In a speech last month on May 23th at the Bank of Japan (BOJ) entitled “Some Reflections On Japanese Monetary Policy”, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank Ben S. Bernanke suggested that Japan’s fiscal and monetary policymakers ‘coordinate’ their programs to improve the Japanese economy. What he was saying was that it would be great if somehow Japan could maximize fiscal spending while at the same time (with a ‘team effort’), minimize federal borrowing. If so it “could make fiscal policymakers more willing to act and increase the impact of their actions.”
On June 27, 2011, about a month before S&P downgraded U.S. federal gov’t debt (Treasury bonds) from AAA to AA+, former Republican (TX) congressman and then-presidential candidate Ron Paul was discussing Greece’s fiscal trouble with Iowa radio host Jan Mickelson. He offered a solution to the debt ceiling impasse which appeared five days later in a post on the New Republic website entitled “Ron Paul’s Surprisingly Lucid Solution to the Debt Ceiling Impasse” by Dean Baker, a Ph.D. in economics and co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Research in Washington DC. He wrote that during the radio show Ron Paul had suggested an idea that might give some reassurance to the markets and could make investors gain confidence. “If the U.S. were to wipe out (write-off) the debt (the Treasury bonds) that the Fed was holding on their balance sheet (bought during Quantitative Easing), they (the fiscal policymakers in Congress) will all say ‘Hey, they’ve just reduced the deficit by over a trillion dollars, now they can handle it, and they can go back to meeting their other obligations’.
What a fantastic idea…
Let’s call it ‘Quantitative Redemption’…
In a QR, the Fed would announce that the $2.4T in Treasury bonds presently on their balance sheet are, effective immediately, redeemed (‘called’ before maturity date). We are only redeeming the Treasury bonds (20yr< maturity) and Treasury notes (10yr – 20yr maturity) on their balance sheet, not the other $1.8T in Agency bonds and Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS) the Fed also bought and are also on their balance sheet.
The Fed’s holdings (the Fed’s ‘balance sheet’) of these Treasury bonds are in the System Open Market Account (SOMA), with an approximate combined 120 month average maturity (‘duration’). The duration of the Fed’s US Treasury bond portfolio hasn’t changed much since the Large Scale Asset Purchases (LSAP) program ended, because to this day when any of those Treasury or MBS bonds mature, the Fed automatically reinvests (‘rolls over’) the proceeds in new securities of the same type and the same maturity. Of the $2.4T of the SOMA Treasury bond holdings, approx 92% have a 10-year maturity or more.
Effective June 15, 2017, the Rate on Required Reserves / Rate on Excess Reserves (IORR / IOER) is 1.25%. The amount of reserves sitting at the Fed is approx $2.3T, meaning that to target the Fed’s desired level of overnight rates (‘Federal Funds Rate’), the Fed is paying out 1.25% interest costs on that $2.3T of reserves. The average weighted coupon of the Fed’s Treasury bond portfolio on its balance sheet is approx 1.75%, meaning the Fed, which is a part of the federal gov’t (‘independent within the federal gov’t’), is getting ‘paid’ from the federal gov’t about 1.75% interest income on that $2.4T of Treasury bond holdings. Two more quarter-point rate hikes by the Fed, which could happen within a year, and that so-called profit from that difference (‘spread’) disappears so it is no coincidence that the Fed is now jawboning about unloading (‘unwinding’) these bonds (selling them back to the secondary market) starting at the end of the year. Furthermore, redeeming the Fed’s Treasury bond portfolio and losing this annual interest income the Fed earns, would not cause a liquidity (‘negative equity’) problem. QR is not redeeming any of the Agency bonds. The Fed would still have $1.8T of MBSs throwing off approx $54 billion/yr, and that’s using a conservative 3% rate, so if they did QR there would be plenty of cash (‘fiscal space’) and no problem at all for the Fed to keep paying IOER.
How this QR works is ridiculously easy. There is nothing to actually do, except announce that instead of continuing to keep these Treasury bonds ‘impounded’ (held on the Fed’s balance sheet), the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has declared all these Treasury bonds redeemed, and no longer exist. (The FOMC may decide to do this piecemeal, whatever). This QR wouldn’t be anything new. Redeeming bonds is not an exotic concept, it’s done all the time by everyone, the only difference being that this would be the first time the federal gov’t is doing it with Treasury bonds. For example, other bond issuers like businesses that issue debt (‘corporate bonds’) and municipalities that issue debt (‘muni bonds’) have called their bonds before maturity date. This happened a lot since the credit crisis (since the LSAP program) because prevailing interest rates fell way below the rates being paid out to bondholders, so these issuers exercised what is known as an embedded call option (bonds without this option are called ‘bullet’ bonds, meaning that they cannot be called). If bonds are called by the bond issuer, the bondholder has no say in the matter. Bondholders are simply notified that their bonds are being redeemed and the bondholders then receive a cash payment in full for the entire bond principal (their ‘par value’) plus any remaining accrued interest at the financial institution where the bonds are held (‘registered’). This is exactly what the Fed did during LSAP. Another example of a bond call, if a homeowner decides to pay off a mortgage before the term (‘prepayment’), same thing, the homeowner called the ‘bond’ (the debt owed) from the issuer (the lender). What Ben Bernanke did during LSAP was also not much different from a company purchasing its own shares (‘buyback’), which if not retired, are held on the company’s balance sheet (‘Treasury stock’). The beauty of this QR idea is that this buyback step is already done. There is literally nothing the Fed has to do. All of the $2.4T in Treasury bonds were already called, all of the bondholders were already paid, and all of the markets already had their ‘temper tantrum’.
