The Futility of Stimulus

George Selgin has recently focused on the failure of Federal Reserve policy to finance a normal recovery. The Fed has greatly expanded its balance sheet and created a large quantity of excess reserves, which, for a variety of reasons, commercial banks have not mobilized into credit creation. Instead, banks seem content to earn the 25 basis points of interest the Fed now pays on reserves.

This anomalous behavior shows up in the M1 money multiplier, which is at record lows – less than half its value before the financial crisis. The Fed is creating reserves, but commercial banks are not creating as much bank money as has been historically true. Compounding this is the fact that the velocity of M1 – the rapidity with which each dollar is spent annually – has hit a 40-year low. Consequently, the Fed’s efforts to produce monetary stimulus have failed.

(A similar story can be told for other money supply measures. Data and charts can be found at FRED, the online data center at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.)

I do not think economists fully understand all of the factors contributing to this policy failure. But Selgin has surely identified one relevant factor, the payment of interest on reserves. On the margin, it creates a disincentive for commercial banks to create money and credit in a normal fashion. There are also fiscal reasons for ending the payments, as they reduce the payments the Fed makes to the Treasury. As it is, the payment of interest on reserves constitutes a fiscal transfer from taxpayers to commercial banks. In a normal world, I would endorse his call to end the interest paid on reserves.

We do not live in a normal world. The Fed has replaced liquid, short-term assets on its balance sheet with illiquid, long-term assets. Normally, to raise the Fed Funds rate, the Fed would sell Treasury bills. It has none to sell. Analysts and pundits speculate on when the Fed will raise interest rates. They should be asking how the Fed will raise interest rates.

Stanford’s John Taylor thinks the Fed will need to increase the interest rate paid on reserves to accomplish that goal. Markets through arbitrage would then increase the interest rates banks pay each other to borrow reserves. I suspect he is correct, with two caveats. First, there is no longer much of a market for federal funds. Banks aren’t lending each other reserves. Second, there are other possible mechanisms for raising short-term interest rates like the tri-party, reverse repo facility at the New York Fed. This, and other facilities, are untested as a means to implement a policy change. Their use would put monetary policy in unchartered waters.

To sum up, monetary policy has failed to simulate economic activity. It has failed even to finance a normal economic recovery. In pursuing a failed stimulus policy, the Fed has tied its policy hands going forward. At some point, interest rates will need to rise. The Fed will need to rely on novel means to accomplish a turn in policy. Paying higher interest rates on bank reserves may be one method. It is an unpleasant reality. It is only one consequence of the Fed’s experiment with extraordinary monetary policy.

[Cross-posted from]