By Marshall Auerback
Dec 19 — I would like to incorporate a critique of quantitative easing based on Bernanke’s comments in Ed’s post “Quantitative easing and inflation expectations.”
You’ve got to focus on improving the conditions for potential borrowers, not on the banks’ balance sheets. Banks are never reserve constrained. Even the BIS, the central banks’ central bank, understands this. In a recent report, the BIS said the following:
In fact, the level of reserves hardly figures in banks’ lending decisions. The amount of credit outstanding is determined by banks’ willingness to supply loans, based on perceived risk-return trade-offs, and by the demand for those loans. The aggregate availability of bank reserves does not constrain the expansion directly.
It is obvious why this is the case. Loans create deposits which can then be drawn upon by the borrower. No reserves are needed at that stage. Then, as the BIS paper says:
in order to avoid extreme volatility in the interest rate, central banks supply reserves as demanded by the system.
The loan desk of commercial banks have no interaction with the reserve operations of the monetary system as part of their daily tasks. They just take applications from credit worthy customers who seek loans and assess them accordingly and then approve or reject the loans. In approving a loan they instantly create a deposit (a zero net financial asset transaction).
The only thing that constrains the bank loan desks from expanding credit is a lack of credit-worthy applicants, which can originate from the supply side if banks adopt pessimistic assessments or the demand side if credit-worthy customers are loathe to seek loans. Banks are never reserve constrained, so this comment below from Bernanke is either ignorant or deliberately misrepresents the actual operations of the banking system (as opposed to the nonsensical Economics 101 version).
Ultimately, if the economy normalized, and the Fed took no action, the banks would take those reserves, try to lend them out, and they would begin to circulate, and the money supply would start to grow. And then, ultimately, that would create an inflationary risk. So, therefore, as the economy begins to recover, and as we move away from this very weak economic environment, the Federal Reserve is going to have to pull those reserves out of the system.
The mainstream belief is that quantitative easing will stimulate the economy sufficiently to put a brake on the downward spiral of lost production and the increasing unemployment. Quantitative easing merely involves the central bank buying bonds (or other bank assets) in exchange for deposits made by the central bank in the commercial banking system – that is, crediting their reserve accounts. It is commonly claimed that it involves “printing money” to ease a “cash-starved” system, and based on the erroneous belief that the banks need reserves before they can lend and that quantitative easing provides those reserves. That is a major misrepresentation of the way the banking system actually operates.
Bank lending is not “reserve constrained.” Banks lend to any credit worthy customer they can find and then worry about their reserve positions afterward. Even the BIS recognizes this. In reality, if the banks are short of reserves then they borrow from each other in the interbank market or, ultimately, they will borrow from the central bank through the so-called discount window. They are reluctant to use the latter facility because it carries a penalty (higher interest cost). But the reason that the commercial banks are currently not lending much is because they are not convinced there are credit worthy customers on their doorstep.
The current incoherence of our economic policy making could diminish if we had a Fed chairman who understood how the banking system genuinely operated, as well as one who would understanding the linkages between banking lending and fiscal policy, which he persistently downplays (or even worse when he starts calling for long term reforms to balance the Federal government’s budget). It is a national tragedy that this man is being given the chance at another term in office.