Tired of defending it

Chris Rock has a great bit where he says he still loves rap music but is tired of defending it, the misogynistic lyrics in particular. I’ve been a longtime advocate of the Federal Reserve and continue to defend it against various conspiracy-mongers, but I really can’t defend this at all: “Secret Fed Loans Gave Banks $13 Billion Undisclosed to Congress.”

The story is not from a conspiracy peddler or a grandstanding politician, but from Bloomberg News, and actually involved investigative reporting. The $13 billion figure is the profit the banks earned from subsidized low-interest loans, etc. The Fed’s total commitment, including loan rollovers, guarantees, and lending limits, was an eye-popping $7.7 trillion. Now, when I first heard a similar figure presented by Congressman Bernie Sanders a few months ago, it looked like a distortion, because it included rollover loans (if I loan you $100 and you pay me back a month later and get a new loan and so on for 12 months, have I loaned you $100 or $1200?) and the total assets on the Fed’s balance sheet have never been much larger than $2 – 2.5 trillion, with a maximum of $1.5 trillion that could be loans to banks. But the non-rollover figures are still staggering. The banks “required a combined $1.2 trillion on Dec. 5, 2008, their single neediest day.”

Other areas for concern (or outrage, take your pick):

  • These loans covered a much longer period that one might think. They were greatest at the height of the fall 2008 crisis, but they began in August 2007 and lasted until April 2010. Was such a massive amount of subsidized lending justified this whole time?
  • The identities of the banks were kept secret, until Bloomberg obtained them via a Freedom of Information Act request. Now, the Fed’s usual lender-of-last-resort apparatus, the discount window, is supposed to keep borrowers’ identities secret, but traditionally there was at least supposed to be some stigma attached to discount loans, so that banks didn’t take advantage of the Fed’s low interest rates by borrowing too much. The Fed wouldn’t out them, but it might audit them. While there is a rationale for keeping the borrowers’ names secret — you don’t want to spark a panic by signaling that these banks are in trouble — surely this secretiveness should have some limits? Last year’s Dodd-Frank financial reform bill requires disclosure of discount loans after a two-year lag. This seems modest to me, but tellingly, Fed officials are wringing their hands and saying this will destroy discount lending.
  • What kind of lender of last resort charges the lowest interest rate in town? The interest rates on these loans got as low as 0.01%. This is a huge subsidy to banks that supposedly can’t get loans anyplace else. A few years ago the Fed reset its discount rate (the rate it charges its borrowers) a notch above the federal funds rate (the rate banks charge each other), presumably so that banks wouldn’t take advantage of the Fed’s low rate. Yet the big banks got to borrow at interest rates below that, and below what anyone else was offering.
  • The loans appear to have been completely unconditional. This could maybe be justified at the peak of the 2008 crisis, when it seemed like fast action was needed, but before and after too? The Federal government’s TARP loans to banks (which, at $700 billion, now appear puny by comparison) were basically unconditional but at least attempted to impose some restrictions on banker bonuses. With the benefit of hindsight and time, more meaningful restrictions, like radically changing the pay structure so as to discourage taking wild risks with other people’s and taxpayers’ money, and limits on leverage, could be devised, and the Fed wouldn’t have worry about getting them through Congress.

I still favor an independent central bank, with minimal political meddling. But these loans don’t look like the work of an independent entity at all. They scream “regulatory capture” by big banks. Gigantic, secret, and unconditional subsidies like these are a recipe for moral hazard that could make the next financial crisis one of those sequels that’s bigger, costlier, and suckier than the original.

Audit the Fed? Yeah, why not.

UPDATE, 2 DEC. 2011: Felix Salmon and Brad DeLong teach me that my point that the lender of last resort should not have the lowest rates in town was made a long, long time ago, by Walter Bagehot: “Lend freely, but at a penalty rate.” DeLong writes:

“Without the Fed and the Treasury, the shareholders of every single money-center bank and shadow bank in the United States would have gone bust.”

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One Response to “Tired of defending it”

  1. Mark E. Says:

    When the lender of last resort charges the lowest interest rates, it is pretty clear who the sharks are.

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