The Fed’s purchases of treasuries continue to attract a huge amount of attention. Despite solid evidence that the program is failing to have any real fundamental economic impact there are other worries about the program. None has been more apparent in recent weeks than the Fed’s supposed monetization of the US government’s debt. These fears of monetization are unfounded due to the various myths that are perpetually touted by the mainstream media, supposed experts on the US monetary system and even Fed officials.
In an article Monday, Bloomberg reported that the Fed has been buying an exorbitant proportion of the recently issued treasury debt:
“More than 40 percent of the government bonds the Fed bought in January for its so-called quantitative easing were auctioned in the previous 90 days, up from 20 percent in December and 15 percent in November, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch. The central bank is concentrating on newer securities as its $600 billion program depletes primary dealers’ holdings of Treasuries to the lowest since November 2009.”
Why does this matter? Because it gives the appearance that the US government is directly funding itself via the Fed’s purchases. This would be nefarious if it were true and would give credence to the endless complaints about the high rate of inflation in the USA (which is currently running at a staggering 1.5%-2.25% depending on the source). Fortunately, the concerns are unfounded.
When the US government was working under the gold standard the US Treasury would literally print up certificates to purchase gold from the gold mines. These gold bars would be delivered to the government and the Treasury would issue a check to the miner. This new money would end up at the Federal Reserve Bank in the form of deposits. This would naturally increase the money supply. An increase in the money supply is scary for obvious reasons. So, the term debt monetization has its origins in the days of the gold standard, but persists to this day despite the fact that we are no longer on a gold standard. Not surprisingly, the term is still used today despite the fact that the US government can’t monetize its debt via Fed purchases (I elaborate below).
This issue was magnified yesterday when Richard Fisher of the Dallas Fed invoked the evil “debt monetization” term in his speech:
“the FOMC collectively decided in November to temporarily undertake a program to purchase U.S. Treasuries that, when added to previous policy initiatives, roughly means we will be purchasing the equivalent of all newly issued Treasury debt through June. By this action, we have run the risk of being viewed as an accomplice to Congress’ fiscal nonfeasance. To avoid that perception, we must vigilantly protect the integrity of our delicate franchise. There are limits to what we can do on the monetary front to provide the bridge financing to fiscal sanity. The head of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, said it best recently while speaking in Germany: “Monetary policy responsibility cannot substitute for government irresponsibility.”
The entire FOMC knows the history and the ruinous fate that is meted out to countries whose central banks take to regularly monetizing government debt. Barring some unexpected shock to the economy or financial system, I think we are pushing the envelope with the current round of Treasury purchases. I would be very wary of expanding our balance sheet further; indeed, given current economic and financial conditions, it is hard for me to envision a scenario where I would not use my voting position this year to formally dissent should the FOMC recommend another tranche of monetary accommodation. And I expect I will be at the forefront of the effort to trim back our Treasury holdings and tighten policy at the earliest sign that inflationary pressures are moving beyond the commodity markets and into the general price stream. I am a veteran of the Carter administration and know how easily prices can spin out of control and how cruelly markets can exact their revenge. I would not want to relive that experience.”
Fisher’s implication is that the Fed is directly helping to fund the US government’s spending. After all, if they’re buying the debt then they’re obviously funding the spending, right? Wrong. As regular readers know, the US government is never constrained in its ability to spend. Our monetary system underwent a dramatic change when Richard Nixon closed the gold window. It removed any constraint on the US government’s ability to spend. Nonetheless, the operating structure of the gold standard (issuing bonds, etc) still largely remained intact.
It’s important to understand the Fed and Treasury’s symbiotic relationship. When the US government wants to spend money they do not call China and ask for a line of credit. They do not count tax receipts. And they most certainly do not call the Fed to ensure that we have any money left. The Treasury is actually able to harness banks as funding agents at all times due to the unique relationship between the banking system, central bank and US government. So the entire implication that the Fed is helping to fund US government expenditures is entirely inaccurate and anyone who implies as much is still working under the now defunct gold standard model and clearly doesn’t understand the workings of the modern monetary system. Auctions in the USA don’t fail because they’re designed not to fail.
For a brief instant, Mr. Fisher appears as though he is on the verge of understanding the system he now heavily influences as a new voting member of the FOMC. Mr. Fisher says that the spending effectively comes first:
“But here is the essential fact I want to emphasize and have you think about today: The Fed could not monetize the debt if the debt were not being created by Congress in the first place….The Fed does not create government debt; Congress does.”
Lights should be going off in Mr. Fisher’s head at this point as he says this. Congress can’t “run out of money” unless it decides to. That is, the US government is always able to raise the necessary funding through bond issuance if it must (see here for more). The idea that the US government can’t “run out of money” is so foreign to most people that their minds repel it.
By now you might be thinking that this is all semantics. Who cares if the Fed isn’t helping to fund the spending? They’re still buying the bonds and the spending is occurring regardless of the Fed’s actions. Well, it’s important for several reasons:
1) Someone who understands the modern monetary system understands that a sovereign government with endless supply of currency in a floating exchange rate system has no solvency issue. Therefore, it should not be treated as if it is a household, business or state.
2) If solvency is not a concern then clearly the concern is inflation or potential hyperinflation. But as we’ve seen over the last few years the Fed has not succeeded at creating inflation anywhere close to the historical average and certainly not dangerously high levels of inflation. To someone who understands how the modern monetary system functions it not surprising then, that the Fed has been unable to generate inflation during a balance sheet recession.
3) We have to be very precise about monetary operations and the relationship between the Fed and Treasury. Although I acknowledge that the US Congress is never constrained in its ability to spend this by no means implies that the US Congress should spend beyond its means. To do so can possibly result in malinvestment or very high inflation.
4) The idea that the Fed is buying government debt might imply that there are is a shortage of buyers of US debt. This is impossible due to the government’s symbiotic relationship with the Fed. Auctions are designed around calculated reserves and are carefully designed so as not to fail.
5) Voting members of the FOMC do not understand the actual workings of the Federal Reserve System and the US monetary system and have played a direct role in the misguided policy response in recent years. Of course, this is nothing new. This problem has persisted throughout the entirety of the last 40 years and is largely to blame for the structural flaws in the US economy currently.
6) The overwhelming majority of US citizens have no idea how the US monetary system actually functions and therefore are reluctant or unable to force any sort of real change. Those with political or monetary motivations tend to invoke fearful language that incites anger and in truth only adds to the problems in the US economy by driving the voter base to react to their emotions and not their knowledge of the system in which they reside.
7) Quantitative easing does not increase the money supply and is therefore not inflationary. Although this operation can have significant psychological impacts (such as inducing undue speculation) QE can only work in the same manner that traditional monetary policy is implemented at the short-end of the curve. This occurs by setting a target rate and by being a willing buyer of any size at that rate. This is NOT how the current policy is designed. The current structure of QE leaves interest rates entirely controlled by the marketplace and not the Fed. Therefore, the mixed results should come as no surprise to anyone as the policy was poorly designed to begin with and is likely doing little more than contributing to excessive speculation and promoting the continued financialization of the US economy. The Fed’s implementation of such policies (such as QE) and complete misunderstanding of such policies does nothing but help create disequilibrium in the marketplace and increase the odds of future instability.
See the QE primer for more details such as the proper discussion of “monetization” with respects to the various QE transactions.