By L. Randall Wray
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
As reported in the NYT yesterday, the Fed has decided to offer banks an interest-paying CD. So far, so good. However, the argument offered by the Fed to justify this "innovation" is that it needs to start mopping up reserves in order to prevent inflation:
The Federal Reserve on Monday proposed allowing banks to park their reserves at the central bank, a move aimed at weaning the economy off extraordinary infusions of cash and curbing inflation. The Fed would create the equivalent of a certificate of deposit that pays interest to banks for keeping some of their reserves — which are currently estimated at more than $1 trillion — for up to one year. That would help offset some of the $2.2 trillion the central bank has fanned out into the economy during the financial crisis. It also would allow the Fed to quickly entice banks to take more money out of circulation in case inflation emerged as a serious threat in the near future. The proposal was the latest sign the Fed is intensifying its efforts to scale back the vast amounts of money it pumped into the economy at the height of the crisis.
This blog has published a number of pieces explaining why there is no need to worry about the trillions of dollars of reserves and cash created by the Fed to deal with the run to liquidity set-off by this crisis (see here and here). As and when banks decide they do not want to hold reserves, they will retire their loans at the discount window and will begin to purchase higher-earning assets. As this pushes up asset prices (reducing interest rates), the Fed will begin to unwind its balance sheet—selling the assets it purchased during the crisis. Retiring discount window loans plus purchases of assets from the Fed will eliminate undesired reserve holdings. It is all automatic and nothing to worry about or to plan for. And it will not set off a round of inflation. The old "money multiplier" view according to which excess reserves cause banks to lend, which induces spending, which causes inflation, was abandoned by all serious monetary theorists long ago. Chairman Bernanke ought to abandon it, too.
However, there is nothing wrong with offering longer-maturity CDs to replace overnight reserve deposits held by banks at the Fed. Banks are content to hold deposits at the Fed—safe assets that earn a little interest. They are hoping to play the yield curve to get some positive earnings in order to rebuild capital. If they can issue liabilities at an even lower interest rate so that earnings on deposits at the Fed cover interest and other costs of financing their positions in assets, this strategy might work. That is what they did in the early 1990s, allowing banks that were insolvent to work their way back to profitability. The Fed could even lend to banks at 25 basis points (0.25% interest) so that they could buy the CDs, then pay them, say, 100 or 200 basis points (1% or 2% interest) on their longer maturity CDs. The net interest earned could tide them over until it becomes appropriate for them to resume lending to households and firms.
Finally, note that these new CDs are equivalent to Treasuries: government debt that pays interest. However, no one has castigated the Fed for proposing to bankrupt our grandchildren by running up debt. Apparently, this is because economists and policymakers recognize that the Fed is just substituting one kind of liability (reserves) for another kind of liability (CDs). But that is exactly what a sale of a Treasury bond does: it substitutes one government liability (Fed reserves) for another government liability (Treasury bonds). Operationally, it all amounts to the same thing. Once this is recognized, the Treasury can stop issuing debt, we can all stop worrying about our grandchildren, and our nation can get on with ramping up fiscal policy to get out of this economic crisis.