James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Barney Frank: Let’s pack the Fed with doves

Oct 30, 2009 14:26 UTC

Here is Barney Frank at yesterday’s House Financial Services hearing:

I had a study done. Ninety percent of Federal Open Market Committee [dissents] are from regional bank presidents and 90 percent of the 90 percent are for higher interest rates.

Those are inappropriately placed private businessmen, or women, occasionally, picked by other private businessmen, and occasionally women, and they should not be setting public policy.

I don’t care that the Fed rejected what the Treasury said. That may be a nice discussion among gentlemen. The Fed will not reject it when we, I promise you, next year, take up legislatively the issue. And I think it’s very clear. You should not have private citizens like the presidents of the regional banks voting on policy. And I guarantee that will happen.

Me: Along with the Fed audit bill, it is clear Congress wants to have more influence over the Fed. This, right at the time when global financial markets will have to remain confident America will not inflate its way out of its debt.

COMMENT

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Oil prices, inflation and a double-dip recession

Oct 26, 2009 14:24 UTC

Andy Xie paints a dire scenario:

Central banks around the world have released massive amounts of money in response to the current financial crisis … But the proposition that a weak economy means low inflation is false. The stagflation of the 1970s proves it.

This round of monetary growth has mainly fed speculation, not credit demand for consumption or investment. Speculation has reached a dangerous point with the oil price threatening to reach triple digits again. Its implications for inflation may spook the central banks to raise interest rates quickly and trigger another crash.The excess money supply has created a new liquidity bubble.

The resulting asset inflation (stocks and bonds in developed markets and everything in emerging markets) has stabilised the global economy. The current equilibrium is one on a pinhead. The hope for strong economic recovery led by emerging economies raises investor optimism – and asset prices. This eases pressure on corporate balance sheets, spurs property production and boosts consumption through the wealth effect, making the hope self-fulfilling in the short term.

A rising oil price threatens to derail this recovery. It can trigger a surge in inflation expectation and a major crash of bond markets. The resulting high bond yields may force the central banks to raise interest rates to cool inflation fears. Another major downturn in asset prices would reignite fears about the balance sheets of global financial institutions, leading to new chaos.

Paul Volcker: Obama’s forgotten man

Oct 21, 2009 13:42 UTC

The most devastating part of the NYTimes piece on Paul Volcker’s lack of influence on WH economic policy comes into the very last sentence of the piece:

So Mr. Volcker scoffs at the reports that he is losing clout. “I did not have influence to start with,” he said.

Me: I can’t believe Volcker is also too thrilled with what’s been happening lately with King Dollar. Yet the focus of the story is how the WH is ignoring Volcker’s advice to separate banking from investing and trading, a de facto restoration of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act.

Mr. Volcker’s proposal would roll back the nation’s commercial banks to an earlier era, when they were restricted to commercial banking and prohibited from engaging in risky Wall Street activities. … The only viable solution, in the Volcker view, is to break up the giants. JPMorgan Chase would have to give up the trading operations acquired from Bear Stearns. Bank of America and Merrill Lynch would go back to being separate companies. Goldman Sachs could no longer be a bank holding company. It’s a tall order, and to achieve it Congress would have to enact a modern-day version of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which mandated separation.

Glass-Steagall was watered down over the years and finally revoked in 1999. In the Volcker resurrection, commercial banks would take deposits, manage the nation’s payments system, make standard loans and even trade securities for their customers — just not for themselves. The government, in return, would rescue banks that fail. On the other side of the wall, investment houses would be free to buy and sell securities for their own accounts, borrowing to leverage these trades and thus multiplying the profits, and the risks.

Being separated from banks, the investment houses would no longer have access to federally insured deposits to finance this trading. If one failed, the government would supervise an orderly liquidation. None would be too big to fail — a designation that could arise for a handful of institutions under the administration’s proposal.

Banking expert Bert Ely sees things differently:

Had Glass-Steagall never been enacted, had it been repealed much earlier than 1999 …  the Big Five investment banking firms … might not have become as focused as they did on buying, securitizing, and trading subprime, Alt-A, and option-ARM mortgages. While the large commercial banking companies also engaged in mortgage securitization and originating nonprime mortgages, they did not get as deeply involved in those activities as did the investment banks. Arguably, then, had the separate, distinct investment-banking industry been melded into mainstream commercial banking years ago, today’s mortgage and financial crisis would not be as severe as it is, or may not have occurred at all.

COMMENT

Goolsbee, Summers, et al need to listen to the chairman and his experience. Investment banking & commercial banking are separate functions which cannot be managed well by a single CEO and board.

Posted by bob mayo | Report as abusive

Will Bernanke save the dollar like Volcker did?

