Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

November 9, 2017

Your Lender, The Federal Reserve Board

By David Reiss

photo by United States Federal Reserve

Federal Reserve Chair Yellen

Laurie Goodman and Bing Bai at the Urban Institute have posted Normalizing the Federal Reserve’s Balance Sheet The Impact on the Mortgage-Backed Securities Market. It is quite extraordinary to realize that the Federal Reserve owns nearly a third of outstanding residential mortgage-backed securities. When we think about the appropriate role of the government in the housing finance market, we cannot forget about this type of involvement. The paper opens,

During the crisis, the Federal Reserve found the traditional tools for monetary policy insufficient to stimulate the economy. From December 2008 to December 2015, the Fed’s primary policy tool, the target Fed funds rate, was set between 0 and 0.25 percent. But the economy remained weak, and there was no room to cut rates further. As a result, the Fed began to purchase large quantities of assets from the private sector. These programs are referred to as quantitative easing or large-scale asset purchases. The Fed owned $1.77 trillion of agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and $2.45 trillion of US Treasury securities (Treasuries) in late September 2017 and began to reduce the amount of these portfolio holdings in October 2017.

Some background: Since the Great Recession, the Fed has done three rounds of quantitative easing. From November 2008 to March 2010, it purchased $1.75 trillion in long-term Treasuries, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac agency debentures, and agency mortgage-back securities (comprising Ginnie Mae, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac issuances). From November 2010 to June 2011, the Fed purchased an additional $600 billion of Treasuries. From September 2012 to September 2014, the Fed engaged in its third round of quantitative easing, initially purchasing $85 billion a month in Treasuries and agency debt and MBS, with $40 billion of agency MBS. The Fed began to taper its purchases in December 2013 and ended the program in October 2014. From October 2014 through September 2017, the Fed has reinvested its runoff. Through these actions, the Fed owned $1.77 trillion of agency MBS, nearly 29 percent of all outstanding MBS as of late September 2017.

The Federal Open Market Committee announced on September 20, 2017, that it would begin to normalize its balance sheet in October 2017. The committee has been transparent about the course. It will begin by reducing the reinvestment rates on its portfolio. In months 1 through 3, the Fed would let the System Open Market Account (SOMA) portfolio run off by $10 billion each month, increasing to $20 billion in months 4 through 6, $30 billion in months 6 through 9, $40 billion in months 10 through 12, and $50 billion a month thereafter. The maximum runoff in each month, if met, would comprise 60 percent Treasuries and 40 percent MBS. If there is not enough runoff in that month, the Fed will not sell to meet these targets.

Although this timetable is clear, additional questions arise about the MBS portfolio that the Fed should shed some light on. The largest questions include the following: What size and mix of assets does the Fed eventually want to hold? And how does it intend to get there? In this brief, we argue that this is not an academic exercise. When the Fed reaches its desired balance sheet size, it will hold approximately $1.18 trillion in mortgage assets. It will take a long time for these to run off if there is no selling. This may be fine, but the Fed has made several comments that indicate it could sell the “residual.” For example, the minutes of the September 2014 meeting includes the following statement:

The Committee currently does not anticipate selling agency mortgage-backed securities as part of the normalization process, although limited sales might be warranted in the longer run to reduce or eliminate residual holdings. The timing and pace of any sales would be communicated to the public in advance.

It is not at all clear what constitutes a “residual.”

This brief has four sections. The first shows that under assumptions reasonably close to what the Fed has used, there will still be close to $1.18 trillion of MBS on its books when the Fed balance sheet normalizes. We then review the arguments about the Fed’s long-term desired portfolio mix. If it is Treasuries only, this raises questions about whether and how quickly the Fed should change its mortgage and treasury mix to avoid making asset allocation decisions that distort financial markets. In the third section, we argue that the Fed should do some active portfolio management while they are still doing a small amount of reinvestment. Finally, we make the case that the Fed could play a costless and helpful role in launching the single government-sponsored enterprise (GSE) security. (1-2)

The paper raises some important policy questions:

There has been considerable discussion on what role mortgages should play in the Fed’s portfolio. There is general but not universal agreement that the Fed should not be in the asset allocation business over the long term because it distorts financial market prices. Lawrence White has stated that “government programs that divert credit away from the most productive uses, as evaluated by the marketplace, are inherently wasteful, even if policymakers have the best of intentions.” Charles Plosser, a former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, sees additional dangers, noting that holding securities other than Treasuries opens the door for Congress (or the Fed) to use the balance sheet for political purposes. The Fed’s balance sheet could be “a huge intermediary and supplier of taxpayer subsidies to selected parties through credit allocation.” For example, if there was an infrastructure bill, the funds could be used to purchase the bonds that support the infrastructure initiative. Similarly, the funds could be used to purchase bonds to keep a municipality from defaulting. (9, citations omitted)

The Fed should address these policy questions head on, before any unintended consequences of such a dramatic policy intervention make themselves known.

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