Publications on Federal Reserve
Research Project Report, April 2015 | April 2015This 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.Download:Associated Program:
The Repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and the Federal Reserve’s Extraordinary Intervention during the Global Financial Crisis
Working Paper No. 829 | January 2015
Before the global financial crisis, the assistance of a lender of last resort was traditionally thought to be limited to commercial banks. During the crisis, however, the Federal Reserve created a number of facilities to support brokers and dealers, money market mutual funds, the commercial paper market, the mortgage-backed securities market, the triparty repo market, et cetera. In this paper, we argue that the elimination of specialized banking through the eventual repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act (GSA) has played an important role in the leakage of the public subsidy intended for commercial banks to nonbank financial institutions. In a specialized financial system, which the GSA had helped create, the use of the lender-of-last-resort safety net could be more comfortably limited to commercial banks.
However, the elimination of GSA restrictions on bank-permissible activities has contributed to the rise of a financial system where the lines between regulated and protected banks and the so-called shadow banking system have become blurred. The existence of the shadow banking universe, which is directly or indirectly guaranteed by banks, has made it practically impossible to confine the safety to the regulated banking system. In this context, reforming the lender-of-last-resort institution requires fundamental changes within the financial system itself.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):Yeva Nersisyan
Policy Note 2014/6 | December 2014Criticisms of the Federal Reserve’s “unconventional” monetary policy response to the Great Recession have been of two types. On the one hand, the tripling in the size of the Fed’s balance sheet has led to forecasts of rampant inflation in the belief that the massive increase in excess reserves might be spent on goods and services. And even worse, this would represent an attempt by government to inflate away its high levels of debt created to support the solvency of financial institutions after the September 2008 collapse of asset prices. On the other hand, it is argued that the near-zero short-term interest rate policy and measures to flatten the yield curve (quantitative easing plus "Operation Twist") distort the allocation and pricing in the credit and capital markets and will underwrite another asset price bubble, even as deflation prevails in product markets. Both lines of criticism have led to calls for a return to a more conventional policy stance, and yet there is widespread agreement that this would have a negative impact on the economy, at least in the short-term. However, since the analyses behind both lines of criticism are mistaken, it is probable that the analyses of the impact of the risks of return to more normal policies are also in error.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):
Policy Note 2014/5 | November 2014
The Fed’s zero interest policy rate (ZIRP) and quantitative easing (QE) policies failed to restore growth to the US economy as expected (i.e., increased investment spending à la John Maynard Keynes or from an expanded money supply à la Ben Bernanke / Milton Friedman). Senior Scholar Jan Kregel analyzes some of the arguments as to why these policies failed to deliver economic recovery. He notes a common misunderstanding of Keynes’s liquidity preference theory in the debate, whereby it is incorrectly linked to the recent implementation of ZIRP. Kregel also argues that Keynes’s would have implemented QE policies quite differently, by setting the bid and ask rate and letting the market determine the volume of transactions. This policy note both clarifies Keynes’s theoretical insights regarding unconventional monetary policies and provides a substantive analysis of some of the reasons why central bank policies have failed to achieve their stated goals.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):
Policy Note 2014/2 | February 2014
Lessons for the Current Debate on the US Debt LimitIn 1943, Congress faced unpredictably large war expenditures exceeding the prevailing debt limit. Congressional debates from that time contain an insightful discussion of how the increased expenditures could be financed, dealing with practical and theoretical issues that seem to be missing from current debates. In the '43 debate, Representative Wright Patman proposed that the Treasury should create a nonnegotiable zero interest bond that would be placed directly with the Federal Reserve Banks. As the deadline for raising the US federal government debt limit approaches, Senior Scholar Jan Kregel examines the implications of Patman's proposal. Among the lessons: that the debt can be financed at any rate the government desires without losing control over interest rates as a tool of monetary policy. The problem of financing the debt is not the issue. The question is whether the size of the deficit to be financed is compatible with the stable expansion of the economy.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):
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.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):Bernard Shull
Policy Note 2013/8 | August 2013Though it is not widely understood, the Federal Reserve has enormous untapped power to directly stimulate or influence the flows of lending and spending that generate jobs. Doing so would fulfill the Fed’s often neglected “dual mandate”: to strive for maximum employment as well as stable money. Fed technocrats often plead that legal or technical barriers won’t allow them to do this, but their objections reflect an institutional bias that favors finance over industry, capital over labor. The central bank has abundant precedent from its own history for taking more direct actions to aid the economy. And it has ample legal authority to lend to all kinds of businesses that are not banks. This policy note was originally published, in slightly different form, as “Can the Federal Reserve Help Prevent a Second Recession?,” The Nation, November 26, 2012. Reprinted with permission.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):William Greider
Policy Note 2013/7 | August 2013Monetary policy is running out of gas. Six years ago, in the heat of crisis, the Federal Reserve’s response was awesome. The Fed created trillions of dollars and flooded the system with easy money—enough to stabilize financial markets and rescue wounded banks. It brought short-term interest rates down to near zero and long-term mortgage rates to bargain-basement levels. It provided a huge backstop for the dysfunctional housing sector, buying $1.25 trillion in mortgage-backed securities, nearly one-fourth of the market.
Flooding Wall Street with money saved the banks, but it didn’t work for the real economy, where most Americans live and toil. And official Washington now appears to have opted for an unspoken policy of complacency.
