Quantitative easing

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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Universal Central Bank Digital Currency?

Digital currency is all the rage. Bitcoin has more than one thousand crypto cousins. There is even a token called dentacoin, whose issuers claim it will transform dentistry! In the past, we have been clear in our views. We agree with BIS General Manager Agustín Carstens: these are exactly like past attempts of people to issue their own private money. As Carstens said on another occasion, these tokens are “a combination of a bubble, a Ponzi scheme and an environmental disaster.”

Regardless of whether the blockchain will revolutionize dental health, the appearance of cryptocurrencies has driven central banks to think about one particular aspect of their business: paper currency issuance.

In this post, we expand on some aspects of our earlier discussion of central bank digital currency (CBDC). What is it and what would its wider introduction mean for the financial system? Our conclusion is unambiguous: Watch out what you wish for! ….

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Relying on the Fed's Balance Sheet

Last week’s 12th annual U.S. Monetary Policy Forum focused on the effectiveness of Fed large-scale asset purchases (LSAPs) as an instrument of monetary policy. Despite notable disagreements, the report and discussion reveal a broad (if not universal) consensus on key issues:

In a world of low equilibrium real interest rates and low inflation, policymakers could easily hit the zero lower bound (ZLB) in the next recession.

At the ZLB, the Fed should again use a combination of balance-sheet tools and interest-rate forward-guidance to achieve its mandated objectives of stable prices and maximum sustainable employment (see our earlier post).

Yet, significant uncertainties about the impact of balance-sheet expansion mean that LSAPs may not provide sufficient stimulus at the ZLB.

Fed policymakers should undertake a thorough (and potentially lengthy) assessment of alternative policy tools and frameworks—ranging from negative interest rates to a higher inflation target to forms of price-level targeting—to ensure they remain as effective as possible.

The remainder of this post discusses the challenges of measuring the impact of balance-sheet policies. As the now-extensive literature on the subject implies, balance-sheet expansions ease financial conditions. However, as this year’s USMPF report emphasizes, there is substantial uncertainty about the scale of that impact.... 

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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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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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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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Unconventional monetary policy through the Fed's rear-view mirror

On December 16, the Federal Open Market Committee is poised to hike interest rates, putting an end to the near-zero interest rate policy that began in December 2008. So, it’s natural to step back and ask what this episode has taught us about monetary policy at the near-zero lower bound for nominal interest rates. This is not merely some academic exercise. The euro area and Japan are still constrained by the zero bound. And, in this era of low inflation and low potential growth, policy rates in advanced economies are likely to hit that lower bound again (see, for example, here). How the Fed and other central banks respond when that happens will depend on the lessons drawn from recent experience...

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ECB Paddles Both Ways in the Rubicon

On January 22, the ECB crossed the Rubicon twice – but in opposite directions. In an effort to combat deflation and years of anemic growth, the central bank announced a sustained program of large-scale asset purchases. At the same time, it capped the amount of risk-sharing in the Eurosystem. Other central banks have done the first, but not the second.  And, while outright balance sheet expansion helped ease euro area financial conditions somewhat, the limit on risk-sharing works in the other direction. Rowing toward both shores at the same time doesn’t move a boat far or fast...

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The ECB's Not-So-Sweet 16th

Sixteenth birthdays can be momentous occasions. A coming of age of sorts. Well, New Year’s Day 2015 the European Central Bank turned 16. It is a momentous birthday, but not all that sweet.

To be sure, there is notable good news. The new headquarters in Frankfurt recently opened. Lithuania has entered the euro area. The frequency of ECB monetary policy meetings is about to decline. And there will soon be timely publication of minutes of these meetings.

But the risk of deflation amid sustained economic weakness makes for a very anxious birthday...

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Monetary Policy: A Lesson Learned

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) recently ended another round of large-scale asset purchases, so now is a good opportunity to take stock of what Fed policy has achieved since the peak of the financial crisis in fall 2008.

Back in 2002, then-Governor Ben Bernanke gave a speech entitled “Deflation: Making Sure "It" Doesn't Happen Here.” His message was that the experience of the 1930s taught us the importance of using aggressive monetary accommodation to avoid deflation. As Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board during the financial crisis of 2007-2009, Bernanke and his colleagues took actions that their 1930s predecessors had not. The result was a Great Recession, not another Great Depression...

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How big should central bank balance sheets be?

In 2007, the Fed’s balance sheet was less than $1 trillion. Today, it is nearly $4.5 trillion. The U.S. experience is far from unique. Since 2007, global central bank balance sheets have nearly tripled to more than $22 trillion as of mid-2014. And, the increase is split evenly between advanced and emerging market economies (EMEs).

So what’s the right size? The answer depends on the policy goals and the nature of the financial system. In the case of the Fed, we expect that it will be able to achieve its long-term objectives with fewer than half of its current assets...

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The ECB plans to ease, but how?

The European Central Bank is nervous. Inflation in the euro area has fallen to 0.5 percent (see chart), well below the ECB’s objective of slightly below 2 percent. Not only that, but most of the peripheral countries (including Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia. Spain, and Portugal) are now experiencing deflation. What to do?

Last week, President Mario Draghi signaled that the ECB Governing Council is likely to ease policy at its June 5 meeting. How?...
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