|"Water water everywhere, and not a drop to drink" - Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Gustave Doré woodcut)|
In a recent paper, John Taylor rhapsodizes about bringing back the good ol' federal funds market:
I think the case can be made for such a framework. Peter Fisher ran the trading desk at the New York Fed for many years, and knows well how these markets work. His assessment is that such a framework would work, saying “we could get back and manage it with quantities; it’s not impossible. We could just re-engineer the system and go back to the way we were.” I spent time in the markets for federal funds watching how they operated in those days, and I wrote up an institutional description of how good experienced people traded in these markets, and I developed a model showing how the market worked.The fed funds market is currently moribund, but just a few years ago it was buzzing with activity. Banks that didn't have enough reserves at the end of the day to meet requirements could go to the fed funds market and buy them from banks who had excess reserves, the price they negotiated referred to as the fed funds rate.
I disagree with John Taylor. Resuscitating the fed funds market is not a good idea. The fed funds market is no longer used because the Federal Reserve has stuffed the market with so many reserves that banks no longer need to buy them from other banks to meet their requirements. But this cornucopia is a good thing. Any effort to bring back the fed funds market would ruin it.
Let's set up an analogy. Imagine a country called Waterland that gets tons of rain and has plenty of lakes and rivers. Since everyone has immediate access to water, there is no market for the stuff. The price of water is zero. Say that the government establishes control over the waterways and rainfall. It decides to limit the amount of water that is available to the citizens of Waterland. In response to this artificially-imposed scarcity, a market develops in which citizens buy and sell water among each other.
Markets are great. They allow those with too little of something to trade with those who are good at conserving what they need, both sides improving their lot in life. But this particular market should never have existed in the first place. Water is plentiful in Waterland, and so it should be a free good, not a market-traded one. The entire apparatus that has been built around the exchanging of water—informed dealers, speculators, exchanges, warehouses, networks for transporting water to and from market, auditors and lawyers involved in verifying water transactions—represents a waste. By consuming resources in constructing and operating the market, other more important projects never see the light of day. If the absurd water scarcity were to be removed, the market for water would disappear, freeing up resources for more socially beneficial uses.
Reserves, like water in the previous example, should by all rights be free. The only effort the Fed incurs in introducing a new unit of reserves into circulation is a keystroke or two. This means that the Fed can provide a bunch of new reserves, say by conducting open market operations, without incurring any costs whatsoever. As the Fed continues to mouse-click new reserves into existence, the demand that each individual bank has for reserves will eventually be satiated. Once that point is reached not a single bank will need to bid for the reserves of another bank, and so there will be no activity in the market for reserves. The fed funds market is effectively dead, as is currently the case.
Taylor wants to bring back the fed funds market. But this would mean putting an artificial constraint on the amount of reserves that the Fed supplies, much like Waterland's frivolous constraint on water. Banks, their satiation for reserves now being replaced by an artificial hunger, would suddenly be willing to pay a fee to other banks in order to get their hands on some reserves.
A whole fed funds trading apparatus would re-emerge. Traders would have to be hired and trained to to fill newly-formed fed funds desks. Bank resources would be diverted away from other valuable projects towards plotting the best way to time outgoing payments, the idea being to reduce the need to hold reserves in order to lend them out in the fed funds market. The Fed itself would have to rehire Peter Fisher to run its open market desk. All of this would be an expensive investment of time and money, diverting resources from other more socially beneficial activities.
In calling for a return to the days of an active fed funds market, it is as if Taylor were advocating for an artificial constraint to Waterland's supply of water, solely because he admired the market for water that emerged. Never mind that the whole water trading apparatus, though wonderfully efficient, represents a massive missallocation of resources. Given that I'm pretty sure Taylor would not want to kickstart a water market in a hypothetical Waterland, I don't understand why he is so keen to reboot the fed funds market.