The Everyday Economist

October 8, 2017
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There are two myths that I see repeated about interest on reserves that I would like to address:

1. “Of course the banking system is holding more reserves. They have no choice. The quantity of reserves is set by the Federal Reserve.”

That last sentence is correct. However, the relevant question is why banks are holding these reserves as excess reserves rather than as required reserves.

The typical way that we teach students about open market operations is as follows. Suppose that each component of the bank’s balance sheet is consistent with profit-maximization given a binding reserve requirement. The central bank conducts open market operations by buying bonds from the bank and crediting the reserve account of the bank. The bank now finds itself holding excess reserves. If the central bank is not paying interest on reserves, this is costly for the bank since it is now holding more reserves than it would prefer. As a result, the bank would lend out these excess reserves. What follows is the process of multiple deposit creation. When this process concludes, the quantity of reserves in the system will not have changed, but since the reserve requirement is binding, no bank will be holding excess reserves. Each bank is holding the required amount of reserves.

To say that banks are holding excess reserves because they have no other choice is therefore incorrect. While it is true that banks must hold the quantity of reserves determined by the Federal Reserve, their decision-making will determine whether they hold these reserves as excess reserves or required reserves. If banks are holding excess reserves, this implies that there is no operative mechanism of deposit creation. We might want to ask ourselves why this is the case.

On this point, Dutkowsky and VanHoose have written an excellent paper that looks at the profit-maximizing behavior of banks. Their model provides for the possibility of three different equilibria: (1) an interior solution in which banks hold excess reserves and participated in the wholesale loan market, (2) an equilibrium in which banks participate in the wholesale loan (fed funds) market, but do not hold excess reserves, and (3) an equilibrium in which banks hold excess reserves, but do not participate in the wholesale loan (fed funds) market.

What they show is the equilibria that we end up in depends critically on the relationship between the interest rate on excess reserves and the fed funds rate. In particular, they show that the interior solution equilibrium is operable under very narrow restrictions on the relationship between rates. In other words, we tend to either be in an equilibrium in which there are no excess reserves OR in an equilibrium in which there is no wholesale lending. While it is slightly more complicated than this, a general rule-of-thumb from my reading of the paper is that if the interest rate on reserves is higher than the fed funds rate, then this results in an equilibrium in which banks hold excess reserves and do not participate in the wholesale loan market.

The interest rate on reserves has been higher than the fed funds rate since 2009. Dutkowsky and VanHoose show a corresponding precipitous decline in interbank lending that has taken place in the period since.

Why is this important?

Typically banks are not willing to hold excess reserves because doing so is costly. In fact, if the required reserves constraint is binding, then banks will never want to hold excess reserves because they do not even want to hold the required amount. However, if banks are willing to hold excess reserves, then this process of multiple deposit creation will not be operable — or at least not to the extent that it would be traditionally.

This leads me to the second myth about interest on reserves.

2. “Interest on reserves gives the central bank flexibility to provide liquidity without sacrificing its ability to conduct monetary policy.”

The idea behind this statement is that when the central bank pays interest on reserves, banks are willing to hold more reserves which helps to better facilitate payments and provide liquidity to the banking system. At the same time, or so the argument goes, the interest rate on reserves becomes the relevant policy interest rate. As a result, by paying interest on reserves, the central bank can increase the amount of reserves in the system, streamline the payment process, provide liquidity, and still conduct monetary policy as it normally does.

This argument, however, presumes that the monetary policy works solely through the short term interest rate. However, monetarists like Friedman and Schwartz and Brunner and Meltzer, argued that monetary policy worked through open market operations by adjusting the relative supply of assets. This change in the composition of assets required changes in relative prices since assets are not all perfect substitutes. The process of relative price adjustment continues until everyone is satisfied with their new portfolio. For example, consider Friedman and Schwartz’s description of the monetary transmission mechanism in their paper “Money and Business Cycles”:

Let us now suppose that an unexpected rise to a new level occurs in the rate of change in the money stock, and it remains there indefinitely…To be definite, therefore, let us suppose it comes from an increased rate of open market purchases by a central bank.

Although the initial sellers of the securities purchased by the central bank were willing sellers, this does not mean that they want to hold the proceeds in money indefinitely. The bank offered them a good price, so they sold; they added to their money balances as a temporary step in rearranging their portfolios. If the seller was a commercial bank, it now has larger reserves than it has regarded before as sufficient and will seek to expand its investments and its loans at a greater rate than before. If the seller was not a commercial bank, he is not likely even temporarily to want to hold the proceeds in currency but will deposit them in a commercial bank, thereby, in our fractional reserve system, adding to the bank’s reserves relative to its deposits. In either case, therefore, in our system, commercial banks become more liquid. In the second case, in addition, the nonbank sellers has a higher ratio of money in his portfolio that he has had hitherto.

Both the nonbank seller and commercial banks will therefore seek to readjust their portfolios, the only difference being that the commercial banks will in the process create more money, thereby transmitting the increase in high-powered money to the total money stock…

They go on to explain that this portfolio reallocation will result in changes in relative prices and ultimately economic activity until equilibrium is restored.

Similarly, Ben Bernanke has described the monetary transmission mechanism as follows:

I see the evidence as most favorable to the view that such purchases work primarily through the so-called portfolio balance channel, which holds that once short-term interest rates have reached zero, the Federal Reserve’s purchases of longer-term securities affect financial conditions by changing the quantity and mix of financial assets held by the public.

Specifically, the Fed’s strategy relies on the presumption that different financial assets are not perfect substitutes in investors’ portfolios, so that changes in the net supply of an asset available to investors affect its yield and those of broadly similar assets. Thus, our purchases of Treasury, agency debt, and agency MBS likely both reduced the yields on those securities and also pushed investors into holding other assets with similar characteristics, such as credit risk and duration. For example, some investors who sold MBS to the Fed may have replaced them in their portfolios with longer-term, high-quality corporate bonds, depressing the yields on those assets as well.

The logic of the portfolio balance channel implies that the degree of accommodation delivered by the Federal Reserve’s securities purchase program is determined primarily by the quantity and mix of securities the central bank holds or is anticipated to hold at a point in time (the “stock view”), rather than by the current pace of new purchases (the “flow view”). In support of the stock view, the cessation of the Federal Reserve’s purchases of agency securities at the end of the first quarter of this year seems to have had only negligible effects on longer-term rates and spreads.

Implicit in these discussion is that there isn’t one particular asset price that matters for transmitted monetary policy. Rather, what matters are the relative quantities of the assets and the relative price adjustment necessary to get to an equilibrium in which everyone is satisfied with their portfolio.

If Bernanke and the monetarists are correct, then the change in the Federal Reserve’s operating procedures should give one pause about the ability of monetary policy to continue unaffected in a world of interest on reserves. Dutkowsky and VanHoose’s model suggests that open market operations should largely be irrelevant because we are currently in an equilibrium in which the interest rate on reserves is higher than the fed funds rate. As a result, banks are likely to hold excess reserves rather than engage in portfolio reallocation. Thus, one must rely on “the” short term nominal interest rate, in this case the interest rate on reserves, to influence economic activity. Whether or not this mechanism is sufficient depends on the sensitivity of macroeconomic variables to the short term interest rate. The empirical evidence suggests that the responsiveness of things like investment to interest rates is actually quite weak. As a result, there is some reason for concern about the ability of monetary policy to work as it normally does.

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