Must-Read: Michael Woodford: Quantitative Easing and Financial Stability

Must-Read: The extremely sharp Michael Woodford makes the obvious point about quantitative easing and financial stability: by increasing the supply and thus reducing the premium on safe liquid assets, it should–if demand and supply curves slope the normal way–not increase but reduce the risks of the banking sector.

It is very, very nice indeed to see Mike doing the work to demonstrate that I was not stupid when I made this argument in partial equilibrium:

J. Bradford DeLong (January 17, 2014): “Beer Goggles”, Forward Guidance, Quantitative Easing, and the Risks from Expansionary Monetary Policy: When the Federal Reserve undertakes quantitative easing, it enters the market and takes some risk off the table, buying up some of the risky assets issued by the U.S. government and its tame mortgage GSEs and selling safe assets in exchange. The demand curve for risk-bearing capacity seen by the private market thus shifts inward, to the left: a bunch of risky Treasuries and GSEs are no longer out there, as the government is no longer in the business of soaking-up as much of the private-sector’s risk-bearing capacity:


And this leftward shift in the net demand to the rest of the market for risk-bearing capacity causes the price of risk to fall, and the quantity of risk-bearing capacity supplied to fall as well. Yes, financial intermediaries that had held Treasuries and thus carried duration risk take some of the cash they received by selling their risky long-term Treasuries to the Fed and go out and buy other risky stuff. But the net effect of quantitative easing is to leave investors and financial intermediaries holding less risky portfolios because they are supplying less risk-bearing capacity…

It is reassuring that I was not stupid–that there is nothing important in general equilibrium that I had missed:

Michael Woodford: Quantitative Easing and Financial Stability: “Conventional interest-rate policy, increases in the central bank’s supply of safe (monetary) liabilities, and macroprudential policy…

…are logically independent dimensions of variation in policy… [that] jointly determine financial conditions, aggregate demand, and the severity of the risks associated with a funding crisis in the banking sector…. If one thinks that the [risk] premia that exist when market pricing is not “distorted” by the central bank’s intervention provide an important signal of the degree of risk that exists in the marketplace, one might fear that central-bank actions that suppress this signal–not by actually reducing the underlying risks, but only by preventing them from being reflected so fully in market prices–run the danger of distorting perceptions of risk in a way that will encourage excessive risk-taking. The present paper… argues… that the concerns just raised are of little merit….

Quantitative easing policies can indeed effectively relax financial conditions…. Risks to financial stability are an appropriate concern of monetary policy deliberations…. Nonetheless… quantitative easing policies should not increase risks to financial stability, and should instead tend to reduce them…. Investors are attracted to the short-term safe liabilities created by banks or other financial intermediaries because assets with a value that is completely certain are more widely accepted as a means of payment. If an insufficient quantity of such safe assets are supplied by the government (through means that we discuss further below), investors will pay a “money premium” for privately-issued short-term safe instruments with this feature, as documented by Greenwood et al. (2010), Krishnamurthy and Vissing-Jorgensen (2012), and Carlson et al. (2014). This provides banks with an incentive to obtain a larger fraction of their financing in this way… choose an excessive amount of this kind of financing… because each individual bank fails to internalize the effects of their collective financing decisions on the degree to which asset prices will be depressed in the event of a “fire sale.” This gives rise to a pecuniary externality, as a result of which excessive risk is taken in equilibrium (Lorenzoni, 2008; Jeanne and Korinek, 2010; Stein, 2012)….

Cut[ting] short-term nominal interest rates in response to an aggregate demand shortfall can arguably exacerbate this problem, as low market yields on short-term safe instruments will further increase the incentive for private issuance of liabilities of this kind (Adrian and Shin, 2010; Giavazzi and Giovannini, 2012)…. Quantitative easing policies lower the equilibrium real yield on longer-term and risky government liabilities, just as a cut in the central bank’s target for the short-term riskless rate will, and this relaxation of financial conditions has a similar expansionary effect on aggregate demand in both cases. Nonetheless, the consequences for financial stability are not the same…. Conventional monetary policy[‘s] reduction in the riskless rate lowers the equilibrium yield on risky assets… [by] provid[ing] an increased incentive for maturity and liquidity transformation on the part of banks…. In the case of quantitative easing, instead, the equilibrium return on risky assets is reduced… through a reduction rather than an increase in the spread…. The idea that quantitative easing policies, when pursued as an additional means of stimulus when the risk-free rate is at the zero lower bound, should increase risks to financial stability because they are analogous to an expansionary policy that relaxes reserve requirements on private issuers of money-like liabilities is also based on a flawed analogy…. In the model presented here, quantitative easing is effective at the zero lower bound… because an increase in the supply of safe assets… reduces the equilibrium “money premium”… [which reduces] banks’ issuance of short-term safe liabilities… so that financial stability risk should if anything be reduced….

[This] paper develops these points in the context of an explicit intertemporal monetary equilibrium model, in which it is possible to clearly trace the general-equilibrium determinants of risk premia, the way in which they are affected by both interest-rate policy and the central bank’s balance sheet, and the consequences for the endogenous capital structure decisions of banks…

May 31, 2016


Brad DeLong
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