Tag Archives: Federal Reserve

The Board of Governors Prepares to Fight ‘The Narrow Bank’

The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System is requesting comment on the proposal to lower the interest rate on excess balances of eligible institutions that hold a very large proportion of their assets in the form of reserves—i.e., on balances of ‘The Narrow Bank.’

The document states that

[t]he Board is concerned that [Pass-Through Investment Entities] PTIEs, by maintaining all or substantially all of their assets in the form of balances at Reserve Banks and having the ability to attract very large quantities of deposits at a near-IOER rate, have the potential to complicate the implementation of monetary policy.

Fed Balance Sheet Policy and Collateral

On his blog, Stephen Williamson discusses the Fed’s plan to maintain a much larger balance sheet in the future than before the crisis. He is not convinced that this plan is a good one.

But what’s the harm in a large Fed balance sheet? The larger the balance sheet, the lower is the quantity of Treasury securities in financial markets, and the higher is reserves. Treasuries are highly liquid, widely-traded securities that play a key role in overnight repo markets. Reserves are highly liquid – for the institutions that hold them – but they are held only by a subset of financial institutions. Thus, a large Fed balance sheet could harm the operation of financial markets. … it would be reflected in a scarcity of collateral in overnight financial markets – in market interest rates. Before early 2018, T-bill rates and repo rates tended to be lower than the fed funds rate, and the fed funds rate was lower than IOER. Now, all those rates are about the same. The Fed thinks the difference is more Treasury debt, but I think the end of the Fed’s reinvestment program mattered, in that it increased the stock of on-the-run Treasuries. Whichever it was, apparently the quantity of Treasuries outstanding matters for the smooth – indeed, efficient – operation of financial markets, and the Fed should not mess with that. My prediction would be that, if we get to the end of the year and the Fed is again buying Treasuries, that we’ll see repo rates and T-bill rates dropping below IOER. Watch for that.

Germany, or the Bundesbank Caves In

In the FAZ, Philip Plickert reports that Deutsche Bundesbank changed its terms of business. Starting August 25, the Bundesbank may refuse cash transactions with a bank if the Bundesbank fears that, counter to the bank’s assurances, the cash transaction might help the bank or its customers evade sanctions or restrictions with the aim to impede money laundering or terrorism finance.

Conveniently, this will allow the Bundesbank to reject a request by European-Iranian Handelsbank to withdraw several hundred Euros.

Die staatliche Europäisch-Iranische Handelsbank (EIHB) in Hamburg hatte Anfang Juli bei der Bundesbank beantragt, mehr als 300 Millionen Euro in bar abzuheben. Nach Informationen der F.A.Z. war sogar von 350 bis 380 Millionen Euro die Rede. Dem Vernehmen nach soll es sich um Guthaben der iranischen Zentralbank bei der EIHB handeln. … Derzeit prüft die Finanzaufsicht Bafin, ob die EIHB die Vorschriften zur Prävention von Geldwäsche und Terrorfinanzierung einhält. Diese Prüfung könne sich hinziehen, heißt es in Berlin aus dem Finanzministerium. Bis die Bafin ihr Urteil abgibt, dürften die geänderten AGB der Bundesbank greifen.

The US has pressured the German government to prevent the cash withdrawal. And the Bundesbank closely cooperates with the Federal Reserve.

In ihren geänderten Geschäftsbedingungen ist explizit die Rede davon, dass auch die „drohende Beendigung von wichtigen Beziehungen zu Zentralbanken und Finanzinstitutionen dritter Länder“ ein Ablehnungsgrund für Bargeldgeschäfte sein könne.

In July, JP Koning had blogged about the bank’s request. His conclusion was:

There are sound political and moral reasons for both censoring Iran and not censoring it. Moral or not, my guess is that most nations will breathe a sigh of relief if German authorities see it fit to let the €300 million cash withdrawal go through. It would be a sign to all of us that we don’t live in a unipolar monetary world where a single American censor can prevent entire nations from making the most basic of cross-border payments. Instead, we’d be living in a bipolar monetary world where censorship needn’t mean being completely cutoff from the global payments system.

The sooner the Bundesbank prints up and dispatches the €300 million, the better for us all.

