Elective Affinities in Institutional Design, 1951

[Note: this is a piece by Michalis Trepas, who you might recognize from the now-defunct NOL experiment “Be Our Guest.” Michalis is a newly-minted Notewriter, and this is the first of many more such pieces to come. -BC]

The Treasury and the Federal Reserve System have reached full accord with respect to debt-management and monetary policies to be pursued in furthering their common purpose to assure the successful financing of the Government’s requirements and, at the same time, to minimize monetization of the public debt.

– Joint announcement by the Secretary of the Treasury and the Chairman of the Board of Governors, and of the Federal Open Market Committee, of the Federal Reserve System, issued for release on Mar. 4, 1951

The Allied High Commission appreciates that these responsibilities [for the central bank] could not, without serious inconvenience, be given up so long as no legislation has been enacted establishing a competent Federal authority to assume them.

– Letter from the Allied High Commission to Chancellor Adenauer, Dated Mar. 6, 1951

A Financial Fable by Carl Barks, a short story starring Donald Duck and his duck-relatives, was published in Mar. 1951. It featured concepts like supply/ demand, money shocks, inflation and the ethics of productive labor, from a rather neoclassical perspective. Read today, it seems out of synch with the postwar paradigm of a subordinated monetary policy to the activist state and, more generally, with what came to be known as the Golden Age. As you have already probably noticed, this March also marks the 70th anniversary of two more instances against the currents of the time. It was back then that two main traditions of central bank independence – based on political consensus and judicial (“Chevron”) deference in the case of US, based on written law and judicial review in the case of Eurozone (read: Germany) – were (re)rooted. In the following lines, I offer an outline focused on institutional interplay, instead of then usual dramatis personae

The first instance is the well-known Treasury – FED Accord. Its importance warrants a mention in nearly every institutional discussion of modern central bank independence. The FED implemented an interest rates peg – kind of capping the yield curve – in 1942, to accommodate public debt management during World War II. The details were complicated, but we can still think of it as a convenient arrangement for the Executive. The policy continued into the early 50s, with the inflationary backdrop of the Korean War leading to tensions between a demanding Executive and an increasingly resistant central bank. Shortly after the dispute became more pronounced, reaching the media, the two institutions achieved a compromise. The austere paragraph cited above ended the interest rates peg and prompted a shift of thinking within – and without – the central bank, on monetary policy and its independence of fiscal needs.

The second one is definitely more obscure, and as such deserves a little more detail. The Bank deutscher Länder (BdL) was established in 1948, in the Allied territory of occupied Germany. It integrated central banking institutions, old and new, in a decentralized fashion á la US FED. Its creation underpinned the – generally successful – double reform of that year (a currency conversion with a simultaneous abolition of price controls), which reignited free market forces (and also initiated the de facto separation of the country). The Allied Banking Commission (ABC) supervised the BdL and retained the sole right to issue direct instructions, a choice more practical than doctrinal or ideological. As the ABC gradually allowed a greater leeway to the central bank, while fending off even indirect German political interventions, the resulting institutional setting provided for a relatively independent BdL. 

In late 1950, the Occupational Authority wanted out and an orderly transfer of powers required legislation from the Federal Government. Things deadlocked around the draft of the central bank law, the degrees of centralization and independence being the thorniest issues. The letter cited above, arriving after a few months of inertia, was the catalyst for action. The renewed negotiations concluded with the “Interim Law” of 10 Aug. 1951. The reformed BdL was made independent of instructions from the Federal Government, while at the same time assuming an obligation to support government’s general economic policy – without prejudice to its monetary duties. 

This institutional arrangement was akin to what the BdL itself had pushed for, a de jure formalization of its already de facto status. Keep in mind that the central bank enjoyed a head start in terms of reputation and experience versus the Federal Government, after all. But it can also be traced to the position articulated by the free market-oriented majority in the German quasi-governmental bodies back in 1948, a unique blend of explicit independence from/ cooperation with the government. The 1951 law effectively set the blueprint for the final central bank law, the Bundesbank Act of 1957. The underlying liberal creed echoed in the written report of the Chairman of the Committee for Money and Credit of the parliament:

The security of the currency… is the highest precondition for the retention of a market economy, and hence in the final analysis that of a free constitution for society and the state… [T]he note-issuing bank must be independent of these [political bodies] and subject only to the law.

The Financial Fable was the only story featuring Disney’s characters that made it to an important history of comics book, published in 1971. Around that time, the postwar consensus on macroeconomic stabilization policy was reaching its peak. A rethinking was already underway on the tools and goals of monetary policy, taking it away from the still garbled understanding of the period. It took another decade or so for both sides of the Atlantic to recalibrate their respective monetary policies. The accompanying modern central bank independence, with its foundations set in 1951, became a more salient – and popular – aspect a bit later.


