Fed brings out the big bazooka

The Fed is on a war footing.

The FOMC announced that it will cut the funds rate to zero. Timing of the announcement — Sunday, March 15th at 5:00 p.m. — signals the level of urgency.

“Consistent with its statutory mandate, the [FOMC] Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability. The effects of the coronavirus will weigh on economic activity in the near term and pose risks to the economic outlook. In light of these developments, the Committee decided to lower the target range for the federal funds rate to 0 to 1/4 percent. The Committee expects to maintain this target range until it is confident that the economy has weathered recent events and is on track to achieve its maximum employment and price stability goals.”

Bond markets have been anticipating this cut since March 4th, when the 3-month T-bill rate plunged to 33 basis points.

Fed Funds Rate, Interest on Excess Reserves and 3-Month T-bills

The Fed also announced further QE of $700 billion, expanding its balance sheet by $500 billion in Treasury securities and $200 billion in mortgage-backed securities (MBS). This is in addition to the $1.5 trillion repo operations announced earlier in the week.

Fed Balance Sheet: Total Assets and Excess Reserves on Deposit

In a related announcement, the Fed is also encouraging banks to use the discount window, cutting the primary credit rate by 150 basis points to 0.25 percent, effective March 16, 2020.

“Narrowing the spread of the primary credit rate relative to the general level of overnight interest rates should help encourage more active use of the window by depository institutions to meet unexpected funding needs. To further enhance the role of the discount window as a tool for banks in addressing potential funding pressures, the Board also today announced that depository institutions may borrow from the discount window for periods as long as 90 days, prepayable and renewable by the borrower on a daily basis. The Federal Reserve continues to accept the same broad range of collateral for discount window loans…”

Not all the $1.5T repo facility is likely to be taken up — the Fed just used a big number for dramatic effect, to get everyone’s attention — but we expect the Fed’s balance sheet expansion to get close to $6 trillion (compared to $4.3T on March 11th) before this is over.

While these rescue operations are normally announced as temporary, they soon become permanent as the market resists any efforts to unwind the Fed’s role.

As I said on Saturday: “To infinity and beyond…