Interest Rate Roundup

Monday, December 01, 2008

Bernanke planning to keep the Fed's helicopters flying

If there were any doubt that the Fed has fired up its helicopters -- and is planning to keep them flying -- Chairman Ben Bernanke eliminated it today. He talked about several of the "unconventional" ways the Fed is trying to stimulate the economy, and how it will continue to pull out all the stops for the foreseeable future, unintended consequences be darned. More comments from his speech in Austin, Texas below ...

"Going forward, our nation's economic policy must vigorously address the substantial risks to financial stability and economic growth that we face. I will conclude my remarks by discussing the policy options of the Federal Reserve, focusing on the three aspects of policy that I laid out earlier: interest rate policy, liquidity policy, and policies to stabilize the financial system.

"Regarding interest rate policy, although further reductions from the current federal funds rate target of 1 percent are certainly feasible, at this point the scope for using conventional interest rate policies to support the economy is obviously limited. Indeed, the actual federal funds rate has been trading consistently below the Committee's 1 percent target in recent weeks, reflecting the large quantity of reserves that our lending activities have put into the system. In principle, our ability to pay interest on excess reserves at a rate equal to the funds rate target, as we have been doing, should keep the actual rate near the target, because banks should have no incentive to lend overnight funds at a rate lower than what they can receive from the Federal Reserve. In practice, however, several factors have served to depress the market rate below the target. One such factor is the presence in the market of large suppliers of funds, notably the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are not eligible to receive interest on reserves and are thus willing to lend overnight federal funds at rates below the target. We will continue to explore ways to keep the effective federal funds rate closer to the target.

"Although conventional interest rate policy is constrained by the fact that nominal interest rates cannot fall below zero, the second arrow in the Federal Reserve's quiver -- the provision of liquidity -- remains effective. Indeed, there are several means by which the Fed could influence financial conditions through the use of its balance sheet, beyond expanding our lending to financial institutions. First, the Fed could purchase longer-term Treasury or agency securities on the open market in substantial quantities. This approach might influence the yields on these securities, thus helping to spur aggregate demand. Indeed, last week the Fed announced plans to purchase up to $100 billion in GSE debt and up to $500 billion in GSE mortgage-backed securities over the next few quarters. It is encouraging that the announcement of that action was met by a fall in mortgage interest rates.

"Second, the Federal Reserve can provide backstop liquidity not only to financial institutions but also directly to certain financial markets, as we have recently done for the commercial paper market. Such programs are promising because they sidestep banks and primary dealers to provide liquidity directly to borrowers or investors in key credit markets. In this spirit, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury jointly announced last week a facility that will lend against asset-backed securities collateralized by student loans, auto loans, credit card loans, and loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration. The Federal Reserve's credit risk exposure in this facility will be minimized because the collateral will be subject to a "haircut" and because the Treasury is providing $20 billion of EESA capital as supplementary loss protection. Each of these approaches has the potential to improve the functioning of financial markets and to stimulate the economy.

"Expanding the provision of liquidity leads also to further expansion of the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve. To avoid inflation in the long run and to allow short-term interest rates ultimately to return to normal levels, the Fed's balance sheet will eventually have to be brought back to a more sustainable level. The FOMC will ensure that that is done in a timely way. However, that is an issue for the future; for now, the goal of policy must be to support financial markets and the economy.

"Finally, working together with the Treasury, the FDIC, and other agencies, we must take all steps necessary to minimize systemic risk. The capital injections into the banking system under the EESA, the FDIC's guarantee program, and the provision of liquidity by the Federal Reserve have already served to greatly reduce the risk that a systemically important financial institution will fail. We at the Federal Reserve and our colleagues at other federal agencies will carefully monitor the conditions of all key financial institutions and stand ready to act as needed to preserve their viability in this difficult financial environment."

Incidentally, bonds are flying on this hint of buying long-term Treasury securities (the announced plan from the other day referred to Fannie and Freddie corporate debt and their Mortgage Backed Securities). The long bond futures were recently surging 3 12/32 in price (chart above). Ten-year Treasury yields are plunging by more than 24 basis points to 2.67%.


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