Ford–Levy Institute Projects

A Research and Policy Dialogue Project on Improving Governance of the Government Safety Net in Financial Crisis

This two-year project directed by Senior Scholar L. Randall Wray will explore alternative methods of providing a government safety net in times of financial crisis. In the present crisis, the United States has used two primary methods: a stimulus package approved and budgeted by Congress, and a huge, complex bailout by the Federal Reserve. The project will examine the benefits and drawbacks of each method, focusing on questions of accountability, democratic governance and transparency, and mission consistency. It will also explore the possibility of reforms that might place on Congress more responsibility for provision of a safety net, with a smaller role to be played by the Fed. This could not only enhance accountability but also allow the Fed to focus more closely on its proper mission.

The following issues in particular will be addressed:

  1. Is there an operational difference between commitments made by the Fed and those made by the Treasury? What are the linkages between the Fed's balance sheet and the Treasury's?
  2. Are there conflicts arising between the Fed's responsibility for normal monetary policy operations and the need to operate a government safety net to deal with severe systemic crises?
  3. How much transparency and accountability should the Fed's operations be exposed to? Are different levels of transparency and accountability appropriate for different kinds of operations—e.g., formulation of interest rate policy, oversight and regulation, resolving individual institutions, and rescuing an entire industry during a financial crisis?
  4. Should safety net operations during a crisis be subject to normal congressional oversight and budgeting? Should such operations be on or off budget? Should extensions of government guarantees (whether by the Fed or the Treasury) be subject to congressional approval?
  5. Is there any practical difference between Fed liabilities (banknotes and reserves) and Treasury liabilities (coins and bonds or bills)? If the Fed spends by "keystrokes" (crediting balance sheets, as Chairman Bernanke says), can or does the Treasury spend in the same manner?
  6. Is there a limit to the Fed's ability to spend, lend, or guarantee? Is there a limit to the Treasury's ability to spend, lend, or guarantee? If so, what are those limits? And what are the consequences of increasing Fed and Treasury liabilities?
  7. What can we learn from the successful resolution of the thrift crisis that might be applicable to the current crisis? Going forward, is there a better way to handle resolutions, putting in place a template for a government safety net to deal with systemic crises when they occur? (This is a separate question from the one regarding creation of a systemic regulator to attempt to prevent crises from occurring; however, we will explore the wisdom of separating the safety net's operation from the operations of a systemic regulator.)
  8. What should be the main focuses of the government's safety net? Possibilities include rescuing and preserving financial institutions versus resolving them, encouraging private lending versus relying on direct spending to create aggregate demand and jobs, providing debt relief versus protection of interests of financial institutions, and minimizing budgetary costs to government versus minimizing private or social costs.
  9. Does Fed intervention create a burden on future generations? Does Treasury funding create a burden on future generation? Is there an advantage of one type of funding over the other?

Since these issues were raised in the congressional debate of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform bill without any major resolution, it is likely that the discussion will continue as the legislation implementing the new bill is formulated. A major goal of this project, therefore, is to provide a clear and unbiased analysis of the issues and thus a solid basis for that discussion, as well as a series of proposals on how the Federal Reserve could be reformed to offer more effective governance and more effective integration with both Treasury operations and congressional fiscal policy.

Related Publications

  • This monograph is part of the Levy Institute’s Research and Policy Dialogue Project on Improving Governance of the Government Safety Net in Financial Crisis, a two-year project funded by the Ford Foundation.

    This is the fourth in a series of reports summarizing the findings of the Research and Policy Dialogue Project on Improving Governance of the Government Safety Net in Financial Crisis, directed by Senior Scholar L. Randall Wray. This project explores alternative methods of providing a government safety net in times of crisis. In the global financial crisis that began in 2007, the United States used two primary responses: a stimulus package approved and budgeted by Congress, and a complex and unprecedented response by the Federal Reserve. The project examines the benefits and drawbacks of each method, focusing on questions of accountability, democratic governance and transparency, and mission consistency.

