The Fed Is Responsible for the Crash in the Money Multiplier … And the Failure of the Economy to Recover

Greg Mankiw noted in January 2009:

Econ prof Bill Seyfried of Rollins College emails me:

Here’s an interesting fact that you may not have seen yet. The M1 money multiplier just slipped below 1. So each $1 increase in reserves (monetary base) results in the money supply increasing by $0.95 (OK, so banks have substantially increased their holding of excess reserves while the M1 money supply hasn’t changed by much).

Since January 2009, the M1 Money Multiplier has crashed further, to .786 in the U.S. as of February 24, 2010:

(Click for full image; underlying data is here)

That means that – for every $1 increase in the monetary base – the money supply only increases by 79 cents.

Why is M1 crashing?

Because the banks continue to build up their excess reserves, instead of lending out money:

(Click for full image)

These excess reserves, of course, are deposited at the Fed:

(Click for full image)

Why are banks building up their excess reserves?

As the Fed notes:

The Federal Reserve Banks pay interest on required reserve balances–balances held at Reserve Banks to satisfy reserve requirements–and on excess balances–balances held in excess of required reserve balances and contractual clearing balances.

The New York Fed itself said in a July 2009 staff report that the excess reserves are almost entirely due to Fed policy:

Since September 2008, the quantity of reserves in the U.S. banking system has grown dramatically, as shown in Figure 1.1 Prior to the onset of the financial crisis, required reserves were about $40 billion and excess reserves were roughly $1.5 billion. Excess reserves spiked to around $9 billion in August 2007, but then quickly returned to pre-crisis levels and remained there until the middle of September 2008. Following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, however, total reserves began to grow rapidly, climbing above $900 billion by January 2009. As the figure shows, almost all of the increase was in excess reserves. While required reserves rose from $44 billion to $60 billion over this period, this change was dwarfed by the large and unprecedented rise in excess reserves.

[Figure 1 is here]

Why are banks holding so many excess reserves? What do the data in Figure 1 tell us about current economic conditions and about bank lending behavior? Some observers claim that the large increase in excess reserves implies that many of the policies introduced by the Federal Reserve in response to the financial crisis have been ineffective. Rather than promoting the flow of credit to firms and households, it is argued, the data shown in Figure 1 indicate that the money lent to banks and other intermediaries by the Federal Reserve since September 2008 is simply sitting idle in banks’ reserve accounts. Edlin and Jaffee (2009), for example, identify the high level of excess reserves as either the “problem” behind the continuing credit crunch or “if not the problem, one heckuva symptom” (p.2). Commentators have asked why banks are choosing to hold so many reserves instead of lending them out, and some claim that inducing banks to lend their excess reserves is crucial for resolving the credit crisis.

This view has lead to proposals aimed at discouraging banks from holding excess reserves, such as placing a tax on excess reserves (Sumner, 2009) or setting a cap on the amount of excess reserves each bank is allowed to hold (Dasgupta, 2009). Mankiw (2009) discusses historical concerns about people hoarding money during times of financial stress and mentions proposals that were made to tax money holdings in order to encourage lending. He relates these historical episodes to the current situation by noting that “[w]ith banks now holding substantial excess reserves, [this historical] concern about cash hoarding suddenly seems very modern.”

[In fact, however,] the total level of reserves in the banking system is determined almost entirely by the actions of the central bank and is not affected by private banks’ lending decisions.

The liquidity facilities introduced by the Federal Reserve in response to the crisis have created a large quantity of reserves. While changes in bank lending behavior may lead to small changes in the level of required reserves, the vast majority of the newly-created reserves will end up being held as excess reserves almost no matter how banks react. In other words, the quantity of excess reserves depicted in Figure 1 reflects the size of the Federal Reserve’s policy initiatives, but says little or nothing about their effects on bank lending or on the economy more broadly.

This conclusion may seem strange, at first glance, to readers familiar with textbook presentations of the money multiplier.

