While there wasn't much of interest, or much good news, related to money market funds, Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Ben Bernanke's speech Friday at the Kansas City Fed's Economic Symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming did contain some interesting tidbits on the Fed's extended period language and on lowering interest on excess reserves. Bernanke's "The Economic Outlook and Monetary Policy," says about Federal Reserve Policy, "In 2008 and 2009, the Federal Reserve, along with policymakers around the world, took extraordinary actions to arrest the financial crisis and help restore normal functioning in key financial markets, a precondition for economic stabilization. To provide further support for the economic recovery while maintaining price stability, the Fed has also taken extraordinary measures to ease monetary and financial conditions."

It continues, "Notably, since December 2008, the FOMC has held its target for the federal funds rate in a range of 0 to 25 basis points. Moreover, since March 2009, the Committee has consistently stated its expectation that economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low policy rates for an extended period. Partially in response to FOMC communications, futures markets quotes suggest that investors are not anticipating significant policy tightening by the Federal Reserve for quite some time. Market expectations for continued accommodative policy have in turn helped reduce interest rates on a range of short- and medium-term financial instruments to quite low levels, indeed not far above the zero lower bound on nominal interest rates in many cases."

Regarding "Policy Options for Further Easing," Bernanke says, "Notwithstanding the fact that the policy rate is near its zero lower bound, the Federal Reserve retains a number of tools and strategies for providing additional stimulus. I will focus here on three that have been part of recent staff analyses and discussion at FOMC meetings: (1) conducting additional purchases of longer-term securities, (2) modifying the Committee's communication, and (3) reducing the interest paid on excess reserves. I will also comment on a fourth strategy, proposed by several economists -- namely, that the FOMC increase its inflation goals."

He explains, "A second policy option for the FOMC would be to ease financial conditions through its communication, for example, by modifying its post-meeting statement. As I noted, the statement currently reflects the FOMC's anticipation that exceptionally low rates will be warranted 'for an extended period,' contingent on economic conditions. A step the Committee could consider, if conditions called for it, would be to modify the language in the statement to communicate to investors that it anticipates keeping the target for the federal funds rate low for a longer period than is currently priced in markets. Such a change would presumably lower longer-term rates by an amount related to the revision in policy expectations."

Bernanke continues, "A third option for further monetary policy easing is to lower the rate of interest that the Fed pays banks on the reserves they hold with the Federal Reserve System. Inside the Fed this rate is known as the IOER rate, the 'interest on excess reserves' rate. The IOER rate, currently set at 25 basis points, could be reduced to, say, 10 basis points or even to zero. On the margin, a reduction in the IOER rate would provide banks with an incentive to increase their lending to nonfinancial borrowers or to participants in short-term money markets, reducing short-term interest rates further and possibly leading to some expansion in money and credit aggregates. However, under current circumstances, the effect of reducing the IOER rate on financial conditions in isolation would likely be relatively small."

Finally, he adds, "The federal funds rate is currently averaging between 15 and 20 basis points and would almost certainly remain positive after the reduction in the IOER rate. Cutting the IOER rate even to zero would be unlikely therefore to reduce the federal funds rate by more than 10 to 15 basis points. The effect on longer-term rates would probably be even less, although that effect would depend in part on the signal that market participants took from the action about the likely future course of policy. Moreover, such an action could disrupt some key financial markets and institutions. Importantly for the Fed's purposes, a further reduction in very short-term interest rates could lead short-term money markets such as the federal funds market to become much less liquid, as near-zero returns might induce many participants and market-makers to exit. In normal times the Fed relies heavily on a well-functioning federal funds market to implement monetary policy, so we would want to be careful not to do permanent damage to that market."

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