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May 13, 2014
Today’s news brings another indication that low inflation rates in the euro area have the attention of the European Central Bank. From the Wall Street Journal (Update: via MarketWatch):
Germany's central bank is willing to back an array of stimulus measures from the European Central Bank next month, including a negative rate on bank deposits and purchases of packaged bank loans if needed to keep inflation from staying too low, a person familiar with the matter said...
This marks the clearest signal yet that the Bundesbank, which has for years been defined by its conservative opposition to the ECB's emergency measures to combat the euro zone's debt crisis, is fully engaged in the fight against super-low inflation in the euro zone using monetary policy tools...
Notably, these tools apparently do not include Fed-style quantitative easing:
But the Bundesbank's backing has limits. It remains resistant to large-scale purchases of public and private debt, known as quantitative easing, the person said. The Bundesbank has discussed this option internally but has concluded that with government and corporate bond yields already quite low in Europe, the purchases wouldn't do much good and could instead create financial stability risks.
Should we conclude that there is now a global conclusion about the value and wisdom of large-scale asset purchases, a.k.a. QE? We certainly have quite a bit of experience with large-scale purchases now. But I think it is also fair to say that that experience has yet to yield firm consensus.
You probably don’t need much convincing that QE consensus remains elusive. But just in case, I invite you to consider the panel discussion we titled “Greasing the Skids: Was Quantitative Easing Needed to Unstick Markets? Or Has it Merely Sped Us toward the Next Crisis?” The discussion was organized for last month’s 2014 edition of the annual Atlanta Fed Financial Markets Conference.
Opinions among the panelists were, shall we say, diverse. You can view the entire session via this link. But if you don’t have an hour and 40 minutes to spare, here is the (less than) ten-minute highlight reel, wherein Carnegie Mellon Professor Allan Meltzer opines that Fed QE has become “a foolish program,” Jeffries LLC Chief Market Strategist David Zervos declares himself an unabashed “lover of QE,” and Federal Reserve Governor Jeremy Stein weighs in on some of the financial stability questions associated with very accommodative policy:
You probably detected some differences of opinion there. If that, however, didn’t satisfy your craving for unfiltered debate, click on through to this link to hear Professor Meltzer and Mr. Zervos consider some of Governor Stein’s comments on monitoring debt markets, regulatory approaches to pursuing financial stability objectives, and the efficacy of capital requirements for banks.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed.
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January 31, 2014
A Brief Interview with Sergio Rebelo on the Euro-Area Economy
Last month, we at the Atlanta Fed had the great pleasure of hosting Sergio Rebelo for a couple of days. While he was here, we asked Sergio to share his thoughts on a wide range of current economic topics. Here is a snippet of a Q&A we had with him about the state of the euro-area economy:
Sergio, what would you say was the genesis of the problems the euro area has faced in recent years?
The contours of the euro area’s problems are fairly well known. The advent of the euro gave peripheral countries—Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Greece—the ability to borrow at rates that were similar to Germany's. This convergence of borrowing costs was encouraged through regulation that allowed banks to treat all euro-area sovereign bonds as risk free.
The capital inflows into the peripheral countries were not, for the most part, directed to the tradable sector. Instead, they financed increases in private consumption, large housing booms in Ireland and Spain, and increases in government spending in Greece and Portugal. The credit-driven economic boom led to a rise in labor costs and a loss of competitiveness in the tradable sector.
Was there a connection between the financial crisis in the United States and the sovereign debt crisis in the euro area?
Simply put, after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, we had a sudden stop of capital flows into the periphery, similar to that experienced in the past by many Latin American countries. The periphery boom quickly turned into a bust.
What do you see as the role for euro area monetary policy in that context?
It seems clear that more expansionary monetary policy would have been helpful. First, it would have reduced real labor costs in the peripheral countries. In those countries, the presence of high unemployment rates moderates nominal wage increases, so higher inflation would have reduced real wages. Second, inflation would have reduced the real value of the debts of governments, banks, households, and firms. There might have been some loss of credibility on the part of the ECB [European Central Bank], resulting in a small inflation premium on euro bonds for some time. But this potential cost would have been worth paying in return for the benefits.
And did this happen?
In my view, the ECB did not follow a sufficiently expansionary monetary policy. In fact, the euro-area inflation rate has been consistently below 2 percent and the euro is relatively strong when compared to a purchasing-power-parity benchmark. The euro area turned to contractionary fiscal policy as a panacea. There are good theoretical reasons to believe that—when the interest rate remains constant that so the central bank does not cushion the fall in government spending—the multiplier effect of government spending cuts can be very large. See, for example, Gauti Eggertsson and Michael Woodford, “The Zero Interest-rate Bound and Optimal Monetary Policy,” and Lawrence Christiano, Martin Eichenbaum, and Sergio Rebelo, "When Is the Government Spending Multiplier Large?”
Theory aside, the results of the austerity policies implemented in the euro area are clear. All of the countries that underwent this treatment are now much less solvent than in the beginning of the adjustment programs managed by the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the ECB.
Bank stress testing has become a cornerstone of macroprudential financial oversight. Do you think they helped stabilize the situation in the euro area during the height of the crisis in 2010 and 2011?
