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Liquidity Problems Are Closer Than You Think

Liquidity Problems Are Closer Than You Think

Authored by Michael Lebowitz via,

In 2019, the Fed cut interest rates…



Liquidity Problems Are Closer Than You Think

Authored by Michael Lebowitz via,

In 2019, the Fed cut interest rates and restarted QE despite a healthy economy. Today, inflation is higher than the Fed’s target, economic growth is above historical trends, and financial markets display complacency and exuberance. Yet, the Fed is talking about cutting rates and reducing QT. The only rationale for them in such an environment must be a concern with potential liquidity problems, as the declining balances in the Fed’s Reverse Repurchase Program (RRP) suggest.

Before discussing RRP and what it might foretell, it’s worth appreciating that a good understanding of the Fed’s policy tools is vital for investors.

Why The Fed Is So Important For Investors

Twenty to thirty years ago, very few investors needed to understand the Fed’s monetary plumbing. The Fed was undoubtedly important, but its actions were not nearly as closely followed or impactful as they are now. Investor success, whether in real estate, stocks, bonds, or almost any other financial asset, now hinges on understanding the Fed’s inner workings.

Total debt is growing much faster than the economy’s collective income. To facilitate such a divergence and try to avoid liquidity problems, the Fed has increasingly employed lower interest rates and balance sheet machinations (QE). Numerous bank and investor bailouts have also helped.

 As the country becomes more leveraged, the Fed’s importance will increase.

What is the RRP?

A repurchase agreement, better known as a repo, is a loan collateralized by a security. The Fed’s RRP is a loan in which the Fed borrows money from primary dealers, banks, money market funds, and government-sponsored enterprises. The term of the loan is one day.

The program provides money market investors with a place to invest overnight funds.

What Does RRP Accomplish?

Think of RRP as money market supply offered to help balance the supply-demand curve for overnight funds.

During the pandemic, the Fed bought about $5 trillion of Treasury and mortgage bonds from Wall Street. As a result, a massive amount of liquidity was injected into the financial system. Since banks did not use all the liquidity to make loans or buy longer-term assets, financial institutions had excess liquidity that needed to be invested in the money markets. The result was downward pressure on short-term yields.

The Fed raised its Fed Funds overnight rate to help combat inflation. But, with the excess funds sloshing around the market, hitting their target rate would prove difficult. RRP allowed the Fed to meet its target.

The Current Status Of RRP

At its peak, the RRP facility reached $2.5 trillion. Since then, it has decreased steadily. Currently, it is half a trillion dollars and will likely fall to near zero in the coming months. Essentially, the market is absorbing excess liquidity. Over the last year, excess liquidity has been needed by the Treasury to fund its swiftly growing debt and to help the market absorb the bonds coming off the Fed’s balance sheet via QT.

Excess Liquidity Is Vanishing

It’s difficult to experience liquidity problems when liquidity is abundant. The extreme actions of the Fed in 2020 and 2021 made it much easier for the banking system, financial markets, and economy to handle much higher interest rates and $95 billion a month of QT.

However, excess liquidity is diminishing rapidly.

So, what type of problems occur when the excess liquidity is gone? For starters, banks will still have to use their reserves to help the Treasury issue debt and absorb the Fed’s balance sheet decline. Such actions will force liquidity to migrate from other parts of the financial system to the Fed and Treasury. Without RRP to draw funds from, banks will have to tighten lending standards for consumer and corporate loans. Further, they may likely pull back on margin debt offered to speculative investors.

The cost of higher interest rates and QT will likely be felt at this point.

Revisiting 2019

In 2019, Treasury-backed repo interest rates between banks and other investors were trading well above uncollateralized Fed Funds. Such a circumstance didn’t make sense.

As a hypothetical example, JP Morgan was lending Bank of America money overnight at 5.50% with no security (collateral) despite a hedge fund willing to borrow at 5.75% fully secured with Treasury bonds. Yes, Bank of America has a better credit rating and lower default risk, but the hedge fund is pledging risk-free collateral. While small, the odds of JP Morgan losing money in this example are greater for the Bank of America loan than the hedge fund repo trade.

