The Fed Has Painted Itself Into A Corner? They Need A Helicopter Rescue

A Benjamin Cole post

Fed officials speak copiously and continuously about their unfulfilled urge for higher interest rates. This is a deep desire that U.S. central bankers were able to somewhat satiate from the early 1980s to 2008.

It is true that through much of the 1980-2008 period many Fed-rate increases led to lower inflation, and to weaker growth and sometimes recession, leading to lower interest rates. Rates were in long-term secular decline, but there were those euphoric passages (for central bankers) when rates could again be boosted, as during any economic recovery.

But, as Milton Friedman noted, 1) a central bank cannot tighten its way to higher interest rates forever, and 2) nominally low interest rates are a sign that money has been tight.

A couple generations of money-tightening has produced predictable results of low interest rates, low growth, as well as miniscule inflation.

The Fed is presently trapped. The central bank has little grip on long-term rates, now near historic lows. So raising the Fed funds rate and interest on excess reserves (IOER), will only dampen long-term rates again, the opposite of what the Fed says it wants.

IOER

And then there is the tar baby the Fed tossed into the corner into which it then painted itself: IOER.

Banks make money “on the spread,” that is the difference between borrowing costs and lending returns, usually about 300 basis points. Banks have overhead, labor costs, fancy HQs so that spread gets cut thin on the way to the bottom line.

But now banks collect 0.50% on IOER, the same reserves hugely swollen by QE. The Fed is eager to boost that to 0.75% soon, and possibly even higher in the 12 months ahead.

At some point it will make sense to banks to do nothing.

IOER may be one reason why U.S. commercial real estate loan volume only reached 2007 levels again in late 2015. Actually, 2016 has been a decent year for commercial real estate loan volume—finally eclipsing 2007 levels—but if the Fed raises IOER again, perhaps the IOER will be higher than the profit on a commercial property loan. The banks can go golfing on the 0.75% they make for keeping money in the vault.

Nirvana for central and commercial bankers at last!

Yet this problem of IOER-addled banks is doubly important, as many say it is banks that expand the money supply, when they extend a loan. Before QE, the main creation of new money was through bank lending, and banks primarily lend on real estate.

This gets into the whole exogenous v. endogenous expansion of the money supply dispute, which can put any sane person into knots for days.

But suffice it to say, the Fed is following a reckless and suppressive mission with a view towards higher IOER. The money hose could run dry long before the Fed could arrange tools to replenish the supply.

Paying banks to do nothing is an imprudent and dangerous precedent, and of course, only banks will closely monitor and lobby this IOER issue going forward. Like any federal dope, it will quickly become addictive.

Conclusion

The Fed likely should have never paid IOER.  But what is done is done. This makes the quantitative easing (QE) option going forward more problematic, as banks will accrue even more indolence-inducing reserves.

But the US will enter recession again someday, and likely with interest rates near or lower than today’s levels.

Really, the only recourse is to the helicopters. And that begs the question: Why wait until there is a deep recession again? How about preventative air drops anytime core-PCE dips below 2% YOY?

Or, better yet, whenever NGDP growth drops below 5%?

4 thoughts on “The Fed Has Painted Itself Into A Corner? They Need A Helicopter Rescue

  1. Not sure why you have to muddy the water with helicopter drops (excuse the mixed metaphor). If the Treasury or Congress ruled that the Fed had to ease anytime core PCE got below 2% that would do the trick. Instead of the current implied 2% ceiling what about an explicit 2% floor? Chuck Norris would do the rest.

  2. I think that if the Fed just went back to 0% IOER, we’d see sufficient nominal (and real) growth. If they don’t do that, they will run into a problem (really painting themselves into a corner). The problem is that 50 bps IOER is already higher than what they earn on any Treasury they own with a maturity of less than 12 months. It’s conceivable that in a couple of years they could end up with a set of assets that won’t pay the IOER they’d like to pay.

  3. James and bill: thanks for reading. Maybe the Chuck Norris effect is real. Or maybe no one believes anything a government official says anymore. Or maybe 90% of Americans do not even know what is the central bank.

    I think judicious use of helicopter money is a good idea.

  4. Benjamin, I was a proponent of helicopter money for the US for about 5 years. And will support it again during the next recession. I still support it today for the ECB. I like the idea as a tool.

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