Why the Fed Should Boost Interest Rates

If the Fed wants to boost economic activity, it should think about raising the federal funds target rate. Why? Wouldn’t that restrict lending? Paradoxically, it would likely increase lending.

This would force banks to engage in more lending in order to make a profit. Currently, banks can make money doing virtually nothing, as they borrow money from the Fed at zero percent interest and use that money to buy government bonds yielding 2-3%. This blog makes the same point. If banks can make a profit without risk — because government bonds carry no risk — then why lend at risk? But if the Fed raises its rates, then this margin will shrink and banks will be forced to engage in riskier activity, such as lending to business and consumers. Perhaps then, as the big banks move away from risk aversion, interbank rates would drop, facilitating borrowing across the board.

The argument is that raising rates will plunge the economy into a depression. With bonds trading at yields of less than 2%, bond markets, it is said, are signalling that inflation is dead. But is this not to reverse the actual situation? Are bonds not trading at this low a level because the baseline rate is zero? Raise the rate, and these short-term rates will also rise. This will simply have the effect of flattening the yield curve — 30-year rates remain stubbornly above 3 1/2%. As long as the yield curve does not invert, is there a problem with that?

St. Louis Fed chairman Thomas Hoenig has been arguing for some time that the federal funds rate needs to be moved out of the zero percent range. His argument makes sense. The Fed can do more to boost economic activity than lower rates.

And We Have a Winner

The solution to the toxic asset problem, and the credit crisis, may well be the one propounded by Holman W. Jenkins in his Wall Street Journal column of March 18 2009: “Needed: A Bailout That Doesn’t Look Like One.” The root of the crisis is bad assets (securitized subprime loans) on banks’ balance sheets. Mr. Holman’s column discusses how these assets can be most easily taken care of. It looks so easy that a child could do it. But there’s the rub. It’s too easy. After all, it would constitute the waste of the opportunity this “crisis” affords to Cloverfield government.

(Update March 20th: Larry Kudlow offers an alternative approach to solving the crisis. He may be right that no further action is required than the switch to cash-flow accounting from mark-to-market accounting, together with the normalized yield curve on short- and long-term loans. Who’s to say? Not me.)

What the Fed is Up To

The recently announced Fed action has been characterized as a massive exercise in printing money, in “pumping liquidity“. But such characterizations, once again, are misleading.

Take a Wall Street Journal article from March 19th, 2009, by John Hilsenrath. In “Fed in Bond-Buying Binge to Spur Growth” he wrote,

The Fed had already cut its benchmark interest-rate target to near zero. Unable to go lower, the central bank now is essentially printing money to raise the supply of credit and thus push down the longer-term rates paid by families and companies on mortgages and other key loans. The impact was immediately felt.

First, has the Fed been “printing money”? Let’s look at a few graphs, downloaded from the Fed web site, to determine if that’s the case.

First, the trend line of the amount of assets on the Fed’s balance sheet:

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This means that the Fed has done a lot of buying since mid-2008. How has it paid for this? By printing money? Let’s look at the trend line of liabilities over the same period:

balsheettrends_4-719719

Here you can see that the amount of currency in circulating (money printed) is roughly stable, while the amount of deposits at depositary institutions has ballooned. The Fed, thus, bought up all those assets by crediting the accounts of depositary institutions (mainly banks).

What does this do? It enables these depositary institutions to lend. How much they are able to lend is a function of how much they have on account at the Fed. Those Fed deposits, plus their own cash on hand (vault cash), constitute what is known as the money base. The money base was fairly stable through mid-2008, and then went through the roof, from $800-plus billion to over $1.5 trillion in March 2009 (see the table here).

So the money base, and thus the amount available to lend (which, with our fractional reserve banking system, is a multiple of the money base), has nearly doubled.

But the money supply, actual money put into the economy, has not. Here are the figures for the broadest money supply counter (monetary aggregate), M2. In March 2007, M2 stood at $7.111 trillion. In February 2009, it came to $8.275 trillion, an increase of about 16%. Nearly all of that increase has occurred recently: the year-on-year gain (February 2008-February 2009) was 9.8%, the six-month gain was 15.3%, and the three-month gain was 15.2%. Still, the gain is not nearly what one would expect given a near-doubling of the money base.

