Fed flunks econ 101: understanding inflation | MarketWatch

Caroline Baum’s opinion on the Fed’s approach to inflation:

For all the sturm und drang about the Fed debasing the dollar and sowing the seeds of the next great inflation, the public’s demand for money has increased. The increased desire to hold cash and checkable deposits has risen to meet the increased supply. Velocity, or the rate at which money turns over, has plummeted.

The Fed has two choices. It can adopt the Dr. Strangelove approach and learn to stop worrying and live with low inflation and low unemployment. Or it can do something about it, which runs counter to its stated intention to raise the funds rate and reduce the size of its balance sheet.

Option #1 involves learning to live with a low, stable inflation rate about 0.5 percentage point below the Fed’s explicit 2% target.

Not only has the Fed has achieved price stability in objective terms, but it has also fulfilled former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s subjective definition of price stability: a rate of inflation low enough that it is not a factor in business or household decision-making.

Option #2 means taking some additional actions to increase the money supply by lowering interest rates or resuming bond purchases. The Fed is taking the opposite approach. It began its balance sheet normalization this month, allowing $10 billion of securities to mature each month and gradually increasing the amount every quarter. And it has guided markets to expect another 25-basis-point rate increase in December….

The Fed faces a delicate balancing act. Unemployment is low but capacity utilization is also low, indicating an absence of inflationary pressure.

Capacity Utilization

Janet Yellen understandably wants to normalize interest rates ahead of the next recession but she can afford to take her time. The economy is unlikely to tip into recession unless the Fed hikes rates too quickly, causing a monetary contraction.

I believe the Fed chair is relying on the outflow from more than $2 trillion of excess reserves held by banks on deposit with the Fed to offset the contractionary effect of any rate hikes.

Capacity Utilization

If pushed, the Fed could lower the interest rate paid on excess reserves in order to encourage banks to withdraw excess deposits. But so far this hasn’t been necessary. The attraction of higher interest rates in financial markets has been sufficient to encourage a steady outflow from excess reserves, keeping the monetary base (net of reserves) growing at a steady clip of close to 7.5% p.a. despite rate hikes so far.

Capacity Utilization

Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. ~ Milton Friedman

Makes you wonder why Donald Trump would even consider replacing the Fed chair when she is doing such a great job of managing the recovery.

Source: Fed flunks econ 101: understanding inflation – MarketWatch

The big shrink commences

“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.

Hourly Wage Growth

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.

Currency in Circulation

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.

Added later:

Even if we compare the reduction to the annual change in M1 money supply, it takes a big bite.

M1 money supply

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.

Nasdaq and S&P500 meet resistance

July labor stats are out and shows the jobless rate fell to a 16-year low at 4.3%. Unemployment below the long-term natural rate suggests the economy is close to capacity and inflationary pressures should be building.

Unemployment below the long-term natural rate

Source: St Louis Fed, BLS

But hourly wage rates are growing at a modest pace, easing pressure on the Fed to raise interest rates.

Hourly Wage Rates

Source: St Louis Fed, BLS

Fed monetary policy remains accommodative, with the monetary base (net of excess reserves) growing at a robust 7.5% a year.

Hourly Wage Rates

Source: St Louis Fed, FRB

Our forward estimate of real GDP — Nonfarm Payroll * Average Weekly Hours — continues at a slow but steady annual pace of 1.79%.

Real GDP compared to Nonfarm Payroll * Average Weekly Hours

Source: St Louis Fed, BLS & BEA

The Nasdaq 100 has run into resistance at 6000. No doubt readers noticed Amazon [AMZN] and Alphabet [GOOG] both retreated after reaching the $1000 mark. This is natural. Correction back to the rising trendline would take some of the heat out of the market and provide a solid base for further gains. Selling pressure, reflected by declining peaks on Twiggs Money Flow, appears secondary.

Nasdaq 100

The S&P 500 is also running into resistance, below 2500. Bearish divergence on Twiggs Money Flow warns of moderate selling pressure but this again seems to be secondary — in line with a correction rather than a reversal.

