The Fed versus the Banks: Who Will Blink First?

During recent months, the Fed has flooded the banking system with reserves, which the banks have chosen to accumulate as (legally) excess reserves, rather than using the funds to add to the volume of their outstanding loans and investments. The Fed’s recently adopted policy of paying a small rate of interest on bank reserves accounts for some of this accumulation, but the amount is so gigantic that it seems much more likely that the banks have greatly increased their assessment of the risk involved in lending and investing as usual and therefore have chosen the lower yielding but less risky alternative of accumulating more and more reserves. Since August, the amount of excess reserves has risen from $2 billion to $559 billion. A graph of this astonishing development shows an abrupt transition from a virtually horizontal line (approximately zero excess reserves for decades) to a virtually vertical line (a quick jump of $557 billion in three months).

So far, this explosive increase of reserves has had only a small effect on the growth of the money stock as measured by the conventional monetary aggregates, such as M2, although the rate of growth of the monetary aggregates is beginning to increase substantially, as shown in this graph.

Because the public’s demand for cash balances has also risen, the recent increases in the money stock have not given rise to increased prices in general. In fact, the major price indexes have fallen slightly in recent months, although the bulk of this decline has occurred because of the decline in the price of oil and related products since July. Price indexes for goods other than energy have declined very little – certainly not enough to justify the many expressions of fear of impending deflation (setting aside whether an actual deflation ought to be feared or not).

At matters now stand, by far the greater threat is rapid inflation, notwithstanding the ongoing recession. When the banks begin to feel more comfortable with expanding the volume of their conventional loans and investments, they will have more than $550 billion on hand to employ for that purpose. The multiplied effect of such a vast amount of lending, as newly created deposits make their way through the fractional-reserve banking system, portends a gargantuan increase in the money stock and hence a correspondingly enormous jump in the general price level. As the public responds to the acceleration of inflation by reducing its demand for cash balances, the increased velocity of monetary circulation will contribute to even more rapid price inflation.

So much potential new money is now impounded in the commercial banks’ holdings of excess reserves that it is difficult to see how the Fed will be able to stem the flood once the banks begin to transform those excess reserves into normal loans and investments. If the Fed attempts to sell enough government securities to soak up the growing money stock, it will drive down the prices of Treasury bonds and hence drive up their yield, increasing the government’s cost of borrowing to finance the huge budget deficits the government will be running because of its various bailout commitments and so-called stimulus programs. This scenario holds the potential for a complete monetary crackup.

I have never been inclined toward touting doomsday financial scenarios. I raise the possibility now only because, as I consider the situation portrayed in the graph of excess reserves linked above, I am unable to foresee how the Fed and the Treasury can navigate through these treacherous waters – waters that their own previous actions have whipped to a foam – without creating terrible financial and economic harm. If the dollar survives the ministrations of Bernanke, Paulson, Bush, and the Obama gang, its survival will be something of a miracle.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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