    The project has also explored the possibility of reform that might place more responsibility for provision of a safety net on Congress, with a smaller role to be played by the Fed, enhancing accountability while allowing the Fed to focus more closely on its proper mission. Given the rise of shadow banking—a financial system that operates largely outside the reach of bank regulators and supervisors—the Fed faces a complicated problem. It might be necessary to reform finance, through downsizing and a return to what Hyman Minsky called “prudent banking,” before we can reform the Fed.

    This report describes the overall scope of the project and summarizes key findings from the three previous reports, as well as additional research undertaken in 2014.  

  • Working Paper No. 827 | January 2015
    Early Work on Endogenous Money and the Prudent Banker

    In this paper, I examine whether Hyman P. Minsky adopted an endogenous money approach in his early work—at the time that he was first developing his financial instability approach. In an earlier piece (Wray 1992), I closely examined Minsky’s published writings to support the argument that, from his earliest articles in 1957 to his 1986 book (as well as a handout he wrote in 1987 on “securitization”), he consistently held an endogenous money view. I’ll refer briefly to that published work. However, I will devote most of the discussion here to unpublished early manuscripts in the Minsky archive (Minsky 1959, 1960, 1970). These manuscripts demonstrate that in his early career Minsky had already developed a deep understanding of the nature of banking. In some respects, these unpublished pieces are better than his published work from that period (or even later periods) because he had stripped away some institutional details to focus more directly on the fundamentals. It will be clear from what follows that Minsky’s approach deviated substantially from the postwar “Keynesian” and “monetarist” viewpoints that started from a “deposit multiplier.” The 1970 paper, in particular, delineates how Minsky’s approach differs from the “Keynesian” view as presented in mainstream textbooks. Further, Minsky’s understanding of banking in those years appears to be much deeper than that displayed three or four decades later by much of the post-Keynesian endogenous-money literature.

  • Working Paper No. 821 | December 2014
    The Advantages of Owning the Magic Porridge Pot

    Over the past two decades there has been a revival of Georg Friedrich Knapp’s “state money” approach, also known as chartalism. The modern version has come to be called Modern Money Theory. Much of the recent research has delved into three main areas: mining previous work, applying the theory to analysis of current sovereign monetary operations, and exploring the policy space open to sovereign currency issuers. This paper focuses on “outside” money—the currency issued by the sovereign—and the advantages that accrue to nations that make full use of the policy space provided by outside money.

  • This monograph is part of the Levy Institute’s Research and Policy Dialogue Project on Improving Governance of the Government Safety Net in Financial Crisis, a two-year project funded by the Ford Foundation.

    This is the third in a series of reports examining the Federal Reserve Bank’s response to the global financial crisis, with particular emphasis on questions of accountability, democratic governance and transparency, and mission consistency. In this year’s report, we focus on issues of central bank independence and governance, with particular attention paid to challenges raised during periods of crisis. We trace the principal changes in governance of the Fed over its history—changes that accelerate during times of economic stress. We pay special attention to the famous 1951 “Accord” and to the growing consensus in recent years for substantial independence of the central bank from the treasury. In some respects, we deviate from conventional wisdom, arguing that the concept of independence is not usually well defined. While the Fed is substantially independent of day-to-day politics, it is not operationally independent of the Treasury. We examine in some detail an alternative view of monetary and fiscal operations. We conclude that the inexorable expansion of the Fed’s power and influence raises important questions concerning democratic governance that need to be resolved. 

