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Former Fed Quantitative Easer Confesses; Apologizes: “I Can Only Say: I’m Sorry, America” | Zero Hedge
By Andrew Huszar, also posted at the WSJ. Mr. Huszar, a senior fellow at Rutgers Business School, is a former Morgan Stanley managing director. In 2009-10, he managed the Federal Reserve’s $1.25 trillion agency mortgage-backed security purchase program.
Confessions of a Quantitative Easer
We went on a bond-buying spree that was supposed to help Main Street. Instead, it was a feast for Wall Street.
I can only say: I’m sorry, America. As a former Federal Reserve official, I was responsible for executing the centerpiece program of the Fed’s first plunge into the bond-buying experiment known as quantitative easing. The central bank continues to spin QE as a tool for helping Main Street. But I’ve come to recognize the program for what it really is: the greatest backdoor Wall Street bailout of all time.
Five years ago this month, on Black Friday, the Fed launched an unprecedented shopping spree. By that point in the financial crisis, Congress had already passed legislation, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, to halt the U.S. banking system’s free fall. Beyond Wall Street, though, the economic pain was still soaring. In the last three months of 2008 alone, almost two million Americans would lose their jobs.
The Fed said it wanted to help—through a new program of massive bond purchases. There were secondary goals, but Chairman Ben Bernanke made clear that the Fed’s central motivation was to “affect credit conditions for households and businesses”: to drive down the cost of credit so that more Americans hurting from the tanking economy could use it to weather the downturn. For this reason, he originally called the initiative “credit easing.”
My part of the story began a few months later. Having been at the Fed for seven years, until early 2008, I was working on Wall Street in spring 2009 when I got an unexpected phone call. Would I come back to work on the Fed’s trading floor? The job: managing what was at the heart of QE’s bond-buying spree—a wild attempt to buy $1.25 trillion in mortgage bonds in 12 months. Incredibly, the Fed was calling to ask if I wanted to quarterback the largest economic stimulus in U.S. history.
This was a dream job, but I hesitated. And it wasn’t just nervousness about taking on such responsibility. I had left the Fed out of frustration, having witnessed the institution deferring more and more to Wall Street. Independence is at the heart of any central bank’s credibility, and I had come to believe that the Fed’s independence was eroding. Senior Fed officials, though, were publicly acknowledging mistakes and several of those officials emphasized to me how committed they were to a major Wall Street revamp. I could also see that they desperately needed reinforcements. I took a leap of faith.
In its almost 100-year history, the Fed had never bought one mortgage bond. Now my program was buying so many each day through active, unscripted trading that we constantly risked driving bond prices too high and crashing global confidence in key financial markets. We were working feverishly to preserve the impression that the Fed knew what it was doing.
It wasn’t long before my old doubts resurfaced. Despite the Fed’s rhetoric, my program wasn’t helping to make credit any more accessible for the average American. The banks were only issuing fewer and fewer loans. More insidiously, whatever credit they were extending wasn’t getting much cheaper. QE may have been driving down the wholesale cost for banks to make loans, but Wall Street was pocketing most of the extra cash.
From the trenches, several other Fed managers also began voicing the concern that QE wasn’t working as planned. Our warnings fell on deaf ears. In the past, Fed leaders—even if they ultimately erred—would have worried obsessively about the costs versus the benefits of any major initiative. Now the only obsession seemed to be with the newest survey of financial-market expectations or the latest in-person feedback from Wall Street’s leading bankers and hedge-fund managers. Sorry, U.S. taxpayer.
Trading for the first round of QE ended on March 31, 2010. The final results confirmed that, while there had been only trivial relief for Main Street, the U.S. central bank’s bond purchases had been an absolute coup for Wall Street. The banks hadn’t just benefited from the lower cost of making loans. They’d also enjoyed huge capital gains on the rising values of their securities holdings and fat commissions from brokering most of the Fed’s QE transactions. Wall Street had experienced its most profitable year ever in 2009, and 2010 was starting off in much the same way.
You’d think the Fed would have finally stopped to question the wisdom of QE. Think again. Only a few months later—after a 14% drop in the U.S. stock market and renewed weakening in the banking sector—the Fed announced a new round of bond buying: QE2. Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, immediately called the decision “clueless.”
That was when I realized the Fed had lost any remaining ability to think independently from Wall Street. Demoralized, I returned to the private sector.
Where are we today? The Fed keeps buying roughly $85 billion in bonds a month, chronically delaying so much as a minor QE taper. Over five years, its bond purchases have come to more than $4 trillion. Amazingly, in a supposedly free-market nation, QE has become the largest financial-markets intervention by any government in world history.
