Guest Post: Is The Fed Funding The Treasury Through The Banks?

Submitted by a reader

Fed balance sheet - Is the Fed funding the Treasury through the banks?

Recently I decided to take another look at the Fed's balance sheet, and while I am none too surprised, I must report that the Fed has printed approximately $200B from April 7th 2010 to June 30th 2010. What is interesting is *how* they went about doing it.

Here is the graph which shows this. The blue line represents the total increase in the size of the Fed balance sheet since September 10th 2008. The red line represents the marginal increase in the Fed balance sheet, net of 'Excess Reserves' held at banks but not yet loaned out, and net of Treasury sterilization:

Note that from November 2008 through April 2010, "Real Economy" printing was essentially the same. Sometimes it grew, but inevitably those periods were reversed. The Fed was clearly targeting that figure. Well, something changed as of April 7th 2010.

That date should ring a bell. It is almost exactly right after the end of the Fed printing programs, which finished up at the end of March. From their 3/16/2010 FOMC statement (FRB):

To provide support to mortgage lending and housing markets and to improve overall conditions in private credit markets, the Federal Reserve has been purchasing $1.25 trillion of agency mortgage-backed securities and about $175 billion of agency debt; those purchases are nearing completion, and the remaining transactions will be executed by the end of this month... In light of improved functioning of financial markets, the Federal Reserve has been closing the special liquidity facilities that it created to support markets during the crisis. The only remaining such program, the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, is scheduled to close on June 30 for loans backed by new-issue commercial mortgage-backed securities and on March 31 for loans backed by all other types of collateral.

So as of March 31st 2010, all money printing programs and all special liquidity programs were over and done with, except for CMBS TALF. And yet the *very next week*, this new wave of net printing was allowed to hit the market, after such printing was held constant for 17 months. Hmm!

Given that those programs have all ended, the next logical question is how this net printing has come about. The chart below shows Total Fed Assets, the Treasury Supplemental Liquidity Program, and Excess Reserves in the banking system:

Below is another way of visualizing the Fed's balance sheet, splitting up assets into securities purchased outright by the Fed, versus liquidity measures:

Both have essentially gone flat.

What we see is that Bernanke has indeed stopped those programs for all intents and purposes. The net printing shown above has come through a decline in bank Excess Reserves. Whereas before such declines in Excess Reserves were met by Fed sterilization through a shrinkage of the Fed's own balance sheet (for example, see May - July 2009), nothing of the sort has happened this time. That money is just being allowed to enter the system, period.

The next logical question is where the bank lending that has replaced the Excess Reserves is heading. Well, we know it is not hitting the consumer debt market, given the latest Fed reports. Consumer credit has continued to shrink (ref), and the government is the only marginal lender (chart). And just ~20 days later, risk assets began falling hard. It seems doubtful that they are ramping up risky lending at a time like this.

My theory is that the money has floated into the Treasury market. A lot of people have wondered how the Treasury would be able to continue running record deficits without the Fed buying. Well, we now know that the banks are picking up a lot of slack in the lending markets, and they are doing so in the midst of very dicey market conditions. Is it that much of a stretch to posit that the Fed reached an agreement with them whereby the banks would take over where the Fed left off?

If this is true, Bernanke is talking a good game while continuing to dole out free booze. The guy is doing what Krugman is saying without openly acknowledging it. I am amazed that no one is talking about this!