At the time, the Fed was raising rates and reducing their balance sheet for the prior year and a half. Liquidity was becoming a big problem. There was no RRP to draw liquidity from to offset QT. Simply, liquidity was lacking.

To combat the liquidity shortage, the Fed added liquidity by reducing the Fed Funds rate and re-engaging in QE. It’s important to remind you that they took these actions while the economy was in good shape and broader financial markets showed little to worry about.

The graph below highlights when the Fed quickly reversed course.

2019 is very relevant because similar problems may arise as the excess liquidity from the pandemic finally exits the system.

The Fed Is Prepping For Liquidity Problems

The Fed appears to be aware of potential liquidity shortfalls. Over the last month, they have started discussing reducing their monthly amounts of QT. A formal announcement could come as early as the March 20th FOMC meeting.

Such discussions and planning occur even though inflation is still above target, the economy is growing faster than the trend, and the stock market is near record highs. Under those circumstances, one would think the Fed would maintain its tight monetary policy.

The Fed is aware that large institutional investors have to sell assets to reduce leverage if there isn’t sufficient liquidity. Such collective actions could significantly weigh on financial asset prices and, ultimately, the economy.

To wit, consider a recent article by the New York Fed. In The Financial Stability Outlook, author Anna Kovner states the following:

Achieving a strong U.S. economy and stable prices is paramount, and remaining aware of the impact of policy choices on the financial system is a key ingredient to maintaining the ability to execute policy. To close with the snow metaphor I began with, if there is a blizzard in March, we will be prepared to dig out quickly, plow the streets, and get back to work.

March is not just a random date. March is when the RRP program is expected to fall to near zero!

Will The Fed Know When Liquidity Is No Longer “Ample”?

No magic number or calculation tells the Fed when excess liquidity is gone. Furthermore, they will only know when liquidity becomes insufficient after the money markets have reacted negatively.

Dallas Fed President Lorie Logan recently made that clear. Per a speech she gave on March 1, 2024:

The challenge today is knowing how far to go in normalizing the balance sheet. In 2019, the FOMC decided that it would operate in the long run with a version of the floor system where reserves are “ample.” The word “ample” suggests comfortably but efficiently meeting banks’ demand. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Friedman rule provides a guide to the efficient supply of reserves in the ample-reserves regime. Banks’ opportunity cost of holding reserves should be approximately equal to the central bank’s cost of supplying reserves.

Further, she notes:

So, I don’t think we can identify the ample level in advance. We’ll need to feel our way to it by observing money market spreads and volatility.


Excessive amounts of debt support our economy and asset valuations. Therefore, the Fed has no choice but to keep the liquidity pumps flowing to support the leverage.

As in 2019, the Fed will likely take stimulative policy actions to provide liquidity despite an economic and inflation environment where policy should remain tight. 

Keep a close eye on the excess liquidity gauge RRP and be aware of irregular activity in the money markets.

Tyler Durden Wed, 03/06/2024 - 09:40

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Comments on February Employment Report

The headline jobs number in the February employment report was above expectations; however, December and January payrolls were revised down by 167,000 combined.   The participation rate was unchanged, the employment population ratio decreased, and the …



The headline jobs number in the February employment report was above expectations; however, December and January payrolls were revised down by 167,000 combined.   The participation rate was unchanged, the employment population ratio decreased, and the unemployment rate was increased to 3.9%.

Leisure and hospitality gained 58 thousand jobs in February.  At the beginning of the pandemic, in March and April of 2020, leisure and hospitality lost 8.2 million jobs, and are now down 17 thousand jobs since February 2020.  So, leisure and hospitality has now essentially added back all of the jobs lost in March and April 2020. 

Construction employment increased 23 thousand and is now 547 thousand above the pre-pandemic level. 

Manufacturing employment decreased 4 thousand jobs and is now 184 thousand above the pre-pandemic level.

