Friday, March 20, 2009

What the Fed is Up To

The recently announced Fed action has been characterized as a massive exercise in printing money, in "pumping liquidity". But such characterizations, once again, are misleading.

Take a Wall Street Journal article from March 19th, 2009, by John Hilsenrath. In "Fed in Bond-Buying Binge to Spur Growth" he wrote,

The Fed had already cut its benchmark interest-rate target to near zero. Unable to go lower, the central bank now is essentially printing money to raise the supply of credit and thus push down the longer-term rates paid by families and companies on mortgages and other key loans. The impact was immediately felt.

First, has the Fed been "printing money"? Let's look at a few graphs, downloaded from the Fed web site, to determine if that's the case.

First, the trend line of the amount of assets on the Fed's balance sheet:

This means that the Fed has done a lot of buying since mid-2008. How has it paid for this? By printing money? Let's look at the trend line of liabilities over the same period:

Here you can see that the amount of currency in circulating (money printed) is roughly stable, while the amount of deposits at depositary institutions has ballooned. The Fed, thus, bought up all those assets by crediting the accounts of depositary institutions (mainly banks).

What does this do? It enables these depositary institutions to lend. How much they are able to lend is a function of how much they have on account at the Fed. Those Fed deposits, plus their own cash on hand (vault cash), constitute what is known as the money base. The money base was fairly stable through mid-2008, and then went through the roof, from $800-plus billion to over $1.5 trillion in March 2009 (see the table here).

So the money base, and thus the amount available to lend (which, with our fractional reserve banking system, is a multiple of the money base), has nearly doubled.

But the money supply, actual money put into the economy, has not. Here are the figures for the broadest money supply counter (monetary aggregate), M2. In March 2007, M2 stood at $7.111 trillion. In February 2009, it came to $8.275 trillion, an increase of about 16%. Nearly all of that increase has occurred recently: the year-on-year gain (February 2008-February 2009) was 9.8%, the six-month gain was 15.3%, and the three-month gain was 15.2%. Still, the gain is not nearly what one would expect given a near-doubling of the money base.

The conclusion: the Fed hasn't been printing money, it has been expanding the money base and thus the amount banks can lend. But even in that case, the banks can't lend what people won't borrow. Given the none-too-precipitous increase in the money supply, it doesn't appear that borrowing has increased much even given the enormous increase in potential for lending (look here for confirmation).

It would seem to me that the Fed's purpose in buying up the more unorthodox assets, which underlies the big increase in assets on its balance sheet, is 1) to stabilize the mortgage market by buying up mortgage-backed assets from Fannie Mae et al., 2) to bring down long-term interest rates by buying up long-term Treasury bills.

Bringing down long-term rates is a new way for the Fed to operate. It apparently is working, or at least has a chance of working. By bringing down long-term rates the Fed hopes to spur investment (see Hilsenrath's article from March 20th, 2009, "Excess Capacity Keeps Heat on Fed").

The danger is, of course, that by engaging in all this spending it has provided way too much lending potential to banks which could lead to inflation. Hilsenrath's "Excess Capacity" article shows just how much the Fed is expanding the money base by doing this. But on the other hand, it can head off the danger of rampant inflation by raising interest rates, as well as by selling off those self-same assets.

So this is an area which bears watching but is not yet cause for alarm. The Obama government's fiscal policy (not to mention war on capitalism) is where one really needs to watch out.

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