In an earlier column, Koning had described the difficulties for financial institutions worldwide to circumvent U.S. financial sanctions.

Arguments Against Strict Monetary Policy Rules

In its July 2017 Monetary Policy Report, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System discusses monetary policy rules. On pp. 36–38, the Board argues that

[t]he small number of variables involved in policy rules makes them easy to use. However, the U.S. economy is highly complex, and these rules, by their very nature, do not capture that complexity. …

Another issue related to the implementation of rules involves the measurement of the variables that drive the prescriptions generated by the rules. For example, there are many measures of inflation, and they do not always move together or by the same amount. …

In addition, both the level of the neutral real interest rate in the longer run and the level of the unemployment rate that is sustainable in the longer run are difficult to estimate precisely, and estimates made in real time may differ substantially from estimates made later on …

Furthermore, the prescribed responsiveness of the federal funds rate to its determinants differs across policy rules. …

Finally, monetary policy rules do not take account of broader risk considerations. … asymmetric risk has, in recent years, provided a sound rationale for following a more gradual path of rate increases than that prescribed by policy rules.

Marvin Goodfriend, the Fed’s Board of Governors, and Negative Rates

In the FT, Sam Fleming and Demetri Sevastopulo report that the White House considers Marvin Goodfriend for the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors.

He has criticised the Fed’s crisis-era balance sheet expansion, saying the central bank should generally not purchase mortgage-backed securities, and has advocated the use of monetary policy rules to guide policy, as has Mr Quarles. …

At the same time, however, Mr Goodfriend has been willing to contemplate the use of deeply negative rates to stimulate growth — something that the Fed has thus far not embarked upon. In 1999 he wrote that negative rates were a feasible option, years before central banks started actually experimenting with them.

To implement negative rates while preserving cash, Goodfriend has advocated a flexible exchange rate between deposits and cash. On Alphaville, Matthew Klein quotes from a recent paper of Goodfriend’s:

The zero bound encumbrance on interest rate policy could be eliminated completely and expeditiously by discontinuing the central bank defense of the par deposit price of paper currency. … the central bank would no longer let the outstanding stock of paper currency vary elastically to accommodate the deposit demand for paper currency at par. …

The reason to abandon the pegged par deposit price of paper currency is analogous to the … reasons for abandoning the gold standard and fixed exchange rate: it is to let fluctuations in the deposit demand for paper currency be reflected in the deposit price of paper currency so as not to destabilize the general price level … the flexible deposit price of paper currency would behave as it actually did when the payment of paper currency for deposits was restricted in the United States during the banking crises of 1873, 1893, and 1907.

John Cochrane and Janet Yellen

On his blog, John Cochrane discusses the possibility of an alternative monetary policy regime in which the Fed tightly controls expected inflation. He states, repeatedly, that given our current understanding of the matter he would refrain from implementing such a regime if he became Fed chair (rather than stating that he would not currently advise to move in that direction). Given that Janet Yellen is expected to retire next year and John Cochrane is mentioned as a possible successor, I find the statement remarkable.

How Problematic Is a Large Central Bank Balance Sheet?

On his blog, John Cochrane reports about a Hoover panel including him, Charles Plosser, and John Taylor.

Cochrane focuses on the liability side. He favors a large quantity of (possibly interest bearing) reserves for financial stability reasons. Plosser focuses on the asset side and is worried about credit allocation by the Fed, for political economy reasons. Taylor favors a small balance sheet. Cochrane also talks about reserves for everyone, but issued by the Treasury.

Roger Farmer’s “Prosperity for All”

On his blog, Roger Farmer advertizes his new book, “Prosperity for All,” and argues that governments should stabilize asset prices:

Following the Great Stagflation of the 1970s, economists backtracked and revived the classical economic theory that had dominated academic economics for a hundred and fifty years, beginning with Adam Smith in 1776 and culminating in the business cycle theory described by Keynes’s contemporary Arthur Pigou in his 1927 book, Industrial Fluctuations. That backtrack was a big mistake. It is time to realize that much, but not all, of Keynesian economics is correct. …

In my book Prosperity for All: How to Prevent Financial Crises, … I do not conclude that more government spending is the right way to cure a depression. Instead, I argue for a new policy in which central banks and national treasuries systematically intervene in financial markets to prevent the swings in asset prices that have such debilitating effects on all of our lives.

