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A classicial economist… and Harvard professor… preaching to the world that one’s money is not safe in the US banking system due to Ben Bernanke’s actions? And putting his withdrawal slip where his mouth is and pulling $1 million out of Bank America? Say it isn’t so…
From Terry Burnham, former Harvard economics professor, author of “Mean Genes” and “Mean Markets and Lizard Brains,” provocative poster on this page and long-time critic of the Federal Reserve, argues that the Fed’s efforts to strengthen America’s banks have perversely weakened them. First posted in PBS.
Is your money safe at the bank? An economist says ‘no’ and withdraws his
Last week I had over $1,000,000 in a checking account at Bank of America. Next week, I will have $10,000.
Why am I getting in line to take my money out of Bank of America? Because of Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen, who officially begins her term as chairwoman on Feb. 1.
Before I explain, let me disclose that I have been a stopped clock of criticism of the Federal Reserve for half a decade. That’s because I believe that when the Fed intervenes in markets, it has two effects — both negative. First, it decreases overall wealth by distorting markets and causing bad investment decisions. Second, the members of the Fed become reverse Robin Hoods as they take from the poor (and unsophisticated) investors and give to the rich (and politically connected). These effects have been noticed; a Gallup poll taken in the last few days reports that only the richest Americans support the Fed. (See the table.)
Why do I risk starting a run on Bank of America by withdrawing my money and presuming that many fellow depositors will read this and rush to withdraw too? Because they pay me zero interest. Thus, even an infinitesimal chance Bank of America will not repay me in full, whenever I ask, switches the cost-benefit conclusion from stay to flee.
Let me explain: Currently, I receive zero dollars in interest on my $1,000,000. The reason I had the money in Bank of America was to keep it safe. However, the potential cost to keeping my money in Bank of America is that the bank may be unwilling or unable to return my money.
They will not be able to return my money if:
- Many other depositors like you get in line before me. Banks today promise everyone that they can have their money back instantaneously, but the bank does not actually have enough money to pay everyone at once because they have lent most of it out to other people — 90 percent or more. Thus, banks are always at risk for runs where the depositors at the front of the line get their money back, but the depositors at the back of the line do not. Consider this image from a fully insured U.S. bank, IndyMac in California, just five years ago.
- Some of the investments of Bank of America go bust. Because Bank of America has loaned out the vast majority of depositors’ money, if even a small percentage of its loans go bust, the firm is at risk for bankruptcy. Leverage, combined with some bad investments, caused the failure of Lehman Brothers in 2008 and would have caused the failure of Bank of America, AIG, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns, and many more institutions in 2008 had the government not bailed them out.
In recent days, the chances for trouble at Bank of America have become more salient because of woes in the emerging markets, particularly Argentina, Turkey, Russia and China. The emerging market fears caused the Dow Jones Industrial Average to lose more than 500 points over the last week.
Returning to my money now entrusted to Bank of America, market turmoil reminded me that this particular trustee is simply not safe. Or not safe enough, given the fact that safety is the reason I put the money there at all. The market turmoil could threaten “BofA” with bankruptcy today as it did in 2008, and as banks have experienced again and again over time.
If the chance that Bank of America will not return my money is, say, a mere 1 percent, then the expected cost to me is 1 percent of my million, or $10,000. That far exceeds the interest I receive, which, I hardly need remind depositors out there, is a cool $0. Even a 0.1 percent chance of loss has an expected cost to me of $1,000. Bank of America pays me the zero interest rate because the Federal Reserve has set interest rates to zero. Thus my incentive to leave at the first whiff of instability.
Surely, you say, the federal government is going to keep its promises, at least on insured deposits. Yes, the Federal Government (via the FDIC) insures deposits in most institutions up to $250,000. But there is a problem with this insurance. The FDIC currently has far less money in its fund than it has insured deposits: as of Sept. 1, about $41 billion in reserve against $6 trillion in insured deposits. (There are over $9 trillion on deposit at U.S. banks, by the way, so more than $3 trillion in deposits is completely uninsured.)
