The Flip Side of Qualitative Easing
Vince Reinhart released a fascinating piece on February 25, 2010. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. Here, I’d like to talk about two paragraphs:
How will the Fed raise the short-term market interest rate? The old-fashioned way of tightening monetary policy is to shrink the amount of reserves outstanding by selling assets. Over the past one and a half years, the Fed has piled on securities with long maturities and exposed itself to credit risk. If it sold those assets, it would post considerable losses, deadly to the institution’s already fragile reputation in the current political climate. Instead, the Fed will raise the rate it pays on excess reserves (or deposits of banks at the Fed). Banks will pull up interest rates in the money market as the alternative use of reserves—parking them at the Fed—becomes more remunerative.
Who at the Fed will raise the short-term market interest rate? Congress explicitly gave the authority to raise the interest rate on excess reserves to the Board of Governors (or the seven appointed officials who work in Washington), not the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC, or the board governors and a subset of reserve bank presidents who normally vote on reserve conditions). Thus, the balance of power within the Fed will shift toward the governors when the instrument of policy becomes the interest rate on reserves. (Bernanke elided this issue in his recent testimony when he left the impression that the FOMC will still set policy in conjunction with the board. In fact, the Federal Reserve Act prohibits the board from delegating monetary policy to others.) This matters because two slots on the board are currently open, giving the White House an important opportunity to shape monetary policy through future nominations. Indeed, given natural turnover among governors, President Obama will probably be able to appoint a majority of the board in a single term of office.
In the first paragraph, Vince highlights the flipside of quantitative easing. The Fed bought a bunch of long-term financial assets, the value of which will go down when interest rates go up. Now, owning these assets is a constraint on Fed actions. There is already plenty of pressure to reduce the already-compromised “Fed independence.” Selling those assets at a loss will further increase pressure for more congressional oversight.
This means the Fed will control inflationary pressure by increasing the rate they pay on excess bank deposits at the Fed. That will work, but it will likely have a more negative impact on economic activity than traditional methods. With high risk-free yields at the Fed, banks, already under regulatory pressure, undercapitalized, and risk averse after the 2008 meltdown, will have no incentive to lend. Small business, which traditionally funded growth with bank loans, will have difficulty obtaining capital. Big business, with direct access to debt and equity markets, will have easier access.
Economic growth, therefore, will probably be slower than under traditional Fed tightening, and it will be biased toward big business. Small business, handicapped by an uneven playing field, will almost surely decline as a percentage of business activity.
The second paragraph is important, because it implies that Fed policy will become more political. Given current and projected United States debts levels, political pressure to monetarize the debt will be strong. As debt levels and interest rates increase, interest costs will soar, as will the pressure to inflate. Will a more politicized Fed resist that pressure? I wouldn’t bet on it.
Jeff isn’t buying any of this. He says:
It seems peculiar to me that the Fed would conduct its monetary policy with a major constraint being the effect on its own profitability. While it might be embarrassing to sell some securities at a loss, it would be even more embarrassing to have a portfolio like the thrifts in the 1980s: long-term fixed rate assets funded with short-term liabilities in a rising rate environment. That would look really stupid.
Good point. We’ll see.