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Power Grab at the Fed

Are you ready for a good laugh?

The head of the New York Fed wants Congress to grant the Central Bank extraordinary new powers to deal with future financial system emergencies like the bank run that followed Lehman Brothers collapse in September 2008. Here’s the story from the New York Times:

“[William] Dudley’s concern is about a little-noticed piece of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act that actually reduced the central bank’s authority in one crucial area: its ability to provide emergency funding to strapped financial firms.

The Fed arrested the 2008 financial crisis by using this authority to create a series of unprecedented programs that offered emergency financing not just to American banks – its traditional flock – but also to foreign banks, and not just to banks but to other kinds of financial companies as well, and indeed to other kinds of companies entirely.” (“Equipping the Fed for a Future Crisis”, New York Times)

It’s true, congress did clip the Fed’s wings after the last great debacle by putting limits on the Fed’s authority to hose down the entire system, regulated or not, with trillions of dollars of taxpayer-funded bailouts. And congress should be applauded for that action, after all, why should the US government underwrite the high-risk trading activities of financial institutions which operate on mere slivers of capital? That’s crazy! If they go bust, tough luck. Here’s more from the Times:

“Congress responded to this performance by making it difficult to repeat. Dodd-Frank imposed new restrictions on the Fed’s ability to make emergency loans, or to keep money flowing, outside the banking industry. One basic reason was that Congress had never really intended to give the Fed such broad power in the first place.” (NYT)

Uh, huh. Is that hard to grasp? TARP was unpopular. The bailouts were unpopular. People don’t like the idea of handing over free money to crooked bankers every time they get themselves into trouble.

The author seems genuinely puzzled by the fact that our democratic system is not supposed to proffer unlimited “power of the purse” to the swinish agents of the robber class at the central bank. The system has gotten so convoluted that journalists cannot even recall earlier times when policy was set by the elected representatives of the people and the banks played a subordinate role. Today, that all sounds like sentimental gibberish about “America’s idyllic past”. Here’s more from the Times:

“Many – myself included – have drawn from the financial crisis the conclusion that government safety nets should be drawn tightly so that only a very few, very tightly regulated firms get as little liquidity support as possible,” Karen Shaw Petrou, a close watcher of financial regulation who drew my attention to Mr. Dudley’s speech, wrote to clients of her firm, Federal Financial Analytics.

A more inclusive policy, she continued, “will open the safety net, wide, wide open to all sorts of actors who, smiling sweetly, will rob us blind.” (NYT)

Ms. Petrou is a dreamer. The Fed does what it wants, when it wants”. It answers to no one, which is why their books still remain closed to public inspection despite the myriad legal challenges to pry them open.

Sure, the Fed will “rob us blind”; that’s their job, isn’t it? Let me jog your memory a bit: Do you remember the Repo 105 scandal? Think back to April 2010 when the New York Fed (which Dudley now heads) was directly involved in a cover up by the nation’s largest banks that were engaged in shady accounting activities to conceal the amount of debt on their balance sheets. According to the Wall Street Journal:

“Major banks have masked their risk levels in the past five quarters by temporarily lowering their debt just before reporting it to the public, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. A group of 18 banks….understated the debt levels used to fund securities trades by lowering them an average of 42 per cent at the end of each of the past five quarterly periods, the data show. The banks, which publicly release debt data each quarter, then boosted the debt levels in the middle of successive quarters.” (“Big Banks Mask Risk Levels”, Kate Kelly, Tom McGinty, Dan Fitzpatrick, Wall Street Journal)

The “repo 105” flap was further complicated by suspicions that Lehman was assisted in its effort by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York which, at the time, was headed by former Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner. Here is a short recap of what transpired between the Geithner’s NY Fed and Lehman according to ex-regulator William Black and former NY governor Eliot Spitzer from an article on Huffington Post:

“The FRBNY [i.e., New York Fed] knew that Lehman was engaged in smoke and mirrors designed to overstate its liquidity and, therefore, was unwilling to lend as much money to Lehman…

The Fed’s behavior made it clear that officials didn’t believe they needed to do more with this information. The FRBNY remained willing to lend to an institution with misleading accounting and neither remedied the accounting nor notified other regulators who may have had the opportunity to do so…… We now know from Valukas and from former Treasury Secretary Paulson that the Treasury and the Fed knew that Lehman was massively overstating its on-book asset values.” (Time for the Truth” William Black and Eliot Spitzer, Huffington Post)

Yves Smith over at Naked Capitalism summed it up perfectly at the time:

“The NY Fed, and thus Timothy Geithner, were at a minimum massively derelict in the performance of their duties, and may well be culpable in aiding and abetting Lehman in accounting fraud and Sarbox violations…at a minimum, the NY Fed helped perpetuate a fraud on investors and counterparties. This pattern further suggests the Fed, which by its charter is tasked to promote the safety and soundness of the banking system, instead, via its collusion with Lehman management, operated to protect particular actors to the detriment of the public at large. And most important, it says that the NY Fed, and likely Geithner himself, undermined, perhaps even violated, laws designed to protect investors and markets.” (Naked Capitalism)

Repeat: “Culpable”, “collusion”, “aiding and abetting Lehman in accounting fraud and Sarbox violations.” And these are the guys who want unlimited power to bailout anyone at anytime regardless of the cost?