The control of asset prices will seem like a bold step to some, but so too did the control of the interest rates by the Open Market Committee of the Federal Reserve System when it was first introduced in 1913. We do not have to accept hyperinflations of the kind that occurred in 1920s Germany. Nor should we be content with the 50% unemployment rates that plague young people in Greece today. By designing a new institution, based on the modern central bank, we can and must ensure Prosperity for All.

And in another post:

The New Keynesian agenda is the child of the neoclassical synthesis and, like the IS-LM model before it, New Keynesian economics inherits the mistakes of the bastard Keynesians. It misses two key Keynesian concepts: (1) there are multiple equilibrium unemployment rates and (2) beliefs  are fundamental. My work brings these concepts back to center stage and integrates the Keynes of the General Theory with the microeconomics of general equilibrium theory in a new way.

Should the Fed Reduce the Size of its Balance Sheet?

On his blog, Ben Bernanke discusses the merits of the Fed’s strategy to slowly reduce the size of its balance sheet to pre crisis levels. Bernanke (with reference to a paper by Robin Greenwood, Samuel Hanson and Jeremy Stein) suggests that this strategy should be reconsidered:

First, the large balance sheet provides lots of safe and liquid assets for financial markets. This might strengthen financial stability. (DN: In my view, there are also reasons to expect the opposite.)

Second, a larger balance sheet can help improve the workings of the monetary transmission mechanism, in particular if non-banks can deposit funds at the Fed. Currently, the Fed accepts funds from private-sector institutional lenders such as money market funds, through the overnight reverse repurchase program (RRP). (DN: I agree. As I have argued elsewhere, access to central bank balance sheets should be broadened.)

Third, with a large balance sheet and thus, large bank reserve holdings to start with, it could be easier to avoid “stigma” in the next financial crisis when banks need to borrow cash from the Fed but prefer not to in order not to signal weakness. (DN: Like the first, this third argument emphasizes banks’ needs. In my view, monetary policy should not emphasize these needs too much because it is far from clear whether bank incentives are sufficiently aligned with the interests of society at large.)

Bernanke also discusses the reasons why the Fed does want to reduce the balance sheet size.

First, in a financial panic, programs like the RRP could result in market participants depositing more and more funds at the Fed until the interbank market would be drained of liquidity. But these programs could be capped.

Second, a large balance sheet increases the risk of large fiscal losses for the Fed and thus, the public sector. Losses could trigger a legislative response and undermine the Fed’s policy independence. But these risks could be kept in check if the Fed invested in government paper that constitutes a close substitute to cash, such as three year government debt. (DN: But why, then, shouldn’t financial market participants hold three year government debt rather than reserves at the Fed? Because cash is much more liquid than government debt … But what does this mean?)

Could the Fed have Rescued Lehman Brothers?

In a paper, Larry Ball argues that

inadequate collateral and lack of legal authority were not the reasons that the Fed let Lehman fail. …

… the primary decision maker was Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson–even though he had no legal authority over the Fed’s lending decisions. … evidence supports the common theory that Paulson was influenced by the strong political opposition to financial rescues. … Another factor is that both Paulson and Fed officials, although worried about the effects of a Lehman failure, did not fully anticipate the damage that it would cause.

James Stewart comments in the New York Times.

Helicopter Drops of Money

In his blog, Ben Bernanke discusses the merits of “helicopter drops” as a monetary policy tool.

[A] “helicopter drop” of money is an expansionary fiscal policy—an increase in public spending or a tax cut—financed by a permanent increase in the money stock.

… the Fed credits the Treasury … in the Treasury’s “checking account” at the central bank, and those funds are used to pay for the new spending and the tax rebate.

… it should influence the economy through a number of channels, making it extremely likely to be effective—even if existing government debt is already high and/or interest rates are zero or negative. … the channels would include:

  1. the direct effects of the public works spending on GDP, jobs, and income;
  2. the increase in household income from the rebate, which should induce greater consumer spending;
  3. a temporary increase in expected inflation, the result of the increase in the money supply. Assuming that nominal interest rates are pinned near zero, higher expected inflation implies lower real interest rates, which in turn should incentivize capital investments and other spending; and
  4. the fact that, unlike debt-financed fiscal programs, a money-financed program does not increase future tax burdens.

