Banks don’t “lend out” excess reserves

I recently came across this S&P report by S&P’s Chief Global Economist Paul Sheard debunking common misunderstandings about the Federal Reserve, QE and excess reserves. I’m posting it here to clear up misinformation about what banks do with their excess reserves at the Fed. I’ve definitely been led astray in the past by economists regarding this matter.

The key point, however, is that the existence of excess reserves in the banking system does not loosen any reserve constraint on the ability of banks to lend because there was no reserve constraint to begin with (of course, the stance of monetary policy, notably the interest-rate policy decision, does affect the demand for bank lending and the willingness of banks to lend, but, to repeat, given the interest-rate setting, the central bank supplies whatever reserves are demanded).

It might be asked: if banks cannot lend the excess reserves that the central bank provides, what is the point of the central bank supplying them? The answer to that question is simply that QE does serve to ease financial conditions. Technically, QE allows the central bank to change the composition of the aggregate portfolio held by the private sector; the central bank takes out of that portfolio the government debt and other securities it buys and replaces them with reserves and bank deposits (the latter when it buys assets directly from the public or its nonbank financial intermediaries) (10). This has an easing effect via so-called “portfolio rebalance effects,” including but not limited to the associated downward pressure that QE puts on the yield curve (11).

When the Federal Reserve buys treasuries via open market operations, they credit the sellers’ accounts at the Fed in order to complete the transaction. This drives up the level of excess reserves participating banks have on account with the Fed. These reserves will never be lent out unless, for some strange reason, banks start handing out cash whenever they lend. This doesn’t happen because, as Sheard explains earlier in the essay, banks create credit out of thin air–not out of reserves. As he explains, “Loans create deposits, not the other way around.” The only way for reserves to shrink is for the public’s demand to hold physical cash increased.