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For 50 years or so the federal government has deliberately and to an increasing extent misstated probable future budget deficits. Democrats and Republicans are guilty. The White House is guilty. And so is Congress. Private firms that deliberately misrepresent their financial statements in this fashion would be guilty of a crime… The magnitude of the misrepresentation is breathtaking.
– Former St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President William Poole, writing in the Wall Street Journal last April
We’re guessing he was especially miffed with the annual budget outlook released by the CBO on February 5th.
Consider that Poole favored the “alternative scenario” that can sometimes be found deep within CBO reports and spreadsheets. This scenario corrects for at least a few of the absurd assumptions in the primary budget projections (the “baseline scenario”) that receive 99% of the media’s attention. Poole called the alternative scenario “the only truly honest and useful effort in town.”
Alas, the alternative scenario is no more – the CBO removed it from their annual outlook. Taxpayers can no longer find meaningful budget projections anywhere in the CBO’s work.
Let’s see if we can fill in the gap.
We’ll start with the baseline from this month’s report:
The chart shows a shrinking deficit over the next couple of years, but don’t get too excited. Apart from other issues we’ll discuss, this is explained by a long-standing prediction for a robust economic recovery, which hasn’t yet come to pass. It’s not so much a budget outlook as a hopeful forecast.
After the supposed economic boom levels off in 2018/19 (according to the assumptions), the figures no longer hide our deteriorating finances. But the deterioration is likely to be much worse than the chart suggests, as we’ll explain below. To create a more realistic outlook, we’ll adjust the baseline scenario for four different types of deficiencies in the CBO’s approach:
Step #1: We deal with dishonest lawmakers
One of the challenges in budget forecasting is that tax and spending laws are full of provisions that are all but guaranteed to be reversed before they take effect. These dead-on-arrival provisions only exist to create the appearance of fiscal rectitude. And the deception works because the CBO is required by governing statutes to build the phony provisions into its baseline, which the media then endorses as an authoritative view of public finances.
Fortunately, though, the CBO’s new report provides data we can use to neutralize some of the lawmakers’ tricks, as explained in Table 1 below:
Step #2: We get real with the economy
The good news in the CBO’s latest report is that they made a few needed changes to the underlying economic assumptions. The bad news is that they have much more to do – the economic outlook remains unrealistic.
Once again, though, we can use data in the report (Appendix E, in this case) to improve the projections. We explained our adjustments in detail in “Why Mr. Smith Has More Work To Do,” and they’re summarized in Table 2 below.
Note that we’ve accepted the CBO’s strongly optimistic outlook for the next four years, not because we like it but because it’s easier to show inconsistencies and come up with a more realistic scenario in later years (after the assumed recovery reaches historic extremes).
Step #3: We put on our actuarial hats
It doesn’t take much business experience to know that budget plans are regularly thrown off track by unexpected events, and the federal budget is no different. In fact, the CBO always acknowledges the risks of such setbacks. Yet, its governing statutes don’t permit accounting for most types of unexpected events in the baseline scenario.
In any case, the CBO doesn’t provide sensitivity analysis estimating their possible effects. Here’s what we had to say about this in an earlier post:
[M]any events are deemed too unpredictable to be estimated – an excuse that defies both collective knowledge and common practice. Actuaries, accountants and financial risk managers are all trained to place numeric estimates on unforeseen risks. Insurance premiums, credit loss provisions and investment decisions are all based on these numeric estimates.
The key is that any positive number is better than nothing. We can see the problem with nothing just by noticing that the debt debate almost never gets around to the risks of recessions, financial crises, wars, natural disasters, and so on. Political leaders and pundits habitually ignore the CBO’s warnings that these events will occur from time to time, relying instead on its incomplete projections.
In the same post, we explained our approach to adjusting budget projections for unforeseen events. One of our recommendations, which accounts for the effects ofautomatic stabilizers and doesn’t violate the CBO’s statutes, was implemented by the CBO for the first time in this month’s report. The other adjustments are summarized in Table 3 below:
Step #4: We recognize that debt owed to trust funds is, indeed, debt
The question of whether to look at gross debt (including obligations to trust funds such as the Social Security and Medicare hospital insurance funds) or net debt (excluding those obligations and other intra-governmental holdings) is a tired subject. It’s probably fair to say that net debt advocates don’t care much about debt to begin with, while those who point to gross debt do care. We offered our two cents here. Among other points, we described the paradox that fiscally profligate governments can lower net debt (but not gross debt) by merely expanding certain types of entitlement programs, even if the expansions are fiscally unsustainable. In fact, America’s current financial position shows that this is exactly what we’ve done. For this reason and others, trust fund debt should be added back to the net figures highlighted by the CBO.
Putting it all together
Note that the figures in the tables above exclude debt service costs. After breaking the baseline into components and making our adjustments, we then create new projections that include recalculation of debt service.
The Steps 1 and 3 adjustments are combined into a projection that we call “Congress does what it usually does,” while the Step 2 adjustment is blended into our “and the economy does what it usually does” projection. The Step 4 adjustment is shown in the “and trust fund debt counts” projection in the final chart.
