Tag Archive for 'James Hamilton'


More on Woodford and QE

Continuing on from my previous post, I note that James Hamilton has also written a piece on Woodford’s paper [pdf here].  He expands on another way in which QE in the form of long-dated asset purchases could have an effect on the real economy:  the pricing kernel is almost certainly not constant.  Before I get to him, though, recall Woodford’s argument:

But it is important to note that such “portfolio-balance effects” do not exist in a modern, general-equilibrium theory of asset prices — in which assets are assumed to be valued for their state-contingent payoffs in different states of the world, and investors are assumed to correctly anticipate the consequences of their portfolio choices for their wealth in different future states — at least to the extent that financial markets are modeled as frictionless. It is clearly inconsistent with a representative-household asset pricing theory (even though the argument sketched above, and many classic expositions of portfolio-balance theory, make no reference to any heterogeneity on the part of private investors). In the representative-household theory, the market price of any asset should be determined by the present value of the random returns to which it is a claim, where the present value is calculated using an asset pricing kernel (stochastic discount factor) derived from the representative household’s marginal utility of income in different future states of the world. Insofar as a mere re-shuffling of assets between the central bank and the private sector should not change the real quantity of resources available for consumption in each state of the world, the representative household’s marginal utility of income in different states of the world should not change. Hence the pricing kernel should not change, and the market price of one unit of a given asset should not change, either, assuming that the risky returns to which the asset represents a claim have not changed.

Given that context, here’s Hamilton:

In a recent paper with University of Chicago Professor Cynthia Wu, I discussed this theory. We noted that 3-month and 10-year Treasury securities are treated by the private market as very different investments. Based on a very long historical record we can say with some confidence that, if the U.S. Treasury were to borrow $10 B in the form of 3-month T-bills and roll these over each quarter for a decade, it would end up on average paying a substantially lower total borrowing cost than if it were to issue $10 B in 10-year bonds. If it’s really true that nothing in the world would change if the Treasury did more of its borrowing short-term, the natural question is why does the Treasury issue any 10-year bonds at all?

I think if you ask that question at a practical, institutional level, the answer is pretty obvious– the Treasury believes that if all of its debt were in the form of 3-month T-bills, then in some states of the world it would end up being exposed to a risk that it would rather not face. And what is the nature of that risk? I think again the obvious answer is that, with exclusive reliance on short-term debt, there would be some circumstances in which the government would be forced to raise taxes or cut spending at a time when it would rather not, and at a time that it would not be forced to act if it instead owed long-term debt with a known coupon payment due.

The implication of that answer is that the assumption underlying Woodford’s analysis — that changing the maturity structure would not change the real quantity of resources available for private consumption in any state of the world — is not correct.

Hamilton goes on to point out that a similar risk-aversion story may be at play at the Federal Reserve:

I think the Fed’s reluctance to do more has to do with the same kind of risk aversion exhibited by the Treasury, namely, large-scale asset purchases tie the Fed into a situation in which, under some possible future scenarios, the Fed would be forced to allow a larger amount of cash in circulation than it would otherwise have chosen.

Which is funny, if only for a specialised sub-set of humanity, because it translates into the Fed being worried that by engaging in stimulus whose effect ranges from weak to uncertain, they may be forced to engage in stimulus that will absolutely work.


Peak Oil (again)

The Economist has a piece on it:   Feeling peaky

FT Alphaville discusses it:  Peak oil goes mainstream (again)

From 2005, when oil was US$60/barrel, James Hamilton wrote:  How to talk to an economist about peak oil

In a related point, I’ve also put together two charts looking at the number of miles driven in America.  The first gives a rolling 12-month total of the number of miles driven per capita in America, while the second looks at deviations from previous peaks in the same.  Both are from 1971 onwards.  A few things to note:

  • The current dip started well before the recession (peak was in June 2005); it’s been going for 79 months so far.
  • The current level was last seen in February 1999.
  • The current level (January 2012) is 6.34% below the most recent peak; the low point in the current dip was at 6.45% below (November 2011).
  • The dip at the end of the ’70s and start of the ’80s (i.e. the second oil crisis and the Volker recession) reached 4.99% below the previous peak after 21 months and was back above that peak after 54 months.


Some brief thoughts on QE2

  • Instead of speaking about “the interest rate” or even “the yield curve”, I wish people would speak more frequently about the yield surface:  put duration on the x-axis, per-period default risk on the y-axis and the yield on the z-axis.  Banks do not just borrow short and lend long; they also borrow safe and lend risky.
  • Liquidity is not uniform over the duration-instantaneous-default-risk space.   Liquidity is not even monotonic over the duration-instantaneous-default-risk space.
  • There is still a trade-off for the Fed in wanting lower interest rates for long-duration, medium-to-high-risk borrowers to spur the economy and wanting a steep yield surface to help banks with weak balance sheets improve their standing.
  • By keeping IOR above the overnight rate, the Fed is sterilising their own QE (the newly-injected cash will stay parked in reserve accounts) and the sole remaining effect, as pointed out by Brad DeLong, is through a “correction” for any premiums demanded for duration risk.
  • Nevertheless, packaging the new QE as a collection of monthly purchases grants the Fed future policy flexibility, as they can always declare that it will be cut off after only X months or will be extended to Y months.
  • It seems fairly clear to me that the announcement was by-and-large expected and so “priced in” (e.g. James Hamilton), but there was still something of a surprise (it was somewhat greater easing than was expected) (e.g. Scott Sumner).
  • Menzie Chinn thinks there is a bit of a puzzle in that while bond markets had almost entirely priced it in, fx-rate markets (particularly USD-EUR) seemed to move a lot.  I’m not entirely sure that I buy his argument, as I’m not entirely sure why we should expect the size of the response to a monetary surprise to be the same in each market.

