04 October 2009

Let Freedom Wane: The Fed's Role as Regulator and Obama's Failure to Reform

The proposal put forward by the Obama Economic Team to expand the purview of the Federal Reserve as a regulator, perhaps even THE regulator, was always troubling for several reasons.

1. The Fed is in fact not a government institution, but owned by private and corporate banking interests. The failure of self-regulation and regulators who have been 'captured' by the corporations they regulate is one of the great lessons of this crisis.

2. The Fed is notoriously opaque, with the occasional gesture towards transparency, and is often resistant to releasing information to the public in a timely manner, claiming a sort of 'executive privilege.' The Fed is and should remain independent but accountable on review. This precludes them from acting fully and routinely as a government agency responsible to the voters for all of their actions.

3. The Federal Reserve of NY often acts as a member of the 'banking club' with very heavy ties to Wall Street. The objective of financial reform should be to insulate regulators from undue influence by the organizations which they regulate, and more influenced by the law and the public good first and foremost. This is a basic principle of the regulatory process. One cannot successfully regulate their peers when the tough decisions have to be made to uphold justice and expose corruption and conflicts of interest.

This latest incident with Goldman Sachs merely serves to illustrate the too often unilateral decision-making by the Fed in an ad hoc manner, without sufficient explanation.

What the United States needs to reform its financial system is a group of Untouchables who are not on the payroll of Wall Street, or regular participants in the revolving door between government and the industry it regulates. The failure to create this effective reform, and instead gravitate toward ineffective consolidation in one of the key actors in the failure of the system is an error that is as fundamental and basic as one can imagine. It strains credibility that this could merely the result of inexperience.

It was the appointment of Larry Summers that first put us off the Obama 'reform' message. Larry Summers is a holdover from the same team that brought us some of the worst Federal Reserve policy decisions and interference in the regulatory process ever seen.

The Administration needs to convert its vision into action, and stop playing to the Wall Street lobby which created and is still benefiting from this crisis. If that requires replacing the Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel, who is a heavy recipient of Wall Street donations, then so be it.

Whoever is promoting the Fed as uber-regulator within the Obama Administration should be fired, immediately. We hear it is Larry Summers, and this sounds like the politically tone-deaf, impractical, arrogant, and conflicted solution which Larry or Rahm might promote.

Can you imagine what our crisis would have been like if Alan Greenspan had even more power, more control over the markets?

Obama, quite frankly, needs to demonstrate that he is a man of integrity and principled action, vision that is not confined to oratory. He must now demonstrate that he is his own man, and is not owned by powerful special interests that seem to be controlling the American political process in both major parties.

If even a mandate such as Obama received does not energize the Democrats, then the best hope for America is a third party, a Progressive / Libertarian party as was seen at the turn of the 19th century with the rise of Teddy Roosevelt.

Baseline Scenario
A Short Question for Senior Officials of the NY Fed
By Simon Johnson
October 3, 2009

At the height of the financial panic last fall Goldman Sachs became a bank holding company, which enabled it to borrow directly from the Federal Reserve. It also became subject to supervision by the Federal Reserve Board (with the NY Fed on point) – hence the brouhaha over Steven Friedman’s shareholdings.

Goldman is also currently engaged in private equity investments in nonfinancial firms around the world, as seen for example in its recent deal with Geely Automotive Holdings in China. US banks or bank holding companies would not generally be allowed to undertake such transactions - in fact, it is annoyed bankers who have asked me to take this up.

Would someone from the NY Fed kindly explain the precise nature of the waiver that has been granted to Goldman so that it can operate in this fashion? If this is temporary, is it envisaged that Goldman will cease being a bank holding company, or that it will divest itself shortly of activities not usually allowed (and with good reason) by banks? Or will all bank holding companies be allowed to expand on the same basis. (The relevant rules appear to be here in general and here specifically; do tell me what I am missing.)

Increasingly, the issue of “too big to regulate” in the public interest is being brought up – an issue that has historically attracted the interest of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division in sectors other than finance. Should Goldman Sachs now be placed in this category?

Given that the Fed has slipped up so many times and in so many ways with regard to regulation over the past decade, and given the current debate on Capitol Hill, now might be a good time to get ahead of this issue.

In addition, there is the obvious carry trade (borrow cheaply; lend at higher rates) developing from cheap Fed dollar funding to the growing speculative frenzy in emerging markets, particularly China. Are we heading for another speculative bubble that will end up damaging US bank balance sheets and all American taxpayers?