‘This Time Is Different (Sort of)
Since the financial crisis of 2008, the stock market’s surges have coincided with rounds of QE, and the market has faltered whenever the expansion came to a temporary halt. The sharp sell-off in August 2015 occurred when investors thought the first rate hike was imminent (it had been scheduled for September 2015). That particular hike was postponed, but after it went into effect in December, we soon saw the market tank to 2014 levels.
As we would expect in times of Fed tightening, the official monetary base has fallen sharply in recent months, but this doesn’t mean that the Fed is selling off assets (as it would in a textbook tightening cycle). Indeed the Fed’s assets have been constant since the end of the so-called taper in late 2014.
This is unusual since the monetary base and the Fed’s total assets typically move in tandem. Yet since late 2014, there have been three major drops in the monetary base that occurred while the Fed was dutifully rolling over its holdings of mortgage-backed securities and Treasuries, keeping its total assets at a steady level.
The explanation is that the Fed has been testing out new techniques to temporarily suck reserves out of the banking system, while not reducing its total asset holdings.
Meanwhile, the Fed in December bumped up the interest rate that it pays to commercial banks for keeping their reserves parked at the Fed. I like to describe this policy as the Fed paying banks to not make loans to their customers.
What Does It All Mean?
So why is the Fed trying to tighten the money supply without selling off assets as it has done in the past? It boils down to this: In order to bail out the commercial and investment banks — at least the ones who were in good standing with DC officials —as well as greasing the wheels for the federal government to run trillion-dollar deficits, the Federal Reserve in late 2008 began buying trillions of dollars worth of Treasury debt and mortgage-backed securities (MBS). This flooded the banking system with trillions of dollars of reserves, and went hand in hand with a collapse of short-term interest rates to basically zero percent.
Now, the Fed wants to begin raising rates (albeit modestly), but it doesn’t want to sell off its Treasury or MBS holdings, for fear that this would cause a spike in Uncle Sam’s borrowing costs and/or crash the housing sector. So the Fed has increased the amount that it is paying commercial banks to keep their reserves with the Fed (rather than lending them out to customers), and — for those institutions that are not legally eligible for such a policy — the Fed is effectively paying to borrow the reserves itself. By adjusting the interest rate the Fed pays on such transactions, the Fed can move the floor on all interest rates up. No institution would lend to a private sector party at less than it can get from the Fed, since the Fed can create dollars at will and is thus the safest place to park or lend reserves.
We thus have the worst of both worlds. We still get the economic effects of “tighter monetary policy,” because the price of credit is rising as it would in a normal Fed tightening. Yet we don’t get the benefit of a smaller Fed footprint and a return of assets to the private sector. Instead, the US taxpayer is ultimately paying subsidies to lending institutions to induce them to charge more for loans, while the big banks and Treasury still benefit from the effective bailout they’ve been getting for years.‘