  • Working Paper No. 792 | March 2014
    An Alternative to Economic Orthodoxy

    This paper explores the intellectual history of the state, or chartalist, approach to money, from the early developers (Georg Friedrich Knapp and A. Mitchell Innes) through Joseph Schumpeter, John Maynard Keynes, and Abba Lerner, and on to modern exponents Hyman Minsky, Charles Goodhart, and Geoffrey Ingham. This literature became the foundation for Modern Money Theory (MMT). In the MMT approach, the state (or any other authority able to impose an obligation) imposes a liability in the form of a generalized, social, legal unit of account—a money—used for measuring the obligation. This approach does not require the preexistence of markets; indeed, it almost certainly predates them. Once the authorities can levy such obligations, they can name what fulfills any obligation by denominating those things that can be delivered; in other words, by pricing them. MMT thus links obligatory payments like taxes to the money of account as well as the currency. This leads to a revised view of money and sovereign finance. The paper concludes with an analysis of the policy options available to a modern government that issues its own currency.

  • Working Paper No. 791 | March 2014
    Myth and Misunderstanding

    It is commonplace to speak of central bank “independence” as if it were both a reality and a necessity. While the Federal Reserve is subject to the “dual mandate,” it has substantial discretion in its interpretation of the vague call for high employment and low inflation. Most important, the Fed’s independence is supposed to insulate it from political pressures coming from Congress and the US Treasury to “print money” to finance 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 World War II, when budget deficits ran up to a quarter of US 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 securities supply the reserves needed by banks to buy government debt, 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 United States and the European Monetary Union, with those worried about inflation warning that the central banks are essentially “printing money” to keep sovereign-government borrowing costs low.

    This paper argues that the Fed is not, and should not be, independent, at least in the sense in which that term is normally used. The Fed is a “creature of Congress,” created by public law that has evolved since 1913 in a way that not only increased the Fed’s assigned responsibilities but also strengthened congressional oversight. The paper addresses governance issues, which, a century after the founding of the Fed, remain somewhat unsettled. While the Fed should be, and appears to be, insulated from day-to-day political pressures, it is subject to the will of Congress. Further, the Fed cannot really be independent from the Treasury, because the Fed is the federal government’s bank, with almost all payments made by and to the government running through the Fed. As such, there is no “operational independence” that would allow the Fed to refuse to allow the Treasury to spend appropriated funds. Finally, the paper addresses troubling issues raised by the Fed’s response to the global financial crisis; namely, questions about transparency, accountability, and democratic governance.

  • Working Paper No. 784 | January 2014
    Economic Thought and Political Realities

    The Federal Reserve has been criticized for not forestalling the financial crisis of 2007–09, and for its unconventional monetary policies that have followed. Its critics have raised questions as to whom, if anyone, reins in the Federal Reserve if and when its policies are misguided or abusive. This paper traces the principal changes in governance of the Federal Reserve over its history. These changes have, for the most part, developed in the wake of economic upheavals, when Fed policy has been challenged. The aim is to identify relevant issues regarding governance and to establish a basis for change, if needed. It describes the governance mechanism established by the Federal Reserve Act in 1913, traces the passing of this mechanism in the 1920s and 1930s, and assays congressional efforts to expand oversight in the 1970s. It also considers the changes in Fed policies induced by the financial crisis of 2007–09 and the impact of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. It concludes that the original internal governance mechanism, a system of checks and balances that aimed to protect all the important interest groups in the country, faded in the 1920s and was never adequately replaced. In light of the Federal Reserve’s continued growth in power and influence, this deficiency constitutes a threat not only to “stakeholders” but also to the independence of the Federal Reserve itself.

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    Author(s):
    Bernard Shull

  • One-Pager No. 40 | September 2013
    Nicola Matthews, University of Missouri–Kansas City, presents the main findings of her research on the Fed’s lending practices following the global financial crisis of 2008. Applying Walter Bagehot’s principles, she finds that the Fed departed from the traditional lender-of-last-resort function of a central bank by lending to insolvent banks without good collateral--and below penalty rates. Most of the Fed’s emergency facilities lent at rates that were, on average, at or below market rates, with the big banks the primary beneficiaries. The Fed went beyond aiding markets to effectively making markets. Reform, Matthews concludes, is the only solution.
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    Author(s):
    Nicola Matthews

  • This monograph is part of the Levy Institute’s Research and Policy Dialogue Project on Improving Governance of the Government Safety Net in Financial Crisis, a two-year project funded by the Ford Foundation.