Here are our results, for deficits first and then debt:
While the charts speak for themselves, we’ll turn again to Poole’s op-ed to sum up America’s finances:
U.S. fiscal policy is in a chaotic state. Policy decisions are wrapped around the convoluted budget accounting that Congress and the White House use to obfuscate, dissemble and hide what is really being done. That is a tragedy, and our democracy is worse for it.
(Click here for an appendix to this post containing the year-by-year added deficits for each of our adjustments, in dollars.)
We’ve all done it, haven’t we? Chucked something in the wash and turned it on too high, only to see it pop out at the end of the cycle and it ends up the size of your hamster. Well, Obama has been doing the same. Except this time it’s not your winter woollies that he’s shrinking, it’s the greenback.
The US currency is shrinking as a percentage of world currency today according to the International Monetary Fund. It’s still in pole position for the moment, but business transactions are showing that companies around the world are today ready and willing to make the move to do business in other currencies.
The US Dollar has long been the world’s number one denomination in world currency supply. It represents 62% of total holdings in foreign exchange in central banks around the world. But, it is in for a tough race from up-and-coming strong currencies. The Japanese Yen and the Chinese Yuan are both giving the Americans a good run for their money. The Swiss franc is too (surprisingly). There is $6 trillion in foreign exchange holdings around the world at any given time, on average and the US Dollar represents almost two-thirds of that.
The fact that Brazil and China have also just signed a currency-swap deal worth something to the tune of $30 billion stands as living proof that the dollar may be further on the wane. China will exceed all expectations in the future as the world’s largest economy. The US will be overtaken. The Chinese currency will one day overtake the Dollar too. Has to be!
Although, it’s not quite there for the moment. China is not near being the world’s reserve currency yet. In order to be the world’s reserve currency there would be the need to produce enormous quantities of what the world wants. China has got that one off pat already. Then, countries holding the reserve currency would need to be able to spend that currency elsewhere in other countries or find a place to put it while waiting to do so. World capital markets are currently in dollars (40%), which means that there would be no possibility of using the Chinese currency. But, that’s only a matter of time. Some are predicting this will happen pretty soon.
The Federal Reserve has come in for some strong criticism over the unconventional Quantitative Easing methods that have resulted in 3 trillion spanking new dollars rolling off the printing presses. This has certainly brought about some degree of worry around the world that the dollar is not quite as safe as it might have been thought to be in the past. Is the world worrying that the dollar is not as safe a bet as it used to be in world domination. Are central banks worried that it will shrink in the wash and the colors will run?
Some are predicting that the dollar will shrink rapidly over the next two years and it will lose its top place as the world’s reserve currency by 2015. In the 1950s the dollar was 90% of total foreign currency holdings around the world. The dollar has definitely lost out to other currencies that are stronger. If there is a continued move and the dollar shrinks, then the resulting catastrophe that will ensue will have a spiral effect on the already enormous US budget deficit (over $1 trillion a year on average).
The only reason the Federal Reserve has been in a position to print more money recently is simply because they are in the strong position to be able to do so as the world’s leading reserve currency. If that changes, then the Americans won’t have the possibility of just hitting the button and setting the printing presses rolling. That means the US will be in no other position than to end up having to pay their debt back.
The US economy and the market are starting to show signs of recovery. Signs. It’s not sustained, hope as they might. If the dollar loses its attraction, then it won’t be used as the international reserve currency. Businesses will start using another currency and the dollar will lose out further still.
Some experts are saying that the problems of the dollar are like a time-bomb ready to explode. Ultimately, it will bring about the death of the dollar. As we stand on and watch, huddled around the coffin as it is lowered into the ground, we know it’s all too late. The flowers have been sent and the Stars and Stripes has been played in recognition of loyal service for the nation.
The QE methods are nothing more than aiding and abetting the already problematic situation of the greenback. We might look back in years to come and reminisce over whether it was the right (long-term) solution to use QE, whether printing bucks sent the greenback to an early grave, or whether it just reached the end of its life and croaked peacefully without making too much noise.
But, criticism of and worry over the dollar and its longevity have been hot topics for years now. The US dollar is a fiat currency that can easily lose status, deriving its value from government regulation and law. But, then again, so is the Euro. So, people living in Europe shouldn’t start throwing stones…they live in glass houses too…and that’s before they start.
Originally posted: Death of the Dollar
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A paper currency system contains the seeds of its own destruction. The temptation for the monopolist money producer to increase the money supply is almost irresistible. In such a system with a constantly increasing money supply and, as a consequence, constantly increasing prices, it does not make much sense to save in cash to purchase assets later. A better strategy, given this senario, is to go into debt to purchase assets and pay back the debts later with a devalued currency. Moreover, it makes sense to purchase assets that can later be pledged as collateral to obtain further bank loans. A paper money system leads to excessive debt.
This is especially true of players that can expect that they will be bailed out with newly produced money such as big businesses, banks, and the government.
