Another Bank Bailout Under Cover of a Virus

Insolvent Wall Street banks have been quietly bailed out again. Banks made risk-free by the government should be public utilities.  

When the Dodd Frank Act was passed in 2010, President Obama triumphantly declared, “No more bailouts!” But what the Act actually said was that the next time the banks failed, they would be subject to “bail ins” – the funds of their creditors, including their large depositors, would be tapped to cover their bad loans.

Then bail-ins were tried in Europe. The results were disastrous.

Many economists in the US and Europe argued that the next time the banks failed, they should be nationalized – taken over by the government as public utilities. But that opportunity was lost when, in September 2019 and again in March 2020, Wall Street banks were quietly bailed out from a liquidity crisis in the repo market that could otherwise have bankrupted them. There was no bail-in of private funds, no heated congressional debate, and no public vote. It was all done unilaterally by unelected bureaucrats at the Federal Reserve.

“The justification of private profit,” said President Franklin Roosevelt in a 1938 address, “is private risk.” Banking has now been made virtually risk-free, backed by the full faith and credit of the United States and its people. The American people are therefore entitled to share in the benefits and the profits. Banking needs to be made a public utility. Continue reading

Crushing the States, Saving the Banks: The Fed’s Generous New Rules

Congress seems to be at war with the states. Only $150 billion of its nearly $3 trillion coronavirus relief package – a mere 5% – has been allocated to the 50 states; and they are not allowed to use it where they need it most, to plug the holes in their budgets caused by the mandatory shutdown. On April 22, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was opposed to additional federal aid to the states, and that his preference was to allow states to go bankrupt.

No such threat looms over the banks, which have made out extremely well in this crisis. The Federal Reserve has dropped interest rates to 0.25%, eliminated reserve requirements, and relaxed capital requirements. Banks can now borrow effectively for free, without restrictions on the money’s use. Following the playbook of the 2008-09 bailout, they can make the funds available to their Wall Street cronies to buy up distressed Main Street assets at fire sale prices, while continuing to lend to credit cardholders at 21%.

If there is a silver lining to all this, it is that the Fed’s relaxed liquidity rules have made it easier for state and local governments to set up their own publicly-owned banks, something they should do post haste to take advantage of the Fed’s very generous new accommodations for banks. These public banks can then lend to local businesses, municipal agencies, and local citizens at substantially reduced rates while replenishing the local government’s coffers, recharging the Main Street economy and the government’s revenue base. Continue reading

A Universal Basic Income Is Essential and Will Work

A central bank-financed UBI can fill the debt gap, providing a vital safety net while preventing cyclical recessions.

According to an April 6 article on CNBC.com, Spain is slated to become the first country in Europe to introduce a universal basic income (UBI) on a long-term basis. Spain’s Minister for Economic Affairs has announced plans to roll out a UBI “as soon as possible,” with the goal of providing a nationwide basic wage that supports citizens “forever.” Guy Standing, a research professor at the University of London, told CNBC that there was no prospect of a global economic revival without a universal basic income. “It’s almost a no-brainer,” he said. “We are going to have some sort of basic income system sooner or later ….”

“Where will the government find the money?” is no longer a valid objection to providing an economic safety net for the people. The government can find the money in the same place it just found more than $5 trillion for Wall Street and Corporate America: the central bank can print it. In an April 9 post commenting on the $1.77 trillion handed to Wall Street under the CARES Act, Wolf Richter observed, “If the Fed had sent that $1.77 Trillion to the 130 million households in the US, each household would have received $13,600. But no, this was helicopter money exclusively for Wall Street and for asset holders.” Continue reading

Treasury Takeover? Interview with Sarah Westall and Harley Schlanger

Was the Fed Just Nationalized?

Did Congress just nationalize the Fed? No. But the door to that result has been cracked open.

Mainstream politicians have long insisted that Medicare for all, a universal basic income, student debt relief and a slew of other much-needed public programs are off the table because the federal government cannot afford them. But that was before Wall Street and the stock market were driven onto life-support by a virus. Congress has now suddenly discovered the magic money tree. It took only a few days for Congress to unanimously pass the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which will be doling out $2.2 trillion in crisis relief, most of it going to Corporate America with few strings attached. Beyond that, the Federal Reserve is making over $4 trillion available to banks, hedge funds and other financial entities of all stripes; it has dropped the fed funds rate (the rate at which banks borrow from each other) effectively to zero; and it has made $1.5 trillion available to the repo market.

