Central Bank Balance Sheets: Past, Present and Future

Central Bank Balance Sheets: Past, Present and Future
James Barker, David Bholat and Ryland Thomas.
Bank Underground 03 JULY 2017





Central bank balance sheets swelled in size in response to the financial crisis of 2007-09. In this blog we discuss what makes them different from the balance sheets of other institutions, how they’ve been used in the past, and how they might evolve in the future as means to implement novel policies – including the revolutionary possibility that a central bank could issue its own digital currency.

What makes central bank financial statements special?

The financial accounts of central banks have a number of quirks that make them different from those produced by other institutions, as discussed in-depth in a recent Bank Staff Working Paper.

Unusual features include:

  • As an issuer of banknotes, notes in circulation are a substantial part of a central bank’s liabilities
  • Central banks can operate with negative equity. For example, the central banks of Chile, the Czech Republic, Israel and Mexico have all pursued their policy aims effectively in spite of technical insolvency in recent years. Anyone else with balance sheets in this shape would be bust.
  • Unlike private banks, profits are not likely to be an accurate measure of central bank performance, because they have much broader objectives such as financial and monetary stability.

Besides these general oddities, the accounts of any one central bank will have its own peculiar idiosyncrasies. For example, one peculiarity of the Bank of England is that its accounts separate the Issue Department from the rest of the Bank i.e. the “Banking Department” (although this is not completely unique).

This separation is purely an accounting artifice. It’s a legacy of the Bank Charter Act of 1844, the original intent of which was to ensure the Bank’s note issue was backed by gold. Although the Bank no longer adheres to a gold standard, this distinction still matters when it’s time to divvy up the Bank’s profits. While only half of the Banking Department’s profits are distributed to government (with the rest retained to cover operational expenses) 100% of all Issue Department profits go to the Treasury on the grounds that seigniorage income belongs to the sovereign.

Historical uses of the Bank of England’s balance sheet

Central banks around the world responded to the financial crisis of 2007-09 by expanding their balance sheets, as shown in the graph below. New liabilities were issued (money was created) to purchase assets from other economic agents in a process known as Quantitative Easing (QE). Growing central bank balance sheets in this way arguably prevented the recession from becoming even more severe.

Although QE often is described as unconventional monetary policy, viewed from a longer-term standpoint, the use of the Bank of England’s balance sheet to implement policy is nothing new. Here we exploit newly released weekly balance sheet data to show how the Bank has previously used its balance sheet to respond to crises. Specifically, we look at the crises of 18471857 and 1866, which have been the subjects of recent Bank Underground posts and are at the heart of a current research project underway at the Bank.

The red lines represent two standard deviations from the average holdings; values between the two lines could be considered “normal”. During the crises (circled), demand for safe assets such as banknotes increased, which, under the provisions of the aforementioned Bank Charter Act of 1844, the Banking Department had to meet out of its note reserve.

In order to supply these extra notes, the Banking Department purchased assets from the private sector (known as discounting of bills) or made loans secured on those assets (known as advances). You can see in the chart below discounts and advances spiking during crises matching the fall in notes and coins in reserve observable in the chart above.

However, if the Bank of England’s note reserve wasn’t enough to meet public demand for money in the crisis, then there was a problem. The 1844 Bank Charter Act meant that the Issue Department was only allowed to print additional notes when they were backed by gold.  During crisis periods, successive governments allowed the Bank to temporarily break this rule so that the Bank could meet the extra demand for notes. This “indemnity” was often enough in itself to reassure markets and end crises; only in 1857 did the Bank actually breach the provisions of the 1844 Act.  This shows the mere potential to use the central bank balance sheet is a powerful instrument in itself.

The evolution of central bank balance sheets in the future

Central bank balance sheets across the world have changed dramatically over the past decade, and there are lots of reasons to believe that they will continue to evolve in novel ways in the future. These are our three favourites:

The first is that a central bank could issue digital currency (CBDC); defined as an electronic form of central bank money usable by the general public (this would not have to be a cryptocurrency). Currently, reserves are the only electronic form of central bank money that exists (with banknotes being the physical form), and only a select number of financial institutions have access to them.  CBDC could potentially provide the central bank with another tool through which to conduct monetary policy, as both the quantity and/or the interest rate of CBDC could be adjusted. However, assuming the rise in CBDC isn’t matched by a fall in the issuance of banknotes, the issuance of any meaningful quantity would lead to a significant increase in liabilities for the central bank, requiring them to buy more assets. Some of these assets might be government bonds, but many central banks already hold very large quantities of these post-crisis. They may not want to hold more for fear of distorting bond markets, political worries about monetary financing, or simply because there are not enough government bonds in circulation. Although there has been a lot of discussion about how central bank digital currency could radically change payment systems – and even the financial sector as a whole – the implication for the assets on central bank balance sheets could be just as critical.

A second possible development is that central banks start to make more creative use of their equity to implement policy. Typically, central bank equity is seen just as a “loss-absorbing buffer”, instead of being actively used to implement policy. For example QE has worked – roughly speaking – by central banks creating new reserves so they can buy financial assets from the private sector. However, in theory, central banks could achieve the same ends by different bookkeeping means, issuing central bank shares in exchange for private sector assets. These shares would be different from conventional shares in a listed company as they wouldn’t give voting rights on the activities of the central bank, but apart from that, they’d be similar. An upside of using equity to buy private sector assets is that the central bank would be strengthening its capital base at a time when it’s taking on more risk.

Last but by no means least: a central bank could implement a “helicopter money drop” to stimulate the economy. There are many forms that this policy could take, but most proposals envision the money being used to monetise fiscal policy – essentially creating money for the government to either spend or distribute to people. Besides raising important questions about central bank independence, helicopter money would involve substantial change to the balance sheet of the central bank. For example, helicopter money could be implemented by the purchase of a perpetual zero-coupon government bond issued specifically for this purpose. Unlike bonds purchased in QE, this couldn’t ever be sold and would therefore provide a commitment never to unwind the policy, leading (arguably) to a larger impact on the economy. However, economists at the BIS have argued that helicopter drops would do more harm than good.

Although making predictions is hard, we’re confident that central bank balance sheets will remain important in the future, whatever comes up next.

James Barker works in the Banks’ Advanced Analytics, Research and Statistics Division along with David Bholat. Ryland Thomas works in the Bank’s Monetary Assessment and Strategy Division.

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