Monday, October 04, 2010

Fed's Sack: Managing the Federal Reserve’s Balance Sheet

by Bill McBride on 10/04/2010 11:30:00 AM

This speech suggests to me that the Fed is prepared to embark on QE2 (subject to incoming data), and the program will be incremental - and persistent - and the amount of QE announced at each FOMC meeting. This is a long excerpt, but the speech has a number of key points.

From New York Fed EVP Brian Sack: Managing the Federal Reserve’s Balance Sheet

The sluggish outlook for the economy and the risks that surround that outlook have raised the possibility of further monetary policy accommodation.
The FOMC has several policy tools that it could use to achieve more accommodative financial conditions, as Chairman Bernanke discussed in his speech at the Jackson Hole symposium in August. My remarks today will focus on one of those options—changing the size of the Federal Reserve's holdings of securities. In particular, I will review the FOMC’s recent decision to keep the size of those security holdings at their current level, and I will discuss some of the issues to be considered in any decision on whether to expand them further.
In terms of the benefits, balance sheet expansion appears to push financial conditions in the right direction, in that it puts downward pressure on longer-term real interest rates and makes broader financial conditions more accommodative. One can reach that judgment based on the empirical evidence from the earlier round of asset purchases, as mentioned before. In addition, the market responses to more recent news about the balance sheet also lean in this direction. The market response to the reinvestment decision at the August FOMC meeting seemed largely in line with the estimated effects from the earlier round of asset purchases, once we account for the size of the surprise and the anticipatory pricing that occurred ahead of its announcement. And the increased expectations for balance sheet expansion in response to the September FOMC statement also generated a sizable market response.

To be sure, I think it is fair to say that this is an imperfect policy tool. Even under the estimates noted earlier, the Federal Reserve had to increase its securities holdings considerably to induce the estimated 50 basis point response of longer-term rates. In addition, there is a large degree of uncertainty surrounding the estimates of these effects, given our limited experience with this instrument. Lastly, it is reasonable to assume that the effects of balance sheet expansion would diminish at some point, especially if yields were to move to extremely low levels. Nevertheless, the tool appears to be working, and it is not clear that we have yet reached a point of diminishing effects.

Some observers have argued that balance sheet changes, even if they influence longer-term interest rates, will not affect the economy because the transmission mechanism is broken. This point is overstated in my view. It is true that certain aspects of the transmission mechanism are clogged because of the credit constraints facing some households and businesses, and it is true that monetary policy cannot directly target those parties that are the most constrained. Nevertheless, balance sheet policy can still lower longer-term borrowing costs for many households and businesses, and it adds to household wealth by keeping asset prices higher than they otherwise would be. It seems highly unlikely that the economy is completely insensitive to borrowing costs and wealth, or to other changes in broad financial conditions.
Designing a Purchase Program
First, should the balance sheet be adjusted in relatively continuous but smaller steps, or in infrequent but large increments? The earlier round of asset purchases involved the latter approach, which caused the market response to be concentrated in several days on which significant announcements were made. That might have been appropriate in circumstances when substantial and front-loaded policy surprises had benefits, but different approaches may be warranted in other circumstances. Indeed, it contrasts with the manner in which the FOMC has historically adjusted the federal funds rate, which has typically involved incremental changes to the policy instrument.

Second, how responsive should the balance sheet be to economic conditions? Historically, the FOMC has determined the federal funds target rate based on the Committee’s assessment of the outlook for economic growth and inflation. If changes in the balance sheet are now acting as a substitute for changes in the federal funds rate, then one might expect balance sheet decisions to also be governed to a large extent by the evolution of the FOMC’s economic forecasts. The earlier purchase program, in contrast, did not demonstrate much responsiveness to changes in economic or financial conditions. Indeed, the execution of the program largely involved confirming the expectations that were put in place by the two early announcements.

Third, how persistent should movements in the balance sheet be? An important feature of traditional monetary policy is that movements in the federal funds rate are not quickly reversed, which makes them more influential on broader financial conditions. A change that was expected to be transitory would instead move conditions very little. For similar reasons, one could argue that movements in the balance sheet should have some persistence in order to be more effective.

Fourth, to what extent should the FOMC communicate about the likely path of the balance sheet? The FOMC often communicates about the path of the federal funds rate or provides other forward-looking information that allows market participants to anticipate that path. This anticipation of policy actions is beneficial, as it brings forward their effects and thus helps to stabilize the economy. For the same reason, providing information about the likely course of the balance sheet could be desirable. In fact, such communication might be particularly important in the current circumstances, because financial market participants have no history from which to judge the FOMC’s approach and anticipate its actions.

Fifth, how much flexibility should the FOMC retain to change its policy approach? The original asset purchase programs specified the amount and distribution of purchases well in advance. However, the FOMC would be learning about the costs and benefits of its balance sheet changes as it implemented a new program. This might call for some flexibility to be incorporated into the program, providing some discretion to change course as market conditions evolve and as more is learned about the instrument.