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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Overdraft Economies (Book Excerpt)

(Note: this article is an excerpt from the book Understanding Government Finance - Appendix A.2) The working assumption within this report is that the central bank only owns Treasury bills and bonds. This corresponds to standard practice in the “Anglo” economies (Canada, United States, United Kingdom, and Australia). However, not all central banks operate in this fashion, nor did “Anglo” central banks historically. An alternative framework is for private banks to borrow directly from the central bank, possibly in the form of overdrafts (a negative deposit balance), or by discounting their assets (loans or bonds).

A pure “overdraft” economy operates solely without the use of bonds; all credit is in the form of bank loans. This is somewhat approximated by the Continental European economies, where banks are the major source of funding for businesses. North American economies are somewhat mixed; small and medium businesses tended to use bank finance, while larger businesses relied on the bond and equity markets. More recently, specialised financial companies and securitisations have made inroads into areas that were traditionally served by banks. For those who are interested, this type of economy is discussed in greater length Section 4.3.8 in Professor Marc Lavoie’s textbook Post-Keynesian Economics: New Foundations.

Since my focus here is on government finance, I will only look at the effects on the central bank. If the central bank no longer is purchasing government bonds, the operations I laid out in Chapter 4 no longer apply. Instead, the “position-making instrument” will be central bank lending against private sector assets. This could be done either as discounting or repo operations.

In order to picture the effect, to shift to such a system, the central bank would have to replace all of the government bonds on its balance sheet with private sector financial assets.

Since the central bank does not directly purchase bonds, it appears that it could lose control of government bond and bill yields. However, this appearance is probably misleading, so long as it is possible for the banks to rediscount government bonds and bills at the discount rate. If Treasury bill yields were much higher than the central bank’s administered discount rate, banks would arbitrage the bill market by buying them and funding the positions at the discount rate. Therefore, in such an environment, Treasury yields may no longer trade with lower yields than other high quality bond yields, but they should not have much higher yields. Although it appears that private sector would have a greater chance of forming a cartel and refuse to roll government debt, this should be more than balanced by the very effective club that the central bank has poised over the banking system, as described below.

In such a system, the central bank is no longer a refuge for economic theorists, since it operates like a bank. Central bank staffing budgets would have to make room for new teams of credit analysts. The central bank would be a major source of funding for the financial system, and taxpayers would not tolerate credit losses. Therefore, the central bank would have to understand the financial firms it is lending to, as well as the assets it is lending against. This is in complete contrast to the position of the central banks during the Financial Crisis, where they had little idea what was happening in the financial system until it was too late. The Fed was even forced to bring in private sector managers to manage the insanely complicated assets it purchased during bailout programmes.

Moving to such a system in the United States was a reform advocated by Hyman Minsky in Chapter 13 of Stabilizing an Unstable Economy. His concern was that the financial system has an innate tendency to drift from safe (“hedge”) financing schemes towards “speculative” or “Ponzi” financing. If the U.S. Federal Reserve was deeply involved in determining which assets it was willing to lend against, it could act as a countervailing force against this tendency for excessive risk. If it thought a type of lending was unsafe, it could make it ineligible for rediscounting at the central bank. Some specialist lenders may take their chances with such lending, but they would be outside the safety net of the lender-of-last-resort operations. Minsky argued: “Central banks have to steer the evolution of the financial structure.”*

The fact that the central bank is a major source of funding for the banks in such a system means that “rollover” risk can easily be contained by central bank arm-twisting. It is very difficult for banks to collude against the interests of a major source of their short-term funding (as well as the source of their banking license). This means that switching to such a system does not truly create constraints on government finance, but it does require that the central bank bureaucracy be staffed with people who seek to defend the national interest, even at the cost of overriding “market forces.”

I agree with Minsky that such a reform would be one of the few mechanisms that would bring some stability to financing arrangements. The catch is that I doubt that such muscular interventions into the banking system fit current political trends. Progressives would be horrified to see the government actively involved in providing financing for bankers, while free market advocates would be horrified by the scope of the government interventions. It might require the financial system to blow itself up in an even more impressive fashion to force deep reforms of this nature.

Footnote:
* Page 359 of Stabilizing an Unstable Economy, by Hyman Minsky. Published by McGraw Hill, 2008.

(c) Brian Romanchuk 2015-2016

14 comments:

  1. Warren Mosler says banks should be asset constrained via strict regulations and otherwise should be assured of liquidity from the central bank and government deposit insurance scheme. I'm not sure if credit analysis at the central bank alone would be sufficient to regulate bank assets although I guess the experts in credit risk must be on the payroll somewhere.

