Is The Fed’s Balance Sheet Headed For The Crapper?

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Is The Fed’s Balance Sheet Headed For The Crapper?
skeeze / Pixabay

Never underestimate the resourcefulness of a great plumber.

Had it not been for the genius of Thomas Crapper, champion inventor of the water-waste-preventing cistern syphon, Victorians would have been left to make their trek to that malodorous darker place otherwise known as the Out House, or perhaps the crockery pot stashed under the bed for a while longer.

Fed

Born in 1836, Crapper was apprenticed to a master plumber at the tender (today) age of 14 and had hung his shingle in Chelsea by his mid-twenties. Such was Crapper’s renown and stellar reputation, that even the Royals themselves were early adopters. The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, is the first known to grace the invention with his regal rear. Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey would be appointed in short order ensuring safe and sanitarily stately relief as the royal “We” traveled from castle to castle.

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Of course, it took rude Americans to nick his last name, giving future generations of boisterous boys endless joy at having a humorous potty word to reference the potty. Crapper took great pride in publicly peddling his patented products. Legend has it prim British ladies would faint upon happening upon his Marlborough Road shop, such was the shock at the sight of this and that model of the technological wonder behind huge pane glass windows.

By our very nature, we are nothing if not imperfect, Crapper included. One of his innovative inventions fell flat, or better put, jumped too high. It would seem his spring-loaded loo seat, which leapt upwards as derrieres ascended, automating flushing in the process, was too ill-conceived and thus ill-fated, to be purveyed after all.

No one likes a rude slap on the bottom, bond market investors especially. Perhaps that’s why there’s such irritability among traders who prefer clarity above all, even as bond yields flash danger ahead. Just a guess here but all that angst could reflect concerns about a different sort of plumber, of the central banker ilk.

It’s no secret the plumbers at the Federal Reserve are feverishly at work devising a way to unwind their $4.5 trillion war chest of a balance sheet. Officials claim their carefully devised maneuvers will nary elicit an inkling of a disturbance in the markets they’ve coddled all these years with billions of dollars of purchases, month-in, month-out. But one must wonder, at the timing, at the ostensive optics, if nothing else.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen insists that economic recoveries do not die of old age. But why chance it? Unless, that is, the motivations of shrinkage are less than magnanimous and dare one say, immoral.

Consider the Fed’s Commander in Chief herself. Back in December 2011, then Vice Chair Yellen pushed back against the majority of those on the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC). The time was ripe for more cowbell. She argued that “a compelling case for further policy accommodation” could be made despite visible green shoots in the labor market and business spending. The consummate dove, she added that while they were at it, why not commit to the Fed sitting on its hands until late 2014 from what was then mid-2013?

Why yes, since you raise the subject, a presidential election was indeed a matter of months away.

Take a step back further in time if you will, to August 2011. Though it is maintained that the subject of politics at FOMC meetings is unseemly, as religion is to cocktail parties, the upcoming election was too front and center to ignore given the subject of debate among committee members.

At the time, the markets were interpreting the Fed’s pledge to keep interest rates tethered to the zero bound for “an extended period” as several meetings. For markets, that period of time was sufficiently brief to begin to price in an impending tightening cycle, an abhorrent assumption to the dovish coalition who had several years, not meetings, in mind.

How best to broadcast the Fed was anything but a commitment-phobe? That’s easy. Do what the Fed did throughout its foray into unconventional policymaking and guarantee results the best way econometricians can, with a numeric commitment, in this case through “mid-2013.”

God love St. Louis Fed President James Bullard for piping up with this following gem: “It will look very political to delay any rate hikes until after the election. I think that will also damage our credibility. I also doubt that we can credibly promise what this committee may or may not do two years from now.”

Score two for St. Louis! Political tinder and who the heck knows where economy will be in two years!

Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher (full disclosure – the man I once simply referred to as ‘boss’) concurred: “The ‘2013’ just looks too politically convenient, and I don’t want to fall back into people being suspicious about the way we conduct our business.”

According to the transcripts, former Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo offered a helping hand with the suggestion that perhaps Fisher would be happier with committing all the way out to 2014. Lovely. And this coming from an individual who sported his Obama bumper sticker for years driving in and out of the parking garage.

For the record, then Chairman Ben Bernanke sided with the doves, defending the move to make binding for a set period the promise to keep rates on the floor. In the end, Bernanke withstood three dissenting votes though not without a fight.

Perhaps what’s most noteworthy is that no fewer than 20 pages of transcripts are devoted to Bernanke’s best efforts to quash the dissents. That’s a problem in and of itself. Healthy dissent should make for a healthy institution. Plus, common sense tells you markets never give back what you give. The time committed was downright irresponsible and all but set the stage for future market temper and taper tantrums.

You may note that the dissenting voices of reason never prevailed, hence the aforementioned $4.5 trillion balance sheet. That’s what makes the doves’ dogged determination to tighten on two fronts so damning. It’s clear that politics got us into this monetary quagmire and that politics will also land us in recession.

