No-Exit Strategy May Be Fed Burden in Unwinding Stimulus

Fri, August 01, 2014


The Federal Reserve is trying to change as little as possible as it crafts its strategy to exit from record stimulus. The trouble is financial markets have changed so much that the still-developing plan may prove costly and ultimately unworkable.

The approach, sketched out in the minutes of the Fed’s June 17-18 meeting and in officials’ comments since then, retains a focus on the federal funds rate as the central bank’s target. Policy would continue to be conducted mainly through banks rather than via dealings with money-market funds.

“They don’t want to make wholesale changes in the way they interact with markets when they are going to have so many other issues in play” as they raise interest rates, said Lou Crandall, chief economist at Wrightson ICAP LLC in Jersey City, New Jersey, who has been watching the Fed for three decades.

…The foreign banks now are borrowing from U.S. federal home-loan banks, which aren’t eligible to earn interest on reserves held at the Fed and so are willing to lend cash in the fed funds market at a lower rate. That rate has averaged 0.08 percent in the past year. Since foreign banks are eligible to earn interest on reserves, they can place the borrowed cash at the Fed and collect a 0.17 percentage point profit on the overnight transactions.

… In what may be a sign of things to come, they “pulled back en masse” from conducting this kind of arbitrage on June 30 to avoid inflating their balance sheets at the end of the quarter, Crandall said in a July 14 note to clients.

The result: Money funds and others had to park their cash with the Fed because they couldn’t lend it to the foreign banks via time deposits, another instrument the banks use to finance the reserves they hold at the Fed. Instead, the money funds loaned a record $339.5 billion to the central bank through reverse repo agreements, more than three times the average daily amount during the rest of the month.