Friday, March 26, 2010

Helping the Fed Solve the Problem of Excess Reserves

The key to the game is your capital reserves. You don't have enough, you can't pee in the tall weeds with the big dogs. - Gordon Gekko

Ben Bernanke and the brain trust at the Federal Reserve have been working overtime trying to solve the problem of excess reserves in the US banking system. "How," they wonder, "can we drain these reserves from the system without destabilizing the markets?" Their fears of destabilizing markets are, I believe, justified, which seems odd given that the Fed, in the past, has been able to drain reserves, although the quantity drained was admittedly much smaller.

To the extent there is no way to drain these reserves without upsetting the markets the solution to the problem might not be one of action, but of thought. As Norman Vincent Peale said, "Change your thoughts and you change your world." Instead of trying to drain the excess reserves let's admit that they are not, in fact, "excess", but rather, "prudent", or even, as I suspect, "insufficient."

How do we determine if reserve levels are prudent, excess or insufficient? The determination is a process of thought. If financial assumptions about the future are perfectly accurate, there is no need of reserves- correctly valued assets will, under that head, always generate income sufficient to pay liabilities.

Reserves, then, are a safety measure in the event assumptions about the future are inaccurate- if assets are, in fact, not correctly valued. The more inaccurate prior assumptions of future events prove to be the wiser it would have been to increase reserves before the inaccuracies come to light.

The apparently resolved crisis in Greece seems a case in point (as, it seems to me, was the US crisis of 2008). The Greeks didn't simply decide, out of the blue, to borrow an additional 50 or 100 billion Euros, they, at certain levels of government, knew their fiscal position. Why then the crisis?

Simple. They made poor assumptions about either the value of their assets relative to liabilities (what economists call the primary fiscal balance) or the duration of the deceit which, in part, allowed them to borrow in sufficient quantities at favorable rates. In their case the latter seems more of an issue, as tends to be the case when crises "suddenly" manifest.

Like the homeowner who lied about his income to get a home or the Ponzi schemer who claims to own more than he does, the Greeks had been living on borrowed time. The question in that case about a crisis is not if but when.

Deceit, of course, is a loaded term as it connotes intent. Bernie Madoff is in jail because he admitted to such. In other instances a more appropriate phrase would be willfully ignorant. Those in charge hope for an outcome more objective, but equally educated persons deem unlikely, or impossible. Traders call this, talking your book.

Regardless of intent, the effects are the same. Reserves bridge the gap between projected and actual income relative to liabilities whether the gap is a function of deceit or ignorance (willful or otherwise). Sufficiently higher levels of reserves (other things equal) would have kept Mr. Madoff out of jail and obviated the Greek crisis.

Gordon Gekko had it right.

Returning to the issue du jour- the proper level of reserves in the US banking system- the difficulty of imagining a plausible future scenario with the reserves drained strongly suggests to me that current levels are minimally prudent. That is, if draining reserves would cause rates to rise, decrease real sector activity, or some combination thereof such that bank incomes wouldn't cover required payments then they shouldn't be drained.

Why then does the Fed seem so intent on draining? Perhaps they aren't as intent on draining them as some might think. Perhaps their intent is simply to maintain the illusion that the reserves are considered excess. If they told the world the level of reserves was considered prudent this would likely send a message that the financial state of US banks is not as healthy as otherwise advertised. This, in turn, might exacerbate future gaps between bank income and outflow, requiring even higher levels of reserves than currently exist, or, as was the case in Greece and with Mr. Madoff, precipitate a crisis.

Perhaps the only way to keep the real sector operating such that bank assets perform is to increasingly dilute the currency (since any increase in reserves would most likely be "borrowed" from the Fed as happened during the last crisis). Perhaps Mr. Kinsley's nightmare scenario of impending substantial inflation and even hyper-inflation is much nearer that truth than the Fed or Mr. Krugman would have us believe.  Perhaps the classification of reserves as excess has more to do with what the Fed wishes others (i.e. those who lend money to the US) to assume than what they assume, which edges ever closer to Greek deceit.

The Fed could, of course, prove me wrong by draining the reserves deemed to be in excess without precipitating a crisis.

I won't, however, be holding my breath.