S&P 500

Target 2400 + ( 2400 – 2300 ) = 2500

Lighting a fuse

The Fed quit quantitative easing more than a year ago, limiting total assets on its balance sheet to $4.5 trillion. But more than $2.5 trillion of cash injected into the financial system had been deposited straight back into the Federal Reserve system by banks as excess reserves, earning 0.25% p.a.

Fed Total Assets and Excess Reserves

Fresh money continued to leak into the financial system as banks drew down their excess reserves, highlighted above by the widening gap between Total Assets and Excess Reserves. In December 2015 the Fed doubled the rate payable on excess reserves to 0.50% p.a. The intention is clearly to attract more excess reserves and narrow the gap, or at least slow the rate at which excess reserves are being withdrawn to prevent further widening.

Easy money policies followed by central banks around the world are not achieving the desired result of reviving business investment. If we examine the Fed’s track record over the last two decades, sharp surges in business credit were accompanied by speculative bubbles — stocks ahead of the Dotcom crash and housing ahead of the GFC — with disastrous results. GDP failed to respond.

Business Credit Growth v. Nominal GDP

The latest rally in global markets is also driven by monetary easing, this time in China, with a massive surge in the money supply signaling PBOC intentions to print their way out of trouble (and into an even bigger hole).

Ineffectiveness of monetary policy in solving structural problems has often been described as “like pushing on a string”. But recent experience shows it is more like lighting a fuse.

This is a nightmare, which will pass away with the morning. For the resources of nature and men’s devices are just as fertile and productive as they were. The rate of our progress towards solving the material problems of life is not less rapid. We are as capable as before of affording for everyone a high standard of life …. and will soon learn to afford a standard higher still. We were not previously deceived. But to-day we have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand. The result is that our possibilities of wealth may run to waste for a time – perhaps for a long time.

~ John Maynard Keynes: The Great Slump of 1930

Fed: Who Is Holding All the Excess Reserves?

Ben Craig and Sara Millington at FRB Cleveland say “liquidity is not diffusing through the banking system, but is instead staying concentrated on the balance sheets of the largest banks.” Banks from the European Union (EU) have also substantially increased their holdings of excess reserves at the Fed.

Hat tip to Barry Ritholz

Gold breaks trendline

Treasury yields remain weak, with the 10-year yield testing support at 2.0 percent. Declining interest rates improve demand for gold but a subdued inflation outlook has the opposite effect.

10-Year Treasury Yields

The Fed has stopped QE, with total assets leveling off around $4.5 Trillion. Expansion of excess bank reserves on deposit with the Fed, which softened the inflationary impact of QE, halted a little earlier.

Fed Total Assets compared to Excess Reserves

The latter is contracting at a slightly faster pace, so the net effect (change in Total Assets minus Excess Reserves) remains stimulatory. Reversal below zero on the chart below would warn of a contraction.

Fed Total Assets minus Excess Reserves

The Dollar is weakening in line with interest rates, with the Dollar Index headed for a test of support at 93. 13-Week Twiggs Momentum crossed below zero, warning of a primary down-trend. Breach of primary support at 93 would confirm.

Dollar Index

A weaker Dollar would drive up gold. Spot gold broke its long-term descending trendline and is headed for a test of resistance at $1200/ounce. Recovery of 13-week Twiggs Momentum above zero would suggest a primary up-trend, but it would be prudent to wait for confirmation from a trough above zero and breakout above $1200.

Spot Gold

* Target calculation: 1200 – ( 1400 – 1200 ) = 1000

Will falling commodity prices cause deflation?

Some readers expressed concern about falling commodity prices, especially crude oil, and whether this will cause global deflation. This confuses the cause with the symptom.

Crude

Falling prices are largely benign except where caused by a contraction of the money supply. Commodity prices may fall when there is an excess of supply over demand, but this is soon absorbed by changes in consumer behavior. Discretionary spending will rise in response to the savings, so that aggregate demand is unaffected.