Prime (25 to 54 Years Old) Participation

Since the overall participation rate is impacted by both cyclical (recession) and demographic (aging population, younger people staying in school) reasons, here is the employment-population ratio for the key working age group: 25 to 54 years old.

The 25 to 54 years old participation rate increased in February to 83.5% from 83.3% in January, and the 25 to 54 employment population ratio increased to 80.7% from 80.6% the previous month.

Both are above pre-pandemic levels.

Average Hourly Wages

WagesThe graph shows the nominal year-over-year change in "Average Hourly Earnings" for all private employees from the Current Employment Statistics (CES).  

There was a huge increase at the beginning of the pandemic as lower paid employees were let go, and then the pandemic related spike reversed a year later.

Wage growth has trended down after peaking at 5.9% YoY in March 2022 and was at 4.3% YoY in February.   

Part Time for Economic Reasons

Part Time WorkersFrom the BLS report:
"The number of people employed part time for economic reasons, at 4.4 million, changed little in February. These individuals, who would have preferred full-time employment, were working part time because their hours had been reduced or they were unable to find full-time jobs."
The number of persons working part time for economic reasons decreased in February to 4.36 million from 4.42 million in February. This is slightly above pre-pandemic levels.

These workers are included in the alternate measure of labor underutilization (U-6) that increased to 7.3% from 7.2% in the previous month. This is down from the record high in April 2020 of 23.0% and up from the lowest level on record (seasonally adjusted) in December 2022 (6.5%). (This series started in 1994). This measure is above the 7.0% level in February 2020 (pre-pandemic).

Unemployed over 26 Weeks

Unemployed Over 26 WeeksThis graph shows the number of workers unemployed for 27 weeks or more.

According to the BLS, there are 1.203 million workers who have been unemployed for more than 26 weeks and still want a job, down from 1.277 million the previous month.

This is down from post-pandemic high of 4.174 million, and up from the recent low of 1.050 million.

This is close to pre-pandemic levels.

Job Streak

Through February 2024, the employment report indicated positive job growth for 38 consecutive months, putting the current streak in 5th place of the longest job streaks in US history (since 1939).

Headline Jobs, Top 10 Streaks
Year EndedStreak, Months
6 tie194333
6 tie198633
6 tie200033
1Currrent Streak


The headline monthly jobs number was above consensus expectations; however, December and January payrolls were revised down by 167,000 combined.  The participation rate was unchanged, the employment population ratio decreased, and the unemployment rate was increased to 3.9%.  Another solid report.

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Immune cells can adapt to invading pathogens, deciding whether to fight now or prepare for the next battle

When faced with a threat, T cells have the decision-making flexibility to both clear out the pathogen now and ready themselves for a future encounter.

Understanding the flexibility of T cell memory can lead to improved vaccines and immunotherapies. Juan Gaertner/Science Photo Library via Getty Images

How does your immune system decide between fighting invading pathogens now or preparing to fight them in the future? Turns out, it can change its mind.

Every person has 10 million to 100 million unique T cells that have a critical job in the immune system: patrolling the body for invading pathogens or cancerous cells to eliminate. Each of these T cells has a unique receptor that allows it to recognize foreign proteins on the surface of infected or cancerous cells. When the right T cell encounters the right protein, it rapidly forms many copies of itself to destroy the offending pathogen.

Diagram depicting a helper T cell differentiating into either a memory T cell or an effector T cell after exposure to an antigen
T cells can differentiate into different subtypes of cells after coming into contact with an antigen. Anatomy & Physiology/SBCCOE, CC BY-NC-SA

Importantly, this process of proliferation gives rise to both short-lived effector T cells that shut down the immediate pathogen attack and long-lived memory T cells that provide protection against future attacks. But how do T cells decide whether to form cells that kill pathogens now or protect against future infections?

We are a team of bioengineers studying how immune cells mature. In our recently published research, we found that having multiple pathways to decide whether to kill pathogens now or prepare for future invaders boosts the immune system’s ability to effectively respond to different types of challenges.