We are now in a situation that looks like a dead end for the paper money system. After the last cycle, governments have bailed out malinvestments in the private sector and boosted their public welfare spending. Deficits and debts skyrocketed. Central banks printed money to buy public debts (or accept them as collateral in loans to the banking system) in unprecedented amounts. Interest rates were cut close to zero. Deficits remain large. No substantial real growth is in sight. At the same time banking systems and other financial players sit on large piles of public debt. A public default would immediately trigger the bankruptcy of the banking sector. Raising interest rates to more realistic levels or selling the assets purchased by the central bank would put into jeopardy the solvency of the banking sector, highly indebted companies, and the government. It looks like even the slowing down of money printing (now called “QE tapering”) could trigger a bankruptcy spiral. A drastic reduction of government spending and deficits does not seem very likely either, given the incentives for politicians in democracies.
So will money printing be a constant with interest rates close to zero until people lose their confidence in the paper currencies? Can the paper money system be maintained or will we necessarily get a hyperinflation sooner or later?
There are at least seven possibilities:
1. Inflate. Governments and central banks can simply proceed on the path of inflation and print all the money necessary to bail out the banking system, governments, and other over-indebted agents. This will further increase moral hazard. This option ultimately leads into hyperinflation, thereby eradicating debts. Debtors profit, savers lose. The paper wealth that people have saved over their life time will not be able to assure such a high standard of living as envisioned.
2. Default on Entitlements. Governments can improve their financial positions by simply not fulfilling their promises. Governments may, for instance, drastically cut public pensions, social security and unemployment benefits to eliminate deficits and pay down accumulated debts. Many entitlements, that people have planned upon, will prove to be worthless.
3. Repudiate Debt. Governments can also default outright on their debts. This leads to losses for banks and insurance companies that have invested the savings of their clients in government bonds. The people see the value of their mutual funds, investment funds, and insurance plummet thereby revealing the already-occurred losses. The default of the government could lead to the collapse of the banking system. The bankruptcy spiral of overindebted agents would be an economic Armageddon. Therefore, politicians until now have done everything to prevent this option from happening.
4. Financial Repression. Another way to get out of the debt trap is financial repression. Financial repression is a way of channeling more funds to the government thereby facilitating public debt liquidation. Financial repression may consist of legislation making investment alternatives less attractive or more directly in regulation inducing investors to buy government bonds. Together with real growth and spending cuts, financial repression may work to actually reduce government debt loads.
5. Pay Off Debt. The problem of overindebtedness can also be solved through fiscal measures. The idea is to eliminate debts of governments and recapitalize banks through taxation. By reducing overindebtedness, the need for the central bank to keep interest low and to continue printing money is alleviated. The currency could be put on a sounder base again. To achieve this purpose, the government expropriates wealth on a massive scale to pay back government debts. The government simply increases existing tax rates or may employ one-time confiscatory expropriations of wealth. It uses these receipts to pay down its debts and recapitalize banks. Indeed the IMF has recently proposed a one-time 10-percent wealth tax in Europe in order to reduce the high levels of public debts. Large scale cuts in spending could also be employed to pay off debts. After WWII, the US managed to reduce its debt-to-GDP ratio from 130 percent in 1946 to 80 percent in 1952. However, it seems unlikely that such a debt reduction through spending cuts could work again. This time the US does not stand at the end of a successful war. Government spending was cut in half from $118 billion in 1945 to $58 billion in 1947, mostly through cuts in military spending. Similar spending cuts today do not seem likely without leading to massive political resistance and bankruptcies of overindebted agents depending on government spending.
6. Currency Reform. There is the option of a full-fledged currency reform including a (partial) default on government debt. This option is also very attractive if one wants to eliminate overindebtedness without engaging in a strong price inflation. It is like pressing the reset button and continuing with a paper money regime. Such a reform worked in Germany after the WWII (after the last war financial repression was not an option) when the old paper money, the Reichsmark, was substituted by a new paper money, the Deutsche Mark. In this case, savers who hold large amounts of the old currency are heavily expropriated, but debt loads for many people will decline.
7. Bail-in. There could be a bail-in amounting to a half-way currency reform. In a bail-in, such as occurred in Cyprus, bank creditors (savers) are converted into bank shareholders. Bank debts decrease and equity increases. The money supply is reduced. A bail-in recapitalizes the banking system, and eliminates bad debts at the same time. Equity may increase so much, that a partial default on government bonds would not threaten the stability of the banking system. Savers will suffer losses. For instance, people that invested in life insurances that in turn bought bank liabilities or government bonds will assume losses. As a result the overindebtedness of banks and governments is reduced.
Any of the seven options, or combinations of two or more options, may lie ahead. In any case they will reveal the losses incurred in and end the wealth illusion. Basically, taxpayers, savers, or currency users are exploited to reduce debts and put the currency on a more stable basis. A one-time wealth tax, a currency reform or a bail-in are not very popular policy options as they make losses brutally apparent at once. The first option of inflation is much more popular with governments as it hides the costs of the bail out of overindebted agents. However, there is the danger that the inflation at some point gets out of control. And the monopolist money producer does not want to spoil his privilege by a monetary meltdown. Before it gets to the point of a runaway inflation, governments will increasingly ponder the other options as these alternatives could enable a reset of the system.
