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Wednesday, April 09, 2008 2:45 PM

The Fed Is Terrified

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The Wall Street Journal is reporting Fed Weighs Its Options in Easing Crunch.

The Federal Reserve is considering contingency plans for expanding its lending power in the event its recent steps to unfreeze credit markets fail.

Among the options: Having the Treasury borrow more money than it needs to fund the government and leave the proceeds on deposit at the Fed; issuing debt under the Fed's name rather than the Treasury's; and asking Congress for immediate authority for the Fed to pay interest on commercial-bank reserves instead of waiting until a previously enacted law permits it in 2011.

The Fed holds assets to manage the nation's money supply and influence the federal-funds rate, which banks charge each other on overnight loans. When the Fed buys Treasurys or makes loans directly to banks, it supplies financial institutions with cash; in effect, it prints money. The cash ends up as currency in circulation or in banks' reserve accounts at the Fed.

Since reserves earn no interest, banks lend cash that exceeds their required minimum. That puts downward pressure on the federal funds rate, currently targeted by the Fed at 2.25%. The Fed could purchase securities and make loans almost without limit, expanding its balance sheet. That would cause excess reserves to skyrocket and the federal funds rate to fall to zero. The Fed would contemplate such "quantitative easing" only in dire circumstances. The Bank of Japan took this step this decade after years of economic stagnation.

Weighing the Possibilities

So the Fed is seeking ways to expand its balance sheet without causing the federal funds rate to drop. The likeliest option, one the Fed and Treasury have discussed, is for the Treasury to issue more debt than it needs to fund government operations. The extra cash would be left on deposit at the Fed, where it would be separate from bank reserves on deposit and thus would have no impact on interest rates. The Fed would use the cash to purchase an offsetting amount of Treasurys in the open market; for legal reasons, it generally cannot buy them directly from Treasury.

Treasury's principal constraint is the statutory limit debt. Treasury debt was $453 billion below the limit Monday. In the past, Congress always has responded to administration requests to raise the limit, sometimes only after political theatrics.

Fed officials also are investigating the feasibility of the Fed issuing its own debt and using the proceeds to purchase other assets or make loans. It has never done so; the legality is unclear. Some foreign central banks, such as the Bank of Japan, do so.

The Fed is Terrified

Read the entire WSJ article. It's a good one. That the Fed officials are having these kinds of discussions at all shows just how terrified of the perception setting in that we are following Japan, which of course we are.

The Fed is effectively in a position of not to being able to print money to buy Treasuries from banks, because of restrictions mentioned in the WSJ article and also because the banks are insolvent. Simply put, banks do not have the cash to accumulate Treasuries on their books to sell to the Fed this time around. And more writedowns on commercial real estate, auto loans, credit card debt, Alt-A mortgages, and pay option arms are coming. This will require still more capital raising efforts.

This is what's behind Citigroup's repeated efforts to raise capital. See Less Than Meets The Eye at Citigroup, Goldman.

The Fed now has to buy risky paper from the banks or lend the banks the Fed's own riskless assets at 1-2% yields to maturity on short paper against risky assets. There is no capital gain cushion built into the banks selling to the Fed for cash as in a normal reflationary cycle.

The Fed has already sponsored 3 new lending facilities, yet is having still more discussions on what to do next.

Recap Of Fed Sponsored Facilities
  • The TAF (Term Auction Facility) failed to restore liquidity.
  • The TSLF (Term Securities Lending Facility) failed to restore liquidity. See The Fed's Swap Meet for more on the TSLF.
  • The PDCF (Primary Dealer Credit Facility) will be the next "facility" to fail. See Fed Fails To Halt Debt Meltdown for more on the PDCF.
The Fed's ongoing discussions shows deep concern that the above facilities will not be sufficient. And Volker is already saying Fed's Bear Loan Stretches Legal Power.
"The Federal Reserve has judged it necessary to take actions that extend to the very edge of its lawful and implied powers, transcending in the process certain long-embedded central banking principles and practices," Volcker said in a speech to the Economic Club of New York.
However, that is not stopping Fed discussions of further illegalities. Please consider Fed Uncertainty Principle corollaries Two and Four.
Corollary Number Two: The government/quasi-government body most responsible for creating this mess (the Fed), will attempt a big power grab, purportedly to fix whatever problems it creates. The bigger the mess it creates, the more power it will attempt to grab. Over time this leads to dangerously concentrated power into the hands of those who have already proven they do not know what they are doing.

Corollary Number Four:
The Fed simply does not care whether its actions are illegal or not. The Fed is operating under the principle that it's easier to get forgiveness than permission. And forgiveness is just another means to the desired power grab it is seeking.
The Fed is now considering borrowing from the Treasury (US taxpayers). Were the Fed to have to do this to remain whole, i.e., have the Treasury underwrite the Fed's balance sheet, the US central bank would be de facto insolvent, having insufficient assets to carry out its mandate.

The perceived invincibility of the Fed's ability to reflate is now clearly in question. The Fed's own discussions prove it.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock
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