It’s true, of course, that when the FDIC fund risks running dry, as it did in 2009, it can go back to other parts of the federal government for help. I expect those other parts will make the utmost efforts to oblige. But consider the possibility that they may be in crisis at the very same time, for the very same reasons, or that it might take some time to get approval. Remember that Congress voted against the TARP bailout in 2008 before it relented and finally voted for the bailout.
Thus, even insured depositors risk loss and/or delay in recovering their funds. In most time periods, these risks are balanced against the reward of getting interest. Not so long ago, Bank of America would have paid me $1,000 a week in interest on my million dollars. If I were getting $1,000 a week, I might bear the risks of delay and default. However, today I am receiving $0.
So my cash is leaving Bank of America.
But if Bank of America is not safe, you must be wondering, where can you and I put our money? No path is without risk, but here are a few options.
- Keep some cash at home, though admittedly this runs the risk of loss or setting yourself up as a target for criminals.
- Put some cash in a safety box. There is an urban myth that this is illegal; my understanding is that cash in a safety box is legal. However, I can imagine scenarios where capital controls are placed on safety deposit box withdrawals. And suppose the bank is shut down and you can’t get to the box?
- Pay your debts. You don’t need to be Suze Orman to know that you need liquidity, so do not use all your cash to pay debts. However, you can use some surplus, should you have any.
- Prepay your taxes and some other obligations. Subject to the same caveat about liquidity, pay ahead. Make sure you only pay safe entities. Your local government is not going away, even in a depression, so, for example, you can prepay property taxes. (I would check with a tax accountant on the implications, however.)
- Find a safer bank. Some local, smaller banks are much safer than the “too-big-to-fail banks.” After its mistake of letting Lehman fail, the government has learned that it must try to save giant institutions. However, the government may not be able to save all failing institutions immediately and simultaneously in a crisis. Thus, depositors in big banks face delays and defaults in the event of a true crisis. (It is important to find the right small bank; I believe all big banks are fragile, while some small banks are robust.)
Someone should start a bank (or maybe someone has) that charges (rather than pays) interest and does not make loans. Such a bank would be a good example of how Fed actions create unintended outcomes that defeat their goals. The Fed wants to stimulate lending, but an anti-lending bank could be quite successful. I would be a customer.
(Interestingly, there was a famous anti-lending bank and it was also a “BofA” — the Bank of Amsterdam, founded in 1609. The Dutch BofA charged customers for safe-keeping, did not make loans and did not allow depositors to get their money out immediately. Adam Smith discusses this BofA favorably in his “Wealth of Nations,” published in 1776. Unfortunately — and unbeknownst to Smith — the Bank of Amsterdam had starting secretly making risky loans to ventures in the East Indies and other areas, just like any other bank. When these risky ventures failed, so did the BofA.)
My point is that the Federal Reserve’s actions have myriad, unanticipated, negative consequences. Over the last week, we saw the impact on the emerging markets. The Fed had created $3 trillion of new money in the last five-plus years — three times more than in its entire prior history. A big chunk of that $3 trillion found its way, via private investors and institutions, into risky, emerging markets.
Now that the Fed is reducing (“tapering”) its new money creation (now down to $65 billion a month, or $780 billion a year, as of Wednesday’s announcement), investments are flowing out of risky areas. Some of these countries are facing absolute crises, with Argentina’s currency plummeting by more than 20 percent in under one month. That means investments in Argentina are worth 20 percent less in dollar terms than they were a month ago, even if they held their price in Pesos.
The Fed did not plan to impoverish investors by inducing them to buy overpriced Argentinian investments, of course, but that is one of the costly consequences of its actions. If you lost money in emerging markets over the last week, at one level, it is your responsibility. However, it is not crazy for you to blame the Fed for creating volatile prices that made investing more difficult.
Similarly, if you bought gold at the peak of almost $2,000 per ounce, you have lost one-third of your money; you share the blame for your golden losses with Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen. They removed the opportunities for safe investments and forced those with liquid assets to scramble for what safety they thought they could find. Furthermore, the uncertainty caused by the Fed has caused many assets to swing wildly in value, creating winners and losers.
