Sunday, July 11, 2010

Federal Reserve Exit Watch: Part 12

This is the twelfth edition of the Federal Reserve Exit Watch. The first edition was posted in August 2009. The Great Recession, many contend, ended in July 2009 and, at that time, the major task of the Federal Reserve System appeared to be the task of reducing, as judiciously as possible, the massive amount of reserves that the central bank had put into the banking system to combat the threat that the Great Recession might turn into a second Great Depression.

On July 8, 2009 on the Fed’s balance sheet, total factors supplying reserve funds to the banking system totaled over $2.0 trillion, up from around $0.9 trillion one year earlier. It was September of 2008 when the liquidity crisis hit the financial system in the United States which resulted in the rapid injection of funds into the banking system to protect the system from a series of systemic failures. In July 2009, excess reserves in the banking system average around $750 billion.

The concern at that time was that all of these excess reserves in the banking system would eventually end up in the money stock and this would result in inflationary pressures threatening significant increases in consumer and asset prices.

One year later on July 7, 2010, total factors supplying funds to the banking system amounted to about $2.4 trillion. Excess reserves in the banking system totaled more the $1.0 trillion. Obviously, the Federal Reserve System did not remove reserves from the banking system during the past twelve months.

The reason given for not removing reserves from the banking system is that the economy has remained excessively weak: and the Federal Reserve will not start removing reserves from the banking system until the economy seems to be picking up momentum.

My belief has been that the health of the smaller banks in the banking system, those 8,000 or so banks that are smaller than the 25 largest banks, is still not good and the Fed will not begin to remove reserves from the banking system until these non-big banks get in much better shape. With about one in eight banks in the United States on the problem bank list of the FDIC, the banking system is a long ways from being healthy.

And, the Fed has promised that it will continue to keep its target interest rate close to zero “for an extended period” of time. That is, banks should not be afraid of rising short term interest rates any time soon. Many market analysts don’t expect short term interest rates to begin rising until after the start of 2011.

One crucial thing to understand about the operations of the Federal Reserve over the past 12 months is that the injection of funds into the banking system through the fall of 2008 and into the summer of 2009 consisted primarily of “innovative” efforts by the central bank to provide liquidity to specific parts of the money and capital markets. The reserves injected into the financial system were not anything like the classical operations of a central bank which mainly came from the sale or purchase of U. S. Treasury securities in the open market and discount window borrowings from the district Federal Reserve banks.

A major part of the exit strategy of the Fed related to the reduction in these “special” sources of funds and moving back into more traditional forms of central bank operations. Therefore, in the initial stages of the Fed’s exit strategy, efforts were directed at seeing the “special” sources of reserves decline as their needs receded and replacing the reduction in reserves with the purchase of securities from the open market.

The twist in this effort was that the Fed focused, not on the purchase of traditional source of open market securities, U. S. Treasury issues, but on acquiring a lot of mortgage-backed securities, up to $1.250 trillion worth, in order to provide support for the mortgage and housing markets, and on acquiring Federal Agency issues. On July 8, 2009, mortgage-backed securities on the books of the Federal Reserve System totaled about $462 billion. On July 9, 2010, this total reached $1.1 trillion. Federal Agency issues rose from around $98 billion on the earlier date to $165 billion on the latter date. U. S. Treasury securities rose as well, but only by about $104 billion.

Thus, in this 12-month period, total factors supplying reserve balances rose by $341 billion, and the amount of securities the Federal Reserve bought outright rose by $826 billion. The portfolio purchases replaced a lot of the “special” sources of funds supplied to the banking system by the Fed over the past ten months. This was an important part of the Fed’s exit strategy.

So, in the past 12-month period, the Fed actually increased the amount of excess reserves in the banking system. However, in the last 13-week period, excess reserves have actually fallen slightly. One could strongly argue that the decline in excess reserves has come more from operating factors rather than from any overt efforts to reduce bank reserves.

One cause for the reduction in excess reserves was the increase in U. S. Treasury deposits at the Federal Reserve in the Supplementary Financing Account. This is an account set up by the Treasury Department to specifically help the Fed drain reserves from the banking system. (See my post of April 19, 2010, “The Fed’s New Exit Strategy”, http://seekingalpha.com/article/199444-the-fed-s-new-exit-strategy.) During the past 13-week period this account rose by $50 billion, helping to bring down bank reserves. Other operating factors that drained reserves from the banking system was a $12 billion increase in currency in circulation. Also, reducing reserves was a decline in central bank liquidity swaps that fell by about $8 billion during this time period.

Over the past thirteen weeks, these factors draining reserves from the banking system was offset by about $50 billion in Fed acquisitions of mortgage-backed securities.

The net effect of all factors affecting reserve balances: a $50 billion decline in excess reserves.

Over the past four weeks Federal Reserve actions have remained relatively minor. Excess reserves in the banking system fell by about $19 billion, but this primarily resulted from operating transactions like the increase in currency in circulation and a rise in U. S. Treasury balances in the Treasury’s general account which is usually connected with tax receipts. So the last 4-week period can be considered to be uneventful.

One other thing we need to check in this analysis is the behavior of the M1 and M2 measures of the money stock. All that can be said here is that the growth rate of these two measures continues to be modest and actual growth rates have been achieved by people and businesses re-arranging assets rather than from commercial banks making loans. The year-over-year rate of growth of the M1 measure in June was about 6% while the M2 measure rose by only 1.6%.

Note that the non-M1 component of M2 grew by only 0.6% during this time period. This was because, small denomination time deposits at financial institutions have fallen by more than 22% over this time period and Retail Money Funds have dropped by more than 25%. All of these funds seem to have gone into demand deposits, other checkable deposits, and money market deposits, part of M1. This, as I have written before, is not a sign of health in the economy because people continue to transfer funds out of interest-bearing accounts and into forms of money that can be used for spending. This is a sign of desperation not of an improving economy.

A consequence of this has been that the required reserves at commercial banks have continued to rise so that the Federal Reserve must increase the total reserves in the banking system so as to keep excess reserves constant.

One other measure reflecting this shift in assets: monies in Institutional Money Funds have also fallen by 25% year-over-year.

The conclusion to this Exit Watch report is that the Federal Reserve HAS NOT YET started taking reserves from the banking system. That is, over the past year the Fed has not, if fact, exited. And, people and businesses in the aggregate still need to reduce their portfolios of invested funds in order to have money available for spending on their daily needs.