Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Can the Fed Raise Interest Rates?

With talk in financial markets this month once again focusing on a Fed rate hike, many are wondering, why so much controversy over a mere 0.25% rise in the Fed Funds rate? Viewed from this perspective, it is of course, puzzling. After all, the Fed Funds rate has been pegged to a range of 0-0.25% for seven years. Will a modest rise in the range to 0.25-0.50% even make a difference?

In terms of corporate and consumer borrowing costs, an increase in the Fed Funds rate of this magnitude will do little to slow borrowing and investment. The concern in financial markets, though, is increasingly focused on how the Fed gets there. Even in this topsy-turvy world of the Federal Reserve, the Fed can't simply will it and it will be so. In other words, the Fed will be required to intervene in financial markets to engineer a rate rise, even as small as 0.25%. And given the massive amounts of liquidity it has supplied, this may not be easy.

Fed policy is largely carried out through Open Market Operations: the buying and selling of US treasury securities between the Fed and its universe of primary dealers, typically large Wall Street banks. These banks are required to bid on the sale and purchase of securities at the Fed's request. While the Fed does buy and sell securities directly, as it did to the tune of $4 trillion through its program of Quantitative Easing, its operations are more commonly carried out in the market for repurchase agreements.

Repurchase agreements, or REPOs, involve short-term loans secured by the pledge of US treasury securities as collateral. When the Fed wants to loosen monetary policy, or increase liquidity, it does so by lending to the banks through the REPO market. Banks pledge US treasuries against short term loans from the Fed. The flow of cash (or credits) to the banks, increases liquidity in the banking system.

Now, to drain liquidity and drive the trading range of Fed Funds higher, the Fed does the exact opposite, or as they have imaginatively called it "Reverse REPOs". In reverses, the Fed pledges its collateral against short term borrowings from the banks. The operation serves to drain reserves from the banking system, thereby tightening credit and raising short-term interest rates.

This is all basic to the monetary system. The question that now arises is just how much reverses the Fed must do to get the desired 0.25% effect on the Fed Funds rates. For this, no one really knows. After all, we're through the looking glass on everything that financial markets professionals have learned in business school. This remains the question and that is why markets are so focused on not only when, but how, the Fed will drive interest rates higher.

A Bloomberg article of Sep 16, 2014, estimated the volume of reverse repos necessary to drive interest rates higher at $250 million per day. A hefty chunk of change. But that was a good fifteen months ago. An article in US Today from earlier this year questioned not how much, but whether or not the Fed could raise interest rates. From their report: "Nobody's ever done this before," says Jon Faust, director of the Center for Financial Economics for Johns Hopkins University and special adviser to the Fed's board of governors until last September."  Their argument being, that with $2.5 trillion of excess reserves in the banking system, the Fed has lost the ability to engineer monetary policy with anything less than dramatic intervention in the financial markets. 

But a recent article by the Mises Institute goes even further, questioning whether the Fed even has the tools any longer to effectively raise rates. They highlight Japan's dismal experiment with monetary policy that has now led to sub-1% interest rates for twenty years. One way or the other, it looks like we may soon find out the answer.