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Was Quantitative Easing a Tax?

Uncle Sam and money
Uncle Sam and money

In the last of his four lectures to students at George Washington University, Ben Bernanke explained how the Fed's quantitative easing programs worked. As it turns out, they were akin to a tax hike.

This aspect of government asset purchase-and-resale-for-profit programs is not well understood. I explained it in terms of a Treasury program last week.

A tax takes dollars out of the private sector, leaving households and businesses with fewer dollars and the government with more dollars. When the government buys something for $10 and sells it back to the private sector for $12, the net effect is the same as if the government had taxed away those $2.

Bernanke doesn't come out and call quantitative easing a tax. But he comes close.

"The Fed’s asset purchases are not government spending, because the assets the Fed acquired will ultimately be sold back into the market. Indeed, the Fed has made money on its purchases so far, transferring about $200 billion to the Treasury from 2009 through 2011, money that benefited taxpayers by reducing the federal deficit," he explains in one of the prepared slides.

Here's a good rule of thumb. If something reduces the federal deficit, it is either the equivalent of a spending cut or a tax hike.

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