The Fed played a role in the recent emerging markets turmoil. Next week, they will cause another crisis somewhere else. Eventually, the absurd effort to create wealth through monetary policy will unravel in the U.S. as it has every other time it has been tried from Weimar Germany to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
Even after the Fed created the housing problems, we would have been better of with a small 2009 depression rather than the larger depression that lies ahead. See my Making Sen$e posts “The Stockholm Syndrome and Printing Money” and “Ben Bernanke as Easter Bunny: Why the Fed Can’t Prevent the Coming Crash” for the details of my argument.
Ever since Alan Greenspan intervened to save the stock market on Oct. 20, 1987, the Fed has sought to cushion every financial blow by adding liquidity. The trouble with trying to make the world safe for stupidity is that it creates fragility.
Bank of America and other big banks are fragile — and vulnerable to bank runs — because the Fed has set interest rates to zero. If a run gathers momentum, the government will take steps to stem it. But I am convinced they have limited ammunition and unlimited problems.
What is the solution? For you, save yourself and your family. For the system, revamp the Federal Reserve. The simplest first step would be to end the dual mandate of price stability and full employment. Price stability is enough. I favor rules over intervention. We don’t need a maestro conducting monetary policy; we need a system that promotes stability and allows people (not printing presses) to make us richer.
A month ago, the press was aflutter with rumors that NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly, spurned by mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, would join JPMorgan in a “top security” position. The rumor was since denied and the fate of Kelly was unclear, until today, when the Council on Foreign Relations announced that the NYPD top man would join the CFR as a “distinguished visiting fellow” in turn opening the doors wide for a world of financial opportunities to Kelly. Considering his tenure, where Kelly served as senior managing director of global corporate security at Bear, Stearns & Co. Inc. from 2000 to 2001, he seems like a perfect fit for the CFR.
NYPD Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly to Join CFR as Distinguished Visiting Fellow
Raymond W. Kelly, commissioner for the New York Police Department (NYPD), will join the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) as a distinguished visiting fellow. Kelly will be joining CFR in early January and will be based at the organization’s headquarters in New York. He will focus on counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and other national security issues.
“Ray Kelly spearheaded the modernization of the New York Police Department. The result is that crime is down and the NYPD’s counterterrorism capabilities are second to none. We are excited and proud to have his experience, expertise, and judgment at the Council,” said CFR President Richard N. Haass.
As the first and only police commissioner to serve under New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, from 2002 to 2014, Kelly presided over the country’s largest municipal police force, seeing violent crime decrease from 2001 levels by 40 percent. He created the first counterterrorism bureau of any municipal police department in the country, as well as a global intelligence program that operates in eleven foreign cities.
Kelly will leave the NYPD as the longest-serving police commissioner in the city’s history. He also served as New York City police commissioner from 1992 to 1994, under then mayor David N. Dinkins, and is the first person to serve in two nonconsecutive mayoral administrations. Kelly served in twenty-five different commands before being named commissioner, spanning a forty-three–year career with the NYPD.
Previously, Kelly served as senior managing director of global corporate security at Bear, Stearns & Co. Inc. from 2000 to 2001. From 1998 to 2001, he was commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service. He also served as undersecretary for enforcement at the U.S. Treasury Department, the third–highest ranking position in Treasury at the time. From 1996 to 2001, Kelly was vice president on the board of the international police organization Interpol.
In 1995, President Clinton appointed Kelly director of the State Department’s International Police Monitors mission, tasked to restore order in Haiti following the return of then president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Kelly received his undergraduate degree from Manhattan College. He is also a lawyer and holds a law degree from St. John’s University School of Law and a masters of laws from New York University School of Law. Kelly also holds a masters of public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Kelly served in the U.S. Marine Corps and Reserve for thirty years and is a combat veteran of Vietnam. He retired with the rank of colonel.
Three ex-General Electric traders are seeing the outside sooner than anyone expected after their convictions were overturned. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
The `GE Three’ Go Free
It wasn’t long after three former General Electric Co. executives were convicted of rigging auctions for municipal-bond investment contracts that they received the ultimate sendoff: A 7,400-word torching in Rolling Stone magazine by Matt Taibbi, the writer who branded Goldman Sachs Group Inc. with the nickname “vampire squid.”
