classical economics
for analysis,  forecasting
and policy design

Fed Predicament Eases
FED PREDICAMENT EASES
Dollar Improves Slightly
By Wayne Jett © December 16, 2009

    When America’s dominant elite began purging certain of Wall Street’s big players in 2008, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke stepped into the breach. He didn’t volunteer. He was taken there by the czar of purges, Treasury secretary and Goldman Sachs ex-CEO Henry Paulson. The experience must have changed his worldview, particularly his idea of the Fed’s place in the pecking order.
    What Bernanke saw at the Bear Stearns tactical session was financial sausage-making. Securities & Exchange Commission chairman Christopher Cox was so shocked that he never came to another such session; something about concern on his part that he was supposed to be enforcing the securities laws.
The Purges of 2008
    Bernanke was not expendable, as Cox was. Paulson needed the Federal Reserve to pump $25 billion in cash into Bear and guarantee another $29 billion or so of its financial assets before all of it was given to J. P. Morgan Chase, essentially for a big kiss. Did anyone mention that Morgan Chase is the giant international bank historically controlled by Rockefellers and Rothschilds?
    Morgan Chase got fat on Bear, and Bear’s shareholders got skinned while Paulson held them upside down by their feet. Then the purge czar struck again, and again. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Bros., AIG, National City (Ohio’s biggest bank), Merrill Lynch, Wachovia, Washington Mutual – each fell to his ax. The shareholders of these financial giants ate dirt as hundreds of billions of their invested capital poured into the pockets of fraudulent traders, thanks largely to “innovative” derivatives trading which counterfeited and “watered” their capital stock.
    Chairman Bernanke dutifully waded from one slaughter to the next, doing as he was told, which meant providing financial backing for whatever terms the purge czar set for gifts to intended beneficiaries. Morgan Chase alone got both Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual, the Seattle-based national home mortgage lender. Morgan Chase’s CEO subsequently told his shareholders 2008 was the bank’s best year ever.
    WaMu’s takedown emitted just as much stench of the purge czar as the other deals mentioned, even at the time. Recent reporting from Seattle investigators reveals FDIC’s Sheila Bair served as spearhead for the move against WaMu, which was seized when the firm had $29 billion in net liquidity, almost twice the five percent liquidity required. Subpoenas issued in bankruptcy proceedings are going after emails  of  others involved, including Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs. Even without subpoena power applied by any criminal law enforcement agency, seizure of WaMu has all the earmarks of federal complicity in destruction of one private company for benefit of another.
The Fed’s Balance Sheet
    As these financial purges were orchestrated, Chairman Bernanke found the Federal Reserve with a much enlarged balance sheet showing assets of an unprecedented nature. On his signature, the Fed advanced over $1.3 trillion for securities of varying nature, when the Fed’s total assets previously were $850 billion. Bernanke has been unwilling to say who sold him the securities, what prices were paid, or how prices were determined.
    If the Fed were just another private bank, perhaps keeping confidences would seem acceptable. But the Fed, unlike other banks, prints the money it spends under license of the U. S. government. Every dollar issued by the Fed makes every other dollar held by Americans (not to mention people around the world) worth less than would be the case if the new dollar didn’t exist. This explains why some, even in Congress, want Bernanke to detail what he did with the $1.3 trillion before he is confirmed by the Senate for another term as Fed chairman.
    When Bernanke was spending the money, he said he had no choice but to do it. Clearly someone made choices, because some banks were saved and some were slaughtered. As in Animal Farm, some banks are more equal than others, and the differences are not always apparent on their financial statements.
“De Plan, De Plan”
    Bernanke also indicated he had a plan for extracting the new liquidity from the economy before the dollar’s value is swamped by it. But in a Senate hearing last week, Senator Jim Bunning revealed Bernanke told him by letter he has no such plan. Perhaps, again, the Fed chairman just doesn’t wish to talk about it.
    In order to drain the $1.3 trillion in new liquidity, the Fed must dispose of the acquired assets at prices at least as high as were paid for them. If the assets were to prove worthless, the Fed simply could not drain the liquidity because it would have nothing to sell for it.
    As previously reported here, here and elsewhere, the Fed bought those assets because their prices were being fraudulently manipulated lower by various maneuvers which created “toxic” images for them. The banks which owned the “toxic assets” were endangered by manipulation of their own share prices. The Fed bought in order to shield the assets and the banks from further attack, because the Fed itself was immune for naked short selling of its shares.
    As previously warned, too, any sale of these “toxic assets” by the Fed might restart the bear attacks on their value and on the banks. In order for the Fed to proceed with confidence to market the assets and withdraw so much excess liquidity, fraudulent trading practices must be stopped. On this point a modicum of good news appears as a light in a tunnel.
Positive Developments
    Bloomberg News reports leveraged loans rated below BBB- by S&P or below Baa3 by Moody’s have risen 49.3% in value this year, after falling 28.2% in 2008. BBB rated loans are said to be priced presently at about 55 cents on the dollar. Higher rated loans fell less, and have also recovered, rising from 69 cents to 89 cents on the dollar.
    This is good news for Bernanke and the Fed, which might even sell the formerly toxic assets at a significant profit. If that were to happen, the Fed could actually strengthen the dollar by draining more dollars than it created to buy the assets. In reality, the Fed probably would not destroy those dollars, since its practice is to give excess “earnings” to the Treasury to spend. The markets noticed, of course, as the dollar recovered somewhat from above $1,200/oz gold.
        The strong price recovery of collateralized debt obligations can be traced to incremental changes in market conditions which enabled their prices to be beaten down. By demand of Congress, the FASB modified or clarified its Rule 157, which had required “mark-to-market” accounting the value of these assets. The ABX.HE index was outed somewhat as an unreliable indicator of real market value of such assets. The SEC repealed its “Madoff exception” regulation which so importantly assisted bear attacks on financial shares, as it permitted market makers in credit default swaps and options to hedge by selling shares short without borrowing or delivering the shares sold within a definite time limit.
Reforms Left Undone
    Each of these reforms was absolutely essential to achieve the meager amount of recovery, or slowing of the drop, seen in 2009. But so much more remains undone. Reform of oil price manipulation passed the House, but only in a larger bill containing more bad than good. By past performance of Wall Street and Congress, all of the good is likely to be stripped from the bill, assuming the Senate acts and legislation actually makes it to conference. Meanwhile, the SEC still has done nothing to stop High Frequency Trading (front-running all trades) or to restore the Uptick Rule, and is unlikely to act unless Congress requires it by statute.
    Confirmation of Bernanke’s re-nomination as Fed chairman is due to be considered by the Senate on December 17, but may be delayed by request of an individual senator. A rumor is out that he may withdraw his name. Even with the positive development reported above, what the Fed chairman learned the past 22 months may lead him to think the predators are not finished. ~