And the impact? Even by the Fed’s sunniest calculations, aggressive QE over five years has generated only a few percentage points of U.S. growth. By contrast, experts outside the Fed, such as Mohammed El Erian at the Pimco investment firm, suggest that the Fed may have created and spent over $4 trillion for a total return of as little as 0.25% of GDP (i.e., a mere $40 billion bump in U.S. economic output). Both of those estimates indicate that QE isn’t really working.
Unless you’re Wall Street. Having racked up hundreds of billions of dollars in opaque Fed subsidies, U.S. banks have seen their collective stock price triple since March 2009. The biggest ones have only become more of a cartel: 0.2% of them now control more than 70% of the U.S. bank assets.
As for the rest of America, good luck. Because QE was relentlessly pumping money into the financial markets during the past five years, it killed the urgency for Washington to confront a real crisis: that of a structurally unsound U.S. economy. Yes, those financial markets have rallied spectacularly, breathing much-needed life back into 401(k)s, but for how long? Experts like Larry Fink at the BlackRock investment firm are suggesting that conditions are again “bubble-like.” Meanwhile, the country remains overly dependent on Wall Street to drive economic growth.
Even when acknowledging QE’s shortcomings, Chairman Bernanke argues that some action by the Fed is better than none (a position that his likely successor, Fed Vice Chairwoman Janet Yellen, also embraces). The implication is that the Fed is dutifully compensating for the rest of Washington’s dysfunction. But the Fed is at the center of that dysfunction. Case in point: It has allowed QE to become Wall Street’s new “too big to fail” policy.
October 29, 2013
Sovereign Valley Farm, Chile
Do you remember the $700 billion bailout of the financial system in 2008?
It seems these days that most investors do not. People are partying like it’s 1929… as if all the issues and challenges that plagued the banking sector just a few years ago have miraculously vanished.
This thinking is absurd, and even a casual glance at the balance sheets of so many banks in the West shows objectively that the entire system is still precariously leveraged, undercapitalized, and illiquid.
In the wake of the bailout, Congress created a special position to oversee how the funds were spent. Like anything else in government, they used an unnecessarily long name followed by a catchy acronym–
Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or SIGTARP.
(The first SIGTARP was a former federal prosecutor who had previously indicted 50 leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia… just the right man to keep a watchful eye on bankers.)
SIGTARP just released its quarterly report to Congress… and it’s scatching, suggesting that “the toxic corporate culture that led up to the crisis and TARP has not sufficiently changed.”
There are some real zingers in the 518 page report, including:
- “[F]raudulent bankers. . . sought TARP bailout dollars to have taxpayers fill in the holes on their fraud-riddled books.”
- “Some bankers cultivated a culture of self dealing, criminally concealing that the bank was funding their luxury lifestyles, believing they were entitled to the finest money could buy. . .”
- “They were trusted to exercise good judgment and make sound decisions. However, they abused that trust. Many times they abused that trust for their own personal benefit.”
Moreover, the report calls into question the Treasury Department’s administration of the bailout.
For example, many banks have been delinquent in making TARP payments, or payments to one of TARP’s sub-programs.
Yet while many banks are delinquent by 1-2 quarters, according to the report, roughly 3% of the banks who received funds under the Community Development Capital Initiative are more than –two years– behind in their payments.
Yet the Treasury Department has done nothing to enforce terms on behalf of taxpayers.
Most alarmingly, though, the report throws a giant red flag on the Treasury Department’s deceit.
In 2011, the report states, 137 banks took in billions of dollars of funding from the Treasury under the Small Business Lending Fund (SBLF). They then used those funds to repay their TARP loans.
In other words, they repaid taxpayer money with more taxpayer money.
But the Treasury Department still reported that TARP was being repaid, suggesting in a May 2013 press release: “Taxpayers have already earned a significant profit from TARP’s bank programs.”
Total BS, says the report.
SIGTARP writes that “Treasury should not. . . call these funds “repayments” or “recoveries”. Treasury owes taxpayers fundamental, clear, and accurate transparency and reporting on monies actually repaid.”
Something tells me this woman isn’t going to have a particularly long career in government.
And given the Obama’s administration’s track record against whistleblowers, SIGTARP had better start booking her flight to Moscow. Or better yet, marry a Brazilian.
