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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Fed Vice Chairman Kohn on Monetary Policy

by Calculated Risk on 9/10/2009 06:36:00 PM

This speech is a review of an academic paper (and a bit wonkish) ... here are some excerpts on two key topics: 1) how well the Fed followed the precepts of Walter Bagehot, and 2) if the Fed should target a higher inflation rate in a liquidity trap.

From Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Donald Kohn: Comments on "Interpreting the Unconventional U.S. Monetary Policy of 2007-2009"

... In designing our liquidity facilities we were guided by the time-tested precepts derived from the work of Walter Bagehot. Those precepts hold that central banks can and should ameliorate financial crises by providing ample credit to a wide set of borrowers, as long as the borrowers are solvent, the loans are provided against good collateral, and a penalty rate is charged.
The liquidity measures we took during the financial crisis, although unprecedented in their details, were generally consistent with Bagehot's principles and aimed at short-circuiting these feedback loops. The Federal Reserve lends only against collateral that meets specific quality requirements, and it applies haircuts where appropriate. Beyond the collateral, in many cases we also have recourse to the borrowing institution for repayment. In the case of the TALF, we are backstopped by the Treasury. In addition, the terms and conditions of most of our facilities are designed to be unattractive under normal market conditions, thus preserving borrowers' incentives to obtain funds in the market when markets are operating normally. Apart from a very small number of exceptions involving systemically important institutions, such features have limited the extent to which the Federal Reserve has taken on credit risk, and the overall credit risk involved in our lending during the crisis has been small.

In Ricardo's view, if the collateral had really been good, private institutions would have lent against it. However, as has been recognized since Bagehot, private lenders, acting to protect themselves, typically severely curtail lending during a financial crisis, irrespective of the quality of the available collateral. The central bank--because it is not liquidity constrained and has the infrastructure in place to make loans against a variety of collateral--is well positioned to make those loans in the interest of financial stability, and can make them without taking on significant credit risk, as long as its lending is secured by sound collateral. A key function of the central bank is to lend in such circumstances to contain the crisis and mitigate its effects on the economy.
emphasis added
Clearly the Fed believes - except in a few special circumstances - that they did not take on significant credit risk.

And on monetary policy in a liquidity trap:
Ricardo notes that the theoretical literature on monetary policy in a liquidity trap commonly prescribes targeting higher-than-normal inflation rates even beyond the point of economic recovery, so that real interest rates decline by more and thus provide greater stimulus for the economy. The arguments in favor of such a policy hinge on a clear understanding on the part of the public that the central bank will tolerate increased inflation only temporarily--say, for a few years once the economy has recovered--before returning to the original inflation target in the long term. Notably, although many central banks have put their policy rates near zero, none have adopted this prescription. In the theoretical environment considered by the paper, long-run inflation expectations are perfectly anchored. In reality, however, the anchoring of inflation expectations has been a hard-won achievement of monetary policy over the past few decades, and we should not take this stability for granted. Models are by their nature only a stylized representation of reality, and a policy of achieving "temporarily" higher inflation over the medium term would run the risk of altering inflation expectations beyond the horizon that is desirable. Were that to happen, the costs of bringing expectations back to their current anchored state might be quite high. But while the Federal Reserve has not attempted to raise medium-term inflation expectations as prescribed by the theories discussed in the paper, it has taken numerous steps to lower real interest rates for private borrowers and keep inflation expectations from slipping to undesirably low levels in order to prevent unwanted disinflation. These steps include the credit policies I discussed earlier, the provision of forward guidance that the level of short-term interest rates is expected to remain quite low "for an extended period" conditional on the outlook for the economy and inflation, and the publication of the longer-run inflation objectives of FOMC members.
There are both interesting topics. If the collateral is mostly solid (or the haircuts appropriate), then the Fed will be in decent shape when they start to unwind current policy positions. However Reis (no link) apparently argues that the Fed will suffer significant losses, and the borrowing from the Treasury will make the Fed's monetary policy less independent.