Posted by WARREN MOSLER on 26th December 2009
Fixing the Small Banks
The Obama administration has been preaching the importance of fixing the small banks and getting them lending again. This will review what I see as the critical issue and how to fix it.
First, the answer:
1. The Fed should loan fed funds (unsecured) in unlimited quantities to all member banks.
2. The regulators should then drop all requirements that a % of bank funding be ‘retail’ deposits.
Yes, it is that simple. This simple, easly to implement ‘fix’ will immediately work to restore small bank lending from the bottom up by removing unnecessary costs imposed by current government policy.
The current problem with small banks is their too high marginal cost of funds. The only reason the Fed hasn’t expressed an interest in ‘opening the spigot’ and supplying unlimited funding at its target interest rate to any member bank to bring down this elevated cost of funds has to be a lack of understanding of our banking system.
Currently the true marginal cost of funds to small banks is probably at least 2% over the fed funds rate. This is keeping their minimum lending rates at least that much higher, which also works to exclude borrowers who need that much more income to service their borrowings, all else equal.
The primary reason for the high cost of funds is the requirement for ‘retail deposits’ that causes the banks to compete for a finite amount of available deposits in this ‘category.’ While, operationally, loans create deposits, and there are always exactly enough deposits to fund all loans, there are some leakages. These include cash in circulation, the fact that some banks, particularly large, money center banks, have excess retail deposits, and a few other ‘operating factors.’ This causes small banks to bid up the price of retail deposits in the broker CD markets and raise the cost of funds for all of them, with any bank considered even remotely ‘weak’ paying even higher rates, even though its deposits are fully FDIC insured. Additionally, small banks are driven to open expensive branches that can add over 1% to a bank’s true marginal cost of funds, to attempt to attract retail deposits. So by driving small banks to compete for a limited and difficult to access source of funding the regulators have effectively raised the cost of funds for small banks.
It should be clear my solution would immediately lower the marginal cost of funds for small banks. I’ll now attempt to address the usual host of objections to my proposal.
There are always two fundamentals to keep in mind when contemplating banking with a non convertible currency and floating exchange rate:
1. The liability side of banking is not the place for market discipline.
2. The Fed and monetary policy in general is about prices (interest rates) and not quantities.
Disciplining banks on the liability side has been tried repeatedly and always and necessarily fails. First, it’s fundamentally impractical to the point of ridiculous to expect anyone looking to open a checking account or savings account, for example, to be responsible for analyzing the finances of competing banks for solvency, when even Wall Street analysts can’t reliably do this. The US leaned this the hard way when the banking system was closed in 1934, reopening with Federal deposit insurance for bank deposits for the sole purpose of removing this responsibility from the market place. Regulation and supervision on the asset side then became the imperative. And while we have seen periodic failures due to lax regulation and supervision of the asset side of the US banking system, and it’s a work in progress, the alternative of using the liability side of banking for market discipline exposes the real economy to far more disruptions and far more destructive systemic risk.
Those who understand reserve accounting and monetary operations, including those directly involved in monetary operations at the world’s central banks, have known for decades that in banking, causation runs from loans to deposits, with reserve requirements, if any, being merely a ‘residual overdraft’ at the central bank and not a control variable. This includes Professor Charles Goodhart at the Bank of England, who has written extensively on this subject for roughly half a century, endlessly debating the ‘monetarist’ academic economists who spew gold standard and fixed exchange rate rhetoric, and who are unaware of how monetary operations are altered when there is no legal convertibility of a currency. Recall the ‘500 billion euro day’ back in 2008 when the ECB added that many euro in reserves to its banking system, and a week later the monetarists pouring over the data ‘couldn’t find it.’ The fact that they even looked was evidence enough they had no actual knowledge of reserve accounting and monetary operations. And, more recently, the notion that ‘quantitative easing’ makes any difference at all apart from changes in interest rates (it’s always about price and not quantity) reinforces the point that there is very little understanding of monetary operations and reserve accounting. While Professor Goodhart did declare quantitative easing in the UK a ‘success’ he did so on the basis of how it restored ‘confidence,’ making it clear that there was no actual monetary channel of causation from excess reserves to lending. Banks do not ‘lend out’ reserves. Loans create their own deposits. Total reserves are not diminished by lending. This is operational and accounting fact, and not theory or philosophy.
What this means in relation to my proposal of unlimited lending by the Fed to small banks at its target rate, is that any lending by the Fed will not alter anything regarding lending and the ‘real economy’ in any other regard, apart from the resulting term structure of interests per se. (Also, and not that it matters in any event, total lending by the Fed won’t exceed funds ‘hoarded’ by some banks along with the usual operating factors that routinely ‘drain’ reserves.)
In other words, the notion that this policy will somehow result in some inflationary monetarist type expansion is entirely inapplicable with a non convertible currency and floating exchange rate policy.
The other common concern is the risk to the Fed of lending unsecured to its member banks. However, there is none, if you look at government from the macro level. All bank assets are already regulated and supervised, and the banks are continually subjected to solvency tests. This means government has already deemed to the banks ‘safe to lend to.’ Furthermore, functionally, the fact that banks can indeed fund themselves in unlimited size with FDIC insured deposits means the government already lends to banks in unlimited quantities, protecting itself by regulating and supervising the assets, including asset quality, capital requirements, etc. Therefore, the Fed asking for collateral from its member banks is entirely redundant, as well as disruptive and a cause of increased rates to borrowers.
Conclusion: If the Obama administration had the knowledge, they would immediately move to implement my proposals to support small banking.