Inflation, Bank Reserves, and Lending

The Business News Network in Canada interviewed me last week about the gigantic amount of excess reserves being held by U.S. banks.

Here’s a link to the video of the interview. (We had a small technical glitch at the start, but then got rolling.)

Going into the interview, I was focused on the following talking points:

  • Total bank reserves have skyrocketed over the past year, from roughly $50 billion to roughly $850 billion.
  • When we studied economics in school, we were usually taught that a big increase in reserves would eventually translate into big inflation.
  • However, that’s not true today, for two reasons: (1) short-term interest rates are effectively zero, and (2) the Fed can now pay interest on reserves. Those facts weaken / break the traditional link between reserves and inflationary pressures.
  • Some have wondered whether the excess reserves mean that banks are hoarding, rather than lending.
  • That’s not true either. Instead, the high level of reserves simply reflects the fact that the Fed has been a busy beaver, expanding its balance sheet by making loans and buying securities (i.e., credit easing). Banks might be hoarding or they might not; excess reserves don’t shed any light on the question.
  • Viewers who are interested in these issues should check out a recent paper from the New York Federal Reserve, which does a great job of explaining each of these issues.

I didn’t manage to get all of that into the interview, of course, but I tried to hit some of the high points.

Why Are Banks Holding So Many Excess Reserves?

That’s the question posed by a recent staff report from Todd Keister and James McAndrews at the New York Federal Reserve.

Their answer? Because the Federal Reserve has been really, really busy.

Keister and McAndrews begin their analysis by documenting the remarkable increase in excess reserves since the fall of Lehman:

Since September 2008, the quantity of reserves in the U.S. banking system has grown dramatically, as shown in Figure 1. Prior to the onset of the financial crisis, required reserves were about $40 billion and excess reserves were roughly $1.5 billion. Excess reserves spiked to around $9 billion in August 2007, but then quickly returned to pre-crisis levels and remained there until the middle of September 2008. Following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, however, total reserves began to grow rapidly, climbing above $900 billion by January 2009. As the figure shows, almost all of the increase was in excess reserves. While required reserves rose from $44 billion to $60 billion over this period, this change was dwarfed by the large and unprecedented rise in excess reserves.

Excess ReservesSome observers have expressed two concerns about the spike in excess reserves:

Continue reading “Why Are Banks Holding So Many Excess Reserves?”

Defending the Fed’s Independence

I’m not usually one to sign public petitions, but I made an exception today for a key issue: defending the independence of the Federal Reserve.

Like many other economists (here’s the list of signatories, with a day’s lag), I am troubled by the anti-Fed rhetoric emanating from some parts of the Congress. The Fed has taken a remarkable series of actions that deserve close congressional oversight. But that oversight should not endanger the Fed’s fundamental independence in executing monetary policy.

The petition therefore makes three important points about Fed independence:

First, central bank independence has been shown to be essential for controlling inflation. Sooner or later, the Fed will have to scale back its current unprecedented monetary accommodation. When the Federal Reserve judges it time to begin tightening monetary conditions, it must be allowed to do so without interference.

Second, lender of last resort decisions should not be politicized.

Finally, calls to alter the structure or personnel selection of the Federal Reserve System easily could backfire by raising inflation expectations and borrowing costs and dimming prospects for recovery. The democratic legitimacy of the Federal Reserve System is well established by its legal mandate and by the existing appointments process. Frequent communication with the public and testimony before Congress ensure Fed accountability.

Over at the WSJ, David Wessel has a nice piece on the petition.