Effective lower bound

Negative Nominal Interest Rates and Banking

The financial crisis of 2007-2009 taught us many lessons about monetary policy. Most importantly, we learned that when financial systems are impaired, central banks can backstop both illiquid institutions and illiquid markets. Actively lending to solvent intermediaries against a broad range of collateral, purchasing assets other than those issued by sovereigns, and expanding their balance sheets can limit disruptions to the real economy while preserving price stability.

We also learned that nominal interest rates can be negative, at least somewhat. But in reducing interest rates below zero―as has happened in Denmark, Hungary, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland and the Euro Area―policymakers face concerns about whether their actions will have the desired expansionary effect (see here). At positive interest rates, when central bankers ease, they influence the real economy in part by expanding banks’ willingness and ability to lend. Does this bank lending channel work as well when interest rates are negative?

Why should there be any sort of asymmetry at zero? Banks run a spread business: they care about the difference between the interest rate they charge on their loans and the one they pay on their deposits, not the level of rates per se. In practice, however, zero matters because banks are loathe to lower their deposit rates below zero….

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What Should the Fed Own?

The Federal Reserve began to consider just how far its balance sheet consolidation should go well before the tapering actually began nearly a year ago. Earlier staff analyses pointed to a gradual runoff of long-term debt that could take years to reduce Fed assets to a new long-run equilibrium. More recently, market observers have speculated about an early end to consolidation that would result in a higher steady-state level.

Yet, as a recent Wall Street Journal article highlights, policymakers and analysts have devoted less attention to the mix of assets that the Fed should select once the balance sheet shrinks to its long-run equilibrium and policymakers allow it to expand slowly—say, in line with the increase of demand for currency.

In this post, we argue that the Fed should aim in normal times—when the economy is expanding and absent any financial strains—for a portfolio that has minimal liquidity, maturity and credit risk. In practical terms, this means that their portfolio should be composed largely of Treasury bills and short-term notes, with an average maturity that is very short….

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Financial Crisis: The Endgame

Ten years ago this month, the run on Lehman Brothers kicked off the third and final phase of the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007-2009. In two earlier posts (here and here), we describe the prior phases of the crisis. The first began on August 9, 2007, when BNP Paribas suspended redemptions from three mutual funds invested in U.S. subprime debt, kicking off a global scramble for safe, liquid assets. And the second started seven months later when, in response to the March 2008 run on Bear Stearns, the Fed provided liquidity directly to nonbanks for the first time since the Great Depression, completing its crisis-driven evolution into an effective lender of last resort to solvent, but illiquid intermediaries.

The most intense period of the crisis began with the failure of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008. Credit dried up; not just uncollateralized lending, but short-term lending backed by investment-grade collateral as well. In mid-September, measures of financial stress spiked far above levels seen before or since (see here and here). And, the spillover to the real economy was rapid and dramatic, with the U.S. economy plunging that autumn at the fastest pace since quarterly reporting began in 1947.

In our view, three, interrelated policy responses proved critical in arresting the crisis and promoting recovery. First was the Fed’s aggressive monetary stimulus: after Lehman, within its mandate, the Fed did “whatever it took” to end the crisis. Second was the use of taxpayer resources—authorized by Congress—to recapitalize the U.S. financial system. And third, was the exceptional disclosure mechanism introduced by the Federal Reserve in early 2009—the first round of macroprudential stress tests known as the Supervisory Capital Assessment Program (SCAP)—that neutralized the worst fears about U.S. banks.

In this post, we begin with a bit of background, highlighting the aggregate capital shortfall of the U.S. financial system as the source of the crisis. We then turn to the policy response. Because we have discussed unconventional monetary policy in some detail in previous posts (here and here), our focus here is on the stress tests (combined with recapitalization) as a central means for restoring confidence in the financial system….

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Inflation Policy

Inflation in the United States remains at levels that most people don’t really notice. Overall, the consumer price index rose 2.8 percent from May 2017 to May 2018. And, when you look at core measures, the trend is still below 2 percent.

With inflation and inflation expectations still so benign, it is no wonder that despite solid economic growth and the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years the Federal Open Market Committee continues to act quite gradually (see their June 2018 statement). Inflation could well turn up in the near term—perhaps by more than the policymakers expect. But, for reasons that we will explain, if we were on the FOMC, we would stay the planned course: remain vigilant, but certainly not panic.