A contraction in the money supply, however, is far more serious. Slow growth in the monetary base (below growth of real GDP) results in less money chasing the same goods, driving down prices. Supply and demand in this case are unchanged, but prices fall because of a contraction in the money supply. Wages, however, are sticky and do not fall in line with prices, leading to falling profits, cuts in production and job layoffs. Falling income from lower profits and fewer jobs leads to a contraction in aggregate demand, causing further cuts to production and income.

Contraction of the money supply also places pressure on banks to reduce lending. This danger was highlighted by Irving Fisher in the 1930s. Contracting credit reduces not only new investment but forces existing borrowers to liquidate some of their assets, mainly stocks and property. The surge of selling, and limited availability of credit, drives down asset prices. A feedback loop results, with falling asset prices prompting banks to further contract lending — in turn causing more price falls. That is the central bankers’ equivalent of a perfect storm. The graph below shows how close we came in 2009 to a deflationary spiral.

Working Monetary Base

Slow growth in the monetary base caused a sharp contraction in bank lending (below zero) in 2009. Only prompt action by the Fed averted a 1930’s-style collapse of the financial system.

The Fed indicated in October that it will curtail QE and no longer expand its balance sheet to support money supply growth. Should we expect another contraction of the money supply as in 2008?

The answer is: NO. When we look at the graph of the Fed balance sheet below, we can see that total asset growth [red] is slowing. But bank deposits at the Fed — excess reserves that earn interest at 0.25% p.a. — are slowing at an even faster rate. That means that the actual amount of money flowing into the banking system is not contracting, but increasing.

Fed Total Assets and Excess Reserves

The following graph shows a net growth rate (of Total Assets minus Excess Reserves on Deposit) of more than 20 percent. Expect growth to slow over time, but the Fed can adjust the interest rate payable on excess reserves to ensure that it remains positive.

Fed Total Assets minus Excess Reserves

Deflation is a far bigger problem for the Euro. After a “whatever it takes” surge in 2012, the ECB attempted to contract its balance sheet far too soon — withdrawing treatment before the patient had fully recovered. They also do not have excess reserves on deposit, like the Fed, which could soften the impact.

ECB Total Assets

The result has been faltering economic growth and price levels falling dangerously close to deflation.

ECB Total Assets

The ECB appears to have recognized its error, indicating that it will expand its balance sheet if necessary to avert a monetary contraction. If they learn from their past mistakes, the ECB should be able to avoid any threat of deflation.

Fed excess reserves shrinking

Commentators have highlighted the fact that bank excess reserves held on deposit at the Fed — and on which banks are paid interest at 0.25% p.a. — are declining. This would suggest that bank lending is rising, increasing inflationary pressure.

Fed Excess Reserves- Weekly

The Fed is well aware of the situation

Fed Excess Reserves and Total Assets

…and has responded to the recent slow-down by scaling back asset purchases (quantitative easing). They are likely to track the decline of excess reserves to ensure that the impact on the working monetary base (monetary base minus excess reserves) is contained — along with inflationary pressures.

Declining US commercial bank loans?

Sober Look highlights the sharply declining ratio of commercial bank loans and leases to bank deposits.

Ratio of commercial bank loans and leases to bank deposits

Its only when we examine the detail, however, that we note cash reserves have ballooned in the last 10 years. And most of those cash reserves are deposits at the Fed which now (post-GFC) earn interest. Adjust total deposits at commercial banks, for the excess reserves deposited back with the Fed, and the current ratio of 1:1 looks a lot healthier.

Ratio of commercial bank loans and leases to bank deposits Adjusted for Excess Reserves

As I pointed out in November, most new money created by the Fed QE program is being deposited straight back with the Fed as excess reserves. We need to adjust bank deposits for this effect to obtain a true reflection of bank lending activity.

Declining US commercial bank loans?

Sober Look highlights the sharply declining ratio of commercial bank loans and leases to bank deposits.

Ratio of commercial bank loans and leases to bank deposits

Its only when we examine the detail, however, that we note cash reserves have ballooned in the last 10 years. And most of those cash reserves are deposits at the Fed which now (post-GFC) earn interest. Adjust total deposits at commercial banks, for the excess reserves deposited back with the Fed, and the current ratio of 1:1 looks a lot healthier.

Ratio of commercial bank loans and leases to bank deposits Adjusted for Excess Reserves

As I pointed out in November, most new money created by the Fed QE program is being deposited straight back with the Fed as excess reserves. We need to adjust bank deposits for this effect to obtain a true reflection of bank lending activity.

Why does QE taper spook the market if it will have no real impact?

Question received from CG about the impact of QE and Fed taper:

I’m not arguing against the data presented on the graph, but if true that most of the QE bond purchases are being parked by banks in interest-bearing, excess reserve deposits at the Fed, why do the markets get spooked every time there are whispers that the Fed is going to reduce QE?

The comment CG is referring to:

Currently, there is evidence of expansive monetary policy from the Fed, but the overall impact on the financial markets is muted. Most of the QE bond purchases are being parked by banks in interest-bearing, excess reserve deposits at the Fed. The chart below compares Fed balance sheet expansion (QE) to the increase in excess reserve deposits at the Fed.

US Household Debt

A classic placebo effect, the Fed is well aware that the major benefit of their quantitative easing program is psychological: there is little monetary impact on the markets.

My answer:
The markets have no real reason to fear a QE taper. I think this is more psychological than physical. The current mind-set is:

If the Fed begins to taper, that marks the end of the bull market in bonds. Rising bond yields and higher long-term interest rates may slow industry investment and recovery of the housing market and this would be bad for the economy.

In other words, they still have a bearish outlook. At some point they will shift to the counter-argument:

QE taper and rising interest rates indicate Fed faith in the recovery and are a bullish sign for stocks. It also means the economy is reverting to a sustainable path.

The bottom-line is that markets are driven as much by emotion as by logic.

Is the market in a bubble?

As global growth recovers we expect equity markets to be buoyed by improvements in both earnings and dividends, with strong momentum over the quarter. There is much discussion in the media as to whether various markets are in a “bubble”. Little attention is devoted to the fact that bubbles can last for several years, and sometimes even decades. The main driver of both stock market bubbles and real estate bubbles is debt. Anna Schwartz, co-author with Milton Friedman of A Monetary History of the United States (1963) described the relationship to the Wall Street Journal:

If you investigate individually the manias that the market has so dubbed over the years, in every case, it was expansive monetary policy that generated the boom in an asset. The particular asset varied from one boom to another. But the basic underlying propagator was too-easy monetary policy and too-low interest rates …..

Currently, there is evidence of expansive monetary policy from the Fed, but the overall impact on the financial markets is muted. Most of the QE bond purchases are being parked by banks in interest-bearing, excess reserve deposits at the Fed. The chart below compares Fed balance sheet expansion (QE) to the increase in excess reserve deposits at the Fed.

US Household Debt

A classic placebo effect, the Fed is well aware that the major benefit of their quantitative easing program is psychological: there is little monetary impact on the markets.

Corporate debt (green line below) is expanding rapidly as corporations take advantage of the opportunity to issue new debt at low interest rates, but household debt (red) is still shrinking.

US Household Debt

There are pockets of concern, like the rapid recovery in NYSE margin debt, but risk of a Dotcom-style stock market bubble or a 2002/2007 housing bubble is low while household debt contracts.

Australia

Australian personal debt (included with household debt in the US chart) and corporate debt growth are both close to zero. Household debt, while also low, appears to have bottomed. Resurgence above 10% would be cause for concern.

RBA Household Debt

Interest on Reserves, Settlement, and the Effectiveness of Monetary Policy

Joshua R. Hendrickson suggests that paying interest on excess reserves at the Fed reduces the effectiveness of monetary policy. Money paid to purchase Treasuries finds its way back to the Fed in the form of excess reserves. Here is the abstract from his paper:

Over the last several years, the Federal Reserve has conducted a series of large scale asset purchases. The effectiveness of these purchases is dependent on the monetary transmission mechanism. Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke has argued that large scale assets purchase are effective because they induce portfolio reallocations that ultimately lead to changes in economic activity. Despite these claims, a large fraction of the expansion of the monetary base is held as excess reserves by commercial banks. Concurrent with the large scale asset purchases, the Federal Reserve began paying interest on reserves and enacted changes in its Payment System Risk policy that have effectively made reserves and interest-bearing assets perfect substitutes. This paper demonstrates that these policy changes have had statistically and economically significant effects on the demand for reserves and simply that the effectiveness of conventional monetary policy has been significantly weakened.

Read the entire paper at Interest on Reserves, Settlement, and the Effectiveness of Monetary Policy |
Joshua R. Hendrickson
.

Impact of QE (or lack thereof) is reflected by excess reserves

JKH at Monetary Realism writes:

….there is a systematic tendency in the blogosphere and elsewhere to misrepresent the impact of QE in a particular way in terms of the related macroeconomic flow of funds…… Most descriptions will erroneously treat the macro flow as if banks were the original portfolio source of the bonds that are being sold to the Fed, obtaining reserves in exchange. This is not the case. A cursory scan of Fed flow of funds statistics will confirm that commercial banks are relatively small holders of bonds in their portfolios, especially Treasury bonds. The vast proportion of bonds that are sold to the Fed in QE originate from non-bank portfolios……. Many descriptions of QE instead erroneously suggest the strong presence of a bank principal function in which bonds from bank portfolios are simply exchanged for reserves. In fact, for the most part, while the banking system has received reserve credit for bonds sold to the Fed, it has also passed on credits to the accounts of non-bank customers who have sold their bonds to the banks. This is integral to the overall QE flow of bonds.

There is a simpler explanation of what happens when the Fed purchases bonds under QE. Bank balance sheets expand as sellers deposit the sale proceeds with their bank. In addition to the deposit liability the bank also receives an asset, being a credit to its account with the Fed. Unless the bank is able to make better use of its asset by making loans to credit-worthy borrowers, the funds are likely to remain on deposit at the Fed as excess reserves — earning interest at 0.25% per year. Excess reserves on deposit at the Fed currently stand at close to $1.8 trillion, reflecting the dearth of (reasonably secure) lending/investment opportunities in the broader economy.

Read more at The Accounting Quest of Steve Keen | Monetary Realism.

Cause of the 2007/8 crash and threatened double-dip in 2010

Here is the smoking gun. Note the sharp contraction in the US monetary base before the last two recessions and again in 2010. Monetary base (M0) is plotted net of excess bank reserves on deposit with the Fed, which are not in circulation. The Fed responded after the contraction had taken place, instead of anticipating it.

Monetary Base minus Excess Reserves

The long-term problem is that the monetary base should not be expanding at 10 percent a year. More like 3% to 5% — in line with real GDP growth.

Fed’s Kocherlakota on Why Balance Sheet Expansion Need Not Be Inflationary – Real Time Economics – WSJ

I’ve mentioned how the Federal Reserve has bought over $2 trillion of government securities. It has funded that purchase by tripling the amount of deposits held by banks with the Fed — what are called bank reserves.

……. Banks have few good lending opportunities, and so they’re not trying to attract deposits. As a result, they are keeping nearly $1.6 trillion of reserves at the Fed in excess of what they need to back their deposits.

…… Some observers are concerned that ……. the banks’ excess reserves will serve as kindling for an inflationary fire. This concern would have been entirely appropriate three years ago. But in October 2008, Congress granted the Federal Reserve the power to pay interest on bank reserves. Right now, that interest rate is 25 basis points, or 0.25%. By raising that rate judiciously, the Fed has the ability to deter banks from using their reserves to create money, and through this mechanism, the Fed can prevent inflation.

via Fed’s Kocherlakota on Why Balance Sheet Expansion Need Not Be Inflationary – Real Time Economics – WSJ.

Monetary expansion through further asset purchases by the Fed (quantitative easing) would be ineffective, simply boosting the level of excess reserves held by banks on deposit at the Fed. Monetary tightening would be more difficult, but could be achieved by raising the interest rate paid on excess reserves in order to discourage banks from using their excess reserves. That would raise the overnight rate (fed funds rate) in the market and restrict banks from expanding their balance sheets.