Some Fed policymakers eye shrinking balance sheet this year

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - As Federal Reserve policymakers debate how to shrink a massive balance sheet built through years of bond-buying stimulus, several are calling publicly for action, with two suggesting the portfolio should be allowed to shrink starting later this year.

John Williams, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, speaks during an interview with Reuters in San Francisco, California December 18, 2015. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President John Williams told the Wall Street Journal Thursday he would want to let the Fed’s $4.5 trillion balance sheet begin shrinking by late this year, when U.S. short-term interest rates are expected to be above 1 percent.

Earlier this week Cleveland Fed chief Loretta Mester said she would favor steps this year to reduce the balance sheet.

Mester is often outside the Fed’s mainstream, dissenting twice last year in favor of tighter policy; Williams is seen as close to Fed Chair Janet Yellen, who used to have his job.

So it is not clear the comments of either signal the Fed’s likely path.

“Just like the fed funds rate, changes to the balance sheet will be data dependent,” said DRW Holdings analyst Lou Brien. “I just think it’s a case of mentioning the idea often enough that it’s less destabilizing when it finally occurs.”

Fed Chair Janet Yellen herself has not suggested any rush. The Fed said it wants to remove accommodation only gradually, and shrinking the balance sheet, instead of topping it up as the Fed does now, would likely push up long-run borrowing costs.

At a news conference last week following the Fed’s decision to increase short-term rates for the second time in three months, Yellen said she and her colleagues had discussed an “eventual” reduction in the balance sheet, but that no decisions had been reached.

Wall Street banks expect no changes to the balance sheet policy until mid-2018, the latest poll by the New York Fed shows.

Still, economists at Goldman Sachs said in a recent note they expect the Fed to publish in December a plan for tapering the portfolio.

A Dallas Fed spokesman told Reuters this week that “no rush” on the balance sheet does not accurately reflect President Robert Kaplan’s views. Once the Fed publishes a plan, “we should act with not too much of a delay,” Kaplan told Reuters in an interview.

Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari said Thursday there was no reason to hold off on details. “The Chair’s going to manage the process and lead us I think efficiently to hopefully the right conclusion,” he said.

Reporting by Ann Saphir, Lindsay Dunsmuir; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama