Tag: Toxic assets

The Fed’s Exit Strategy

The Federal Reserve finally addresses how it plans to unwind trillions in toxic assets

Finally, we hear from the Federal Reserve about how they plan to unwind the billions of dollars of toxic assets they purchased over the last 18 months or so without creating further distortions in the U.S. and world financial markets (Fed lays out exit detail). This after the Fed barely acknowledged one of the most dramatic runups in the money supply in U.S. history.

Brian Sack, EVP Markets Group, Federal Reserve
The announcement came in a speech by Brian P. Sack, the executive Vice President of the Markets Group at the Fed.  I am impressed by this guy. He seems to know what he’s talking about and seems to understand how markets and fed policy interact.

In earlier posts I wondered aloud how the Fed might accomplish this tricky task. It is a very delicate balance between reducing the money supply too quickly, which would spike short term rates, and too slowly, which would increase long-term rates due to worries about inflation (which occurs when money growth is higher than the economy’s real growth, even if money growth is falling).

The Fed, the article explains, apparently intends to let $200 billion of the estimated $1.25 trillion in new money supply simply “mature” by the end of 2011 without replacing it. This represents largely toxic assets. The Fed might let another $140 billion of Treasuries it purchased during normal open market operations mature at the end of 2011, but they aren’t committing to that.  So that’s about $340/$1,250 or about 35% of the historic increase in money supply that may be vaporized over the next 21 months. What about the rest?  It would be nice to know but….

The Fed is doing the right thing by explaining its policy intentions — ANY of its policy intentions — to the markets.  Markets want, need, and deserve information from our officials, something that has been sorely lacking of late. With information, lenders and borrowers can plan, they can optimize. Without information, guessing, withdrawing from the market, and fear rule the day. Not a good environment for economic recovery.

by Sherry Jarrell

We may need a new term for Fed “Profits”

It’s more than semantics to understand what we mean by The Fed’s profits.

The Federal Reserve, it has been reported, earned record “profits” of over $46 billion in the year ending December 31, 2009.  The previous record profit was $34.6 billion in 2007. The Fed earned $31.7 billion in 2008. The financial crisis has apparently been very good for the Fed, although, as a non-profit entity, all its profits are turned over to the Treasury.  As an aside, I wonder what the Treasury plans to do with its windfall?Reduce taxes? Hmmm.

Be careful, however.  “Profits” are a bit of a misnomer for the Fed’s activities, because they pay for what they do by creating money out of thin air.  To buy a financial instrument such a treasury bill or mortgage-backed security, which is added to the left-hand-side of their balance sheet as an asset valued at cost, they create (and I do mean “create,” in the true sense of the word) an equivalent amount of deposits on the right-hand-side of their balance sheet. It does not “cost” them resources as it would you, or me, or a business.  The “expense” is deducts from revenues to arrive at this period’s profits consist mainly of employee salaries.  Fed BS Dec 2009

So if the Fed purchased a bunch of assets with reserves that they created, where do the “profits” come from?  Keep in mind, there are two major drivers of profits.  One is efficiency, or doing more with your resources. The second is pricing power, being able to charge an above-competitive price for a good or service either because you own something scarce or you make up the rules of the game.

First, two minor sources of income to the Fed are the interest and fees it charges for operating the financial system, such as check clearing and interbank electronic payments, and those it charged participants in the emergency loan programs it undertook to support credit cards and auto loans.

By far the largest source of revenue to the fed, however, came from its open market operations and the purchase of toxic assets.  The Fed had about $1.8 trillion in U.S. government debt and mortgage-related securities on its books by the end of 2009, four times the level in 2008, and the interest payments it collected on this huge pile of assets generated much of their (so-called) profits.  But interest payments are only one source of returns on financial assets. The other is “capital gains” or “price appreciation.”  If and when the Fed sells these assets, some of them considered “toxic,” there is a real risk that they will incur significant capital losses.   For example, the central bank recorded a $3.8 billion decline in the value of loans it made in bailing out Bear Stearns and AIG.

So the Fed’s profits are this period’s interest income minus the Fed’s minimal operating expenses; the capital base on which it earns income is basically “free.”  And all of these figures focus on one-period accounting entries, ignoring the huge potential negative stock of value the Fed’s activities are generating.

Don’t misunderstand. The Fed provides an invaluable service to the national and world economies, and they generally execute those services very well.  But when they begin to try to act like a business, replacing existing investment banking with their own activities, and parade around profit figures as if they meant the same thing as private industry profits, we must step back and take a moment to understand that Fed profits mean something entirely different from corporate profits.

By Sherry Jarrell