Tag: the fed

The Federal Reserve vs. Small Business

Given all the attention that the Federal Reserve has garnered for its monetary “stimulus” programs, it’s perplexing to many that the U.S. has been mired in a credit crunch. After all, conventional wisdom tells us that the Fed’s policies, which have lowered interest rates to almost zero, should have stimulated the creation of credit. This has not been the case, and I’m not surprised.

As it turns out, the Fed’s “stimulus” policies are actually exacerbating the credit crunch. Since credit is a source of working capital for businesses, a credit crunch acts like a supply constraint on the economy. This has been the case particularly for smaller firms in the U.S. economy, known as small and medium enterprises (“SMEs”).

To understand the problem, we must delve into the plumbing of the financial system, specifically the loan markets. Retail bank lending involves making risky forward commitments, such as extending a line of credit to a corporate client, for example. The willingness of a bank to make such forward commitments depends, to a large extent, on a well-functioning interbank market – a market operating with positive interest rates and without counterparty risks.

With the availability of such a market, banks can lend to their clients with confidence because they can cover their commitments by bidding for funds in the wholesale interbank market.

At present, however, the interbank lending market is not functioning as it should. Indeed, one of the major problems facing the interbank market is the so-called zero-interest-rate trap. In a world in which the risk-free Fed funds rate is close to zero, there is virtually no yield be found on the interbank market.

In consequence, banks with excess reserves are reluctant to part with them for virtually no yield in the interbank market. As a result, thanks to the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policies, the interbank market has dried up (see the accompanying chart).

 

Without the security provided by a reliable interbank lending market, banks have been unwilling to scale up or even retain their forward loan commitments. This was verified in a recent article in Central Banking Journal by Stanford Economist Prof. Ronald McKinnon – appropriately titled “Fed ‘stimulus’ chokes indirect finance to SMEs.” The result, as Prof. McKinnon puts it, has been “constipation in domestic financial intermediation” – in other words, a credit crunch.

When banks put the brakes on lending, it is small and medium enterprises that are the hardest hit. Whereas large corporate firms can raise funds directly from the market, SMEs are often primarily reliant on bank lending for working capital. The current drought in the interbank market, and associated credit crunch, has thus left many SMEs without a consistent source of funding.

As it turns out, these “small” businesses make up a big chunk of the U.S. economy – 49.2% of private sector employment and 46% of private-sector GDP. Indeed, the untold story is that the zero-interest-rate trap has left SMEs in a financial straightjacket.

In short, the Fed’s zero interest-rate policy has exacerbated a credit crunch that has been holding back the economy. The only way out of this trap is for the Fed to abandon the conventional wisdom that zero-interest-rates stimulate the creation of credit. Suppose the Fed were to raise the Fed funds rate to, say, two percent. This would loosen the screws on interbank lending, and credit would begin to flow more readily to small and medium enterprises.

Fed Toys with Ratcheting Up the Credit Crunch

When the Basel I accords, mandating higher capital-asset ratios for banks, were introduced in 1988, they were embraced by the administration of President George H.W. Bush. With higher capital-asset ratios came a sharp slowdown in the money supply growth rate and—unfortunately for President George H. W. Bush and his re-election campaign—a mild recession from July 1990 through March 1991.

Now, we have Basel III and its higher capital-asset ratio requirements being imposed on banks in the middle of a weak, drawn-out economic recovery. This is one of the major reasons why the recovery is so anemic.

How could this be? Well, banks produce bank money, which accounts for roughly 85% of the total U.S. money supply (M4). Mandated increases in bank capital requirements result in contractions in bank money, and thus in the total money supply.

Here’s how it works:

While the higher capital-asset ratios that are required by Basel III are intended to strengthen banks (and economies), these higher capital requirements destroy money. Under the Basel III regime, banks will have to increase their capital-asset ratios. They can do this by either boosting capital or shrinking assets. If banks shrink their assets, their deposit liabilities will decline. In consequence, money balances will be destroyed.

So, paradoxically, the drive to deleverage banks and shrink their balance sheets, in the name of making banks safer, destroys money balances. This, in turn, dents company liquidity and asset prices. It also reduces spending relative to where it would have been without higher capital-asset ratios.