Note: The views expressed in Daily Articles on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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Philipp Bagus is an associate professor at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos. He is an associate scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and was awarded the 2011 O.P. Alford III Prize in Libertarian Scholarship. He is the author of The Tragedy of the Euro and coauthor of Deep Freeze: Iceland’s Economic Collapse. The Tragedy of the Euro has so far been translated and published in German, French, Slovak, Polish, Italian, Romanian, Finnish, Spanish, Portuguese, British English, Dutch, Brazilian Portuguese, Bulgarian, and Chinese. See his website. Send him mail. Follow him on Twitter @PhilippBagus See Philipp Bagus’s article archives.
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As the saying goes, ‘desperate times call for desperate measures.’
The phrase is bandied about so frequently, it’s generally accepted truth. But I have to tell you that I fundamentally disagree with the premise.
Desperate times, in fact, call for a complete reset in the way people think. Desperate times call for the most intelligent, effective, least destructive measures. But these sayings aren’t as catchy.
This old adage has become a crutch– a way for policymakers to rationalize the idiotic measures they’ve put in place:
- Inflation-adjusted interest rates that are… negative.
- Trillion dollar deficits.
- Endless wars and saber-rattling
- Unprecedented expansion of central bank balance sheets.
- DIRECT CONFISCATION of people’s bank accounts.
But hey… desperate times call for desperate measures. I guess we’re all just supposed to be OK with that.
One of those desperate measures that’s been coming up a lot lately is the re-re-re-introduction of capital controls.
It started in late 2012, when both the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund seperately endorsed the use of capital controls.
For the IMF, it was a staunch reversal of its previous position, and Paul Krugman lauded the agency’s “surprising intellectual flexibility” a few days later.
The IMF then followed up in 2013 with another little ditty proposing a global wealth tax. The good idea factory is clearly working ’round the clock over there.
Lately, two more leading economists– Harvard professors Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff– have joined the debate.
In a speech to the American Economic Association earlier this month, the pair suggested that rich economies may need to resort to the tactics generally reserved for emerging markets.
This is code for financial repression and capital controls.
The idea behind capital controls is simple: create barriers to restrict the free flow of capital. And if you’re on the receiving end, capital controls can be enormously destructive.
But for politicians, capital controls are hugely beneficial; once they trap funds within their borders, the money can be easily taxed, confiscated, or inflated.
Historically, capital controls have been used in ‘desperate times’. Too much debt. Too much deficit spending. Wars. Huge trade deficit. Intentional currency devaluation. Etc.
Does any of this sound familiar? It’s no surprise that policymakers have once again turned to this ‘desperate measure’. They’re already here.
Iceland has capital controls, over five years after its spectacular meltdown. We can also see capital controls in Cyprus, India, Argentina, etc.
I’ve been writing for years that capital controls are a foregone conclusion. This is no longer theory or conjecture. It’s happening. And every bit of objective evidence suggests that the march towards capital controls will quicken.
This is a HUGE reason to consider holding a portion of your savings overseas in a strong, stable foreign bank where your home government won’t as easily be able to trap your savings.
Other options including storing physical gold (even anonymously) at an overseas depository. Or if you’re inclined and tech savvy, you can also own digital currency.
But perhaps the best way to move some capital abroad is to own foreign real estate, especially productive land.
Foreign real estate is not reportable. It’s a great store of value. It generates both financial profits and personal resilience. It’s a LOT harder to forcibly repatriate. And it ensures that you always have a place to go in case you need to get out of Dodge.
Even if nothing ‘bad’ ever happens, you won’t be worse off for owning productive land in a thriving economy.
Like I said– desperate times don’t call for desperate measures. More than ever, it’s time for a complete reset in the way we look at the most effective solutions. These options are certainly among them.
The European Central Bank is concerned that national differences in how bad debt is classified could cripple its probe into the health of euro-area banks, according to an internal ECB document.
Bad-debt classification practices across Europe show “material differences that, if not considered, would severely affect the consistency and credibility of the exercise,” according to the undated document obtained by Bloomberg News. A person familiar with the text said it was drawn up in late November and contains the ECB’s latest thinking on the subject. An ECB spokeswoman declined to comment.
The Frankfurt-based ECB is conducting a three-stage assessment of bank assets before it assumes oversight of about 130 lenders across the 18-member euro area this November. Using a strict definition of bad debt could threaten banks in countries hit hardest by Europe’s debt crisis, while a laxer rule may not reveal the true condition of the region’s financial system.
“A more ambitious definition would be consistent with the need to convey to external observers that the AQR is a thorough exercise,” the document said, referring to the Asset Quality Review stage of the Comprehensive Assessment. That’s set to culminate with a stress test run in cooperation with the European Banking Authority before October this year.
The ECB document said that not all countries may be able to comply with simplified definitions of non-performing loans set out in October by the London-based EBA, the EU’s top bank regulator, while saying that alignment to those rules is “of the essence.”
