Monday, February 8, 2010

"Fed to Bare Tightening Plan"

I would recommend reading the article by Jon Hilsenrath with the title “Fed to Bare Tightening Plan” which appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal February 8. ( In this article Hilsenrath discusses the issues and possible actions the Fed may face in “credit tightening…once the Fed decides the economy has recovered sufficiently.” This is a good follow-up piece to my post of February 7 titled, “Everything is in Place: Federal Reserve Exit Watch Part 7.” (

The problem facing the Fed?

Hilsenrath lays it out: in the financial crisis “the Fed took extraordinary action to prevent an even deeper recession— pushing short-term interest rates to zero and printing trillions of dollars to lower long-term rates. Extricating itself from these actions will require both skill and luck: If the Fed moves too fast, it could provoke a new economic downturn; if it waits too long, it could unleash inflation, and if it moves clumsily it could unsettle markets in ways that disrupt the nascent economic recovery.”

This week in testimony before the House Financial Services Committee, Chairman Bernanke is expected to begin laying out a blueprint of how the Fed expects to undo this “extraordinary action.”

The Fed has a major new tool to use in this “undoing”. This tool is something called “interest on excess reserves” which the Congress gave the central bank in October 2008. In essence, this is interest paid for doing nothing! Right now, just for holding the $1.1 trillion in excess reserves the Federal Reserve has freely given the banking system, the banks receive the interest rate of 0.25%, which is above the effective Federal Funds rate that has been around 12 basis points for a very long time.

The Federal Reserve doesn’t want the banking system to lend out this $1.1 trillion so the idea is, when the Fed is ready to start its “undoing”, it will raise the interest rate paid on excess reserves. This would, hopefully, make it more desirable for the banks to retain the excess reserves than to lend them out to businesses or consumers, thereby inflating credit and the various measures of the money stock.

In essence, the Fed has printed $1.1 trillion in bank reserves and it will subsidize the banking system whatever it takes to keep them from becoming too aggressive in their lending.

Let’s see…the government wants the banks to begin lending again…but, the Fed doesn’t want them to be lending.

Makes a lot of sense!

As Randy Quaid stated in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” this is “the gift that keeps on giving.” Suppose I give you $1.1 trillion dollars and then let me pay you 25 basis points, 50 basis points, or whatever it takes for you not to go out and use that $1.1 trillion in any other way. Sounds like a pretty good deal. But, as we know, the Fed has lots and lots of profits from which it can pay this interest.

What is it we are doing for Main Street amongst all the deals we are giving Wall Street?

What about the Fed’s portfolio of securities purchased outright? As of Wednesday, February 3 the total portfolio amounted to $1,912 billion. Of this total, $777 billion were in U. S. Treasury securities. In the near future, this account will bear the burden of asset sales to reduce bank liquidity. Initially, the proposed methodology to achieve these sales is through “reverse repurchase agreements” or “reverse repos.” This is discussed in my post mentioned above.

But, the Fed hopes to have$1.25 trillion in mortgage-backed securities on its balance sheet by March 2010. Last Wednesday, it held $970 billion in its portfolio. It seems as if these securities are NOT going to be available for sale for a while because of the precariousness of the mortgage market and the housing market. The Fed certainly doesn’t want to do anything either in terms of dramatically higher interest rates or lack of liquidity in the mortgage market to disturb a recovery in housing. Don’t count on these securities being used to reduce the $1.1 trillion in excess reserves in the early stages of Fed tightening.

The Fed also has $165 billion in Federal Agency debt securities. Don’t expect these securities to be an active part in the Fed’s “undoing.”

Thus, it seems as if the prescription for the “undoing” is to sell U. S. Treasury securities, first through “reverse repos” and then through outright sales if the banks are congenial with a reduction in reserves and to pay interest on excess reserves to keep banks from lending out their “excess reserves” should loan demand increase or if the banks are not congenial with a reduction in reserves.

How much comfort does this “blueprint” give me?

Not a whole lot!

The Greenspan/Bernanke Fed gave us excessively low interest rates from late 2001 into 2005 (the effective Federal Funds rate was below 2.00% for all of this time period); “measured” rate increases ran into 2006 (Hilsenrath introduces one of the problems with this approach in his article. Rate increases that are “too” predictable can “fuel a borrowing boom” because of the predictability of the rises.); Bernanke publically claimed that there were no problems in the housing market and in subprime mortgage lending during this time period; the Bernanke Fed failed to foresee the economic downturn which began in 2007, but also had no clue to its potential severity; and, to combat the financial crisis, the Bernanke Fed followed one rule and that was to throw everything it could into the financial markets so as to err on the side of providing too much liquidity.

I see very little understanding of financial markets in this performance and no exhibition of “touch” in these actions. It does not leave me with a great deal of confidence that the “undoing” will proceed smoothly. My guess right now is that the Fed will wait too long to begin the “tightening” and that will put them into a world in which none of the actions that are available to them are desirable…much like the fiscal policy stance of the U. S. government right now. This is a problem, however, that one experiences because of the excesses in the past.

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