Category Archives: Federal Reserve

Monetary Economists as Policymakers at the Federal Reserve

Several articles in recent years have claimed that more diversity in the sense of fewer economists on the Board of Governors and the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) would be a good thing (Fox “How Economics PhDs took over the federal reserve”; Zumbrum “Fed draws on academia, Goldman for recent appointees”; Calabria “Yes Fed has a diversity problem”; Ricketts “The Fed could use less book learning and more street smarts”). This is of some importance. There currently are three vacancies out of seven positions on the Board. One will be filled by the Vice Chairman for Bank Supervision. Several of the twelve bank presidents have turned over in the last few years and more may well turn over in the next few years.

This clamor seems to having an effect or at least reflects an opinion held by Reserve Banks’ boards of directors. The number of Ph.D. economists heading Federal Reserve Banks has fallen in recent years. Three presidents who were professional monetary economists and took strong stands have left, Naryana Kocherlakota, Charles Plosser and Jeffrey Lacker. The first two have been replaced by non-economists and the latter may well be also.

Positions at the Board are different than Reserve Bank presidents. Some positions at the Board are allocated to community bankers or bank supervision (Calabria 2016). The number of professional monetary economists who are community bankers is small and there is no reason to think that such a community banker would know more about monetary policy than other community bankers. The most important qualifications of the Vice Chairman for Bank Supervision concern knowledge about regulation (Davidson and Tracy 2017). There are qualifications for Board members based on geographic distribution that should be taken seriously (Calabria 2016).

These assorted criteria do not apply to Reserve Bank presidents. Furthermore, the operational work at Reserve Banks of clearing checks has disappeared and Reserve Bank’s most important roles concern monetary policy and supervision and regulation. Supervision and regulation at Reserve Banks is a Board function delegated by the Board to Reserve Banks. In the end, the Board is in charge of supervision and regulation.

If there is a reason to have Reserve Banks, monetary policy is it. Reserve Bank presidents have their own economics staff to brief them, a luxury that members of the Board of Governors do not have. Some of the Reserve Bank presidents who are economists have been quite effective at raising issues about monetary policy such as the desirability of the Federal Reserve’s holdings of mortage-backed securities.

Nonetheless, some think monetary policy would be better if fewer Presidents of Reserve Banks were economists. Would it?

There are two aspects of being a policymaker at the FOMC. Monetary economists have some expertise at one and substantial expertise concerning the other.

The FOMC sets the specific goals of monetary policy. The general goals are set by law but the specific goals in terms of inflation and real economic activity are determined by the FOMC. (I think it would be better if specific goals were set by Congress and the Administration but they are not.) Monetary economists have some expertise at determining the goals because they have thought about them more than most people, but staff assisting presidents provide this knowledge to some extent.

The FOMC’s other task is to use monetary policy tools to produce the goals. Whether or not members of the FOMC are economists, economists brief presidents of Federal Reserve Banks before FOMC meetings and monetary economists have particular expertise concerning these issues.

It takes serious economic analysis to understand how monetary policy worked even before the financial crisis. That is more true today.

There is not a consensus among monetary economists about how monetary policy works in the context of current policies such as interest on excess reserves and Quantitative Easing. (Or for that matter, even what the effects of Quantitative Easing are.) A Principles of Economics course is not sufficient to have the economics background to reach an informed judgement about how monetary policy works today and why alternatives are in error. An undergraduate economics degree twenty or thirty years ago is of no more use.

While it is possible for an economic advisor to teach a non-economist enough to understand the issues, it is difficult to imagine a policymaker ignoring the judgement of the economists who brief him or her. Some non-economists have been involved enough in monetary policy issues to have strong opinions before they are appointed. (Quarles is an example of someone who is being considered and has at least one strong opinion about monetary policy (Davidson and Tracy 2017).) Many if not almost all have not.

Economic advisors provide informed analyses and the FOMC meetings are informed discussion of the economy and monetary economics. Some policymakers are comfortable with briefings that reflect different opinions. Some are not. The judgements of the economists providing the briefing will play an important role in the choices made by a president, whether there is one point of view or more than one.

The economists briefing the President will play a far larger role if a President is not a monetary economist. The policymaker’s policy preferences might be different than the staff’s preferences on occasion but even these differences are unlikely to be important.

The argument is to appoint more presidents at Federal Reserve Banks who have no expertise in monetary economics and will be on the FOMC. Such appointments are unlikely to increase the level of discourse or the soundness of decisions at the FOMC. If such appointments have any effect, they most likely will enhance the importance of views held by the Reserve Banks’ economics staffs.

REFERENCES

Calabria, Mark. 2016. “Yes, the Fed Has a Diversity Problem.” Cato at Liberty. June 23, at https://www.cato.org/blog/yes-federal-reserve-has-diversity-problem.

Davidson, Kate, and Ryan Tracy. 2017. “Expected Fed Pick on Collision Course with Current Members on Rates.” Wall Street Journal, April 17, at https://www.wsj.com/articles/expected-fed-pick-on-collision-course-with-current-members-on-rates-1492469900.