It is also the Federal Reserve that will be picking up the tab for this bonanza, at least to start. The US central bank has opened the sluice gates to unlimited quantitative easing, buying Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities “in the amounts needed to support smooth market functions.” Last month, the Fed bought $650 billion worth of federal securities. At that rate, notes Wall Street on Parade, it will own the entire Treasury market in about 22 months. As Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari acknowledged on 60 Minutes, “There is an infinite amount of cash at the Federal Reserve.” Continue reading

The Fed’s Baffling Response to the Coronavirus Explained

When the World Health Organization announced on February 24th that it was time to prepare for a global pandemic, the stock market plummeted. Over the following week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by more than 3,500 points or over 10%. In an attempt to contain the damage, on March 3rd the Federal Reserve slashed the fed funds rate from 1.5% to 1.0%, in their first emergency rate move and biggest one-time cut since the 2008 financial crisis. But rather than reassuring investors, the move fueled another panic sell-off.

Exasperated commentators on CNBC wondered what the Fed was thinking. They said a half point rate cut would not stop the spread of the coronavirus or fix the broken Chinese supply chains that are driving US companies to the brink. A new report by corporate data analytics firm Dun & Bradstreet calculates that some 51,000 companies around the world have one or more direct suppliers in Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus. At least 5 million companies globally have one or more tier-two suppliers in the region, meaning their suppliers get their supplies there; and 938 of the Fortune 1000 companies have tier-one or tier-two suppliers there. Moreover, fully 80% of US pharmaceuticals are made in China. A break in the supply chain can grind businesses to a halt. Continue reading

Mexico’s President AMLO Shows How It’s Done

While U.S. advocates and local politicians struggle to get their first public banks chartered, Mexico’s new president has begun construction on 2,700 branches of a government-owned bank to be completed in 2021, when it will be the largest bank in the country. At a press conference on Jan. 6, he said the neoliberal model had failed; private banks were not serving the poor and people outside the cities, so the government had to step in.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO) has been compared to the United Kingdom’s left-wing opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, with one notable difference: AMLO is now in power. He and his left-​wing coalition won by a landslide in Mexico’s 2018 general election, overturning the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that had ruled the country for much of the past century. Called Mexico’s “first full-fledged left-wing experiment,” AMLO’s election marks a dramatic change in the political direction of the country. AMLO wrote in his 2018 book “A New Hope for Mexico,” “In Mexico the governing class constitutes a gang of plunderers…. Mexico will not grow strong if our public institutions remain at the service of the wealthy elites.” Continue reading

Two power points: “A Deep Dive into Money and Banking” and “Funding the Green Transition with Public Banks”

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The Fed Protects Gamblers at the Expense of the Economy

Although the repo market is little known to most people, it is a $1-trillion-a-day credit machine, in which not just banks but hedge funds and other “shadow banks” borrow to finance their trades. Under the Federal Reserve Act, the central bank’s lending window is open only to licensed depository banks; but the Fed is now pouring billions of dollars into the repo (repurchase agreements) market, in effect making risk-free loans to speculators at less than 2%.

This does not serve the real economy, in which products, services and jobs are created. However, the Fed is trapped into this speculative monetary expansion to avoid a cascade of defaults of the sort it was facing with the long-term capital management crisis in 1998 and the Lehman crisis in 2008. The repo market is a fragile house of cards waiting for a strong wind to blow it down, propped up by misguided monetary policies that have forced central banks to underwrite its highly risky ventures. Continue reading

Public Banking Solution TV interview, Nov. 2019

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The Public Banking Solution, 6.19 from Princeton TV on Vimeo.

 

Interview with Max Keiser Nov. 2019

The Key to the Environmental Crisis Is Beneath Our Feet

The Green New Deal resolution that was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives in February hit a wall in the Senate, where it was called unrealistic and unaffordable. In a Washington Post article titled “The Green New Deal Sets Us Up for Failure. We Need a Better Approach,” former Colorado governor and Democratic presidential candidate John Hickenlooper framed the problem like this:

The resolution sets unachievable goals. We do not yet have the technology needed to reach “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” in 10 years. That’s why many wind and solar companies don’t support it. There is no clean substitute for jet fuel. Electric vehicles are growing quickly, yet are still in their infancy. Manufacturing industries such as steel and chemicals, which account for almost as much carbon emissions as transportation, are even harder to decarbonize.