“Someday, it will go down in history as the first trial of the modern American mafia,” Taibbi began his June 2012 opus about Dominick Carollo, Steven Goldberg and Peter Grimm. “Over 10 years in the making, the case allowed federal prosecutors to make public for the first time the astonishing inner workings of the reigning American crime syndicate, which now operates not out of Little Italy and Las Vegas, but out of Wall Street.”
Then came a surprise last week, right before Thanksgiving. A federal judge ordered the men released from prison. An appeals court had reversed their convictions the day before, without explanation. An opinion would be issued “in due course,” it said. Bloomberg News ran a short story this week. The rest of the news media barely noticed.
Americans tend to like their crime stories simple: Good guys catching bad guys and sending them to jail. Nuances and complexities can complicate morality tales. The country is still baying for blood after the financial crisis. Folks want the people who they think helped crash the economy locked up and fed bread and water in place of Cristal and lobster.
The case against the former GE bankers is a reminder that high-profile financial-crime cases rarely are cut and dry. Even when prosecutors win, they still might lose later, especially if the defendants can afford top-notch appellate lawyers. Until last week the GE Three were considered criminals. Now they are innocent in the eyes of the law, and we don’t even know why yet. It’s possible that the government will appeal further and win in the end. A resolution seems far from final.
A reversal like this helps explain why some prosecutors might hesitate to bring difficult white-collar cases to trial. The Justice Department seemed to pull back from pursuing financial-crisis cases after two former Bear Stearns Cos. hedge-fund managers were acquitted of fraud charges in 2009. (One of the jurors said after their trial that she would invest with them if she had the money.) It’s easier to rack up wins by going after small fry for simpler crimes.
Carollo, Goldberg and Grimm each had been convicted on multiple counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Prosecutors accused them of paying kickbacks to brokers hired by cities and towns to oversee the bidding on municipal-investment contracts, which local governments use to invest the proceeds from bond sales. Goldberg was sentenced to four years in prison. Carollo and Grimm got three years each.
Although the appeals court hasn’t yet explained its decision, the defendants claimed that the statute of limitations had elapsed by the time they were indicted in 2010. They also complained that they hadn’t been allowed to finish cross-examining one of the government’s key witnesses after he attempted suicide during a break. The government said he couldn’t return for further questioning.
What should we make of their sudden freedom? Sometimes justice is rough. Sometimes it seems random. It’s often messy. Some judges disagree with other judges’ rulings. Some crooks get pinched while others who seem guilty as sin never get charged. Mysteries abound as to why. Insider-trading cases get hot, so other frauds get put on the backburner. The government rarely explains why it chose not to prosecute someone, leaving the public to speculate.
And what are we now to make of GE’s own decision in 2011 to enter a non-prosecution agreement with the Justice Department, under which it paid $70 million? As part of that deal, GE made this admission: “From 1999 to 2004, certain former traders who bid on municipal contracts on behalf of the company entered into unlawful agreements to manipulate the bidding process on certain relevant municipal contracts, and caused the company to make payments and engage in other related activities in connection with those agreements through at least 2006.”
In other words, the company turned against its former employees. Maybe GE could have beaten the government’s rap, given that the former executives’ convictions have been overturned. We’ll never know. Even if it turns out they got off on a technicality, Carollo, Goldberg and Grimm deserve respect for having the guts to demand that the government prove its case in court. That is something large financial institutions rarely try. Perhaps more should.
One final note: The Justice Department issued news releases to trumpet the former GE executives’ indictments, convictions and sentencings. It didn’t issue a news release to say that their convictions had been reversed. That sure doesn’t look like fair play or justice to me.
(Jonathan Weil is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)
The rock is reality. The squishy place is the illusion that pervasive racketeering is an okay replacement for an economy. The essence of racketeering is the use of dishonest schemes to get money, often (but not always) employing coercion to make it work. Some rackets can function on the sheer cluelessness of the victim(s).