No. Quite the opposite. I think the euro-area problems were compounded by the weak stress tests conducted by the European Banking Association in 2011. Almost no banks failed, and almost no capital was raised. Banks largely increased their capital-to-asset ratios by reducing assets, which resulted in a credit crunch that added to the woes of the peripheral countries.
But we’re past the worst now, right? Is the outlook for the euro-area economy improving?
After hitting the bottom, a very modest recovery is under way in Europe. But the risk that a Japanese-style malaise will afflict Europe is very real. One useful step on the horizon is the creation of a banking union. This measure could potentially alleviate the severe credit crunch afflicting the periphery countries.
Thanks, Sergio, for this pretty sobering assessment.
By John Robertson, a vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed’s research department
Editor’s note: Sergio Rebelo is the Tokai Bank Distinguished Professor of International Finance at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He is a fellow of the Econometric Society, the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the Center for Economic Policy Research.
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December 04, 2013
Is (Risk) Sharing Always a Virtue?
The financial system cannot be made completely safe because it exists to allocate funds to inherently risky projects in the real economy. Thus, an important question for policymakers is how best to structure the financial system to absorb these losses while minimizing the risk that financial sector failures will impair the real economy.
Standard theories would predict that one good way of reducing financial sector risk is diversification. For example, the financial system could be structured to facilitate the development of large banks, a point often made by advocates for big banks such as Steve Bartlett. Another, not mutually exclusive, way of enhancing diversification is to create a system that shares risks across banks. An example is the Dodd-Frank Act mandate requiring formerly over-the-counter derivatives transactions to be centrally cleared.
However, do these conclusions based on individual bank stability necessarily imply that risk sharing will make the financial system safer? Is it even relevant to the principal risks facing the financial system? Some of the papers presented at the recent Atlanta Fed conference, "Indices of Riskiness: Management and Regulatory Implications," broadly addressed these questions and others. Other papers discuss the impact of bank distress on local economies, methods of predicting bank failure, and various aspects of incentive compensation paid to bankers (which I discuss in a recent Notes from the Vault).
The stability implications of greater risk sharing across banks are explored in "Systemic Risk and Stability in Financial Networks" by Daron Acemoglu, Asuman Ozdaglar, and Alireza Tahbaz-Salehi. They develop a theoretical model of risk sharing in networks of banks. The most relevant comparison they draw is between what they call a "complete financial network" (maximum possible diversification) and a "weakly connected" network in which there is substantial risk sharing between pairs of banks but very little risk sharing outside the individual pairs. Consistent with the standard view of diversification, the complete networks experience few, if any, failures when individual banks are subject to small shocks, but some pairs of banks do fail in the weakly connected networks. However, at some point the losses become so large that the complete network undergoes a phase transition, spreading the losses in a way that causes the failure of more banks than would have occurred with less risk sharing.
Extrapolating from this paper, one could imagine that risk sharing could induce a false sense of security that would ultimately make a financial system substantially less stable. At first a more interconnected system shrugs off smaller shocks with seemingly no adverse impact. This leads bankers and policymakers to believe that the system can handle even more risk because it has become more stable. However, at some point the increased risk taking leads to losses sufficiently large to trigger a phase transition, and the system proves to be even less stable than it was with weaker interconnections.
While interconnections between financial firms are a theoretically important determinant of contagion, how important are these connections in practice? "Financial Firm Bankruptcy and Contagion," by Jean Helwege and Gaiyan Zhang, analyzes the spillovers from distressed and failing financial firms from 1980 to 2010. Looking at the financial firms that failed, they find that counterparty risk exposure (the interconnections) tend to be small, with no single exposure above $2 billion and the average a mere $53.4 million. They note that these small exposures are consistent with regulations that limit banks' exposure to any single counterparty. They then look at information contagion, in which the disclosure of distress at one financial firm may signal adverse information about the quality of a rival's assets. They find that the effect of these signals is comparable to that found for direct credit exposure.
Helwege and Zhang's results suggest that we should be at least as concerned about separate banks' exposure to an adverse shock that hits all of their assets as we should be about losses that are shared through bank networks. One possible common shock is the likely increase in the level and slope of the term structure as the Federal Reserve begins tapering its asset purchases and starts a process ultimately leading to the normalization of short-term interest rate setting. Although historical data cannot directly address banks' current exposure to such shocks, such data can provide evidence on banks' past exposure. William B. English, Skander J. Van den Heuvel, and Egon Zakrajšek presented evidence on this exposure in the paper "Interest Rate Risk and Bank Equity Valuations." They find a significant decrease in bank stock prices in response to an unexpected increase in the level or slope of the term structure. The response to slope increases (likely the primary effect of tapering) is somewhat attenuated at banks with large maturity gaps. One explanation for this finding is that these banks may partially recover their current losses with gains they will accrue when booking new assets (funded by shorter-term liabilities).
Overall, the papers presented in this part of the conference suggest that more risk sharing among financial institutions is not necessarily always better. Even though it may provide the appearance of increased stability in response to small shocks, the system is becoming less robust to larger shocks. However, it also suggests that shared exposures to a common risk are likely to present at least as an important a threat to financial stability as interconnections among financial firms, especially as the term structure and the overall economy respond to the eventual return to normal monetary policy. Along these lines, I recently offered some thoughts on how to reduce the risk of large widespread losses due to exposures to a common (credit) risk factor.
