Monday, August 9, 2010

What Will Happen If the Fed Stops Paying Interest on Reserves?

  1. Banks will try, ultimately unsuccessfully, to get rid of their reserves by exchanging them for T-bills and other safe, liquid, short-maturity assets. Collectively, they will be unsuccessful because the previous owners of those assets will deposit the proceeds back in banks, leaving them with the same level of reserves. Some of the reserves that were previously excess reserves will now be required reserves, given the higher level of deposits. Most, however, will probably still be excess reserves, as banks will continue this process only until it has driven down the yields on T-bills and similar assets to the point where those assets are no more attractive than zero-interest reserves.

  2. As a result, the yield on short-term T-bills (currently about 14 basis points for the 3-month bill) will go down to zero (approximately), and returns on similar assets (longer-term T-bills, top-grade commercial paper, repos, etc.) will go down to near zero. But no yields will drop by as much as 25 basis points (because none of those assets are perfect substitutes for reserves), and most will drop by considerably less.

  3. As a further result, yields on nearly all assets will drop very slightly, depending on how closely they substitute for reserves and how long the zero interest rate on reserves is expected to be in effect (and to what extent it was already anticipated as a possibility).

  4. Banks will make a few more loans. Loans are a high-return, high-risk asset, while reserves are a low-risk, low-return asset. They are not close substitutes at all, but they aren’t completely irrelevant, so banks will slightly lower the interest rates on loans (by less than 25 basis points) and probably slightly ease their credit standards and pursue lending business slightly more aggressively. Banks may also be willing to make more loans because they have more assets (due to deposits by those who sold them the T-bills and such), but this effect is also not likely to be large, since Banks’ primary constraint today is capital rather than liquidity.

  5. Banks will stop borrowing from GSE’s in the federal funds market, since they will no longer be able to arbitrage with the interest on reserves.

  6. As a result, the federal funds market will essentially disappear. Since banks are seldom, if ever, short of reserves in today’s environment, there will not be any reason for them to borrow.

  7. Also, GSE’s will instead purchase T-bills and similar assets, thereby contributing to the already noted small declines in yields.

  8. Because yields will now be far too low to cover their expenses, most money market funds will go out of business, and the few remaining will need to be subsidized heavily by their management companies (essentially operating the funds either as a courtesy to customers who use their other products or for the purpose of keeping the infrastructure and/or reputation alive so that it will be available at some future date when the funds are once again able to generate enough income to pay expenses). As implied by the first point in this list, banks will have taken over the role of money market funds. (Technically, this will amount to an increase in M-1, with little change in M-2. If there are still any M-1 fixated monetarists out there, they’ll get very excited.)

  9. With a much larger deposit base than they need, banks will stop encouraging customers to make deposits. Fees will go up. New fees will be introduced. The quality of customer service will go down. Nonessential features will be eliminated. Banks will no longer try to make it easy to open an account. Large depositors will no longer receive any special treatment.

  10. As a result, customers will, on average, hold a bit more of their cash in the form of currency rather than bank deposits. Marginal bank customers won’t bother to open accounts; customers who do have accounts will do fewer transactions; etc. (This implies an increase in the monetary base, assuming that the Fed accommodates the additional demand for currency. But note that this is not an economic stimulus, because it is demand-driven. The Fed will increase the supply of currency only enough to meet the increased demand, so there will be no change in the “value” of currency.)

  11. Bank customers will also participate in the declines in yields described in the third point on this list. As bank accounts will be less convenient and more costly, while money market funds will be largely gone, customers will branch out into using other assets (such as short-term bond funds) for transactions.

  12. Any number of other things will happen, which I haven’t thought of yet, and many of which nobody has thought of. Some will be good; some will be bad; many will be disruptive.

  13. The Fed’s profits will go up slightly (and therefore the federal deficit will go down slightly), since it will no longer be paying the interest on reserves.

