The Federal Reserve made a colossal gamble with its so-called “Quantitative Easing” or “QE,” which is simply a euphemism for its $4.4 trillion binge of buying long-term bonds and mortgages. Its big bid for long bonds, along with parallel programs undertaken by other members of the international fraternity of central banks, has artificially suppressed long-term interest rates, and has deliberately fostered asset-price inflations in bonds, stocks, and houses.
Will this gamble pan out?
The balance sheet of today’s Federal Reserve makes it the largest 1980s-model savings and loan in the world, with a giant portfolio of long-term, fixed rate mortgage securities combined with floating rate deposits. This would certainly have astonished the legislative fathers of the Federal Reserve Act like Congressman and then Senator Carter Glass, who strongly held that the Fed should primarily be about discounting short-term commercial notes.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), the great philosopher of the authoritarian state, in a famous metaphor portrayed the government as a dominating giant or Leviathan, animated by absolute sovereignty, and passing out rewards and punishments as it saw fit. It alone could control the unruly passions of the people and create stability and safety.
Today’s “administrative state”—or government bureaucracy, acting simultaneously as sovereign legislator, executive, and judge—brings Hobbes’ image of the giant vividly to mind.
The Power and Independence of the Federal Reserve is an informative and provocative history of the Fed and its remarkable evolution over a hundred years’ time: a complex institution, in a complex and changing environment.
Very importantly, author Peter Conti-Brown has included the Fed’s intellectual evolution, or the shifting of the ideas that shape its actions as these ideas go in and out of central banking fashion. This account makes readers wonder what new ideas and theories the leaders of the Fed will adopt, reinforce by groupthink with their fellow central bankers, and try out on us in future years.
Rexford Tugwell, sometimes known as “Rex the Red” for his admiration of the 1930s Soviet Union and his fervent belief in central planning, was made Governor of Puerto Rico by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941. Among the results of his theories was the Government Development Bank of Puerto Rico, a bank designed as “an arm of the state,” which is a central element in the complicated inner workings of the Puerto Rican government’s massive insolvency. The bank has just defaulted on $367 million of bonds, the first, but unless there is Congressional action, not the last, massive default by the Puerto…
Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe explores the movement and transformation of risks in adapting, self-referencing systems, of which financial systems are a notable example. In this provocative new book, the Wall Street Journal’s chief economics commentator Greg Ip contemplates how actions to reduce and control risk are often discovered to have increased it in some other way, and thus, “how safety can be dangerous.”
In his provocative and knowledgeable new book, Other People’s Money: The Real Business of Finance, John Kay considers the complex ways that financial systems operate in between the real savers, on one hand, and the real investments, on the other.
He observes disapprovingly how very large contemporary financial systems have become, how much talent they absorb, how big are the bonuses they pay, how they often have lost sight of their basic fiduciary duty, and especially that “volumes in trading in financial markets have reached absurd levels.”
Ben Bernanke’s new book, The Courage to Act, demonstrates throughout its 579 pages the fundamental uncertainty faced by central bankers, Treasury officers, and everybody else when dealing with financial cycles, panics and recoveries. “But if the last few years had taught us anything, it was that we had to be humble about our ability to detect emerging threats to financial stability,” he writes.