By Larry Wall, director of the Atlanta Fed's Center for Financial Innovation and Stability
Note: The conference "Indices of Riskiness: Management and Regulatory Implications" was organized by Glenn Harrison (Georgia State University's Center for the Economic Analysis of Risk), Jean-Charles Rochet, (University of Zurich), Markus Sticker, Dirk Tasche (Bank of England, Prudential Regulatory Authority), and Larry Wall (the Atlanta Fed's Center for Financial Innovation and Stability).
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March 08, 2013
Will the Next Exit from Monetary Stimulus Really Be Different from the Last?
Suppose you run a manufacturing business—let's say, for example, widgets. Your customers are loyal and steady, but you are never completely certain when they are going to show up asking you to satisfy their widget desires.
Given this uncertainty, you consider two different strategies to meet the needs of your customers. One option is to produce a large quantity of widgets at once, store the product in your warehouse, and when a customer calls, pull the widgets out of inventory as required.
A second option is to simply wait until buyers arrive at your door and produce widgets on demand, which you can do instantaneously and in as large a quantity as you like.
Thinking only about whether you can meet customer demand when it presents itself, these two options are basically identical. In the first case you have a large inventory to support your sales. In the second case you have a large—in fact, infinitely large—"shadow" inventory that you can bring into existence in lockstep with demand.
I invite you to think about this example as you contemplate this familiar graph of the Federal Reserve's balance sheet:
I gather that a good measure of concern about the size of the Fed's (still growing) balance sheet comes from the notion that there is more inherent inflation risk with bank reserves that exceed $1.5 trillion than there would be with reserves somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 billion (which would be the ballpark value for the pre-crisis level of reserves).
I understand this concern, but I don't believe that it is entirely warranted. My argument is as follows: The policy strategy for tightening policy (or exiting stimulus) when the banking system is flush with reserves is equivalent to the strategy when the banking system has low (or even zero) reserves in the same way that the two strategies for meeting customer demand that I offered at the outset of this post are equivalent.
Here's why. Suppose, just for example, that bank reserves are literally zero and the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has set a federal funds rate target of, say, 3 percent. Despite the fact that bank reserves are zero there is a real sense in which the potential size of the balance sheet—the shadow balance sheet, if you will—is very large.
The reason is that when the FOMC sets a target for the federal funds rate, it is sending very specific instructions to the folks from the Open Market Desk at the New York Fed, who run monetary policy operations on behalf of the FOMC. Those instructions are really pretty simple: If you have to inject more bank reserves (and hence expand the size of the Fed's balance sheet) to maintain the FOMC's funds rate target, do it.
To make sense of that statement, it is helpful to remember that the federal funds rate is an overnight interest rate that is determined by the supply and demand for bank reserves. Simplifying just a bit, the demand for reserves comes from the banking system, and the supply comes from the Fed. As in any supply and demand story, if demand goes up, so does the "price"—in this case, the federal funds rate.
In our hypothetical example, the Open Market Desk has been instructed not to let the federal funds rate deviate from 3 percent—at least not for very long. With such instructions, there is really only one thing to do in the case that demand from the banking system increases—create more reserves.
To put it in the terms of the business example I started out with, in setting a funds rate target the FOMC is giving the Open Market Desk the following marching orders: If customers show up, step up the production and meet the demand. The Fed's balance sheet in this case will automatically expand to meet bank reserve demand, just as the businessperson's inventory would expand to support the demand for widgets. As with the businessperson in my example, there is little difference between holding a large tangible inventory and standing ready to supply on demand from a shadow inventory.
Though the analogy is not completely perfect—in the case of the Fed's balance sheet, for example it is the banks and not the business (i.e., the Fed) that hold the inventory—I think the story provides an intuitive way to process the following comments (courtesy of Bloomberg) from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, from last week's congressional testimony:
"Raising interest rate on reserves" when the balance sheet is large is the functional equivalent to raising the federal funds rate when the actual balance sheet is not so large, but the potential or shadow balance sheet is. In both cases, the strategy is to induce banks to resist deploying available reserves to expand deposit liabilities and credit. The only difference is that, in the former case, the available reserves are explicit, and in the latter case they are implicit.
The Monetary Policy Report that accompanied the Chairman's testimony contained a fairly thorough summary of costs that might be associated with continued monetary stimulus. Some of these in fact pertain to the size of the Fed's balance sheet. But, as the Chairman notes in the video clip above, when it comes to the mechanics of exiting from policy stimulus, the real challenge is the familiar one of knowing when it is time to alter course.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed
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October 04, 2012
Trends in Small Business Lending
The Atlanta Fed's latest semiannual Small Business Survey is active through October 22, 2012. If you own a small business and would like to participate, send an e-mail to SmallBusinessResearch@atl.frb.org.
In our previous survey conducted in April 2012, we found that firms applying for credit at large national banks had notably less success than firms that applied to small banks.
