Friday, February 8, 2008

Doom and Gloom: What Can the Federal Reserve Do? Part II

We left part I at the "Money Rain" section of the Fed paper Monetary Policy When the Nominal Short-Term Interest Rate is Zero.

The paper's conclusions are worth an extended exerpt.

9 Conclusion
...When the nominal Treasury bill rate is at zero, the Federal Reserve could attempt to provide a stimulus to aggregate demand through effects in addition to those from increases in the monetary base. The Federal Reserve could purchase assets other than Treasury bills, such as U.S. Treasury bonds or foreign government debt. Even if these assets are perfect substitutes for U.S. Treasury bills, purchases of them could have a stronger stimulative impact than purchases of Treasury bills because of signalling effects."

...A similar effect is present if the Federal Reserve were to write options in an attempt to communicate its desired path for the Treasury bill rate.

But with discount window loans whether in the form of advances or discounts the Federal Reserve can accept as collateral (and therefore make liquid" for a depository) a wide variety of assets that the Federal Reserve cannot purchase. A potentially serious limitation on such loans is that it has apparently been the intent of Congress that the Federal Reserve not take onto its balance sheet the credit-risk of the collateral: The Federal Reserve could turn to the depository for full payment of the loan.

The Federal Reserve can bypass depositories and lend directly to individuals, partnerships, and corporations (IPCs). However, the Federal Reserve must and there to be "unusual and exigent" conditions and the IPC receiving the loan must be unable to secure credit from other banking institutions. It seems the intent of Congress was that the Federal Reserve should make such loans only to credit-worthy IPCs. With the Federal Reserve not taking credit risk onto its balance sheet, private- sector loan markets would still incorporate all credit risk into any new loans to households and businesses|preventing any decline in credit-spreads, which may be elevated should the economy be at the zero bound and should the economy be weak. Nonetheless, loans by the Federal Reserve to depositories and to IPCs could provide some liquidity for the credit instruments used as collateral and thereby could lower liquidity premiums. Even if these restrictions on accepting private-sector credit risk were surmounted, or relaxed by an act of Congress, direct involvement by the Federal Reserve in the credit allocation process would raise a number of difficult issues...

To which we can only say Amen.
Another paper, this one from the Dallas Fed, addresses the same issues with a distinctly different tone, e.g.

CH-47 Chinook Helicopter

Image from Monetary Policy in a Zero-Interest-Rate Economy.

...Bold, but impractical–eliminating the bound altogether
The most daring suggestion for escaping the zero-interest-rate trap is one that eliminates the zero lower bound altogether. How can this be done? As noted in the first part of the presentation, the zero bound on interest rates exists because money pays a sure nominal interest rate of zero. No one would be willing to hold any asset that pays a negative nominal rate, as long as zero-interest money is available as a store of value. The strategy for eliminating the zero bound, therefore, is to make money pay a negative nominal interest rate, by imposing some type of ‘carry tax’ on currency and deposits....

More workable modifications to standard policy
...We will consider three possible candidates:
1. Foreign exchange
2. Real goods and services
3. Other domestic securities-such as longer-term Treasuries.
Strategies which target the first two candidates, as we’ll see, can only succeed if the Fed coordinates its policy actions with those of other actors–namely, foreign central banks or domestic fiscal policy-makers. A strategy targeting the third is something the Fed can do today, unilaterally, within the constraints imposed by the Federal Reserve Act.

...The goods & services solution
Why not have the Fed just conduct an open market purchase of real goods and services? Even more so than exchange rate intervention, this strategy would represent a direct stimulus to aggregate demand. As posed, though, the strategy has a major drawback: it violates the Federal Reserve Act. The Fed isn’t authorized to purchase goods and services, apart from those needed for the operation of the Federal Reserve System. The strategy can be implemented, however, by coordination with fiscal policy-makers. The Federal government, for example, could purchase goods and services and finance the purchases with new debt, which the Fed in turn would buy–in technical terminology, the Fed would ‘monetize’ the resulting debt.

...What if the assets in the “not allowed” column were “allowed”, though? This point is not moot, since aggressive use of the discount window–under certain emergency provisions in the Federal Reserve Act–can allow the Fed to sidestep, to some extent, the restrictions which apply to open market operations.
Even if the legal constraints were not present, however, it’s not necessarily desirable to have the Fed acting in markets for corporate debt or mortgages. Whatever benefits there might be from such actions would have to be weighed against the cost of putting the Fed in the business of allocating private sector credit–a task for which the Fed has no particular expertise, and which would likely subject the Fed to unwelcome political pressures.

Interesting, no?

Finally. from a speech to the National Economists Club by Ben S. Bernanke, Nov. 21, 2002

Deflation: Making Sure "It" Doesn't Happen Here
...Second, the Fed should take most seriously--as of course it does--its responsibility to ensure financial stability in the economy. Irving Fisher (1933) was perhaps the first economist to emphasize the potential connections between violent financial crises, which lead to "fire sales" of assets and falling asset prices, with general declines in aggregate demand and the price level.

Now suppose that a modern alchemist solves his subject's oldest problem by finding a way to produce unlimited amounts of new gold at essentially no cost. Moreover, his invention is widely publicized and scientifically verified, and he announces his intention to begin massive production of gold within days. What would happen to the price of gold? Presumably, the potentially unlimited supply of cheap gold would cause the market price of gold to plummet. Indeed, if the market for gold is to any degree efficient, the price of gold would collapse immediately after the announcement of the invention, before the alchemist had produced and marketed a single ounce of yellow metal.

What has this got to do with monetary policy? Like gold, U.S. dollars have value only to the extent that they are strictly limited in supply. But the U.S. government has a technology, called a printing press (or, today, its electronic equivalent), that allows it to produce as many U.S. dollars as it wishes at essentially no cost....

Some of the footnotes to the speech:

8. Keynes, however, once semi-seriously proposed, as an anti-deflationary measure, that the government fill bottles with currency and bury them in mine shafts to be dug up by the public

12. The Fed is allowed to buy certain short-term private instruments, such as bankers' acceptances, that are not much used today. It is also permitted to make IPC (individual, partnership, and corporation) loans directly to the private sector, but only under stringent criteria. This latter power has not been used since the Great Depression but could be invoked in an emergency deemed sufficiently serious by the Board of Governors.

15. In carrying out normal discount window operations, the Fed absorbs virtually no credit risk because the borrowing bank remains responsible for repaying the discount window loan even if the issuer of the asset used as collateral defaults. Hence both the private issuer of the asset and the bank itself would have to fail nearly simultaneously for the Fed to take a loss. The fact that the Fed bears no credit risk places a limit on how far down the Fed can drive the cost of capital to private nonbank borrowers. For various reasons the Fed might well be reluctant to incur credit risk, as would happen if it bought assets directly from the private nonbank sector. However, should this additional measure become necessary, the Fed could of course always go to the Congress to ask for the requisite powers to buy private assets. The Fed also has emergency powers to make loans to the private sector (see footnote 12), which could be brought to bear if necessary.

18)...Some have argued (on theoretical rather than empirical grounds) that a money-financed tax cut might not stimulate people to spend more because the public might fear that future tax increases will just "take back" the money they have received.