  1. Does the recognition lag give the Fed an alibi for 2008? Scott Sumner, EconLog
  2. Dudley’s Defense of the Fed’s Floor System George Selgin, Alt-M
  3. Progress in economics Chris Dillow, Stumbling and Mumbling
  4. Moral grandstanding and character-based voting Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth

Is China running out of cash?

Is China running out of cash?

China Halts Bank Cash Transfers

“The People’s Bank of China, the central bank, has just ordered commercial banks to halt cash transfers.”

Could we be seeing the start of total economic collapse? The answer, ceteris paribus, is yes and the Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT) explains why.

To quote Ludwig Von Mises’ explanation of the final act of the ABCT:

Ludwig von Mises stated that the “crisis” (or “credit crunch“) arrives when the consumers come to reestablish their desired allocation of saving and consumption at prevailing interest rates.[12][

This means that when consumers finally realize that the money they have invested has actually been malinvested in the economy they then seek to acquire as much of their money as possibly from said investments. Most of which take the form of bank deposits.

The linked article reminds us that this is the numerous such time that China has adopted this policy saying:

“So what’s really going on?  This crunch follows similar incidents in June and December of last year.  In June, for instance, the central bank used the excuseof a “system upgrade” to allow banks to shut down their ATMs and online banking platforms.  As a result, they conserved cash and thereby avoided a nationwide meltdown.”

Other instances, such as this one in England where “[s]ome HSBC customers have been prevented from withdrawing large amounts of cash because they could not provide evidence of why they wanted it,” show that this problem may not be contained to China and may be spreading to the international market.

What does Murray Rothbard say will happen when this “credit crunch” inevitably occurs?

Wasteful projects, as we have said, must either be abandoned or used as best they can be. Inefficient firms, buoyed up by the artificial boom, must be liquidated or have their debts scaled down or be turned over to their creditors. Prices of producers’ goods must fall, particularly in the higher orders of production—this includes capital goods, lands, and wage rates […]

this means a fall in the prices of the higher-order goods relative to prices in the consumer goods industries. Not only prices of particular machines must fall, but also the prices of whole aggregates of capital, e.g., stock market and real estate values. In fact, these values must fall more than the earnings from the assets, through reflecting the general rise in the rate of interest return […]

“Since factors must shift from the higher to the lower orders of production, there is inevitable “frictional” unemployment in a depression, but it need not be greater than unemployment attending any other large shift in production. In practice, unemployment will be aggravated by the numerous bankruptcies, and the large errors revealed, but it still need only be temporary […]

Another common secondary feature of depressions is an increase in the demand for money. This “scramble for liquidity” is the result of several factors: (1) people expect falling prices, due to the depression and deflation, and will therefore hold more money and spend less on goods, awaiting the price fall; (2) borrowers will try to pay off their debts, now being called by banks and by business creditors, by liquidating other assets in exchange for money; (3) the rash of business losses and bankruptcies makes businessmen cautious about investing until the liquidation process is over.

With the supply of money falling, and the demand for money increasing, generally falling prices are a consequent feature of most depressions. A general price fall, however, is caused by the secondary, rather than by the inherent, features of depressions.

So is the massive failure of all economies imminent? Well not necessarily because the government can take some steps to prevent the immediate failure.

According to Mises:  

“Continually expanding bank credit can keep the borrowers one step ahead of consumer retribution (with the help of successively lower interest rates from the central bank). In the theory, this postpones the “day of reckoning” and defers the collapse of unsustainably inflated asset prices.[12][14] It can also be temporarily put off by price deflation or exogenous events such as the “cheap” or free acquisition of marketable resources by market participants and the banks funding the borrowing (such as the acquisition of land from local governments, or in extreme cases, the acquisition of foreign land through the waging of war).[15]

The “false” monetary boom ends when bank credit expansion finally stops – when no further investments can be found which provide adequate returns for speculative borrowers at prevailing interest rates”

These steps only “kick the can down the road” and delay the inevitable since “the longer the “false” monetary boom goes on, the bigger and more speculative the borrowing, the more wasteful the errors committed and the longer and more severe will be the necessary bankruptcies, foreclosures and depression readjustment.”

We may be seeing the beginning of the next great depression here but only time will tell.  One thing is certain though, a massive economic readjustment is coming and the central banks of the world have only been aggravating the problem.  When it will hit is anyone’s guess but in this author’s opinion we are either looking at a repeat of the early 30’s or a repeat of the early 40’s and I can only hope we can avoid going through both.

Seven Ways Libertarians Sometimes Run Off the Rails

I’m a dedicated libertarian but my first allegiance is to accuracy.  It pains me when I see libertarians making arguments that are inaccurate, irrelevant, or just plain wrong.  When they do so, they do themselves and our movement a big dis-service.  I list seven such arguments here.  More could be added.

