The first chart above shows the level of C&I Loans outstanding (the most recent available data being March 5th), while the second chart shows the 3-mo. annualized rate of C&I Loan growth. Loans didn't really start to pick up until the second half of January, and since then they have expanded at a blistering 36.2% annualized rate. We have rarely seen such rapid growth in C&I Loans, so we can be reasonably sure that something big is happening. As David suggests, it is likely no coincidence that banks began stepping up the pace of their lending to the private sector shortly after the Fed started borrowing less from the banking system in early January. But is that the whole story? I doubt it.
As David explains it, now that banks are lending less to the Fed each month they have more money available to lend to the private sector, and this is why loan volume is accelerating. But there's another possible explanation: banks are lending more because they want to, and because the private sector is now more eager and/or less reluctant to borrow. Both of these developments—more willingness to lend, plus more willingness to borrow—could be coming together in a perfect storm that could result in a significant decline in money demand and an increase in money supply. That's the stuff of which higher inflation is made.
All of the money that banks have been lending to the Fed since 2008 has come, on balance, from a strong net inflow of savings deposits (see charts above). Banks essentially functioned as intermediaries, funneling a flood of savings deposits to the Fed in exchange for bank reserves. As evidence, I note that bank reserves have increased by $2.62 trillion since September 2008, thanks to the Fed's bond purchases, while bank savings deposits have increased by $3.15 trillion. At the risk of over-simplying what happened, since 2008 banks have taken in trillions of savings deposits, used the money to buy bonds, and then sold those bonds to the Fed in exchange for bank reserves. There was nothing untoward about any of this, from a monetary perspective, because inflation has remained low and relatively stable for the past several years.
As I began explaining one year ago, the Fed has effectively been borrowing money from the banking system in exchange for newly-minted bank reserves, which (very importantly) are not money but rather short-term, T-bill equivalent assets. This, David argues, has resulted in a mis-allocation of credit (from banks to the federal government), and that has worked to slow the economy, since the government has not used that credit as productively as the private sector could have. So, he goes on, as less of this happens (i.e., as the Fed continues to taper) the economy will benefit. That makes sense to me.
When confidence was low, and when households wanted to deleverage and boost their holdings of safe, short-term deposits, banks happily lent their deposit inflows to the Fed in exchange for bank reserves because they were averse to taking on the extra risk of lending to the private sector. But now, even though the Fed is buying $65 billion a month instead of the $85 billion per month it did beginning September, 2012, the Fed is beginning to compete with the private sector for credit: QE purchases are far in excess of savings deposit inflows. Until recently, banks had it easy—they simply lent their deposit inflows to the Fed. Now, in order to sell $65 billion of bonds to the Fed every month (though that is likely to soon fall to $55 billion per month, as the FOMC is likely to announce on March 19th), banks are going to have to scrounge up the money from other sources in order to buy the bonds the Fed wants to buy from them. Banks might even consider expanding their lending (actually, they already have), since they have enough reserves to back up an almost unlimited volume of loans. More lending equals more money creation (only banks can create "money") and more deposits, and those deposits can be used to buy bonds to sell to the Fed.
So there are more big things going on than simple tapering—which has only reduced the amount of bonds the Fed buys monthly from $85 billion to $65 billion. The big, unreported news is that the public's appetite for safe-haven assets and deposits has been diminishing at a much faster pace than the tapering of QE.
Until recently, banks have not been utilizing their bounty of bank reserves to fuel an explosion in lending because they have been very risk-averse. Since late 2008, they have preferred to lend their deposit inflows to the Fed, even though they pay only 0.25%. Not only have banks been reluctant to lend to the private sector, but the private sector has been very reluctant to borrow—households' leverage has declined significantly in the past four years, as the chart below shows. According to the Fed's Flow of Funds data, household liabilities haven't grown at all for the past several years, even as incomes and jobs have increased. And as one of the charts above shows, bank lending to small and medium-sized businesses has only recently increased from pre-recession levels.
Fed tapering is still relatively new news, but confidence has been slowly returning for quite some time, as evidenced by the fact that over the past few years the growth in savings deposits has been slowing, gold has fallen from $1900 to $1370/oz., bank lending has picked up, consumer confidence is slowly rising, demand for safe assets is declining, credit spreads are tightening, and PE multiples are expanding. The Fed is tapering at the same time banks are becoming less willing to lend to the Fed and more willing to lend to the private sector, but the Fed is in a reactive, rather than a proactive mode these days. If they don't step up the pace of tapering, they run the risk of creating a situation in which the demand for money falls faster (in the form or rising loan demand and slowing or falling savings deposit growth) than the Fed's willingness to supply money to the banking system (indirectly via the provision of bank reserves). And that would be like deja vu all over again, since that is what caused the rising inflation of the 1970s.
The Fed could avoid this problem or minimize this risk by increasing the pace of its tapering and/or increasing the interest rate it pays on bank reserves. Either development would be welcome, in my view.