The Fed knows, even if politicians do not, the danger of sliding into a liquidity trap, which would utterly disarm its monetary tools. So the Fed wants Congress and the White House to borrow and spend more because, when the private sector is stalled and afraid to act, only the federal government can step in and provide the needed jump start. The country needs a stronger Fed—a central bank not afraid to use its awesome powers to help the real economy more directly. One of the ways it can do this is by revisiting—and extending—its bold ideas on debt relief. By harnessing the power of money creation, the Fed can help clear away the overhang of mortgage and student debt holding back the economic recovery. This policy note draws from articles originally published in The Nation. Portions are republished with permission.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):William Greider
Working Paper No. 763 | May 2013
This working paper looks at excess reserves in historical context and analyzes whether they constitute a monetary policy problem for the Federal Reserve System (the “Fed”) or a potentially inflationary problem for the rest of us. Generally, this analysis shows that both absolute and relative sizes of excess reserves are a big problem for the Fed as well as the general public be-cause of their inflationary potential. However, like all contingencies, the timing and extent of the damage that reserve-driven inflation might cause are uncertain. It is even possible today to find articles in both scholarly circles and the popular press arguing either that the inflationary blow-off might never happen or that an increasing tendency toward prolonged deflation is the more probable outcome.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):Walker F. Todd
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.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):Thomas M. Humphrey
Expansion of Federal Reserve Authority in the Recent Financial Crisis Raises Questions about Governance
One-Pager No. 36 | January 2013
Several years before the onset of the recent financial crisis, ex – Federal Reserve Board Member Lawrence Meyer wrote that the Fed “is often called the most powerful institution in America,” its key decisions made by 19 people whose names are known by few, meeting regularly behind closed doors. Bernard Shull examines the origin and nature of Fed authority and independence, and reviews the impact of Dodd-Frank on our central bank. His conclusion? The new constraints placed on the Fed are modest at best, and its continued expansion inexorably raises questions of governance.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):Bernard Shull
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.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):Bernard Shull
Research Project Report, April 9, 2012 | April 2012This 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, 2012 | 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.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):James Andrew Felkerson
Working Paper No. 711 | March 2012
A Minskyan Interpretation of the Causes, the Fed’s Bailout, and the Future
This paper provides a quick review of the causes of the Global Financial Crisis that began in 2007. There were many contributing factors, but among the most important were rising inequality and stagnant incomes for most American workers, growing private sector debt in the United States and many other countries, financialization of the global economy (itself a very complex process), deregulation and desupervision of financial institutions, and overly tight fiscal policy in many nations. The analysis adopts the “stages” approach developed by Hyman P. Minsky, according to which a gradual transformation of the economy over the postwar period has in many ways reproduced the conditions that led to the Great Depression. The paper then moves on to an examination of the US government’s bailout of the global financial system. While other governments played a role, the US Treasury and the Federal Reserve assumed much of the responsibility for the bailout. A detailed examination of the Fed’s response shows how unprecedented—and possibly illegal—was its extension of the government’s “safety net” to the biggest financial institutions. The paper closes with an assessment of the problems the bailout itself poses for the future.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):
One-Pager No. 23 | December 2011
Public Policy Brief No. 117, 2011 | April 2011
Scott Fullwiler and Senior Scholar L. Randall Wray review the roles of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury in the context of quantitative easing, and find that the financial crisis has highlighted the limited oversight of Congress and the limited transparency of the Fed. And since a Fed promise is ultimately a Treasury promise that carries the full faith and credit of the US government, the question is whether the Fed should be able to commit the public purse in times of national crisis.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):Scott Fullwiler L. Randall Wray
One-Pager No. 8 | February 2011
The economic crisis that has gripped the US economy since 2007 has highlighted Congress’s limited oversight of the Federal Reserve, and the limited transparency of the Fed’s actions. And since a Fed promise is ultimately a Treasury promise that carries the full faith and credit of the US government, the question is, Should the Fed be able to commit the public purse in times of national crisis?Download:Associated Program:Author(s):Scott Fullwiler L. Randall Wray
Statement of Professor James K. Galbraith to the Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy and Technology, Committee on Financial Services, US House of Representatives
Testimony, July 9, 2009 | July 2009
On July 9, 2009, Senior Scholar James K. Galbraith testified before the House Financial Services Committee regarding the functions of the Federal Reserve under the Obama administration’s proposals for financial regulation reform—specifically, the extent to which the newly proposed role of systemic risk regulator might conflict with the Fed’s traditional role as the independent authority on monetary policy. He also addressed questions of whether the Fed should relinquish its role in consumer protection, and whether the shadow banking system should be restored.
Galbraith pointed out that the Board’s primary mission is macroeconomic: “Rigorous enforcement of safety and soundness regulation is never going to be the first priority of the agency in the run-up to a financial crisis.” Systemic risk regulation needs to be deeply integrated into ongoing examination and supervision—a function best taken on by an agency “with no record of regulatory capture or institutional identification with the interests of the regulated sector.” That agency, said Galbraith, is the FDIC. If systemic risk is to be subject to consolidated prudential regulation, why not place that responsibility in the hands of an agency for which it is the first priority? Further, if large banks and other financial holding companies pose systemic risks, why not require them to divest and otherwise reduce the concentration of power that presently exists in the financial sector? In Galbraith’s view it would, over time, “bring the scale of financial activity into line with the capacity of supervisory authorities to regulate it, and the result would be a somewhat safer system.”Download:Associated Program:Author(s):