  1. The Fed is privately owned. This is true only superficially. Member banks own shares of stock in one of twelve district Federal Reserve Banks and they receive dividends on those shares. But they have little in the way of genuine ownership privileges. They cannot sell their stock and their voting rights are very limited. The President of the United States appoints the Board of Governors. Just because a legal arrangement is given labels that suggest private ownership, that doesn’t make it so.

  2. The Bureau of Labor Statistics disguises the true unemployment situation by excluding workers who are “discouraged,” i.e., not seeking jobs. This is true of the U-3 unemployment figure which is the most widely cited figure, and the one the Fed says it is targeting. That figure is currently about 6.5%. The BLS also publishes its U-6 figure, which includes discouraged workers and currently stands at around 13%, down from about 17% at the height of the Great Recession. The BLS is not covering up anything here, although politicians may certainly choose to emphasize one figure or the other depending on what ax they’re grinding. Which is the “true” unemployment rate? There’s no such thing. The figures are what they are and observers can make of them what they will.

  3. “Chain-weighted” versions of the Consumer Price Index are politically motivated.  These adjustments are intended to recognize the substitution effect, the classic example of which is when the price of beef rises and the price of chicken doesn’t, people eat less beef and more chicken. Peoples’ cost of living rises less than it otherwise would. CPI increases as measured by a chain-weighted formula reflect this fact, and the resulting price inflation estimates come out lower than under the old approach. That flashes a green light to some conspiracy theorists. While these adjustments are tricky business, substitution effects are real and the attempt to compensate for them should not be impugned.
  4. The Consumer Price Index is politically manipulated by excluding food and energy. There are many versions of the CPI. One of them excludes food and energy because those prices are usually very volatile. That figure may be useful to economists who want to filter out volatile effects and focus on secular trends. Again, the figures are what they are, and politicians or for that matter we bloggers can use or misuse them as we wish.

  5. “Banksters” control the U.S. government. There is a grain of truth in this one. The big banks are both victims and beneficiaries of government dominance of banking and finance. The reality of government regulation is that regulated firms employ many very smart and very well paid individuals who are constantly finding ways to manipulate or sidestep the regulations to which they are subject. The fact is that the regulators and the regulated are very thick. Banking and finance are controlled by a cabal of government and Wall Street firms and individuals. It’s a mistake to say that either group totally dominates the other.

  6. Global warming is a myth and a scam. Ron Paul, whom I admire very much, blotted his copy book when he said on Fox News, “The greatest hoax I think that has been around for many, many years if not hundreds of years has been this hoax on […] global warming.” A few basic facts are beyond dispute: (a) carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, (b) CO2 levels are at an all time high, and (c) human activity is the primary cause of the increase. Beyond that, the evidence starts to get sketchy and incomplete. We do seem to have melting polar ice caps, record high temperatures in some places, droughts, etc. But overall there has been almost no temperature increase during the last ten years or so.  Projections of rising temperatures and rising sea levels appear to be too pessimistic. This is a very complex issue and one where biases can overwhelm us if we aren’t careful. Statists are prone to accept the global warming thesis because they see it as a way to increase state power. Libertarians want the issue to go away for the same reason. This would be a great time for all parties to step back an exercise some epistemic humility. There’s a great deal about this issue that we just don’t know.

  7. Let’s get rid of the state entirely, and all will be well. Given the present primitive degree of evolution of our species, a new state will pop up wherever an existing one is overthrown. The key to peace and prosperity is not anything so simple as abolition of the state, but to convince enough people, thoroughly enough, of the advantages of long-term cooperation. Good institutions will follow.

Another Housing Bubble?

Last year I wandered down the street to an open house for sale. Even though I announced myself as a looky-loo, the agent welcomed me. We sat around talking and eating cookies for an hour; no prospects showed up.

It was a nice day today and I decided to walk to another open house thinking I’d again look around and chat with the agent. Hardly – the place was mobbed! It looks great in this picture but the reality is it’s stuck way up on a hill with a steep driveway and no garage. It’s 80 years old and although it’s been fixed up cosmetically it’s nothing to write home about; not in my book anyway. Nevertheless, I’m betting they’ll have multiple offers before this first day on the market is over.

This is the San Francisco Peninsula which is by no means representative of the whole country but I hear that Las Vegas has turned around too, as have tony places in New York. Why? Although I can’t prove it, I believe a good part the gusher of money that the Fed has been printing is now making its way into housing. The stock market has stalled, the bond market is in retreat, gold has plummeted, and that pretty much leaves housing.

