While the Fed has been engaging in quantitative tightening for over a year now in an attempt to shrink its asset holdings, it still has over $4.1 trillion in bonds on its balance sheet, and as a result of the spike in yields since last summer, their massive portfolio has suffered substantial paper losses which according to the Fed’s latest quarterly financial report, hit a record $66.453 billion in the third quarter, raising questions about their strategy at a politically charged moment for the central bank, whose “independence” has been put increasingly into question as a result of relentless badgering by Donald Trump.
What immediately caught the attention of financial analysts is that the gaping Q3 loss of over $66 billion, dwarfed the Fed’s $39.1 billion in capital, leaving the US central bank with a negative net worth…
… which would suggest insolvency for any ordinary company, but since the Fed gets to print its own money, it is of course anything but an ordinary company as Bloomberg quips.
It’s not just the fact that the US central bank prints the world’s reserve currency, but that it also does not mark its holdings to market. As a result, Fed officials usually play down the significance of the theoretical losses and say they won’t affect the ability of what they call “a unique non-profit entity’’ to carry out monetary policy or remit profits to the Treasury Department. Indeed, confirming this the Fed handed over $51.6 billion to the Treasury in the first nine months of the year.
The risk, however, is that should the Fed’s finances continue to deteriorate if only on paper, it could impair its standing with Congress and the public when it is already under attack from President Donald Trump as being a bigger problem than trade foe China.
Commenting on the Fed’s paper losses, former Fed Governor Kevin Warsh told Bloomberg that “a central bank with a negative net worth matters not in theory. But in practice, it runs the risk of chipping away at Fed credibility, its most powerful asset.’’
Additionally, the growing unrealized losses provide fuel to critics of the Fed’s QE and the monetary operating framework underpinning them, just as central bankers begin discussing the future of its balance sheet. And, as Bloomberg cautions, the metaphoric red ink also could make it politically more difficult for the Fed to resume QE if the economy turns down.
“We’re seeing the downside risk of unconventional monetary policy,’’ said Andy Barr, the outgoing chairman of the monetary policy and trade subcommittee of the House Financial Services panel. “The burden should be on them to tell us why this does not compromise their credibility and why the public and Congress should not be concerned about their solvency.’’
Of course, the culprit for the record loss is not so much the holdings, as the impact on bond prices as a result of rising rates which spiked in the summer as a result of the Fed’s own overoptimism on the economy, and which closed the third quarter at 3.10% on the 10Y Treasury. Indeed, with rates rising slower in the second quarter, the loss for Q3 was a more modest $19.6 billion.
And with yields tumbling in the fourth quarter as a result of the current growth and markets scare, it is likely that the Fed could book a major “profit” for the fourth quarter as the 10Y yield is now trading just barely above the 2.86% where it was on June 30.
Meanwhile, the Fed continues to shrink its bond holdings by a maximum of $50 billion per month, an amount that was hit on October 1, not by selling them, which could force it to recognize but by opting not to reinvest some of the proceeds of securities as they mature.
The Fed is expected to continue shrinking its balance sheet at rate of $50BN / month until the end of 2020 (as shown below) unless of course market stress forces the Fed to halt QT well in advance of its tentative conclusion.
In any case, the Fed will certainly never return to its far leaner balance sheet from before the crisis, which means that it will continue to indefinitely pay banks interest on the excess reserves they park at the Fed, with many of the recipient banks being foreign entities.
Barr, a Kentucky Republican, has accurately criticized that as a subsidy for the banks, one which will amount to tens of billions in annual “earnings” from the Fed, the higher the IOER rate goes up. He is not alone: so too has California Democrat Maxine Waters, who will take over as chair of the House Financial Services Committee in January following her party’s victory in the November congressional elections.
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Going back to the Fed’s unique treatment of losses on its income statement and its under capitalization, in an Aug. 13 note, Fed officials Brian Bonis, Lauren Fiesthumel and Jamie Noonan defended the central bank’s decision not to follow GAAP in valuing its portfolio. Not only is the central bank a unique creation of Congress, it intends to hold its bonds to maturity, they wrote.
Under GAAP, an institution is required to report trading securities and those available for sale at fair or market value, rather than at face value. The Fed reports its balance-sheet holdings at face value.
The Fed is far less cautious with the treatment of its “profits”, which it regularly hands over to the Treasury: the interest income on its bonds was $80.2 billion in 2017. The central bank turns a profit on its portfolio because it doesn’t pay interest on one of its biggest liabilities – $1.7 trillion in currency outstanding.
The Fed’s unique financial treatments also extends to Congress, which while limiting to $6.8 billion the amount of profits that the Fed can retain to boost its capital has also repeatedly “raided” the Fed’s capital to pay for various government programs, including $19 billion in 2015 for spending on highways.
Still, a negative net worth is sure to raise eyebrows especially after Janet Yellen said in December 2015 that “capital is something that I believe enhances the credibility and confidence in the central bank.”
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Furthermore, as Bloomberg adds, if it had to the Fed could easily operate with negative net worth – as it is doing now – like other central banks in Chile, the Czech Republic and elsewhere have done, according to Nathan Sheets, chief economist at PGIM Fixed Income. That said, questionable Fed finances pose communications and mostly political problems for Fed policymakers.
As for long-time Fed critic and former Fed governor, Kevin Warsh, he zeroed in on the potential impact on quantitative easing.
“QE works predominantly through its signaling to financial markets,’’ he said. “If Fed credibility is diminished for any reason — by misunderstanding the state of the economy, under-estimating the power of QE’s unwind or carrying a persistent negative net worth — QE efficacy is diminished.’’
The biggest irony, of course, is that the more “successful” the Fed is in raising rates – and pushing bond prices lower – the greater the un-booked losses on its bond holdings will become; should they become great enough to invite constant Congressional oversight, the casualty may be none other than the equity market, which owes all of its gains since 2009 to the Federal Reserve.
While a central bank can operate with negative net worth, such a condition could have political consequences, Tobias Adrian, financial markets chief at the IMF said. “An institution with negative equity is not confidence-instilling,’’ he told a Washington conference on Nov. 15. “The perception might be quite destabilizing at some point.”
That point will likely come some time during the next two years as the acrimonious relationship between Trump and Fed Chair Jerome Powell devolves further, at which point the culprit by design, for what would be the biggest market crash in history will be not the Fed – which in the past decade blew the biggest asset bubble in history – but President Trump himself.
Diagnosing What Ails The Market
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