Don’t make me laugh!

What Dudley really wants is the power to put out the fires which the serial arsonists at the Fed have started with their shabby, easy money policies and “light touch” regulation. They need to get their own house in order before they go asking congress for more favors.

Here’s a novel idea: Why not just fix the system? Why not create regulations that actually work, that increase stability and make the system safer?

Nah, that would cut into profits, so it’s a non-starter. Isn’t that what’s going on here; Dudley’s trying to shrug the costs onto taxpayers so he doesn’t ruffle feathers on Wall Street. It’s all about the bottom line. Here’s more from the Times:

“[Dudley] argued in his recent speech that it would make no sense to draw a line between banks and other kinds of financial firms if both were playing essentially the same role in the broader economy.

Both should be regulated, and both should be backstopped.

“If we believe that these activities provide essential credit intermediation services to the real economy that could not be easily replaced by other forms of intermediation, then the same logic that leads us to backstop commercial banking with a lender of last resort might lead us to backstop the banking activity taking place in the markets in a similar way,” he told the New York Bankers Association.” (NYT)

Hold on there, Dudley; “essential credit intermediation” can mean anything from issuing short-term loans to productive businesses to off-loading dodgy Collateral Debt Obligations (CDOs) to gullible investor groups. Are we going to throw a lifeline to every snakeoil salesman and scamster in the industry?

Yep. That’s the Dudley method. Bail ’em all out and start over! What’s a few trillion among friends? It’s all funny money anyway, isn’t it? More from the Times:

“Banks and other financial companies increasingly draw money from sources that do not have similar backstops, including the sale of commercial paper to money market funds and complicated arrangements called “triparty repos” that basically allow financial firms to borrow money by pledging assets as collateral.

These are short-term loans that must be renewed regularly, often daily. As a result, panic among investors can almost instantly undermine financial stability, which is exactly what began to happen in 2007: Panic spread, financing disappeared, and the global financial system came perilously close to complete collapse.

There is broad agreement that something should be done to improve the stability of money-market funds and the triparty repo market. So far, nothing much has happened.” (NYT)

This is really rich. The author of this story knows exactly why “nothing much has happened” to make money markets safer. It’s because the big Wall Street banks–who are the Fed’s primary constituents–have fought any changes to the existing system tooth and nail. They don’t give a ratsass whether the markets crash or not. What they care about is boosting quarterly profits so they can add a few zeros onto the Xmas bonus check. Here’s the story from Bloomberg:

“Money-market fund companies have doubled lobbying efforts to convince regulators and lawmakers that they aren’t a threat to the financial system. The money may have been well-spent…

The companies are seeking to block new rules championed by Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Mary Schapiro that are headed for a vote before a divided commission as soon as this month…

“If the industry blocks this plan and something else bad happens and people on Main Street lose money, they’ll be kicking themselves for not fixing this,” Douglas W. Diamond, a finance professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, said in a telephone interview. “The current structure does potentially have systemic risk, and it’s the kind of thing that could happen very quickly given the situation in Europe.” (“Doubling Down to Block Money Market Reform”, Bloomberg)

And these are the guys that Dudley wants to save, these self-serving miscreants who’re doing everything in their power to make the system more less safe, more unstable, and more crisis-prone?

The reason the money markets are so vulnerable is NOT because there’s no fix, but because the big money is blocking even modest changes to the existing system. Wall Street would rather put the whole system at risk, then lose even one-thin dime in profits.

More from Dudley: “The sheer size of banking functions undertaken outside commercial banking entities – even now, after the crisis – suggests that this issue must not be ignored. Pretending the problem doesn’t exist, or dealing with it only ex post through emergency facilities, cannot be consistent with our financial stability objectives.”

In other words, the Fed has no idea of how leveraged this gigantic, unregulated shadow banking system really is. All they know is that it poses unseen risks that WILL lead to another disaster. So, rather than implement rules that could improve stability–as one might expect from the nation’s chief regulator–Dudley wants a blank check to spend whatever-it-takes to prop up this ghastly system.

Unbelievable.

MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com.

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MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com.

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