Looking at the Federal Reserve figures for Wednesday, February 3, 2010, one could argue that just about everything seems to be in place for the Fed to execute its exit plan. The Fed will still purchase some more Mortgage-backed securities and there are some other residuals left from the world financial crisis that still remain, but these are now relatively minor parts of the picture.
On Wednesday, February 3, 2010, the Total Factors Supplying Reserves to the banking system totaled $2,231.3 billion or a little more than $2.2 trillion. The Securities held outright by the Federal Reserve amounted to $1,911.6 billion or approximately 85.7% of the total factors supplying reserves.
To put these numbers in perspective, on Wednesday, December 5, 2007, Total Factors Supplying Reserves to the banking system equaled $920.4 billion and Securities held outright amounted to $779.7 billion or 84.7%. The Fed did have outstanding $46.5 billion in repurchase agreements which, if included, made about 89.8% of their balance sheet related to securities.
On February 3, 2010,the Federal Reserve had no repurchase agreements outstanding.
I go back to December 2007 because one has to go back that far to get to a Fed balance sheet that does not include “special” line items that were constructed to combat the financial crisis. In December 2007, the Term Auction Facility (TAF) was initiated. During the time the TAF existed total funds supplied through this facility reached several hundred billion dollars. On Wednesday February 3, 2010, funds supplied to the banking industry through the TAF were only $39 billion, down $37.4 billion over the past four weeks and down by $101 billion in the last 13-week period.
In preparing to remove excessive amounts of reserves from the banking system the Federal Reserve has been allowing the “special” facilities that have supplied reserves to banks to “run off” while the Fed has replaced these funds with open market purchases.
Another area in which this has taken place has been in central bank liquidity swaps. This facility was also started in December 2007. At one time central bank liquidity swaps were in the hundreds of billions of dollars. On Wednesday, February 3, swaps totaled $100 million.
In the last four weeks and the last 13-weeks, the other items on the Federal Reserve statement did not change dramatically. To me what I have presented in the last three paragraphs pretty well sums up what the Fed has been doing to get itself ready to begin removing excess reserves from the banking system…when it decides it is time to do so.
Over the past 13-week period, reserves have been removed from the banking system by a reduction in funds available through the TAF ($101 billion) and through a decline in central bank liquidity swaps ($32 billion) or a total of $133 billion.
During this time, the Federal Reserve has purchased open-market securities of $214 billion. Thus, total factors supplying reserves during this time rose by $81 billion from these factors.
Over the past 4-week period, the TAF has been reduced by $38 billion and central bank liquidity swaps declined by $10 billion or a total of $48 billion.
Federal Reserve purchases of open market securities totaled $66 billion. Total factors supplying reserves from these factors rose by roughly $18 billion.
I have not discussed the factors that have been absorbing bank reserves over the past 4-week and 13-week periods because they have been impacted by some wide swings in the deposits of the federal government, much of which are technical in nature. And, these factors should not play any important role in how the Fed removes reserves from the banking system.
The bottom line in this discussion is that it seems to me that the Fed has basically eliminated or reduced most of the facilities that it created over the past two years that can have a major impact on the creation or destruction of bank reserves. The two major facilities are, of course, the TAF and central bank liquidity swaps.
The Federal Reserve now has one thing to work with in withdrawing reserves from the banking system: its portfolio of open-market securities. The Fed’s balance sheet is composed of roughly 85% open-market securities held outright. (A shown above, as a percentage of the balance sheet this is not too far off what the composition of the balance sheet was in early December 2007.)
The Fed has already had some recent test runs using “Reverse Repurchase Agreements” (reverse repos), or, selling securities to securities dealers under an agreement to repurchase. The idea here is to test the market’s reception to the withdrawal of funds from the banking system. Since the reverse repos are only temporary, the funds withdrawn will be put right back into the system avoiding any disruption that might be caused by the sale of the securities.
In this way, the Fed can “feel” its way toward withdrawing the excess reserves from the banking system. On one side is the question about is how the Fed will react to a pickup in bank lending and a rapid rise in the growth rates of the money stock. On the other side, the Fed wants to avoid a catastrophe like the 1937-1938 period in which reserve requirements were raised at a time when banks seemed to have had a lot of “excess reserves” on their hands, but really wanted to keep excess reserves on their balance sheets.
Bernanke, a historian of the Great Depression knows this lesson all too well. That is why a suggestion like that of Andy Kessler, a former hedge fund manager, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal last Thursday morning, “Bernanke’s Exit Strategy: Tighten Reserve Requirements” (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB20001424052748703699204575017462822204340.html#mod=todays_us_opinion) seems a bit absurd.
My belief is that Mr. Bernanke and the Fed are going to, at least initially, take things slow. When they begin to exit they are going to engage in some reverse repos and see how the banking system reacts. Then they will do some more…and then some more. The strategy: basically stepping out into the river to see how deep the water is. And, then stepping out a little further…and then a little further. The hope is to avoid falling in over their head, causing a further contraction in the banking system that would lead to another financial crisis.
In doing this the Fed keeps the reserves in the banking system if the economy remains slow or if the banking system wants to hold onto the funds. However, in this plan they start to remove the reserves, testing the market all along the way, so as not to pull the reserves out too quickly.
The problem is on the “up-side”. If bank lending does start to accelerate then the banks will want those “excess reserves” for loans. And, the funds are already on their balance sheets. In such a case the questions will be “How fast will the Fed sell the securities on its balance sheet?” and “How high will the Fed drive up interest rates in order to avoid a credit inflation from breaking out in the United States?”
As we have seen in other periods of time, we can simultaneously be in a period of economic stagnation and still experience a credit inflation. Bernanke has not earned his “star” yet! He still has $1.1 trillion of EXCESS RESERVES in the banking system that must be removed.