James Hamilton has an excellent post on the Federal Reserve and its changing balance sheet today. If you haven’t been following this stuff obsessively, it’s probably the single best primer to get up to speed.
To my mind, there are three signal facts about the brave new balance sheet:
- The size of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet has ballooned, more than doubling over a period of three months. If we take the FOMC at its word for it, it’s not going to shrink anytime soon. Given new programs already announced, we should expect the Fed’s balance sheet to continue to grow.
- On the asset side, only a small fraction of the Fed’s holdings are now US Treasury securities. Excluding securities lent to dealers, just 12.5% of the Fed’s assets are Treasuries. The Fed has expanded the scope of its lending, from depository institutions, to primary dealers, to money-market funds and commercial paper issuers, to issuers of asset and mortgage backed securities, and very soon to private investment funds that invest in asset-backed securities. The Fed also periodically lends to support firms in, um, special circumstances, such as JPM/Bear and more recently AIG.
- On the liability side, the Federal Reserve has dramatically increased the degree to which it funds its activities with zero-maturity bank reserves, upon which it is now paying interest.
The Federal Funds rate is now effectively zero. We have hit the so-called “zero bound”.
There are many ways of trying to make sense of all this. One broad-brush view is that for all its radicalism, the Fed is just a thermostat. As the private sector delevered, the Fed had to lever up (McCulley). As foreign central banks shift their portfolio from agencies to Treasuries, the Fed has to shift its portfolio from Treasuries to agencies (Setser). More broadly, as the private financial sector has become unwilling to issue short-term, liquid liabilities against long-term illiquid assets, the Fed has had to do so to avoid a disorderly collapse of asset prices (see Kling). One might imagine a canoe carrying a wild beast (that would be our “rational” private markets). The beast writhes and bends, and the Fed must throw its weight in the opposite direction to force the tipping craft upright despite all the upheaval.
“Stability” — price stability, financial stability — are to my mind like “liquidity“: qualities widely considered virtues that are often actually vices. Nevertheless, the Fed pursues these goals, and in the immediate term, the thermostat analogy works pretty well. I don’t doubt that we’d have tipped into steep deflation, outright collapse of core financial institutions and an in-the-streets economic crisis without the Fed’s extraordinary measures. Had the Fed not played thermostat from 2001-2003, perhaps the beast would have been chastened by a mild dunking, and today’s heroics might have been less inevitable. But it was stability über alles then, when the bubble first tried to burst, and now we are where we are.
So, thanks to the Fed, things are better than they might have been. But I think there is as much to squirm about than to celebrate in how the Fed has comported itself.
On the asset side, as has been widely noted, the Fed has been taking on extraordinary levels of credit risk. We do not know against precisely what collateral the Fed is extending its trillions in loans, and how conservatively that collateral is being valued. We wish Bloomberg luck in their lawsuit. (ht CR, Alea).
We do know that the Fed is becoming ever more brazen about its risk-taking. When the Fed made a non-recourse loan in connection with the collapse of Bear Stearns, Chairman Bernanke was summoned by Congress to discuss the unusual move. A non-recourse loan is economically something between lending and purchasing. The Fed has the authority to lend to whomever it pleases under “unusual and exigent” circumstances, but it is not empowered to spend outright what are in the end US taxpayer dollars. Anticipating objections, Dr. Bernanke was very careful during the Bear debacle to ensure that since the taxpayer would “own” most of the downside, it would also capture the upside. Still, he was called to account for what was widely understood to be an unusual move of very questionable legality. But now, under TALF, the Fed will extend non-recourse loans to just about anyone. The Fed will assume much of the downside, while private investors capture the upside. In my view, it is not quite legal for the Fed to extend non-recourse loans, and the practice should be curtailed. Non-recourse loans should be approved by Congress and executed by the Treasury department. The recipients of loans from the Federal Reserve should be bankrupt before taxpayers take losses. Remember, the Fed is an an unelected technocracy “cognitively captured” (as Willem Buiter puts it) by the sector it purports to regulate. Yes, Congress sucks. But the Fed sucks too, and the rule of law does matter.
For all of that, it is the liability side of the Fed’s balance sheet that is most interesting. The Fed is financing its gargantuan balance sheet expansion by conjuring unsterilized bank reserves. A year ago, there were less than $18B of reserves deposited at the Fed. Today there are $800B. A year ago the Fed wasn’t paying interest on bank reserves. Today it is.
Interest rates are, for the moment, excruciatingly low. But a subsidy to the banking system, once put into place, will be quite hard to dislodge. So, let’s imagine that the Fed will pay interest on bank reserves in perpetuity, that it will pay such interest at or near the risk-free short-term interest rate, and that the expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet is more or less permanent. How large a subsidy to the banking system do the interest payments on reserves represent? Some problems are arithmetically challenging, but not this one. The present value of a perpetual stream of market-rate interest payments is precisely the amount of the principal. Therefore, the present value of the Fed’s de facto commitment to pay interest to banks on $800B of freshly created reserves is $800B. We fought and wailed and gnashed our teeth over potentially overpaying for TARP assets. Meanwhile, we are quietly allowing the Fed give away, as a direct, literal subsidy, more than the entire $700B that Paulson was allowed to play with. Note there is no question about this being an “investment”: The interest payments that the Fed is now making to banks on its suddenly expanded balance sheet are not loans. The banks owe taxpayers absolutely nothing in return for this windfall.
