Monday, 15 December 2008

Re-Post from 15/05/08: Looting the Vaults of the Central Banks

Originally published on RGE Monitor.


When I was a young central banker, we often spent our lunchtimes debating how best to rob our employer. Tempted by the thought of great mounds of gold ingots far beneath us in the third sub-basement, nestling deep in bedrock, we would speculate on the viability of various plans for plundering our nation’s store of wealth. The presence of sufficient security forces to defend a medium size city and enough steel around the vault for a battle cruiser only spurred our youthful imaginations. After some months of fantasy gold robbery, I began to assert to my colleagues that stealing the gold would be foolish as it would be impossible to get away with enough gold in city traffic to make the attempt worthwhile, and selling it in any sizeable amount would lead to instant detection. I argued instead in favour of stealing the wheelie bins of cash conveniently lining the hallway to the loading ramp. Cash would be faster and easier to steal and more liquid to spend than gold.

I see now that I was a central banker of very little brain – and lacking ambition. The way to rob a central bank efficiently is to be a bank executive so skilled in financial engineering that I take my bank to the edge of extinction. I can then swap all my unpriceable, illiquid, engineered credit instruments for good central bank cash and Treasuries. That’s larceny without risk, making the central bank a complicit partner in the looting of its vaults, and earning gratitude and bonuses instead of audits and indictments.

Since the credit crisis was first diagnosed last fall, the Federal Reserve has advanced more cash and Treasuries than the entire five year cost of the Iraq war – over $400 billion. It has plundered more than half its holdings of US Treasuries, taking impaired asset-backed securities collateral in their place. It has overseen the devaluation of the dollar to third world levels of instability and inflation. And all of this debasement has as its objective the re-financing of those bank and shadow-bank executives who have so looted their own institutions that they hold the global financial system hostage to their incompetence, malpractice and greed. Without consultation or review, the Federal Reserve was able to chuck out decades of transparency and accountability in favour of secret facilities, secret loans favouring secret beneficiaries of secret largesse.

The Term Auction Facility (TAF), the Primary Dealer Credit Facility (PDCF) and the Treasury Securities Lending Facility (TSLF) are all ill-transparent conduits funnelling central bank cash to bankers in the private sector free of oversight, audit or scrutiny. The recent liberalisation of collateral by the Fed means that it is now officially the market maker of last resort for securities which are unmarketable in the private sector.

And the creepy thing is that most of the establishment thinks the Fed is doing a great job. Because there will never be an independent investigation or audit, we will never know whether they are policy geniuses or criminally complicit accomplices. Perhaps it makes no real difference to either motivation or outcome.

Now the Fed wants powers to enable it to create even more credit to finance failure. It is said to be seeking Congressional authority to pay interest on bank reserves (via Forbes with a hat tip to Steve Waldman). While this might sound benign, especially in a modern era when American banks hold no non-borrowed reserves, the expanded powers are potentially very dangerous. Paying interest on reserves would permit the central bank to extend hundreds of billions more in TAF, PDCF and TSLF credit without the inconvenience of having to sterilise the monetary expansion through further sales of its increasingly meagre inventory of Treasuries.

Spies and weapons, whether real or imaginary, are asserted by the military-intelligence complex as justifying more spies and weapons. If no attack occurs it is because they are so efficient at protecting us and pre-empting many unpublished threats. If an attack occurs, it was because they were under-funded or over-constrained. In the same way, financial excess and bad credit have been used by the banking system to justify more financial excess and bad credit in a self-reinforcing loop of financial and supervisory indulgence and forbearance. If no crisis occurs, it is because there is a new paradigm and risk management models are more reliable. If a crisis occurs, it is because banks lacked access to adequate liquidity and were over-regulated. For too long the cycle has reinforced monetary laxity, permissive deregulation and regulatory forbearance on accounting and capital adequacy, with all accountability and market discipline excused by the need to forestall contagion and systemic failure.

Any crisis now accelerates the trend toward greater public laxity, private excess and central bank secrecy. A crisis, real or manufactured, is most useful to increase the amount of public money clandestinely extended and diminish public oversight and administrative review of outcomes. This has been the pattern for at least 25 years, and may continue for some time to come before a taxpayer or creditor revolt ends the American spiral downwards towards bankruptcy and corporate tyranny.