[Debt financed spending programs lack channels 3 and 4.]

[Helicopter drops are subject to various] practical challenges of implementation, including integrating them into operational monetary frameworks and assuring appropriate governance and coordination between the legislature and the central bank.

Longer-Term Interest Rate Pegs

In his blog, Ben Bernanke discusses the merits of longer-term interest rate targeting as a monetary policy tool.

A lot would depend on the credibility of the Fed’s announcement. If investors do not believe that the Fed will be successful at pushing down the two-year rate … they will immediately sell their securities of two years’ maturity or less to the Fed. … the Fed could end up owning most or all of the eligible securities, with uncertain consequences for interest rates overall. On the other hand, if the Fed’s announcement is fully credible, the prices of eligible securities might move immediately to the targeted levels, and the Fed might achieve its objective without acquiring many securities at all.

… A policy of targeting longer-term rates is related to quantitative easing in that both involve buying potentially large quantities of securities. An important difference is that one sets a quantity and the other sets a price. … Concerns about “losing control of the balance sheet” were a factor behind the Fed’s choice of quantitative easing over rate targets while I was chairman.

Conceivably, QE and rate-pegging could be used together … with QE working through reduced risk premiums while the rate peg operates indirectly by affecting the expected path of short-term interest rates. … The principal limitations of rate pegs are similar to those of forward guidance: Both tools are relatively less effective at affecting interest rates at longer maturities, and even at shorter horizons both must be consistent with a credible or “time-consistent policy” path for short-term interest rates.

The Fed Oversight Reform and Modernization (FORM) Act

On Econbrowser, Carl Walsh critically discusses H.R. 3189, The Fed Oversight Reform and Modernization (FORM) Act. He points out that the output gap measure in a policy rule plays an important role.

He writes:

Legislating a rule for the Fed’s instrument as a means of constraining its discretion and holding it accountable for its policy actions represents a fundamental shift from a policy such as inflation targeting. Under inflation targeting, the central bank is held accountable for meeting a target that represents an ultimate goal of monetary policy – low inflation – rather than for moving its policy instrument consistent with a specific rule. …

Using an estimated DSGE model, I find that the optimal weights to place on goal-based inflation and rule-based Taylor rule performance measures depend importantly on the output measure employed in the rule. When the rule is similar to that proposed recently in U.S. H.R. 3189, I find the optimal weight to assign to the rule-based performance measure is always equal to zero – that is, the rule H.R. 3189 proposed would lead to inferior macroeconomic outcomes and should not be used.

This result is largely driven by the fact that the definition of output used in the legislated rule – output relative to trend – is not consistent with the definition of output the theory behind the model I use would imply – output relative to its efficient level. When the Taylor rule is modified to use the measure of economic activity that is more consistent with basic macro theory, outcomes can be improved by making deviations from such the rule a part of a system for accessing the Fed’s performance and promoting its accountability.

Government Debt Management

In his FT blog, Larry Summers argues for a “quite radical” change in government debt-management. He proposes several lessons:

  • “Debt management is too important to leave to Federal debt managers and certainly to leave to the dealer community. … when interest rates are near zero, it has direct implications for monetary and fiscal policy and economic performance … and … financial stability.”
  • “… it is fairly crazy for the Fed and Treasury, which are supposed to serve the national interest, to pursue diametrically opposed debt-management policies. This is what has happened in recent years, with the Fed seeking to shorten outstanding maturities and the Treasury seeking to term them out.”
  • “Standard discussions of quantitative easing … are intellectually incoherent. It is the total impact of government activities on the stock of debt that the public must hold that should impact on financial markets.”
  • In the US, “the quantity of long-term debt that the markets had to absorb in recent years was well above, rather than below, normal. This suggests that if QE was important in reducing rates or raising asset values it was because of signalling effects … not because of the direct effect of Fed purchases.”
  • “The standard mantra that federal debt-management policies should seek to minimise government borrowing costs is … wrong and incomplete. … it is risk-adjusted expected costs that should be considered. … it is hard to see why the effects of debt policies on levels of demand and on financial stability should be ignored.”
  • “The tax-smoothing aspect, which is central to academic theories of debt policy, is of trivial significance.”
  • Rather than providing opportunities for carry trade, “[t]reasury should reverse the trend towards terming out the debt. Issuing shorter term debt would also help meet private demands for liquid short-term instruments without encouraging risky structures such as banks engaged in maturity transformation.”
  • “Institutional mechanisms should be found to insure that in the future the Fed and Treasury are not pushing debt durations in opposite directions.”

