By J. Andrew Felkerson, AlterNet
Speculation about the the Fed’s actions during the financial crisis has made headlines on and off again over the last several years. The latest drama occurred on November 27 when Bloomberg published an article, “Secret Fed Loans Gave Banks $13 Billion Undisclosed to Congress,” which gives an account of the news agency’s struggle to bring to light the details of the Fed’s emergency programs. Bloomberg throws out some very large numbers, revealing that as of March 2009, the Fed lent, spent, or committed $7.77 trillion worth of aid to the financial system and that banks used the low interest rates charged on these loans to make an estimated $13 billion in income.
On December 6, the Fed struck back, issuing a four page unsigned memo intended to correct recent “egregious errors and mistakes” found in various reports of its emergency lending facilities. The Fed argues that the “total credit outstanding under liquidity programs was never more than about $1.5 trillion.” While Bloomberg wasn’t mentioned explicitly in the Fed memo, it was fairly clear to whom the response was directed. The following day Bloomberg defended its reporting, and the Wall Street Journal’s David Wessel came to the Fed’s defense, characterizing Bloomberg’s methodology as a “great story,” but ultimately not “true.”
All this may sound like controversy, but it’s little more than a tempest in a teacup.
Here’s the hurricane: In reality, no less than $29.616 trillion is the total emergency assistance provided by the Fed to foreign and domestic entities during the Global Financial Crisis. Let’s repeat that: $29 trillion. This astounding number is over twice U.S. gross domestic product, the nominal value of all goods and services produced for the year 2010. This is the total of the bailout as calculated by Nicola Matthews and myself as part of the Ford Foundation project, A Research And Policy Dialogue Project On Improving Governance Of The Government Safety Net In Financial Crisis. We will be presenting the results of our analysis in a series of papers published by the Levy Economics Institute, the first of which, “29,000,000,000,000: A Detailed Look at the Fed’s Bailout by Funding Facility and Recipient,” is already available here.
The results we have calculated are presented below, and it is important to note that the totals are cumulative and in billions of U.S. dollars. (The numbers in parentheses indicate amounts still outstanding as of November 10, 2011).
|Percent of Total
|Term Auction Facility
|Central Bank Liquidity Swaps
|Single Tranche Open Market Operations
|Term Securities Lending Facility and Term Options Program
|Bear Stearns Bridge Loan
|Maiden Lane I
|Primary Dealer Credit Facility
|Asset-Backed Commercial Paper Money Market Mutual Fund Liquidity Facility
|Commercial Paper Funding Facility
|Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility
|Agency Mortgage-Backed Security Purchase Program
|AIG Revolving Credit Facility
|AIG Securities Borrowing Facility
|Maiden Lane II
|Maiden Lane III
|AIA/ ALICO (AIG)
I want to be clear. These are the totals of Fed lending and asset purchases actually undertaken since the bail-out began. There is no double-counting. And we do not include any credit facilities created by the Fed unless they were actually used. These figures accurately reflect the cumulative totals over the approximately three years actually used by the Fed to prop-up domestic and international banks, shadow banks, central banks, and even some non-financial institutions.
Banks in the Shadows
The programs above constitute the crisis prevention machinery rolled out by the Fed to combat the worst financial panic since 1929. All the programs above were designed and implemented to target domestic financial and nonfinancial corporations or foreign central banks or markets, or both. Only one of the facilities, the Term Auction Facility, can be viewed as being consistent with the Fed’s mandate to protect the commercial banking system from systemic failure. The rest are the result of the increasing relevance of the “shadow banking” to our economy—and of the Fed’s attempt to rescue the shadow banking sector.
Shadow banks are highly leveraged financial institutions that perform functions historically relegated to the commercial banking system. It is important to note that these financial concerns do not have access to the conventional means of Fed support. Nor were they ever really regulated or supervised by the Fed. They engaged in extremely risky behavior that in large part led to the global financial crisis. And when it hit, the Fed spent and lent $29 trillion, much of it devoted to rescuing the shadow banking system.
Thus, we see a host of unconventional programs designed to aid these institutions rather than the Fed’s traditional patrons. The information used to calculate the totals above is freely available (thanks in large part to the valiant efforts of a group of lawmakers led by Senator Bernie Sanders) as the result of an amendment inserted into the Dodd Frank bill. Moreover, this information has been freely available since December 10, 2010 on the Fed’s website.
So why didn’t someone else already put the data together in this way?
The Fed’s Secrets
Obviously, $29 trillion is much bigger than the previous estimates of $7.77 trillion (Bloomberg) or $1.5 trillion (the Fed and the Wall Street Journal). An in-depth account of each of the facilities above is a rather lengthy process as the Levy working paper attests. The main difference in our analysis is the variables we identify as essential in understanding the Fed’s response. In our paper we report three measures that we view as critical to capturing the size and magnitude of the bailout. Each of the three measures deals exclusively with programs put into place by the Fed that transcend its conventional “lender of last resort” (LOLR) function. That is, we only include the emergency facilities the Fed created. We agree with the Fed that only facilities which were actually made operational should be considered in any account of the Fed’s actions. But we take the side of Bloomberg regarding the general lack of transparency by the Fed—the Fed fought tooth and nail to keep the details of its programs secret.
At any given moment inspection of the amount owed to the Fed resulting from nonconventional lender of last resort actions provides a reasonable account of what the Fed was doing in the period leading up to that time. However, looking at this number over time and in the context of the weekly amount lent provides insight into how the Fed’s efforts evolved over the run of the crisis. These two approaches to measurement (a “stock” or outstanding balance and a “flow” or cumulated amount spent and lent weekly) only provide us with details regarding the scope of the Fed’s bailout. To get a clear picture we need some account of the magnitude. We believe that this is captured by looking at the cumulative totals of all programs.
Perhaps the largest difference in our analysis is that we learned our money and banking theory from the late Hyman Minsky. He taught us that the modern economy is essentially financial, and as such, is prone to systemic financial crises that if left unchecked can lead to “bone crunching depressions.” Therefore it is essential to have a LOLR. Thus, any transaction between the Fed and the markets which is not part of conventional monetary operations, such as lending from the discount window or open market operations, represents an instance in which private markets were not able to or were unwilling to engage in the normal financial intermediation process. If it any point in time the private markets were capable (or willing) to carry out business as usual, Fed intervention would not have been required. Thus, we need to account for each extraordinary event, and the best way that we know to do this is by summing each instance–which results in a cumulative total of over $29 trillion dollars.
Who does the Fed serve?
A figure as large as $29.616 trillion should not be taken lightly, but focus on the specific magnitude of the figure diverts our attention from a larger issue that is at stake: how should the LOLR responsibility to be discharged in the future? With unemployment remaining persistently high and millions continuing to lose their homes to foreclosure as the result of lost income from a poor economy or outright fraud in the mortgage lending and foreclosure process, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the ability of a single institution staffed by unelected officials to carry out such a targeted commitment of the obligations of the United States citizenry. Thanks to the actions of Senator Sanders and other individuals possessing the temerity to question the authority of the Fed we now have access to much of the data regarding what the Fed did during the recent crisis.
But we still need to go through the data from the past three years of bail-outs to answer the following questions: Who got funds from the Fed? How much did they get? And why did they get them? The Fed has not adequately explained why its emergency lending and asset purchases went on for so long and accumulated to such a large number.