Now the bankers will object, as they always do. Bankers have forever cried that they are required to hold reserves at the Fed, that to be forced to lend their cash interest-free to the central bank is a hidden tax. I hope we all understand by now that the pronouncements of the banking industry are about as reliable as a monthly statement from Bernie Madoff. The reserves in the banking system are created by the Fed, and the quantity outstanding is now enough to cover banks’ regulatory and settlement needs many times over. This is not in any sense “their” money. It is money the Fed printed in order to pursue its own objectives. The banks have no right whatsoever to earn interest on this money, and absolutely do not merit an $800B subsidy. Further, the core rationale for paying interest on reserves has disappeared entirely. Originally, the Fed wanted the power to pay interest on reserves so that it could expand its balance sheet to pursue “stability” goals without stoking inflation by letting the short-term interest rate fall to zero. Now the short-term interest rate has fallen to zero, and the dominant concern is that we are in a “liquidity trap”. Yet we are still paying the banks 25 basis points to hold this freshly created money at the Fed. James Hamilton, towards the end of his piece, points out that this is counterproductive. I want to point out that it is also obscene.
Now I have to admit that, personally, I feel a bit caught out, bent out of shape, gypped, by the whole paying-interest-on-reserves thing. A long while back, I argued against giving the Fed this power, because I knew they would abuse it. During the TARP debate, I did a one-eighty. At least the Fed, I reasoned, would only lend taxpayer money. If we took losses, the institutions that shoved them onto us would go down first. Paulson clearly wanted to assume bank liabilities outright by overpaying for toxic assets. Having the Fed lend taxpayer money seemed like a better deal than letting Paulson give it away. The cost of paying interest on reserves, when I had written about it previously, was about only $11B in present value terms, insignificant in the grand scheme of things. (By the end of September, when I flipped, reserves had already grown to $100B… but I missed that.) Now we have the worst of all worlds: Not only has our corrupt, dysfunctional banking system won the small subsidy it has long lobbied for, but the size of that subsidy has grown by almost 8000%. The Fed is no longer lending only to financial institutions that would have to go under before taxpayers eat their losses. Under TALF, the Fed will lend to anyone who owns the kind of securities whose prices the Fed wants support. The borrowers will take the upside, while taxpayers eat the downside. (Does anybody know what kind of leverage the Fed will support under TALF? I’ve looked, but haven’t found.) The non-recourse lending that was extraordinary and barely legal when Bear went down is now the new normal, except that the Fed no longer bothers to ensure an upside for taxpayers. By institutionalizing non-recourse lending, the Fed has arrogated the power to do everything the original TARP would have done, except without the opportunity for people like me to write Congress in anger.
Despite all this, I am becoming rather Zen about the Federal Reserve lately. I have some sympathy: They are dancing to a tune that they no longer call, struggling to keep pace with an accelerating beat. The Bernanke Fed is clever and inventive, delightful as spectator sport. So many trillions of dollars have been spent or committed or guaranteed, that the amounts have gone meaningless. I think that the current financial system and the Fed itself are quite doomed, and I’m less inclined to get bent out of shape by the particular ordering of the death throes. There will be a great crisis. Hopefully it will only be a financial crisis. I’d prefer it to be an inflationary rather than a sharp deflationary crisis, both because I think that a great inflation would be less destructive, and because that’s the way my own portfolio tilts. So really, I should root for the Fed. Let the printing presses turn and the helicopters fly, but please don’t confiscate my gold.
Since the current Fed loves bold and unorthodox action, I thought I’d end this with a (sort of) constructive suggestion. As the composition of the monetary base changes from mostly currency in circulation to largely electronic reserves, the zero-bound on nominal interest rates can be made to disappear. How? Simple: Rather than paying interest on reserves, the Fed can tax them. If banks were taxed daily on their reserves, banks would compete to minimize their holdings, and interbank lending rates would go negative. With a high enough tax, banks could be made desperate to lend, even though in aggregate the banking system has no choice but to hold the reserves. Presumably, banks would pass costs to depositors by eliminating interest on deposits, increasing fees, and ceasing to offer term CDs. Money in the bank would go from what everyone wants to something nobody can afford to hold. People would strive to minimize transactional balances, and invest any savings in money markets or stocks or bonds, anything not subject to the tax. (This is similar in spirit to a suggestion by Arnold Kling.)
Of course there would be tricky consequences: Gresham’s law would kick in, as people would hoard physical cash to avoid the tax. Coins and bills would cease to be used for exchange, but would be held as stores of value. That would introduce some friction into small transactions: we’d end up using debit cards to buy candy bars, accelerating our transition to a cashless economy. But electronic money would be legal tender, and the appreciation of paper money would be no more relevant to the overall price level than the fact that older “wheat pennies” are worth much more than 1¢. With a sufficiently large electronic monetary base, there need be no zero-bound on nominal interest rates, and we can use “conventional” monetary policy to fight deflation by letting nominal rates go negative. I laugh in the maw of your liquidity trap.
FD: Long precious metals, short 30-yr Treasuries (youch!).