We also found that the firms applying to large banks tended to be much younger than the firms that applied to small banks. We speculated that this "age factor" could be contributing to the lower overall success rates at large banks.
A difference between small businesses' success at large and small banks has also been documented by the online credit facilitator Biz2Credit. Biz2Credit works a bit like an online dating service—after answering a series of questions (and providing the typical financial documents required by lenders), small businesses are presented with five potential "matches." To determine the best five matches, Biz2Credit identifies what lenders are looking for—usually a certain credit score, a minimum number of years in business, an established banking relationship, and targeted industries.
The resulting credit applications are the basis for the Biz2Credit Small Business Lending Index. Biz2Credit also reports approval rates from the matching process for large banks, small banks, credit unions, and alternative lenders. These approval rates are plotted on the chart below.
Much like we saw in the Small Business Survey, Biz2Credit reports that small firms have had consistently less success in obtaining credit at large banks.
Confirming our results encourages us that our April observation was a good one. But confirmation isn't explanation—what accounts for the different experiences small businesses have in securing credit from small banks versus big banks? And so, we dig deeper.
Note: According to Biz2Credit, its index is based on 1,000 of the 10,000-plus applications submitted each month. To be included, the business has to have at least a 680 credit score, be at least two years old, and have an established relationship with the bank to which it is applying. Selection methods are also applied to provide for national representation.
By Ellyn Terry, senior economic research analyst at the Atlanta Fed
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June 28, 2012
Young versus mature small firms seeking credit
The ongoing tug of war between credit supply and demand issues facing small businesses is captured in this piece in the American Prospect by Merrill Goozner. Goozner asks whether small businesses are facing a tougher borrowing environment than is warranted by current economic conditions. One of the potential factors identified in the article is the relative decline in the number of community banks—down some 1,124 (or 13 percent of all banks from 2007). Community banks have traditionally been viewed as an important source of local financing for businesses and are often thought to be better able to serve the needs of small businesses than large national banks because of their more intimate knowledge of the business and the local community.
The Atlanta Fed's poll of small business can shed some light on this issue. In April we reached out to small businesses across the Sixth Federal Reserve District to ask about financing applications, how satisfied firms were that their financing needs were being met, and general business conditions. About one third of the 419 survey participants applied for credit in the first quarter of 2012, submitting between two and three applications for credit on average. As we've seen in past surveys (the last survey was in October 2011), the most common place to apply for credit was at a bank.
For the April 2012 survey, the table below shows the average success of firms applying to various financing sources (on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 meaning none of the amount requested in the application was obtained, and 4 meaning that the firm received the full amount applied for). The table also shows the median age of businesses applying for each type of financing.
The results in the table show that for credit applications, Small Business Administration loan requests and applications for loans/lines of credit from large national banks tended to be the least successful, whereas applications for vendor trade credit and commercial loans/line-of-credit from community banks had the highest average success rating.
Notably, firms applying for credit at large national banks were typically much younger than firms applying at regional or community banks. If younger firms generally have more difficulty in getting credit regardless of where they apply, it could explain why we saw less success, on average, among firms applying at larger banks.
To investigate this issue, we compared the average application success among young firms (less than six years old) that applied at both regional or community banks and at large national banks, pooling the responses from the last few years of our survey. The credit quality of borrowers is controlled for by looking only at firms that applied at both types of institutions. What we found was no significant difference in the average borrowing success of young firms applying for credit across bank type—it just does seem to be tougher to get your credit needs met at a bank if you're running a young business. Interestingly, we also found that more mature firms were significantly more successful when applying at regional or community banks than at large national banks—it seems to be relatively easier for an established small business to obtain requested credit from a small bank.
While this analysis did not control for other factors that could also affect the likelihood of borrowing success, the results do suggest that Goozner's question about the impact of declining community bank numbers on small business lending is relevant. If small businesses are generally more successful when seeking credit from a small bank, will an ongoing reduction in the number of community banks substantially affect the ability of (mature) small businesses to get credit? More detailed insights from the April 2012 Small Business Credit Survey will be available soon on our Small Business Focus website, and we will provide an update when they are posted.
Ellyn Terry, senior economic research analyst, both of the Atlanta Fed's research department
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May 31, 2012
What is shadow banking?
"Shadow banking is a market-funded, credit intermediation system involving maturity and/or liquidity transformation through securitization and secured-funding mechanisms. It exists at least partly outside of the traditional banking system and does not have government guarantees in the form of insurance or access to the central bank."
As the Deloitte study makes clear, this definition is fairly narrow—it doesn't, for example, include hedge funds. Though Deloitte puts the size of the shadow banking sector at $10 trillion in 2010, other well-known measures range from $15 trillion to $24 trillion. (One of those alternative estimates comes from an important study by Zoltan Pozsar, Tobias Adrian, Adam Ashcraft, and Hayley Boesky from the New York Fed.)
What definition of shadow banking you prefer probably depends on the questions you are trying to answer. Since the interest in shadow banking today is clearly motivated by the financial crisis and its regulatory aftermath, a definition that focuses on systemically risky institutions has a lot of appeal. And not all entities that might be reasonably put in the shadow banking bucket fall into the systemically risky category. Former PIMCO Senior Partner Paul McCulley offered this perspective at the Atlanta Fed's recent annual Financial Markets Conference (video link here):
"...clearly, the money market mutual fund, that 2a-7 fund as it's known here in the United States, is the bedrock of the shadow banking system...
