Tag: Federal Reserve

A New Fed-Treasury Accord

Charles Plosser, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, gave an important speech last week.  He mounted a strong defense of what is known as Fed independence. “Central bank independence means the central bank can make monetary policy decisions without fear of direct political interference.”

Toward the end of the speech, Plosser admitted the Fed had brought criticism down on itself by blurring the line between monetary and fiscal policy.  In the process, the central bank greatly expanded its balance sheet and substituted “less liquid, long-term assets, such as securities backed by mortgages guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for the short-term securities it typically held before the crisis.”

To extricate itself from conducting fiscal policy and get back to doing conventional monetary policy, Plosser called for a new Fed-Treasury Accord.  (He harkened back to the Accord of 1951, which ended the Fed’s wartime obligation to support the prices of Treasury bonds.)  Under the proposal, the Fed would swap out its illiquid assets for Treasury obligations.  Responsibility for public support of housing would revert to Treasury and be subject to Congressional appropriations.

Additionally, and very importantly, Plosser recommended ending or severely curtailing the Fed’s expanded lending authority, which enabled it to balloon its balance sheet and conduct fiscal policy. (That is the section 13(3) authority.) “Never again” is the message of Plosser’s speech.

It was a landmark speech by a high Fed official.

Five Decades of Federal Spending

The chart below shows federal spending in three component parts over the last five decades. It includes Obama’s proposed spending in 2011. Here are a few thoughts on the recent spending trends:

Defense: In the post-9/11 years, defense spending bumped up to a higher plateau of around 4 percent of GDP. But now we have jumped to an even higher level of around 4.9 percent of GDP.

Interest: The Federal Reserve’s easy money policies reduced federal interest payments in recent years. That is coming to an end. Obama’s budget shows that interest payments will start rising rapidly next year and hit 3 percent of GDP by 2015. And that’s an optimistic projection.

Nondefense: This category includes all other federal spending. After a steady decline during the Clinton years to 12.9 percent of GDP, President Bush pushed up nondefense spending to a higher plateau of around 14.5 percent. Then came the recession and financial crisis, and the Bush-Obama tag team hiked spending to an even higher level of around 19 percent of GDP. That level of nondefense spending is almost double the level in 1970 measured as a share of the economy.

Wednesday Links

Popping Bubbles

David Leonhardt’s column today in the New York Times, in reaction to Ben Bernanke’s recent speech at the American Economic Association meetings, asks an important question:

If the Federal Reserve failed to detect the housing bubble when it occurred, why should we entrust it with that role in the future?

But he doesn’t follow the logic of his question far enough and instead embraces a financial equivalent of the National Transportation Safety Board, as if technical solutions exist and could be implemented if politics got out of the way.

In our recent Policy Analysis, Jagadeesh Gokhale and I examine a more complete list of technical and political problems that stand in the way of asset bubble management. Can bubbles be detected using scientific techniques (econometric models) with little controversy? We argue no.

Would stopping bubbles involve the simple implementation of a technical solution such as raising interest rates, or would they instead involve trade-offs with other policy goals? We argue the latter.

Even if bubbles could be detected easily with no controversy and policy solutions involved no tradeoffs, could the Fed maintain political support by stopping booms if the benefits of such a policy (preventing busts after financial bubbles burst) were never observed? We argue no.

And finally, even if all the previous problems were solved, how would raising interest rates reduce the supply of capital to housing markets given that a rate increase would increase the supply of capital to the United States and interest rates for both long-term and short-term housing loans have become decoupled from federal funds rates?

Our reasoning, like Bernanke’s, suggests that the events of 2008 were not the result of “bad” monetary policy. However, we believe that granting additional regulatory authority to the Fed will not prevent similar episodes because of the technical and political difficulties we describe in our paper.

Did the Fed Buying MBS Make a Difference?

Recent years have witnessed a multitude of new Federal Reserve programs aimed at bringing stability to our financial markets.  One of the largest programs has been the Fed’s purchase of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guaranteed mortgage-backed securities (MBS).  The program was initially announced in November 2008 with the goal of buying up to $500 billion, later expanded to $1.25 trillion.  Clearly we are talking a lot of money.

The ultimate objective of the FED MBS purchase program was, in the words of the Fed, to reduce mortgage rates “relative to what they otherwise would have been.”  Did the Fed meet this objective?  According to a new study by Stanford University Economists Johannes Stroebel and John Taylor the Fed did not. 

More specificially, the professors “find that the MBS program has no significant effect.  Movements in prepayment risk and default risk explain virtually all of the movements in mortgage spreads.”  So while it is clear that mortgage rates declined over the time the Fed has operated the MBS purchase program, those declines were due to factors outside of the Fed’s control.

Professors Stroebel and Taylor only look at the claimed benefits of the Fed’s MBS purchase program, leaving aside the issue of cost.  Since any losses on MBS purchased by the Fed reduces the amount of funds transferred from the Fed to Treasury, these losses are ultimately borne by the taxpayer, as that reduction will have to be made up elsewhere.  With close to a trillion in purchases, even minor declines in value can result in large losses for the taxpayer.  For instance, a 5% loss in value would translate to $50 billion loss to the taxpayer.  Another good reason to audit the Fed.

Thursday Links

  • Doug Bandow:  “Congress has spent the country blind, inflated a disastrous housing bubble, subsidized every special interest with a letterhead and lobbyist, and created a wasteful, incompetent bureaucracy that fills Washington. But now, legislators want to take a break from all their good work and save college football.”