European banks’ bad loans are classified according to a variety of national rules, which makes a comparison among lenders difficult. The European Central Bank is struggling to harmonize the definition of non-performing loans so that it can give more credibility to its assessment of the credit quality of the region’s lenders.
In the first half of last year, total doubtful and non-performing loans as a proportion of lending calculated according to national rules exceeded 21 percent in Greece and were less than 1 percent in Sweden, ECB data show.
“It’s crucial to find common rules and a shared vision to overcome the national lobbies,” Karim Bertoni, a senior analyst on European equities at de Pury Pictet Turrettini & CIE SA in Geneva, said by telephone. “This is the main challenge for the ECB, which would allow a better management of banks and risk control.”
The ECB signaled it would apply the EBA’s simplified definition as a minimum, and where possible increase the level of detail on loans made by banks. The EBA sets financial standards for the 28 nations in the European Union, and is working with the ECB on the final part of the Comprehensive Assessment.
That minimum means the ECB would define as non-performing all exposures, including loans, debt securities, financial guarantees and other commitments, which are past due for more than 90 days. That differs from final, more complex, standards, due to be implemented by EBA by the end of this year, that include data on the likelihood of the borrower repaying. Only half of the countries examined could supply that data, according to the ECB report, while limiting the definition to the 90-day rule “seems feasible for the majority of countries.”
Euro-area lenders from Banco Santander SA (SAN) in Spain to Alpha Bank SA (ALPHA) in Greece will come under ECB supervision, with oversight forming the first pillar of a nascent banking union designed to mitigate future financial turmoil.
ECB policy makers have said the central bank will provide more information on the treatment of non-performing loans and the parameters of the concluding stress test by the end of January.
While the simplified EBA rules should be adhered to in the Comprehensive Assessment as a minimum, adding further detail to the assessment could be possible since ECB officials will already be in contact with bank staff, the document said.
“Given the possibility to perform more granular analysis during the on-site visits, it is proposed that this analysis takes into account a more ambitious definition including the unlikeliness to repay criterion,” according to the document.
The ECB said that as there are so many variations between countries on the definition of forbearance — where banks shift the terms of a loan to account for a change in the debtor’s own income — the only possibility is to accept national definitions where they exist, as well as loans that were considered in that category until the end of 2012 but have since been recategorized.
For countries where no standard definition exists, the ECB said it may ask states to report all loans for which concessions have been granted as forborne.
The Greatest Myth Propagated About The FED: Central Bank Independence (Part 1) | New Economic Perspectives
It has been commonplace to speak of central bank independence—as if it were both a reality and a necessity. Discussions of the Fed invariably refer to legislated independence and often to the famous 1951 Accord that apparently settled the matter.  While everyone recognizes the Congressionally-imposed dual mandate, the Fed has substantial discretion in its interpretation of the vague call for high employment and low inflation. For a long time economists presumed those goals to be in conflict but in recent years Chairman Greenspan seemed to have successfully argued that pursuit of low inflation rather automatically supports sustainable growth with maximum feasible employment.
In any event, nothing is more sacrosanct than the supposed independence of the central bank from the treasury, with the economics profession as well as policymakers ready to defend the prohibition of central bank “financing” of budget deficits. As in many developed nations, this prohibition was written into US law from the founding of the Fed in 1913. In practice, the prohibition is easy to evade, as we found during WWII in the US when budget deficits ran up to a quarter of GDP. If a central bank stands ready to buy government bonds in the secondary market to peg an interest rate, then private banks will buy bonds in the new issue market and sell them to the central bank at a virtually guaranteed price. Since central bank purchases of bonds supply the reserves needed by banks to buy bonds, a virtuous circle is created so that the treasury faces no financing constraint. That is what the 1951 Accord was supposedly all about—ending the cheap source of US Treasury finance.
Since the Global Financial Crisis hit in 2007 these matters have come to the fore in both the US and the European Monetary Union. In the US, discussion of “printing money” to finance burgeoning deficits was somewhat muted, in part because the Fed purportedly undertook Quantitative Easing to push banks to lend—not to provide the Treasury with cheap funding. But the impact has been the same as WWII-era finances: very low interest rates on government debt even as a large portion of the debt ended up on the books of the Fed, while bank reserves have grown to historic levels (the Fed also purchased and lent against private debt, adding to excess reserves). While hyperinflationists have been pointing to the fact that the Fed is essentially “printing money” (actually reserves) to finance the budget deficits, most other observers have endorsed the Fed’s notion that QE might allow it to “push on a string” by spurring private banks to lend—which is thought to be desirable and certainly better than “financing” budget deficits to allow government spending to grow the economy. Growth through fiscal austerity is the new motto as the Fed accumulates ever more federal government debt and suspect mortgage-backed securities.
The other case is in the EMU where the European Central Bank had long been presumed to be prohibited from buying debt of the member governments. By design, these governments were supposed to be disciplined by markets, to keep their deficits and debt within Maastricht criteria. Needless to say, things have not turned out quite as planned. The ECB’s balance sheet has blown up just as the Fed’s did—and there is no end in sight in Euroland even as the Fed has begun to taper. It would not be hyperbole to predict that the ECB will end up owning (or at least standing behind) most EMU government debt as it continues to expand its backstop.