Fight or remember?

To understand when and how T cells decide to become effector cells that kill pathogens or memory cells that prepare for future infections, we took movies of T cells dividing in response to a stimulus mimicking an encounter with a pathogen.

Specifically, we tracked the activity of a gene called T cell factor 1, or TCF1. This gene is essential for the longevity of memory cells. We found that stochastic, or probabilistic, silencing of the TCF1 gene when cells confront invading pathogens and inflammation drives an early decision between whether T cells become effector or memory cells. Exposure to higher levels of pathogens or inflammation increases the probability of forming effector cells.

Surprisingly, though, we found that some effector cells that had turned off TCF1 early on were able to turn it back on after clearing the pathogen, later becoming memory cells.

Through mathematical modeling, we determined that this flexibility in decision making among memory T cells is critical to generating the right number of cells that respond immediately and cells that prepare for the future, appropriate to the severity of the infection.

Understanding immune memory

The proper formation of persistent, long-lived T cell memory is critical to a person’s ability to fend off diseases ranging from the common cold to COVID-19 to cancer.

From a social and cognitive science perspective, flexibility allows people to adapt and respond optimally to uncertain and dynamic environments. Similarly, for immune cells responding to a pathogen, flexibility in decision making around whether to become memory cells may enable greater responsiveness to an evolving immune challenge.

Memory cells can be subclassified into different types with distinct features and roles in protective immunity. It’s possible that the pathway where memory cells diverge from effector cells early on and the pathway where memory cells form from effector cells later on give rise to particular subtypes of memory cells.

Our study focuses on T cell memory in the context of acute infections the immune system can successfully clear in days, such as cold, the flu or food poisoning. In contrast, chronic conditions such as HIV and cancer require persistent immune responses; long-lived, memory-like cells are critical for this persistence. Our team is investigating whether flexible memory decision making also applies to chronic conditions and whether we can leverage that flexibility to improve cancer immunotherapy.

Resolving uncertainty surrounding how and when memory cells form could help improve vaccine design and therapies that boost the immune system’s ability to provide long-term protection against diverse infectious diseases.

Kathleen Abadie was funded by a NSF (National Science Foundation) Graduate Research Fellowships. She performed this research in affiliation with the University of Washington Department of Bioengineering.

Elisa Clark performed her research in affiliation with the University of Washington (UW) Department of Bioengineering and was funded by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF-GRFP) and by a predoctoral fellowship through the UW Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM).

Hao Yuan Kueh receives funding from the National Institutes of Health.

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Stock indexes are breaking records and crossing milestones – making many investors feel wealthier

The S&P 500 topped 5,000 on Feb. 9, 2024, for the first time. The Dow Jones Industrial Average will probably hit a new big round number soon t…




Major stock indexes were hitting or nearing records in February 2024, as they were in early 2020 when this TV chyron appeared. AP Photo/Richard Drew

The S&P 500 stock index topped 5,000 for the first time on Feb. 9, 2024, exciting some investors and garnering a flurry of media coverage. The Conversation asked Alexander Kurov, a financial markets scholar, to explain what stock indexes are and to say whether this kind of milestone is a big deal or not.

What are stock indexes?

Stock indexes measure the performance of a group of stocks. When prices rise or fall overall for the shares of those companies, so do stock indexes. The number of stocks in those baskets varies, as does the system for how this mix of shares gets updated.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average, also known as the Dow, includes shares in the 30 U.S. companies with the largest market capitalization – meaning the total value of all the stock belonging to shareholders. That list currently spans companies from Apple to Walt Disney Co.

The S&P 500 tracks shares in 500 of the largest U.S. publicly traded companies.

The Nasdaq composite tracks performance of more than 2,500 stocks listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange.

The DJIA, launched on May 26, 1896, is the oldest of these three popular indexes, and it was one of the first established.

Two enterprising journalists, Charles H. Dow and Edward Jones, had created a different index tied to the railroad industry a dozen years earlier. Most of the 12 stocks the DJIA originally included wouldn’t ring many bells today, such as Chicago Gas and National Lead. But one company that only got booted in 2018 had stayed on the list for 120 years: General Electric.

