Saturday, July 31, 2010

Mopping Up Excess Reserves

As you probably know, the Fed has expanded base money by roughly 140% over the last couple years. Under normal circumstances, we would expect a rapid increase in the money supply to follow (recall that M = B m, where M is the money supply, B is base money, and m is the money multiplier). However, banks are holding higher reserves (that's in the denominator of m, hence the multiplier is decreasing). So the unprecedented increase in B is being largely offset by the decrease in m. As a result, M1 and M2 have grown slowly.

Bob McTeer asks whether the Fed should "mop up" the excess reserves held by banks:
The idea that the excess reserves held on banks’ balance sheets should be “mopped up” to prevent them being used in inflationary ways later is a very dangerous idea. They are there voluntarily because bankers feel they are needed. To remove them would cause further bank retrenchment, as it did in the 1930s when the Fed decided to “mop up” the excess reserves of that time.

As the economy and confidence improves, banks will begin using their excess reserves more aggressively. At that point, the Fed will have to be very careful not to stifle that desirable activity on the one hand or let it get out of hand and become inflationary on the other hand. Since they have lots of good, two-handed economists, I think they can pull it off.
Should the rapid increase in B over the past few years be mopped up? Absolutely. But when? Ahhh. That is the tricky part. Ideally, we would want B to fall as m returns to normal levels--that is, when banks start lending out their reserves. If the Fed reduces B too quickly or too soon, the money supply will shrink (deflation). If it reduces B too slowly or too late, the money supply will grow (inflation). This, unfortunately, is the knife's edge that central bankers must traverse if they are to maintain monetary equilibrium.

HT: Harry David

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