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More Heat For The Federal Reserve

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October 5, 2009

On Thursday, October 1, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke testified before the House Financial Services Committee.  That event demonstrated how the Fed has fallen into the crosshairs of critics from both ends of the political spectrum.  A report in Friday’s Los Angeles Times by Jim Puzzanghera began with the point that the Obama administration has proposed controversial legislation that would expand the Fed’s authority, despite bipartisan opposition in a Congress that is more interested in restricting the Fed’s influence:

Worried about the increased power of the complex and mysterious Fed, and upset it did not do more to prevent the deep recession, Capitol Hill has focused its anger over the financial crisis and its aftermath on the central bank.  The Fed finds itself at the center of a collision of traditional political concerns – conservatives’ fears of heavy-handed government intervention in free markets, and liberals’ complaints of regulators who favor corporate executives over average Americans.

More than two-thirds of the House of Representatives has signed on to a bill that would subject the central bank to increased congressional oversight through expanded audits.  A key senator wants to strip the Fed of its authority to regulate banks.  And the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee wants to rein in the Fed’s emergency lending power, which it used to help engineer the sale of Bear Stearns Cos. and bailout American International Group Inc.

The article noted the observation of Jaret Seiberg, a financial policy analyst with Concept Capital’s Washington Research Group:

“The Fed is running into unprecedented opposition on Capitol Hill,” he said.

“In the Senate, there’s open hostility toward any expansion of the Federal Reserve’s authority.  And in the House, you certainly have Republicans looking to focus the Fed solely on monetary policy and strip it of any larger role in financial regulation.”

Mr. Puzzanghera’s report underscored how the Fed’s interventions in the economy during the past year, which involved making loans (of unspecified amounts) and backing commercial transactions, have drawn criticism from both sides of the aisle.  The idea of expanding the Fed’s authority to the extent that it would become a “systemic risk regulator” has been criticized both in Congress and by a former member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors:

House Republicans want to scale back the Fed’s power so the bank focuses on monetary policy.  And many have opposed the administration’s proposal to give the Fed the new role of supervising large financial institutions, such as AIG, that are not traditional banks but pose a risk to the economy if they fail.

“I’m not alone with my concerns about the Fed as a systemic regulator,” said Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.).  Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) has similar concerns, as do others on his panel.  In fact, Dodd has proposed stripping the Fed of all of its bank oversight functions as part of his plan for creating a single banking regulatory agency.

Former Fed Gov. Alice M. Rivlin also said it would be a mistake to increase the Fed’s regulatory powers because it would distract from the central bank’s monetary policy role.

“Do we want to augment the regulatory authority of the Fed?      . . .  My answer is no,” said Rivlin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.  “My sense is many people would be nervous about that augmentation.”

The colorful Democratic chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Barney Frank, recently published a report card on the committee’s website, criticizing the Fed’s poor record on consumer protection.  The report card contrasted what Congressional Democrats had done to address various issues (categorized under the heading:  “Democrats Act”) with what the Fed has or has or has not done in dealing with those same problems.

Meanwhile, Republican Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, is making the rounds, promoting his new book:  End The Fed.  A recent posting at The Daily Bail website includes a YouTube video of Ron Paul at a book signing in New York, which resulted in a small parade over to the New York Fed.  Although the Daily Bail piece reported that Paul’s book had broken into the top ten on Amazon’s list of bestsellers — as I write this, End The Fed is number 15.  I would like to see that book continue to gain popularity.  Perhaps next time Chairman Bernanke testifies before a committee, he will know that something more than his own job is on the line.  It would be nice to see him make history as the last Chairman of the Federal Reserve.



