When the Fed Goes into the Investment Business

The power to determine the quantity of money… is too important, too pervasive, to be exercised by a few people, however public-spirited, if there is any feasible alternative. There is no need for such arbitrary power… Any system which gives so much power and so much discretion to a few men, [so] that mistakes — excusable or not — can have such far reaching effects, is a bad system. It is a bad system to believers in freedom just because it gives a few men such power without any effective check by the body politic — this is the key political argument against an independent central bank.

— Milton Friedman (1912-2006)

The system of banking [is] a blot left in all our Constitutions, which, if not covered, will end in their destruction… The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people to whom it properly belongs.

— Thomas Jefferson, (1743-1826), 3rd U.S. President

If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their money, first by inflation and then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them (around the banks), will deprive the people of their property until their children will wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.

— Thomas Jefferson, (1743-1826), 3rd U.S. President

In 1989, the U.S. government created the Resolution Trust Corp., in effect nationalizing many savings and loans banks that were in financial difficulties. Similarly, on February 16, 2008, the British government nationalized the Northern Rock bank and rescued this bank with about £55 billion ($107 billion) in public loans and guarantees.

During the weekend of March 14-16, 2008, the Federal Reserve, a semi-public and semi-private American central bank organization, accepted to create a Delaware-based corporation in partnership with a (regulated) private bank, the JP Morgan Chase bank, in order to buy and manage $30 billion of distressed mortgage-backed securities acquired from a New York-based global but unregulated investment bank, Bear Stearns, about to go bankrupt. JP Morgan Chase put $1 billion in the new corporation, while the Fed invested $29 billion, an amount that was quickly transferred to JP Morgan Chase, the new owner of Bear Stearns.

In so doing, the Fed has de facto nationalized a portion of the portfolio of Bear Stearns, and become an “investor of last resort” rather than a “lender of last resort”, besides facilitating the take-over of this investment bank by JP Morgan Chase. A private company, BlackRock Financial Management, [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BlackRock] was also hired to administer the new Delaware-based corporation and will attempt to liquidate the acquired securities gradually over time. The Fed could then recuperate part or all of its non-recourse “loan” to JP Morgan Chase, and would retain any excess amount on its unusual “investment”, in the event there is a profit.

There you have it. For the first time since its creation in 1913, the Fed has turned itself into a government of the banks, and has invested risky public capital in a business that was in need to be saved quickly from bankruptcy and liquidation. Thus, the Fed has not only decided that it is its duty to solve “liquidity crises” but also “solvency crises” in the regulated and non-regulated banking sector. In other countries, such public investments to resolve a solvency crisis are decided and handled by the Treasury and the Government, and are later voted into law. Even in the U.S., that is the way the Resolution Trust Corp. was created by the Reagan administration in the late 1990s. In fact, the current banking crisis is very reminiscent of the U.S. Savings and Loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, although this time the banking crisis is much more severe and much more widespread.

I personally do not question the need for avoiding a panic liquidation of the subprime and other exotic assets of Bear Stearns, in order to avoid a contagious domino effect of bank failures and a worldwide credit crunch, which could have duplicated the failure of the Creditanstalt bank in September 1931, an event that precipitated the 1930’s depression. After all, the Fed was established in 1913 to avoid banking panics. What can be questioned is the way this has been done, the end result being in effect to subsidize the U.S. banking sector by privatizing most of the profits derived from the rescue operation in the hands of a private bank, and nationalizing the most likely losses in the hands of the Fed and its backer, the U.S. government. The U.S. Treasury should have played a much larger role in this bailout, so as to protect the public interest.

Make no mistake about it. This transaction may turn out to be enormously profitable to JP Morgan Chase, if the actions of the Fed were to stabilize the market for mortgage-backed financial assets in the coming months, while the Fed guarantees that the new owner of Bear Stearns would not suffer any loss on a vulnerable portion of its acquired portfolio.

A more transparent and a more democratic approach would have called for the Treasury to establish the equivalent of the old Resolution Trust Corp. to acquire insolvent Bear Stearns and gradually liquidate its mortgage-backed and other risky financial assets over time. The salvaged investment bank could have later on be sold to an existing bank at a fair market value, or reinstated as an independent viable financial entity. The public good could have been protected by avoiding a financial panic, while simultaneously precluding a massive liquidation of jobs at Bear Stearns, and a possible private enrichment of a private entity under the umbrella of an unusually risky public investment by the Fed.

I have been an adviser to central banks over my career, and that is what I would have recommended.

