A proposal for the Fed’s balance sheet

By Warren Coats[1]

To save financial institutions from the collapse that threatened them after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, the Federal Reserve purchased government securities and Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS) sufficient to increase the size of its asset holdings from $0.9 trillion to $4.5 trillion by the end of 2014.  These large open market purchases were not meant to increase the money supply, the traditional purpose of such operations, which after a sharp drop followed by a sharp increase in the growth rate of broad money (M2) has grown at its historical average rate of around 6% per year. Rather they were to support the market prices of government debt and hard to price MBS in the face of market panic (at least initially).

The Fed accomplished this trick (large increase in the Fed’s asset holding with only modest increases in the money supply) by paying banks to keep the proceeds of their sales of securities to the Fed in deposits with the Fed, so called “reserves,” in excess of what is required, so called “excess reserves.”  Beginning in October 2008, the Fed began to pay interest on bank required and excess reserves deposited with Federal Reserve banks.  This kept broad money from growing in response to the huge increases in base money (the counterpart of the securities purchased by the Fed) and became the primary tool of monetary policy.

The Fed is now pondering what to do about its abnormally large balance sheet.  A year ago it announced its intention to gradually reduce the size of its asset portfolio in order to return to its traditional policy tools—regulating the growth in bank money and credit by targeting the overnight interbank lending rate (the Fed funds rate) via open market operations.  After having suspended the open market purchases that had inflated its balance sheet in recent years (QEs 1, 2, and 3), in October 2017 the Fed stopped replacing the maturing securities it held to the extend of about $20 billion per month.  As a result its asset holdings dropped about $150 billion in the nine months since then and by the end of June 2018 stood at $4,315 billion.  Its current intention is to reduce its asset holdings to $3 trillion by the end of 2022.

The reduction in the Fed’s holdings of these securities (Treasuries and MBSs) is an increase in the market’s holdings of them, other things equal.  But other things are not expected to be equal.  Our profligate government is expected to run a one trillion dollar deficit in 2019, adding that amount of government debt to the market on top of the Fed’s additions.  The Congressional Budget Office projects a worsening federal deficit every year over the next ten of its official forecast, worsening even as a percent of GDP. This will put pressure on the Fed to rain in or suspend its program to return its asset holdings to more traditional levels.

There is a better way to handle this difficult situation.  Bank reserves with the Fed are currently about $2 trillion (the rest of the Fed’s monetary liabilities is Currency in Circulation of $1.7 trillion) and banks’ checkable deposits are about the same amount (of which demand deposits are $1.5 trillion).  Requiring 100% reserve backing of checkable deposits was recommended in the 1930s by a group of University of Chicago economists as a way to protect our payment system from the loan default problems being experienced by many banks at the time.  This so called Chicago Plan would remove any risks to checkable deposits, a key part of our payment system, and thus eliminate the need for deposit insurance for such deposits.  Required reserves would continue to earn interest as they do now, but excess reserves would not.  But in addition to strengthening our payment system, adopting the Chicago Plan today would convert existing excess reserves into required reserves and end the debate over whether to further shrink the Fed’s balance sheet.

Adopting the Chicago Plan would prevent banks from on lending our checkable deposits.  At the moment they are not doing that anyway. This raises the question of where banks would get the funds (our savings) to on lend in their financial intermediary role?  In an extreme version of the Chicago Plan (100% required reserves against all deposits and deposit like bank liabilities) all bank lending would be finance by equity rather than debt.  Savers would hold claims on the value of a portfolio of loans as they now do with mutual fund investments and as in some Islamic banking instruments.  Equity rather than debt financed bank intermediation is a more stable structure as a result of shifting the risk of loses (loan defaults) from banks to the ultimate public investors.  The Federal Deposit Insurance Company would stop insuring 100% reserved deposits and its bank resolution functions would be moved to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) in the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

For purposes of requiring a 100% reserve and dropping deposit insurance, a more pragmatic boundary between all deposit liabilities and checkable deposits might include savings deposits (which can generally be shifted into checkable deposits almost automatically) and time deposits with a maturity of less than six months (or maybe three months).  This would add almost $10 trillion dollars to required reserves and would need to be phased in gradually.  The Fed would need to buy an equivalent amount of government securities in order to finance the increase in required reserves without contracting the money supply or bank credit.

It is very desirable to separate our payment system (checkable deposits of one definition or another) from the necessarily risky lending by banks and other financial institutions and make our money (currency and deposits) risk free.  Doing so would allow banks to take whatever risks with investor funds those investors are willing to finance.  This would enable a significant reduction in the government’s regulations of these activities.  “Changing Direction on Bank Regulation” Cayman Financial Review April 2015

[1]Dr. Coats retired from the International Monetary Fund in 2003 and is a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.

