Is The Fed Corrupt or Out of Control?

The Federal Reserve System is an extremely controversial and largely misunderstood institution. Senators on both the right (Ron Paul) and the left (Bernie Sanders) are highly critical of The Fed.   I’ve shied away from commenting on The Fed because it’s  a pretty complex subject. Every time I think there’s a point to be made, I find it requires explaining some other point, which leads to yet another, and on and on.  It’s always seemed too daunting.  I could never figure out where to start.  But a reader asked last week for my thoughts about The Fed audit, so I’ll make an effort:

What’s the meaning of the audit of the Federal Reserve Bank that has just been completed? I am hearing from friends that the revelation of loans made to banks by the Fed is evidence that they “are out of control” and doing something corrupt or dishonest. I find that hard to believe.

At the risk that I’ll have a few “I’ll explain this later” points in this post, let’s talk about The Fed and whether it’s corrupt.  Let’s start with the results of the audit of The Fed which were released in July 2011 in response to a Congressional bill requiring a one-time public audit of The Fed..  The Raw Story summarizes the report for us and also has an embedded copy of the audit results for those interested:

The U.S. Federal Reserve gave out $16.1 trillion in emergency loans to U.S. and foreign financial institutions between Dec. 1, 2007 and July 21, 2010, according to figures produced by the government’s first-ever audit of the central bank.

Last year, the gross domestic product of the entire U.S. economy was $14.5 trillion.

Of the $16.1 trillion loaned out, $3.08 trillion went to financial institutions in the U.K., Germany, Switzerland, France and Belgium, the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) analysis shows.

Additionally, asset swap arrangements were opened with banks in the U.K., Canada, Brazil, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Mexico, Singapore and Switzerland. Twelve of those arrangements are still ongoing, having been extended through August 2012.

Out of all borrowers, Citigroup received the most financial assistance from the Fed, at $2.5 trillion. Morgan Stanley came in second with $2.04 trillion, followed by Merrill Lynch at $1.9 trillion and Bank of America at $1.3 trillion.

The audit also found that the Fed mostly outsourced its lending operations to the very financial institutions which sparked the crisis to begin with, and that they delegated contracts largely on a no-bid basis. The GAO report recommends new policies that would eliminate such conflicts of interest, and suggests that in the future the Fed should keep better records of their emergency decision-making process.

The Fed agreed to “strongly consider” the recommendations, but as it is not a government-run institution it cannot be forced to do so by lawmakers. The seven-member board of governors and the Fed chairman are, however, appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate.

The audit was conducted on a one-time basis, as mandated by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, passed last year. Fed officials had strongly discouraged lawmakers from ordering the audit, claiming it may serve to undermine confidence in the monetary system.

The big news, judging by both Ron Paul’s and Bernie Sanders’ reactions is the three-fold fact that The Fed provided loans (or their equivalent in asset swaps) to large banks and governments to the tune of $14.5 trillion “in secret”.  The first concern is the size of the actions. The second concern seems to be that some of these banks and governments were foreign. And the third is that the loans were secret. I think the conflicts of interest and poor decision making processes are bigger issues uncovered by the audit. But I’ll get to that later in this post.

Before we can conclude The Fed is “out of control” or corrupt we need to look at what The Fed is supposed to do.  The Fed, being the central bank for the U.S., is responsible for:

  • maintaining the health of the U.S. banking and financial system and institutions.  It does this by regulation of those institutions and by being lender of last resort in a crisis.
  • conducting monetary policy. Legally, The Fed has a “dual mandate” on monetary policy. It is supposed to:
  1. maintain price stability (in other words, avoid inflation or deflation)
  2. maintain full employment

The critics from the right tend to be followers of Austrian economics (Ron Paul) or far-conservative and libertarian. These are the ones most likely to claim The Fed is “out of control”.  What they generally mean (a typical example is here) is they think The Fed has created too much money and is debasing the currency.  There’s very little The Fed can do that would satisfy most of these people other than to shut down and ask the government to return to a gold standard.  Their concerns about the $14 trillion in loans being inflationary and “newly printed money” reveal deep misunderstandings about the nature of money (a post yet to be written), the functioning of the financial system, and even the nature of inflation.  They make a big deal of the size of the loans by comparing them to real GDP.  That’s apples to oranges.  To figure out if the $14 trillion in loans was large, it should be compared to the total balance sheet of the banking system, not GDP.   Yes, the loans The Fed made were of record amount, but so was the crisis. The Fed has a duty to act as lender of last resort in a financial crisis.  It did that. And it largely avoided the scale of disaster that occurred in 1929-1933 when The Fed failed to act as lender of last resort and was complicit in creating The Great Depression, snuffing out thousands of banks in the U.S. and depositors’ savings with it.  So if “out of control” means The Fed is wildly “printing money”, creating inflation, and debasing the currency, then, no, The Fed is not out of control.