Why Is The Fed Locking Up Excess Reserves?

Why is the Fed locking up excess reserves?

As Fed Vice Chairman Donald Kohn said in a speech on April 18, 2009:

We are paying interest on excess reserves, which we can use to help provide a floor for the federal funds rate, as it does for other central banks, even if declines in lending or open market operations are not sufficient to bring reserves down to the desired level.

Kohn said in a speech on January 3, 2010:

Because we can now pay interest on excess reserves, we can raise short-term interest rates even with an extraordinarily large volume of reserves in the banking system. Increasing the rate we offer to banks on deposits at the Federal Reserve will put upward pressure on all short-term interest rates.

As the Minneapolis Fed’s research consultant, V. V. Chari, wrote this month:

Currently, U.S. banks hold more than $1.1 trillion of reserves with the Federal Reserve System. To restrict excessive flow of reserves back into the economy, the Fed could increase the interest rate it pays on these reserves. Doing so would not only discourage banks from draining their reserve holdings, but would also exert upward pressure on broader market interest rates, since only rates higher than the overnight reserve rate would attract bank funds. In addition, paying interest on reserves is supported by economic theory as a means of reducing monetary inefficiencies, a concept referred to as “the Friedman rule.”

And the conclusion to the above-linked New York Fed article states:

We also discussed the importance of paying interest on reserves when the level of excess reserves is unusually high, as the Federal Reserve began to do in October 2008. Paying interest on reserves allows a central bank to maintain its influence over market interest rates independent of the quantity of reserves created by its liquidity facilities. The central bank can then let the size of these facilities be determined by conditions in the financial sector, while setting its target for the short-term interest rate based on macroeconomic conditions. This ability to separate monetary policy from the quantity of bank reserves is particularly important during the recovery from a financial crisis. If inflationary pressures begin to appear while the liquidity facilities are still in use, the central bank can use its interest-on-reserves policy to raise interest rates without necessarily removing all of the reserves created by the facilities.

As the NY Fed explains in more detail:

The central bank paid interest on reserves to prevent the increase in reserves from driving market interest rates below the level it deemed appropriate given macroeconomic conditions. In such a situation, the absence of a money-multiplier effect should be neither surprising nor troubling.

Is the large quantity of reserves inflationary?

Some observers have expressed concern that the large quantity of reserves will lead to an increase in the inflation rate unless the Federal Reserve acts to remove them quickly once the economy begins to recover. Meltzer (2009), for example, worries that “the enormous increase in bank reserves — caused by the Fed’s purchases of bonds and mortgages — will surely bring on severe inflation if allowed to remain.” Feldstein (2009) expresses similar concern that “when the economy begins to recover, these reserves can be converted into new loans and faster money growth” that will eventually prove inflationary. Under a traditional operational framework, where the central bank influences interest rates and the level of economic activity by changing the quantity of reserves, this concern would be well justified. Now that the Federal Reserve is paying interest on reserves, however, matters are different.

When the economy begins to recover, firms will have more profitable opportunities to invest, increasing their demands for bank loans. Consequently, banks will be presented with more lending opportunities that are profitable at the current level of interest rates. As banks lend more, new deposits will be created and the general level of economic activity will increase. Left unchecked, this growth in lending and economic activity may generate inflationary pressures. Under a traditional operating framework, where no interest is paid on reserves, the central bank must remove nearly all of the excess reserves from the banking system in order to arrest this process. Only by removing these excess reserves can the central bank limit banks’ willingness to lend to firms and households and cause short-term interest rates to rise.

Paying interest on reserves breaks this link between the quantity of reserves and banks’ willingness to lend. By raising the interest rate paid on reserves, the central bank can increase market interest rates and slow the growth of bank lending and economic activity without changing the quantity of reserves. In other words, paying interest on reserves allows the central bank to follow a path for short-term interest rates that is independent of the level of reserves. By choosing this path appropriately, the central bank can guard against inflationary pressures even if financial conditions lead it to maintain a high level of excess reserves.

