Friday, March 4, 2011

Federal Reserve QE2 Watch: Part 4.0

The Federal Reserve continues to pump funds into the banking system. Reserve balances at Federal Reserve banks reached $1.3 trillion on March 2, 2011. This is up from $1.1 trillion on
February 2 and up from $1.0 trillion on December 29, 2010.

These balances serve as a relatively good proxy for the excess reserves in the banking system which averaged $1.2 trillion over the two-week period ending February 23, 2011.

As we have reported before, there are two drivers of this increase in bank reserves. The first, connected with the Fed’s program of quantitative easy, is the acquisition of United State Treasury securities.

Over the past four weeks the Federal Reserve has added almost $100 billion to its portfolio of Treasury securities. Only about $18 billion of these purchases were offset by maturing Federal Agency issues and mortgage-backed securities.

Since the end of last year, the Fed has added $220 billion to its Treasury security portfolio. In this case the Fed was replacing a $48 billion decline in the other securities that were maturing.

And, in the past 13-week period, Almost $320 billion were added to the Treasury portfolio, replacing about $80 billion in maturing Agency issues and mortgage-backed securities.

The second driver has been the action surrounding Treasury deposits with Federal Reserve banks. Since these deposits are a liability of the Fed, a reduction in these deposits increases reserves in the banking system. There are two important accounts here, the Treasury’s General Account and the Treasury’s Supplementary Financing Account.

The Supplementary Financing Account has been used for monetary purposes and in the current case, the Treasury has reduced the funds in this account by $100 billion. All of this reduction came in February.

The Treasury’s General Account is used in conjunction with Treasury Tax and Loan accounts at commercial banks and is the account that the Treasury writes checks on. Generally tax monies are collected in the Tax and Loan accounts and then are drawn into the Federal Reserve account as the Treasury wants to write checks. When the Treasury writes a check, it is deposited in commercial banks, so that bank reserves increase.

Over the past four weeks, the Treasury’s General Account has dropped by almost $70 billion. Thus, between this account and the Treasury’s Supplementary Financing Account the Fed has injected almost $170 billion reserves into the banking system in February.

I need to call attention to the fact that funds moving into and out of the General Account can vary substantially. For example, since the end of the year (which includes the February change) this account has only fallen by $39 billion. Over the last 13-week period, the account has actually increased by $4 billion. Tax collections build up toward the end of the year and then are spent during the first quarter of the year preparing for another buildup around April 15, tax collection time.

The bottom line, the Federal Reserve is seeing that plenty of reserves are being put into the banking system. But, the commercial banks seem to be holding onto the reserves rather than lending them out.

Still, the growth rates of both measures of the money stock seem to be accelerating. The year-over-year growth rate of the M1 measure of the money stock was growing by about 5.5% in the third quarter of 2010. The growth rate increased to 7.7% in the fourth quarter and is growing at a 10.2% rate in January 2011.

The M2 measure of the money stock has also accelerated, going from a year-over-year rate of increase of 2.5% in the third quarter to 3.3% in the fourth quarter to 4.3% in January.

On the surface these increases in money stock look encouraging in terms of possible future economic growth. However, we are still seeing the same behavior of individuals and businesses in the most recent period that we have observed over the past two years.

The growth rates of both measures of the money stock still seem to be coming from people that are getting out of short term “investment” vehicles and are placing these funds in demand deposits or other transaction accounts, or in currency.

The first piece of evidence of this relates to the reserves in the banking system. The total reserves in the banking system have remained roughly constant over the past year. Yet, the required reserves of the banking system have increased by 10% year-over-year. This situation could only happen if demand deposit-type of accounts, which require more reserves behind them, were increasing relative to time and savings accounts, which have smaller reserve requirements.

Looking at the individual account items we see that demand deposits at commercial banks rose at a 20% year-over-year rate of growth in January. The non-M1 part of the M2 measure of the money stock rose by only an anemic 3% rate. Thus, the substantial shift in funds from time and savings accounts to transaction accounts continues. There is no indication of a speeding up of money stock growth connected with the reserves that the Fed is injecting into the banking system.

An even more dramatic shift can be seen if we include institutional money funds in the equation and look at what has happened in the banking system over the past nine weeks. The non-M1 portion of M2 increased by $22 billion over this time period. However, funds kept in institutional money funds declined by roughly $40 billion. This means that accounts that Milton Freidman would have labeled “a temporary abode of purchasing power” actually declined by $18 billion since the start of the year.

Demand deposits and other checkable deposits rose by about $21 billion. One could note that currency in the hands of the public also rose by $16 billion.

The public continues to move money from relatively liquid short-term savings vehicles to assets that can be spent by check or cash. This is not the kind of behavior one gets in an economy that is confident and expanding. This behavior can roughly be called “defensive”.

So, another month has gone by. The Fed is aggressively executing its program of quantitative easing. Yet, it still seems to be “pushing on a string.” Why is it I retain the feeling that the Federal Reserve’s effort is just spaghetti tossing, seeing what might stick to the wall?

The longer this policy continues, the less confidence people seem to have in both Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve. I shutter to think what Bernanke and the Fed will do to us when the banking system actually does start lending again.

Note that some members of the Fed’s Open Market Committee are suggesting that QE2 end abruptly at the end of June when the current program is slated to expire. (See "Policy Makers Signal Abrupt End to Bond Purchases in June":

Does everyone in the Fed seem “tone deaf” to you? They just seem to act on pre-conceived ideas and have no sense or feel of the banking system and financial markets. Another confidence raiser.

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