- ‘Toxic’ corporate culture remains unchanged 5 years after U.S. financial meltdown (lunaticoutpost.com)
- Watchdog: Five Years After Wall Street Meltdown, ‘Toxic Culture of Greed and Risk’ Remains (commondreams.org)
Authored by John Taylor, originally posted at WSJ.com,
It is a common view that the shutdown, the debt-limit debacle and the repeated failure to enact entitlement and pro-growth tax reform reflect increased political polarization. I believe this gets the causality backward. Today’s governance failures are closely connected to economic policy changes, particularly those growing out of the 2008 financial crisis.
The crisis did not reflect some inherent defect of the market system that needed to be corrected, as many Americans have been led to believe. Rather it grew out of faulty government policies.
In the years leading up to the panic, mainly 2003-05, the Federal Reserve held interest rates excessively low compared with the monetary policy strategy of the 1980s and ’90s—a monetary strategy that had kept recessions mild. The Fed’s interest-rate policies exacerbated the housing boom and thus the ensuing bust. More generally, extremely low interest rates led individual and institutional investors to search for yield and to engage in excessive risk taking, as Geert Bekaert of Columbia University and his colleagues showed in a study published by the European Central Bank in July.
Meanwhile, regulators who were supposed to supervise large financial institutions, including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, allowed large deviations from existing safety and soundness rules. In particular,regulators permitted high leverage ratios and investments in risky, mortgage-backed securities that also fed the housing boom.
After the housing bubble burst the value of mortgage-backed securities plummeted, putting the solvency of the many banks and other financial institutions at risk. The government stepped in, but its ad hoc bailout policy was on balance destabilizing.
Whether or not it was appropriate for the Federal Reserve to bail out the creditors of Bear Stearns in March 2008, it was a mistake not to lay out a framework for future interventions. Instead, investors assumed that the creditors of Lehman Brothers also would be bailed out—and when they weren’t and Lehman declared bankruptcy in September, it was a big surprise, raising grave uncertainty about government policy going forward.
The government then passed the Troubled Asset Relief Program which was supposed to prop up banks by purchasing some of their problematic assets. The purchase plan was viewed as unworkable and financial markets continued to plummet—the Dow fell by 2,399 points in the first eight trading days of October—until the plan was radically changed into a capital injection program. Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, appearing last month on CNBC on the fifth anniversary of the Lehman bankruptcy, argued that TARP saved us. Former Wells Fargo CEO Dick Kovacevich, appearing later on the same show, argued that TARP significantly worsened the crisis by creating even more uncertainty.
In any case, the crisis ended, but rather than simply winding down its short-term liquidity facilities the Fed continued to intervene through massive asset purchases—commonly called quantitative easing. Many outside and inside the Fed are unconvinced quantitative easing is meeting its objective of spurring economic growth. Yet there is a growing worry about the Fed’s ability to reduce its asset purchases without market disruption. Bond and mortgage markets were roiled earlier this year by Chairman Ben Bernanke’s mere hint that the Fed might unwind.
The crisis ushered in the 2009 fiscal stimulus package and other interventions such as cash for clunkers and subsidies for first-time home buyers, which have not led to a sustained recovery. Crucially, the actions taken during the immediate crisis set a precedent for giving the federal government more power to intervene and regulate, which has added to uncertainty.
The Dodd-Frank Act, meant to promote financial stability, has called for hundreds of new rules and regulations, many still unwritten. The law was supposed to protect taxpayers from bailouts. Three years later it remains unclear how large complex financial institutions operating in many different countries will be “resolved” in a crisis. Any fear in the markets about whether a troubled big bank can be handled through Dodd-Frank’s orderly resolution authority can easily drive the U.S. Treasury to resort to another large-scale bailout.
Regulations and interventions also increased in other industries, most significantly in health care. The mandates at the core of the Affordable Care Act represent an unprecedented degree of control by the federal government of the activities of businesses and individuals, adversely affecting incentives to hire and work and eventually worsening the federal-budget outlook.
Federal debt held by the public has increased to 73% of GDP this year from 41% in 2008—and according to the Congressional Budget Office, it will rise to more than 250% without a change in policy. This raises uncertainty about how the debt can be brought under control.
Despite a massive onslaught of legislation and regulation designed to foster prosperity, economic growth remains low and unemployment remains high. Rhetoric aside, many both inside and outside the government quite reasonably seek to return to the kinds of policies that worked well in the not-so-distant past. Claiming that one political party has been hijacked by extremists misses this key point, and prevents a serious discussion of the fundamental changes in economic policies in recent years, and their effects.
- John Taylor Says It Was Obama’s Fault that the Tea Party Forced Republican Legislators into the Debt-Ceiling and Shutdown Debacles… (delong.typepad.com)
- The cause and cure according to John Taylor (longandvariable.wordpress.com)
- The dignity of John Taylor (cafehayek.com)