Monday, March 30, 2015

Central Banking: The Basics

1. Credit Fluctuations and Financial Crisis

Last post, we discussed the role of fluctuations in total credit extended to the value of production and also to the total money stock. When credit is expanded, this is typically indicative of an increase in the value of production. This can occur either through an increase in production itself, an increase in prices, or an increase in demand for cash balances which may lead to an increase in demand for credit assuming that prices do not immediately adjust to accommodate the change in demand for money. The relation between credit and money implies a relationship between aggregate demand and credit. When the volume of credit extended increases on net, this is equivalent to an increase in the money stock, and therefore an increase in aggregate demand (MV). Thus, changes in the credit stock, absent a change in demand for money, shifts the aggregate demand curve in the same direction. After a period where credit has been misallocated, something only discovered ex post, there must follow a contraction as the value of collateral adjusts to reflect underlying demands of the economy. While this process works to reallocated resources to their most highly value use, the fall in credit also precipitates a fall in income. Falling incomes encourages agents and firms to take a more conservative stance financially until they expect that the crisis is nearing an end. This tendency creates aggregate oscillations known as the business cycle. We will discuss the business cycle in later posts. For now it is sufficient that we recognize that the phenomenon exists.

When these oscillations in the volume of available money and credit grow extreme, banks that might otherwise be economically sustainable risk default. The same holds true for other businesses. In the worst case, these fluctuations may create a wave of insolvencies that turn a minor crisis into a financial pandemic. Nominal fluctuations begin to affect the structure of the real economy. This is what occurred in the recent crisis. Many large financial firms were holding bundles of AAA rated mortgage backed securities. The AAA rating hid from non-critical observers the risk contained in these securities. Before the crisis in 2007 and 2008, banks held these securities were able to acquire very high levels of leverage. The ratio of debt to cash on hand grew to dangerously high levels. When the value of these assets collapsed, leverage levels increased as many of these firms were on the brink of collapse. Assets that had served as money – mortgage backed securities – fell in price. This was equivalent to a drop in the broader money stock as it necessitated a contraction of credit in order for the system to stay solvent. In order to avoid collapse, the Federal Reserve provided the market with liquidity by buying up “toxic” assets, i.e., the overvalued mortgage backed securities. Ignoring the politics that were at issue, we observe that the Federal Reserve was, in an unorthodox manner, serving the role of lender of last resort.

2. The Central Bank and the Money Stock

The central bank’s primary means of policy implementation depends on its control of the money stock. This control provides it the ability to intervene within a market. There are 3 means by which a central bank typically intervenes.
a. Discount Rate 
The central bank lends money directly to other banks through the discount window. In the early days, this was the central bank’s primary means of intervention. It has come to play a smaller role in the modern environment. 
b. Open Market Operations 
This is a favorite tool of central banks. Open market operations is the general process in which central banks engage when they buy and sell debt on the open market. If the central bank purchases debt, it has increased the monetary base, usually with the expectation that this increase will promote credit creation. If the central bank sells, bonds, it diminishes the base money stock and, by so doing, discourages the creation of new credit. Most central bank policies imply an inflationary bias, so this latter case is less common. 
c. Reserve Requirements 
The central bank can influence the broader money stock by changing the proportion of commercial bank liabilities that are required to be held with the central bank. By increasing reserve requirements, the central bank contracts the total money stock. By decreasing reserve requirements, the central bank enables the expansion of the total money stock.
3. The Central Bank as the Lender of Last Resort

The lender of last resort role is probably the strongest justification for central bank management of the money stock. During a crisis, banks need liquidity. Under some banking regimes, private banks collectively established institutions that stabilized the banking system during crises (as we will see next post). The norm has been for governments to establish a central bank.