Is it fair to suppose that money management is at the heart of the sort of advanced, complex economy that developed early in the 20th century? I think so. Money is the lifeblood of trade and of investment in productive activities that support trade. Of course, in order for money to have meaning, to function in such transactional relations, the people must be convinced that it legitimately represents its face value. Otherwise, money must be labeled “money” — that is, a medium of exchange suspected of false value. An economy that uses “money” — especially an economy of rackets — is an economy in a lot of trouble, and that is where ours is in December 2013.
The trouble reached escape velocity in the fall of 2008 when a particular brand of racket among the Wall Street kit-bag of rackets got badly out-of-hand, namely the business of selling securitized bundled mortgages and their “innovative” derivative “products” to dupes unaware that they were booby-trapped for failure which would, perversely, hugely reward the seller of such trash paper. These were, in the immortal words of Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich), the “really shitty deal[s]” propagated by the likes of the Goldman Sachs crypto-bank — so-called collateralized debt obligations — pawned off on credulous pension fund managers and other “marks” around the world greedy for “yield.”
It turned out that all the large banks trafficking in such booby-trapped contracts ended up choking on them when “the music stopped” — that is, when the derivative “swaps” payoffs at the heart of this particular racket began to fail, sending up a general alarm that all such “products” were primed to blow up the entire “banking” system. By the way, the quotation marks I so liberally resort to are necessary to denote that in such a matrix of rackets things are not what they appear to be but only what they pretend to be.
The failure of Bear Stearns followed by the implosion of Lehman Brothers and the near-death experience of AIG alerted “civilians” outside Wall Street that the banks were linked in a web of fraud and insolvency and had to be “rescued” in order for the rest of America to keep its “way of life” going. The rescue remedy proved to be several new layers of fraud that have now matured into institutionalized rackets. The best known are the Siamese twins of “Quantitative Easing” and zero interest rate policy (ZIRP). The lesser-known racket was the 2009 rule change by the Financial Accounting Standards Board that allowed banks to make up whatever numbers they felt like in reporting the value of their holdings (“assets”).
Hence, these dishonest, regularized operations can be labeled a hostage racket with coercion at their core. The coercion comes in the form of the threat that any let-up in the stream of QE “money” enjoyed by the banks in the form of carry-trade “loans” and “primary dealer” premium cream-offs will send the economy back to the stone age. Overlooked in this equation is the ongoing destruction of ordinary citizens (a.k.a. the “middle class”) who have already lost their grip on the emblematic “way of life” Wall Street is working so tirelessly to defend. Politicians are, of course, deeply implicated and indeed directly involved in all these rackets, since these hired handmaidens make and execute the laws protecting Wall Street’s looting operations.
The catch to all this, lately, lies in the cognitive dissonance between the symptomatic euphoria of record stock market indexes versus the conviction of a few hardcore skeptical observers that the rackets are now so reckless and impudent as to be beyond any hope of control and on a trajectory to bring about hardships orders of magnitude above anything imagined in 2008.
So-called “health care” is also a hostage racket, since sick people are hardly in a position to bargain for anything, but it is only a sub-system of the larger matrix of rackets that have made this such an unusually dishonest society. My guess is that ObamaCare is sure to make it worse, and pretty quickly too, since the rules for ObamaCare were written by the hireling lobbyists of the industries that benefit from the racketeering.
The big mystery in all this remains: where are the people with some institutional power who might stand up and denounce all this perfidy? What has made us such a culture of cowards and cravens that the best we can do is produce a couple of comedians who speak truth to power in the form of jokes. Most of this is not that funny.
By the way, one reason for the vulgar orgy of “consumerism” that, in recent years, has turned the Thanksgiving holiday into a sort of grotesque sporting event, is to mount a crude demonstration that our “money” is a viable medium of exchange. The dumbest people in the land are induced to swarm through the merchandise warehouse stores and fight to exchange their “money” for hard goods offered at false “bargains.” I wonder how much of it is a dress rehearsal for what happens in a hyper-inflation?
At $72.8 Trillion, Presenting The Bank With The Biggest Derivative Exposure In The World (Hint: Not JPMorgan) | Zero Hedge
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