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Fed's Powell says balance sheet rundown will proceed without change for now

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell speaks at a press conference in Washington

By Michael S. Derby

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said on Wednesday that he sees no reason to change the current drawdown of the central bank's still-massive balance sheet.

The rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee "is not considering changing the pace of balance sheet runoff. It's not something we're talking about or considering," Powell said at a press conference.

While shrinking Fed holdings may have a small impact on real world borrowing costs, "I think it’s hard to make a case that reserves are even close to scarce at this point."

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Powell spoke on the state of the central bank's holdings of cash and bonds after a meeting in which officials again held their overnight interest rate target range steady at between 5.25% and 5.5%, the same level it's been since the end of July. Fed officials have kept alive the prospect they may raise rates again and Powell said decisions on the fed funds rate would be made "meeting by meeting."

But Powell also acknowledged in his press conference that when it comes to rate rises the central bank is probably "close to the end of the cycle." A potential end to rate hikes has fueled a debate on whether the Fed should also consider winding down the process of allowing just shy of $100 billion per month in Treasury and mortgage bonds it owns to mature and not be replaced.

The Fed is trying to reduce the size of its holdings to withdraw the liquidity it added during the coronavirus pandemic crisis, which caused the size of Fed holdings to more than double to a peak of just shy of $9 trillion last summer.

Fed officials have said repeatedly that the balance sheet drawdown effort complements rate rises and runs in the background. But an increasing number of market participants are speculating the process could end sooner than some in the Fed may think.

The key, in the view of some, is the rapid decline in the Fed's reverse repo facility, which allows money market funds and others to park cash at the Fed. This Fed tool is viewed as a proxy for excess and easy to remove liquidity and it has fallen rapidly over recent weeks. After an extended stay of over $2 trillion per day in inflows, it's been hovering just above $1 trillion in recent days.

Some in the Fed as well as some private sector analysts believe that when the reverse repo facility has drained fully or stabilizes, reserve levels will begin to fall, which will then open the door to an end to the drawdown process.

The Fed wants reserves at a high enough level to ensure solid market liquidity levels and firm central bank control over short-term interest rates. In recent comments, Loretta Mester, president of the Cleveland Fed, said she believes the balance sheet run-off can run for an additional year and a half to two years.

(Reporting by Michael S. Derby; Editing by Andrea Ricci)