Government Debt Management at the Zero Lower Bound

by Robin Greenwood, Samuel G. Hanson, Joshua S. Rudolph & Lawrence H. Summers
 
 

Overview — At least since the 1980s, the three domains of United States monetary policy, fiscal and debt management policy, and the prudential regulation of financial intermediaries have been separate and distinct. However, with the onset of the financial crisis in 2007 and and subsequent easing of monetary policy, the lines between these domains have become blurred, and conventional monetary policies have lost their impact. This blurring of functions—and economists' observation that Federal Reserve and Treasury policies with regard to US government debt have been pushing in opposite directions—suggests the need to revisit the principles underlying government debt management policy. In this paper the authors quantify the extent to which the Fed and Treasury have been working at cross purposes. They also present a framework in which traditional debt management objectives can be considered in conjunction with managing aggregate demand and promoting financial stability. Overall, they argue for revised institutional arrangements to promote greater cooperation between the Treasury and the Federal Reserve in setting debt management policy. Key concepts include:

  • Starting in 2008, US monetary policy and debt management dramatically changed course in response to the unfolding financial and economic crisis, pulling the government balance sheet in opposite directions.
  • Debt management varies by time and has implications for aggregate demand. It therefore puts the Treasury into conflict with the Federal Reserve. Improved policy coordination could substantially reduce this conflict.

Author Abstract

This paper re-examines government debt management policy in light of the U.S. experience with extraordinary fiscal and monetary policies since 2008. We first document that the Treasury's decision to lengthen the average maturity of the debt has partially offset the Federal Reserve's attempts to reduce the supply of long-term bonds held by private investors through its policy of quantitative easing. We then examine the appropriate debt management policy for the consolidated government. We argue that traditional considerations favoring longer-term debt may be overstated and suggest that there are several advantages to issuing greater quantities of short-term debt. Under current institutional arrangements, neither the Federal Reserve nor the Treasury is caused to view debt management policy on the basis of the overall national interest. We suggest revised institutional arrangements to promote greater cooperation between the Treasury and the Federal Reserve in setting debt management policy. This is particularly important when conventional monetary policy becomes constrained by the zero lower bound, leaving debt management as one of the few policy levers to support aggregate demand.

Paper Information