I did a little interview with Mary Kissel of the Wall Street Journal, following up on thursday's oped. Mary is, as you can tell, a well-informed interviewer and asks some tough questions. She did a great job of pushing hard on the usual Wall Street wisdom about how the Fed, though it has not done anything but talk in years, is secretly behind every gyration of stock or housing prices.
The central point came to me hours later, as it usually does. Is the Fed in fact "holding down" interest rates? Is there some sort of natural market equilibrium that features higher rates now, but the Fed is pushing down rates? That's the conventional view, clearly expressed in Mary's questions.
Well, let's think about that. If a central bank were holding down rates, what would it do? Answer, it would lend a lot of money at low rates. Money would be flowing out the discount window (that's where the Fed lends to banks), to banks, and through banks to the rest of the economy, flooding the place with low-rate loans. The interest rate the Fed pays on reserves and banks pay to borrow from the Fed would be low compared to market rates; credit and term spreads would be large, as the Fed would be trying to drag down those market rates.
That is, of course, the exact opposite of what's happening now. Banks are lending the Fed about $3 trillion worth of reserves, reserves the banks could go out and lend elsewhere if the market were producing great opportunities. Spreads of other rates over the rates banks lend to or borrow from the Fed are very low, not very high. Deposits are flooding in to banks, not loans out of banks.
If you just look out the window, our economy looks a lot more like one in which the Fed is keeping rates high, by sucking deposits out of the economy and paying banks more than they can get elsewhere; not pushing rates down, by lending a lot to banks at rates lower than they can get elsewhere.
In reality of course, the Fed isn't doing that much of anything. Lots of deposits (saving) and a dearth of demand for investment (borrowing) drives (real) interest rates down, and there is not a whole lot the Fed can do about that. Except to see the parade going by, grab a flag, jump in front and pretend to be in charge.