The conclusion: the Fed hasn’t been printing money, it has been expanding the money base and thus the amount banks can lend. But even in that case, the banks can’t lend what people won’t borrow. Given the none-too-precipitous increase in the money supply, it doesn’t appear that borrowing has increased much even given the enormous increase in potential for lending (look here for confirmation).

It would seem to me that the Fed’s purpose in buying up the more unorthodox assets, which underlies the big increase in assets on its balance sheet, is 1) to stabilize the mortgage market by buying up mortgage-backed assets from Fannie Mae et al., 2) to bring down long-term interest rates by buying up long-term Treasury bills.

Bringing down long-term rates is a new way for the Fed to operate. It apparently is working, or at least has a chance of working. By bringing down long-term rates the Fed hopes to spur investment (see Hilsenrath’s article from March 20th, 2009, “Excess Capacity Keeps Heat on Fed”).

The danger is, of course, that by engaging in all this spending it has provided way too much lending potential to banks which could lead to inflation. Hilsenrath’s “Excess Capacity” article shows just how much the Fed is expanding the money base by doing this. But on the other hand, it can head off the danger of rampant inflation by raising interest rates, as well as by selling off those self-same assets.

So this is an area which bears watching but is not yet cause for alarm. The Obama government’s fiscal policy (not to mention war on capitalism) is where one really needs to watch out.

Responses to the Geithner Plan…

are lukewarm at best. Today’s Wall Street Journal op-ed (“The Geithner Asset Play“) raises the appropriate objections. The goal of the plan, which is to rid banks’ balance sheets of unmarketable assets, really is something that has to be done if credit relations are to be restored. But it seems that Geithner wishes to accomplish this, once again, on the backs of the taxpayer. Why not try something such as was suggested by Larry Kudlow (see my blog here), whereby mark-to-market accounting rules are eased — something which will cost the taxpayer nothing. John Berlau notes that Geithner’s plan mentions nothing about mark-to-market.

Furthermore, Paul Krugman’s running commentary on the plan (“The Conscience of a Liberal“) is well worth perusing, even if sprinkled — liberally — with really funky liberalism.

Much Ado About Easing

“Quantitative Easing” is the latest thing to get in a tizzy about these days. Everyone seems to have an opinion on quantative easing, either in favor (deflation-countering inflation is a good thing) or opposed (depreciation is a bad thing).

An investment analyst whose work I recommend, Nicholas Vardy, the “Global Guru,” recently jumped on the QE bandwagon. The sentiment among global growth prognosticators has recently turned bullish. The question for Vardy is, “So what really has changed since the end of the summer?” And his answer, “of course, is quantitative easing.” What is the effect of quantitative easing? “An extra $600 billion sloshing around global financial markets has two effects. First, it devalues the dollar, sending dollar-denominated commodity prices higher. Second, with interest rates forced down, investors are sent on a desperate chase for yield, driving up the prices of all assets in emerging markets.”

The problem with this argument is, so-called quantitative easing does not cause $600 billion to begin sloshing around financial markets. It doesn’t slosh around anywhere but the Fed’s primary dealers’ balance sheets. Now these primary dealers are commercial banks, and the money they have credited to them by the Fed, in exchange for the Treasuries they sell, is money which is added to their balance sheets. Hence, there is $600 billion more sloshing about there, not on the financial markets. For that money to enter financial markets, these banks have to lend. That is the way our two-tier banking system works. Now, the question is, are there market players out there willing to borrow, and put up the necessary collateral, in order to come by that additional $600 billion, in order to drive up securities prices on financial markets? That is the missing link that must be shown to exist in order for fears of depreciation to be grounded.

Vardy’s second point, regarding lower interest rates and the “desperate chase for yield,” is more to the point. Indeed, this is the primary effect of “quantitative easing,” which is to flatten the yield curve from the long end. By doing this, the Fed may well be trying to force banks to lend more because the alternative, profits gained from borrowing at zero interest to buy interest-yielding treasuries, will narrow. I think that is the Fed’s end game, not fomenting inflation/depreciation, which depends on a lot more than simple quantitative easing. But the Fed could achieve such a goal more quickly and surely by simply raising interest rates at the short end, thus flattening the yield curve from that side, which would do much to encourage lending. After all, the October 2010 Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey doesn’t show any increased lending activity at all. When such lending activity does increase, that is when we need to start worrying about inflation, depreciation, and cutting back on the Fed balance sheet.