    “Never waste a crisis.” Those words were often invoked by reformers who wanted to tighten regulations and financial supervision in the aftermath of the global financial crisis that began in late 2007. Many of them have been disappointed, since the relatively weak reforms adopted (for example, in Dodd-Frank) appear to have fallen far short of what is needed. But the same words can be invoked in reference to the policy response to the crisis—that is, to the rescue of the financial system. To date, the crisis was wasted in that area, too. If anything, the crisis response largely restored the deeply flawed system that existed on the eve of the crisis.   But it may not be too late to use the crisis, and the crisis response, to formulate a different approach to dealing with the next financial crisis—and another crisis is inevitable—by learning from the policy mistakes made in reaction to the last crisis, and by looking to successful policy responses around the globe. 

  • Working Paper No. 758 | March 2013
    The Low and Extended Lending Rates that Revived the Big Banks

    Walter Bagehot’s putative principles of lending in liquidity crises—to lend freely to solvent banks with good collateral but at penalty rates—have served as a theoretical basis for thinking about the lender of last resort for close to 100 years, while simultaneously providing justification for central bank real-world intervention. If we presume Bagehot’s principles to be both sound and adhered to by central bankers, we would expect to find the lending by the Fed during the global financial crisis in line with such policies. Taking Bagehot’s principles at face value, this paper aims to examine one of these principles—central bank lending at penalty rates—and to determine whether it did in fact conform to this standard. A comprehensive analysis of these rates has revealed that the Fed did not, in actuality, follow Bagehot’s classical doctrine. Consequently, the intervention not only generated moral hazard but also set the stage for another crisis. This working paper is part of the Ford Foundation project “A Research and Policy Dialogue Project on Improving Governance of the Government Safety Net in Financial Crisis” and continues the investigation of the Fed’s bailout of the financial system—the most comprehensive study of the raw data to date.

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    Author(s):
    Nicola Matthews

  • Working Paper No. 751 | February 2013
    The Fed versus the Classicals

    Nineteenth-century British economists Henry Thornton and Walter Bagehot established the classical rules of behavior for a central bank, acting as lender of last resort, seeking to avert panics and crises: Lend freely (to temporarily illiquid but solvent borrowers only) against the security of sound collateral and at above-market, penalty interest rates. Deny aid to unsound, insolvent borrowers. Preannounce your commitment to lend freely in all future panics. Also lend for short periods only, and have a clear, simple, certain exit strategy. The purpose is to prevent bank runs and money-stock collapses—collapses that, by reducing spending and prices, will, in the face of downward inflexibility of nominal wages, produce falls in output and employment.

    In the financial crisis of 2008–09 the Federal Reserve adhered to some of the classical rules—albeit using a credit-easing rather than a money stock–protection rationale—while deviating from others. Consistent with the classicals, the Fed filled the market with liquidity while lending to a wide variety of borrowers on an extended array of assets. But it departed from the classical prescription in charging subsidy rather than penalty rates, in lending against tarnished collateral and/or purchasing assets of questionable value, in bailing out insolvent borrowers, in extending its lending deadlines beyond intervals approved by classicals, and in failing both to precommit to avert all future crises and to articulate an unambiguous exit strategy. Given that classicals demonstrated that satiating panic-induced demands for cash are sufficient to end crises, the Fed might think of abandoning its costly and arguably inessential deviations from the classical model and, instead, return to it.

