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?)