It is, then, perhaps a good time to reexamine the thinking behind central bank independence. There are several related issues.
First, can a central bank really be independent? In what sense? Political? Operational? Policy formation?
Second, should a central bank be independent? In a democracy should monetary policy—purportedly as important as or even more important than fiscal policy—be unaccountable? Why?
Finally, what are the potential problems faced if a central bank is not independent? Inflation? Insolvency?
While this two part piece will focus on the US and the Fed, the analysis is relevant to general discussions about central bank independence. We will limit our analysis to the questions surrounding what we mean by central bank independence. We leave to other analyses the questions surrounding the wisdom of granting independence to the Fed, democratic accountability, and potential problems. We will argue here that the Fed is independent only in a very narrow sense. We have argued elsewhere that the Fed’s crisis response during the global financial crisis does raise serious issues of transparency and accountability—issues that have not been resolved with the Dodd-Frank legislation. Finally, it will become apparent that we do not believe that lack of central bank independence raises significant problems with inflation or insolvency of the sovereign government.
For the US case we will draw on an excellent study of the evolution of governance of the Fed by Bernard Shull, one of the foremost authorities of the history of the Fed. As we will see, the dominant argument for independence throughout the Fed’s history has been that monetary policy should be set to promote the national interest. This requires that it should be free of political influence coming from Congress. Further, it was gradually accepted that even though the Federal Open Market Committee includes participation by regional Federal Reserve banks, the members of the FOMC are to put the national interest first. Shull shows that while governance issues remain unresolved, Congress has asserted its oversight rights, especially after economic or financial crises.
I’ll also include summaries of the arguments of two insiders—one from the Treasury and the other from the Fed—that also conclude that the case of the Fed’s independence is frequently overstated. The former Treasury official argues that at least within the Treasury there is no presumption that the Fed is operationally independent. The Fed official authored a comprehensive statement on the Fed’s independence, arguing that the Fed is a creature of Congress. More recently, Chairman Bernanke has said that “of course we’ll do whatever Congress tells us to do”: if the Congress is not satisfied with the Fed’s actions, the Congress can always tell the Fed to behave differently.
In the aftermath of the GFC, Congress has attempted to exert greater control with its Dodd-Frank legislation. The Fed handled most of the US policy response to the Great Recession (or, GFC). As we have documented, most of the rescue was behind closed doors and intended to remain secret. (See Felkerson 2012; and Wray 2012) Much of it at least stretched the law and perhaps went beyond the now famous section 13(3) that had been invoked for “unusual and exigent” circumstances for the first time since the Great Depression. Congress has demanded greater transparency and has tightened restrictions on the Fed’s future crisis response. Paradoxically, Dodd-Frank also increased the Fed’s authority and responsibility. However, in some sense this is “deja-vu” because Congressional reaction to the Fed’s poor response to the onset of the Great Depression was similarly paradoxical as Congress simultaneously asserted more control over the Fed while broadening the scope of the Fed’s mission.
INDEPENDENT OF WHAT?
Most references to central bank independence are little more than vague hand-waves. In the US, the Fed is a “creature of Congress”, established by the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, which has been modified a number of times. Elected officials play a role in selecting top Fed officials. And while the Fed is nominally owned by share-holding banks, and while the Fed’s budget is separate, profits above 6% on equity are returned to Treasury. Congress also has asserted its authority to mandate that the Fed release detailed information on its operations and budget—and there seems to be nothing but Congressional timidity to stop it from demanding more control over the Fed (indeed, Dodd-Frank sanctions many of the actions taken by the Fed during the GFC, now requiring prior approval by the President, the Treasury Secretary, and/or Congress for various interventions). Further, as we will see, the Fed’s operations are necessarily closely coordinated with the Treasury’s; the Fed, after all, functions as the Treasury’s bank. Finally, as everyone knows, Congress has provided a dual mandate to guide Fed policy although one could easily interpret Congressional will as consisting of four (at least some of which are related) mandates: high employment, low inflation, acceptable growth, and financial stability.
Above I have argued that the Fed is a creature of Congress. MacLaury has put the relationship this way:
Ultimately the [Federal Reserve] System is accountable to congress, not the executive branch, even though Reserve Board members and the chairman are president-appointed. The authority and delegated policy powers are subject to review by the congress not the president, the Treasury Department, nor by banks or other interests. (p. 4)
While many supporters and critics alike have stressed the Fed’s nominal ownership by member banks as evidence that it is somehow independent of government, the Fed’s Bruce MacLaury interprets the independence as follows:
First, let’s be clear on what independence does not mean. It does not mean decisions and actions made without accountability. By law and by established procedures, the System is clearly accountable to congress—not only for its monetary policy actions, but also for its regulatory responsibilities and for services to banks and to the public. Nor does independence mean that monetary policy actions should be free from public discussion and criticism—by members of congress, by professional economists in and out of government, by financial, business, and community leaders, and by informed citizens. Nor does it mean that the Fed is independent of the government. Although closely interfaced with commercial banking, the Fed is clearly a public institution, functioning within a discipline of responsibility to the “public interest.” It has a degree of independence within the government—which is quite different from being independent of government. Thus, the Federal Reserve System is more appropriately thought of as being “insulated” from, rather than independent of, political—government and banking—special interest pressures. Through their 14-year terms and staggered appointments, for example, members of the Board of Governors are insulated from being dependent on or beholden to the current administration or party in power. In this and in other ways, then, the monetary process is insulated—but not isolated—from these influences. In a functional sense, the insulated structure enables monetary policy makers to look beyond short-term pressures and political expedients whenever the long-term goals of sustainable growth and stable prices may require “unpopular” policy actions. Monetary judgments must be able to weigh as objectively as possible the merit of short-term expedients against long-term consequences—in the on-going public interest.