The S&P 500 index was introduced in 1957 because many investors wanted an option that was more representative of the overall U.S. stock market. The Nasdaq composite was launched in 1971.

You can buy shares in an index fund that mirrors a particular index. This approach can diversify your investments and make them less prone to big losses.

Index funds, which have only existed since Vanguard Group founder John Bogle launched the first one in 1976, now hold trillions of dollars .

Why are there so many?

There are hundreds of stock indexes in the world, but only about 50 major ones.

Most of them, including the Nasdaq composite and the S&P 500, are value-weighted. That means stocks with larger market values account for a larger share of the index’s performance.

In addition to these broad-based indexes, there are many less prominent ones. Many of those emphasize a niche by tracking stocks of companies in specific industries like energy or finance.

Do these milestones matter?

Stock prices move constantly in response to corporate, economic and political news, as well as changes in investor psychology. Because company profits will typically grow gradually over time, the market usually fluctuates in the short term, while increasing in value over the long term.

The DJIA first reached 1,000 in November 1972, and it crossed the 10,000 mark on March 29, 1999. On Jan. 22, 2024, it surpassed 38,000 for the first time. Investors and the media will treat the new record set when it gets to another round number – 40,000 – as a milestone.

The S&P 500 index had never hit 5,000 before. But it had already been breaking records for several weeks.

Because there’s a lot of randomness in financial markets, the significance of round-number milestones is mostly psychological. There is no evidence they portend any further gains.

For example, the Nasdaq composite first hit 5,000 on March 10, 2000, at the end of the dot-com bubble.

The index then plunged by almost 80% by October 2002. It took 15 years – until March 3, 2015 – for it return to 5,000.

By mid-February 2024, the Nasdaq composite was nearing its prior record high of 16,057 set on Nov. 19, 2021.

Index milestones matter to the extent they pique investors’ attention and boost market sentiment.

Investors afflicted with a fear of missing out may then invest more in stocks, pushing stock prices to new highs. Chasing after stock trends may destabilize markets by moving prices away from their underlying values.

When a stock index passes a new milestone, investors become more aware of their growing portfolios. Feeling richer can lead them to spend more.

This is called the wealth effect. Many economists believe that the consumption boost that arises in response to a buoyant stock market can make the economy stronger.

Is there a best stock index to follow?

Not really. They all measure somewhat different things and have their own quirks.

For example, the S&P 500 tracks many different industries. However, because it is value-weighted, it’s heavily influenced by only seven stocks with very large market values.

Known as the “Magnificent Seven,” shares in Amazon, Apple, Alphabet, Meta, Microsoft, Nvidia and Tesla now account for over one-fourth of the S&P 500’s value. Nearly all are in the tech sector, and they played a big role in pushing the S&P across the 5,000 mark.

This makes the index more concentrated on a single sector than it appears.

But if you check out several stock indexes rather than just one, you’ll get a good sense of how the market is doing. If they’re all rising quickly or breaking records, that’s a clear sign that the market as a whole is gaining.

Sometimes the smartest thing is to not pay too much attention to any of them.

For example, after hitting record highs on Feb. 19, 2020, the S&P 500 plunged by 34% in just 23 trading days due to concerns about what COVID-19 would do to the economy. But the market rebounded, with stock indexes hitting new milestones and notching new highs by the end of that year.

Panicking in response to short-term market swings would have made investors more likely to sell off their investments in too big a hurry – a move they might have later regretted. This is why I believe advice from the immensely successful investor and fan of stock index funds Warren Buffett is worth heeding.

Buffett, whose stock-selecting prowess has made him one of the world’s 10 richest people, likes to say “Don’t watch the market closely.”

If you’re reading this because stock prices are falling and you’re wondering if you should be worried about that, consider something else Buffett has said: “The light can at any time go from green to red without pausing at yellow.”

And the opposite is true as well.

Alexander Kurov does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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