Oct 9, 2009 13:49 UTC

David Goldman over at the Inner Workings blog, notes a key anniversary:

Inflation had crossed into double digits after four years of mismanagement by the Carter administration. The gold price was rising (and about to hit an all-time record when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan the following Christmas). America’s international position had collapsed; the European elites believed that America would lose the Cold War; America was in deep recession even while inflation soar. Volcker had no choice but to raise the federal funds rate to 15%. The dollar stabilized but the US economy went into free fall.

The San Francisco Fed reported, “Volcker returned from the annual IMF meetings in Belgrade in early October “with his ears still resonating with strongly stated European recommendations for stern action to stem severe dollar weakness on exchange markets. Volcker decided to call a special meeting of the FOMC, a meeting that was not publicly announced, to be held on Saturday, October 6.”

Are we due for a repeat of the Oct. 6 tightening? Not a chance for the time being. No-one wants it, least of all the Chinese — which is why they continue to buy US Treasury debt, albeit at a much reduced rate. But unless the Obama administration finds some way to stop monetizing debt, something like this has to happen.

Ron Paul and the Fed

Sep 29, 2009 17:46 UTC

First of all, thanks to my good friend Stan Collender over at the Capital Gains and Games blog who has jumped to my defense (and that of Bruce Bartlett) vs. the misguided Ron Paul supporters who interpret any criticism of the congressman’s ideas as proof of membership of some global conspiracy.

You know, it is possible to  think both a) overly easy monetary policy was a contributing factor in the economic crisis, and b) Fed actions helped prevent the recession from being worse than it was. And as far as the audit bill goes, letting Congress have greater influence on monetary policy would only result in a Fed that was less vigilant about inflation.

Better they focus their efforts nudging the Fed toward policies based in forward-looking market metrics as opposed to backward-looking economic indicators like the unemployment rate. But their dime, their dance floor.

COMMENT

No, Our dime, our dance floor, what is wrong with the way you think? You certainly will never know.

Posted by Donn | Report as abusive

The Fed as a growth driver

Sep 28, 2009 17:11 UTC

Does the Obama administration care more about creating wealth or redistributing wealth? Maybe the strategy is for the WH to worry about the latter and let the Fed take care of the former. Scott Grannis, the Calfia Beach Pundit, makes an interesting observation (bold is mine):

Many, including most Fed governors, fear that an early reversal of quantitative easing, which would undoubtedly require higher short-term interest rates, might jeopardize the economy’s nascent recovery. I think it makes more sense to worry about what might happen if the Fed waits too long. I seriously doubt that this economy is so fragile that it can’t support short-term interest rates of at least 2-3%. I really worry that an inflationary error from the Fed at this point, which would weaken the dollar and undermine confidence in the U.S. economy, would do far more damage. Far better to pursue a path that builds confidence in the strength of the dollar, rather than gambling everything to boost the economy. Monetary policy was never designed to be a tool for raising or lowering the economy’s growth rate.

COMMENT

Dear James: Aecon for sure has a headache in Quito, Ecuador. For starters you should know Aecon started an Airport, an aeronautical project, without any studies which would confirm that Tababela, the site chosen, is a good place for an airport. As a matter of fact, my person, unveiled hidden past studies that confirmed that Tababela was not a good site to build that airport. That airport has been a shame for the canadian Government because corrupt canadians broke the law in Ecuador and lied to the american investment companies in several ways.International entities rule normally in favor of airport fees as public not private. ICAO(international civil aviation administration orgaization) regulations apply here because these corrupt canadian companies are building an international airport. Furthermore, BOT(build operate and transfer) contracts, specify that the canadians are supposed to build that airport with their funds , at their own risk.When they admit that they are using airport fees from one ecuadorian airport to build the other they are admiting that they are breaking the law, and it is enough proof for the american financists that their Project Finance Model will fail. Canadians may mean angels and bells to you but they are a corrupt government who are experts in arms deals, have a horrible nature contamination record in the mining business. So you know, I am an american citizen, no I am not a leftist. Get your facts straight, will you?. Next time you visit Ecuador, look me up and do not ride the coattails of Stockwell Day, a man who is part of the Sting.Fernando Lopez (see you in Ecuador) bring your eyes open

Hey, Ron Paul, end the Fed … as financial regulator

Sep 28, 2009 16:38 UTC

If not for unprecedented actions by the Ben Bernanke-led Federal Reserve, the United States economy might be mired in a depression.

Yet the Fed finds itself on the defensive on Capitol Hill. There was its general counsel, Scott Alvarez, pleading last week to the House Financial Services Committee to reject attempts to expand Government Accountability Office audits of the Fed. Already, the GAO reviews the central bank’s supervisory and regulatory functions. But a bill introduced by Representative Ron “End the Fed” Paul, a Texas Republican, would also subject monetary policy and discount window operation to GAO audits. The bill has nearly 300 co-sponsors and as well as conceptual approval by Barney Frank, chairman of the committee.