Paying interest on (excess) reserves (Updated)

The U.S. Federal Reserve is currently paying 0.25% interest on the reserve accounts of depository institutions.  This is therefore, at present, the primary rate of policy concern (as opposed to the Fed Funds rate):  if a bank can’t get a rate of return that, when adjusted for risk, is greater than 0.25%, they will stick their money in their reserve account at the Fed.  Among others, Scott Sumner [blog] has called this policy a mistake.

There is an economic cost to the policy.  0.25% isn’t much, but it’s the risk-free aspect that complicates things.  If banks’ risk aversion or their perception of the risks associated with investments are high, then a truely risk-free 0.25% could look quite attractive.  With the interest rates on US treasuries so low, there’s certainly reason to believe that risk aversion is still abnormally high at the moment.  Whether the demand for loans is coming from particularly risky projects, or is perceived to be, I don’t know (is there any way of knowing?).

So why have it at all?  I suppose I support the paying of interest on required reserves.  The banks don’t get a choice with them, so it seems only fair that they be compensated.  But for excess reserves, there would need to be an offsetting benefit to justify the policy.  One benefit will be that the interest is paid with new money, so it’s a way of quietly helping banks improve their balance sheets.  There’s currently about US$1 trillion in excess reserves, so that’s about US$2.5 billion per year.  That may be a lot of money to you and me, but it’s not much more than a rounding error to the US banking system as a whole.  Still, it’s something.  Another benefit, depending on your point of view, is that by attracting all that money into excess reserves, the Fed sterilised the QE they engaged in last year.  If you feel that the sterilised QE has caused lower long-term interest rates and hold that those rates are the ones that most significantly drive the economy and distinctly dislike inflation, then you’d probably judge the affair to have been a success [I include the weasel words because I am no longer certain].  A third benefit, which is really a further justification of the second, is that there is evidence that the Fed’s QE appears to have lowered not just US rates, but foreign rates as well.  In that case, then you probably want to sterilise the fraction going to other countries (bad enough, one might think, that America is fixing the rest of the world; it would be unthinkable if America also had to suffer inflation by doing so).

Anyway, all of that is by way of getting around to this point:  via Bruce Bartlett, I’ve just discovered that Sweden also pays interest on reserve deposits, normally 0.75 percentage points lower than their repo rate.  But, crucially, their repo rate is currently only 0.50%, which means that their deposit rate is negative, at -0.25%.

For myself, I tend to think that the interest rate on excess reserves should be lowered.  My argument is similar to what I imagine Scott Sumner would say, so I should also explain his view a little, to the extent that I understand him.  With nominal GDP at US$14 trillion, the US$1 trillion sitting in excess reserves is a very, very large amount of money.  If it were released into the economy, it would be a huge stimulus (even if the money multiplier/velocity of money is temporarily low).  By choosing to sterilise their QE (presumably out of fear of inflation), the Fed has turned what could have been a tremendously effective stimulus into a mediocre one at best.  Scott is rather more sanguine about inflation in general than I am (he favours targeting NGDP; I suspect that this graph would make him want to tear his hair out), but even if the Fed wishes to target inflation of, say, the near-universally accepted benchmark of 2%, then with actual current inflation down at 0.5% and expected future inflation below 1.5% for most of the next 10 years and falling, the sterilisation has been excessive.

Update 6 Aug 2010:

The FT’s Alphaville has gathered the arguments for and against.  Here are three arguments (and their counter-arguments) for keeping the Interest on Reserves (IoR) unchanged:

First, from Ben Bernanke himself, made in recent congressional testimony:

The rationale for not going all the way to zero has been that we want the short-term money markets like the federal funds market to continue to function in a reasonable way because if rates go to zero there will be no incentive for buying and selling federal funds, overnight money in the banking system, and if that market shuts down … it’ll be more difficult to manage short-term interest rates, for the Federal Reserve to tighten policy sometime in the future. So there’s really a technical reason having to do with market function that motivated the 25 basis points interest on reserves.

I think this is silly. It’ll be more difficult to manage short-term interest rates in the future only if, following an effective shut-down of the federal funds market, it becomes costly to start it back up again. I seriously doubt that the banks are going to take their existing staff, processes and infrastructure dedicated to this and throw them out the window. Heck, in a Q&A session after his testimony, Mr Bernanke stated that lowering the interest rate on reserves is a (serious) option in the event that the FMOC decides that further stimulus is warranted:

But broadly speaking, there are a number of things we could consider and look at; one would be further changes or modifications of our language or our framework describing how we intend to change interest rates over time — giving more information about that, that’s certainly one approach. We could lower the interest rate we pay on reserves, which is currently one-fourth of 1%.

