Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Break up the Fed (then abolish it)

An op-ed in the WSJ of all places is saying pretty much what I wrote to my elected representatives in Fire Bernanke, Audit and Abolish the Fed.  Take actual banking regulation away from the eggheads and away from New York City.  Set up a bank examination agency somewhere in fly-over land and staff it with people who actually know banking.  The loans that were booked during the real estate bubble were laughable.   “Purchase money seconds”?  “Zero down”?  “Negative am”?  Please!  Any responsible banker of a generation or two ago would—and many did—gag on this crap.  It is encouraging that the article below appeared in the Wall Street Journal. 

The next step is to demolish B of A, Citi, JP Morgan, HSBC and Wells, all of whose balance sheets are probably jokes.  See Regulatory reports show 5 big banks face huge loss risk.  The “fortress balance sheet” of JPM is riddled with worthless derivatives, probably.  Time for a new sheriff who will take on the oligarchs and knock down their houses of cards.  These banks have been run like hedge funds and deserve to be dismantled and put under new leadership.  This is the kind of banking that Glass-Steagall and the other reform legislation of the early thirties sought to abolish, and that Larry Summers et al. brought back because “markets are self-regulating.”   

The sooner the President understands that the pitchforks aren’t just for the bankers, and gets rid of the Wall Street players who have ripped off the American public (Summers, Geithner, Bernanke for starters)—and embraces really radical financial reform and some pay-back of the banking bailouts, the better the President’s chances of political survival are.  Because asset values probably haven’t hit bottom, and the public won’t stomach any more bailouts, so more big losses are probably coming for the banks with lots of derivatives.

Via:  WSJ

Let’s Break up the Fed

The Federal Reserve has done a terrible job at financial regulation. Why give it more power?


The Obama administration’s plan to increase the powers of the Federal Reserve, says one critic, is like giving a teenager “a bigger, faster car right after he crashed the family station wagon.” Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner disagrees. He argues that the Fed is “best positioned” to oversee key financial companies, and that the Obama plan would give the Fed only “modest additional authority.”

Mr. Geithner is right about one thing: The Fed’s power is already vast.But it wasn’t even well-positioned to supervise the likes of Citicorp. Broadening the Fed’s responsibilities won’t help. Instead, we should think of how best to dismantle an overextended Fed.

Though advanced economies like ours require organizations capable of taking on a wide range of activities, there are limits. As Frank Knight, the great Chicago economist, pointed out in his 1921 classic “Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit,” individuals who control large organizations have to delegate many decisions to subordinates. Entities like hedge funds, where individuals such as George Soros make most of the consequential choices, are exceptions.

Therefore, good judgments about people—picking the right subordinates, refereeing staff conflicts, evaluating performance, and so on—are crucial.

Good judgment requires experience, not just exceptional intelligence or raw ability. Although many lessons about managing people can be applied to different fields, good judgment also requires some specific expertise. You can’t manage plumbers without knowing something about plumbing.

Unfortunately no one can learn everything about everything. Yes, Lou Gerstner turned around IBM without any prior experience in the computer business. But he had decades of general management experience, was an exceptionally quick study, and had to come up to speed in just one industry. Individuals who can learn how to effectively lead conglomerates, especially during periods of transition, are exceedingly rare.

This mismatch between what even the most talented minds can learn and the challenges of controlling widely disparate businesses has helped bring our financial system to the brink of collapse. The great names in finance once had distinctive identities and capabilities: Salomon Brothers was the champion in bond trading; Merrill Lynch’s thundering herd was tops in retail brokerage; Morgan Stanley and J.P. Morgan’s white-shoe bankers built formidable blue-chip client lists; and Bear Stearns’s PSDs—poor, smart and driven staff—cultivated scrappy entrepreneurs. Willy-nilly diversification turned these focused outfits into highly leveraged, unwieldy agglomerations of unrelated fiefdoms.

Likewise, the Fed has been incapacitated by its transformation into an omnibus enterprise with responsibilities ranging from boots-on-the-ground regulation to high-level monetary policy. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913, which created the Federal Reserve System, did so to forestall financial panics rather than pursue macroeconomic policies. The gold standard defined monetary policy. The Fed was merely meant to “provide an elastic currency” by serving as lender of last resort in times of crisis. The Act also assigned the Fed routine responsibilities for maintaining and improving the financial system—examining banks, issuing currency notes, and helping clear checks.

The adoption of Keynesian and monetarist ideas by central bankers and elected officials subsequently cast the Fed in a proactive macroeconomic role. William McChesney Martin, who served as chairman from 1951 to 1970, said that the job of the Fed was “to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going.” This might have been wise in theory, but it wasn’t mandated by the law. In 1977, an amendment to the 1913 Act explicitly charged the Fed with promoting “maximum” employment and “stable” prices. The Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act that followed in 1978 mandated the Fed to promote “full” employment and while maintaining “reasonable” price stability.

