Interview with Zero Hedge

Author: David Kotok, Post Date: December 2, 2013
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Over the weekend we conducted an interview with Chris Whalen. It was released on Zero Hedge this morning. Here is the url:http://www.zerohedge.com/contributed/2013-12-02/bagehot-deflation-interview-david-kotok

The text of the interview appears below. We thank Chris Whalen for the invitation to conduct the interview on this very important topic of low interest rates and monetary policy.

Last week, I published two articles, on Zero Hedge and Breitbart, respectively, that highlight the issue of “financial repression” via low interest rates. Below is an exchange with my dear friend and mentor David Kotok, Chairman of Cumberland Advisors. We discuss the question of whether the current policy of the Federal Open Market Committee is feeding deflation via low rate policy. This question has great significance since the stated goal of FOMC policy is to raise inflation to ~2% annually and boost employment. From my perspective working in the housing sector, the combination of current Fed policy and new regulatory strictures such as Dodd-Frank and Basel III are clearly thwarting efforts by the FOMC to reflate the housing sector and the wider US economy. — RCW

Whalen: David, I really appreciate your comments on the ZH article last week, “Default, Deflation and Financial Repression.” In particular, your focus on ultralow interest rates, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation premiums and the flow of cash from the banks to the Federal Reserve System is very illuminating – and disturbing. As you know, I have long maintained that the FDIC’s fiscal need to fund the deposit insurance scheme is a separate matter from monetary policy, but when we have near-zero interest rates, the average FDIC premium of 7-10bp does become significant. Can you talk first about what is happening in the US money markets from your perspective?

Kotok: You wrote a very important article last week, especially the part about the Fed taking billions out of the economy and away from savers in order to subsidize the banking industry. But there is another and more nuanced part of the puzzle that we need to consider. We have a Fed Funds target of 0-0.25% in place presently. The Fed is also paying 0.25% per annum on excess reserves. This means the reserve rate is higher than the actual Fed Funds rate while the lower bound is maintained at zero. The GSEs, who are large sellers of Fed Funds, cannot legally deposit directly with the Fed. So, they sell Fed Funds, and the banks buy them and redeposit the cash with the Fed. The FDIC levies an asset-based fee on each bank and that includes the reserve deposit assets which are under their FDIC jurisdiction. So the actual Fed Funds rate, inclusive of the FDIC insurance levy, is below the gross (0.25%) reserve deposit rate. Some larger, riskier banks pay even higher FDIC fees than the average and are effectively losing money on this trade. Meanwhile the US subsidiaries of foreign banks, which are not subject to the FDIC levy, have an advantage in the short-term markets.

Whalen: So your basic point is that the fact that rates are so low in absolute terms is distorting the US money markets, in part due to structural costs like the FDIC insurance premium? The nineteenth-century economist Walter Bagehot maintained that in order to prevent bank panics a central bank should provide liquidity to the market at a very high rate of interest. Yet today the neo-Keynesian tendency that controls the FOMC believes that the fact the Fed has the virtually unlimited ability to temporarily expand the money supply refutes Bagehot’s dictum. In today’s terms, Bagehot was warning us against keeping rates too low for too long because real money would flee from financial repression.

Kotok: Antoine Martin of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in his important 2005 paper “Reconciling Bagehot with the Fed’s Response to September 11,” argues that Bagehot had in mind a commodity money regime in which the amount of reserves available was limited. Thus, keeping rates high was a way to draw liquidity, that is gold, back into the markets. Bagehot also understood that low interest rates fuel bad asset allocation decisions – what we call “moral hazard.” In the age of fiat money, however, economists have taken the opposite view, namely that an unlimited supply of reserves obviates the need to attract money back into the financial markets. Remember that Martin’s paper was written two years before the start of the subprime crisis.

Whalen: His timing was impeccable.

Kotok: Bagehot’s classic text advocated a penalty interest rate secured by good collateral. He was envisioning a form of discount window mechanism similar to what central banks used in the pre-QE era. That mechanism has been mostly replaced with QE, which is a policy that we are still in the early stages of learning about. More recent Fed papers have delved into the impact of QE on otherwise neutral interest rates. It certainly lowers them for a while and in the early stages of QE. Other researchers have noted how the central bank’s remittances to the Treasury alter the fiscal authority budget balance. And others have focused on the potential methods for terminating QE and getting to a neutral position. Still others are trying to solve the mystery of how to reduce the impact of QE and restore a more neutral policy. Lastly there are the inflation hawks, who forecast an inflationary outcome of QE. They may eventually be right, but after five years the evidence suggests that excess reserves are not by themselves very inflationary. It takes an acceleration of growth to turn post-crisis disinflation force around. That means rising demand is needed to obtain rising price pressures. So far, we haven’t seen much of either in the course of our grand experiment with QE. My colleagues and I have written about these various research papers, and the links can be found on our website, www.cumber.com.

