personal views of a former fed trader

Author: Joseph Wang (Page 2 of 6)

Quantitative Hikes

The Fed’s control over interest rates can also be viewed as control over the quantity of a certain type of money. The mere prospect of rate hikes mechanically reduces the market value of Treasuries, which are widely held as money like safe assets. The declines in value are net losses to the financial system that are also unevenly distributed and cannot be hedged system wide. The losses are further transmitted across asset classes as diversified investors rebalance their portfolios by selling other assets. When investors are leveraged and markets are fragile, the rebalancing can lead to significant market volatility. In the coming months the Fed may place further upward pressure along the entire curve by signaling more hikes and aggressive quantitative tightening. In this post we review the mechanics of rate transmission, show how its impact is magnified by high debt levels, and suggest an increasingly aggressive Fed would repeat the 2018Q4 meltdown in risk assets.

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The QT Timebomb

An aggressive quantitative tightening (“QT”) pace would set the stage for another spike in rates, but this time further out the curve. During QT, the U.S. Treasury increases its borrowing from the private sector to repay Treasuries held by the Fed. While the Fed can be repaid with cash held in either the RRP or banks, the current issuance structure suggests repayment will largely come out of the banking system. The lesson of the prior QT was that reducing the cash balances of banks directly impacts markets that were recipients of that cash. In 2019, banks were pouring their extra cash into the repo market amidst surging demand for repo financing. The repo market broke when QT siphoned that extra cash away. This time around banks have poured their cash into Treasuries and Agency MBS amidst surging issuance. In this post we explain why QT will primarily drain bank cash balances, review the September 2019 repo spike and suggest that the stage is set for a potential spike in longer dated rates.

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Quantitative Tightening Step-by-Step

This post describes the mechanics behind quantitative tightening (“QT”) and reviews the prior QT experience. In our two-tiered monetary system, it is helpful to view QT through a framework that takes into account the perspectives of Banks (those who have a Fed account) and Non-Banks (those who don’t have a Fed account). Mechanically, QT reduces the level of cash held by Banks (reserves) and changes the composition of money held by Non-Banks (more Treasuries and fewer bank deposits). The Fed is unsure how low Bank reserve levels can fall before impacting the financial system, so it executes QT at a measured monthly pace. The prior QT experiment began in late 2017 and ended in September 2019, when a sudden spike in repo rates panicked the Fed into restarting quantitative easing.

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The QE Afterparty

There is still $1 trillion in Fed liquidity that will gradually flow into the private sector after QE stops. A large chunk of liquidity created by QE over the past two years never entered the banking system, but instead sat first in the Treasury’s Fed account and later in the RRP Facility. In the coming months Treasury will restart bill issuance and draw those funds out of the RRP into the TGA, and then spend those funds into the banking sector. Over time that will leave the banking sector with about $1t more in reserves, and the non-banks with a $1t more in deposits. If the past is any guide, that suggests more portfolio rebalancing where banks will purchase more Treasuries and non-banks more risk assets. In this post we trace the recent flows of Fed liquidity, show why more liquidity will soon flow into the banking system, and suggest that it will be a tailwind for all asset classes.

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$2 Trillion Pandemic Savings

There are around $2 trillion in pandemic savings held by American households that have yet to be spent. Despite a brief recession, fiscal stimulus supercharged American incomes the past year by maintaining wages through the PPP program, topping off incomes with stimulus checks, and boosting unemployment benefits. At the same time, Americans consumed less than usual as lockdowns limited spending opportunities. As noted by Clarida in two recent speeches (here and here), Americans have accumulated over $2t in pandemic savings that can continue to fuel aggregate demand. In this post we walkthrough how this figure is derived, sketch out the form and distribution of the savings, and suggest that its ‘helicopter’ source implies a further boost to inflation in the coming months.

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Inflationary Hikes

A structural change in the plumbing of the banking system is dampening the impact of monetary policy and may even make rate hikes inflationary. Rates hikes now directly increase the asset returns of banks while leaving their funding costs unchanged – effectively encouraging credit creation. This is because banks have shifted their funding structure away from rate sensitive money market funding to rate insensitive retail deposit funding. The shift is due both to Basel III raising the regulatory costs of money market funding and also the superabundance of retail deposits from pandemic fiscal spending. On the depositor side, the public is also unlikely to see the increases in deposit rates that would arise from a competition for funding. This means the opportunity cost of holding cash will remain low well into the hiking cycle. In this post we review the transition to an asset return implementation regime, show how it changes the incentive structure of banks, and suggest that rate hikes may not be effective in slowing down economic activity.

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Mechanics of a Devaluation

The inflationary process is in its early stages, and it will be particularly strong because it arises in part from a devaluation of the world’s reserve currency. Governments throughout the world printed and spent trillions in their pandemic related efforts, but none of their actions came close to the American response. American households literally received trillions in newly printed money that they are just beginning to spend. Inflation will become more obvious as that money moves through constrained supply chains and the global dollar system. Most foreign countries tether their currency to the dollar, effectively forcing them to at least partially import inflationary U.S. policies. In this post we follow the free money as it makes its way through the domestic and global economy, explain why reserve currency devaluation is particularly inflationary, and suggest prices have further to rise.

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Debt Ceiling Procedures [RESTRICTED FR]

The Fed and Treasury have seen enough debt ceilings to develop a playbook that can be pieced together from past FOMC transcripts and Congressional subpoenas. The Fed does not want to interfere in debt ceiling negotiations, which are part of the political process. But a default by Treasury may trigger enough market turmoil to affect financial stability and ultimately prompt Fed action. At the moment, Treasury debt maturing around late October is already exhibiting some signs of distortion. Treasury will make noises to scare Congress into action, but it understands the importance of avoiding default and will prioritize debt payments once it runs out of headroom. Prioritization can support the Treasury market indefinitely, and even if that support is withdrawn the Fed stands ready to act as dealer of last resort. In this post we detail the debt ceiling playbook as the ceiling moves from not binding to binding, and review the nuclear option in case things still don’t work out.

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Wealth (Side)Effects

The “wealth effect” is thought to boost consumption, but common sense (and some evidence) suggests it would also impact the need and willingness to work. Household wealth has surged over the past quarters for broad segments of the public, with an overall increase of $5.8t just over 2021 Q2. Fiscal policy pumped $1.3t of cash onto household balance sheets, but the market gods have also made a hefty contribution. Over the past two years home prices nationwide rose 25%, the S&P 500 is up 45%, and crypto gains have changed many lives. At the same time, the labor participation rate is depressed, employees are resigning, and wages are rising. Older workers can now retire early, and many others have enough of a nest egg to walk away from work they don’t need. In this post we estimate the distribution of wealth increases, pencil in the missing crypto wealth, and suggest that the Fed may be running the economy much hotter than they realize.

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Tapering Towards Neutral

The market impact of the Fed’s taper will be moderated by a significant decline in Treasury and Agency MBS issuance. An imminent taper is very likely now that a press trial balloon has been floated right before blackout and even the ECB is tapering. At the same time, Treasury is expected to lower coupon issuance and Agency MBS production is expected to continue to slow. In light of this, tapering can be thought of as maintaining the level of QE accommodation amidst significant declining issuance. While the mechanical impacts of taper will be blunted, the Fed’s taper announcement will still tighten financial conditions by bringing forward rate hike expectations. The Fed hopes to avoid another taper tantrum by separating taper from lift-off, but that is hard when one necessarily precedes the other. In this post we show how declining Treasury and MBS issuance will off-set Fed tapering and review the Fed’s communications challenge.

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