From an interview forthcoming in the Financial Analysts Journal.
Litterman: What impact will the big expansion in the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet have on the markets?
Fama: It has basically rendered the Fed powerless to control inflation. In 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed, the Fed wanted to get the markets moving and made massive purchases of securities. The corollary to that activity, however, is that reserves issued by the Fed and held by banks exploded. An explosion in reserves causes an explosion in the price level unless interest is paid on the reserves. So, the Fed started to pay interest on its reserves, which means that the central bank issued bonds to buy bonds. I think it’s a largely neutral activity.
Before 2008, controlling inflation was a matter of controlling the monetary base (currency plus reserves). But when the central bank pays interest on its reserves, it is the currency supply that determines inflation. But banks can exchange currency for reserves on demand, which means the Fed cannot control the currency supply and inflation, or the price level, is out of its control. The Fed had the power to control inflation, but I don’t think it does under the current scenario.
Litterman: How does that relate to the debt issues that the United States is facing?
Fama: The debt issues are entirely different. The debt issues are about how much we want to sacrifice the future for the present and whether we get anything in the present for the future we’re sacrificing. This has been the big debate between the Keynesians and the non-Keynesians since 2008.
Litterman: But isn’t one way out of our debt problem to inflate it away?
Fama: Yes, that’s one way to handle it, but it’s far from a great solution. If the Fed were to stop paying interest on its reserves, we’d probably have a big inflation problem. The monetary base was about $150 billion before the Fed stepped in in 2008. Currency plus required reserves are still in that neighborhood, but the Fed is holding $2.5 trillion—trillion!—worth of debt financed almost entirely by excess reserves. The price level could expand by the ratio of those two numbers, and that translates into hyperinflation. Economies typically do not function well in hyperinflation. The real value of the government debt might disappear, but the economy is likely to disappear with it.
Litterman: What would your suggestion be for monetary or fiscal policy at this point?
Fama: Simple. Balance the budget. I heard a very prominent person say in private that we could balance the budget by going back to the level of government expenditures in 2007. The economy is currently about the size it was then. If you just rolled expenditures back to that point, I think it would come close to balancing the budget.