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Ron Paul Struts His Stuff

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August 17, 2009

Republican Congressman Ron Paul of Texas has become quite a popular guy, lately.  Back on February 26, he sponsored his own bill, the Federal Reserve Transparency Act, (HR 1207) which would give the Government Accountability Office authority to audit the Federal Reserve and its member components, requiring a report to Congress by the end of 2010.  On July 29, a Rasmussen poll revealed that 75 percent of those surveyed were in favor of auditing the Federal Reserve, with only 9 percent opposed to such a measure.  Lew Rockwell’s website recently featured an article by Anthony Gregory, discussing the Rasmussen poll results and the popularity of Ron Paul’s proposed legislation:

While much of the hostility toward Obama’s domestic policy might be seen in partisan terms, distrust of the Fed completely transcends typical ideological or partisan lines.  While all Congressional Republicans support Ron Paul’s bill to audit the Fed, so do more than a hundred Democrats, demonstrating the impact of the wide public outrage over the Washington-Wall Street shenanigans since the financial downturn.

The Federal Reserve, a centerpiece in the bipartisan establishment, an essential component in both war finance and economic management, is now the least trusted government agency.  More than two thirds of Americans do not believe the Fed is doing a good job.  Two years ago, virtually no one even talked about the Fed; it was an obscure institution assumed to be necessary, wise and uninteresting.  Anyone who brought it up was accused of being outside the sphere of respectable opinion.  Now its champions are on the defensive, and they are desperately scrambling to restore public awe for the central bank behind the curtain.

But the opposition to Obama’s economic policies, both on the right and on the anti-corporate left who view his ties to the banking industry with suspicion, along with a growing disappointment on the left as it concerns civil liberties and war, may eventually constrain Obama.

The mistrust of the Fed, discussed by Mr. Gregory, was based on a Gallup Poll, also conducted during July, which revealed that the Federal Reserve is now “the least trusted” of all government-related entities.

Despite protests from the academic world and an unsupportive editorial from The Washington Post, support for Ron Paul’s bill continues to gain momentum.  Howard Rich, Chairman of Americans for Limited Government, wrote a favorable commentary on this proposal, pointing out that he initially thought it was a rather strange idea.  He eventually looked at the situation with this rationale:

From its founding in 1913, the Fed has existed as an island of almost total independence — setting interest rates, managing inflation and regulating banks according to the will of its Chairman and seven-member Board of Directors.

It cannot be audited. Its ledger is not disclosed. Its meetings are private. Its decisions are not up for debate.

Of course, this ongoing shroud of secrecy ignores the fact that the Fed — as it exists today — is a completely different animal than it was even two years ago.

No longer merely a “regulatory” agency, the Fed has used the current economic crisis as an excuse to dramatically expand its role.  With zero transparency, accountability and effectiveness, it has printed and loaned trillions of dollars since mid-2007 in a costly and unsuccessful effort to mitigate fallout from the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

The question of where those trillions of dollars went is exactly what is on the minds of most people demanding more accountability from the Fed.  Was any favoritism involved in determining what banks received how much money?  Dean Baker wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian, arguing against the re-appointment of Ben Bernanke for another term as the Fed chairman.  The subject of favoritism in the Fed’s response to last fall’s financial meltdown was apparently a matter of concern to Mr. Baker:

By this measure, Bernanke’s performance is very poor.  He has refused to provide the public, or even the relevant congressional committees, with information on the trillions of dollars in loans that were made through the Fed’s special lending facilities.  While anyone can go to the Treasury’s website and see how much each bank received through Tarp and under what terms, Bernanke refuses to share any information on the loans that banks and other institutions received from the Fed.

Where we do have information, it is not encouraging.  At the peak of the financial crisis in October, Goldman Sachs converted itself from an investment bank into a bank holding company, in part so that it could tap an FDIC loan guarantee programme.  Remarkably, Bernanke allowed Goldman to continue to act as an investment bank, taking highly speculative positions even after it had borrowed $28bn with the FDIC’s guarantee.

The idea that the Federal Reserve could loan trillions of dollars to unidentified beneficiaries on secret terms has resulted in outrage from across the political spectrum.  In his rebuttal to The Washington Post‘s editorial criticizing Ron Paul’s Fed transparency initiative, Independent (and self-avowed socialist) Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont had this to say:

This legislation wouldn’t undermine the Fed’s independence, and it wouldn’t put Congress in charge of monetary policy.  An audit is simply an examination of records or financial accounts to check their accuracy.

We must not equate “independence” with secrecy.  No matter how intelligent or well-intentioned the Fed chairman and his staff may be, it isn’t appropriate to give a handful of people the power to lend an unlimited supply of money to anyone it wants without sufficient oversight.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely.  The American people have a right to know what is being done with their hard-earned taxpayer dollars.  This money does not belong to the Fed; it belongs to the American people.

The tremendous upsurge in support for the Federal Reserve Transparency Act was obviously what motivated Ron Paul to write an essay on the matter for Sunday’s edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer.  With such a strong wind at his back, he confidently trashed the arguments of his opponents and began the piece with this assertion:

The Federal Reserve’s unprecedented intervention into the U.S. economy has inflamed more Americans than almost any other issue in recent memory.

Congressman Paul then proceeded to pound away at the criticism of his bill, reminding me of a boxer, who sees blood flowing down into his opponent’s eyes:

The most conservative estimates place the potential cost of the Federal Reserve’s bailouts and guarantees at about $9 trillion. That is equivalent to more than 60 percent of the U.S.economy, all undertaken by one organization, and almost all of those transactions are exempt from congressional oversight and public scrutiny.

The Fed and its apologists are using bogeymen to deflect criticism.  If the Fed were audited, they argue, monetary policy would be compromised as Congress tries to direct the Fed’s actions, and the Fed’s record of economic stability and low inflation would come to an end.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

*   *   *

The Fed’s mismanagement created the Great Depression, the stagflation of the 1970s, and now our current economic crisis. Over the nearly100 years of the Fed’s existence, the dollar has lost nearly 95 percent of its purchasing power.  A “mild” rate of inflation of 2 percent per year means that a baby born today will see the dollar’s purchasing power erode by a further 75 percent over his lifetime.  If this boondoggle is the Fed’s definition of stability and sound management of the dollar, I would hate to see what instability looks like.

Yet that is exactly what we face today and in the near future with a federal government and a Federal Reserve working hand in hand to bail out favored Wall Street firms with sums of money that have quickly reached absurd proportions.

*   *   *

The fact that a single entity, the Federal Reserve, has dominated monetary policy for so long has been detrimental to the economy.  As long as we try to keep up the fictions that the Federal Reserve works to benefit the American people, that attempting to fix interest rates will not distort the economy, and that the Fed can end a recession by injecting liquidity, we will never free ourselves from the boom and bust of the business cycle.

A necessary first step to restoring economic stability in this country is to audit the Fed, to find out the multitude of sectors in which it has involved itself, and, once the audit has been completed, to analyze the results and determine how the Fed should be reined in.

When one sees a former Republican Presidential primary contender enjoy this type of momentum, the inevitable question is whether Ron Paul might make another run for the White House.  Justin Miller had this on his mind last month when he discussed this subject for The Atlantic:

Paul is just as plausible a candidate to run for the Republican nomination as are Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, or Mike Huckabee who were tested in polls this month.  Like them, Paul’s run for the White House (twice) before and has said he isn’t opposed to doing it again, albeit he said it’s “unlikely.”  What’s more likely, based on the circumstantial evidence, is that the Republican voters would receive Paul better than they did last year.  Feature him in polls from now on and we can test this hypothesis.

As President Obama continues to alienate the liberal base of the Democratic Party, Ron Paul might be just the person the Republicans would want to nominate in 2012.  He’ll be 77 years old at that point — just in time for a single term.

Sign This Petition

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May 25, 2009

For some reason, the Boston College School of Law invited Federal Reserve Chairman, B.S. Bernanke, to deliver the commencement address to the class of 2009 on May 22.  While reading the text of that oration, I found the candor of this remark at the beginning of his speech, to be quite refreshing:

Along those lines, last spring I was nearby in Cambridge, speaking at Harvard University’s Class Day.  The speaker at the main event, the Harvard graduation the next day, was J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books.  Before my remarks, the student who introduced me took note of the fact that the senior class had chosen as their speakers Ben Bernanke and J. K. Rowling, or, as he put it, “two of the great masters of children’s fantasy fiction.”  I will say that I am perfectly happy to be associated, even in such a tenuous way, with Ms. Rowling, who has done more for children’s literacy than any government program I know of.

Meanwhile, that great master of children’s fantasy fiction (and money printing) is now faced with the possibility that someday, someone might actually start looking over his shoulder in attempt to get some vague idea of just what the hell is going on over at the Federal Reserve.

The Federal Reserve’s resistance to transparency has been a favorite topic of many commentators.  For example, once Ben Bernanke took over the Fed Chairmanship from Alan Greenspan in 2006, Ralph Nader expressed his high hopes that Bernanke might adopt Nader’s suggested “seven policies of openness”.  Dream on, Ralph!

Speaking of children’s fantasy fiction, one expert on that subject is Congressman Alan Grayson.  As the Representative of Florida’s Eighth Congressional District, his territory includes Disney World.  Thus, it should come as no surprise that back in January of 2009, as a new member of the House Financial Services Committee, he immediately set about cross-examining Federal Reserve Vice-Chairman Donald Kohn about what had been done with the 1.2 trillion dollars in bank bailout money squandered by the Fed after September 1, 2008.  Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com provided a five-minute video clip of that testimony along with an audio recording of his 20-minute interview with Congressman Grayson, focusing on the complete lack of transparency at the Federal Reserve.

Better yet was Congressman Grayson’s questioning of Federal Reserve Board Inspector General Elizabeth Coleman on May 7.  In one of the classic “WTF Moments” of all time, Ms. Coleman admitted that she had no clue about the “off balance sheet transactions” by the Federal Reserve, reported by Bloomberg News as amounting to over nine trillion dollars in the previous eight months.  If you haven’t seen this yet, you can watch it here.  After reviewing this video clip, Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism was of the opinion that Coleman was not stonewalling, but instead was “clearly completely clueless”.  Ms. Smith pointed out how opacity at the Federal Reserve may be by design, with the apparent motive being obfuscation:

But there is a possibly more important issue at stake.  The interview is with the Inspector General of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.  The programs are actually at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.  For reasons I cannot fathom, the Board of Governors is subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, while the Fed of New York has been able to rebuff them.

So I take Coleman’s inability to answer key questions to be a feature, not a bug.  The Fed of New York probably can answer Congressional questions, is taking care to limit what it conveys to the Board so as to keep the information from Congress and the public.  Note in the questioning the emphasis on “high level reviews”.

In order to shine a bright light on the Federal Reserve, Republican Congressman Ron Paul of Texas has introduced the Federal Reserve Transparency Act, (H.R. 1207) which would give the Government Accountability Office the authority to audit the Federal Reserve and its member components, and require a report to Congress by the end of 2010.  On May 21, Congressman Alan Grayson wrote to his Democratic colleagues in the House, asking them to co-sponsor the bill.  Among the many interesting points made in his letter were the following:

Furthermore, the Federal Reserve has refused multiple inquiries from both the House and the Senate to disclose who is receiving trillions of dollars from the central banking system.  The Federal Reserve has redacted the central terms of the no-bid contracts it has issued to Wall Street firms like Blackrock and PIMCO, without disclosure required of the Treasury, and is participating in new and exotic programs like the trillion-dollar TALF to leverage the Treasury’s balance sheet.  With discussions of allocating even more power to the Federal Reserve as the “systemic risk regulator” of the credit markets, more oversight over the central bank’s operations is clearly necessary.

The net effect of recent actions has been to isolate financial policy-making entirely from democratic input, and allow the Treasury Department to leverage the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet to spend money it cannot get appropriated from Congress.  The public does not know where trillions of its dollars are going, and so has no meaningful control over the currency or this unappropriated “budget”.  The extraordinary size of these lending facilities combined, the extreme secrecy, and the private influence is a dangerous seizure of Congress’s constitutional prerogative to appropriate public monies and control the currency.

You can do your part for this cause by signing the on-line petition.  Let Congress know that we will no longer tolerate “children’s fantasy fiction” from the Federal Reserve.  Demand an audit of the Federal Reserve as well as a report to the public of what that audit reveals.