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Treasury & Capital Markets / Viewpoint
Shifting central bank monetary policies
The US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank have made clear that they intend to roll back quantitative easing by reducing their bond holdings. But the other driver of central banks’ balance sheet expansion for the past 15 years – the provision of abundant reserves to the financial sector – remains up for debate
Lucrezia Reichlin 1 Dec 2023

Central banks have drastically changed the way they implement monetary policy. Since the 2008 global financial crisis, the US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank (ECB) have been providing liquidity directly to banks and other financial institutions – an activity that used to be the preserve of money markets – and massively expanding their balance sheets. Is it time to reverse these changes, reviving interbank money markets and shrinking central bank balance sheets, or is this the new normal?

To be sure, central bank balance sheets are already set to get somewhat smaller. The Fed and the ECB have made clear that they intend to roll back quantitative easing by gradually reducing their bond holdings. But the other cause of central banks’ balance sheet expansion – the provision of abundant reserves to the financial sector – remains up for debate. Though the Fed has formally adopted this approach as its new operational framework, the ECB has launched a review of the policy.

The fundamental question that must be answered is whether the benefits – that is, the added financial stability – warrant the risks. Here, the first thing to consider is why central banks started providing reserves to banks in the first place. During the 2008 crisis, trust in financial institutions’ creditworthiness collapsed, and the threat of contagion caused interbank money markets to freeze, forcing central banks to step in. By providing liquidity directly to each market participant, monetary authorities effectively substituted their balance sheets for the money market.

But there had to be a division between this new activity and the implementation of traditional monetary policy. Both the Fed and the ECB solved this problem in the same way: by paying interest on reserves. Rather than using market operations to increase or reduce the volume of reserves in the banking system, thereby steering its target interest rate, the central banks used the interest rate on reserve balances to steer the effective overnight rate. This enabled them to provide reserves to the point of satiation for financial stability purposes, while continuing to guide short-term interest rates for monetary policy purposes.

Not surprisingly, this “ample reserves” approach caused central bank balance sheets to balloon. It is also worth noting that, under this system, the size of the central bank’s balance sheet depends on market demand for liquidity, which has proved to be both variable and unpredictable.

Some now say that enough is enough. The post-crisis monetary policy regime, they say, was a justified response to a generalized credit crunch, but that it is not suited for normal times. Sustaining it is leading to the death of interbank money markets – which did have a valuable role to play in the economy – and causing banks to become dependent on central-bank liquidity.

But these risks might be overstated. Central banks can, after all, offer liquidity at zero cost. Evidence suggests that strong demand for central bank reserves is a new structural feature of a market in which financial institutions have a strong preference for safety, and regulations that made them safer also made it very costly for them to hold fewer liquid assets. Why risk creating liquidity problems by abandoning a framework that has proved so robust?

The real issue is fiscal risk. Since large reserves must be backed by assets, mostly Treasuries, the new system implies larger interest-rate risks, implying that central banks’ actions now have a greater fiscal impact. Fluctuations in central banks’ net incomes have grown larger, and for some institutions, total net capital has moved into negative territory.

Is this a problem? In a unitary system, such as the United States or the United Kingdom, it merely implies a redistribution of risk within the government, between the central bank and the finance ministry. While this could create uncertainty about the institutional framework and potentially even undermine central-bank independence, these risks are probably not particularly acute.

The situation is different in the eurozone, where there is no single fiscal authority or euro-denominated safe asset (a safe bond backed by the eurozone’s joint fiscal capacity), so the risks are not evenly distributed across countries. This is a fiscal problem, not a monetary one. Nonetheless, it raises doubts about whether the eurozone, with its current governance structure, can meet the high demand for safety among market participants.

Ultimately, the debate over the “normalization” of the post-crisis monetary-policy approach should focus on two questions. The first, which is relevant for all jurisdictions, is whether central bank independence will go unchallenged when flows between the financial system and the treasury are large. The second, which is relevant only for the eurozone, is whether the monetary union’s fragmented governance structure is fit for purpose in the post-financial-crisis world. It is not a new question. In the past, fragmentation emerged as an obstacle to stabilizing fiscal policy; today, it is re-emerging as a potential problem for the design of an ECB operational framework that can ensure financial stability and efficient monetary policy.

Lucrezia Reichlin is a professor of economics at the London Business School, a trustee of the International Financial Reporting Standards Foundation and a former director of research at the European Central Bank.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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