Monday, March 8, 2010

Federal Reserve Exit Watch: Part 8

Looking at the Federal Reserve statistics these days is rather boring. As has been reported over the past month or two, the Fed has gotten its balance sheet in position for the “great undoing.” And, now it is just waiting.

One can divide the Fed’s balance sheet into three components: the “regular” portion which is roughly equivalent to the asset side of the balance sheet of the Fed in the “good old days”; the portion of the balance sheet that consists of line items related to the “new” facilities created to combat the financial collapse; and the “liability” side of the balance sheet which includes Treasury deposits and reverse repos, the account the Fed has stated it will use in the “undoing” of the excess reserves it has injected into the banking system.

The “regular” portion of the Fed’s statement now represents over 90% of the assets of the central bank. Almost $2.0 trillion of these assets are in the form of securities that the Fed has purchased on the open market and holds outright. The only real movement here is in the Fed’s holding of mortgage-backed securities which, on March 3, 2010, amounted to slightly more than $1.0 trillion. The Fed has stated that this account will reach $1.25 trillion by the end of March.

The Federal Reserve has added, net, $175 billion of the mortgage-backed securities to its portfolio over the last 13-week period, roughly $70 billion in the last four weeks.

In terms of the “new” facilities, the Fed is letting these items run off as the assets run off, are written off, or are sold. Over the last 13 weeks, since December 2, 2009, these accounts have declined by slightly more than $100 billion. Over the past month, since February 4, 2010, they have declined by $30 billion.

Overall, therefore, the Federal Reserve has supplied roughly $76 billion to the building of reserve funds over the last 13 weeks and slightly more than $30 billion over the last 4 weeks. Rather a non-event if you ask me.

In terms of factors absorbing reserve funds, the interesting item here is the Supplementary Financing Account of the United States Treasury. I wrote about this account on February 24, 2010 for it seems to be something that the Fed/Treasury is also planning to use during the “undoing”. For more on this see my blog post:

What has happened in this account is that it has been increasing. It reached a low early this year at $5.0 billion, as the Congress had to approve an increase in the federal debt limit. Since February 4, 2010 this account has increased by $20.0 billion. The Federal Reserve announced that an agreement had been reached with the Treasury Department that the Fed will borrow $200 billion from the Treasury and leave the cash on deposit at the central bank. As explained in my post, this borrowing will be used by the Fed to help it “undo” excess reserves in the banking system. It seems as if the Fed is starting to build up this facility slowly so as not to be disruptive to the banking system.

If we combine all the factors supplying reserve funds to the banking system and factors absorbing funds from the banking system we find that commercial bank’s Reserve Balances with Federal Reserve Banks increased by roughly $70 billion in the last four weeks and over the last 13 weeks: thus, very little changed in the banking system over the last quarter of a year.

If we look at the statistics from the banking system itself, we see that excess reserves in the banking system rose by about $110 billion.

What the Fed did, as it has for an extended period of time now, went directly into the excess reserves of the banking system. Commercial banks, as a whole, are just sitting on their hands and doing nothing. This allows the Fed to do all its repositioning in order to prepare for the “great undoing” without throwing any more uncertainty into financial markets.

The Federal Reserve is still “sitting on the fence”. Its dilemma is that the banking system still remains extremely week…except, of course, for the big banks. For more on this see two of my recent posts: “The Struggles Continue for Commercial Banks”,, and, “The Banking System Continues to Shrink”, The Fed cannot move too fast to remove excess reserves from the banking system for fear that this “undoing” may result in many more bank failures among the small- to medium-sized banks.

Of course, the economy remains weak and the Fed has used this excuse for not removing reserves from the banking system and raising short-term interest rates. This may be a cover for their real concern over the systemic weakness of the small- and medium-sized banks in the United States.

On the other side there is the continuing fear over the possibility that sooner or later the excess reserves in the banking system will turn into bank loans which will result in an expansion of the money stock measures which will result in a worsening of inflation. With over $1.1 trillion in excess reserves in a banking system that used to carry less than $100 billion in excess reserves there is substantial doubt that the Fed can smoothly remove all of these reserves thereby preventing possible inflation or even hyperinflation. Nothing like this has ever been experienced in history before.

So, we sit and wait.

The good news is that things within the banking system seem quiet now. The FDIC continues to close banks without major disruptions to banking markets or local economies. The focus of financial markets seems to be on Greece, Spain, Italy, the Euro, and California, New York and other political entities. That is good for the banking system!

Some have pointed to a potential problem arising from the sale of assets recently conducted by the FDIC. The argument is that now that these assets have a price, will other banks have to “mark-to-market” similar assets that they carry on their balance sheet? And, if they have to mark these assets to market, will this speed up the number of banks actually failing or force banks that seem to be doing OK into insolvency?

In the circumstances we now find ourselves, boring is good! Let’s hope it stays boring. Or hope that the situation becomes even more boring.

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