"The money market mutual fund industry is a huge industry and poses massive systemic risk to the system because it's subject to runs, because it's not just as good as an FDIC bank deposit. We found out that in spades in 2008...
"In fact, I can come up with an example of shadow banking that really didn't have a deleterious effect in 2008, and that was hedge funds with very long lockups on their liability. So hedge funds are shadow banks that are levered up intermediaries, but by having long lockups on their liabilities, then they weren't part and parcel of a run because they were locked up."
The more narrow Deloitte definition is thus very much in the spirit of the systemic risk definition. But even though this measure does not cover all the shadow banking activities with which policymakers might be concerned, other measures of the trend in the size of the sector look pretty much like the one below, which is from the Deloitte report:
The Deloitte report makes this sensible observation regarding the decline in the size of the shadow banking sector:
"Does this mean that the significance of the shadow banking system is overrated? No. The growth of shadow banking was fueled historically by financial innovation. A new activity not previously created could be categorized as shadow banking and could creep back into the system quickly. That new innovation might be but a distant notion at best in someone's mind today, but could pose a systemic risk concern in the future."
Ed Kane, another participant in our recent conference, went one step further with a familiar theme of his: new shadows are guaranteed to emerge, as part of the "regulatory dialectic"—an endless cycle of regulation and market innovation.
In getting to the essence of what the future of shadow banking will (or should) be, I think it is instructive to consider a set of questions that were posed at the conference by Washington University professor Phil Dybvig. I'm highlighting three of his five questions here:
"1. Is creation of liquidity by banks surplus liquidity in the economy or does it serve a useful economic purpose?
"2. How about creation of liquidity by the shadow banking sector? Was it surplus? Did it represent liquidity banks could have provided?...
"5. If there was too much liquidity in the economy, why? Some people have argued that it was because of too much stimulus and the government kept interest rates too low (and perhaps the Chinese government had a role as well as the US government). I don't want to take a side on these claims, but it is an important empirical question whether the explosion of the huge shadow banking sector was a distortion that was an unintended side effect of policy or whether it is an essential feature of a healthy economy."
Virtually all regulatory reforms will entail costs (some of them unintended), as well as benefits. Sensible people may come to quite different conclusions about how the scales tip in this regard. A good example is provided by the debate from another session at our conference on reform of money market mutual funds between Eric Rosengren, president of the Boston Fed, and Karen Dunn Kelley of Invesco. And we could see proposals by the Securities and Exchange Commission in the future to enact further reforms to the money market mutual fund industry. But whether any of these efforts are durable solutions to the systemic risk profile of the shadow banking sector must surely depend on the answers to Phil Dybvig's important questions.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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December 02, 2011
The ongoing lender of last resort debate
Two days do not a policy success make, and it is a fool's game to tie the merits of a policy action to a short-term stock market cycle. But at first blush it does certainly appear that Wednesday's announcement of coordinated central bank actions to provide liquidity support to the global financial system had a positive effect. The policy is described in the Board of Governors press release:
"The Bank of Canada, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank, the Federal Reserve, and the Swiss National Bank… have agreed to lower the pricing on the existing temporary U.S. dollar liquidity swap arrangements by 50 basis points so that the new rate will be the U.S. dollar overnight index swap (OIS) rate plus 50 basis points. This pricing will be applied to all operations conducted from December 5, 2011. The authorization of these swap arrangements has been extended to February 1, 2013."
"Under the program, the Fed lends dollars to other central banks, which in turn make the dollars available to banks under their jurisdiction. The action Wednesday made these emergency Fed loans cheaper, lowering their cost by half a percentage point.
"When the Fed launched the swap lines, it saw them as critical to its efforts to tame the financial storm sweeping the globe. Banks in Europe and elsewhere hold U.S. mortgage securities and other U.S. dollar securities. They get U.S. dollars in short-term lending markets to pay for these holdings. In 2008, when dollar loans became scarce, foreign banks were forced to dump their holdings of U.S. mortgages and other loans, which in turn pushed up the cost of credit for Americans.
"The latest action was at least in part an attempt to head off a repeat of such a spiral."
It is at least interesting that this most recent Fed action occurs as criticism of its past actions to address the financial crisis has once again arisen. The immediate driver is another installment in a series of Bloomberg reports that parse recently released details from Fed lending programs during the period from 2007 to 2009.
I have in the past objected to the somewhat conspiratorial tone in which the Bloomberg folks have chosen to cast the conversation. I certainly do not, however, think it objectionable to have a cool-headed conversation on what we can learn from the Fed's actions during the financial crisis and how it might inform policy going forward. Following on the latest Bloomberg article, Felix Salmon and Brad DeLong have taken up that cause.
It may be useful to start with my institution's official answers to the question: Why did the Federal Reserve lend to banks and other financial institutions during the financial crisis?