Central Bank Communication

How should central banks communicate? In his blog, Ben Bernanke makes the case for the US system which has recently been criticized as resulting in “cacophony.” His points are:

  • Public speeches of FOMC participants “are a forum for elaborating and providing evidence for their positions.”
  • “The open airing of policymakers’ opinions and analysis actively engages the public in debates about critical issues.” For example, it may generate a debate in academia which benefits the quality of Fed decisions.
  • “For democratic legitimacy and accountability, the Fed needs to be transparent about how it makes monetary policy decisions. … It should also be reassuring to those who disagree with Fed decisions to know that, more often than not, their point of view is being represented in the Fed’s internal debates.”


Narrow Banking: History and Merits

George Pennacchi discusses narrow banking in an article in the Annual Review of Financial Economics. He concludes as follows:

During the nineteenth century, US banks were more narrow than they are today, and the narrowest (e.g., those under the Louisiana Banking Act of 1842) appeared resistant to panics. Common modern-banking practices, such as maturity transformation and explicit loan commitments, arose only after the creation of the Federal Reserve and the FDIC.

… There appears to be little or no benefits available from traditional banks that could not be obtained in a carefully designed narrow bank financial system. Most importantly, a narrow-banking system could have huge advantages in containing moral hazard and reducing the overall risk and required regulation of the financial system.

In contrast, the reaction by US regulators to the recent financial crisis was to expand the government’s safety net by raising deposit insurance limits and by giving more financial firms access to insured deposits. Expanding, rather than narrowing, the activities that are funded with insured deposits is justified if one believes that regulation can contain moral hazard when firms have many, complex risk-taking opportunities. Unfortunately, this belief appears dubious if one recognizes that regulators face political and information constraints.

In my view, there is a need for research that considers the optimal design of a financial system when a government regulator is limited in its ability to assess risk. … Research needs to better identify those financial services where government support would produce a net social benefit. Services such as maturity transformation and liquidity insurance may not deserve costly government guarantees. Finally, should further research support the general concept of narrow banking, there are still open questions regarding the specific features of these banks. In particular, how narrow should be these banks’ assets and should their liabilities should be deposits or equity shares (at fixed or floating NAVs) are questions that need better answers.

Fed and Treasury Maturity Policies

In a recent paper, Robin Greenwood, Sam Hanson, Josh Rudolph and Larry Summers discuss the joint effect of Fed and Treasury policy on the maturity structure of government liabilities in the hands of the private sector. John Cochrane commends the paper in a blog post.

Greenwood, Hanson, Rudolph and Summers make several points. First, “monetary and fiscal policies have been pushing in opposite directions in recent years.” In spite of QE, long-term government debt held by the private sector increased, mostly due to government deficits but also because the government lengthened the maturity of its debt. Second, Fed and Treasury policies largely are uncoordinated. They argue that this is suboptimal, in particular when the Fed strongly intervenes as it did in the recent QE episodes.

The Federal Reserve has focused purely on the effects that its bond purchases were expected to have on long-term interest rates and, by extension, the economy more broadly. … it completely ignored any possible impact on government fiscal risk, even though the Federal Reserve’s profits and losses are remitted to the Treasury. Conversely, Treasury’s debt management announcements and the advice of the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee (TBAC) have focused on the assumed benefits of extending the average debt maturity from a fiscal risk perspective, and largely ignored the impact of policy changes on long-term yields. To the extent that the Federal Reserve and Treasury ever publicly mention the other institution’s mandate, it is usually in the context of avoiding the perception that one institution might be helping the other achieve an objective. Specifically, the Fed does not want to be seen as monetizing deficits, while the Treasury has been reluctant to acknowledge the Fed as anything more than a large investor.

