Yellen, You Have A Problem: The "Rate Hike Corridor" Just Broke
One week before the Fed hiked rates by 25 bps we warned that "nobody knows if the Fed can actually do it", citing not only our previous post on the topic, explaining the lack of a detailed framework by the Fed on the mechanics of the rate hike, but also a Bloomberg piece in which we noted the broader logistical concern: "with so much cash sloshing around, will Fed officials be able to nudge rates as high as they want? Will the new-fangled tools they’ve created to engineer the move work, or instead sow the kind of confusion that can dent the Fed’s credibility and spur a broader market selloff?"
The good news, at least initially, was that the Fed's plumbing worked smoothly, and instead of the Fed draining up to the $1 trillion in excess liquidity some such as Citi had predicted, the very first fixed-rate reverse repo operation saw just $105 billion in liquidity soaked up by the Fed from 49 counterparties.
Was there somehow too little excess liquidity, or was there something more structural at hand. It didn't matter: after all the Federal Funds rates was solidly inbetween the 0.25% floor and 0.50% ceiling set by the Fed's Reverse Repo and Interest on Overnight Excess Reserves, and there was no reason to worry that the Fed had made a mistake.
However, this changed today when the Fed Funds rate just tumbled to 0.12%, far below the required 0.25% floor set by the Fed, and down 23 bps from the effective 0.35% Fed Funds rate set yesterday, confirming that indeed the rate hike corridor can and has been breached at least once, and just two weeks into the Fed's rate hike experiment.
To be sure, while this is clearly a structural failure of the rate hike corridor, it also reflect the quarter and year-end window dressing we discussed first well over a year ago. SMRA confirms as much:
the fed funds rate has dropped to 0.12% this morning, down from 0.47% yesterday. The fed funds rate has dropped at month-end for all of 2015, with some of the larger of these moves occurring at quarter end, like today.
It appears that these drops will still occur even after the fed rate hike, and possibly that the will be even more extreme, since today's drop was about 23 basis points, as opposed to previous declines this year, which were usually between 5 and 10 basis points.
True, there is always an excuse, and in this case it has to do with banks window dressing their balance sheets for the quarter or year-end.
However, the fact that there is this kind of major discontinuity in the Fed's rate hike process, throws a huge wrench in the credibilty of the Fed tightening effort.
After all, if banks can steamroll with impunity the Reverse Repo 0.25% floor to park hundreds of billions, or trillions, in liquidity, then the Fed's entire experiment will be worth nothing. Keep in mind, the rate hike process only works if banks don't get a chance to revert to an old standby liquidity regime on the last day of any quarter, in the process getting all the benefits of ZIRP even as the Fed parades just how tight financial conditions are getting.
Just imagine what would happen on December 31, 2016 if the Fed Funds rate plunged from 1.25% to 0.12% overnight? That would suggest that while the Fed may have drained liquidity for 99% of the quarter, on the one day it matters - the day when the bank's balance sheet snapshot is formalized for 10-Q and 10-K purposes, ZIRP regime has returned.
What all this means is that the Fed's attempt to allow banks to "voluntarily" return excess liquidity has failed, just as we expected it would courtesy of these kinds of dramatic rate discotninuities, and that if Yellen is indeed serious about soaking up liquidity and "bursting bubbles", she will have to either force banks to submit far greater amounts of liquidity, or drain liquidity structurally, by unwinding the Fed's balance sheet instead of pretending financial conditions are tighter by pushing the Fed Funds rate by 25 bps even as the Fed still own trillions in various assets. Because another way of putting all this is that the Fed is tightening bank financial conditions on all days in the quarter... except the one when it actually matters!
And needless to say, the impact on risk assets as a result of the Fed announcing a real liquidity drain - like trimming its balance sheet by a trillion or more - would be dire.
For now, we sit back and watch to see just how the Fed will spin this first failure of the rate hike process, because now it is no longer merely a speculation: the market knows that Yellen has a problem.
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