Excess Reserves Are Not a Free Lunch

Since 2008, the Federal Reserve has more than quadrupled the adjusted monetary base.  But this new money has not resulted in massive consumer price inflation.  There has certainly been significant asset price inflation, particularly in stocks, but overall prices have not exploded in correlation with the monetary base.
I see two main reasons that prices have stayed relatively tame.  The first reason is that the velocity of money has been low.  Another way of saying this is that the demand for money has been high.  Money is changing hands less frequently, thus keeping prices from being bid up.
The second main reason for tame price inflation is bank reserves.  The majority of the new money created by the Fed has gone into excess reserves in the commercial banks.  So instead of loaning out these new deposits, banks have been keeping them as excess reserves with the Fed and earning a small .25% interest rate on the money.
I recently received the following comments and questions regarding bank reserves:
“If one accepts the premise that most of the so-called stimulus money is simply sitting as excess reserves propping up the so-called ‘too big to fail’ banks, what’s the harm if it stays there?  If that money doesn’t get velocity, we won’t see massive, commensurate price inflation.”
These are good questions.  If the newly created money by the Fed simply goes into excess reserves, does it matter?
The answer is “yes”; it still matters.  While I think we are better off with the high excess reserves as opposed to all of the new money being loaned out, we would be much better off if the new money had not been created in the first place.
I think one mistake I have seen is people assuming that there is no inflation if the new money goes into excess reserves.  The fact that the new money is not being loaned out simply means that the money is not multiplying.  However, it is still new money.
That money sitting as excess reserves is money that has been deposited in the banks and is available for people and businesses to spend.  Perhaps you don’t feel like your checking account has gotten bigger over the last five years, but someone’s checking account has gotten bigger.  All of the money sitting as excess reserves is not owned by the banks.  It is money that represents real deposits.
So while having the new money go into excess reserves is far less inflationary than if it had been lent out, it is still inflationary, even if to a much lesser extent.
The other factor to consider is that, even though new money has gone into excess reserves at banks, it is still misallocating resources.  This is what inflation does.  It misdirects resources, including savings.  The low interest rates themselves send false signals to the market indicating that people should save less.
The Fed is having a free lunch right now because it is creating monetary inflation and not getting blamed too much for the bad consequences.  If we saw really high consumer price inflation, then the Fed would likely take a lot of blame.  But if resources are being misallocated and unemployment is staying higher because of the Fed’s actions, most people do not perceive this.  Therefore, the Fed is doing great damage and getting away with it to a large degree.
As of right now, we are better off if the excess reserves stay high.  Otherwise, we would likely see massive price inflation.  But we should not think that the Fed’s massive monetary inflation is not inflicting great damage just because much of the new money is going into bank reserves.  It is still making us poorer, even if more subtly.

2 thoughts on “Excess Reserves Are Not a Free Lunch”

  1. “All of the money sitting as excess reserves is not owned by the banks. It is money that represents real deposits”

    All interbank demand deposits (IBDDs) or the CB’s new earning assets, are held in the District Reserve Banks & owned by the member banks.

    Otherwise, warehouse money (vault cash or prudential reserves), represent the CB’s deposit liabilities which they can’t loan out.

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