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In the Media | May 2015

Railing Against Bailing

Congress Launches New Attacks on America's Central Bank
The Economist, May 16, 2015. All Rights Reserved.

During a financial panic, said Walter Bagehot, a former editor of The Economist, a central bank should help the deserving and let the reckless go under. Bagehot reckoned that the monetary guardians should follow fourrules: lend freely, but only to solvent firms, against good collateral and at high rates. Many American politicians complain that the Federal Reserve is all too happy to lend, but that it ignores Bagehot's other dictums. On May 13th two senators of very different hues—Elizabeth Warren, a darling of the left, and David Vitter, a southern conservative—joined forces to introduce a bill that would restrict the Fed's ability to lend during the next financial panic. Does that make sense?

Emergency lending under Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act was one of the most controversial policy responses to the financial crisis. In a letter to Janet Yellen, the chair of the Fed, Ms Warren and Mr Vitter say that from 2007 to 2009 the Fed provided over $13 trillion to support financial institutions. The loans were cheap. A study from 2013 by the Levy Institute, a nonpartisan think-tank, found that many of them were "below or at the market rates" (sometimes less than 1%). Many of the banks that benefited were insolvent at the time. And much of the $13 trillion went to just three banks (Citigroup, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley), leading many to suspect that the Fed was indulging favoured firms.

Critics focus on details but miss the big picture, counters the Fed. Elizabeth Duke, a former governor, says that the Fed targeted its lending programmes at the right markets, such that it helped to stop the crisis from getting even worse. Jerome Powell, a current governor, points out that "every single loan we made was repaid in full,on time, with interest."

But whether the Fed should be able to offert his kind of financial support at all is a different question. Choosing certain firms or markets to receive credit over others is inherently problematic, says a recent paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. The prospect of easy money encourages firms to take excessive risks. And according to a paper by Alexander Mehra, then of Harvard Law School, the Fed "exceeded the bounds of its statutory authority" when it bought privately issued securities as well as making loans.

The Dodd-Frank Act, passed in 2010, was supposed to ensure that the Fed never again made such large, open-ended commitments. Congress told the Fed's board to ensure that emergency lending propped up the financial system as a whole, not individual firms. However, say Ms Warren and Mr Vitter, the Fed has not implemented the new rules in the spirit of the law. The new bill proposes a number of Bagehot-like changes: to toughen up the definition of insolvency, such that the Fed lends only to viable firms; to offer any lending programme to many different institutions; and to ensure that when the Fed does lend, it charges punitive rates.

This battle is not the only one the Fed faces. On May 12th Richard Shelby, a Republican senator and chair of the Senate Banking Committee, introduced his own bill, which he hopes will rein in the Fed's powers in different ways. It would increase the threshold at which a financial institution became "systemically important" (and thus subject to tougher regulatory scrutiny) from assets of $50 billion to $500 billion. Mr Shelby also wants to shake up the structure of the Federal Reserve System, including changing how the president of the New York Fed, which oversees big banks, is appointed. They may have different complaints, but lots of America's lawmakers agree that the Fed must change.

From the print edition: Finance and economics

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