My previous post reviewed the profound changes in the balance sheet of the U.S. Federal Reserve over the last 18 months. Here I comment on some of the concerns that the new Fed balance sheet raises for the conduct of monetary policy.
I would suggest first that the new Fed balance sheet represents a fundamental transformation of the role of the central bank. The whole idea behind open market operations is to make the process of creating new money completely separate from the decision of who receives any fiscal transfers. In a traditional open market operation, the Fed buys or sells an existing Treasury obligation for the same price anyone else would pay for the security. As a result, the operation itself does not involve any net transfer of wealth between the Fed and the private sector. The philosophy is that the Fed should base its decisions on economy-wide conditions, and leave it entirely up to the market or fiscal authorities to determine where those funds get allocated.
The philosophy behind the pullulating new Fed facilities is precisely the opposite of that traditional concept. The whole purpose of these facilities is to redirect capital to specific perceived priorities. I am uncomfortable on a general level with the suggestion that unelected Fed officials are better able to make such decisions than private investors who put their own capital where they think it will earn the highest reward. Apart from that general unease, I have a particular concern about the motivation for the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, whose goal is to generate up to $1 trillion of lending for businesses and households by catalyzing a revival of loan securitization. I grant that securitization was an enormously successful device for funneling vast sums into sundry loans. For example, securitization successfully turned 80% of quite shaky subprime loans into Aaa-rated assets. To put that in perspective, only five U.S. companies currently have the ability to issue Aaa-rated debt. So yes, a device that transformed weak loans into Aaa-rated debt was marvelously successful at attracting capital from all over the world into U.S. private lending.
But the whole premise behind those Aaa ratings– that securitization could isolate a “safe” component of a pool of fundamentally risky loans– was deeply flawed. It is impossible to diversify away aggregate or systemic risk. All that the device did was to mislead investors into thinking they were protected from those nondiversifiable risks and push those risks onto the taxpayers and the Fed. Before we decide that securitization is the road out of our present difficulties, I would like a detailed and convincing explanation of why the past mistakes are not going to be repeated again.
A second concern I have with the new Fed balance sheet is that it has seriously compromised the independence of the central bank. To my knowledge, every hyperinflation in history has had two key ingredients: (1) budget deficits that could not be resolved politically, and (2) a central bank that assumed the obligations that the fiscal authority could not.
In the U.S. today, there is little question in my mind that repaying the projected deficits with tax increases or spending cuts will be extremely difficult politically. Each additional trillion dollars would roughly require doubling the personal income tax rate on all Americans for one year, something I cannot see the political process delivering. There is enormous pressure in the current situation to defer solutions and look for temporary fixes with off-balance-sheet measures. The reason that the Fed is sought as a partner for the Treasury in all these new actions is because the Fed is perceived to have deeper pockets than the Treasury. This is not a situation that a self-respecting central bank should let itself get into.
My third concern is that the new Fed balance sheet has handicapped the Fed’s ability to fulfill its primary mission, which I see as promoting a stable and predictable low rate of inflation. Which of the Fed’s new assets would it sell off when it needs to absorb back in the huge volume of reserves it has recently created? The Fed’s hoped-for scenario is that the reserves won’t need to be called back in until the situation has stabilized and the facilities are no longer needed. But I am concerned instead about the possibility of a dramatic shift in the perceptions of foreign lenders, in which case inflationary pressures could emerge in a situation that is far more chaotic than the one we currently face.
I recommend instead that the Fed should be buying Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities in the current situation. Tim Iacono says that’s like the Mafia buying “protection” from itself. But my point is that TIPS represent an asset that would gain in value at a time the Fed needs to sell them, meaning that the logistical ability of the Fed to drain reserves quickly in such circumstances is without question.
What we need in the current situation is a central bank that is a bulwark of stability. A profound lack of confidence in the U.S. government itself would make our current problems look like a walk in the park. If the Fed had the means and the credibility to deliver a stable and low inflation rate, I believe that would go a long way to solving our current problems.
But it’s not clear the Fed has either the means or the credibility.