Legislation also has increased the Fed’s responsibilities for overseeing the mechanics of the financial system. The Bank Holding Company Act of 1956 gave the Fed responsibility over holding companies designed to circumvent restrictions placed on individual banks. It was tasked with regulating the formation and acquisition of such companies.

Congress further tasked the Fed with enforcing consumer-protection and fair-lending rules. The Fed was made the primary regulator of the 1968 Truth in Lending Act that required proper disclosure of interest rates and terms. Similarly, the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 forced the Fed to address discrimination against borrowers from poor neighborhoods.

The expansion of bank holding companies into activities such as investment banking and off-balance-sheet exposures to complex instruments such as credit-default swaps also required the Fed to increase the scope of its supervisory capabilities.

In principle, an exceptionally talented theorist might capably run a Fed focused just on monetary policy. Setting the discount rate and regulating the money supply are centralized, top-down activities that do not require much administrative capacity. But without deep managerial experience and considerable industry knowledge, effective chairmanship of a Fed that relies on far-flung staff to regulate financial institutions and practices is almost unimaginable. The vast territory the Fed covers would challenge the most exceptional and experienced executives.

As it happens, the Fed has been led for more than 20 years by chairmen who had no senior management experience. Prior to running the Fed, Alan Greenspan started a small consulting firm and Ben Bernanke was head of Princeton’s economics department. Given their understandable preoccupation with monetary and macroeconomic matters, how much attention could they be expected to devote to mastering and managing the plumbing side of the Fed? While the record of the Fed’s monetary policy has been mixed, its supervision of financial institutions has been a predictable and comprehensive failure.

The Fed’s excessively broad mandate also has thwarted accountability. The CEOs of Citibank, AIG, Bear Stearns, Lehman and Countrywide are all gone—albeit with too much delay and with no clawback of unmerited compensation. At the Fed, no high-level heads have rolled. Mr. Geithner was promoted to treasury secretary. Mr. Bernanke is treated with great deference as he solemnly testifies that if it weren’t for the Fed, the crisis would have been much worse. But then, how can anyone be held responsible for failing at a job no human could do?

At the very least we should split the monetary policy and regulatory functions of the Fed, as was done through the Maastricht Treaty that established the European Central Bank. What we need now is a debate about how to break up the Fed—and some of the sprawling financial institutions it supervises—in order to make both the regulator and the regulated more manageable and accountable.

Mr. Bhidé, a visiting scholar at Harvard, is the author of “The Venturesome Economy” (Princeton University Press, 2008). He is currently writing a book about the financial crisis.

1 comment:

  1. The article: Ben "Systemic Risk" Bernanke proves that Bernanke knowingly maintained a strict monetary policy long after he knew of the sub prime problem as he knew it would cause of the "Depression".

    It shows that he probably engineered it on purpose!

    If you want to sleep tonight, Don't Read It!

    "In contradiction to the prevalent view of the time, that money and monetary policy played at most a purely passive role in the Depression, Friedman and Schwartz argued that "the [economic] contraction is in fact a tragic testimonial to the importance of monetary forces" (Friedman and Schwartz, 1963, p. 300).

    The slowdown in economic activity, together with high interest rates, was in all likelihood the most important source of the stock market crash that followed in October.

    In other words, the market crash, rather than being the cause of the Depression, as popular legend has it, was in fact largely the result of an economic slowdown and the inappropriate monetary policies that preceded it.

    Of course, the stock market crash only worsened the economic situation, hurting consumer and business confidence and contributing to a still deeper downturn in 1930."

    Governor Ben S. Bernanke
    Money, Gold, and the Great Depression.
    At the H. Parker Willis Lecture in Economic Policy, Washington and Lee University,
    Lexington, Virginia.
    March 2nd, 2004

    You can read also: Preparing for the Crash, The Age of Turbulence Update: 30/07/09., which tries to accomplish Greenspan Mission Impossible:

    "That is mission impossible. Indeed, the international financial community has made numerous efforts in recent years to establish such oversight, but none prevented or ameliorated the crisis that began last summer.

    Much as we might wish otherwise, policy makers cannot reliably anticipate financial or economic shocks or the consequences of economic imbalances.

    Financial crises are characterised by discontinuous breaks in market pricing the timing of which by definition must be unanticipated - if people see them coming, then the markets arbitrage them away.


    The clear evidence of underpricing of risk did not prod private sector risk management to tighten the reins.

    In retrospect, it appears that the most market-savvy managers, although conscious that they were taking extraordinary risks, succumbed to the concern that unless they continued to "get up and dance", as ex-Citigroup CEO Chuck Prince memorably put it, they would irretrievably lose market share.

    Instead, they gambled that they could keep adding to their risky positions and still sell them out before the deluge. Most were wrong."

    Alan Greenspan
    The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World [Economic Order?].

    The Age of Turbulence: Plea for a New World Economic Order. explains the nature and causes of economic depressions and proposes a plausible alternative solution.