The Federal Reserve has bluntly refused a request by a major US financial news service to disclose the recipients of more than $2 trillion of emergency loans from US taxpayers and to reveal the assets the central bank is accepting as collateral. Their lawyers resorted to the bizarre argument that they did so to protect ‘trade secrets.’ Is the secret that the US financial system is de facto bankrupt? The latest Fed move is further indication of the degree of panic and lack of clear strategy within the highest ranks of the US financial institutions. Unprecedented Federal Reserve expansion of the Monetary Base in recent weeks sets the stage for a future Weimar-style hyperinflation perhaps before 2010.
On November 7 Bloomberg filed suit under the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requesting details about the terms of eleven new Federal Reserve lending programs created during the deepening financial crisis.
The Fed responded on December 8 claiming it’s allowed to withhold internal memos as well as information about ‘trade secrets’ and ‘commercial information.’ The central bank did confirm that a records search found 231 pages of documents pertaining to the requests.
The Bernanke Fed in recent weeks has stepped in to take a role that was the original purpose of the Treasury’s $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). The difference between a Fed bailout of troubled financial institutions and a Treasury bailout is that central bank loans do not have the oversight safeguards that Congress imposed upon the TARP. Perhaps those are the ‘trade secrets the hapless Fed Chairman,Ben Bernanke, is so jealously guarding from the public.
The total of such emergency Fed lending exceeded $2 trillion on Nov. 6. It had risen by an astonishing 138 percent, or $1.23 trillion, in the 12 weeks since Sept. 14, when central bank governors relaxed collateral standards to accept securities that weren’t rated AAA. They did so knowing that on the following day a dramatic shock to the financial system would occur because they, in concert with the Bush Administration, had decided to let it occur.
On September 15 Bernanke, New York Federal Reserve President, Tim Geithner, the new Obama Treasury Secretary-designate, along with the Bush Administration, agreed to let the fourth largest investment bank, Lehman Brothers, go bankrupt, defaulting on untold billions worth of derivatives and other obligations held by investors around the world. That event, as is now widely accepted, triggered a global systemic financial panic as it was no longer clear to anyone what standards the US Government was using to decide which institutions were ‘too big to fail’ and which not. Since then the US Treasury Secretary has reversed his policies on bank bailouts repeatedly leading many to believe Henry Paulson and the Washington Administration along with the Fed have lost control.
In response to the deepening crisis, the Bernanke Fed has decided to expand what is technically called the Monetary Base, defined as total bank reserves plus cash in circulation, the basis for potential further high-powered bank lending into the economy. Since the Lehman Bros. default, this money expansion rose dramatically by end October at a year-year rate of growth of 38%, has been without precedent in the 95 year history of the Federal Reserve since its creation in 1913. The previous high growth rate, according to US Federal Reserve data, was 28% in September 1939, as the US was building up industry for the evolving war in Europe.
By the first week of December, that expansion of the monetary base had jumped to a staggering 76% rate in just 3 months. It has gone from $836 billion in December 2007 when the crisis appeared contained, to $1,479 billion in December 2008, an explosion of 76% year-on-year. Moreover, until September 2008, the month of the Lehman Brothers collapse, the Federal Reserve had held the expansion of the Monetary Base virtually flat. The 76% expansion has almost entirely taken place within the past three months, which implies an annualized expansion rate of more than 300%.
Despite this, banks do not lend further, meaning the US economy is in a depression free-fall of a scale not seen since the 1930’s. Banks do not lend in large part because under Basle BIS lending rules, they must set aside 8% of their capital against the value of any new commercial loans. Yet the banks have no idea how much of the mortgage and other troubled securities they own are likely to default in the coming months, forcing them to raise huge new sums of capital to remain solvent. It’s far ‘safer’ as they reason to pass on their toxic waste assets to the Fed in return for earning interest on the acquired Treasury paper they now hold. Bank lending is risky in a depression.
Hence the banks exchange $2 trillion of presumed toxic waste securities consisting of Asset-Backed Securities in sub-prime mortgages, stocks and other high-risk credits in exchange for Federal Reserve cash and US Treasury bonds or other Government securities rated (still) AAA, i.e. risk-free. The result is that the Federal Reserve is holding some $2 trillion in largely junk paper from the financial system. Borrowers include Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase, the US’s largest bank by assets. Banks oppose any release of information because that might signal ‘weakness’ and spur short-selling or a run by depositors.
Making the situation even more drastic is the banking model used first by US banks beginning in the late 1970’s for raising deposits, namely the acquiring of ‘wholesale deposits’ by borrowing from other banks on the overnight interbank market. The collapse in confidence since the Lehman Bros. default is so extreme that no bank anywhere, dares trust any other bank enough to borrow. That leaves only traditional retail deposits from private and corporate savings or checking accounts.
To replace wholesale deposits with retail deposits is a process that in the best of times will take years, not weeks. Understandably, the Federal Reserve does not want to discuss this. That is clearly also behind their blunt refusal to reveal the nature of their $2 trillion assets acquired from member banks and other financial institutions. Simply put, were the Fed to reveal to the public precisely what ‘collateral’ they held from the banks, the public would know the potential losses that the government may take.
Congress is demanding more transparency from the Federal Reserve and US Treasury on its bailout lending. On December 10 in Congressional hearings by the House Financial Services Committee, Representative David Scott, a Georgia Democrat, said Americans had ‘been bamboozled,’ slang for defrauded.