Fed Nixes Narrow Bank

by: John Cochrane

A narrow bank would be a great thing. A narrow bank takes deposits, and invests 100% of the money in interest-paying reserves at the Fed. (The Fed, in turn, mostly invests in US treasuries and agency securities.)

A narrow bank cannot fail*. It cannot lose money on its assets. A narrow bank cannot suffer a run. If people want their money back, they can all have it, instantly. A narrow bank needs essentially no asset risk regulation, stress tests, or anything else.

A narrow bank fills an important niche. Individuals can have federally insured bank accounts which are (mostly) safe. But large businesses need to handle cash way above the limits of deposit insurance. For that reason, they invest in repurchase agreements, short-term commercial paper, and all the other forms of short-term debt that blew up in the 2008 financial crisis. These are safer than bank accounts, but, as we saw, not completely safe.

A narrow bank is completely safe. And with the option of a narrow bank, the only reason for companies to invest in these other arrangements is to try to harvest a little more interest. Regulators can feel a lot more confident shutting down run-prone alternatives if a narrow bank is widely available.

The most common objection to equity-financed banking is that people and businesses need deposits. Well, narrow banks provide those deposits, and can do so in nearly unlimited amount. Narrow banking, providing completely safe deposits, opens the door to equity-financed banking, which can invest in risky assets and also be immune from financial crises.

Why not just start a money market fund that invests in treasuries? Since deposit -> narrow bank -> Fed -> Treasuries, why not just deposit -> money market fund -> treasuries, and cut out the middle person? Well, a narrow bank is really a bank. A money market fund cannot access the full range of financial services that a bank can offer. If you're a business and you want to wire money to Germany this afternoon, you need a bank.

Suppose someone started a narrow bank. How would the Fed react? You would think they would welcome it with open arms. Not so.

TNB, for "The Narrow Bank" just tried, and the Fed is resisting in every possible way. TNB just filed a complaint against the New York Fed in District Court, which makes great reading. (The complaint is publicly available here, but behind a paywall, so I posted it on my webpage here.) Excerpts:

2. "TNB" stands for "the narrow bank", and its business model is indeed narrow. TNB's sole business will be to accept deposits only from the most financially secure institutions, and to place those deposits into TNB's Master Account at the FRBNY, thus permitting depositors to earn higher rates of interest than are currently available to nonfinancial companies and consumers for such a safe, liquid form of deposit.

3. TNB's board of directors and management have devoted more than two years and substantial resources to preparing to open their business, including undergoing a rigorous review by the State of Connecticut Department of Banking ("CTDOB"). The CTDOB has now granted TNB a temporary Certificate of Authority ("CoA") and is fully prepared to permit TNB to operate on a permanent basis.

4. However, to carry out its business-indeed, to function at all-TNB needs access to the Federal Reserve payments system.

5. In August 2017, therefore, TNB began the routine administrative process to open a Master Account with the FRBNY. Typically, the application procedure involves completing a one-page form agreement, followed by a brief wait of no more than one week. Indeed, the form agreement itself states that "[p]rocessing may take 5-7 business days" and that the applicant should "contact the Federal Reserve Bank to confirm the date that the master account will be established."

6. This treatment is consistent with the governing statutory framework. Concerned by preferential access to Federal Reserve services by large financial institutions, Congress passed the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980 (the "Act"). Under the applicable provision of the Act, 12 U.S.C. § 248a(c)(2), all FRBNY services "shall be available" on an equal, non-discriminatory basis to any qualified depository institution that, like TNB, is in the business of receiving deposits other than trust funds.

7. TNB did not receive the standard treatment mandated by the governing law. Despite Connecticut's approval of TNB-as TNB's lawful chartering authority-and the language of the governing statute, the FRBNY undertook its own protracted internal review of TNB. TNB fully cooperated with that review, which ultimately concluded in TNB's favor. At the same time, the FRBNY also apparently referred the matter to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (the "Board") in Washington, D.C.

8. In December 2017, TNB was informed orally by an FRBNY official that approval would be forthcoming-only to be called back later by the same official and told that the Board had countermanded that direction, based on alleged "policy concerns."

9. TNB's principals thereafter met with staff representatives of the Board, as well as the President of the FRBNY, to explain that there was no lawful basis to reject TNB's application for a Master Account. On information and belief, the FRBNY and its leadership agreed with TNB and were prepared to open a Master Account.

10. Though TNB had satisfactorily completed the FRBNY's diligence review, the Board continued to thwart any action by the FRBNY to open TNB's Master Account, reportedly at the specific direction of the Board's Chairman.

11. Having delayed the process for nearly one year-effectively preventing TNB from doing business-the FRBNY has repeatedly refused either to permit TNB to open a Master Account or to state that the FRBNY will ultimately do so.

12. The FRBNY's conduct is in open defiance of the statutory framework, its own prior positions, and judicial authority. See Fourth Corner Credit Union v. Fed. Reserve Bank of Kan. City, 861 F.3d 1052, 1071 (10th Cir. 2017) ("The plain text of § 248a(c)(2) indicates that nonmember depository institutions are entitled to purchase services from Federal Reserve Banks. To purchase these services, a master account is required. Thus, nonmember depository institutions . . . are entitled to master accounts.") (Bacharach, J.) (emphasis added).

