Bank borrowing from the Fed. Figure from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis FRED data set.
Discount loans were the Fed’s original policy tool. As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.4 (Economics, Chapter 25, Section 25.4) and in Money, Banking, and the Financial System, Chapter 13, Section 13.1, Congress established the Fed to serve as a lender of last resort making loans to banks that were having temporary liquidity problems because depositors were withdrawing more funds than the bank could meet from its own cash holdings. Discount loans were intended to be short term, often overnight, and were to be made only to healthy banks that were solvent—the value of the banks’ assets were greater than the value of their liabilities—and that could pledge short-term business loans (called at the time “real bills”) as collateral.
Today, healthy banks with temporary liquidity needs can request a loan through the Fed’s discount window (an antique term dating from the early years of the system when the loans were literally made at a specific window at each regional Fed bank) from the Fed’s primary credit facility, or standing lending facility. Over the years, the importance of discount loans declined. The establishment of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in 1934 reassured households and businesses that held deposits below the insurance limit that they did not need to withdraw their deposits at the first sign of trouble with their local bank. As a result, after the establishment of the FDIC few banks experienced runs.
In addition, the development of the federal funds market gave banks another source of short-term credit. Because the federal funds rate is typically lower than the interest rate (the discount rate) that the Fed charges on discount loans, most banks find borrowing in the federal funds market preferrable to borrowing at the Fed’s discount window. As banks’ use of discount loans declined, many banks were afraid that going to the discount window would be seen by depositors and investors as a sign the bank was in financial trouble. This stigma was an additional reason that most banks avoided borrowing at the discount window.
As the figure shows, in the years leading up to the Great Financial Crisis, the volume of discount loans had dwindled to very low levels. After a surge in discount borrowing following the failure of the Lehman Brothers investment bank in September 2008, discount borrowing gradually fell back to low levels. A smaller surge in discount borrowing occurred in the spring of 2020 at the beginning of the Covid–19 pandemic in the United States. Discount borrowing quickly declined during the following months.
The failure of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) on March 10 and Signature Bank on March 12 pushed the volume of discount loans to record levels, as shown by the vertical line at the far right of the figure. The values in the figure include three types of loans:
- Primary credit, which are traditional discount loans.
- Other credit extensions, which are loans from Federal Reserve District Banks to the FDIC to fund so-called bridge banks established by the FDIC to operate SVB and Signature Bank until either purchasers can be found for the banks or their assets can be sold and the banks permanently closed.
- Loans under the Fed’s Bank Term Funding Program, which are loans the Fed has made under this new facility established on March 12. The loans are secured by the borrowing banks’ holdings of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities.
The data underlying the figure come from the Fed’s H.4.1 statistical release, “Factors Affecting Reserve Balances of Depository Institutions and Condition Statement of Federal Reserve Banks,” which can be found here.
Which banks are doing this borrowing? To avoid stigma, the Fed doesn’t release the names of the banks for two years, but, presumably, regional banks, such as First Republic Bank, that have been experiencing substantial depositor withdrawals are doing so. (First Republic has publicly announced that it is borrowing from the Fed.) The amounts borrowed are so large, however, that it appears that a significant number of banks are either in need of liquidity or are preparing to be able to meet waves of deposit withdrawals should they occur.
Whether the banking crisis that began with the failure of SVB is largely over is unclear at this point, but the managers of some banks are preparing in case the crisis continues.