Wednesday, July 20, 2011

NY Fed's Brian Sack: The SOMA Portfolio at $2.654 Trillion

by Bill McBride on 7/20/2011 07:00:00 PM

From NY Fed VP Brian Sack: The SOMA Portfolio at $2.654 Trillion. Sack discusses previous actions, and then discusses possible future actions:

Future Evolution of the SOMA Portfolio
While I am sure you are happy to hear more about our actions to date, I realize that you may be even more interested in the evolution of the SOMA portfolio going forward. Just to be clear, I will not be saying anything about the likelihood of prospective policy actions beyond what has been conveyed in FOMC communications. However, I would like to make a few points about the portfolio under those prospective actions.

As noted earlier, the current directive from the FOMC is to reinvest principal payments on the securities we hold in order to maintain the level of domestic assets in the SOMA portfolio. This approach can be interpreted as keeping monetary policy on hold. Indeed, one can generally think of the stance of monetary policy in terms of two tools—the level of the federal funds rate, and the amount and type of assets held on the Federal Reserve's balance sheet. The FOMC has decided to keep both of these tools basically unchanged for now.

Given the considerable amount of uncertainty about the course of the economy, market participants have observed that the next policy action by the FOMC could be in either direction. If economic developments lead the FOMC to seek additional policy accommodation, it has several policy options open to it that would involve the SOMA portfolio, as noted by Chairman Bernanke in his testimony last week. One option is to expand the balance sheet further through additional asset purchases, with the just-completed purchase program presenting one possible approach. Another option involves shifting the composition of the SOMA portfolio rather than expanding its size. As noted earlier, a sizable portion of the additional risk that the SOMA portfolio has assumed to date came from a lengthening of its maturity, suggesting that the composition of the portfolio can be used as an important variable for affecting the degree of policy stimulus. Lastly, the Chairman mentioned that the FOMC could give guidance on the likely path of its asset holdings, as the effect on financial conditions presumably depends on the period of time for which the assets are expected to be held.

Alternatively, economic developments could instead lead to a policy change in the direction of normalization. The FOMC minutes released last week provided valuable information on the sequence of steps that might be followed in that case. The minutes indicated that the removal of policy accommodation was expected to begin with a decision to stop reinvesting some or all of the principal payments on assets held in the SOMA. If all asset classes in the SOMA were allowed to run off, the portfolio would decline by about $250 billion per year on average over the first several years.

Under the interpretation of the policy stance noted earlier, this shrinkage of the balance sheet would amount to a tightening of policy. However, one should realize that this step represents a relatively gradual and limited policy tightening. Indeed, using the mapping that has been discussed by Chairman Bernanke, this path for the balance sheet would, in terms of its effects on the economy, be roughly equivalent to raising the federal funds rate by just over 25 basis point per year over the course of several years.

The minutes also described asset sales as part of the strategy, indicating that this step would likely occur relatively late in the normalization process. From the perspective of the balance sheet and the stance of monetary policy, sales accomplish the same thing as redemptions, as they also shrink the balance sheet over time. The minutes indicated that such sales are likely to be gradual and predictable, which makes them even more similar in nature to redemptions.

Together, the combination of asset redemptions and asset sales, once underway, should put the size of the portfolio on a path to a more normal level over several years. Thus, they represent an important part of the normalization of the policy stance. However, if the approach follows the gradual and predictable path described by the minutes, one can think of this adjustment as a relatively passive part of the policy tightening. In these circumstances, adjustments to the federal funds rate would generally be the active policy instrument, responding as needed to economic developments.

The sequence of policy steps described in the minutes indicates how the size of the SOMA portfolio is likely to be normalized. However, simply reducing the size of the portfolio would still leave its duration at historically elevated levels. The FOMC might decide it was happy with this outcome, or it could decide at some stage to renormalize the duration of the portfolio as well. Depending on the precise timing of the steps that will occur in the exit sequence, there will likely be opportunities to do so. For example, there is a good chance that the Desk will still be selling MBS at the time when the SOMA portfolio gets back to its normal size. In such circumstances, the Federal Reserve would have to then engage in sizable Treasury purchases to offset the ongoing sales of MBS and to expand the SOMA portfolio as needed to meet currency demand and other factors. This period of Treasury purchases would allow the FOMC to rebuild its Treasury portfolio with the maturity structure that it sees as optimal.
Currently the Fed is engaged in Quantitative Neutrality (hold the balance sheet steady by reinvesting). If they decide to launch QE3, they could either 1) buy more assets, or 2) change the composition.

If they decide to normalize, the first step would be to stop reinvesting.

Earlier on Existing Home Sales:
Existing Home Sales in June: 4.77 million SAAR, 9.5 months of supply
Existing Home Sales: Comments and NSA Graph
Existing Home Sales graphs