The Fed views these expanded audits as threats to its independence from political pressure. As Alvarez put it, “These concerns likely would increase inflation fears and market interest rates and, ultimately, damage economic stability and job creation.”

For instance, when it comes time for the Fed to start withdrawing monetary stimulus from the economy despite continuing high unemployment, the last thing it will need is haranguing from Capitol Hill that it’s moving too fast, too soon.

And if the Fed becomes the regulator of systemically important financially institutions, as the White House advocates, it’s easy to imagine how the central bank would be subject to even more intense and frequent grilling from an emboldened Congress.

Now the move for expanded Fed audits results from both the Fed’s unprecedented efforts to end the financial crisis and its regulatory failures that contributed the financial crisis. The audit bill should be a wakeup call to the central bank that the more it gets involved in the regulatory process, the great future scrutiny from a skeptical Capitol Hill.

And it’s not just Congress. World Bank President Robert Zoellick says that after reviewing the Fed’s regulatory performance, he’s concluded that it’s a bad idea to “vest the independent and powerful technocrats at the Federal Reserve with more authority.”

Past regulatory failures have already undercut confidence in the Fed – “technocrats” is hardly a compliment — and breaking new regulatory ground in the field of systemic risk increases the chances for further erosion. As it is, the Fed is already buckling to congressional pressure. Alvarez told the committee that the Fed would be “happy to work” with lawmakers on ways to release names of companies that borrow from the central bank, perhaps after a period of time.

Not only should Congress reject the idea of expanded Fed audits, it should reject the idea of expanding the Fed’s role as regulator. If need be, create a new regulatory agency or council. Let Team Bernanke focus on executing its stimulus exit strategy and strengthening its reputation as an inflation fighter.

COMMENT

For those of you who want to end the FED, lets end the defense depart. The state dept. and Pentagon and our standing army as well. That would save an abundance of our tax money. We shouldn’t be in foreign countries anyway.And we should be promoting peace not war. Oh I forgot peace is not profitable, so that won’t happen. But don’t forget that we the people will have to join militias to protect our country since we won’t have an army anymore. I don’t know about you but I don’t think I would have the time or energy to join, I am too old. :)

Posted by klisco | Report as abusive

Is system risk regulation even possible?

Sep 24, 2009 16:24 UTC

Arthur Levitt, former chairman of the SEC, wants a systemic risk regulator who can serve as an “early warning system” and “director appropriate regulatory agencies to implement action.” (This is his House Fin Serv testimony.) I am not sure, ultimately, even the WH thinks this kind of prescience is possible. Anyone who could do that should be running money rather than serving in government. Better to tweak capital and leverage rules and force the big banks to show how they could be unwound — the “living will” idea.

The Fed as systemic risk regulator

Sep 24, 2009 16:00 UTC

In his testimony before the House Financial  Services Committee, economist Mark Zandi draws light to a problem I have been talking about and then offers a solution:

The principal worry in making the Federal Reserve the systemic risk regulator is that its conduct of monetary policy may come under overly onerous oversight. Arguably one of the most important strengths of our financial system is the Federal Reserve’s independence in setting monetary policy; it would be counterproductive if regulatory reform were to diminish even the appearance of this independence. This will become even more important in coming years, given prospects for large federal budget deficits and rising debt loads. Global investors will want to know that the Fed will do what is necessary to ensure inflation remains low and stable. To this end, it would be helpful if oversight of the Fed’s regulatory functions were separated from oversight of its monetary policy responsibilities. One suggestion would be to establish semiannual reporting by the Fed to Congress on its regulatory activities, much like its current reporting to Congress on monetary policy.

And here is how Paul Volcker sees all this working:

I am not alone in suggesting that a Fed governor should be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate as a second Vice Chairman of the Board with particular responsibility for overseeing Regulation and Supervision. The point is to pinpoint responsibility, including relevant reporting to the Congress, for a review of market developments and regulatory and supervisory practices. Staff authority, independence, professionalism, experience, and size should be reinforced.

Me:  I don’t see how Zandi’s solution would solve anything. Maybe the new vice-chairman would do most of the testifying about regulation rather than Bernanke? I think the true answer is that a lessening of independence is just a risk Zandi and Volcker are willing to take.

Dodd vs. the White House on financial reform

Sep 21, 2009 19:32 UTC

Well, this is going to  be fun. Chris Dodd is headed toward a tough reelection campaign. So he stays at the head of the Banking commitee instead of moving to Health since a) that is where the action will be in 2010 and b) it is a great place to raise tons of money. He wants a non-Fed superregulator while the WH wants the Fed in that role. And now the Blue Dogs are cooking up their own reform plan. The whole thing will be at the epicenter of a white-hot lobbying campaign. And then there are the personalities; Dodd, Frank, Bair, Bernanke, Geithner. The politics are every bit as treacherous  as those of healthcare.

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