Jim Hamilton has another nice piece on Federal Reserve deposits. I have a couple of quibbles but mostly they are a matter of perspective. Hamilton says

I’ve been emphasizing that the U.S. Federal Reserve has not been printing money in the conventional sense of creating new dollar bills that have ended up in anybody’s wallets. Instead, the Fed has been creating new reserves by crediting the accounts that banks maintain with the Fed

This is probably a workable framework for people who think of printing money and inflation as being synonymous. Though its not how I think about it. I think of issuing reserves as printing money.

Both reserves and cash are what we think of as “high powered money.” High powered money is the ultimate base for all the assets that we use for buying stuff, such as our checking accounts. The more high powered money out there the more checking accounts there can be.

Issuing a new checking account is how a bank makes a loan and this increase in lending increases demand in the economy. So, printing more reserves would tend to increase demand. That was pretty much how things worked up until the Fed started paying interest on excess reserves.

Once a bank issues a new checking account the law says that you have to dedicate some of your reserves to backing that account. These reserves are required reserves. Required reserves do not get interest payments from the Fed.

Thus when a bank decides to make a loan it has to switch some of its interest paying excess reserves over to non-interest paying required reserves. The fact that they loose the interest payment is what discourages them from doing this.

My overarching point is that there will be some people who suspect that Hamilton is shifting definitions to hide the Fed “true printing of money.” Yet, even if you think of issuing reserves as printing money – which is the frame that I use – Hamilton’ logic still follows through. It follows because the interest on reserves policy breaks the traditional link between printing reserves and increasing demand in the economy.

Hamilton goes on

Many banks are still afraid to make any but the very safest of loans. In such a setting, the Fed could create all the reserves it wants, and it’s not clear that much if anything has to change as a result.

However, the situation is not going to stay like this forever. When banks do start to see something better to do with their funds, one could imagine the situation changing pretty quickly. The Fed’s plan when that starts to happen is to remove some of those reserves by selling off some its assets, and preserve the incentive for holding reserves by raising the interest rate paid on them.

So this is correct but one could easily confuse very wonky concerns with a breakdown in monetary policy.

So before all of this interest on reserves business the Fed managed the money supply by targeting the Fed Funds market. That is, the Fed kept the price at which banks loaned reserves constant.

Now suppose I am the manager at BigTime Bank. I decide for whatever reason that I want to make trillions of dollars in loans. To do this I need to acquire more reserves. I go into the Fed Funds market and start borrowing these reserves from other banks. This will tend to drive up the interest rate on reserves, which is the Fed Funds rate.

However, the Fed is targeting the Fed Funds rate. This means that in response to my action the Fed will increase the supply of reserves in order to push the interest rate right back down. The result is that the Fed automatically accommodated my desire to make a bunch of loans by increasing the supply of reserves.

So what stops me as the manager of BigTime Bank from flooding the market with new loans and driving up demand? What stops me is that I have to pay interest on all of these reserves. If the interest I am getting on loans is not competitive with the interest I have to pay to borrow all of these reserves then its not worth it for me to do this.

So, the ultimate control on how willing BigTime Bank is to make loans, is the Fed Funds rate. That’s why changes in the Fed Funds rate were historically a big deal.

Now, lets think about the current world. Here what is stopping BigTime Bank from making a bunch of loans? Its that by making a bunch of loans BigTime Bank has to move some of its reserves from excess to required and thereby lose the interest payment the Fed is offering on excess reserves.

From the BigTime Bank’s point of view this is the same cost. Issue more loans and either pay out more money from borrowing in the Fed Funds market or loose out on interest on reserves. In both cases it’s the interest rate that is holding the BigTime Bank back.

If the Fed wants to cool down the economy then, what it does under the current policy is to raise the interest rate on reserves. That will function just like raising the Fed Funds rate on the old policy.

So in terms of core monetary policy there is no real difference between regimes. There are a wonky concerns about making sure that the entire system functions without a hiccup since it hasn’t been done this way before.

There are also concerns about managing the Feds balance sheet. The Fed expanded the amount of excess reserves that banks had and then paid interest on those reserves. However, that wasn’t just a give away from the Fed to banks. In exchange the banks had to give the Fed some of their interest bearing assets including lots of Mortgage Backed Securities in the beginning and Treasury Bonds now.

The Mortgage Backed Securities and Treasury Bonds are both paying higher interest rates than the Fed is currently paying on reserves. So in terms of immediate cash flow the Fed is making more money now. However, Mortgage Backed Securities and Treasury Bonds are also “riskier” than reserves. They are risky because they pay a fixed interest rate, while the interest on reserves will theoretically fluctuate with the economy.

If economic growth picks up the Fed will be forced to raise the interest it pays on reserves. This is just like it would have to raise the Fed Funds rate in an overheating economy.

If the economy is growing fast enough then interest on reserves will have to be raised to a higher rate than the interest the Fed receives on Mortgage Backed Securities and Treasury Bonds. This would result in losses for the Fed. Its not exactly clear what “losses for the Fed” will mean, but for the sake of calm markets its best if we just don’t go there.

This means that the Fed will want to get out of the business of holding all of these securities at some point and its not clear how or when that might happen.