So although the basic premise of monetary stimulus is plausible, it just doesn’t work. The new money seems to go careening around the economy in search of the Next Big Thing. Bubbles form and collapse, malinvestments are revealed and the cycle starts anew. What’s different this time is that it’s been such a short time since the collapse of the previous housing bubble to what looks like the start of another.

If these wasteful cycles of boom and bust are to end, the Fed must cease its stimulus programs. But it can’t. When the Fed dropped just a hint last week that it might start “tapering” off its bond-buying (money-printing) program, the bond market panicked. Why should we care about the bond market? For one thing, the average maturity of the federal debt is just a couple of years. Maturing debt must be rolled over into new debt, and if the new debt carries higher interest rate, the total annual interest payment could quickly swell from a “mere” $345 billion for the current fiscal year toward a trillion dollars per year, swamping any efforts to contain spending, like the $80 billion sequester that just took effect. We could end up needing a bailout from China.

The Fed will very likely continue or even accelerate its bond buying, depending on who occupies Bernanke’s seat come January. We should expect continuing cycles of bubbles and busts and the real possibility of some very nasty fiscal consequences.

Free Banking Beats Central Banking

In “More Bits on Whether We Need a Fed,” a November 21 MarginalRevolution blogpost, George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen questions “why free banking would offer an advantage over post WWII central banking (combined with FDIC and paper money).”  He adds, “That’s long been the weak spot of the anti-Fed case.”

Free banking is better than central banking because only in a free market can the optimal prices and quantities of goods be determined.  Those goods include the money supply, and prices include the rate of interest.

There is no scientific way to know in advance the right price of goods.  With ever-changing population, technology, and preferences, markets are turbulent, and there is no way to accurately predict fluctuating human desires and costs.

The quantity of money in the economy is no different from other goods.  The optimal amount can only be discovered by the dynamics of supply and demand in a market.  The impact of money on prices depends not just on the amount of money, but also on its velocity, that is, how fast the money turns over. The Fed cannot control the velocity since it cannot control the demand for money, that is, the amount people want to hold. Also, even if the Fed could determine the best amount of money for today, the impact on the economy takes several months to take effect, and so the central bankers would need to be able to accurately predict the state of the economy months into the future. Continue reading

Unemployment: What’s To Be Done?

In Part 1 I outlined natural unemployment, government-caused unemployment, and the attempts to measure these. We saw how ambiguous and subjective some of the concepts of unemployment are and how the government, specifically the Federal Reserve, is charged with managing it. Now we turn to current conditions and what can be done about them.

There have been huge advances in technology and substantial declines in trade barriers in recent years. While these developments have raised living standards they have been hard on people whose skills were rendered obsolete or uncompetitive. When changes evolve gradually, as when so many people left farming in the last century, the disruption is not so great. Changes are now coming faster and are extending to some high-paid professional jobs. Automated systems can now handle at least the routine aspects of some legal research and medical diagnosis.

Time and time again new doors have opened to workers as old doors closed. Machines replace workers, but they raise productivity and produce new employment opportunities. We can expect this pattern to continue for a long time to come. Still, it is within the realm of possibility that robots and computers could take over so much work that the demand for human workers would shrink drastically. But those very machines would mean higher productivity and thus higher living standards.

A great deal of work can be now be done remotely, providing an advantage to areas with low living costs. Substantial outsourcing of such jobs to foreign countries has occurred (though that trend may be reversing as low-cost areas of the United States become competitive and as customer dissatisfaction and problems with managing offshore workers come up). The benefits of outsourcing and other productivity enhancements are spread across all consumers, but the job losses are concentrated among small and sometimes vocal minorities. Continue reading

The Volcker Rule

Paul Volcker is a man of considerable stature, and not just because he’s six feet, seven inches tall. He gained a reputation for courage and plain talk as chairman of the Federal Reserve System under Presidents Carter and Reagan because he broke the back of the 1970s inflation. He did so by (mostly) sticking to a tight monetary policy even though that meant sky-high interest rates and sharp back-to-back recessions before the economy could enter its vigorous recovery. Now 84, he has enjoyed a comeback in recent years as an adviser to President Obama. His Volcker Rule, prohibiting proprietary trading by banks, was heralded as one way of preventing a repeat of the recent financial crisis, and it became part of the Dodd-Frank Act signed into law in July 2010.

