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<< Return to Part I

Today I would like to continue the discussion and there are two reasons for doing so. The first reason is to understand just what the Federal Reserve has been doing over these last nine months. The second is to understand how likely it might be for the Federal Reserve to “unwind” what it has done over the past nine months and reduce a part of the fear of future inflation. Note, I am not including any discussion of future government deficits and the probability that they will be “monetized.”

There is no doubt in my mind that the Federal Reserve has “printed” a lot of money since early September 2008, most of it before January 2009. The Monetary Base (Non-seasonally adjusted, NSA) rose from $847 billion in August 2008 to $1,712 billion in January 2009, an increase of $865 billion. Between January and May 2009, the Monetary Base only rose $63 billion.

Total Reserves (NSA) in the banking system increased by $817 billion from September 2008 to January 2009, but only increased by $42 billion since January. The most interesting thing is that Excess Reserves (NSA) in the banking system rose by almost $800 billion in the earlier period and increased by $46 billion in the January to May period.

The Federal Reserve put a lot of money into the banking system over the last nine months and the VAST MAJORITY of the funds went into Excess Reserves. The Fed “printed” a lot of money (or, created a lot of deposits at the Fed) but these monies did not find their way into the economy!

What the Fed is accomplishing

These two periods need to be separated in order to get a better picture of what the Fed has done and for some implications about what might occur in the future. My basic argument is that the Fed has put a tremendous amount of money into the world banking system and has ultimately underwritten the Treasury’s TARP program and provided much more money to the banking system than Congress authorized.

The underlying effort has two goals: first, to keep financial markets liquid; and second, to protect against the insolvency of the banking system. The first goal has basically been accomplished. The second is still playing itself out. The crucial thing to understand is that the way the Fed has acted has given the system a chance to get healthy and yet provide a net to catch insolvent banks so as to avoid a precipitous collapse of the banking system.

From September 2008 to January 2009, during the crisis period, the Fed basically ceased using the normal tools of monetary policy: Open market operations consisting of outright purchases of government securities and repurchase agreements. In the fall, the Federal Reserve basically picked and chose what parts of the financial markets needed liquidity and created facilities to support these illiquid sub-markets. The major ways that it supplied funds or saw funds withdrawn in the September 2008 through January 2009 period and in the January 2009 through May 2009 period.

Auctions, Facilities

Change (billions) from Sept/08 to Jan/09: Term Auction Credit $257; Other Loans $166; Commercial Paper LLC $334; Other Fed Reserve Assets $506; for a total of $1,263. The change (billions) from Jan/09 through May 2009: Term Auction Credit (-$124); Other Loans (-$62); Commercial Paper LLC (-$206); Other Fed Reserve Assets (-$411); for a total of minus $803.

The Term Auction Credit Facility (TAF) helped to get reserves to the commercial banks that needed reserves, an effort the Fed believed was more efficient than open market operations. TAF peaked at $300 billion increase on 12/31/08. Other loans include increased borrowings from the Fed’s discount window, a facility for asset-backed commercial paper (which reached a peak increase of $152 billion on 10/8/08), a facility for primary government security dealers (which reached a peak increase of $147 billion on 10/1/08), and a facility for AIG (NYSE:AIG). The commercial paper LLC was a limited liability facility that bought 3-month paper from eligible issuers (which reached its peak of $334 billion on 12/31/08). The increase in Other Fed Reserve assets was primarily Central Bank Liquidity swaps (which reached a peak of $682 billion on 12/17/08).

Excess liquidity on the Fed's balance sheet

However, the Fed’s efforts reported here resulted in almost a $1.3 trillion increase in its assets and an $865 billion increase in the Monetary Base. Thus, almost the entire monetization ended up as excess reserves held at Federal Reserve Banks. Bank reserves at Federal Reserve Banks increased steadily throughout the fall, peaking at $856 million on December 31, 2008. Whew! The Federal Reserve had made it through this period of financial market illiquidity which accompanied the entire Thanksgiving/Christmas seasonal need for cash.

What happened in 2009? As mentioned above, the needs of specific market makers retreated, but now the solvency of the banking system came to the fore. In terms of the special facilities, as can be seen from the figures given above, a total of $803 billion was removed during the first five months of the year. Then the Fed began to conduct open market operations again. Throughout this time, securities bought outright by the Fed increased by $712 billion. This included a program to buy government securities on a regular basis which contributed $177 billion to the Fed’s portfolio. It also added $70 billion of Federal Agency issues. Furthermore, the Fed initiated a very important program in 2009 and bought $465 billion of mortgage-backed securities.

In essence, Total Federal Reserve Bank credit declined by about $200 billion during the first five months of the year but, as was reported earlier, the monetary base increased by $63 billion and total reserves and excess reserves in the banking system increased by more than $40 billion. In essence, the Fed operated in 2009 to keep the banking system very liquid and replaced the reserves that had been supplied to different parts of the financial markets in 2008 by interjecting funds directly into the banking system. The new twist? Directly helping banks sell their mortgage-backed securities, thereby reducing pressure on the banks to clean up their balance sheets. This was the original purpose of the Treasury’s TARP program.

What's next?

The banking system faces three problems going forward: Existing bad assets; bad assets that will appear over the next 18 months or so; and refinancing needs as the banks may not always be able to roll over existing liabilities.(See my post of June 15, “What Banks Aren’t Telling Us” for more on these factors.) The huge amount of excess reserves will help the banks face these problems. In terms of financing needs, the banks have the cash to pay off maturing liabilities without needing to roll the debt over. In terms of bad debts, this is where the TARP program comes in because the Treasury has provided preferred stock to banks with warrants attached. Charge-offs can go against existing capital and the preferred stock and warrants can be transformed into new capital owned by the government to keep these banks afloat until something can be done with them.

Some banks have repaid the TARP funds that they had received. Several well-known large banks returned $68.25 billion this month to reduce Federal Government oversight. Still there have been 633 banks that have directly received about $200 billion in TARP funds and a total of 32 banks have now repaid about $70 billion. (On this see “Small Banks Not Shying From TARP” in the Wall Street Journal, June 27).

So, of the roughly $800 billion that banks are now holding in excess reserves, one could argue that approximately $130 billion of them have been supplied through the Treasury program and are held, mostly, by smaller banks and $670 billion of them has been supplied by the Federal Reserve, the total of the two being the money “printed “ to get us out of the current financial crisis.

The hope is that as the banking system works through its problems, TARP funds will be returned and the mortgage-backed securities will mature or be sold back into the market allowing the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve to contract back to where it was in the summer of 2008. The banking system is apparently holding onto reserves to protect itself and that is why they are really not lending. The idea is that if they don’t need these excess reserves they will return them. This is what the Federal Reserve is planning to happen. Let’s hope that they are correct!

>>> Go to Part III

Source: Is Treasury's TARP Debt Already Monetized? Part II