Fox, Justin. 2014. “How Economics Ph.D.s Took Over the Federal Reserve.” Harvard Business Review, February 3, at https://hbr.org/2014/02/how-economics-phds-took-over-the-federal-reserve.

Ricketts, Joe. 2017. “The Fed Could Use Less Book Learning and More Street Smarts.” Wall Street Journal. April 10, at https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-fed-could-use-less-book-learning-and-more-street-smarts-1491864871.

Zumbrun, Josh. 2015. “Fed Draws on Academia, Goldman for Recent Appointees.” Wall Street Journal, November 10, at https://www.wsj.com/articles/fed-draws-on-academia-goldman-for-recent-appointees-1447177296.

Quantitative easing and inflation

The end of large-scale asset purchases by the Federal Reserve to implement quantitative easing was announced on October 29. While the Federal Reserve will not decrease its extraordinary holdings of securities, it will not increase them either. By coincidence, this came at about the same time I was giving a talk in Cork, Ireland about quantitative easing by the Fed and by the European Central Bank.

There is widespread misunderstanding of how the Fed implements quantitative easing and the implications for the economy. (One particularly careful but ultimately unsuccessful attempt is “Must `Quantitative Easing’ End in Inflation?”.)

Quantitative easing is a policy of large-scale purchases of assets by the Federal Reserve. The Fed has increased reserve balances from about $13 billion before the financial crisis to about $2.7 trillion at the end of October 2014. If that’s not a big increase, nothing is.

Many have been surprised by the fact that quantitative easing on this scale has not been accompanied by substantial inflation. As a general rule, increases in bank’s reserves are accompanied by increases in the quantity of money and followed by higher prices. This seems not to be the case for the United States. Why?

Nominal quantity of money in the United States from 2000 to 2014

Nominal quantity of money in the United States from 2000 to 2014

The nominal quantity of money has not increased at a particularly high rate, let alone an alarming rate. The nearby figure shows the growth of the nominal quantity of money in the United States. The measure used is a standard one, M2, which basically consists of U.S. currency and bank deposits in the United States. The line shows a fairly steady growth of the quantity of money in the United States. Not surprisingly, inflation has not taken off either.

There normally has been a fairly close relationship between purchases of assets by the Fed and M2. What changed?

First, the Federal Reserve now pays interest on reserves held by banks at the Federal Reserve. This need not explain the disconnect between the Fed’s purchases of assets by itself, but it does when combined with a second observation.

Interest rates on excess reserves, federal funds and Treasury bills

Interest rates on excess reserves, federal funds and Treasury bills

The interest rate paid by the Fed on reserves is higher than the interest rates on similar risk-free assets. The second figure shows interest rates paid by the Fed on reserves, on Treasury bills and on Federal funds. Treasury bills are short-term government securities with zero risk of not being repaid. The federal funds rate is the interest rate at which banks borrow and lend reserves at the Fed among themselves. The solid line shows the interest rate on reserves, which has been 25 basis points (1/4 percentage point) for some time. The rate paid by the Fed on reserves is greater than the rates on Treasury bills and federal funds.

There are many things that can said about this, but the fact that the Fed is paying more than the Treasury for short-term funds is sufficient to explain why M2 has not increased. Both interest from the Treasury and from the Fed are risk free; balances at the Fed are better since they pay a higher interest rate. Banks have every incentive to hold excess reserves rather than Treasury bills.

Why does anyone hold Treasury bills given these interest rates? Not everyone is able to earn interest on reserves at the Fed. Among other institutions, money market funds and the government-sponsored-enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac cannot earn interest on reserves.

Banks are able to borrow funds from those institutions at rates less than the interest on excess reserves and then deposit the funds at the Fed, at which point the banks earn the difference between the 25 basis points (1/4 of a percentage point) on excess reserves and the lower rate at which they borrowed. In effect, the interest on excess reserves and the lower rate on Treasury bills set up an arbitrage for banks in short-term borrowing and lending.

At least so soon after the financial crisis, banks are not likely to want to fund long-term loans by this very short-term funding. (Overnight funding of asset positions is exactly what got investment banks into difficulties in the Financial Crisis of 2008-2009.) The Fed ends up with higher reserves funding its asset purchases with no apparent effect on M2 as a result.

The failure to expand bank loans is even less surprising since about half of the increase in reserves is held by U.S. branches of foreign banks. Most of these banks are not in the business of making car loans or similar loans in the United States and are not likely to go into that business simply because they borrow and lend short-term funds as an arbitrage. Even if they were so inclined, they are not likely to be inclined to fund relatively long-term assets by borrowing very short term, any more than U.S. banks are.

The Federal Reserve and the Financial Crisis

This link below is to a talk about the financial crisis, and the Fed’s actions during the crisis and since. I gave it at the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday, March 19. The basic point is that the Federal Reserve’s liquidity actions were in the right direction during the financial crisis. Quantitative Easing is more akin to allocation of credit by the Federal Reserve, which is problematic on many levels.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZx9yZHEDw8&feature=player_embedded#t=3340

Larry White and George Selgin also gave quite interesting talks at the short meeting. Their talks precede mine in the video.