Rodrigue Tremblay is professor emeritus of economics at the University of Montreal and author of the book The New American Empire. He can be reached at: rodrigue.tremblay@yahoo.com. Read other articles by Rodrigue, or visit Rodrigue's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on April 13th, 2008 at 6:59am #

    Rodrigue maybe I can help you with this. John Steinbeck and a very good book called the grapes of wrath. The thirty’s tuff times and in John’s book, I am doing this from memory as I read this many moons ago in California there was this family. Nine kids and the mother. The mother was never married she just like having kids. They lived in an old broken down house in the middle of a farming area. The kid’s never went to school and just played and were kid’s. The food they ate they got from the fields. These kids were healthy and talk about good teeth. The mother would read to them at night by candle light as they had no electricity. Heck they thought they were all right. Well the town’s people one day who knew of this mother and her nine kid’s had a meeting and decided to help this oh so poor family. They fixed up the house and new clothes for all. Food the good stuff was given to them and they all went to school. Well it didn’t take long. Many of the kid’s became overweight and remember those good teeth forget about it. The kid’s started to fight over who was the best something they never did before or at least like they did now. At school they learned about some people are better they others and hate you know all that good stuff. No more reading by candle light and in many way’s the light went out.
    Rodrigue let me think a few minutes and I will tell you why I think this is important.

  2. Don Hawkins said on April 13th, 2008 at 7:56am #

    What you just wrote about the banking system or the financial system it’s like it is ok. Don’t worry be happy. That is where I disagree the system is no longer going to work it never really did. The family in California in John’s book well think of that family as 6 billion people and the town’s people well think of them as Madison Avenue and Bank’s and Wall Street and GM and on and on and on. I live in South Georgia and did you hear about Obama’s last little statement. You know country people are bitter gave me a break. You see we think we are ok we don’t need Madison Avenue or Wall Street or Gm to tell us how to think. Go fishing and grow your own food. Do these geniuses in Banking or Wall Street know how to do that or is pushing that easy button about it. My kid’s live here to and my son has Blueberries and we are right now planting vegetables you see I am trying to gave them a fighting chance. Oh things are not that bad. Oh yes they are. These food riots we see are just the beginning and let’s just take one country China and in a few years they will start to run low on food and water. Climate change will have a lot to do with that and taking worthless paper form the United States while not only destroying there country but the Earth. How many people live in the United States and how much of the World’s resources do we use so we can drive SUV’s and become so fat we can’t even get out of bed and cover all this over with lot’s of prescription drugs as only 50 % of kid’s make it out of high school. Yes this is all working out so well.

    A major fight is brewing – it may be called war. On the one side, we find the short-term
    financial interests of the fossil fuel industry. On the other side: young people and other beings
    who will inherit the planet. It seems to be an uneven fight. The fossil fuel industry is launching
    a disinformation campaign and they have powerful influence in capitals around the world.
    Young people seem pretty puny in comparison to industry moguls. James Hansen
    Yes that was James Hansen talking about climate change and he is not only one of the good guy’s but damn smart. For Gm to keep making car’s and selling them to China or India is insanity and for power companies to even think of using coal is nuts and to keep making fuel from corn or to keep burning forests for fuel is not to bright. So there is a major fight brewing-it may be called war. When do you think we should get started? Game on and remember we think we are just fine we are Ok. Make no mistake about it. This transaction may turn out to be enormously profitable to JP Morgan Chase, Oh really let’s watch the markets this coming week and I wonder if anybody at JP Morgan has a book on how to grow there own food. Oh things are not that bad, Oh yes they are. I am looking forward to reading books by candle light again.

  3. Don Hawkins said on April 13th, 2008 at 10:52am #

    During the Great Depression and then the dust bowl the government didn’t really step in to help people in the middle of the United States. From what I understand finally they did and this so called ruling class started to get a little nervous. You know moving toward socialism and all that. Well thank God that didn’t happen and look what we have now and how well this is all going. What’s coming that freight train rolling down the tracks although it be slow somewhat the Great Depression the dust bowl is a walk in the park. Forget about socialism because it is now to the point where draconian measures are now needed in many way’s. Is this to hard for human’s to do, no. Very hard choices and reading a good book by candle light. You laugh because reading by candle light is the good part there are others parts that are not very good if nothing is done and soon. Buy gold, no. The last time I checked you can’t eat gold.

  4. hp said on April 13th, 2008 at 11:03am #

    ‘Private profit, socialized losses.’

  5. Don Hawkins said on April 13th, 2008 at 12:11pm #

    It’s the damn truth. I am glad you said something HP I almost headed for Canada.

  6. D.R. Munro said on April 13th, 2008 at 6:37pm #

    Don Hawkins, you can’t escape it.

    The cancer has overtaken its host. There isn’t a single place in the world you can go.

  7. Don Hawkins said on April 14th, 2008 at 4:35pm #

    We drive, they starve.