By happenstance, there is more than usual Fed-related news this early AM. A few weeks ago, Greg Ip of the Wall Street journal recited what some of the Fed’s options would be if it ran into balance sheet constraints. One was paying interest on bank reserves:
The Fed could seek to pay interest on reserves. Banks lend out excess reserves at whatever rate they can get because the Fed doesn’t pay interest. That’s one reason the federal funds rate often crashes late in the day, when banks realize they have more reserves than they need. Paying interest on reserves would put a floor under the federal funds rate. The Fed could then make loans and purchase assets with little concern for the impact on the federal funds rate.
The Financial Times reports that this idea may be getting traction:
Federal Reserve policymakers will discuss paying interest on bank reserves in a closed door meeting on Wednesday. Such a move could in theory allow the Fed to expand its liquidity support operations without limit….
Under a law passed in 2006, the US central bank will gain the authority to pay interest on reserves in 2011.
The meeting on Wednesday is based on that timeframe and will not be followed by any announcements.
However, the meeting could spark an internal debate as to whether the Fed should consider asking Congress to bring forward this authority to help it deal with the current credit crisis.
Many experts think that would be a good idea. Vincent Reinhart, former chief monetary economist at the Fed, said paying interest on reserves would allow the Fed to “expand their liabilities to support more asset purchases”.
A number of other central banks already have the authority to pay interest on reserves, as well as the authority to lend banks money.
In normal times they can use these deposit and lending rates to put a corridor around the main policy rate, and prevent it from being buffeted too far away from the level they aim to set.
But at times of financial market stress, the ability to pay interest on reserves takes on added significance. Currently, the Fed cannot expand or contract its balance sheet without altering the overall supply of reserves and changing its main policy rate, the Fed funds rate…
That would free the US central bank to conduct liquidity operations that were larger than the size of its current balance sheet – roughly $800bn.
“The point…would be to allow the Fed to expand its balance sheet without having to drive the fed funds rate to zero in the process,” said Goldman Sachs.
The problem with this concept, as with many of the Fed’s new measures, is that notwithstanding the current improved mood in the credit markets, they have often been ineffective or produced unintended consequences. Per EconWeekly, paying reserves would have a nasty side effect:
Reserve balances are like checking accounts: they don’t earn interest. For that reason banks have little incentive to hold more reserves than they need to meet the Fed’s requirements and clear transactions. Any excess reserves are loaned to other banks. As Greg Ip explains, “if the Fed paid, say, 2% interest on reserves, banks would have no incentive to lend out excess reserves once the federal funds rate fell to that level.”
This measure would lead to a higher equilibrium level of reserve balances, for a given value of the federal funds interest rate. It would also reduce the amount of inter-bank lending, as banks would keep more of their cash in their safe-deposit box at the Fed. That lending would be replaced by loans from the Federal Reserve.
Um, I thought the problem we were trying to solve in the first place was banks not lending to each other…..