Isn’t this Obama’s plan:
The Federal Reserve will have to confront the costs of its massive balance-sheet expansion when policy makers raise interest rates.
The U.S. central bank’s exit strategy from unprecedented stimulus looks set to send big ripples through the financial system once it begins. These could hit the economy faster than they did in past tightening cycles, as rate rises radiate through a banking system constrained by new regulations and flooded with cash created by the Fed’s bond-buying program.
The question is what that means for the economy and how it alters Fed Chair Janet Yellen’s calculus over the pace of tightening. Understanding the plumbing of the new financial landscape will be vital for policy makers trying to fine-tune the economy and investors navigating turbulent markets.
“There are three or four things about how the financial system works that most people didn’t understand and didn’t really need to understand before 2008,” said Peter Stella, who led the central banking and monetary and foreign exchange operations divisions of the International Monetary Fund from 2005 to 2009. “They still don’t understand them, so I think there’s a lot of risk of volatility when things actually start happening.”
Yellen and her colleagues on the Federal Open Market Committee wrap up a two-day meeting on Thursday to debate whether to increase the benchmark federal funds rate, which they have held near zero since late 2008. If and when they do move, it won’t be like before, and they’ll be using new tools to lift rates higher.
In the past, the central bank kept the fed funds rate at or near the target chosen by policy makers by injecting or draining bank reserves from the system via the New York Fed’s trading desk. The amounts of cash involved were small and the Fed was pretty good at hitting its desired rate. Not anymore.
Three rounds of so-called quantitative easing from 2008 to 2014, in which the Fed bought bonds to support the economy, has swamped banks with cash — deposited with them by investors who sold bonds to the Fed. That added $2.6 trillion of reserves in excess of requirements to banks’ accounts held at the Fed. It also boosted the size of the Fed’s own balance sheet to $4.5 trillion, a five-fold increase from pre-crisis levels.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen when we lift off,” Simon Potter, the New York Fed official in charge of the trading desk, said in April, answering questions after a speech. “We’re pretty sure that we have the ability to lift rates at the initial point.”
With so much cash and little need for banks to borrow in the fed funds market, the Fed has lost the ability to lift the funds rate in the way that it did before the crisis. It has also decided for now against selling the bonds back to investors, which would shrink its own balance sheet and extinguish the excess reserves.
Instead, Fed officials designed new tools to help the central bank raise rates without reducing its balance sheet, which it hopes to slowly shrink over years by letting the bonds it now holds mature, without reinvestment. Officials say they expect to phase out reinvestments sometime after liftoff.
Their main innovation, an overnight reverse repurchase agreement facility, is a powerful solution, but heavy usage may cause problems for banks trying to comply with new regulations installed in the wake of the financial crisis, said Zoltan Pozsar, director of U.S. economics at Credit Suisse Securities USA LLC in New York.
The facility promises to drain reserves from the banks by encouraging investors to withdraw the deposits created when they sold bonds to the Fed, and place the cash in money-market mutual funds.
Through overnight reverse repos, the Fed can borrow the cash from money funds at a specified rate and post securities as collateral, unwinding the trades the next day. In effect, the Fed will be borrowing back the money it created to buy the bonds while cutting out the middlemen in the banking system.
The problem: Banks aren’t sure exactly how much of their deposits they will cede to money-market funds once the Fed starts raising rates, or whose money or how fast. All of those things are important to understand for banks trying to stay in compliance with the liquidity coverage ratio, a major new pillar of global post-crisis banking regulation.
“To the extent that the financial regulations affect behavior in the overnight markets, that will make a difference,” said Stephen Williamson, an economist with the St. Louis Fed. “These are all things we’re thinking about.”
The liquidity rule requires banks to hold more cash and other “high-quality liquid assets” like Treasuries and government-backed mortgage bonds against their deposit base to protect themselves from runs. Because they can hold less cash against retail deposits than investor deposits, they will probably raise retail-deposit rates aggressively to hang on to these customers, according to Pozsar, who previously studied the plumbing of the post-crisis financial system in positions at the New York Fed and U.S. Treasury.
“They are going to fight for retail deposits like you’ve never seen them fight for retail deposits before,” Pozsar said. “That is going to be basically the defining feature of this hiking cycle.”
The upshot: Credit will become more expensive faster than in previous tightening cycles as banks pass higher deposit costs on to borrowers in an effort to maintain profitability. The effects will probably become larger after the Fed’s second or third rate increase, according to Justin Fuller, a senior director at Fitch Ratings in Chicago.
“When you start to get up to 50 to 100 basis points of tightening and higher, that is when you start seeing much more competition by banks for operational retail-oriented deposits,” Fuller said. “Banks all over the country will be doing this.”
The potential side effects of rate increases with so much cash in the system and unfamiliar new regulations will make the Fed’s attempts to fine-tune the economy a lot more challenging, according to Michael Cloherty, head of U.S. interest-rate strategy at RBC Capital Markets LLC in New York.
“Under the old framework, you had 100 years of history to say: ‘If I raise the funds rate, I have a pretty good feel of how it hits the economy,’” Cloherty said. “It will take the Fed a really long time to figure out how the new world works.”
Cloherty estimates banks could see almost $1.5 trillion of deposits leave by the end of 2017, with $625 billion of it going to money funds, which would put it in the Fed’s overnight reverse repo facility. Those numbers jump to nearly $2.3 trillion and $900 billion in a worst-case scenario.
If that happens, markets will get more volatile as banks make on-the-fly adjustments to their portfolios in response to unexpected deposit losses.
“Someone won’t get things right,” Pozsar and his Credit Suisse colleague James Sweeney wrote in an Aug. 28 report. Volatility may spike for Treasuries maturing in three to five years because those are the ones banks have been buying to meet liquidity requirements, they said.
If the Fed stops reinvesting the proceeds of maturing securities in its portfolio and allows its balance sheet to shrink, that could mitigate some of the pressure on banks, even though it would be draining reserves, according to Todd Keister, an economics professor at Rutgers University who worked at the New York Fed from 2007 to 2012.
“A lot of the assets that banks potentially could hold” to meet their liquidity requirement are being held by the Fed, Keister said. Letting bonds mature and forcing the Treasury to issue replacement debt to the public would open up another source of high quality liquid assets for banks.
The Fed also has to contend with other potential hidden effects of pumping money onto bank balance sheets that are waiting to surface.
According to Jens Christensen, an economist at the San Francisco Fed, the challenge is compounded because data on the effect of the Fed’s reserve injections on bank behavior is hard to come by.
“Quantitative easing — just the name — should maybe make people look into what quantities are moving where, but we rarely track that,” Christensen said.
The challenge facing policy makers recalls the aftermath of World War II, according to Perry Mehrling, an economics professor at Barnard College in New York, when the nation was also adjusting to a long period of Fed intervention in markets.
“We’ve been through a period like a war, and it takes a long time to get from war finance to peace finance,” Mehrling said. “That is what we’re dealing with here.”