Even as both the Fed and Wall Street are gripped by a raging debate over when, how and how much the Fed should shrink its balance sheet, most appear to be ignoring the $2.1 trillion elephant in the room: the fact that every incremental increase in the Fed Funds rate (also an increase in the Interest On Excess Reserves, or IOER, currently at 1.25%) is a handout to US commercial banks, but that the direct recipient of this explicit Fed subsidy are a substantial number of foreign banks.

Here are the numbers:

  • as of the week of July 5, there were $2.1 trillion in reserves (of which the vast majority is "excess"), the largest liability by far on the Fed's $4.5 trillion balance sheet (currency in circulation is the other major component and amounts to $1.5 trillion).
  • as of the latest Fed rate hike, IOER is 1.25%

Putting these together, means that as of this moment, assuming no more rate changes, Janet Yellen will pay out $27 billion in interest on reserves parked with the Fed every year.

This much is known. What is less known, however, is the holding composition of these reserves, i.e., which banks have parked these $2.1 trillion in reserves with the Fed. Courtesy of the Fed's H.8 statement, however, we can quickly figure out.

Recall that as we showed first all the way back in 2011, the total cash on the books of commercial banks with operations in the US tracks the Fed's excess reserves almost dollar for dollar. More importantly, the number is broken down by small and large domestic banks, as well as international banks. It is the last number that is of biggest interest, because now that Congress is finally scrutinizing the $4.5 trillion elephant in the room, i.e., the Fed's balance sheet, it may be interested to know that approximately 40%, or $838 billion as of the latest weekly data, in reserves parked at the Fed belongs to foreign banks.

While we will reserve judgment, and merely point out that of the $100 or so billion in dividends and buybacks announced by US banks after the latest stress test a substantial amount comes directly courtesy of the Fed - cash that ultimately ends up in shareholders' pockets - we will note that the interest the Fed pays to foreign banks operating in the US who have parked reserves at the Fed, amounts to $10.4 billion annualized as of this moment.

This is a subsidy from the Fed, supposedly an institution that exists for the benefit of the US population, going directly and without any frictions to foreign banks, who - just like in the US - then proceed to dividend and buybacks these funds, "returning" them to their own shareholders, most of whom are foreign individuals.

While the number appears modest, it is poised to grow substantially as the Fed Funds rate is expected to keep growing, ultimately hitting 3.0% according to the Fed.

Indicatively, assuming excess reserves remain unchanged for the next 2-3 years and rates rise to 3.0%, that would imply a total annual subsidy to commercial banks amounting to $65 billion, of which $25 billion would go to foreign banks every year.

We wonder if this is the main reason why the Fed is so desperate to trim its balance sheet as it hikes rates, as sooner or later, someone in Congress will figure this out.

And as a tangent: considering that cash at US banks, most of which is parked at the Fed as reserves, amounts to just under $1.5 trillion, we wonder why the Fed does not simply cut off foreign banks' eligibility for its generous IOER subsidy, and make its balance sheet eligible only to US banks. It would slash its bloated balance sheet by over $800 billion overnight. Oh yes, that may actually test the widely accepted theory that banks outside the US are "safe."