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Year In Numbers: The Federal Reserve's $85 Billion Question

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Year In Numbers: The Federal Reserve's $85 Billion Question

Year In Numbers: The Federal Reserve's $85 Billion Question

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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On a Tuesday, this is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer. As 2013 wraps up, NPR is looking at numbers that tell this year's story. When it comes to the economy, $85 billion is a good, round number. That's the amount the Federal Reserve has been pumping into the financial system each month, trying to stimulate growth and bring down unemployment.

Today, Fed policymakers begin a two-day meeting at which they'll decide whether to dial back that stimulus. As NPR's John Ydstie reports, there's another, much smaller number that could keep them from doing that.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Many economists and investors think there's a good chance that at the end of their meeting on Wednesday, Fed policymakers will announce they'll begin reducing their $85 billion monthly stimulus - their third round of quantitative easing, or QE3. The analysts think recent economic data - like a drop in the unemployment rate to 7 percent, and a budget deal in Washington - have brightened the outlook for the economy enough that the Fed can pull back.

But there's another, troubling number that could make Fed policymakers stand pat, says University of Chicago professor and former Fed governor Randy Kroszner. That number is the inflation rate.

RANDY KROSZNER: Inflation being far below where the Fed wants it to be, is a major reason why they may hesitate.

YDSTIE: Princeton economist Alan Blinder points that strangely, during a period when the Fed has pumped trillions of dollars into the financial system, inflation has drifted lower.

ALAN BLINDER: Inflation has, in fact, fallen, on average, over the last five years.

YDSTIE: The most recent measurement shows that core inflation, in a basket of consumer goods through the 12 months ending in October, was running at just 1.7 percent. That's below the Fed's target of 2.0 percent, and it's been drifting downward this year.

Blinder, a former vice chairman of the Fed, says this falling inflation is an extraordinary development, given the trillions of dollars the Fed has pumped into the financial system. Economics textbooks say that's a recipe for inflation. So what happened to that $85 billion a month - a trillion dollars total - that the Fed has pumped into the financial system over the past year? Blinder has this answer.

BLINDER: It all of it got bottled up in the banks and essentially, none of it - practically none of it - got lent out.

YDSTIE: Blinder says the banks are the key to making quantitative easing work. And here's how: The Fed announces it wants to buy $85 billion each month in government bonds and mortgage-backed securities. Blinder says banks line up to sell them, and the Fed pays the banks by putting money in their reserve accounts at the Federal Reserve.

BLINDER: You can think of these as the deposits that banks hold at the Federal Reserve, which is a bank for them.

YDSTIE: But unless the banks lend those deposits or invest them, they don't get into the economy, they don't enter the money supply, and they don't contribute to inflation. But if banks aren't lending, there's no boost the economy, either - which after all, is the Fed's main goal. So Blinder asks, why aren't the banks lending?

BLINDER: This is the $64 trillion question; the deep, deep mystery to me. Now, in bits and pieces, we understand that. But I think in large measure, we don't understand it.

YDSTIE: Blinder says one part we understand is that the banks were burned by the financial crisis and are much more cautious about lending. Another factor, he says, is that the banks have some incentive to leave their reserves safely at the Fed because the central bank pays them interest. It's only a quarter of a percent annually, but Blinder thinks the Fed should stop doing that to encourage banks to lend.

Randy Kroszner thinks there's a different reason banks aren't lending.

KROSZNER: I think there's just relatively low demand from small- and medium-size business right now for borrowing.

YDSTIE: That's what a recent survey from the National Federation of Independent Businesses found.

But what if the economy picks up? Banks and businesses become more confident, lending booms and the trillions in bank reserves began moving into the economy. Both Blinder and Kroszner say the Fed has the tools to remove the reserves safely before inflation flares. Policymakers could begin the process at today's meeting, by deciding to dial back the $85 billion in monthly stimulus.

John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

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