We can take that as our starting point: the Fed is part of government–a public institution–but is insulated from day-to-day politics and other types of special interest pressures. Let’s explore this independence in more detail, beginning with an historical perspective.
Fed Governance: Historical Perspective
Shull (2014) offers a detailed history of the evolution of Fed governance. He notes that the Fed is an independent government agency like the Federal Trade Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Each of these has substantial discretion in implementing laws through rules and regulations and in formulating policies. Most independent agencies have an Inspector General and are subject to Congressional oversight. The Fed is somewhat unusual in that it is self-financing and in that there is a widely held belief that if its formulation of monetary policy were not independent, the policy outcome would be worse. In other words, good monetary policy supposedly depends on independence (from Congress and the Administration).Thus, the Fed’s monetary policy is not subject to audit by the General Accountability Office—and courts have refused to hear suits that accuse the Fed of policy mistakes. In recent decades, the Administration has been reluctant even to criticize the Fed’s monetary policy. However, as we will see, that has not always been the case.
The movement to create a central bank strengthened after the Panic of 1907. Rival plans were put forward, which ranged from a bank-supported plan which would create a privately-owned central bank (like the Bank of England), to a proposal to house the US central bank within the Treasury. The Glass-Owen bill split the difference, with private ownership and a decentralized system, but with the Treasury Secretary and the Comptroller of the Currency sitting on the Board. The decentralized system was supposed to ensure “fair representation of the financial, industrial and commercial interests and geographic divisions of the country,” (quoted in Shull p. 4). The Board was to be “a distinctly nonpartisan organization and was to be wholly divorced from politics.” (ibid p. 5) According to Paul Warburg, governance was to be maintained by a “system of checks and counter-checks— a paralyzing system which gives powers with one hand and takes them away with the other.” (ibid) In other words, the idea was that by ensuring broad representation of interests, the Fed would be stymied by a “clash of interests” that would reduce the damage it might do; as Shull puts it, “The checks and balances thus constituted a form of internal governance.” (ibid p. 5) That of course sounds somewhat familiar as a typically American approach to governance.
When WWI came along, however, the Fed turned its attention to supporting the Treasury’s debt issue. In the inflationary period at the end of the war, the regional Feds raised discount rates sharply (up to 85%) and a deep retraction followed that led to deflation of farm prices. Congress revisited the governance issue as some critics wanted to force the Fed to seek Congressional approval in advance of future rate hikes. One of the Board members, Adolph Miller, understood the implication:
“The American people will never stand contraction if they know it can be helped. Least of all will they stand contraction if they think it is contraction at the instance, or with the consent of an institution like the Federal Reserve System….The Reserve System cannot ‘make’ the business situation but it can do an immense deal to make its extremes less pronounced and violent….Discount policy…should always address itself to the phase of the business cycle through which the country happens to be passing.” (quoted in Shull, p. 7)
As Shull argues, the governance by paralyzing checks and balances conflicted with the need to cooperate to use monetary policy to stabilize the economy. Congress tightened the reins on the Fed but also centralized decision-making at the Board in Washington. The GAO began to audit the Board and there were a number of Commissions and Committees that investigated new guidelines to control the Fed. However, the 1927 Pepper-McFadden Act replaced the Fed’s original 20 year charter with an indefinite charter, and a Congressional report at the time declared that the Fed had demonstrated its usefulness. In the end, Congressional anger dissipated and not much was done to constrain the Fed’s discretion.
Governance issues again came to the forefront during the Great Depression, with serious consideration given to government ownership of the Fed, to be housed in the Treasury. President Roosevelt (who seemed to have supported such a move) as well as many in Congress were concerned that the Fed was not sufficiently attune to the national interest. Title II of the Banking Act of 1935 was a compromise that preserved private ownership but moved to ensure the Board would be more responsive, focusing on the national interest. (Shull, p. 10) As power was further centralized in Washington, the “checks-and-balances” approach to governance continued to fade.
As in WWI, WWII saw the Fed cooperating with Treasury, in the national interest to keep rates on national debt low. That ended in the famous Accord of 1951, restoring “independence” of the Fed to formulate monetary policy. However, policy was still to be undertaken in the national interest, with the Fed keeping rates very low until the mid 1960s; the Fed mainly operated in short-term Treasury bills so as to have minimum effects on other financial markets. Monetary policy remained on the backburner until the inflation-recession cycle of the early 1970s. In 1975, Congress decided to exert greater control, in House Resolution 113.