Amid this technological innovation, we need to ensure that energy is not only clean but also affordable. Millions of Americans struggle with “energy poverty.” Too often, low-income Americans must choose between paying for medicine and having their heat shut off. …

If climate change policy becomes synonymous in the U.S. psyche with higher utility bills, rising taxes and lost jobs, we will have missed our shot.

The problem may be that a transition to 100% renewables is the wrong target. Reversing climate change need not mean emptying our pockets and tightening our belts. It is possible to sequester carbon and restore our collapsing ecosystem using the financial resources we already have, and it can be done while at the same time improving the quality of our food, water, air and general health. Continue reading

Paul Volcker’s Long Shadow

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan called Paul Volcker “the most effective chairman in the history of the Federal Reserve.” But while Volcker, who passed away Dec. 8 at age 92, probably did have the greatest historical impact of any Fed chairman, his legacy is, at best, controversial.

“He restored credibility to the Federal Reserve at a time it had been greatly diminished,” wrote his biographer, William Silber. Volcker’s policies led to what was called “the New Keynesian revolution,” putting the Fed in charge of controlling the amount of money available to consumers and businesses by manipulating the federal funds rate (the interest rate at which banks borrow from each other). All this was because Volcker’s “shock therapy” of the early 1980s – raising the federal funds rate to an unheard of 20% – was credited with reversing the stagflation of the 1970s. But did it? Or was something else going on?

Less discussed was Volcker’s role at the behest of President Richard Nixon in taking the dollar off the gold standard, which he called “the single most important event of his career.” He evidently intended for another form of stable exchange system to replace the Bretton Woods system it destroyed, but that did not happen. Instead, freeing the dollar from gold unleashed an unaccountable central banking system that went wild printing money for the benefit of private Wall Street and London financial interests. Continue reading

A run of presentations on public banking

Interest in public banking is high! I just finished a run of 11 presentations and in-person interviews in 7 cities in 10 weeks. Here’s a video from one, a debate with a county official sponsored by the League of Women Voters in San Diego, and two power points from another, the Soil and Nutrition Conference in Southbridge, MA.

 

 

Power point, A Deep Dive into Money and Banking, Soil & Nutrition Conf 11-19

Power point, Funding the Green Transition, Soil & Nutrition Conf 11-19

Is the Run on the Dollar Due to Panic or Greed?

What’s going on in the repo market? Rates on repurchase agreements (“repo”) should be around 2%, in line with the fed funds rate. But they shot up to over 5% on September 16 and got as high as 10% on September 17. Yet banks were refusing to lend to each other, evidently passing up big profits to hold onto their cash – just as they did in the housing market crash and Great Recession of 2008-09.

Since banks weren’t lending, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York jumped in, increasing its overnight repo operations to $75 billion; and on October 23 it upped the ante to $120 billion in overnight operations and $45 billion in longer-term operations.

Why are banks no longer lending to each other? Are they afraid that collapse is imminent somewhere in the system, as with the Lehman collapse in 2008?

Perhaps, and if so the likely suspect is Deutsche Bank. But it looks to be just another case of Wall Street fattening itself at the public trough, using the funds of mom and pop depositors to maximize bank profits and line the pockets of bank executives while depriving small businesses of affordable loans. Continue reading

Restoring the Korean Economic Miracle

This 10-page paper was written for the Economics of Happiness Conference co-sponsored by Local Futures, held in Jeonju, Korea, on October 16-17, where I was the keynote speaker — a wonderful city and great experience!   

Satisfaction in the workplace is a major component of the “happiness” index; but it is a satisfaction that young people joining the workforce today are not feeling. In a 2017 book titled Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, Malcolm Harris asks why the millennial generation  – those born between 1981 and 1996 – are so burned out. His answer is, “the economy.” Millennials are bearing the brunt of the economic damage wrought by late 20th century capitalism, with economic insecurities throwing them into a state of perpetual panic. Harris argues that if they want to meaningfully improve their lives and the lives of future generations, they will have to overthrow the system and rewrite the social contract.

A similar crisis of capitalism is being faced by millennials in South Korea, which has been ranked near the bottom of the OECD’s “Better Life Index.”[1] Warabel, meaning “work-life balance,” is a new term for an old movement that began in South Korea in the 1970s, after a 22-year-old workers’ rights activist committed suicide by setting himself ablaze in protest over the poor working conditions in South Korean factories. His death brought attention to the substandard labor conditions and helped the formation of a labor union movement in South Korea.[2]

Today Korean millennials are protesting in other ways. Continue reading

The Disaster of Negative of Interest Rates

President Trump wants negative interest rates, but they would be disastrous for the U.S. economy, and his objectives can be better achieved by other means.

