Allocation of Capital, Bank Reserves, crowding out, Debt Monetization, Fed Balance Sheet, Federal Funds, Federal Reserve, Fiscal Inflation, Inflation tax, Interest Rate Targeting, MBS, Monetary policy, Mortgage Backed Securities, QE, Quantitative Easing, Scarcity, Tapering
The Federal Reserve just announced tighter monetary policy in an attempt to reduce inflationary pressures. First, it raised its target range for the federal funds rate (on overnight loans between banks) by 0.5%. The new range is 0.75% – 1%. Second, on June 1, the Fed will begin taking steps to reduce the size of its $9 trillion portfolio of securities. These holdings were acquired during periods of so-called quantitative easing (QE) beginning in 2008, including dramatic expansions in 2020-21. A shorthand reference for this portfolio is simply the Fed’s “balance sheet”. It includes government debt the Fed has purchased as well as privately-issued mortgage-backed securities (MBS).
What Is This Balance Sheet You Speak Of?
Talk of the Fed’s balance sheet seems to mystify lots of people. During the 2008 financial crisis, the Fed began to inject liquidity into the economy by purchasing large amounts of assets to be held on its balance sheet. This was QE. It’s scope was unprecedented and a departure from the Fed’s pre-crisis reliance on interest rate targeting. QE had the effect of increasing bank reserves, which raised the possibility of excessive money supply growth. That’s when the Fed began to pay interest to banks on reserves, so they might be content to simply hold some of the reserves over and above what they are required to hold, rather than using all of that excess to support new loans and deposits (and thus money growth). However, that interest won’t stop banks from lending excess reserves if better opportunities present themselves.
The Fed has talked about reducing, “normalizing”, or “tapering” its balance sheet for some time, but it only recently stopped adding to it. With inflation raging and monetary policy widely viewed as too “dovish”, analysts expected the Fed to stop reinvesting proceeds from maturing securities, which amounts to about $95 billion per month. That would shrink or “taper” the balance sheet at a rate of about $1.1 trillion per year. Last week the Fed decided to cap the “runoff” at $47.5 billion per month for the first three months, deferring the $95 billion pace until September. Monetary policy “hawks” were disappointed by this announcement.
So, one might ask, what’s the big deal? Why must the Fed taper its securities holdings? Well, first, the rate of inflation is far above the Fed’s target range, and it’s far above the “average Joe’s” comfort range. Inflation imposes significant costs on the economy and acts as a regressive form of taxation, harming the poor disproportionately. To the extent that the Fed’s huge balance sheet (and the corresponding bank reserves) are supporting incremental money growth and fueling inflation, the balance sheet must be reduced.
In that connection, the Fed’s investment in government debt represents monetized federal debt. That means the Fed is essentially printing money to meet the Treasury’s financing needs. Together with profligate spending by the federal government, nothing could do more to convince investors that government debt will never be repaid via future budget surpluses. This dereliction of the government’s “full faith and credit”, and the open-armed acceptance of the inflation tax as a financing mechanism (à la Modern Monetary Theory), is the key driver of fiscal inflation. Reducing the balance sheet would represent de-monetization, which might help to restore faith in the Fed’s ability to push back against fiscal recklessness.
Buyer of First Resort
Perhaps just as critically, the Fed’s heavy investment in government debt and MBS represents an ongoing distortion to the pricing of financial assets and the allocation of capital. Some call this interference in the “price discovery process”. That’s because the Fed has represented a market-altering presence, a willing and inelastic buyer of government debt and MBS. Given that presence, it’s difficult for buyers and sellers to discern the true values of alternative uses of capital, or to care.
QE was, among other things, a welcome institutional development for the U.S. Treasury and for those who fancy that fresh money printing is an ever-valid form of government payment for scarce resources. The Fed’s involvement also means that other potential buyers of Treasury debt need not worry about interest rate risk, making public debt relatively more attractive than private debt. This is a dimension of the “crowding out” phenomenon, whereby the allocation of capital and flows of real resources between public and private uses are distorted.
The Fed’s presence as a buyer of MBS depresses mortgage rates and makes mortgage lending less risky for lenders and investors. As a result, it encourages an over-investment in housing and escalating home prices. This too distorts the allocation of capital and real resources, at the margin, toward housing and away from uses with greater underlying value.
The magnitude of the Fed’s balance sheet is an ongoing testament to an increasingly dominant role of central authorities in the economy. In this case, the Fed has served as a conduit for the inflation tax. In addition, it has unwittingly facilitated crowding out of private capital investment. The Fed’s purchases of MBS have distorted the incentives (and demand) for residential investment. These are subtle effects that the average citizen might not notice, just as one might not notice the early symptoms of a debilitating disease. The long-term consequences of the Fed’s QE activities, including the inflation tax and distorted allocations of capital, are all too typical of failures of government intervention and attempts at central planning. But don’t expect anyone at the Fed to admit it.