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Are the Excess Reserves Finally Leaking Out?

April 22, 2010

For a while I have been warning that one way the (price) inflation genie will get out of the bottle, is that banks will take some of their incredible excess reserves and buy Treasury debt (as opposed to granting new loans to customers). The trillion+ that Bernanke has injected into the banking sector would then start trickling out into the “real economy” via federal government spending.

So you can imagine my alarm when I read this story from CNBC:

Surprisingly strong Treasury auctions in March had help from banks, which normally stay away from such events.

Banks snapped up $5.7 billion of the total $34 billion auctioned in 10-year notes and 30-year bonds, providing demand for auctions that many analysts thought would flop…

“The pattern suggests that banks have been starting to put their large cash balances to work, but is not an indication that bank balance sheets as a whole have started to grow,” Deutsche Bank said in a research note.

The suggestion is that banks are using Treasurys as a way to get some return on their money that they might otherwise reap from making loans.

Yet combined with their purchase of agency-backed debt such as mortgages and student loans, banks bought a total of $40 billion from the Treasury in March, according to analysts at Deutsche Bank.

But there’s also another less-obvious reason banks could be stepping in to the Treasury market: A type of tacit quid pro quo with the Federal Reserve to keep short-term rates low by helping the government finance its debt through Treasury auctions.

Art Cashin, director of floor operations at UBS, noted after the 30-year auction suspicions among traders about who was doing the buying. In remarks to CNBC, he spoke of “all manner of conspiracy theories floating around. Is the Fed putting on a fake moustache and a raincoat and coming in as an indirect buyer?”

While there’s disagreement among analysts whether the actions are part of an explicit pact between the two sides, some suspect a gentleman’s agreement in which both sides benefit.

Now here’s the really interesting thing: Excess reserves fell about $41 billion in March. I don’t have the time to check all the possibilities, but it looks to me that my doomsday scenario is starting to play out.

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