Likely before the end of the year, the Federal Reserve will start to tiptoe into the unknown.
Central bank officials indicated Wednesday that they're ready to begin "tapering" – the process of slowly pulling back the stimulus they've provided during the pandemic.
While the Fed has gone into policy retreat before, it has never had to pull back from such a dramatically accommodative position. For most of the past year and a half, it has been buying at least $120 billion of bonds each month, providing unprecedented support to financial markets and the economy that it now will start to walk back.
The bond purchases have added more than $4 trillion to the Fed's balance sheet, which now stands at $8.5 trillion, about $7 trillion of which is the assets bought up through the Fed's quantitative easing programs, according to the central bank's data. The purchases have helped keep interest rates low, provided support to markets that malfunctioned badly at the start of the pandemic crisis, and coincided with a powerful run for the stock market.