Dodd-Frank’s full title, incidentally, is the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Like most current legislation its name reflects hoped-for outcomes, not its actual provisions. Reading the act (the PDF is available here) is not for the faint of heart. There are 16 titles consisting of 1,601 sections for a total of 848 dense pages. Only a lawyer could love sentences like this:

Any nonbank financial company supervised by the Board that engages in proprietary trading or takes or retains any equity, partnership, or other ownership interest in or sponsors a hedge fund or a private equity fund shall be subject, by rule, as provided in subsection (b)(2), to additional capital requirements for and additional quantitative limits with regards to such proprietary trading and taking or retaining any equity, partnership, or other ownership interest in or sponsorship of a hedge fund or a private equity fund, except that permitted activities as described in subsection (d) shall not be subject to the additional capital and additional quantitative limits except as provided in subsection (d)(3), as if the nonbank financial company supervised by the Board were a banking entity.

Volcker initially outlined his proposal in a three-page memorandum. It came to life as Section 619 of Dodd-Frank, expanded to 11 dense pages. This section is supposed to prevent banks from buying and selling securities for their own accounts, in contrast to brokering customer trades. It also prohibits banks from holding interests in hedge funds or private equity funds or from sponsoring such funds. These prohibitions are supposed to lessen the need for future bailouts like those that were provided to financial institutions in 2008 and 2009. Continue reading

Bank Deregulation: Friend or Foe?

Banking has changed a lot during my lifetime—for the better. The changes are partly due to technology (ATMs, online access), but also to deregulation that subjected banks to a lot more competition. What were the major deregulatory moves and how might they have contributed to the recent crisis? Before addressing those questions, a little personal history.

I got interested in money and banking at a very young age. My mother often took me along on shopping trips, explaining what money was, why we needed it in stores, and how my father got it for us. Trips to the bank were a special treat. The Cleveland Trust branch near us was an imposing affair, with a limestone façade, high ceilings, and tellers ensconced behind ornate barred windows. The architecture was intended to instill confidence, but to me it was just a magic place.

Later, my sixth-grade class operated a student branch of another bank, the Society for Savings. Twice a month our classroom was rearranged like a bank branch. Tellers (all boys, as I recall) would accept student deposits of a dime, a quarter, or sometimes a whole dollar. Assistant tellers (girls) would write the amount of the deposit in the student’s passbook, while the boys handled the cash. After closing we tallied the deposits and packed the loot—perhaps $50—into a canvas bag, and a privileged student would trundle it off to the principal’s office under the watchful eyes of two “guards.” What great lessons we learned: thrift, honesty, attention to detail!

By the time I was 14 I was earning good money shoveling snow, raking leaves, and mowing lawns. I had become something of a saving fanatic. I soon found out that the local savings and loan (S&L) offered higher interest than commercial banks, so I opened an account there. Savings passbooks seem quaint in hindsight, but mine was a treasured possession, a tangible reminder of my growing nest egg. Continue reading

Gold and Money, II

Last [blog post], we examined some propositions about gold as money, drawing from theory and history. [In] this [blog post] we ask whether and how gold might once again serve a monetary function.

Money of any sort, commodity-based or not, derives its value in large part from what economists call a “network effect.” Like a fax machine, whose value depends largely on how many other people have fax machines, we value money because other people value it. We feel confident our money will buy us what we need tomorrow. A strong network effect means that something drastic has to happen before people will give up their familiar form of money.

Something drastic was happening when U.S. Rep. Ron Paul’s Gold Commission was set up in 1979. By the time the commission’s report was issued in 1980, inflation had reached alarming levels: The consumer price index was at 14 percent and rising. The prime rate was over 20 percent, and in 1980 silver exploded to $50 an ounce and gold surpassed $800 (about $2,300 in today’s dollars). Bestselling books urged people to buy gold, silver, diamonds, firearms, and rural hideouts.

We now know that inflation was peaking and that the silver price spike was a fluke caused by a failed attempt to corner the silver market. But none of this was apparent at the time, so it was reasonable to wonder whether our monetary system would survive. What did happen, of course, was that the new Fed chairman, Paul Volcker, stepped on the monetary brakes hard enough to break the back of inflation. Two back-to-back recessions resulted but were followed by a long period of recovery in which both inflation and interest rates dropped steadily. The Gold Commission was largely forgotten, though the U.S. Mint did get into the business of producing gold coins in a big way. Continue reading

Who Owns the Fed?

Have you heard? The Federal Reserve System raked in profits of $79.3 billion last year, almost triple what runner-up ExxonMobil made. The Fed’s business model is a snap—just print money—and unlike poor beleaguered Exxon, the Fed has no competition to worry about. This means a gigantic windfall for the big banks because, although they don’t like to admit it, they actually own the Fed.

Or not. These are all half-truths and distortions, all too easy to find on the Internet. Bloggers like to begin with the discovery that commercial banks hold shares of Fed stock and those shares pay an annual dividend. A further discovery that the Fed makes big profits is all it takes to send some of them off on a conspiracy tangent. Because shareholders in a profit-seeking corporation are its owners, so it must be with the Fed, they think. Profiteering, world-government schemes, and who knows what else, must surely follow. As I will show, these half-baked ideas are distractions from the serious issues that surround the Federal Reserve System.

