“The Federal Reserve left its benchmark interest rate unchanged and said Wednesday that it would begin to withdraw some of the trillions of dollars that it invested in the US economy after the 2008 financial crisis.” ~ Binyamin Applebaum
The Federal Reserve balance sheet ballooned in the last decade to current holdings of $2.5 trillion of US Treasury securities and $1.8 trillion of mortgage-backed securities.
Fed total assets of $4.5 trillion (the red line on the above chart) does not give the full picture. Of the cash injected into the economy, $2.2 trillion found its way back to the Fed by way of excess reserves deposited by banks (the blue line). These deposits earn interest at the rate of 1.25% p.a., providing a secure return on surplus funds. What this means is that the net effect of the balance sheet expansion is the difference between the two lines, or $2.3 trillion.
Even $2.3 trillion is a big number and any meaningful sale of securities by the Fed would contract the supply of money, tipping the economy into recession. So how does the Fed propose to manage “normalization of its balance sheet” without disrupting the economy?
Firstly, the Fed does not intend to sell securities. It will simply decrease the “reinvestment of principal repayments it receives from securities held” according to its June 2017 Normalization Plan.
The amount withheld from reinvestment will commence at $10 billion per month ($6bn US Treasuries and $4bn MBS) and step up by $10 billion each quarter until it reaches a total of $50 billion per quarter.
That means that $100 billion will be withheld in the first year and $200 billion in each year thereafter….”so that the Federal Reserve’s securities holdings will continue to decline in a gradual and predictable manner until the Committee judges that the Federal Reserve is holding no more securities than necessary to implement monetary policy efficiently and effectively.”
Second, the Fed will reduce the level of excess reserves by an appreciable amount in order to soften the impact of the first step. So a $100 billion reduction in investments may only result in a net reduction of say half that figure, after taking into account the decline in reserves.
Third, the federal funds rate will remain the primary tool of monetary policy and will be used to fine tune monetary policy to fit economic conditions.
It appears that the Fed will start quite tentatively, withholding only $30 billion in the first quarter, but the longer term targets seem ambitious.
With currency in circulation now growing at an annual rate of $100 billion, even a $50 billion reduction in the first year (net of excess reserves) could leave a big hole.
This is bound to take some of the heat out of the stock market. The plus side is it may restore some sanity to market valuations, but any sudden moves could cause an overreaction.
Even if we compare the reduction to the annual change in M1 money supply, it takes a big bite.
M1 consists of: (1) currency outside the U.S. Treasury, Federal Reserve Banks, and the vaults of depository institutions; (2) traveler’s checks of nonbank issuers; (3) demand deposits; and (4) other checkable deposits (OCDs), which consist primarily of negotiable order of withdrawal (NOW) accounts at depository institutions and credit union share draft accounts.