Why the Fed Won’t Return to ‘Normal’ Monetary Policy

Just when a full-blooded rally gets underway, the Fed comes out and spoils it! Last night (Aussie time) saw the release of the minutes to the Fed’s December board meeting. The market was a little disappointed at the lack of complete craziness of the board members. Evidence of considered and rational debate resulted in some selling of stocks. There is a lingering fear amongst the speculator class that the Fed may have some semblance of a plot that they haven’t lost yet.

Here’s the offending part of the minutes release (with our emphasis):

‘In their discussion of the staff presentation, some participants asked about the possible consequences of the alternative purchase programs for the expected path of Federal Reserve remittances to the Treasury Department, and a few indicated the need for additional consideration of the implications of such purchases for the eventual normalization of the stance of monetary policy and the size and composition of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet.’

We highlighted the important bit. It’s saying that a few (two?) of the committee members hold the view that additional purchases of treasury debt could make it tough if the Fed ever wants to think about returning to a normal monetary policy.

What is normal, you may ask? It’s a pointless question, because in the monetary system we currently operate under you’ll never see normal again. To answer the question though, normal means getting rates back above zero, to maybe 1% or 2%.

The fact that some Fed committee members are still operating with such naivety gave cause for concern, and US indexes fell slightly overnight. But we reckon the speculators have these ‘few’ members well and truly measured for size.

Because from what we understand of how the US monetary system works, raising rates will be an almost impossible task. We recall the Fed discussing normalisation of interest rate settings back in early 2010. They did this to ease concerns about the long term inflationary effects of ultra-low interest rates. But it was all just words. The Fed had no intention of doing anything, and if they did, it was in complete ignorance of the enormity of the world’s economic problems.

Nearly three years later, and we’re hearing the same noises.

So let us explain why we think you’ll never see a 2%, 3% or 5% Fed funds rate again…

When the Fed lowers interest rates, it does so by buying assets (usually government bonds) with ‘Fed Funds’. The Fed, obviously, is the sole creator of these Fed Funds. The presence of more Fed Funds (which we’ll call cash) in the system lowers the cost of obtaining that cash, hence the interest rate, also called the Fed Funds rate, falls.

When monetary policy operates normally, the banking system makes use of these funds so there are no ‘excess reserves’ in the system. In other words, there is not an excess of Fed Funds. Those banks that hold too much sell them and those that need overnight cash buy them (at the going Fed Funds rate).

But when the interest rate (the Fed funds rate) hits zero, it’s an indication that there is enough ‘cash’ in the banking system, because the price of the cash is near zero. As a result, excess reserves start to grow. That is, there is more than enough reserves, hence the ‘excess’.

So what happens when you get to zero interest rates and the system still doesn’t respond? You get quantitative easing, which just creates more and more excess reserves. And these reserves remain as ‘excess’ because there is no demand for credit from the private sector.

For the record, there is now $1.5 trillion in excess reserves held by the US banking system.

I’m guessing that the system carries around such a huge pile of excess reserves because it represents roughly the amount of bad collateral that the Fed has monetised over the years. But we’re getting off the point.

Which is, if you want to get anywhere near returning to a normal monetary policy, you’ll need to see the Fed SELLING assets, not purchasing them. To get back to ‘normal’ it would need to sell around $1.5 trillion in assets, thus eliminating the excess reserves from the system and creating a genuine market for Fed Funds again.

We could be wrong here. We’re sure Bernanke has some harebrained plan to raise interest rates again without shrinking the balance sheet.

But we’ll go on record anyway and bet the Fed won’t be able to raise rates ever again…not without causing a major depression.

That’s not to say the market won’t do it for them. At some point, the market will overwhelm the Fed. It may not be this year or next, but it will happen.

That’s not giving you much in the way of investment ideas. Short US bonds? That’s a no-brainer…just like shorting Japanese bonds has been for the past decade. So much so that the trade is known as a ‘widow-maker’. That’s because it kills (as in commercially) all those who try it. So while the logic is compelling, making money is all in the timing.

And that’s the hard bit. My colleague Dan Denning reckons we’re in for a deflationary shock, which could see capital rush back into bonds. Dan invokes John Exter’s famous pyramid to explain his reasoning.

You’ll find the pyramid below. To find out what it means, and what Dan means when he talks about a coming deflationary shock, be sure to read your Weekend Markets and Money tomorrow.

Exter’s Pyramid

Exter's Pyramid



Greg Canavan
for Markets and Money

Greg Canavan is a Contributing Editor at Markets & Money and Head of Research at Port Phillip Publishing. He advocates a counter-intuitive investment philosophy based on the old adage that ‘ignorance is bliss’. Greg says that investing in the ‘Information Age’ means you now have all the information you need. But is it really useful? Much of it is noise, and serves to confuse rather than inform investors. And, through the process of confirmation bias, you tend to sift the information that you agree with. As a result, you reinforce your biases. This gives you the impression that you know what is going on. But really, you don’t know. No one does. The world is far too complex to understand. When you accept this, your newfound ignorance becomes a formidable investment weapon. That’s because you’re not a slave to your emotions and biases. Greg puts this philosophy into action as the Editor of Crisis & Opportunity. He sees opportunities in crises. To find the opportunities, he uses a process called the ‘Fusion Method’, which combines charting analysis with more conventional valuation analysis. Charting is important because it contains no opinions or emotions. Combine that with traditional stock analysis, and you have a robust stock selection strategy. With Greg’s help, you can implement a long-term wealth-building strategy into your financial planning, be better prepared for the financial challenges ahead, and stop making the same mistakes that most private investors do every time they buy a stock. To find out more about Greg’s investing style and his financial worldview, take out a free subscription to Markets & Money here. And to discover more about Greg’s ‘ignorance is bliss’ investment strategy and the Fusion Method of investing, take out a 30-day trial to his value investing service Crisis & Opportunity here. Official websites and financial e-letters Greg writes for:

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