Tuesday, December 7, 2010

America Continues to "Go Liquid"

The monetary story of the “Great Recession” is that the two most watched measures of the money stock, M1 and M2, have continued to grow, year-over-year, throughout the downturn and slow recovery. The problem with this is that the money stock measures have grown because Americans have almost continuously been moving their funds from less liquid assets into assets that can be used for transactions purposes.

In other words, Americans have wanted their assets where they can immediately spend them.

This is very obvious when we compare the year-over-year growth rates of the M1 and M2 money stock measures. For the last seven months, M1 growth has averaged around 6% (down from around a 13% average for the previous year). The M2 growth rate has been around 2.5% for the same time period (down from about 6% for the previous year).

The non-M1 component of M2 has grown at about 1.5% for the past seven months, much slower than the rate at which M1 grew over this same time period. The average growth of this measure for the previous twelve months was hardly different from zero.

This continued relative movement into “transaction accounts” is not a positive signal that the economic recovery will pick up soon. Americans still seem to be putting their funds into currency and checkable deposits because they need “ready” cash to spend on necessities. They are not saving for a rainy day for, to these people, the rainy days are here.

Another indication of the desire of Americans to have money available for spending is the continued high growth rates in the currency component of the money stock. Through much of the 2000s up until September 2008, the year-over-year rate of growth of the currency component of the money stock rose by less than 2.0%. For much of the time it was below 1.0%.

Beginning in September 2008, more and more Americans wanted cash on hand. At one point, the year-over-year rate of growth of currency rose to about 12.0%. Although the demand for currency has dropped off, the year-over-year rate of growth was in excess of 5.0% in October 2010 and around 6.0% in November 2010. This is another indication of the need for people to have money “ready-to-spend.”

This movement of funds is also reflected in the numbers for bank reserves. Total reserves in the banking system have actually declined, year-over-year, in the past two months. In November, total reserves were actually down by about 9.0%, year-over-year.(In the first quarter of 2010, total reserves were up 120.0%!)

Required reserves in the banking system, however, were actually up during this two month period. In November, required reserves showed a year-over-year increase of about 5.0%. This shows how the deposits at financial institutions have moved from time and savings accounts to checkable deposits that have higher reserve requirements.

As a consequence of this shift, excess reserves at commercial banks have declined slightly over the past several months. This decline has not been initiated by the Federal Reserve, but has resulted from the shift in deposits within the commercial banking system.

The Federal Reserve was highly criticized for the way it reacted to the period known as the Great Depression. As Milton Friedman showed, at one time, the Federal Reserve had allowed the M2 money stock to decline by about one-third. He attributed the Great Depression to the fact that the monetary authorities allowed the money stock to decline by such a massive amount.

The year-over-year growth rate of the M2 money stock measure has never dropped below zero over the past four years. This can be seen in the accompanying chart. In late 2008, this growth rate accelerated as people moved money into currency and checkable deposits. You can see the drop off as the most dramatic movements resided. The important thing, however, is that the growth rate of the M2 money stock measure never turned negative.

What are we currently watching for in these measures of money stock and reserve growth?

We are interested in an acceleration of economic growth. This acceleration will not take place until two things happen in the money stock measures. First, the movement of funds from assets that serve as a “temporary abode of purchasing power” (a term coined by Milton Friedman) to checkable deposits must be reversed. The movement from these interest bearing assets to checkable deposits indicates the weaknesses that exist on balance sheets and the need to keep funds available for current spending.

Second, commercial banks must begin making loans again. Banks, in the aggregate, still do not seem to be too willing to make loans and expand business and consumer credit. (See http://seekingalpha.com/article/235487-the-banking-system-seems-to-be-dividing-large-vs-small-commercial-banks.) Until this starts to happen we will not see the checkable deposits at commercial banks beginning to rise again for reasons other than that people want to hold more checkable balances.

And, if time and savings accounts do not stabilize and begin to increase and banks do not start increasing their lending, the year-over-year rate of growth in the M2 measure of the money stock will continue to remain lethargic. This will be one indicator that the economy is not picking up steam.

If consumers, businesses, and banks do not start to change their behavior I cannot be optimistic about the success of the Fed’s efforts at quantitative easing, i. e., QE2 (see post of December 6, “Federal Reserve QE2 Watch: Part 1”: http://seekingalpha.com/article/240224-qe2-shifted-mortgage-backed-securities-to-treasury-securities).

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