To be fair, recessions are inevitabilities down here on Planet Earth where business cycles are permitted to be cyclical. Just the same, for a group of folks who’ve done backbends for years endeavoring to prolong the recovery at all costs, it’s plain odd that they’re even flirting with shrinking the very balance sheet that secures their power base as Type A monetary control freaks.

The good news, for those fearing having to enter monetary rehab, is that it’s going to take a mighty long time to shrink the balance sheet. The fine folks over at Goldman Sachs figure that getting from Point A ($4.5 trillion) to Point B ($2 trillion based on balance sheet contracting just over a tenth the size of the country’s GDP) will take at least five years.

(An aside for you insomniacs out there: Have a look back at Mind the Cap, penned back on December 16, 2015, released hours before the Fed hiked rates for the first time in order to raise the cap on the Reverse Repo Facility (RRP) to $2 trillion. (Mind The Cap via DiMartinobooth.com) Come what may, you can consider Goldman’s estimate of the terminal value of a $2 trillion balance sheet and the size of the RRP to be anything but coincidental.)

In any event, things change. As per Goldman, by 2022, “…changes in Fed leadership, regulation, Treasury issuance policy, or macroeconomic conditions could alter both the near-term path and the intended terminal size of the balance sheet.” Indeed.

It is entertaining to watch market pundits shift in their skivvies trying to assure the masses that a shrinking balance sheet will be welcomed by risky assets. It was downright comical to read that the Fed’s strategically allowing only long-dated Treasuries to expire and not be replaced would prevent the yield curve from inverting, thus staving off recession.

Pardon the interruption, but domestic non-financial sector debt stood at about 140 percent of GDP in 1980. Today, it’s crested 250 percent of GDP and keeps rising. Interest rate sensitivity, especially in commercial real estate, household finance and junk bonds is particularly acute. Oh, and by the way, monetary policy is a global phenomenon. At last check, the European periphery and emerging market corporate bond market were not in the best position to weather a rising rate environment.

The best performance, though, was delivered by Chair Janet Yellen herself. In the spirit of giving credit its due, Business Insider’s Pedro da Costa highlighted this delightful nugget from testimony Yellen presented to Congress in February: “Waiting too long to remove accommodation would be unwise, potentially requiring the FOMC to eventually raise rates rapidly, which could risk disrupting the financial markets and pushing the economy into recession.”

Isn’t the rapidly flattening yield curve communicating that ‘removing accommodation’ today is one and the same with ‘pushing the economy into recession’? In Da Costa’s words, this preemptive philosophy is “dubious” and akin to, “a modern-day finance version of bleeding the patient to cure it.” Hope you’ll agree that leeching has no more place in modern medicine than outhouses do in our backyards.

Even as the Fed battles its own public relations nightmare, it would seem policymakers intend to follow through on their threat to tighten on two fronts, though not concurrently. Will President Trump pass the test and stand firm on reinstating leaders at the Fed who will transform it into a less compromised, more apolitical institution? Or will Trump fold, opting to keep the doves in command?

It’s just a hunch, but a less-threatened Fed could just as easily be expected to back down on shrinking the balance sheet. Given where the economy looks headed, newly empowered doves might even be inclined to grow the balance sheet anew. Stranger things or political posturing? You tell me and while you’re at it, ever noticed the word, ‘die’ is embedded in the word, ‘diet’? Let’s just say bulking up is easier done than slimming down.

Article by Danielle DiMartino Booth, author of Fed Up: An Insider’s Take on the Why the Federal Reserve is Bad for America

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Called "The Dallas Fed's Resident Soothsayer" by D Magazine, Danielle DiMartino Booth is sought after for her depth of knowledge on the economy and financial markets. She is a well-known speaker who can tailor her message to a myriad of audiences, once spending a week crossing the ocean to present to groups as diverse as the Portfolio Management Institute in Newport Beach, the Global Interdependence Center in London and the Four States Forestry Association in Texarkana. Danielle spent nine years as a Senior Financial Analyst with the Federal Reserve of Dallas and served as an Advisor on monetary policy to Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard W. Fisher until his retirement in March 2015. She researches, writes and speaks on the financial markets, focusing recently on the ramifications of credit issuance and how it has driven equity and real estate market valuations. Sounding an early warning about the housing bubble in the 2000s, Danielle makes bold predictions based on meticulous research and her unique perspective honed from years in central banking and on Wall Street. Danielle began her career in New York at Credit Suisse and Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette where she worked in the fixed income, public equity and private equity markets. Danielle earned her BBA as a College of Business Scholar at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She holds an MBA in Finance and International Business from the University of Texas at Austin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. Danielle resides in University Park, Texas, with her husband John and their four children. In addition to many volunteer hours spent at her children's schools, she serves on the Board of Management of the Park Cities YMCA.

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