Third, they argue that from a consolidated government policy perspective, the optimal debt maturity structure is rather short. This saves on interest payments to the private sector (on average) and reduces “liquidity transformation” by the financial sector with dangerous consequences for financial stability. They downplay the risk sharing benefits of longer-term debt and argue that short-term debt has additional advantages at the zero lower bound.

Pages 11-12 contain the following figure, among others:


“Mistakes Made and Lessons (Being) Learned”

In the seventh chapter of “Across the Great Divide: New Perspectives on the Financial Crisis,” Peter Fisher argues that the Fed’s mandate should be reviewed:

  • The Fed did not address leverage early enough. In the future, monetary policy should weigh financial stability objectives more strongly—at the cost of employment and inflation objectives.
  • Moral hazard should be addressed before, not during the crisis.
  • “Since the end of the financial crisis, the Fed is making the mistake of conceiving of its mandate over too short—and too narrow—a horizon. This permits the Fed to avoid articulating the difficult intertemporal trade-offs that it is making.”
  • The Fed’s mandate is not crystal clear and has been interpreted differently over the years. In light of the new experiences, it should be clarified or adjusted.

“The Federal Reserve’s Role: Actions Before, During, and After the 2008 Panic in the Historical Context of the Great Contraction”

In chapter six of “Across the Great Divide: New Perspectives on the Financial Crisis,” Michael Bordo argues that the Fed misinterpreted the experience of the Great Depression when acting during the financial crisis. Insolvency rather than illiquidity fears were central to the great recession.

“How Efforts to Avoid Past Mistakes Created New Ones: Some Lessons from the Causes and Consequences of the Recent Financial Crisis”

In the first chapter of “Across the Great Divide: New Perspectives on the Financial Crisis,” Sheila Bair and Ricardo Delfin argue that regulatory responses to past crises sow the seeds of the next ones:

  • The “Greenspan put” fostered risk-taking and overconfidence.
  • Low interest rates and the search for yield led to a lowering of lending standards and stronger demand for mortgages; a rise in housing wealth accompanied falling household incomes. The Fed’s strong policy response to the Great Recession may create new risks.
  • The 1980s savings and loans crisis led to stronger reliance on the originate to distribute model and securitisation of mortgages. Market participants lost sight of the risks. Regulatory incentives led banks to take the securitised loans back on their balance sheets and additional sources of maturity mismatch arose from strong reliance on short-term funding.
  • The “self-correcting markets myth” led Congress to deregulate financial services. The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act fostered competition and consolidation; the Commodity Futures Modernization Act loosened oversight over the OTC derivatives market. Financial regulators also relaxed restrictions; Basel II replaced standardised regulator-set capital charges with internal models of banks.The Dodd-Frank Act reversed this trend, allowing for more discretion and micro-management.
  • The pre-crisis incentives led to large, “too-big-to-fail” institutions and bred moral hazard. Dodd-Frank improve things, by establishing consolidated oversight, living will requirements, enhanced prudential standards and enabling the FDIC to resolve systemic entities that cannot be resolved safely in bankruptcy. Clearing houses may require more regulation.

Perspectives on the Financial Crisis

A Hoover Press book edited by Martin Baily and John Taylor collects articles about the financial crisis. The contributions in “Across the Great Divide: New Perspectives on the Financial Crisis” include (with links to PDF files):

Dangers of Deflation

The Economist worries about deflation, specifically in the Euro area. The central passages are:

Central bankers can no longer set real (that is, inflation-adjusted) interest rates low enough to restore demand. Wages, incomes and tax revenue all stall, undermining the ability of households, businesses and governments to pay their debts—debts which, in real terms, will grow more burdensome under deflation.

… bad deflation results when demand runs chronically below the economy’s capacity to supply goods and services, leaving an output gap. That prompts firms to cut prices and wages; that weakens demand further. Debt aggravates the cycle: as prices and incomes fall, the real value of debts rise, forcing borrowers to cut spending to pay down their debts, which ends up making matters worse.