"Intense strains in financial markets during the financial crisis severely disrupted the flow of credit to U.S. households and businesses and led to a deep downturn in economic activity and a sharp increase in unemployment. Consistent with its statutory mandate to foster maximum employment and stable prices, the Federal Reserve established lending programs during the crisis to address the strains in financial markets, support the flow of credit to American families and firms, and foster economic recovery."
Neither Salmon nor DeLong argues with this assertion, and even the Bloomberg article includes commentary broadly supporting Fed actions, even if not all details of the implementation. More controversial is this observation from the Fed's frequently asked questions (FAQs):
"The Federal Reserve followed sound risk-management practices under all of its liquidity and credit programs. Credit provided under these programs was fully collateralized to protect the Fed—and ultimately the taxpayer—from loss."
Here is where opinions start to diverge. From DeLong:
"In the fall of 2008, counting the Fed and the Treasury together, a peak of 90% of Morgan Stanley's equity—the capital of the firm genuinely at risk—was U.S. government money. That money was genuinely at risk: had Morgan Stanley's assets taken another dive in value and blown through the private-sector's minimal equity cushion, it would have been taxpayers whose money would have been used to pay off the firm's more senior liabilities. 'Fully collateralized' the loans may have been, but had anything impaired that collateral there was no way on God's Green Earth Morgan Stanley—or any of the other banks—could have come up with the money to make the government whole."
And from Salmon:
"The Fed likes to say that it wasn't taking much if any credit risk here: that all its lending was fully collateralized, etc etc. But it's really hard to look at that red line and have a huge amount of confidence that the Fed was always certain to get its money back. Still, this is what lenders of last resort do. And this is what the ECB is most emphatically not doing."
As Salmon's comment makes clear, he does not view these risks as a repudiation of the appropriateness of what the Fed did during the crisis. And if I read Brad DeLong correctly, his main complaint is not about the programs per se, but on the pricing of the support provided to banks:
"When you contribute equity capital, and when things turn out well, you deserve an equity return. When you don't take equity—when you accept the risks but give the return to somebody else—you aren't acting as a good agent for your principals, the taxpayers.
"Thus I do not understand why officials from the Fed and the Treasury keep telling me that the U.S. couldn't or shouldn't have profited immensely from its TARP and other loans to banks. Somebody owns that equity value right now. It's not the government. But when the chips were down it was the government that bore the risk. That's what a lender of last resort does."
I wish that we could stop commingling TARP and the Fed's liquidity programs. At the very least, the legal authorities for the programs were completely distinct, and the Federal Reserve did not have any direct authority for the implementation of the TARP program. But that is probably beside the point for the current discussion. What is germane is the observation that the TARP funds did come with equity warrants issued to the Treasury. So in that case, there was the equity stake that DeLong urges.
As for the Fed programs, here again is a response taken from Fed FAQs:
"As verified by our independent auditors, the Federal Reserve did not incur any losses in connection with its lending programs. In fact, the Federal Reserve has generated very substantial net income since 2007 that has been remitted to the U.S. Treasury."
This observation does not, of course, repudiate Felix Salmon's point that losses may have been incurred, or the DeLong argument that the rates paid for loans from the Fed were not high enough by some metric. Nor should turning a profit be seen as proof that lending policies were sound (just as incurring losses would not be proof that the policies were foolhardy). But doesn't the record at least provide some support for a case that the Fed used reasonable judgment with respect to its lending decisions and acted as prudent steward of taxpayer funds even as it took extraordinary measures to address the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression?
In fact, the main point raised by Felix Salmon is not that risks were taken, but that those risks were not communicated in a transparent way:
"And it's frankly ridiculous that it's taken this long for this information to be made public. We're now fully ten months past the point at which the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission's final report was published; this data would have been extremely useful to them and to all of the rest of us trying to get a grip on what was going on at the height of the crisis. The Fed's argument against publishing the data was that it 'would create a stigma,' and make it less likely that banks would tap similar facilities in future. But I can assure you that at the height of the crisis, the last thing on Morgan Stanley's mind was the worry that its borrowings might be made public three years later. When you need the money, and the Fed is throwing its windows wide open, you don't look that kind of gift horse in the mouth."
One thing I wish to continually stress is that we should be clear about what Bloomberg refers to as "secret loans." One last time from the Fed FAQs:
"All of the Federal Reserve's lending programs were announced prior to implementation and the amounts of support provided were easily tracked in weekly and monthly reports on the Federal Reserve Board's website."
So the missing information was not about the sums of money being lent but the exact details of who was receiving those loans. In most cases, these loans were not targeted to specific institutions, but obtained from open funding facilities such as the Term Auction Facility. And, though you can argue the point, stigma was a real concern, as Chairman Bernanke has testified:
"Many banks, however, were evidently concerned that if they borrowed from the discount window, and that fact somehow became known to market participants, they would be perceived as weak and, consequently, might come under further pressure from creditors. To address this so-called stigma problem, the Federal Reserve created a new discount window program, the Term Auction Facility (TAF). Under the TAF, the Federal Reserve has regularly auctioned large blocks of credit to depository institutions. For various reasons, including the competitive format of the auctions, the TAF has not suffered the stigma of conventional discount window lending and has proved effective for injecting liquidity into the financial system."