If the Fed did a QR this year, it’s actually not a redemption of the Treasury bonds this year, it’s only making it official that there was a redemption of Treasury bonds during the LSAP years. On December 29, 2008 the Fed began QE1, and after a combined total $2.4T of Treasury bond buybacks, the Fed ended QE3 on September 24, 2014. Now let’s step back from the picture and take another look at what happened. Prior to the 2008 credit crisis, one arm of the federal gov’t (the Treasury department) sold $2.4T in Treasury bonds, and then after the crisis another arm (the Federal Reserve Bank) bought them back. Except unlike any regular Joe Blow who buys back his own IOUs, instead of ripping them up, the federal gov’t didn’t rip them up. The federal gov’t put those IOUs, their own IOUs, in their own pocket. Then the federal gov’t started making semi-annual interest payments to itself, from itself, on all $2.4T of these Treasury bonds, on its own IOUs (and still does to this day). The point is, that all those Treasury bonds could have been declared ‘paid off’ the day Ben Bernanke created dollars (‘reserves’) and credited the sellers of those bonds long ago, but the Fed didn’t do that.
The difference between Chairman Ben Bernanke and Joe Blow was that Ben did not have the authority from Congress to pay those bonds off. The Fed is only a ‘swap’ desk. The Fed can only create or destroy reserves in a swap of assets which is not a net increase of dollars in the banking system (not an addition of net financial assets). The Congress is the ‘outright’ desk. Only Congress can authorize deficit spending which is a net increase of dollars in the banking system (an addition of net financial assets). Only Congress can allow any action that would outright change the cumulative count of previously authorized deficit spending (the ‘national debt’). The Fed cannot usurp the ‘power of the purse’ from Congress, hence impounding the bonds during LSAP on the Fed’s balance sheet for a future unwinding (another swap that is ‘printing’ bonds back into the secondary market and simultaneously ‘unprinting’ reserves). So in reality a QR would just be the Fed going through the formality of getting permission to formally declare that the bonds were already redeemed.
If QR was done and the Fed redeems (debits) the Treasury bonds, there must be an equal and opposite ledger entry (credit) to replace them. In other words, something must replace these Fed assets (‘balance sheet repair’). Congress could authorize the Treasury to mint a $2.4T coin to be transferred to the Fed. Again, this would not be anything exotic nor unprecedented (The Gold Reserve Act of 1934 authorized the Fed to transfer all of its gold to the Treasury in exchange for gold certificates denominated in dollars). This would effectively replace the Treasury bonds (dollars with a coupon and a specific maturity date) with a coin (dollars without a coupon and a perpetual maturity date) without needing to create and enter reserves into the banking system (it was already done).
Here’s the best part. This QR, this redemption, this removal of $2.4T of previous ‘Debt Held By The Public’ will mark down the national debt from approx $20T to $18T, a TWELVE PERCENT DECREASE, not a bad day’s work. Furthermore, this partial removal of federal debt at the same time removes that financial specter which would give more fiscal policymakers the latitude to spend (and give more Americans the confidence to spend). Just the initial news leaks of this QR even being considered would encourage fiscal policy makers to quickly enact productive, counter-cyclical measures to boost the economy and get back to ‘serving the common good’ for a change (QR is a fiscal policyMAKER stimulus).
QR helps the Fed speed up the process of returning the Fed to business as usual (‘normalization’). After QR the Fed’s balance sheet no longer has all these Treasury bonds that were put there as a result of the credit crisis. This would be a dramatic signal that the US central bank is closer to being back to pre-crisis conditions, an important optic that helps assuage consumer concerns. As Ben Bernanke suggested in his BOJ speech, this QR, this ‘coordination’, between Congress and the Fed, would compliment future rate hikes and continued jawboning from Fed Chair Janet Yellen as per her March 15, 2017 statement that “the simple message is that the economy is doing well.”
QR is an idea that could be done quickly. As quickly as the Fed bailed out those banks in 2008. As quickly as the Fed facilitated AIG so they could honor their outstanding trades to Goldman Sachs. As quickly as AIG was made whole so they could send their Financial Products Desk executives on junkets to celebrate still getting bonuses. As quickly as those credit crisis measures back then that helped make some problems of the few go away, policymakers could right now make other problems of the many go away.
If the US did this, perhaps Japan, a country with a national debt of over ONE QUADRILLION yen, might follow suit. In a single day, the BOJ could announce a quantitative redemption amounting to approx 425 trillion yen of Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) presently held on their balance sheet as of May 20, 2017. That would be an overnight reduction of their national debt of 43%…
Which would get people thinking that the big bad national ‘debt’ problem might not be such a big problem after all…
(What MMTers have been saying all along)
Thanks for reading,
h/t CHRIS BROWN ‘bonds & battleships’ graph