This logic applies equally well when financial conditions are normal. A central bank may choose to maintain a high level of reserve balances in normal times because doing so offers some important advantages, particularly regarding the operation of the payments system. For example, when banks hold more reserves they tend to rely less on daylight credit from the central bank for payments purposes. They also tend to send payments earlier in the day, on average, which reduces the likelihood of a significant operational disruption or of gridlock in the payments system. To capture these benefits, a central bank may choose to create a high level of reserves as a part of its normal operations, again using the interest rate it pays on reserves to influence market interest rates.

Because financial conditions are not “normal”, it appears that preventing inflation seems to be the Fed’s overriding purpose in creating conditions ensuring high levels of excess reserves.

The Fed Has Failed Once Again

I believe that the Fed’s efforts to ensure excess reserves are completely wrong, as deflation is the greater short-term threat. See this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this.

However, regardless of whether or not the Fed has been right to worry about inflation since it started paying interest on excess reserves in October 2008, the real cost of this program to the American people and the American economy has been staggering.

In October 2009:

Otmar Issing, the ECB’s former chief economist, told an Open Europe forum in London that policymakers are entering treacherous waters. “Nobody can be sure that we have a self-sustaining recovery. The challenges facing the ECB are tremendous,” he said.

Money multipliers have collapsed everywhere. What M3 is telling us is that confidence is missing. I don’t see any way to stabilise M3 in such circumstances,” he said.

As Barron’s notes:

The multiplier’s decline “corresponds so exactly to the expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet,” says Constance Hunter, economist at hedge-fund firm Galtere. “It hits at the core of the problem in a credit crisis. Until [the multiplier] expands, we can’t get sustainable growth of credit, jobs, consumption, housing. When the multiplier starts to go back up toward 1.8, then we know the psychological logjam has begun to break.”

As I wrote last October:

Professor Tim Congdon from International Monetary Research says:
A key reason for credit contraction is pressure on banks to raise their capital ratios… “The current drive to make banks less leveraged and safer is having the perverse consequence of destroying money balances,” he said. “It strengthens the deflationary forces in the world economy. That increases the risks of a double-dip recession in 2010.”

But isn’t it good that governments are requiring banks to raise their capital ratios?

Sure, but unless they force the banks to write off their bad debts, they will remain giant black holes, and will never be adequately capitalized. If they are never adequately capitalized, they will never release money out into the economy through loans and other economic activity …

As just one example, remember that the nominative amount of outstanding derivatives dwarfs the size of the global economy. As another example, remember that several of the too big to fails have close to a trillion dollars each in toxic assets in off-book SIVs.

IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn says that the history of financial crises shows that “speedy recovery” depends on “cleansing banks’ balance sheets of toxic assets”. “The message of all financial crises is that policy-makers’ priority must be to stop the quantity of money falling and, ideally, to get it rising again,” he said.

As many people have repeatedly written (including me), the world’s governments must restore sound economic fundamentals – which includes forcing banks to write down their bad assets – instead of cranking up the printing presses and trying to paper over all of the problems.

Moreover, as [we] have pointed out, governments can create all the credit they want, but if people do not have jobs, they will not borrow that money.

In addition, the amount of credit and wealth destroyed exceeds the amount of money pumped into the system.

When will the politicians listen? Will they wait until after the next huge market crash? When there are tent cities everywhere? After their governments default and they essentially lose sovereignty under “austerity measures” imposed by the IMF, World Bank or other agency?

Note 1: The NY Fed actually says that the M1 money multiplier is now moot as a metric. Specifically, the above-discussed paper states that the central bank’s policy of paying interest on excess reserves renders the M1 money multiplier – that all economists rely on – useless.

Note 2: It’s not just the Fed. The NY Fed report notes:

Most central banks now pay interest on reserves.

Note 3: I understand that consumers’ balance sheets are so impaired that many are not looking for loans. However, many consumers and small businesses are looking for credit, and are being turned down.

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