The other way to increase a bank’s capital-asset ratio is by raising new capital. This, too, destroys money. When an investor purchases newly-issued bank equity, the investor exchanges funds from a bank account for new shares. This reduces deposit liabilities in the banking system and wipes out money.

We now learn that the Fed, using the cover of the Dodd-Frank legislation, is toying with the idea of forcing foreign banks that operate in the United States to hold billions of dollars of additional capital  (read: increase their capital-asset ratios).

This will make the credit crunch “crunchier” and throw the U.S. economy into an even more vulnerable position.  The last thing the Fed should be doing is squeezing the banks and tightening the screws on the production of bank money.

Do Inflation Expectations Drive Consumption?

After proponents of the Federal Reserve’s second round of quantitative easing (QE2) abandoned the argument that QE2 would spur growth by bringing down interest rates (only after rates increased), the new defense became “we intended for rates to go up all along, as a result of increased inflation expectations.”  Since few would argue for increased inflation, or expectations of such, as an end in itself, the claim was that increases in inflation expectations would drive households to consume more, which would in turn causes businesses to hire more, bringing down the unemployment rate.  But does this chain of reasoning withstand empirical scrutiny?

It turns out looking at the historical data on inflation expectations, as collected at the University of Michigan, that inflation expectations and household savings rates (the inverse of consumption rates) are positively correlated.  Now of course correlation doesn’t mean causality,but what the data suggest is that instead of consuming more when inflation expectations increase, households have actually saved more.  This positive correlation also holds for the second half of the data series, so it’s not simply the result of a downward trend in either inflation or savings.

To review, the latest argument for QE2:  increase inflation expectations, which is assumed to increase consumption, which is hoped to increase employment.  The problem I’ve had all along with this position is that the only thing we know for certain is the first part, QE2 would increase inflation expectations.  The hope that it would increase consumption and hence employment was just that:  hope.  Given the disconnect we’ve seen between consumption and unemployment over the past 18 months, the third link in that chain is also a weak one.   So what do we have at the end of the day:  certain costs with fairly speculative and uncertain benefits.  And here I was thinking that reckless speculation was the sole province of the private sector.

Fed’s QEII Offers More Risk Than Reward

As the Federal Reserve Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meets today, it is widely expected that the Fed will announce a new round of quantitative easing (QE).  The first round began in March 2009, as the Fed started large-scale purchases of Fannie and Freddie debt and MBS.  The next round is expected to focus on purchases of long-dated US Treasuries.

The objective of QEII would be to reduce long-term interest rates, with the belief that such a reduction would spur investment and consumption, thus increasing employment.   Estimated impacts on rates range from zero to 80 basis points (80/100s of one percent).  

Given the large excess reserves in the banking system, it is likely that much of the monetary stimulus provided by QEII will simply be added to bank reserves, which would correspondingly have little to no impact on either lending or interest rates.  So its likely that we will get very little bang out of QEII.

Even if QEII did lower rates as much as some Fed leaders claim, the impact would still be relatively small, under one percent.  Given that mortgage rates have already fallen by that much over the last six months without changing the direction of the housing market, it is hard to see even a 1% decline in rates moving the economy.  Quite simply, the major problem facing the economy today is not high interest rates.

The real impact, and the greatest risk, of QEII is that it changes expectations of inflation.  It seems pretty clear that the Fed wants higher inflation than we have now.  QEII sends the signal that the Fed will do everything possible to create that additional inflation.  QEII also runs the real risk that the Fed ends up “monetizing the debt” - both reducing the political pressure to address our fiscal imbalances as well as undermining the dollar.  I see these risks as easily outweighing what little bump one might get from a few basis points decline in long-term interest rates.

The Case for Auditing the Fed

Recently, the Federal Reserve has significantly altered the procedures and goals that it had followed for decades. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) has introduced a bill calling for an audit of the Fed.

Remarkably, there is significant opposition to such oversight, and the political prospects for undertaking such an audit are relatively bleak. In a new paper, Cato scholar Arnold Kling examines the processes and outcomes on which an audit should focus, and looks at opposition to the audit:

We should document why the Fed took each step, what the expected results were, and whether those results were achieved. …The profit or loss of the Fed’s investments would provide a very helpful indicator of whether the Fed’s actions served the economy as a whole or merely transferred wealth from ordinary taxpayers to bank shareholders.

Read the whole thing.