All in all, we get a mild economic stimulus at the price of some substantial disruptions to the financial system. On my list of priorities, when the two are in conflict, the convenience of a smoothly functioning financial system comes far below the need to create jobs and resist deflation, so if eliminating interest on reserves were the only monetary stimulus option on the table, I would support it. But it’s not the only option. Perhaps if the money the Fed saves from not paying interest on reserves were to be devoted to a well-targeted fiscal stimulus, this option would be more attractive. But that isn’t likely to happen. I won’t say I’m against eliminating interest on reserves, but I’m not particularly in favor of it. Better to do more asset purchases. Much better (in conjunction with asset purchases as necessary) to announce retroactively extrapolated nominal GDP or price level targets. But is any of this going to happen?

DISCLOSURE: Through my investment and management role in a Treasury directional pooled investment vehicle and through my role as Chief Economist at Atlantic Asset Management, which generally manages fixed income portfolios for its clients, I have direct or indirect interests in various fixed income instruments, which may be impacted by the issues discussed herein. The views expressed herein are entirely my own opinions and may not represent the views of Atlantic Asset Management. This article should not be construed as investment advice, and is not an offer to participate in any investment strategy or product.


JKH said...

Good. You got it right.

Three additional points:

First, arbitrage type yield adjustments in response to the actual announcement would be nearly instantaneous, and therefore the flow of funds reflecting the initial portfolio adjustment in the banking system would be relatively small.

Second, the effective average required reserve ratio for the banking system is probably less than 1 per cent of total deposits. If one simulates the idea of banks “using up” excess reserves in an “attempt” to make them required, the result is absurd in terms of implied system balance sheet expansion. This crazy idea points to a more fundamental and general misunderstanding of the role of reserves in the monetary system. Banks don’t “lend out reserves”; they use them for interbank settlement purposes, which is an entirely different idea (fallacy of composition related). That’s also partly why the idea of moving from 25 basis points to 0 is largely dumb. It’s just a catalyst for a very small adjustment in the short term risk free rate, without major flow of funds consequences in terms of bank credit and deposits, but with the added unfortunate noise of a bunch of complicating and potentially costly structural factors that you’ve outlined very well.

The third is that the banks, particularly those with the heft to respond to such an announcement with any substantial force, understand all this stuff – unlike most economists and bloggers who comment on it. They are quite aware that lending requires credit analysis and capital support, and not excess reserves. And they are quite aware that pushing out of reserves with any additional asset activity is a circular problem with return flows. And they know that yield adjustments will be very rapid, and that true arbitrage opportunities around risk free assets will be quite limited as a result. So they’re not quivering with anticipation over such a decision – at least not for the reasons that most of the financial commentariat are.

David Pearson said...


Agree with all except perhaps the money market funds impact. After all, funds operate with lower expenses than deposits, so why should banks be able to offer a higher rate (inc. fees) than funds? Banks are likely to, as you say, discourage deposits. The result is that both funds and bank customers would find themselves paying to store their cash. Would we see a spike in safe sales? Zero-IOR proponents would argue this is unlikely, and that households and firms will reduce liquid savings.

From a micro perspective, given the leverage of households (as measured by debt/gdp), a reduction in liquid savings is unlikely unless there is a stiff inflation penalty. Also, liquid savings are partially a reaction to excessive longer term leverage. I think what inflation proponents miss is that, to make an impact on expected future real debt payments as a % of after tax income, inflation must be higher for years, not just two years. By arguing for a 2% long term target, they are assuming that debt contracts entered into can be met with the expected inflation in place at that time. I'm not sure households see it that way.

Andy Harless said...


Banks would still be profitable, just not at the margin (much the way phone companies and airlines used to use profitable activities to subsidize unprofitable ones that were considered part of their normal function). Money market funds, on the other hand, would become money-losing entities. (The model is that expenses are paid out of income. If there's no income, what happens? I don't even know -- aside from having the manager absorb the expenses. Do they redeem shares to pay expenses? Do they break the buck? Either way, it destroys the whole concept. It's an immediate problem, while banks will be slow about discouraging deposits.)

Would people invest in safes? Maybe. Or else buy short-term bond funds. Or bite the bullet and live with higher bank fees. Reducing liquid savings, though, doesn't make any sense to me. As a store of value, short-term bonds are a very close substitute for zero-maturity assets. A little bit of extra risk, or 25 basis points of extra cost for safe assets, isn't going to induce people to make significant changes in their saving behavior -- or to change asset classes -- except a little bit at the margin.

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