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    Author(s):
    Thomas M. Humphrey

  • Working Paper No. 747 | January 2013
    Lessons for Central Bank Independence

    The 1951 Treasury – Federal Reserve Accord is an important milestone in central bank history. It led to a lasting separation between monetary policy and the Treasury’s debt-management powers, and established an independent central bank focused on price stability and macroeconomic stability. This paper revisits the history of the Accord and elaborates on the role played by Marriner Eccles in the events that led up to its signing. As chairman of the Fed Board of Governors since 1934, Eccles was also instrumental in drafting key banking legislation that enabled the Federal Reserve System to take on a more independent role after the Accord. The global financial crisis has generated renewed interest in the Accord and its lessons for central bank independence. The paper shows that Eccles’s support for the Accord—and central bank independence—was clearly linked to the strong inflationary pressures in the US economy at the time, but that he was as supportive of deficit financing in the 1930s. This broader interpretation of the Accord holds the key to a more balanced view of Eccles’s role at the Federal Reserve, where his contributions from the mid-1930s up to the Accord are seen as equally important. For this reason, the Accord should not be seen as the eternal beacon for central bank independence but rather as an enlightened vision for a more symmetric policy role for central banks, with equal weight on fighting inflation and preventing depressions.

  • Working Paper No. 735 | November 2012

    The Federal Reserve has been criticized for not preventing the risky behavior of large financial companies prior to the financial crisis of 2008–09, for approving mergers that aggravated the “too big to fail” problem, and for its substantial contribution to bailouts when their risk management failed. The Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, in attempting to diminish financial instability and eliminate too-big-to-fail policies, has established a new regulatory framework and laid out new responsibilities for the Federal Reserve. In doing so, it appears to address criticisms of the central bank by constricting its autonomy. The law, however, has also extended the Federal Reserve’s supervisory authority and expanded its capacity to exercise regulatory control over its extended domain. This new authority is in addition to the augmentation of its monetary powers over the past several years.

    This paper reviews and evaluates both constraints imposed on the Federal Reserve by the Dodd-Frank Act and the expansion of Federal Reserve authority. It finds that the constraints are unlikely to have much impact, but the expansion of authority constitutes a significant increase in power and influence. The paper concludes that the expansion of Federal Reserve authority invites questions about the organizational design and governance of the central bank, and its traditional autonomy.

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    Associated Program:
    Author(s):
    Bernard Shull

  • This monograph is part of the Levy Institute’s Research and Policy Dialogue Project on Improving Governance of the Government Safety Net in Financial Crisis, a two-year project funded by the Ford Foundation.

    In the current financial crisis, the United States has relied on two primary methods of extending the government safety net: a stimulus package approved and budgeted by Congress, and a massive and unprecedented response by the Federal Reserve in the fulfillment of its lender-of-last-resort function. This monograph examines the benefits and drawbacks of each method, focusing on questions of accountability, democratic governance and transparency, and mission consistency. The aim is to explore the possibility of reform that would place more responsibility for provision of a safety net on Congress, with a smaller role to be played by the Fed, not only enhancing accountability but also allowing the Fed to focus more closely on its proper mission.

  • Public Policy Brief No. 123 | April 2012

    The extraordinary scope and magnitude of the financial crisis of 2007–09 required an extraordinary response by the Federal Reserve in the fulfillment of its lender-of-last-resort (LOLR) function. In an attempt to stabilize financial markets during the worst financial crisis since the Great Crash of 1929, the Fed engaged in loans, guarantees, and outright purchases of financial assets that were not only unprecedented, but cumulatively amounted to over twice current US GDP as well. the purpose of this brief is to provide a descriptive account of the Fed's response to the recent crisis—to delineate the essential characteristics and logistical specifics of the veritable "alphabet soup" of LOLR machinery rolled out to save the world financial system. It represents the most comprehensive investigation of the raw data to date, one that draws on three discrete measures: the peak outstanding commitment at a given point in time; the total peak flow of commitments (loans plus asset purchases), which helps identify periods of maximum financial system distress; and, finally, the total amouunt of loans and asset purchases made between January 2007 and March 2012. This third number, which is a cumulative measure, reveals that the total Fed response exceeded $29 trillion. Providing this account from such varying angles is a necessary first step in any attempt to fully understand the actions of the central bank in this critical period—and a prerequisite for thinking about how to shape policy for future crises.