A second charge that both the right and left have leveled is that The Fed shouldn’t have made loans to foreign banks and governments.  In a pure-thought fantasy world of theoretical political economy, I suppose The Fed would be a nationalist institution.  Certainly we expect the central bank of any other nation to be dominated by solely by protecting their own nation’s interests. (in the case of the Eurozone, it would be a great improvement if the ECB gave a hoot about even it’s own).  But reality has to intrude.  The U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency. We wanted it that way. More than half of all U.S. money is outside the U.S.  The world’s trading and financial systems depend on the dollar. Given the scale and scope of the crisis in 2008, The Fed had little practical alternative to making loans to some large foreign banks and even some nations.  Nobody else could do it.  The alternatives were too nasty.  Should it be regular practice? No. Should it be encouraged? No. Should we second guess the middle of the crisis when nobody else was stepping up?  Probably not.  Should we think about how to handle it better in the future so we don’t have to rely on The Fed?  Yes.  Have we thought about it and changed? No.  So the second charge of being “out of control” as evidenced by making foreign loans doesn’t really hold up.

The third charge, the question of “secrecy” in the loans is more difficult.  On the one side, it is unseemly for The Fed to be able to make large loans on favorable terms to banks, loans that save those banks’ managers from failure, without any sunshine or transparency.  It makes fertile ground for corruption.  On the other hand, banking is a confidence game. Publicizing loans to banks, even when part of the normal course of affairs, can be misinterpreted by the public, fund managers, or other banks.  It alone could spark a run on a bank. The run then creates the very crisis the loan was intended to avert, turning temporary liquidity crisis into permanent bank failure.

Some fear of the secrecy of these loans is driven by a misunderstanding of what The Fed loans and where it comes from.  Again, this arises from common misunderstandings of what money really is or where it comes from.  Many fear the “money” The Fed lends is money that had to come from somewhere (they suspect taxpayers) or diverted from some other useful purpose.  Not so.  The Fed doesn’t actually lend “money” in the sense that you and I have “money” to spend.  The Fed creates new bank reserves out of thin air.  It’s not spending money and it’s not scarce. The Fed can as easily remove these reserves later in the future.

So, is The Fed “out of control”?  I don’t think so in the way that many critics make the accusation.  Just because I don’t think The Fed is some “out of control money printing machine” doesn’t mean I think The Fed is innocent or doesn’t need to be changed.  The audit revealed other issues regarding decision-making and transparency that I find much more troubling.  They reveal that The Fed has fallen into a kind of “group think” that doesn’t serve the nation well.  I think The Fed is both misguided and poorly structured.  But I’ll deal with that in tomorrow’s post.

The Fed is a Rorschach test.

The Quantity Theory of Money and Fears of Inflation Are Nonsense

We rarely get to conduct scientific experiments in economics, but for the last 3+ years The Federal Reserve has unintentionally conducted a test of an economic theory called the “Quantity Theory of Money” (QTM). QTM makes some very specific predictions – predictions that Ron Paul, conservatives on Wall Street, and others have been repeating a lot.  Unfortunately for them, QTM has failed the test.

First, some background on the theory. The QTM is and has been one of the foundations of both monetarist thought and Austrian economic thought.  In it’s base form, it’s based on an accounting identity that must, by definition, be true.  The notation sometimes varies, but the quantity theory of money is based on a definition called the equation of exchange.  This equation goes like this:

M times V = P times Q
where:
M: Money supply
V:  velocity of money, or the number of times the average dollar changes hands and is spent during the same time period as Q is measured.
P:    price level
Q:   real GDP (sometimes real National Income, Y, is used – same thing essentially)

So what does the equation say?  If you look at the left hand, M x V, you get a representation of the total spending in the economy.  It’s how much money was in circulation times the number of times that money was spent.  The right side, P x Q, gives us the value of nominal GDP.  It’s the value of all the real stuff we bought (Q, real GDP) times the Price level P which translates it into today’s prices.  Put the two sides together and you’ve got total nominal spending in money terms must be the same as the total value of the things we bought.  Duh.  Of course it is.  It’s an identity.   It’s the macro equivalent of saying that if I spend $5 each time (M) on 7 trips to the grocery (V) to buy 70 apples (Q) at $0.50 each (P), then I will spend $35 on $35 worth of stuff.