We start with a look at the data. What we see is that trend inflation has stayed reasonably close to the Fed’s medium-term target of 2 percent for the past two decades. There have been occasional deviations, like the temporary rise in 2008 and again in 2011, but overall, the path is remarkably stable….

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Banks and Money, Or Watch out What You Wish For

On 10 June 2008, a large majority of voters in Switzerland rejected a proposal that all commercial bank demand deposits be held at the central bank. This Vollgeld referendum was another incarnation of the justifiable public revulsion to financial crises and the bailouts that inevitably accompany them. Vollgeld proponents claimed that a system in which the central bank is the sole issuer of “money” will be more stable.

Serious people debated the wisdom of this proposal. One of Switzerland’s premier monetary economists, Philippe Bacchetta, wrote passionately in opposition. Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, argued in favor. And Swiss National Bank Chairman Thomas Jordan discussed the many dangers in detail.

It should come as no surprise that, had we had been among the Swiss voters, we would have voted “no.” In our view, the Vollgeld (sovereign money) initiative combined aspects of narrow banking with those of retail central bank digital currency. We see these as misguided, distorting the credit allocation mechanism and more likely to reduce than improve financial stability (see here and here). In the remainder of this post, we explain why….

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A Monetary Policy Framework for the Next Recession

Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. That could be the motto of any risk manager. In the case of a central banker, the job of ensuring low, stable inflation and high, stable growth requires constant contingency planning.

With the global economy humming along, monetary policymakers are on track to normalize policy. While that process is hardly free of risk, their bigger test will be how to address the next cyclical downturn whenever it arrives. Will policymakers have the tools needed to stabilize prices and ensure steady expansion? Because the equilibrium level of interest rates is substantially lower, the scope for conventional interest rate cuts is smaller. As a result, the challenge is bigger than it was in the past.

This post describes the problem and highlights a number of possible solutions.

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The case for a higher inflation target gets stronger

For several years, economists and policymakers have been debating the wisdom of raising the inflation target. Today, roughly two-thirds of global GDP is produced in countries that are either de jure or de facto inflation targeters (see our earlier post). In most advanced economies, the target is (close to) 2 percent. Is 2 percent enough?

Advocates of raising the target believe that central banks need greater headroom to use conventional interest rate policy in battling business cycle downturns. More specifically, the case for a higher target is based on a desire to reduce the frequency and duration of zero-policy-rate episodes, avoiding the now well-known problems with unconventional policies (including balance sheet expansions that may prove difficult to reverse) and the limited scope for reducing policy rates below zero.

We have been reticent to endorse a higher inflation target. In our view, the most important counterargument is the enormous investment that central banks have made in making the 2-percent inflation target credible. Yet, several lines of empirical research recently have combined to boost the case for raising the target….

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Negative Nominal Interest Rates (again)

There is an obsession with negative nominal interest rates. People seem to think that they make no sense. And, there is a fixation with keeping track of the fraction of sovereign debt that is trading at negative nominal rates. (At this writing, the number is approaching one-third of the total outstanding.) Clearly many central bankers believe that setting the policy rate below zero is a legitimate use of this conventional instrument, a point that we have supported in the past. But the fact that people are so disturbed prompts us to ask why. In this post, we first discuss why we are confused by this reaction, and then try to identify what might account for it....

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A Primer on Helicopter Money

Helicopter money is not monetary policy. It is a fiscal policy carried out with the cooperation of the central bank. That is, if the Fed were to drop $100 bills out of helicopters, it would be doing the Treasury’s bidding.

We are wary of joining the cacophony of commentators on helicopter money, but our sense is that the discussion could use a bit of structure...

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How Low Can They Go?

Not long ago, nearly everyone thought that nominal interest rates could not go below zero. Now, we have negative policy rates in the euro area and Japan, while in Sweden and Switzerland, the lowest controlled rate is below -1%. And government securities worth trillions of dollars bear negative rates, too.

When we first wrote about negative rates a year ago, we argued that the effective lower bound (ELB, rather than ZLB) for nominal rates was determined by the transactions costs of storing and transferring cash. We reasoned that the ELB might be in the range of -0.50% (minus one-half percent). Below that, we thought, there would be a move into cash, facilitated by banks and others who efficiently manage the notes for clients.

But, at the negative rates that we have seen so far, cash in circulation has not spiked. So, how much further can nominal interest rates fall? And what role should negative interest rates play in the future?


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