– When The Fed Has To Print Money Just To Print Money (ZeroHedge, Feb 23, 2013):
While the topic of net Fed capital flows, and implicit balance sheet risk has recently gotten substantial prominence some three years after Zero Hedge first started discussing it, one open question is what happens when we cross the “D-Rate” boundary, or as we defined it, the point at which the Fed’s Net Interest Margin becomes negative i.e., when the outflows due to interest payable to reserve banks (from IOER) surpasses the cash inflows from the Fed’s low-yielding asset portfolio, and when the remittances to the Treasury cease (or technically become negative). To get the full answer of what happens then, we once again refer readers to the paper released yesterday by Morgan Stanley’s Greenlaw and Deutsche Bank’s Hooper, which discusses not only the parabolic chart that US debt yield will certainly follow over the next several decades, but the trickier concept known as the Fed’s technical insolvency, or that moment when the Fed’s tiny capital buffer goes negative. In short what would happen is that the Fed will be then forced to print money just so it can continue to print money.
From Crunch Time: Fiscal Crises and the Role of Monetary Policy, first the big picture:
Departures from the baseline, such as large-scale purchases continuing past 2013, or a more rapid rise of interest rates (a distinct possibility given the analysis presented in Section 3) would saddle the Fed with losses beginning as early as 2016, and losses that in some cases could substantially exceed the Fed’s capital. Such a scenario would at very least present public relations challenges for the Fed and could very well impact the conduct of monetary policy.
And more to the point, what happens when the Fed’s Net Interest Margin goes negative. For the sake of simplicity, in the section below “creating new reserves” means quite simply “printing money” (purists will argue it is low-powered, base money, but realists will respond that since all money is fungible and a dollar is a dollar when buying a share of AMZN, as we have shown previously, it doesn’t matter one bit how money printing is defined).
What would a negative remittance from the Treasury to the Fed look like? That is, if the Fed’s net income fell below zero, how would it fund its interest payments on reserves, and its operating expenses? Would it have to draw down its capital or take out a loan from the Treasury, asking the Treasury to issue new debt to do so? No, under the Fed’s new accounting practices adopted in January 2011, when net income available for remittance to Treasury falls below zero, this does not eat into the Fed’s contributions to capital or threaten the Fed’s operating expenses. Rather, the Fed would create new reserves against an item called the Fed’s “deferred asset” account on the asset side of its balance sheet. For example, to pay interest on reserves, it would simply credit the payee bank’s account at the Fed with the interest being paid, thus creating new reserves. The deferred asset account being run up in the process would serve as a claim on future earnings or remittances to the Treasury. The idea is that when the Fed subsequently returns to earning a profit, rather than return that profit to the Treasury, it would use the funds to run down the deferred asset, and the extra reserves having been created in the process would be run down as well.
Ok: so the Fed can’t technically go broke – after all it can print money all it wants right, or as the paper says “create new reserves” (just so it can go back to its baseline operation since 2008 which is… creating new reserves)? Well, not really.
The Fed’s (low-powered) money is good and accepted by banks only as long as these banks deem it appropriate and profitable to onboard the Fed’s liability on their balance sheet. And to do that, the Fed will have to offer ever higher and higher rates on excess reserves. To wit:
In the present environment, when the demand for excess reserves is infinitely elastic, the creation of new reserves would not be a problem. But in the baseline exit scenario we are discussing, short-term assets have a positive yield and the demand for reserves would not be infinitely elastic. To persuade banks to hold a higher volume of excess reserves in such an environment, the Fed would need to increase the interest rate paid on excess reserves, otherwise the new reserve creation could, on the margin, become inflationary. It should be noted that this reserve creation is a second-order effect of the selling of assets by the Fed with the aim of running down excess reserves (and raising longer-term rates) in our baseline scenario. The capital losses incurred in this case would push up the deferred asset account enough to offset only a relatively small part of the intended reduction in reserves. However, even if the Fed were able to create additional reserves with no effects on the interest rate on those reserves, a cessation of positive interest payments from the Fed to the Treasury for a significant period could bring Fed policy decisions under greater public scrutiny, potentially leading to controversy that could even threaten central bank independence.
In other words, as the MS and DB strategists put it so tongue-in-cheekly, once it becomes public knowledge that the Fed itself is broke in all but one technicality, and the resolution to said technicality is to go fully Weimar retard, the only hope the Fed will have to keep demand for dollars is if it gets caught in a closed loop of hiking rates ever higher just so banks keep onboarding reserves allowing the Fed to preserve the myth it is solvent, in the process pushing its NIM even lower, and needing to create even more “new reserves”, rinsing and repeating.
Or, said otherwise, print more money just to be allowed to print more money.
In simple terms: a positive feedback loop which starts once rates begin ratcheting ever higher, and which ends, well, once the dollar loses it reserve status, and the initial goal of the Fed – to inflate away some $40 trillion in global excess debt is attained.
Ok, but this who knows when this happens right?
Well, yes and no.
As we showed last week, the rate at which NIM goes negative and the above feedback loops begins would be at approximately 4.5% on December 31, 2013. The “breakeven” rate unleashing the inflationary cycle would then decline by about 1% each year assuming the Fed’s balance sheet continues rising at a pace of $1 trillion per year.
So the good news for all those who have been wondering just how much longer the Fed can continue doing more of the same while providing a free lunch for all is that we now know there is a temporal bound: the longer the Fed does nothing to change the status quo, the lower its “rate buffer.”
Of course, there is a resolution: the Fed simply begins to sell its assets, and in doing so, destroys the reserves created when said assets were onboarded on the Fed’s balance sheet. But there lies the rub: because the second the Fed enters open deleveraging mode, everyone will sell everything they can to lock in the profits generated from the past 4+ years of Fed balance sheet expansion. Furthermore, at that moment, the market will begin pricing in the unwind of some or all of the $15 trillion in central bank liquidity which is the only reason the S&P is where it is today. The result would be a market crash so epic it would make the market response to Lehman and AIG’s failure seem like a walk in the park by comparison.
Which is where you come in dear retail investor, and the whole myth of the “Great Rotation.” Because unless there is someone who will start providing a bid into which the banks can offload their securities in exchange for cold hard cash, as was explained earlier, the entire stock market ramp of the past 4 years will have been for nothing. It is also why day in and day out the media bombards everyone, as it has in the beginning of every year for the past three, that the time to enter the market is now, and there has never been a better time (ignoring that the market is now more expensive on a forward multiple basis than it was at the last market peak in 2007). Of course, one of the amusing tangents here that the media and the Fed hope and pray everyone forgets is that the Fed is monetizing debt not equities: and that to do what the Fed does one should be buying the 30 year, not some Div/0 P/E stock.
Either way, unless the greater fool comes in and is once again willing to become the bag holder of last and only resort for the smart money, then all those firms, such as the abovementioned Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank, whose chief strategists penned the paper referenced above, will start getting nervous, and asking themselves: how much time is there before everyone else appreciates the risk of the D-Rate and sells first.
Because while as a ponzi scheme works on the way up as long as there is at least one more marginal buyer, the inverse is far more troubling, and it is here that the old bastardized Prisoner’s Dilemma comes into place: “he who sells first, sells best.”
And the biggest irony is that soon it will be the very act of the Fed continuing to expand its balance sheet at the current breakneck pace of $85 billion per month (or more), that is what will make banks ever more and more nervous.
Could it be that we are finally approaching the end of the lunch, and suddenly the realization that it was never free hits everyone at the same time?