The financial crisis has shaken some core beliefs of central bankers as they find themselves running increasingly heterodox policies. Having spent much of the last two decades developing simple rules about the operational conduct of monetary policy, they now find that this new rule book has to be torn up. Although initially controversial, the adoption of the interest rate as the main operational instrument in pursuit of a clearly defined policy objective had become a near universal article of faith.
But with interest rates heading towards zero and having little impact on lending behaviour, because a freeze in financial intermediation, central bankers have had to think of new policy measures. Attention is moving from the price of money to ensuring that a sufficient quantity of money is held by the private sector in order to effect transactions. In this blog I outline the crossing of the central bank Rubicon.
The nice, linear story central banks liked to tell about monetary policy was illustrated in my blog: Deflation: A Real Problem and a Possible Cure and also in a recent working paper. The policy rate sets the base level for the funding costs of the banking sector and acts as the floor to financing in a given currency. Central banks ensure that the policy rate remains at or near the floor by draining the overall banking system of reserves and selling these back at the policy rate via open market operations, which have no monetary consequences. The hidden assumption in this framework is that the constellation of all other market interest rates, from interbank to long term corporate bond rates and beyond, will respond proportionately to any impetus from the central bank’s policy rate. The set of market interest rates are thus thought to be akin to a sequence of mark-ups over costs, related to the costs of monitoring credit and market risk. And so much of the transmission of monetary policy operates through its impact on other market interest rates.
When setting the policy rate, the central bank commits to supplying central bank money perfectly elastically at that interest rate to commercial banks. At lower interest rates, the demand for narrow money should increase, as the opportunity cost of its holding has fallen, and this extra demand is satisfied by central bank provision of base money. The expansion in narrow (central bank) money is multiplied through the economy by the money multiplier, which is the extent to which commercial banks increase their balance sheets by more than the amount of narrow money alone by extending bank credit to the private sector. And it is arguably this money multiplier that has collapsed in the current banking crisis.
In the stylised balance sheet of a fractional reserve commercial banking sector, commercial banks hold central bank money as liquid assets and loans as illiquid assets. Loans to the private sector will ultimately correspond to deposits by the private sector in the banks, which are liabilities. The ratio of broad to narrow (base) money is the money multiplier and so we can observe that when the market for central bank money clears at a higher quantity and if the money multiplier remains constant, then broad money will expand by the change in the central bank money times the money multiplier. To the extent that broad money is required to fund private sector transactions, a change in broad money will correspond to a given level of nominal transactions. If the banking system is unable to convert base money into a sufficient quantity of broad money activity may suffer in the short run and over the longer run a deflationary impetus will be established.
Clearly when and if interest rates arrive at zero, central banks can no longer control the policy interest rate via open market operations and so monetary policy is driven by the need to set the quantity of base money in circulation directly. Furthermore if financial intermediation is severely impaired, policy may also have to provide a direct impetus for the creation of broad money liabilities and this is our working definition of quantitative easing.
The central bank balance sheet typically comprises assets of foreign exchange reserves, loans to the government, bonds, claims on banks and on the private sector. Liabilities comprise currency, commercial banks’ reserves deposited with the central bank, central bank securities, government deposits and any capital reserves. Central bank balance sheets are typically dominated by the main liabilities of base money (notes, and in some cases coin, on issue) and foreign assets and claims on financial institutions.
When the central bank effects a purchase of government bonds, the following changes to the balance sheet occur. Central bank assets will rise and liabilities will expand by the exact amount of currency issued to pay for the bonds. The currency is remitted to the commercial bank, government or insurance company from whom the central bank has bought the asset and this will be measured as a commercial bank deposit. And so the purchase of government bonds will show up as both an expansion of the central bank balance sheet, an increase in base money and an increase in broad money.
At some point in the future, the central bank can close out its position in government bonds by selling back to the private sector the bonds it holds on the asset side of the balance sheet, soak up the currency created and deflate its balance sheet. This begs the question of what is the initial purpose of buying government bonds? The hope is that by creating more short-term deposits in the commercial bank sector, this will generate commercial bank lending, given a reasonably stable money multiplier. The problem is that when commercial banks are uncertain about both the availability of future liquidity, losses from past lending and the riskiness of new lending in a recession, the new monetary liabilities may not translate very easily into new lending.
And so central banks have already gone further. The purchase of commercial bank assets and mortgage backed securities at discount provide both succour to commercial banks’ balance sheets by providing liquidity against possibly undervalued long term assets, as well as expanding broad money, and the possibility that central banks may profit from the resale of these assets. The open questions here are then at what price are these assets bought – not so high as to endanger the sustainability of the central bank balance sheet but not so low as to question the sustainability of the commercial banks and to discourage their future lending.
With such a large expansion of the central bank balance sheet, central banks increase the relative supply of short term debt (including central bank debt) to long term debt, which should lead to a change in the relative price of short to long term debt, with the latter becoming relatively expensive. And if long term interest rates do indeed fall during a quantitative easing then the private sector will have an incentive to invest as the user costs of capital falls, household balance sheets should be ameliorated with lower interest and debt burdens and asset prices should be stabilised, underpinned by lower long term rates. The question then is when all this activity starts to take off when will inflationary pressures start to re-emerge?