The Fed Bought What?
The US Federal Reserve injected $38 billion dollars into the economy via temporary open market operations this Friday. This is the largest number of temporary repurchase agreements (specifically, one business day repos) entered into by the Fed since September 11, 2001. Back in 2001, Fed purchases of treasuries exceeded $30 billion for the four consecutive days after the collapse of the World Trade Towers, total temporary injections into the banking system amounting to a whopping $295 billion.
What is significant about Friday's repurchase agreements is not so much their size, but the securities that the Fed exchanged for money: mortgage-backed securities (MBS). Indeed, the entire $38 billion dollar injection went to MBS purchases, the largest open market purchase of this asset type ever conducted by the Fed, smashing the previous record of $8.6 billion set back in September of 2005. See chart, above.
The type of mortgage-backed securities the Fed bought are created when bundles of individual mortgages originated by commercial banks are guaranteed by quasi-governmental agencies such as the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) and Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae), then split apart and sold to investors. Homeowners pay interest on these mortgages, interest payments flowing through to the final holders of MBS.
For those who have gone through the Economics 101 treatment of the Fed, the sudden appearance of MBS in Fed open market operations might seem odd. Professors have always taught that when the Fed expanded the money supply it did so by buying government bonds and bills. Indeed back in September 2001, the Fed provided liquidity by buying what it has always traditionally bought; treasury securities. So why is the Fed buying MBS now, and when did it acquire the authority to do so?
First a note on how open market purchases work. The Fed uses what are called open market operations to control the Federal Funds rate, the rate at which large commercial banks lend cash to each other overnight to fulfil their reserve requirements to the Fed. The Fed sets a target for the federal funds rate and defends it by either withdrawing or injecting money according to the requirements of commercial banks. It injects by buying securities from the banks with freshly created checking deposits, or money. This injection increases the reserves commercial banks hold, allowing these banks to expand credit to businesses and consumers. The Fed withdraws money by selling securities to commercial banks and receiving money as payment, thereby reducing reserves and removing credit from the system.
The Fed conducts both temporary open market operations and permanent ones. Permanent, or outright operations, inject cash and remove securities from the banking system forever. The Fed keeps the securities it has acquired outright in the System Open Market Account, aptly initialed SOMA (in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, the drug soma is produced to keep citizens in a steady state of happiness, much like the Fed's SOMA). Temporary operations, the ones entered into this Friday, involve 1–14 day repurchase or reverse repurchase agreements whereby the Fed purchases (or sells) securities in return for cash with an agreement that the commercial bank on the other side of the deal will buy back (or sell back) the securities after a period of days.
Temporary reverse repurchase operations, the short-term withdrawal of money from the banking system, are rare. The Fed has only engaged in 16 reverse repos since late 2000, versus 1247 repurchases. This imbalance means that the Fed is almost always augmenting commercial bank reserves by buying securities, allowing the banks to use their larger reserves to expand credit and borrowing. Thus the rate defended by the Fed is lower than the rate at which the commercial banks would be willing to lend each other if the Fed did not exist.
Back to Friday's MBS purchases. Historically, the Fed's open market operations have been confined to US Treasuries. Clauses 3 to 6 of the Guidelines for the Conduct of System Operations in Federal Agency Issues ensured that Federal Reserve operations could not engage in temporary purchases of securities issued by federal agencies like Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
In an August 1999 Fed meeting officials temporarily suspended clauses 3 to 6, giving themselves the authority to freely purchase Ginnie Mae–, Freddie Mac–, and Fannie Mae–issued MBS on a provisional basis without hindrance on size and timing. The reason given: it needed full reign to inject money into the banking system in preparation for the year 2000 crisis. The period for which the temporary suspension was to extend was from October 1, 1999 through April 7, 2000.
The year 2000 crisis proved a dud. But rather than removing the temporary suspension on buying MBS, the Fed renewed the suspension in 2000 and 2001 before permanently striking off clauses 3 to 6 in 2002. In recent Fed documents, only clauses 1 and 2 are listed. This storyline may sound familiar to Fed watchers. The Fed was founded in response to the crisis of 1907, and had its ability to increase the money supply dramatically increased during another crisis, the Great Depression, where gold convertibility was suspended.
Since the Orwellian rewriting of the Guidelines the Fed has been gradually expanding its MBS purchases, which reached a crescendo this Friday. This (relatively) new power of the Fed is startling given the current liquidity crisis prevailing in the mortgage markets of late. By openly stating its willingness to buy thousands of mortgages and temporarily to expose itself to the financial health (or lack thereof) of the homeowning public, and doing so when the rest of the world is shunning them, the Fed is propping up mortgage markets, and thereby the housing market. This despite the fact that open market operations are not supposed to support individual sectors of the market or channel funds into issues of particular agenciess
While the purchases are only temporary — the cash must be returned by Monday — one wonders how long before the Fed grants itself the power to buy MBS permanently. Either way, the Fed's response shows that it is worried about the growing mortgage crises and willing to do anything to buy its way out of it. Unfortunately, by buying up MBS and propping up the market the Fed will only cause more harm than it already has.
 Data available at http://www.newyorkfed.org/markets/omo/dmm/historical/tomo/search.cfm
 Clause 2 of Guidelines for the Conduct of System Operations in Federal Agency Issues