Salmon argues that this resolution to the stigma problem would not have been weakened by the current rules that require reporting the lending specifics with a lag. It is a reasonable argument (in what is, as an aside, a balanced and reasoned article by Salmon), and reasonable people can disagree. In any event, lagged reporting of details on the recipients of Fed loans is now the law. As a consequence, if such liquidity programs are needed again we can only hope that Felix Salmon's beliefs turn out to be true.
UPDATE: The Board of Governors has posted a response to recent reports on the Federal Reserve's lending policies.
By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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July 30, 2010
Some observations regarding interest on reserves
One of the livelier discussions following Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's testimony to Congress on monetary policy has revolved around the issue of the payment of interest on bank reserves. Here, for what it's worth, are a few reactions to questions raised by that discussion:
Is interest paid on reserves (IOR) a free lunch?
"… in September of 2008, the Fed decides to pay interest on reserves—including Excess Reserves. The banks can now make 25 times what they pay in interest, risk-free, just by holding onto money. The Fed is, essentially, leaving $100 bills on the sidewalk."
I'm not sure exactly where the "25 times" comes from, but it seems to me that the most obvious transaction would be to borrow in the overnight interbank lending market—the federal funds market—and then "lend" those funds to the Fed by placing them in the Fed's deposit facility. The differential between the return on those options is a good deal lower than a multiple of 25.
In fact, as many have noted before, the puzzle is why the gap between the funds rate and the deposit rate exists at all. As explained on the New York Fed's FAQ sheet:
"With the payment of interest on excess balances, market participants will have little incentive for arranging federal funds transactions at rates below the rate paid on excess. By helping set a floor on market rates in this way, payment of interest on excess balances will enhance the Desk's ability to keep the federal funds rate around the target for the federal funds rate."
It didn't quite work out that way, so clearly there is a limit to arbitrage. But if you really think that an 8 basis point spread between the effective funds rate and the deposit rate is a problem, the best approach would be, in my opinion, to address the institutional arrangements that are limiting arbitrage in the funds market. (Some of those features are discussed here and here.)
What is the opportunity cost of not lending?
That said, certainly the real issue about the IOR policy concerns the presumed incentive for banks to sit on excess reserves rather than putting those reserves into use by creating loans. This, from Bruce Bartlett, is fairly representative of the view that IOR is, at least in part, to blame for the slow pace of credit expansion in the United States:
"… As I pointed out in my column last week, banks have more than $1 trillion of excess reserves—money that the Fed has created that banks could lend immediately but are just sitting on. It's the economic equivalent of stuffing cash under one's mattress.
"Economists are divided on why banks are not lending, but increasingly are focusing on a Fed policy of paying interest on reserves—a policy that began, interestingly enough, on October 9, 2008, at almost exactly the moment when the financial crisis became acute."
OK, but the spread that really matters in the bank lending decision is surely the difference between the return on depositing excess reserves with the Fed versus the return on making loans. In fairness, it does appear that this spread dropped when the IOR was raised from its implicit prior setting of zero…
… but it's also pretty clear that this development largely reflects a general fall in market yields post-October 2008 as much is it does the increase in IOR rate:
And here's another thought: As of now, the IOR policy applies to all reserves, required or excess. Consider the textbook example of a bank that creates a loan. In the simple example, a bank creates a loan asset on its book by creating a checking account for a customer, which is the corresponding liability. It needs reserves to absorb this new liability, of course, so the process of creating a loan converts excess reserves into required reserves. But if the Fed pays the same rate on both required and excess reserves, the bank will have lost nothing in terms of what it collects from the Fed for its reserve deposits. In this simple case, the IOR plays no role in determining the opportunity cost of extending credit.
Of course, the funds created in making a loan may leave the originating bank. Though reserves don't leave the banking system as a whole, they may certainly flow away from an individual institution. So things may not be as nice and neat as my simple example. But at worst, that just brings the question back to the original point: Is the 25 basis point return paid by the central bank creating a significant incentive for banks to sit on reserves rather than lend them out to consumers or businesses? At least some observers are skeptical:
"Barclays Capital's Joseph Abate…noted much of the money that constitutes this giant pile of reserves is 'precautionary liquidity.' If banks didn't get interest from the Fed they would shift those funds into short-term, low-risk markets such as the repo, Treasury bill and agency discount note markets, where the funds are readily accessible in case of need. Put another way, Abate doesn't see this money getting tied up in bank loans or the other activities that would help increase credit, in turn boosting overall economic momentum."
Are there good reasons for paying interest on reserves?
Even if we concede that there is some gain from eliminating or cutting the IOR rate, what of the costs? Tim Duy, quoting the Wall Street Journal, makes note (as does Steve Williamson) of the following comment from the Chairman:
"… Lowering the interest rate it pays on excess reserve—now at 0.25%—could create trouble in money markets, he said.
" 'The rationale for not going all the way to zero has been that we want the short-term money markets, like the federal funds market, to continue to function in a reasonable way,' he said.