As an identity definition it’s not really very interesting.  It’s when economists begin to use it as a model of future outcomes that problems arise.

The typical way QTM is used, and the simple way folks like Ron Paul and a lot of folks who are upset at Federal Reserve efforts to stimulate the economy, is by thinking of what happens when M, the money supply, is suddenly increased.  The thinking is that an increase in M must result in an increase in P in order to keep the equation balanced.  This is the foundation of modern inflationary fears in the last  few years.  Typically folks using the QTM this way don’t say things like “an increase in M must lead to an increase in P”.  They say things like “The Fed is printing money like mad and that’s going to lead to inflation”  since an increase in the price level, P, is how we measure inflation.

But there’s actually four terms in this equation.  Any of them can change.  That’s where assumptions come in.  The advocates of QTM, whom I’ll call “inflation-phobes” for the moment since they’re always fearful of inflation, make some strong assumptions.  They assume three big things.  First, they assume that the velocity, V, is constant.  In other words, according to them, you and I always spend our money at exactly the same rate. Suppose I spend my whole paycheck every two weeks now.  They assume that I’ll always spend my whole paycheck every two weeks no matter how big or small that check is or whether I’m suddenly fearful of losing my job next month.  The evidence for the constant velocity assumption is weak.  You be the judge using the St.Louis Fed data:

To me, that doesn’t look constant.  If V is constant, then any increase in M also increases spending, MxV.  But if V isn’t constant, then an increase in M can be offset by simultaneous slowdown in velocity.

The next assumption is that real GDP is always at capacity.  In other words, there is no unused capacity in the economy such as unemployed workers or empty office buildings or factories running only 1 shift when they can run 2.  This is assumption is essential to the inflation-phobes because it means that Q can’t be increased.  This is necessary to their desired outcome because it would imply that the only way for PxQ to rise to meet an increase in MxV is by having P increase.  I won’t go to the trouble of showing data and graph to prove that Q isn’t at capacity.  If you have doubts, see last week’s update on employment and GDP.

There’s one more unstated assumption by the inflation-phobes.  They assume that any increase in base money, which is primarily the bank reserves The Fed makes available to commercial banks, will necessarily translate into M1, money in circulation among the public.  This too is a bad assumption.  There times, like the last 3 years, when commercial banks don’t want to or can’t lend.  In times like this bank reserves just sit there on the books safely tucked away from any kind of productive economic activity or spending.  The Fed can push reserves onto the banks’ books, but it can’t turn those reserves into loans or spending by customers. Another weakness in this assumption is the idea that even if the money ends up in private hands it will be used for spending on goods and services. Instead, what we’ve seen is that much of what little lending the big banks have been doing has been to finance financial market trading and speculation – things like oil futures.  Speculating in oil futures isn’t the same thing as actually refining and selling oil.  The speculation doesn’t create jobs and isn’t part of the circular flow. Production is.

So we’re back to the question of testing the QTM theory.  The QTM theory of money as inflation-phobes express it, says that increases in base money (M) necessarily must result in inflation (increases in P) at some time in the near future.

In 2008 and 2009 The Federal Reserve expanded bank reserves greatly.  It expanded the monetary base dramatically.  The Fed invented a variety of new names and methods for doing it, although almost all of them involved The Fed buying some kind of bond, security or financial asset.  If the QTM theory and the hard-money inflation-phobes are right, there should have been a dramatic increase in inflation.  They predicted it.  Again and again.  It simply hasn’t happened.  Paul Krugman put together an nice little graph showing the failure of the QTM theory:

The thing is, of course, that the past three years — the post-Lehman era during which the Fed presided over a tripling of the monetary base — have been an excellent test of that model, which has failed with flying colors. Here are the data — I’ve included commodity prices (IMF index) as well as consumer prices for the people who believe that the BLS is hiding true inflation (which it isn’t):

A couple of notes: for the commodity prices it matters which month you start, because they dropped sharply between August and September 2008. I use the IMF index for convenience– easy to download. (Thomson Reuters I use when I just want to snatch a picture from Bloomberg). But none of this should matter: when you triple the monetary base, the resulting inflation shouldn’t be something that depends on the fine details — unless the model is completely wrong.

So, we’ve had a test, a pretty substantial test of the Quantity Theory of Money and the assumption that any increase in monetary base must lead inevitably to an increase in prices and inflation.  The theory has failed.  It should be put to rest.  Milton Friedman, a man as responsible as any other for pusing QTM, once famously claimed that “inflation is anywhere and everywhere always a monetary phenomenon”.  He was clearly wrong, there’s more involved than just base money growth.