Bernanke doesn’t understand the basic economics of central banking

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Note: this post originally was posted without correct attribution to Bill Mitchell, who writes a blog called Billy Blog where he had posted the thoughts now attributed to him below. Bill is a well-regarded Professor of Economics at the University of Newcastle in Australia who blogs on macroeconomics, banking, and related topics.

I would like to incorporate a critique of quantitative easing based on Bernanke’s comments in Ed’s post “Quantitative easing and inflation expectations.”

You’ve got to focus on improving the conditions for potential borrowers, not on the banks’ balance sheets.  Banks are never reserve constrained.  Even the BIS, the central banks’ central bank, understands this.  In a recent report, the BIS said the following: 

In fact, the level of reserves hardly figures in banks’ lending decisions. The amount of credit outstanding is determined by banks’ willingness to supply loans, based on perceived risk-return trade-offs, and by the demand for those loans. The aggregate availability of bank reserves does not constrain the expansion directly.

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It is obvious why this is the case. Loans create deposits which can then be drawn upon by the borrower. No reserves are needed at that stage. Then, as the BIS paper says:

in order to avoid extreme volatility in the interest rate, central banks supply reserves as demanded by the system.

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The loan desk of commercial banks have no interaction with the reserve operations of the monetary system as part of their daily tasks. They just take applications from credit worthy customers who seek loans and assess them accordingly and then approve or reject the loans. In approving a loan they instantly create a deposit (a zero net financial asset transaction).

The only thing that constrains the bank loan desks from expanding credit is a lack of credit-worthy applicants, which can originate from the supply side if banks adopt pessimistic assessments or the demand side if credit-worthy customers are loathe to seek loans. Banks are never reserve constrained, so this comment below from Bernanke is either ignorant or deliberately misrepresents the actual operations of the banking system (as opposed to the nonsensical Economics 101 version).

Ultimately, if the economy normalized, and the Fed took no action, the banks would take those reserves, try to lend them out, and they would begin to circulate, and the money supply would start to grow. And then, ultimately, that would create an inflationary risk. So, therefore, as the economy begins to recover, and as we move away from this very weak economic environment, the Federal Reserve is going to have to pull those reserves out of the system.

But as Bill Mitchell as pointed out in March, quantitative easing merely involves the central bank buying longer dated higher yielding bonds in exchange for deposits made by the central bank in the commercial banking system – that is, crediting their reserve accounts. He calls this Quantitative easing 101:

Does quantitative easing work? The mainstream belief is that quantitative easing will stimulate the economy sufficiently to put a brake on the downward spiral of lost production and the increasing unemployment.

It is based on the erroneous belief that the banks need reserves before they can lend and that quantitative easing provides those reserves. That is a major misrepresentation of the way the banking system actually operates. But the mainstream position asserts (wrongly) that banks only lend if they have prior reserves. The illusion is that a bank is an institution that accepts deposits to build up reserves and then on-lends them at a margin to make money. The conceptualisation suggests that if it doesn’t have adequate reserves then it cannot lend. So the presupposition is that by adding to bank reserves, quantitative easing will help lending.

But this is a completely incorrect depiction of how banks operate. Bank lending is not “reserve constrained”. Banks lend to any credit worthy customer they can find and then worry about their reserve positions afterwards. If they are short of reserves (their reserve accounts have to be in positive balance each day and in some countries central banks require certain ratios to be maintained) then they borrow from each other in the interbank market or, ultimately, they will borrow from the central bank through the so-called discount window. They are reluctant to use the latter facility because it carries a penalty (higher interest cost).

In the real world, the creation of a loan and (concurrently) a deposit by a bank are in no way constrained by the quantity of reserves. Instead, the terms set by the central bank for acquiring reserves (which then also affects the rates banks borrow at in money markets) affect a bank’s profit margin on a newly created loan. Thus, expanding its balance sheet can create a potential short position in reserves, and thus the profitability of newly created loans, not the bank’s ability to create the loan.

Banks, then, lend to any credit worthy customer they can find and then worry about their reserve positions afterwards. Even the BIS recognizes this.  Unfortunately our Federal Reserve chairman either does not know this (in which case his ignorance disqualifies him for another term in office) or he deliberately misrepresents the actual benefits of QE (duplicity being another good ground for disqualification for a 2nd term).   The current incoherence of our economic policy making could diminish if we had a Fed chairman who understood the importance of fiscal policy, rather than one who downplays its significance. 

It is a national tragedy that this man is being given the chance at another term in office.

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