The central bank is responsible, not only for providing liquidity during a crisis, but also to manage the base money stock. This is of particular significance for the functioning of credit markets. If a bank or banks risks collapse, cannot acquire credit, and appears to be solvent, the central bank’s role is to provide temporary liquidity to the institution. This function provides stability to the system during periods of credit collapse.

a. Moral Hazard 
The lender of last resort role creates a problem of second-order: moral hazard. In a system where stability is provided privately, provision of liquidity is constrained by expectation of repayment. This expectation is formed by the creditor’s local knowledge of the bank receiving emergency funds. In the private system, this role is decentralized as major players within different banking systems (networks) play the role of lender of last resort. The implementation of a central bank degrades this local knowledge and distorts incentives. Banks with relatively high levels of risky assets might not receive credit under the private system. They are more likely to receive credit under a system of central banking as 1) politics plays a greater role in allocating credit and 2) private bankers and investors may form the expectation that the central bank will always provide them liquidity. This encourages private banks to extend more credit than they would otherwise.
4. Relative Prices and the Flow of Goods and Currency
a. Fixed Exchange Rates (Gold Flows) 
During the years of the gold standard, this role was fulfilled by adjusting the base money stock according to business conditions. This might lead to fluctuations in the reserve ratio as well as gold flows. Under this system, exchange rates could not adjust to bring international prices to parity. Instead, prices denominated in gold were brought into parity by arbitrageurs.

One part of this process is the price-specie-flow mechanism. Let us assume that the economy is in equilibrium. If the central bank increases the portion of the base money stock comprised of paper money absent a change in the gold stock, this will tend (though not always) to promote credit creation and increase prices within the nation. This leads to discrepancies between the prices of domestic goods and goods from abroad. The discrepancy in prices encourages gold to flow out of the country to other nations where prices are lower and goods are therefore cheaper. Domestic interest rates are also depressed, thus encouraging gold to leave the country. Likewise, a contraction of the paper money by the central bank will lead to a domestic deflation which encourages the flow of gold from foreign countries into the domestic economy.

In the long run, the price of any like goods tend to equalize. This gives rise to purchasing power parity. Traders can earn a profit by purchasing goods or claims to goods in a country where prices are relatively lower and selling them in countries where prices are relatively lower. This shifts demand away from the more expensive goods and toward the cheaper goods which diminishes the discrepancy in prices. This long-run tendency is the process on which the law of one price depends. Anywhere where there is a discrepancy in the price of goods represents a profit opportunity. Consequently, in a gold standard world, gold has only one international price, deviations from which are constrained (Samuelson 1980).
b. Floating Exchange Rates 
For the most part, central banks no longer hold gold. They hold currency and debt, both foreign and domestic, as the large share of their assets. The effects that operated under the gold standard still effect prices, but these changes tend to be swamped by swift changes in exchange rates. If a central bank increases the money stock, ceteris paribus, then we can expect that prices will tend to rise on average. The currency loses value. If the exchange rate of the currency adjusts before domestic prices, then there exists an arbitrage opportunity for investors who purchase these domestic goods and sell them abroad. Under the gold standard, fixed exchange rates led goods to flow into the country as prices rose. Relatively cheaper foreign goods would flow into the country engaged in inflation. With no fixed exchange rate, however, the flow of goods out of the country whose currency has devalued relative to other currencies is the consequence of inflation.

5. The Federal Funds Rate

In the United States, the Federal Reserve sets a target for the Federal Funds Rate. This is the rate at which banks lend to one another, often overnight. Since new money first comes into possession by banks that sell assets to the Fed, this rate is relatively responsive to changes in the money stock.

6. Types of U.S. Government Debt

The Federal Reserve usually expands money by buying government debt. This debt is divided into 3 categories
a. Treasury Bills 
This is comprised of debt that matures within one year. These represent the bulk of debt purchases by the Federal Reserve. 
b. Treasury Notes 
Treasury notes include debt that matures in 1 to 10 years. 
c. Treasury Bonds 
Treasury bonds mature in greater than 10 years.

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