Looking Back on Occupy Wall Street

The evening of September 16, 2008, I met Randy Kroszner for dinner at Et Voila in the Palisades just outside of Georgetown. He arrived late explaining that the Fed’s monthly monetary policy meeting had lasted longer than expected. Randy is a Governor on the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. The attempt to rescue Lehman Brothers over the weekend had failed and it had declared bankruptcy the day before, so we had a lot of interesting things to talk about. Randy didn’t mention that the Fed had just agreed to lend up to $85 billion to AIG to cover its expected loses on its mortgage related Credit Default Swaps, thus giving the U.S. government a 79.9% equity stake in the insurer in the form of warrants called equity participation notes. When news of the AIG bailout was posted on my phone around 9:00pm during our meal, I asked Randy what in the world was going on. He was reluctant to discuss the topic uncertain whether the source of my news was a leak or an official Fed press release.

The housing bubble had started to deflate in 2007 and homeowners and their mortgage financiers were coming to grips with the reality of significant financial losses. “The DEFs of the Financial Markets Crisis” and “The Big Bailout–What Next?” While the Federal Reserve quickly reacted to inject liquidity into the banking system to compensate for the freezing up of the interbank credit market that followed the Lehman Brothers-AIG shockwaves, the key questions were who would bear these losses and how should they be contained to avoid spilling over to the financial system more broadly.

The Fed, with the help of $700 billion authorized by Congress in the Troubled Asset Relieve Program (TARP), bailed out Wall Street and contained the spread of potential bank failures. It was a scary time for all involved. Looking back from the relative calm of today with criticism of policy actions taken then is a bit unfair but how else are we to learn from experience?

The government actions in 2008 can be broadly stated as: a) providing all of the liquidity the financial sector needed following the Lehman Brothers collapse and financial panic; b) bailing out large banks and other financial institutions that might have been insolvent whether they were or not; and c) leaving underwater homeowners to drown. The first of these—providing liquidity—is universally accepted as a proper function of a central bank and one that the Fed executed well. The other two—bailing out banks but not homeowners—are the subjects of this note. I will review them from both an economic and a political perspective.

The economic rational for bailing out Wall Street was that there was a risk, with very uncertain probability, of the failure of large Wall Street institutions spilling over to and bankrupting other financial institutions holding assets in the failed Wall Street firms. Many of them were foreign (especially German Landesbanks) and no one knew for sure where the contagion might end. By saving Wall Street, the argument went, the government was saving Main Street as well (trickle down). Sheila Bair, then the Chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, among others urged the government to bail out homeowners who were defaulting on their mortgages as well. While different policies of homeowner relief were considered the one finally adopted, Home Affordable Refinance Program—HARP, was modest and left Ms. Bair quite unhappy: “Shortly after Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac announced their new plan, Ms. Bair declared that it was inadequate and pointedly said that the government had spent hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out financial institutions like American International Group, the giant insurer.” “White House scales back a Mortgage relief plan”

From economists’ perspective, bailing out anyone creates a moral hazard. If market players profit from risky bets when successful but expect that the government will pick up the tab when they are unsuccessful, they will take greater (excessive) risks. No one was eager to bail out property flippers (those who bought property with the intention of reselling it at a higher price rather than move in) from their failed gamble. But the same logic applies to those financial firms that lent the mortgage money in the first place or that kept the financing cheap by providing it from the derivatives market of Mortgage Backed Securities, etc. Government policy makers attempted to design their bailouts to minimize the moral hazard they were creating, especially after the foolish and panic driven bailout of Bear Stearns in March 2008. But policy was driven by government’s fear of financial contagion.

The political optics of bailing out mortgage lenders but not homeowners is not good. Why did politicians choose to support one but not the other? Moral hazard is a problem with both. The reality is that Washington politicians were (are) much closer to Wall Street than to Main Street and are thus more sensitive to Wall Street’s concerns. Growing recognition of this fact adds some understanding to the hostile attitudes toward Washington expressed by Trump supporters.

By far the better policy would have been, and in the future is, to stick by the existing rules for bearing losses (our bankruptcy and default laws), i.e. no government bailouts. Our bankruptcy laws and procedures are actually quite good. “Resolving Failed Banks” For starters Bear Stearns shareholders should have lost everything. On the underwater homeowner side, mortgage lenders have always sought to minimize their losses when borrowers are unable to repay according to the original terms of a loan. Often the least cost resolution is for the lender to agree to easier terms and to restructure the loan. Evicting the “owner” and selling the property, especially when it is under water (i.e. valued at less than the mortgage amount), is a costly undertaking and writing down and restructuring the loan is often the least cost approach. However, government driven programs can rarely match the lenders’ ability to restructure loans one by one that can be honored by the homeowner while minimizing the loss to the lender. “Changing direction on bank regulation”

Our government has increasingly attempted to micromanage the private sector, especially the financial sector. This is a mistake. It should establish clear and pragmatic rules for conducting business and for resolving failures (workable bankruptcy laws). “Institutional and Legal Impediments to Efficient Insolvent Bank Resolution and Ways to Overcome Them” Within this broad legal framework, which to a large extent already exists, individual firms would be held accountable for the conduct of their business by their customers and their owners. If they fail, the first losses must fall on the owners (shareholders), who have a greater incentive to do well and have better market information on which to act than do government regulators. This requires a change in attitude and direction of government’s role in our lives.