Yes, commercial banks hold shares of stock in their local Federal Reserve branch, but these shares do not confer ownership in any meaningful sense. Ownership is defined as the legal and moral right to use and dispose of some asset. Ownership can be conditional or temporary, as when you lease an apartment and acquire the right to occupy it for a limited time, but not to run a business in it or do major renovations. Your purchase of shares of stock in a public corporation gives you rights to vote in shareholder elections, receive any dividends declared, and sell your shares—but that’s about all. You may not walk into the corporate offices and start giving orders; on the other hand, you may not be held liable for any misdeeds of corporate officers or employees. If you acquire shares in a nonpublic company like Facebook, you accept additional restrictions on when and to whom you may sell your shares.

Member banks receive a fixed 6 percent annual dividend on their Fed stock and enjoy limited voting rights. But there the resemblance to ordinary shares ends. The banks are obliged to acquire shares when they become members of the Fed, and they may not sell their shares or pledge them as collateral. An initial issue of stock was seen as a good way to capitalize the Fed when it began, but there has been no need for additional capital and those shares are no longer significant.

Each branch has a board of directors with six members elected by local member banks and three appointed by the central board of governors. However, board members are not all bankers. Moreover, under a rule recently enacted by Congress, only nonbankers may serve on committees that select Fed bank presidents. This new rule is one way in which the ground has been shifting under the Fed recently; more about this below.

In the beginning the Fed was quite decentralized. A dollar bill in my wallet is imprinted “Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco,” a remnant of the formerly dispersed power. The headquarters operation was initially a modest one, operating out of an office in the Treasury Department, but it now has its own imposing building, greatly expanded powers, and a correspondingly larger staff. With so much power now centralized, the branches engage mainly in monitoring local conditions and passing recommendations up to the board of governors. They have also become known for differing interests and points of view. The St. Louis Fed, for example, has an excellent collection of data available to the public. The Cleveland Fed is known for innovative research.

The Fed is a nonprofit institution, but that designation means only that profits are not its primary mission. The Red Cross is also a nonprofit, and like the Fed, it does earn a profit during any year in which gross income exceeds expenses. From an accounting point of view, such profits are essentially the same as those earned by firms in competitive markets, but not from an economic point of view. Competitive profits serve the vital function of directing scarce capital resources to the most urgent unmet demands of consumers. The Fed’s profits serve no such function.

Its income consists primarily of interest earned on its securities portfolio. Until recently the portfolio was made up almost entirely of Treasury securities. It has expanded greatly since 2008 to include mortgage-backed securities, loans to such pillars of the financial system as Harley-Davidson, and other assets including direct real-estate holdings. It incurs operating expenses of the usual sort: salaries, buildings, supplies, and more.

Remember that $79.3 billion profit? The 2010 figure, far higher than the $47.4 billion recorded for 2009, did not benefit the Fed’s managers or member bank shareholders because the money was remitted to the Treasury. That’s the law. It happens every year. If any private firm earned that much in a year it would be headline news and a boon to stockholders. For the Fed this is just an interesting statistic.

Who Calls the Tune?

The answer to the question “Who owns the Fed?” is that it’s the wrong question. Instead, we should ask: Who calls the Fed’s tune? That’s not such an easy question, yet it’s the only way to reach an understanding of why the Fed acts as it does and why it has done so much economic damage.

First and foremost, the Fed was created by Congress and can be modified or abolished by Congress. Clearly Congress is the Fed’s most important constituent.

The U.S. president also holds substantial sway over the Fed. He appoints the seven-member board of governors subject to Senate confirmation. The powerful Open Market Committee, which makes monetary policy decisions, consists of those seven plus the president of the New York Fed and four seats that are rotated among the 11 regional presidents.

But even though it exercises ultimate control, Congress has given the Fed a degree of independence that no other federal agency enjoys. Although its profits are swept back to the Treasury, the Fed enjoys a sweet deal that is unavailable to ordinary Federal agencies, which must plead with Congress for an annual appropriation. The Fed spends whatever it wants on operations, constrained only by the necessity to keep up appearances—not to look like fat-cat bankers. Its profit is whatever remains after all expenses have been paid, and, in contrast to ordinary corporate accounting, after dividends have been paid.

The Fed’s vaunted independence is a good thing, the thinking goes, because we don’t want the stewards of our money to be caught up in the swirl of day-to-day politics. But independence trades off against accountability. After all, in a democracy the bureaucracies are supposed to be accountable to Congress. The purse strings are the primary means of accountability among the other agencies, but there are no such strings tying Congress to the Fed.

