the weaker dollar and the downturn in the equity markets cut into the value of the SNB’s investments.

The value of its gold reserves has also lost 0.2 billion francs due to the currency’s devaluation from its unchanged level of gold holdings.

Like the Bank of Japan, the Swiss National Bank has been hoarding foreign assets since the financial crisis, up to 633 billion francs, which have become a major part of Switzerland’s economy. Thirty-six percent of the SNB’s reserves are in US dollars and 39 percent are in Euros, and interest rates have held at zero or below. By depreciating the franc, the Swiss National Bank is hedging against deflation and payment on interest and dividends on its Euro and US-based bond holdings. It is deliberately keeping the value of the franc at a low level.

Like many other central banks, The Swiss National Bank has invested heavily in companies such as Starbucks, Facebook, and Apple. Sixty-eight percent of its reserves are in government bonds. Unlike any other business, the SNB is not trying to make a profit. Instead, it is manipulating interest rates and currency to keep inflation below 2 percent.

Many central banks have phased out their quantitative easing policy. The U.S. Federal Reserve began raising interest rates in 2015. The European Central Bank is planning to end its negative interest rate policies. Other central banks, such as the Bank of England, the Bank of Canada, and the Reserve Bank of Australia are making plans to phase out quantitative easing and allow market forces to determine interest rates. At this time, the Bank of Japan and the Swiss National Bank are the only central banks still adhering to artificial near zero or below interest rates.

The rising global debt caused by the unlimited printing of fiat currency and the end of artificially low interest rates may cause economic problems of global proportions. Quantitative easing has increased economic inequities, particularly in developing countries, which are currently benefitting from an influx of easy money, provoking an even greater debt crisis. When these debts cannot be repaid, lending countries will suffer the economic consequences.

Quantitative easing cannot be sustained. Central banks need to be held accountable for their arbitrary monetary policies. In addition, central banks’ investments in foreign companies and currency need to be curtailed to lessen the potential negative effects on the global economy.