13. Further, the FRBNY's actions, especially in the context of other recent conduct by the Board,1 have the effect of discriminating against small, innovative companies like TNB and privileging established, too-big-to-fail institutions-the very dynamic that led Congress to pass the Act in the first place.

14. TNB therefore brings this action for a prompt declaratory judgment that it is entitled to a Master Account.

Why does the Fed object?

The Fed may worry about controlling the size of its balance sheet - how many reserves banks have at the Fed, and how many treasuries the Fed correspondingly buys. If narrow banks get really popular, the Fed might have to buy more treasuries to meet the need. Alternatively, the Fed might have to discriminate, paying narrow banks less interest than it pays "real" banks, in order to keep down the size of the narrow banking industry.

It would then face hard questions about why it is discriminating and paying traditional banks more than it pays everyone else. (It's already a bit of a puzzle that it often pays interest on reserves larger than what banks can get anywhere else, even treasuries.)

But why does the size of the balance sheet matter? Why does it matter whether people hold treasuries directly, hold them via a money market fund, or hold them via a narrow bank, which holds reserves at the Fed, which holds treasuries?

"Money" is no longer money. When the Fed pays interest on huge amounts of excess reserves, the size of the balance sheet no longer matters, especially in this regard. If people want to hold more treasuries indirectly through a narrow bank and the Fed, and correspondingly less directly, why should that have any stimulative or depressing effect at all? Even if you do think QE purchases - supply-driven changes in the balance sheet - matter, it is not at all clear why demand-driven changes should matter.

The Fed already allows a "reverse repo program," in which 160 institutions such as money market funds to hold reserves. It currently pays those 20 basis points (0.2%) less than it pays banks, to discourage participation.

The second argument, made during the discussion about reverse repos, is that narrow banks are a threat to financial stability, not a guarantor of it as I have described, because people will run to narrow banks away from repo and other short-term financing in times of stress.

This is, in my view, completely misguided. Again, narrow banks are just an indirect way of holding treasuries. There is nothing now stopping people from "running" to treasuries directly, which is exactly what they did in the financial crisis.

Furthermore, the Fed does not, in a crisis, seek to force people to hold illiquid assets having a run. The Fed pours liquid assets into the system like Niagara falls, and buys illiquid assets from them, all in massive quantities.

Moreover, the whole point of the narrow bank is that large businesses don't hold fragile run-prone short-term assets in the first place. By paying interest on reserves, and allowing more and more people to enjoy run-proof government money, there is less gasoline in the financial system to begin with. If the Fed is worried about financial crises, it ought to encourage narrow banks and give others a gold star for using them rather than shadier short-term assets in the first place.

The emptiness of both arguments is easy to see from this: Chase and Citi (NYSE:C) are narrow banks - married to investment banks. Both take deposits and invest them as interest-paying reserves at the Fed. Right now, there are more reserves than checking accounts in the banking system as a whole. If there were some threat to monetary policy or financial stability from banks being able to take deposits and funnel them into reserves, we'd be there now.

The only difference is that if Chase and City lose money on their risky investments, they drag down depositors too and the government bails out the depositors. The narrow banks are not separated from the investment banks in bankruptcy. A true narrow bank just separates these functions.

Shadier speculations are natural as well.

Banks are making a tidy profit on their current activities. JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) pays me 1 basis point on my deposits, as it has forever, and now earns 1.95% on excess reserves. The "pass-through" from interest earned to interest paid to depositors is very slow. This is a clear sign of lack of competition in the banking system. The Fed's reverse RP program was put in place, in part, to pressure banks to act a bit more competitively, by allowing an almost-narrow bank to take investor money and put it in reserves. The Fed is now scaling that program back.

That the Fed, which is a banker's bank, protects the profits of the big banks' system against competition, would be the natural public-choice speculation.

Perhaps also my vision of a run-proof essentially unregulated banking system isn't as attractive to the Fed as it should be. If deposits are handled by narrow banks, which don't need asset risk regulation, and risky investment is handled by equity-financed banks, which don't need asset risk regulation, a lot of regulators and "macro-prudential" policy makers, who want to use regulatory tools to control the economy, are going to be out of work.

To be clear, I have no evidence for either motivation. But the facts fit, and large institutions are not always self-aware of their motivations.

Whatever the reason, it is sad to see the Fed handed such an obvious boon to financial stability and efficiency, and to slow walk it to regulatory death, despite, apparently, clear legal rights of the Narrow Bank to serve its customers.

*Well, almost. For the Fed to fail, there would have to be a large-scale US default on treasury debt. Even so, Congress could exempt the Fed by recapitalizing it, making good its losses. So Congress would have to decide that it won't even recapitalize the Fed so that reserves also default. If there is one bank that really is too big to fail, it's the Fed, as its failure would bring down the entire monetary system. Literally, all of the ATMs and credit card machines go dark. This is a pretty improbable event.