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The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.


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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:

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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.

Photo of Dave AltigBy Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed

 

March 8, 2013 in Banking , Fed Funds Futures , Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy , Monetary Policy | Permalink

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Comments

One potential risk this time is that the Fed has been buying lots of assets that aren't treasuries, and some of the riskier assets can no longer be sold for the same price at which it was bought. In theory that situation could leave the Fed unable to recall all the money it put into circulation.

That said, you are right that interest on reserves could still be raised to have the same effects.

Posted by: Matthew Martin | March 08, 2013 at 03:30 PM

"In both cases, the strategy is to induce banks to resist deploying available reserves to expand deposit liabilities and credit."

Banks cannot lend their reserves. In fact, there is no balance sheet transaction that will allow a central bank liability to be loaned to a "non-bank" entity. Banks make loans by issuing a demand deposit and not by issuing reserves. Bank lending is never constrained by a reserve position.

The IoER policy implemented in 2008 moved the Federal Reserve out of a "corridor system" and into a "floor system". Under a floor system the level of reserves and the overnight interest rate are divorced. The IoER or "floor level" also becomes the deposit level. This disconnect works as long as there are sufficient excess reserves within the system, which in the case of the US, there are adequate excess reserves.

It should also be noted that future increases in the overnight rate are simply announced with the lending and deposit rates changing in tandem. Traditional models of draining reserves via FOMO are no longer required. Reserves are not the dual of overnight interest rates. Thus, when the Fed would like to "tighten" policy it will not be required to reduce the size of it's balance sheet as draining operations are no longer required to hit the overnight target.

Posted by: JJTV | March 08, 2013 at 05:58 PM

How about changing how monetary policy is conducted? Instead of using the blocked and saturated credit markets for monetary policy just bypass them and modify the fed so it deals directly with the public.

www.internationalmonetary.wordpress.com

Posted by: Daniel | March 09, 2013 at 12:55 AM

If the fed marks up its long position and passes the gain to the treasury wont it have to pass the loss when it hikes the fed rate? and what will be the impact to treasurys when it hikes the fed rate? wont it raise the cost to the government budget when rates go up and it has to finance the debt at 110% debt to gdp and a duration of less than 5 thanks to the fed? Aren't we underestimating the potential damage to hiking rates?

Posted by: Emilio Lamar | May 01, 2013 at 02:33 PM

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