Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bye-bye Fed funds target 

Any number of people seem to want Fed Chair Ben Bernanke to tell us when he will exit from the extraordinary monetary policy of the last two years. Yesterday in written testimony to Congress (he will appear when Congress gets over Snowmaggedon), Bernanke outlined a strategy, but didn't give a date for when he would execute it.

�Although at present the U.S. economy continues to require the support of highly accommodative monetary policies, at some point the Federal Reserve will need to tighten financial conditions by raising short-term interest rates and reducing the quantity of bank reserves outstanding,� he wrote.

�We have spent considerable effort in developing the tools we will need to remove policy accommodation, and we are fully confident that at the appropriate time we will be able to do so effectively.�

Mr. Bernanke, however, did provide new details of a major concern: how, as the recovery proceeds, to gradually shrink the balance sheet, which along with a vast array of assets also includes $1.1 trillion that banks are holding with the Fed.

Mr. Bernanke suggested that a new policy tool � the interest rate on excess reserves, which the Fed began paying in October 2008 � would be a vital part of the Fed�s strategy.

Increasing that interest rate, he said, will have the effect of pushing up other short-term interest rates, including the benchmark fed funds rate � the rate at which banks lend to each other overnight.

The text is here. In it Bernanke also suggests a new instrument for removing excess reserves from the system, a term deposit banks could make to the Fed that would compete with Treasuries as a store of liquidity for them.
The Federal Reserve would likely auction large blocks of such deposits, thus converting a portion of depository institutions' reserve balances into deposits that could not be used to meet their very short-term liquidity needs and could not be counted as reserves. A proposal describing a term deposit facility was recently published in the Federal Register, and we are currently analyzing the public comments that have been received. ... we expect to be able to conduct test transactions this spring and to have the facility available if necessary shortly thereafter. Reverse repos and the deposit facility would together allow the Federal Reserve to drain hundreds of billions of dollars of reserves from the banking system quite quickly, should it choose to do so.
Both new instruments provide a means by which the Fed can increase its balance sheet without impacting the money supply, by inducing banks not to use their excess reserves for deposit expansion. I was familiar with both these instruments in Macedonia, where excess reserves were close to 30% of the money supply. The problem there was that it created flabby banks unwilling to lend, since easy government revenue was close at hand. The Fed does not directly spend taxpayer dollars, but its remission of excess earnings from its portfolio to the Treasury would be shifted to banks, and that indirectly expands the government's need for additional debt to cover its spending. That's not likely to go over well.

The biggest signal was not a date but a statement that the Federal funds rate would no longer be a policy instrument for the Fed, at least for awhile:
As a result of the very large volume of reserves in the banking system, the level of activity and liquidity in the federal funds market has declined considerably, raising the possibility that the federal funds rate could for a time become a less reliable indicator than usual of conditions in short-term money markets. Accordingly, the Federal Reserve is considering the utility, during the transition to a more normal policy configuration, of communicating the stance of policy in terms of another operating target, such as an alternative short-term interest rate. In particular, it is possible that the Federal Reserve could for a time use the interest rate paid on reserves, in combination with targets for reserve quantities, as a guide to its policy stance, while simultaneously monitoring a range of market rates. No decision has been made on this issue; we will be guided in part by the evolution of the federal funds market as policy accommodation is withdrawn. The Federal Reserve anticipates that it will eventually return to an operating framework with much lower reserve balances than at present and with the federal funds rate as the operating target for policy.
The last time the Fed abandoned the Fed funds target was October 1979, when then-Chair Paul Volcker thought it more prudent to stop inflation by using a target on reserves. That lasted perhaps three years, maybe less (see Alton Gilbert for more.) That period led to rather high volatility in interest rates may have contributed to the double-dip recessions in 1980-82.

It would be fair criticism of the above to say we really haven't used the Fed funds target for awhile and that this is just recognition of reality. But the FOMC statement still focused on it, and the Fed had not enunciated until yesterday what we might look at for an alternative target. Now we have. This will make reading the next FOMC statement on March 16 very interesting indeed.

UPDATE: John Taylor doesn't like the term deposits from the Fed to the banks.
In my view, Fed borrowing instruments should be avoided as much as possible because they delay essential adjustments in reserves and create precedents which make it easier to deviate from the monetary framework in the future. Similarly, the instrument of paying interest on reserves to achieve the short term interest rate target should be used only during a well defined transition period.
He argues instead for a rule that ties Fed fund rate increases to a decrease in reserves. It would make Fed policy more predictable.
[P]olicy makers could treat this exit rule as an exit guideline rather than a mechanical formula to be followed literally, much as a policy rule for the interest rate is treated as a guideline rather than mechanical formula. They would vote on how much to reduce reserves at each meeting along with the interest rate vote. Note that the exit rule would we working in tandem with a policy rule for the interest rate, such as the Taylor rule.
With all that's going on in Europe, this might be sliding under the radar. It shouldn't.

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