Monday, April 19, 2010

The New Way for the Fed to "Exit"?

Has the Federal Reserve begun its exit strategy? Has the Fed already started the “Great Undoing”? It has, but the new exit movement is not taking place in open market operations…or in repurchase agreements. It is occurring with the help of the Treasury Department. Let’s look at the line item on the Fed’s balance sheet titled “U. S. Treasury, supplementary financing account”.

The Federal Reserve defines the U. S. Treasury, supplementary financing account in this way:

“U.S. Treasury, supplementary financing account: With the dramatic expansion of the Federal Reserve's liquidity facilities, the Treasury agreed to establish the Supplementary Financing Program with the Federal Reserve. Under the Supplementary Financing Program, the Treasury issues debt and places the proceeds in the Supplementary Financing Account. The effect of the account is to drain balances from the deposits of depository institutions, helping to offset, somewhat, the rapid rise in balances that resulted from the various Federal Reserve liquidity facilities.”

Thus, this account is a deposit facility of the Federal Reserve similar to the U. S. Treasury, general account, the account that the Treasury conducts its general business from. Thus, it is a factor “absorbing reserve funds”, or, in other words, placing funds in this account removes reserves from the banking system. Hence, it contributes to the “exit” of the Fed from its inflated balance sheet.

I posted a note on this account on February 24, 2010 titled “The Treasury’s Latest Maneuver With the Fed”: In that note I described what was going on in the following way: “On September 17, 2008, the Treasury Department announced something called the ‘Supplementary Financing Program.’ Under this program the Treasury was to issue marketable debt and deposit the proceeds in an account that would be separate from the General Account of the Treasury at the Fed.

In September 2008, this account averaged almost $80 billion. In November 2008 it was above $500 billion. The account dropped to just below $200 billion in January 2009 and remained around that level into September 2009. The figure drops precipitously from there as the issue about the debt limit of the Federal Government had to be dealt with. In January and February 2010, the account averaged just $5 billion.

Now that the Congress has raised the debt limit on the government, the plan has been revived.

The original purpose of the Supplemental Financing Account was to get cash into the hands of those that needed funds and not have to go through the market system which would take more time and, perhaps, a greater amount of trading, to meet the peak liquidity demands in the financial crisis. That is, the Treasury had cash to spend out of this account that could go directly to those that needed the stimulus spending. This program allowed the Treasury to issue securities without going directly to the market and perhaps keeping interest rates from falling.

In the present case, the Treasury says that it is going to keep the cash proceeds from the borrowing on deposit at the Federal Reserve. If this is true, then it seems that what the arrangement is providing is more Treasury securities to the Fed to be used as the central bank reduces the amount of excess reserves in the banking system.”

In recent weeks a lot of activity has taken place in this account. As stated in the post on February 24, 2010, there were $5 billion on deposit in this account.

On March 3, this balance was just under $25 billion. The balance rose to about $50 billion on March 10, around $75 billion on March 17, and near $100 billion on March 24. Again it rose to about $125 billion on April 1, $150 billion on April 8, and $175 billion on April 15.

Obviously, the plan is for this account to increase by $25 billion every week until the Treasury reaches its stated goal of $200 billion in this supplemental financing account.

What impact has this had on bank reserves?

Well, on February 24, factors, other than reserve balances, absorbing reserve funds totaled $1.082 trillion. On April 14, this total was $1.320 trillion, an increase of $238 billion. Reserve balances at Federal Reserve banks declined from $1.246 trillion on February 24 to $1.061 trillion on April 14, a fall of $185 billion.

The latest information we have on excess reserves in the banking system indicates that for the two banking weeks ending April 7, excess reserves averaged about $1.094 trillion, a decline of about $100 billion from the average that existed for the two banking weeks ending February 24 of $1.092 trillion.

Thus, this “maneuver” accomplishes two things. First, it is connected with the issuance of Treasury debt to finance the huge budget deficits of the government. Second, the proceeds of the debt issuance do not stay in the banking system, but are withdrawn and put on deposit at the Federal Reserve so that excess reserves are drained from the banking system.

Therefore, the Federal Reserve, with the help of the Treasury Department, has begun to exit!

One could argue that these reserves are coming out of the banking system willingly. That is, the big concern associated with the “Great Undoing” is that the Fed would take reserves out of the banking system that the commercial banks really wanted to “hang onto.” If this were to take place we might get a replay of the 1937 actions of the Federal Reserve when it took excess reserves out of the banking system that the banks wanted to hold onto which resulted in the contraction of bank lending contributing to the 1937-38 depression.

Removing reserves in this way, with the help of the Treasury, might be a benign way to begin the “undoing” which can then be followed up by more traditional central bank operations using repurchase agreements and outright sales of securities. Also, it takes pressure off the Fed in that open market operations could just focus on the Fed’s holdings of U. S. Treasury securities leaving the Fed’s portfolio of mortgage-backed securities and Federal Agency securities free to just decline by attrition. The Fed has only about $777 billion in Treasury securities in its portfolio and, depending upon how much it needs to reduce the excess reserves in the banking system, would probably not want to be forced to use other other parts of its portfolio in removing these reserves.

So, we observe another financial innovation on the part of the government. Niall Ferguson has argued that, historically, governments have been the biggest innovator when it comes to finance. The reason? Governments have been the largest issuers of debt and have had to be very creative in finding new ways to place debt and to manage debt. Certainly in the last fifty years, governments have shown themselves very adept at coming up with new ways to spend money…and to finance this spending.

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