Whalen: Well, the 2001-2007 period certainly suggests that Bagehot’s concerns about low interest rates fueling moral hazard have not been refuted. The FOMC’s aggressive easing of interest rates, combined with deregulation of the financial markets and the FDIC’s safe harbor with respect to bank asset sales between 2000 and 2010, fueled a speculative binge that nearly destroyed the western world. When Lehman Brothers failed, we had created some $60 trillion in toxic assets that were not supported by the $13 trillion asset US banking system. Now almost seven years since the bust, a large portion of that pile of crap has yet to be remediated.

Kotok: Very true, but the past is past. We must focus on the future. Whether or not you believe that a flexible reserve system like the Fed’s addresses Bagehot’s concern about attracting liquidity back into the markets, the fact is that very low interest rates do distort money flows. That is why your point about the Fed taking $100 billion per quarter out of the hands of savers is so important. But what do the banks do with that money? They deposit it with the Fed. And what does the Fed do with that money? They pay the banks 0.25% and then invest in US Treasury debt and mortgage-backed securities (MBS) at a higher rate, and thereby generate what they call a “profit.”

Whalen: So your point is that the $100 billion per year that the Fed is taking from the hands of consumers, meaning savers, is actually passing through the banking system and going to the Treasury via remittances from the Fed?

Kotok: Precisely. The practice of the Fed calling the spread they earn on their nearly $3 trillion portfolio of securities “profits” is a monstrous distortion of the word. What they are doing is feeding deflation in the real economy by reducing savers’ income while pushing down the federal budget deficit. Between budget sequestration and the spread arbitrage created by the low interest rate paid on excess bank reserves, US government policy is clearly operating with a deflationary bias. As you and I have discussed for several years with respect to the higher FDIC deposit insurance premiums, we need to take a holistic view of government policy. The whole playing field gets level if the Fed’s excess-reserve deposit rate is set higher and thus eliminates the false profit they now recognize via remittances to the Treasury.

Whalen: Well, you are assuming that the banks would actually lend out the additional profit that they earned in higher rates on excess reserves. Wouldn’t we need to also raise the target for Fed Funds to say 0-1% from the current 0-0.25% in order to give some of the benefit back to savers of all stripes?

Kotok: As we wrote last week in our Market Comment, in the Fed there are those who argue that the rate should be lowered or maybe go to zero. It is currently 0.25%. Others argue that the rate should be raised or that the amount of required reserves should be changed, thereby changing the excess reserves composition. All sides of this debate are passionately argued by skilled agents in monetary economics. But the real question the FOMC needs to ask is, what are we going to do if inflation continues to fall? That is, if we find ourselves in a deflationary trap. Many commentators argue that we are in one or near one. I am worried about it.

Whalen: It is perhaps not surprising that commercial bankers are against lowering the rate paid on the $2.3 trillion plus in excess reserves sitting on deposit at the Fed. That is 20% of the assets of the entire US banking sector, again another sign of deflation. Given the sharp drop in net interest margins in the US banking industry, the Fed may need to boost interest paid on reserves just to keep the industry from imploding. Just as in the 1930s the Fed fueled deflation by not making credit available, today the opposite seems to be the case – low rates are fueling deflation and impeding the creation of credit to support the economy. Where are you on the issue of when FOMC policy is likely to change?

Kotok: At Cumberland we believe the short-term interest rate will be kept low for a long period of time, which we measure in years, not months. We do not expect the Fed to deliberately shock the economy by any action that would cause another recession. The June press conference has served to chasten members of the FOMC. Some members of the Fed are already worrying about the possibility of recession. There is evidence of deflationary and/or disinflationary forces at work now. That evidence has raised the eyebrows of some policymakers and commentators. We are among those who worry about this issue. We do not think Japanese-style deflation will happen, but we worry that it could happen. We keep watching commodity prices and oil prices. Oil is especially important because it flows through so many sectors of the economy. And changes in the oil price quickly translate to gasoline prices, and that means a consumption tax increase or decrease. At an annual rate, a 1-cent change in the gasoline price adds up to about $1.4 billion in raised or lowered consumer expenditures.

Whalen: That is a big change. Let’s get back to the deflation issue. For the past year and more I have been writing about the deflationary impact of Dodd-Frank and Basel III, which are effectively offsetting the low rate policy of the FOMC in terms of consumers and households. Companies and leverage investors benefit from low rates, but the sharp drop in mortgage loan origination volumes is a huge red flag regarding deflation in my book. Imagine what the debt and equity markets will do when we see a negative print on the monthly Case-Shiller Index? Our friend Michelle Meyer at Bank America Merrill Lynch says that Q2 2013 was the peak in home price appreciation in this cycle. I agree and think a big part of the reason that housing is now slowing are the excessive regulatory constraints on lending.

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