Such control as commercial banks exert is not so much a function of their nominal stockholdings as it is of their connections through the network of good ol’ boys that weaves through government and “private” financial institutions. The Fed surely looks out for the interests of major private institutions, especially big banks, insurance companies, and securities firms. It does not want big-bank failures or a stock-market crash. It must be cognizant of foreigners who hold $3 trillion in U.S. Treasury debt and are keenly aware of the Fed’s actions and pronouncements.

These incentives have little to do with the Fed’s official dual mandate: stable prices and high employment. That mandate was established by the Employment Act of 1946 and the Humphrey-Hawkins act of 1978. These were times when no one questioned the Keynesian idea that inflation and unemployment always trade off against each other (the Phillips curve) and that monetary and fiscal policy must steer a course between two extremes. If the proponents of the mandate could see the relatively stable prices of recent years coupled with high unemployment, they would call for major Fed “easing.” If they then found out how much easing we have already had and the consequent monstrous increases in debt, they would surely be speechless.

Swift Changes

Some congressmen are calling for reassessing the dual mandate. This is just one way in which things are changing fast for the Fed. This once-staid institution is under increasing attack and is finding it necessary to defend itself, as when Chairman Ben Bernanke came out of his cloister to appear on 60 Minutes, a decision he may regret given the reaction to his astonishing claim that further “quantitative easing” will not increase the money supply.

New rooms are being added to the Fed mansion even as the sand shifts under it. Congress has given it extensive new powers unrelated to monetary policy, most notably a new consumer protection agency. The idea is that the Fed’s independence will ward off regulatory capture, something that always seems to happen to ordinary regulatory agencies. We shall see.

Rep. Ron Paul is the Fed’s most prominent critic. Last year his bill to require an audit of the Fed garnered a great many cosigners in the House. He reintroduced it at the start of the 2011 session, this time with his son Rand Paul on hand in the Senate to file the same bill there.

But in some ways the Fed is already quite transparent. Its website has extensive reports, updated regularly and more detailed than any releases from commercial banks or private corporations. And while deliberations of the powerful Open Market Committee are secret, detailed minutes are now made available shortly after each meeting.

In other ways it is quite secretive. For example, the Fed refused to disclose the names of banks that got loans during April and May 2008, denying Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by Bloomberg and Fox News. Responding to lawsuits, the Fed did not claim it was a private institution and therefore exempt. Instead it cited potential harm to the banks that had borrowed, but the court sensibly ruled against a “test that permits an agency to deny disclosure because the agency thinks it best to do so. . . .” The information was released.

“End the Fed” has become a rallying cry for Ron Paul and his supporters. His little book by that name will not earn any academic awards, but as a mass-market polemic it does a good job of making his case without conspiracy theories or private-ownership sideshows. There is, however, room for honest debate about fractional-reserve banking, which he opposes.

About the Fed, though, Ron Paul is right. Whatever good intentions its managers may have, the Fed, like all central banks, exists ultimately as an enabler of ever bigger government. My colleague Jeffrey Rogers Hummel may be right when he says the Fed is becoming the central planner of the U.S. economy. But when we argue for replacing the Fed with market institutions, we must take the time and effort to get our facts straight and to expose the complex network of special interests that supports the Fed. Wrongheaded and simplistic arguments only hinder the cause.

[Editor’s note: this essay first appeared in the Freeman on April 21 2011] 

The Mystique of Hedge Funds

Hedge funds are controversial these days. Though it’s unlikely that the average citizen or the average congressman could say just what hedge funds do, many are certain they must be reined in by additional regulation because they can—and do—cause widespread damage to our financial system. Almost everyone takes it for granted that regulation of some sort is the solution, ignoring the possibility that at least some of the problems are actually caused by regulation.

What is a hedge fund? The name implies hedging, a strategy that reduces risk. If you bet on several horses in a race, you are hedging your bets—spreading your risk. You can buy gold to hedge against inflation. You can sell interest-rate futures to hedge the risk that rising interest rates would pose to your bond portfolio.

The first hedge fund was created in 1949 by Alfred Jones. He believed he could pick stocks that would outperform and those that would underperform the overall market. But Jones didn’t know where the overall market was going, so he would buy his expected outperformers and sell short the expected underperformers. He thereby insulated his portfolio from general market moves, which would affect about half his holding positively and half negatively.

Most present-day hedge funds don’t do much hedging, but the name persists. Instead, they engage in a bewildering variety of trading methods, including buying on margin (using borrowed funds) and selling short (selling borrowed assets so as to profit from a price drop). They trade stocks, bonds, options, currencies, commodity futures, and sophisticated derivatives thereof. Some try to anticipate global political or economic events, while others seek opportunities in specific industries or companies. Continue reading

“Gold and Money”

That’s the title of this piece in the Freeman by our very own Dr. Gibson. In it, he suggests:

Let’s turn down the heat a bit and look into some propositions about gold. That should lead us to some reasonable ideas about whether or how gold might return.