" 'Because if rates go to zero, there will be no incentive for buying and selling federal funds—overnight money in the banking system—and if that market shuts down … it'll be more difficult to manage short-term interest rates when the Federal Reserve begins to tighten policy at some point in the future.' "
Professor Duy interprets this as aversion to the possibility that "the failure to meet expectations would be the real cost to the Federal Reserve," but I would have taken the words for exactly what they seem to say—that the skills and infrastructure required to maintain a functioning federal funds rate might atrophy if cutting the rate to zero brings activity in the market to a trickle. And that observation is relevant because of the following, from the minutes of the April 27–28 meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee:
"Meeting participants agreed broadly on key objectives of a longer-run strategy for asset sales and redemptions. The strategy should be consistent with the achievement of the Committee's objectives of maximum employment and price stability. In addition, the strategy should normalize the size and composition of the balance sheet over time. Reducing the size of the balance sheet would decrease the associated reserve balances to amounts consistent with more normal operations of money markets and monetary policy."
"Normal" may not mean the exact status quo ante, but to the extent that federal funds targeting is a desirable part of the picture, it sure will be helpful if a federal funds market exists.
Even if you don't buy that argument—and the point is debatable—it is useful to recall that the IOR policy has long been promoted on efficiency grounds. There is this argument for example, from a New York Fed article published just as the IOR policy was introduced:
"… reserve balances are used to make interbank payments; thus, they serve as the final form of settlement for a vast array of transactions. The quantity of reserves needed for payment purposes typically far exceeds the quantity consistent with the central bank's desired interest rate. As a result, central banks must perform a balancing act, drastically increasing the supply of reserves during the day for payment purposes through the provision of daylight reserves (also called daylight credit) and then shrinking the supply back at the end of the day to be consistent with the desired market interest rate.
"… it is important to understand the tension between the daylight and overnight need for reserves and the potential problems that may arise. One concern is that central banks typically provide daylight reserves by lending directly to banks, which may expose the central bank to substantial credit risk. Such lending may also generate moral hazard problems and exacerbate the too-big-to-fail problem, whereby regulators would be reluctant to close a financially troubled bank."
Put more simply, one broad justification for an IOR policy is precisely that it induces banks to hold quantities of excess reserves that are large enough to mitigate the need for central banks to extend the credit necessary to keep the payments system running efficiently. And, of course, mitigating those needs also means mitigating the attendant risks.
That is not to say that these risks or efficiency costs unambiguously dominate other considerations—for a much deeper discussion I refer you to a recent piece by Tom Sargent. But they should not be lost in the conversation.
By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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June 30, 2010
Keeping an eye on Europe
In June, a third of the economists in the Blue Chip panel of economic forecasters indicated that they had lowered their growth forecast over the next 18 months as a consequence of Europe's debt crisis. When pushed a little further, 31 percent said that weaker exports would be the channel through which this problem would hinder growth, while 69 percent thought that "tighter financial conditions" would be the channel through which debt problems in Europe could hit U.S. shores.
Tighter financial conditions also were mentioned by the Federal Open Market Committee in its last statement, where the committee noted, "Financial conditions have become less supportive of economic growth on balance, largely reflecting developments abroad."
In his speech today, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart identified the European sovereign debt crisis as one of the sources of uncertainty for the U.S. economy that he believes "have clouded the outlook." President Lockhart explicitly expressed his concern that Europe's "continuing and possibly escalating financial market pressures will be transmitted through interconnected banking and capital markets to our economy."
Negative effects from the European sovereign debt crisis can be transmitted to the U.S. economy through a number of financial channels, including higher risk premiums on private securities, a considerable rise in uncertainty, and sharply increased risk aversion. Another important channel is the direct exposure of the U.S. banking sector—both through holdings of troubled European assets and counterparty exposure to European banks, which not only have a substantial exposure to the debt-laden European countries but have also been facing higher funding costs. The LIBOR-OIS spread has widened notably (see the chart below), liquidity is now concentrated in tenors of one week and shorter, and the market has become notably tiered.
Banks in the most affected countries (Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and Italy) and other European banks perceived as having a sizeable exposure to those countries have to pay higher rates and borrow at shorter tenors. Although for now U.S. banks can raise funds more cheaply than many European financial institutions, some analysts believe that there's a risk that the short-term offshore dollar market may become increasingly strained, leading to funding shortages and, conceivably, forced asset sales.
Bank for International Settlements data through the end of December of last year show that the U.S. banking system's risk exposure to the most vulnerable EU countries appears to be manageable. U.S. banks' on-balance sheet financial claims vis-á-vis those countries, adjusted for guarantees and collateral, look substantial in absolute terms but are rather small relative to the size of U.S. banks' total financial assets (see the chart below). The exposure to Spain is the biggest, closely followed by Ireland and Italy. Overall, the five countries account for less than 2 percent of U.S. banks' assets.
U.S. exposure to developed Europe as a whole, however, is much higher at $1.2 trillion, so U.S. financial institutions may feel some pain if the European economy slows down markedly. How likely is a marked slowdown? It's difficult to determine, of course, but when asked about the largest risks facing the U.S. economy over the next year, the Blue Chip forecasters put "spillover effects of Europe's debt crisis" at the top of their list.
By Galina Alexeenko, economic policy analyst at the Atlanta Fed
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