Interest continues to grow about how the Federal Reserve is going to remove all of the reserves that it has injected into the banking system. The articles are getting personal now. See, for example, the article in the Wall Street Journal this morning that actually brings us a name, Brian Sack, who is the head of the markets group at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the person responsible for developing the “exit strategy” that the Fed will use to remove the $1.0 trillion, more or less, excess reserves that reside on the balance sheets of the country’s commercial banks. (“Brian Sack Engineers Big Moves at Fed,” http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125720947716624249.html#mod=todays_us_money_and_investing.)
The basic problem facing the Federal Reserve is that the Fed has pushed an enormous amount of funds into the banking system and, at some time, is going to have to remove those reserves so as to avoid the possibility of stimulating a massive amount of inflation in the United States. Thus, the Fed needs to go back to where it was once, or, at least, somewhere around there.
The first question that arises is exactly what date do we go back to? Do we go back to the week before the week of September 15, 2008 when the financial collapse became paramount? Or, do we go back to the middle of December 2007 when the Bear Sterns deal was cut? Around this latter date we get the creation of the Term Auction Facility (TAF) that was a first innovation of the Fed to meet the financial crisis that was in its early stages. Let’s use both dates to see if there is any substantial difference between the two.
I have made three, rough calculations about the “excess” funds that the Fed needs to remove from the banking system if we are to get back to a Fed balance sheet that looks something like either the ones that existed on either December 19, 2007 or the September 10, 2008. I use the actual Wednesday data and not the averages of daily figures for the banking week ending on those dates.
The three rough numbers are $1.3 trillion to get back to the balance sheet of the earlier date and $1.1 trillion to get back to 2008 date. My third estimate is generated by assuming that the Federal Reserve balance sheet would grow from December 19, 2007, at a (generous) 10% annual rate up to the current reported figure for October 28, 2009. This third figure is $1.1 trillion. All these numbers are rounded off so as to produce general targets so that we have a rough idea of the magnitude of the task.
So, given these estimate the Federal Reserve needs to remove approximately $1.1 to $1.3 trillion from its balance sheet.
Now, there are two parts to the removal of these funds from the balance sheet. The first has to do with very specific responses to the crisis, either in terms of particular markets or in terms of particular institutions. In terms of particular institutions, I am referring to the “line items” on the balance sheet that relate to the Bear Sterns and the AIG deals. In terms of particular markets, I am referring to the facilities set up for Primary Dealers and Broker-Dealers, Commercial Paper Funding, Money Market liquidity funding, Central Bank liquidity swaps and so forth.
The current strategy of the Federal Reserve with respect to these specific “line items” is to let the dollar amounts decline at their own speed as the need for them dissipates or as the assets are worked off. This strategy is already reflected in the balance sheet results examined in my series on the Federal Reserve Exit Watch: see http://seekingalpha.com/article/167300-federal-reserve-exit-watch-part-3, and, http://seekingalpha.com/article/162274-federal-reserve-exit-watch-part-2.
The total of these accounts, as of October 28, 2009, is $412 billion. These accounts seem to be declining on a regular basis and there is really little or nothing that the Fed can do to speed this decline along. In fact, you want these accounts to be reduced at their own pace because as the need for the assistance goes away, the accounts will fall to zero. True, some of the accounts could remain on the books for an extended period of time, but these will be minor relative to the whole balance sheet.
If you remove these numbers from the shrinkage that needs to take place on the Federal Reserve balance sheet you are left with numbers in the $700 to $900 billion range. The total of Mortgage-Backed securities on the balance sheet as of October 28, 2009 is $774 billion. Federal Agency securities totaled $142 billion on that date. Thus, the “active” strategy for reducing the Fed’s balance sheet relates to these specific security portfolios.
This is where the proposed program called “reverse repos” comes into the picture. Obviously, the Fed cannot just dump $774 billion in mortgage-backed securities on the financial markets. (There is even some concern that Congress may want the Federal Reserve to hold onto a large portion of these securities so as to continue to support housing in the United States. That, however, raises other issues.)
Furthermore, the Federal Reserve is very cognizant of the events of 1937. The United States economy had recovered from the Great Depression (or Great Contraction) and was experiencing relatively satisfactory growth at that time. The commercial banking system, however, was holding onto a large amount of excess reserves (not unlike the current situation). In order to tighter their control over credit, the Federal Reserve, in all its wisdom, raised reserve requirements.
The result was disastrous! The bankers wanted those excess reserves and the removal of them caused the banking system to contract even more and the amount of credit and money in the economy contracted as well. The 1937-1938 depression was the result.
The Federal Reserve does not want to duplicate such a mistake. Consequently, they are going to try and “ease” the funds out, not “yank” them out. This, seemingly, is the reason why the Fed is looking at the “reverse repos’ program as an alternative. Because “reverse repos” would represent the “temporary” removal of funds from the banking system and because they would be undertaken through market transactions, the Fed would not get “ahead of the curve” in removing reserves from the banks. That way, they would constantly be “in the market” and be able to determine if there was any resistance to the removal of funds. In that way, they could proceed incrementally toward selling the securities and then, as the markets allowed, actually sell them outright from their securities portfolio.
The Federal Reserve is in a delicate position. They know that they will need, at some time, to remove the excess reserves from the banking system. However, they don’t want to move too fast and create another financial crisis, as happened in 1937. But, the Fed knows that at some time it is going to have to remove the excess reserves as quickly as it can.
Let me repeat, the Federal Reserve is in a delicate position! In talking about “exit strategies” in the public domain, Fed officials hope to keep the financial community informed and prepared for what might be done and at the pace it at which it will be done.