It used to be the realm of conspiracy theorists to assert that policy makers in Washington were aligned with the military-intelligence complex in promoting international conflicts for profit or that the Federal Reserve was the tool of Wall Street banks in promoting irresponsible bubbles. Now it is accepted policy, defended openly in the media as right and inevitable, as providing an efficient means for America to meet the “threats” to security and financial stability in a changing world.

The danger of embracing the spin is that the productive economy shrinks from underinvestment and distortions as an increasing share of a slower growing pie gets diverted to government and the cronies who direct government policies.

The thrift failures in the 1980s were followed by financial deregulation and increased mortgage subsidies, enabling the massive misallocation of credit and leveraging of balance sheets on an even greater scale. Further deregulation, forbearance, subsidies and bailouts can only lead to more frightening misallocation of scarce capital in zero-savings America and more fragile over-leveraged banks, but now presenting a danger of contagion to the rest of the world. It is the savings of the world’s productive economies funding American misallocation and excess, and the world’s poor that suffer the contagion of inflation from a devalued dollar.

Already the ECB and Bank of England have followed the Fed in extending good central bank funds against questionable collateral under rapidly liberalising lending facilities. While they appear slightly more resolute on prudential supervision and inflation-fighting, they are nonetheless compromised and constrained by the policies and practices of bankers and central bankers across the Atlantic. As American banks receive forbearance and largesse, the European banks shout, “Me too!”

Globalisation of banking and regulatory “best practice” was once seen as raising standards, but may be at risk now of lowering them. Just as Japanese zero-interest rate policy flooded the world with cheap liquidity from the carry trade, fuelling speculative bubbles and providing cover for low rates elsewhere, Federal Reserve forbearance and credit accommodation may flood the world with warped management incentives and credit distortions which pervert the banking sector and financial markets, undermining rationales for savings and productive investment.

Without transparency of central bank facilities and policies, there can be no accountability for misuse of public resources and abuse of the public trust. Transparency provides an essential check on bank mismanagement, even for central bankers.

When Bloomberg revealed this week that Ben Bernanke lunched with [JPM's Matt] Dimon at the New York Fed on March 11 with key Wall Street bankers just three days before the emergency $14 billion financing for Bear Stearns and five days before the sweetheart $30 billion financing of JPMorgan’s acquisition of Bear (again, the acquired assets the Fed received for the cash are secret), it made me very uneasy. Suspicious minds might think the public interest and integrity of market mechanisms, including the corrective of the occasional failure, weren't foremost in their discussions.

Whether cock-up or conspiracy, recent reforms set the scene for looting of the central banks on a scale never imagined by my younger self.

_______________________________

As some regulars to Professor Roubini’s blog will know already, I am a mere commenter on the blog who has been elevated to posting by invitation of the Professor. Having seen the list of new posters who will be joining us here, I can assure you that I am deeply honoured to be among them.

London Banker will continue to post anonymously. It permits me to be more forthright than I could be otherwise.

Despite being a poster, my commitment to this site is as a commenter, and I hope to see many comments from my blog buddies below so that we can continue the dialogue I have enjoyed on this site for so long.

Being new at this, I will also welcome ideas and guidance at londonbanker ( at ) btinternet.com.

3 comments:

Dr. Crow said...

Prescient words, LB, and all too chillingly real now. I enjoyed reading this when first posted and I've shared it with many friends who are dazed and confused by this mess. I'll do so again to remind them what's at stake here in the US. We seem to be hypnotized and unable to think or act in our own interests anymore.

And thanks for keeping your hand in the game and your fingers on the keyboard, LB; you're one of the best!

Anonymous said...

you are too idealistic and naive. if there was a detailed report on which institutions received the most money, there would be at once a massive run on the bank.

all this talk about stealing, etc is partially due to wall street, but you must never forget who actually bought the homes without the money to afford them.

the ordinary people that you say should run the government, who bought homes that they can't afford and now blame everyone else but themselves, really should run the government?

and by not extending cash to these institutions, do you really think that is healthy for the economy? if all banks fail, economic activity will halt. think of yourself.

if your credit card suddenly stopped working, do you have enough cash to pay up everything you need to buy? all the christmas presents, etc.

now if that happened to the economy, what happens? have some common sense

you are too naive.

Anonymous said...

Yes, please continue, do not hesitate. Enjoyed reading your blog when the "the time of trouble"began, and I am sure I will in the future.

John