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    Author(s):
    James Andrew Felkerson

  • Working Paper No. 709 | February 2012
    Motives, Countermeasures, and the Dodd-Frank Response

    Government forbearance, support, and bailouts of banks and other financial institutions deemed “too big to fail” (TBTF) are widely recognized as encouraging large companies to take excessive risk, placing smaller ones at a competitive disadvantage and influencing banks in general to grow inefficiently to a “protected” size and complexity. During periods of financial stress, with bailouts under way, government officials have promised “never again.” During periods of financial stability and economic growth, they have sanctioned large-bank growth by merger and ignored the ongoing competitive imbalance.

    Repeated efforts to do away with TBTF practices over the last several decades have been unsuccessful. Congress has typically found the underlying problem to be inadequate regulation and/or supervision that has permitted important financial companies to undertake excessive risk. It has responded by strengthening regulation and supervision. Others have located the underlying problem in inadequate regulators, suggesting the need for modifying the incentives that motivate their behavior. A third explanation is that TBTF practices reflect the government’s perception that large financial firms serve a public interest—they constitute a “national resource” to be preserved. In this case, a structural solution would be necessary. Breakups of the largest financial firms would distribute the “public interest” among a larger group than the handful that currently hold a disproportionate concentration of financial resources.

    The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 constitutes the most recent effort to eliminate TBTF practices. Its principal focus is on the extension and augmentation of regulation and supervision, which it envisions as preventing excessive risk taking by large financial companies; Congress has again found the cause for TBTF practices in the inadequacy of regulation and supervision. There is no indication that Congress has given any credence to the contention that regulatory motivations have been at fault. Finally, Dodd-Frank eschews a structural solution, leaving the largest financial companies intact and bank regulatory agencies still with extensive discretion in passing on large bank mergers. As a result, the elimination of TBTF will remain problematic for years to come.

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    Author(s):
    Bernard Shull

  • One-Pager No. 23 | December 2011

    The extraordinary scope and magnitude of the financial crisis of 2007–09 induced an extraordinary response by the Federal Reserve in the fulfillment of its lender-of-last-resort function. Estimates of the total amount of bailout funding provided by the Fed have ranged from its own lowball claim of $1.2 trillion to Bloomberg’s estimate of $7.7 trillion (just for the biggest banks) to the GAO tally of $16 trillion. But new research conducted as part of a Ford Foundation project directed by Senior Scholar L. Randall Wray finds that the Fed’s commitments—in the form of loans and asset purchases to prop up the global financial system—far exceeded even the highest estimates.

     

  • Working Paper No. 698 | December 2011

    There have been a number of estimates of the total amount of funding provided by the Federal Reserve to bail out the financial system. For example, Bloomberg recently claimed that the cumulative commitment by the Fed (this includes asset purchases plus lending) was $7.77 trillion. As part of the Ford Foundation project “A Research and Policy Dialogue Project on Improving Governance of the Government Safety Net in Financial Crisis,” Nicola Matthews and James Felkerson have undertaken an examination of the data on the Fed’s bailout of the financial system—the most comprehensive investigation of the raw data to date. This working paper is the first in a series that will report the results of this investigation.

    The purpose of this paper is to provide a descriptive account of the Fed’s extraordinary response to the recent financial crisis. It begins with a brief summary of the methodology, then outlines the unconventional facilities and programs aimed at stabilizing the existing financial structure. The paper concludes with a summary of the scope and magnitude of the Fed’s crisis response. The bottom line: a Federal Reserve bailout commitment in excess of $29 trillion.

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    Associated Program:
    Author(s):
    James Andrew Felkerson

Project Director

L. Randall Wray
Director, A Research and Policy Dialogue Project on Improving Governance of the Government Safety Net in Financial Crisis
Fax: 845-758-1149
E-mail: wray@levy.org