A second viewpoint, put forward by Dave Altig (of the Atlanta Fed) and Joseph Abate (of Barclays Capital), is that

If banks didn’t get interest from the Fed they would shift those funds into short-term, low-risk markets such as the repo, Treasury bill and agency discount note markets, where the funds are readily accessible in case of need. Put another way, Abate doesn’t see this money getting tied up in bank loans or the other activities that would help increase credit, in turn boosting overall economic momentum.

I think that Jim Hamilton’s response to this is excellent, so let me just quote it in full:

But Dave doesn’t quite finish the story. If I as an individual bank decide that a repo or T-bill looks better than zero, and use my excess reserves to buy one of these instruments, I simply instruct the Fed to transfer my deposits to the bank of whoever sold it to me. But now, if that bank does nothing, it would be left with those reserve balances at the end of the day on which it earns nothing, whereas it, too, could instead get some interest by going with repos or T-bills. The reserves never get “shifted into short-term, low-risk markets”– instead, by definition, they are always sitting there, at the end of the day, on the balance sheet of some bank somewhere in the system.

The implicit bottom line in the Abate story is that the yields on repos and T-bills adjust until they, too, look essentially to be zero, so that banks in fact don’t care whether they leave a trillion dollars earning no interest every day.

The essence of this world view is that there are two completely distinct categories of assets– cash-type assets which pay no interest whatever, and risky investments like car loans that banks don’t want to make no matter how much cash they hold.

But I really have trouble thinking in terms of such a two-asset world. I instead see a continuum of assets out there. As a bank, I could keep my funds overnight with the Fed, I could lend them in an overnight repo, I could buy a 1-week Treasury, a 3-month Treasury, a 10-year Treasury, or whatever. Wherever you want to draw a line between available assets and claim those on the left are “cash” and those on the right are “risky”, I’m quite convinced I could give you an example of an asset that is an arbitrarily small epsilon to the right or the left of your line. Viewed this way, I have a hard time understanding how pushing a trillion dollars at the shortest end of the continuum by 25 basis points would have no consequences whatever for the yield on any other assets.

Finally, back with Dave Altig, there is the argument that:

the IOR policy has long been promoted on efficiency grounds. There is this argument for example, from a New York Fed article published just as the IOR policy was introduced:

“… reserve balances are used to make interbank payments; thus, they serve as the final form of settlement for a vast array of transactions. The quantity of reserves needed for payment purposes typically far exceeds the quantity consistent with the central bank’s desired interest rate. As a result, central banks must perform a balancing act, drastically increasing the supply of reserves during the day for payment purposes through the provision of daylight reserves (also called daylight credit) and then shrinking the supply back at the end of the day to be consistent with the desired market interest rate.

“… it is important to understand the tension between the daylight and overnight need for reserves and the potential problems that may arise. One concern is that central banks typically provide daylight reserves by lending directly to banks, which may expose the central bank to substantial credit risk. Such lending may also generate moral hazard problems and exacerbate the too-big-to-fail problem, whereby regulators would be reluctant to close a financially troubled bank.”

Put more simply, one broad justification for an IOR policy is precisely that it induces banks to hold quantities of excess reserves that are large enough to mitigate the need for central banks to extend the credit necessary to keep the payments system running efficiently. And, of course, mitigating those needs also means mitigating the attendant risks.

But, to me, this really sounds like an argument for having higher reserve requirements, not an argument for encouraging excess reserves.  I’m all for paying interest on required reserves and setting the fraction required at whatever level you judge necessary to ensure the operation of the payments system.  But don’t try to shoe-horn that argument into keeping interest payments on excess reserves.


CDS hilarity

I’m paraphrasing James Hamilton here.

A credit default swap is a contract that pays out if a specified event occurs on the underlying security. Normally, and in this case, the security is some debt and the event is a default on that debt.

There was a pile of $29 million in debt. Specifically, they were (based on) subprime loans in California and a bunch of them were already delinquent.

A brokerage firm from Texas started offering (i.e. selling) credit default swaps on the $29 million. Since so many of the underlying loans were delinquent, it seemed a sure thing that a default would occur and the big boys in New York were happy to buy the CDS contracts.  In fact, they were so sure that the debt would default that they were willing to pay up to 80 or 90 cents for a $1 payout in the event of a default.

Two important things then played a role:  First, credit default swaps are traded “over the counter”, so if you buy one from me you don’t know how many other people have also bought from me or how many they each bought.  Second, there are (currently) no regulations on credit default swaps and in particular, there is no limit to the scale of the CDS market against a particular asset.

In this case, the big banks paid about $100 million for CDS contracts that would pay out $130 million if the debt defaulted.

The brokerage firm took the $100 million, paid off the debt entirely (so it didn’t default) and walked away with $70 million.