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    1. The lending would be against certain categories of assets; it would need to be augmented with wider regulation.

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  2. Brian,

    I don't think you have ever grappled with the possibility that the Central Bank can simply print money and then loan it to the government. The people receiving this government money (whether employees or resource providers) would place a value on anything received as being a fair exchange for their labor or resources.

    I think this is happening at an accelerating pace in the world today. Japan seems to be testing the limits of this economic tactic.

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    1. The central bank can extend an overdraft to the Treasury, and all of the worries about government solvency would disappear. However, traditionalists would scream bloody murder about hyperinflation risk. None of these restrictions make any sense, but people want them for political reasons.

      Delete
  3. "An alternative framework is for private banks to borrow directly from the central bank, possibly in the form of overdrafts (a negative deposit balance), or by discounting their assets (loans or bonds)."

    After the conversation at the last post, can we say there is no overdraft? It is just another type of loan. The central bank sells currency and/or central bank reserves and buys bonds (demand deposits) from the commercial bank.

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    1. Well, an overdraft is a type of loan. Even if it shows up as a positive number on the accounting statements, it is negotiated as if it is a bank balance that can go negative.

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    2. "Well, an overdraft is a type of loan."

      OK.

      "it is negotiated as if it is a bank balance that can go negative."

      I would rather say it is negotiated as if an entity can spend more demand deposits than it has. It does not go negative. The entity borrows demand deposits.

      Delete
  4. "A pure “overdraft” economy operates solely without the use of bonds; all credit is in the form of bank loans."

    It seems to me a bank loan and bond are the same thing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In terms of financing, they are performing the same roles. The difference is in the lending conditions.

      Normally bank loans are senior, and have more restrictive covenants. A bond can be transferred, and the covenants reflect that. Bank loans allow the bank to be more intrusive than random bond holders could be.

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    2. "In terms of financing, they are performing the same roles. The difference is in the lending conditions."

      If lending conditions and terms of the loan mean the same thing, OK.

      Delete
  5. "In order to picture the effect, to shift to such a system, the central bank would have to replace all of the government bonds on its balance sheet with private sector financial assets.

    Since the central bank does not directly purchase bonds, it appears that it could lose control of government bond and bill yields."

    Unless the central bank sets some sort of target for government bond and bill yields and is willing to enforce it, I don't believe the central bank controls government bond and bill yields now. I am referring to the fed here.

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    1. Officially, the central bank does not. But in practice, the Fed lends against Treasury collateral (repo), and so effectively sets the market repo rate. If the Fed guarantees that investors can borrow against a t-bill at 1%, and will keep that repo rate steady near its target rate, that t-bill rate is going to trade near 1%. This is the mechanism that allows rate expectations to work.

      If we look at Treasury bill rates, they are typically very close to the policy rate (plus near-term expectations). Private sector rates vary relative to that benchmark; the fear is that once Treasury bills lose their special status, they would vary in a similar fashion.

      As for bonds, the role of expectations becomes more important than the current level of the policy rate.

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    2. Assume the fed funds rate is 3%. The fed could lower it to 1%. If the "markets" think that is a mistake, gov't bonds could go up in yield. Basically, the "markets" set interest rate(s), and the fed tries to follow along.

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    3. For simplicity, assume the yield curve starts perfectly flat at 3%. The Fed then drops the overnight rate to 1%.

      - Short-dated paper (under a year) is going to trade very close to 1%. Even if the Fed is making a mistake, there is very little that is going to convince them they are wrong on a very short time horizon. (One might make an exception for some sort of a financial crisis.)

      - Intermediate paper (2- to 5-years, say) is going to trade between 1.5-2.5%. One could look at historical slopes to get a better idea of how positive a slope the market can support. Economists and non-fixed income specialists often come up with theories about intermediate bond yields that are miles outside of what a relative value strategist would view as plausible.

      - Long-dated bonds (10-years plus) could go above 3% if the Fed was perceived as making a mistake. It's fairly rare for the markets to move in such a fashion immediately (the Fed is typically slow to react, but it tends to move in the correct direction when they do move). Sure, 30-year bonds are important for investors and speculators, but they are a tiny part of new bond issuance. (Existing bonds already have their interest cost locked in.) Having long bond yields rise temporarily will get some people excited, but it really does not matter for the government's interest costs.

      Delete

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