Know Unknowns: Bank Balance Sheets & The Federal Reserve

Big Money Printing Press

I consider myself knowledgeable about many things financial: ETFs, stocks, bonds, options, the stock market, for example.  I know the difference between an income statement and a balance sheet, and can read financial statements and prospectuses as a matter of course.

I’ve had little luck deciphering bank balance sheets. Income statements yes, balance sheets no.  They tend to be very opaque, which is one obstacle.  Loans are assets while deposits (other than Federal Reserve deposits) are liabilities.  Accurately determining the quantity, quality, type, and duration of loans can be difficult if not impossible… at least to me.  Perhaps some of this info can be found in the bank’s 10K statements.  Also opaque are details of the bank’s interest rate swaps and other OTC financial contracts.

Historically, the old-style (commercial) bank followed the 3-6-3 rule:   Borrow at 3%, lend at 6%, be on the golf course at 3:00.   Such a bank would take in deposits and lend out with loans (mortgages, car loans, commercial loans).  However, banks could not lend out all the deposits; banks had to keep a fraction of the cash in reserve.  This reserve helps to avoid the “run on the bank” problem, where too many depositors ask for their money — all at the same time.

Keeping all of this spare cash at the bank (about 3-10% of assets) is cumbersome, and also encourages bank robberies.  Banks can transfer much of this physical cash to the Federal Reserve and sometimes even earn a tiny bit of interest (0% to 0.25%, “the Fed Funds Rate”) on it.  Thus the Federal Reserve serves as the bank’s bank.  The Federal Reserve System (or “The Fed”) also helps clear checks (remember those?) and move money between banks simply by moving reserve deposit balances between banks.  No need to shuttle hard currency to and fro.  Deposits are moved with a pencil, or computer transaction in the Fed’s books.

The Fed also lends out money to banks.  Banks can borrow from the Fed at 0.75% (the so-called discount rate).  This system leaves a 0.5% profit for the Fed on the difference between the Fed Funds rate and the discount rate.

Classically the Fed would try to guide the economy by moving the Fed Funds rate and discount rate.  If the Fed thought the economy was overheating (generating excessive inflation) the Fed would raise rates to “cool off the economy”.  The Fed tried to adjust the rates so as to give the economy a “soft landing”.    If the US economy got too sluggish, with high unemployment, the Fed lowered rates.  The interesting thing (no pun intended) about these rates is that they are all short-term rates.  So short-term that the Fed funds rate is sometimes called the overnight rate.

I keep saying “classically” and “historically”, is this is how things used to be done by the Fed.  What’s new, since Fed Chairman Bernanke, has been the manipulation of long-term rates with “quantitative easing” QE, and QE2.  Also new (with the cooperation of US Treasury Sec. Timothy Geithner, Congress, and President Obama) are measures such as the AIG bailout and TARP.

The Fed has shifted into uncharted territory, and in the process neglected one of its two prime mandates: price stability and low inflation.  It also seems to have overlooked the concept of real economic growth (GDP growth adjusted for inflation).  Instead the Fed seems to be fluttering in a course of wide-ranging, unprecedented, knee-jerk reactions.

Today’s Fed is not my father’s Fed, nor are today’s banks.  Today they are increasingly known unknowns.  This path is new and the ticket stub is unclear.  I don’t see a destination nor ETA, but when I look close, very close, I see a dim watermark.  Subtle, like grey on grey, I believe I see in faint yet bold letters INFLATION.

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