Excess reserves

Bank Financing: The Disappearance of Interbank Lending

Retail bank runs are mostly a thing of the past. Every jurisdiction with a banking system has some form of deposit insurance, whether explicit or implicit. So, most customers can rest assured that they will be compensated even should their bank fail. But, while small and medium-sized depositors are extremely unlikely to feel the need to run, the same cannot be said for large short-term creditors (whose claims usually exceed the cap on deposit insurance). As we saw in the crisis a decade ago, when they are funded by short-term borrowing, not only are banks (and other intermediaries) vulnerable, the entire financial system becomes fragile.

This belated realization has motivated a large shift in the structure of bank funding since the crisis. Two complementary forces have been at work, one coming from within the institutions and the other from the authorities overseeing the system. This post highlights the biggest of these changes: the spectacular fall in uncollateralized interbank lending and the smaller, but still dramatic, decline in the use of repurchase agreements. The latter—also called repo—amounts to a short-term collateralized loan....

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The Fed's successful tightening

No one should be surprised that the Fed is tightening monetary policy and expects to tighten significantly further over coming years. Unemployment is less than 5 percent, consistent with normal use of resources. Inflation is approaching the FOMC’s 2 percent objective. And policy rates remain below what simple guides would suggest as normal.

A key issue facing policymakers today is whether the Fed’s new operational framework is working effectively to tighten financial conditions without creating unnecessary volatility. While the FOMC’s actions are occurring in a familiar macroeconomic environment, the legacy of the crisis makes raising rates anything but routine. The key difference is the size of the Fed’s balance sheet. Unlike past episodes, when commercial bank reserves were relatively scarce, today they are abundant.

This difference—reflecting a balance sheet that is over four times its pre-crisis level—creates technical challenges for the Fed. The traditional approach of using modest open-market operations (through repurchase agreements of a few billion dollars) to control the federal funds rate—became ineffective as reserves grew abundant. This meant developing an entirely new operational framework. The good news is that—up to now—the challenges of policy setting with abundant reserves have been very clearly met. While this may seem mundane, it is no small achievement. Much like plumbing, had the Fed’s new system failed, everyone would have noticed. At the same time, there are still challenges to face, so we’re not completely out of the woods....

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Reverse Repo Risks

Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, the Federal Reserve has stabilized the financial system and put the economy back on a path to sustainable growth. This task involved creating a colossal balance sheet, which now stands at $4.37 trillion, more than four times the pre-Lehman level ($940 billion). As textbooks (like ours) teach, along with this increase in Fed assets has come an increase in reserve liabilities (which represent deposits by banks at the Fed). Today, banks’ excess reserves (that is, the extra reserves beyond those that banks must hold at the Fed) are at $2.56 trillion, compared to virtually zero prior to the crisis.

Getting the money and banking system back to normal requires doing something to manage these excess reserves ...
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What will the Fed use as its operating target?

In 2012, the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee (FOMC) clarified its long-run goals of price stability and maximum sustainable employment in a strategic statement that included for the first time a numerical inflation objective. While these ultimate objectives have evolved over the years, the FOMC’s operating instrument has been unchanged at least since 1981, when it began to target the federal funds rate -- the overnight interest rate on unsecured interbank loans. Since December 16, 2008, the target has been 0.00 to 0.25 percent, effectively at the zero lower bound for nominal interest rates. The history of the federal funds rate target is shown in the accompanying figure (and here). 

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