Indeed. I’m  tempted to copy and paste the whole thing, but just check it out.

PS I’ve been a very busy man lately, but I’ve got a bunch of almost-finished writings in the works. Stay tuned!

An Ominous Expansion of Eminent Domain

A new assault on private property is in the works and it hasn’t gotten much attention – yet.  Needless to say, it goes by an Orwellian name, in this case the “Homeownership Protection Act.”  As summarized recently by Kathleen Pender in the San Francisco Chronicle, the scheme has been hatched by two cities in San Bernardino County and has not taken effect yet but is under serious consideration.  A new agency called a “Joint Powers Agreement” would be formed to do the dirty work.

The idea is to use the power of eminent domain to seize mortgages – not houses but mortgages owed to lenders by homeowners who have defaulted or are under water.  Using Ms. Pender’s example, suppose there is a $300,000 mortgage on a house worth $200,000.  The agency decides the mortgage balance should be $190,000 which would leave the homeowner with $10,000 in equity.  It seizes the mortgage and compensates the mortgage holder in an amount such as $170,000.  A new mortgage in the amount of $190,000 is then issued by a private firm which would reimburse the agency some lesser amount, say $180,000.  Thus the private firm pockets $10,000 up front and the agency another $10,000. One such firm, Mortgage Resolution Partners, has already been formed in San Francisco for this purpose.

There are some technical questions.  How is the house value determined?  By appraisers, presumably, but we saw in the housing bubble how useless their numbers were.  And what if the mortgage had been securitized, i.e., put into a mortgage-backed security?  The Federal Reserve holds a lot of these securities.  What if a local government entity tried to seize a mortgage that was ultimately owned by the Fed?  Wouldn’t that be fun?

Technical questions aside, the whole idea portends a massive new assault on private property by ravenous politicians and bureaucrats and their private co-conspirators.

Eminent domain has generally been understood as a way of solving holdout problems when a “public” project is proposed.  Such projects typically require acquisition of property from a number of owners and can’t be built at all unless and until all owners are willing to sell.  A single holdout can ruin the project.  Thus eminent domain has almost always been used to seize real property (land and buildings) as opposed to personal property such as mortgages.  (Private solutions to holdout problems have been proposed.)

The only ultimate limitation on the use of eminent domain is a clause in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which says “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”  That clause is of course wide open to varying interpretations of “public use” and “just compensation.”

A landmark Supreme Court 5-4 decision in 2005 held that the City of New London could seize a modest house owned by Suzette Kelo and hand it over to a private developer.  The house and surrounding buildings were seized and destroyed but the project went bust and the land is still vacant.  This was a significant extension of the notion of “public use.”  Justice Stevens in his decision to uphold the City noted that “a public purpose will often benefit individual private parties.”

Indeed.  Can there ever be a public project that does not benefit some private party?  Any public project necessarily diverts resources to some private party such as a contractor or neighbors whose property values are enhanced.  Turning the proposition around, almost any private project throws off some public benefits.  Kelo opened the door to conspiracies of private developers and public officials to launch almost any sort of assault on anyone’s private property.

The “just compensation” clause is also gravely problematic.  Suzette Kelo loved her little pink house.  Its market value wasn’t nearly enough to compensate for the emotional loss she suffered when she was kicked out.  Values, as distinct from prices, are subjective and are revealed by voluntary transactions.

In addition to the obvious grave immorality of this latest assault on private property, consider the incentive problems that it raises.  Future savers will be reluctant to invest their savings in mortgages or financial products containing mortgages knowing they could be expropriated.  Homeowners will find loans harder to get, thanks to the “Homeowner Protection Act.”  (Echoes of Ludwig von Mises: government interventions invariably make things worse for their ostensible beneficiaries.) There will be a marginal shift away from saving toward consumption.  Economic growth will be marginally slowed, for which politicians will blame the free market and plump for yet more expansions of government power.

Should the San Bernardino project go forward, it will be very likely to end up at the Supreme Court.  The Kelo and Obamacare decisions do not bode well for the result.

Selgin on Bernanke

Some of you have probably already seen Roger Lowenstein’s overly laudatory, but still useful and interesting, article on Ben Bernanke in the March 2012 Atlantic. As a good antidote, you should check out George Selgin’s thorough and informed critique of Bernanke’s first of four lectures on the Federal Reserve. Bernake seemingly unreflectively repeats many gross myths about the history of banking. Although these myths are widely believed by mainstream economists who who are abysmally ignorant of history, Bernanke has specialized in monetary history and should really know better.

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel