Broke bureaucrat of the day, St Louis Fed edition

By Felix Salmon
February 1, 2012
Binyamin Appelbaum has helpfully aggregated all the Fed presidents' financial disclosure statements in one place.

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Binyamin Appelbaum has helpfully aggregated all the Fed presidents’ financial disclosure statements in one place. The richest Fed president is Dallas’s Richard Fisher, who used to run an investment fund called Value Partners. And the legacy of Value Partners is still visible in Fisher’s statement: he owns more than $500,000 of stock in an obscure clothing company called Cherokee Inc, for instance, which was one of Value Partners’s biggest investments.

But the most striking disclosure comes at the other end of the scale, from St Louis Fed president James Bullard. Bullard’s a career central banker who has never had a lucrative private-sector career, but he’s still doing OK for himself: his annual salary is $281,300, which should be more than enough to bring up a family of four in St Louis.

Here’s the thing, though: Bullard’s disclosure form is completely blank. Which means that, except for his house and his Federal Reserve retirement benefits, he has no investments at all worth more than $1,000 — not even a savings account. Or, to put it another way, the president of the St Louis Fed, earning well over a quarter of a million dollars a year, is living paycheck-to-paycheck. Every two weeks, he gets paid $10,819, less taxes and deductions, and yet by the end of the year he still doesn’t have even $1,000 in a checking account.

Now there might be a good reason why Bullard was completely cleaned out for some reason and left with absolutely nothing but the roof over his head. Maybe there was a lawsuit, or medical bills, or something like that. But still, Bullard’s balance sheet is quite astonishingly bare, for someone in his exalted position.

Which makes a cynical old journalist like me start wondering about the revolving door. It actually makes perfect sense to live beyond your means when you’re in the public sector, if you know that you’re going to make a lot of money in the private sector later on. It’s called consumption smoothing, and it’s entirely rational. You might not be able to lavish money on your family from a cashflow perspective, but that’s fine, because you’re still a wealthy man if you take into account the present value of massive future earnings.

So James Bullard, regulator of financial institutions in the mid-west and across the country, has an incentive to be very nice to those institutions, since they’re capable of rewarding him with lucrative work if and when he leaves the Fed. Work which he’s likely to want, if he continues as broke as he is right now.

Bullard, at just 51 years old, has a pretty long and lucrative private-sector career ahead of him, should he be so inclined. And when he filed that financial disclosure form, I wonder if he was thinking about the day when he would be able to fill it out with more than nothing.

Update: The instructions do say that Fed presidents should “exclude any personal account”; I’m unclear on what that means. Certainly other Fed presidents include checking accounts in their disclosures; Richard Fisher’s contain more than $500,000 in aggregate, on top of various money-market funds and the like, one of which contains more than $1 million.

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