Fed mulls further market soothing steps


The US Federal Reserve is mulling further steps to address liquidity problems in financial markets in case measures taken to date fail to gain traction, a Fed official confirmed on Wednesday.


Steps under review include the Treasury Department borrowing in excess of its requirements and depositing the surplus at the Fed. This would effectively allow the Fed to buy Treasury securities without pushing interest rates down.


Other possible actions include issuing debt under the Fed's name and seeking authority to immediately pay interest on commercial bank reserves, the official said.


The options under consideration by the Fed were first reported by the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.


Such moves are not imminent because the Fed's balance sheet can currently accommodate further lending aimed at restoring normal flows of credit in a market paralysed by the sub-prime mortgage debacle. In recent months, the central bank has announced several new facilities to extend credit to banks and Wall Street firms.


"Evidently it's another attempt at seeking out non-policy based solutions to the credit crunch, which sits well with the (Fed) minutes yesterday which noted that monetary policy alone was insufficient to stem the credit crisis," said Richard McGuire, fixed income strategist at RBC Capital Markets in London.


The Fed uses its assets to set interest rate targets and control the money supply. The central bank can expand its balance sheet practically without limit, but that would boost reserves and push down the federal funds rate, which banks charge each other for loans.


While the central bank is not immediately constrained by the size of its balance sheet in addressing the crisis, it is preparing for the possibility that it might need to further expand the balance sheet without lowering the fed funds rate, the official confirmed.


As of April 2, the most recent point for which data is available, the Fed held $581 billion (Dh2.13 billion) in Treasury securities on its balance sheet, down approximately $192 billion from a year ago. It listed roughly $221 billion in credits, loans, and repurchase agreements outstanding.


If the Treasury deposits funds at the Fed, the cash would be distinct from bank deposits, and would not affect interest rates, the official said. The central bank would use the funds to buy Treasury securities in the open market.


One possible obstacle to this approach may be the Treasury's statutory debt ceiling of $9.8 trillion, which Congress has been reluctant to increase without a debate.


Even so, this is the likeliest option and one that the Fed and Treasury officials have discussed, the official confirmed.


Since the credit crisis exploded in the summer of 2007, the Fed has opened a series of channels aimed at sloshing liquidity into parched credit markets.


Twice the central bank has narrowed the gap between the discount rate, which is what it charges banks for loans, and the federal funds rate. That gap now stands at a narrow quarter of a percentage point.


The Fed also has initiated cash auctions for commercial banks, and it has dusted off authority not used since the Great Depression to offer discount-window-like credit and Treasury securities to Wall Street firms.


Meanwhile, the central bank has slashed its fed funds rate as well, taking it down three percentage points to 2.25 per cent, including a rare three-quarter percentage point cut in January between scheduled meetings.


But Fed officials have been careful to distinguish between lowering borrowing costs, which can stimulate economic activity, and ensuring adequate liquidity to heal markets.


At the central bank's March 18 meeting, Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher voted against a three-quarter point reduction, arguing that relieving liquidity strains, rather than rate cuts, was a preferable therapy for the financial market malaise that has in all likelihood pushed the economy into recession. (Reuters)