In the Federal Reserve Reform Act of 1977, the Senate insisted on the requirement that it confirm the President’s appointment of the Fed’s chairman and vice-chairman. In addition Congress required that Class B Reserve bank directors had to be “elected to represent the public”. (Shull p. 12) The 1978 Humphrey-Hawkins full Employment and Balanced Growth Act clarified the Fed’s mandates and required semi-annual reports to both the Senate and the House. Later, after Chairman Greenspan got caught in “white lies” provided to Chairman Gonzalez, the Fed was required to release its transcripts of FOMC meetings (albeit with a five year lag). The Fed also voluntarily agreed to measures designed to increase transparency (including announcing its explicit interest rate target).
The final big changes to governance occurred after the GFC, when Dodd-Frank tightened limits on what the Fed can do in response to a crisis. This was a surprising turn of events, as Chairman Greenspan had become the darling of Congress and the media and his replacement, Chairman Bernanke, had declared the era of the New Moderation in which central bankers could do nothing wrong. However, in the aftermath of the crisis, many elected representatives as well as the media and the population at large blamed the Fed for the crisis and for bungling a response that made the downturn worse than it should have been. As we’ve argued elsewhere, even many of those directly involved agreed that the Fed’s crisis response “stunk” and that it should never be repeated. The Dodd-Frank legislation was designed in part to ensure it would not happen again.
However, yet again, Congress actually extended Fed responsibility, to include authority over large, systemically important non-bank financial institutions. Still, the Act restricted application of Section 13(3) in future crises, and for some actions required approval from the Treasury. It also mandated increased transparency (including a review by the GAO of all the Fed’s emergency assistance after the GFC). Congress also created the Financial Stability Oversight Council that is chaired by the Treasury Secretary and includes heads of agencies involved in overlooking the financial sector—including the Fed. In that manner it diluted the Fed’s power somewhat. Exactly what difference all this will make for the response in the next crisis cannot be foreseen in advance.
Next time, in Part 2, we look at the Fed’s supposed independence from our elected representatives. We’ll see that that is a fabricated myth.
 Thorvald Moe examines the role of Marriner Eccles and the discussions and events that led up to the 1951 Accord. Eccles was a dominant figure in the transformation of the Fed from the relatively weak and decentralized institution that had been created in 1913 to the modern central bank we know now. Moe makes a strong case that the vision of Eccles was instrumental in that evolution; as we will see, modern theories of central banks, however, deviate sharply from the Eccles vision in quite illuminating ways. See: Thorvald Grung Moe “Marriner S. Eccles and the 1951 Treasury – Federal Reserve Accord: Lessons for Central Bank Independence” Working Paper No. 747, Levy Economics Institute of Bard College January 2013.
 See two annual reports of research conducted with the support of Ford Foundation Grant no. 1110-‐0184, administered by the University of Missouri–Kansas City. See: L. Randall Wray, 2012. “Improving Governance of the Government Safety Net in Financial Crises,” Research Project Report, April 9.http://www.levyinstitute.org/pubs/rpr_04_12_wray.pdf; and L. Randall Wray, 2013. “The Lender of Last Resort: A Critical Analysis of the Federal Reserve’s Unprecedented Intervention after 2007”, Research Project Report, April http://www.levyinstitute.org/publications/?docid=1739.
 Bernard Shull, who made a great presentation at the annual ASSA meetings in Philadelphia. His paper, “Financial crisis resolution and Federal Reserve governance: economic thought and political realities”, Jan 4 2014, is forthcoming as Levy Institute Working Paper.
 See James A. Felkerson, 2012 “A Detailed Look at the Fed’s Crisis Response by Funding Facility and Recipient.” Public Policy Brief No. 123. Annandale-on-Hudson, NY: Levy Economics Institute of Bard College.http://www.levyinstitute.org/pubs/ppb_123.pdf; and L. Randall Wray, 2012. “Improving Governance of the Government Safety Net in Financial Crises,” Research Project Report, April 9.http://www.levyinstitute.org/pubs/rpr_04_12_wray.pdf.
 See Bruce K. MacLaury; “Perspectives on Federal Reserve Independence – A Changing Structure for Changing Times”; Published January 1, 1977, The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Annual Report 1976, http://www.minneapolisfed.org/publications_papers/pub_display.cfm?id=690, which examines Fed independence with respect to Congress, the Executive branch (including the Treasury), member banks, and within itself (ie, for example relations between the Board of Governors in Washington and the District banks). I will use several quotes from this comprehensive survey.
 Bernard Shull, “Financial crisis resolution and Federal Reserve governance: economic thought and political realities”, Jan 4 2014, forthcoming as Levy Institute Working Paper.
 See L. Randall Wray, “The Fed and the New Monetary Consensus: The Case for Rate Hikes, Part Two”, Public Policy Brief No. 80, December 2004, p. 14 for a discussion of this episode.
 See Wray 2013, the second report of this Ford Foundation-funded project, cited above.