The dollar strengthened against the euro in August, merely in anticipation of the European Central Bank slashing its key interest rate further into negative territory. Investors were fleeing into the dollar, prompting President Trump to tweet on Aug. 30:

The Euro is dropping against the Dollar “like crazy,” giving them a big export and manufacturing advantage… And the Fed does NOTHING!

When the ECB cut its key rate as anticipated, from a negative 0.4% to a negative 0.5%, the president tweeted on Sept. 11:

The Federal Reserve should get our interest rates down to ZERO, or less, and we should then start to refinance our debt. INTEREST COST COULD BE BROUGHT WAY DOWN, while at the same time substantially lengthening the term.

And on Sept. 12 he tweeted:

European Central Bank, acting quickly, Cuts Rates 10 Basis Points. They are trying, and succeeding, in depreciating the Euro against the VERY strong Dollar, hurting U.S. exports…. And the Fed sits, and sits, and sits. They get paid to borrow money, while we are paying interest!

However, negative interest rates have not been shown to stimulate the economies that have tried them, and they would wreak havoc on the U.S. economy, for reasons unique to the U.S. dollar. The ECB has not gone to negative interest rates to gain an export advantage. It is to keep the European Union from falling apart, something that could happen if the United Kingdom does indeed pull out and Italy follows suit, as it has threatened to do. If what Trump wants is cheap borrowing rates for the U.S. federal government, there is a safer and easier way to get them. Continue reading

Desperate Central Bankers Grab for More Power

Conceding that their grip on the economy is slipping, central bankers are proposing a radical economic reset that would shift yet more power from government to themselves.

Central bankers are acknowledging that they are out of ammunition. Mark Carney, the soon-to-be-retiring head of the Bank of England, said in a speech at the annual meeting of central bankers in August in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, “In the longer-term, we need to change the game.” The same point was made by Philipp Hildebrand, former head of the Swiss National Bank, in an August 2019 interview with Bloomberg. “Really there is little if any ammunition left,” he said. “More of the same in terms of monetary policy is unlikely to be an appropriate response if we get into a recession or sharp downturn.” Continue reading

The Key to a Sustainable Economy Is 5,000 Years Old

We are again reaching the point in the business cycle known as “peak debt,” when debts have compounded to the point that their cumulative total cannot be paid. Student debt, credit card debt, auto loans, business debt and sovereign debt are all higher than they have ever been. As economist Michael Hudson writes in his provocative 2018 book, “…and forgive them their debts,” debts that can’t be paid won’t be paid. The question, he says, is how they won’t be paid.

Mainstream economic models leave this problem to “the invisible hand of the market,” assuming trends will self-correct over time. But while the market may indeed correct, it does so at the expense of the debtors, who become progressively poorer as the rich become richer. Borrowers go bankrupt and banks foreclose on the collateral, dispossessing the debtors of their homes and their livelihoods. The houses are bought by the rich at distress prices and are rented back at inflated prices to the debtors, who are then forced into wage peonage to survive. When the banks themselves go bankrupt, the government bails them out. Thus the market corrects, but not without government intervention. That intervention just comes at the end of the cycle to rescue the creditors, whose ability to buy politicians gives them the upper hand. According to free-market apologists, this is a natural cycle akin to the weather, which dates all the way back to the birth of modern economics in ancient Greece and Rome.

Hudson counters that those classical societies are not actually where our financial system began, and that capitalism did not evolve from bartering, as its ideologues assert. Rather, it devolved from a more functional, sophisticated, egalitarian credit system that was sustained for two millennia in ancient Mesopotamia (now parts of Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait and Iran). Money, banking, accounting and modern business enterprise originated not with gold and private trade, but in the public sector of Sumer’s palaces and temples in the third millennium B.C. Because it involved credit issued by the local government rather than private loans of gold, bad debts could be periodically forgiven rather than compounding until they took the whole system down, a critical feature that allowed for its remarkable longevity. Continue reading

Neoliberalism Has Met Its Match in China

When the Federal Reserve cut interest rates on July 31st for the first time in more than a decade, commentators were asking why. According to official data, the economy was rebounding, unemployment was below 4%, and GDP growth was above 3%. If anything, by the Fed’s own reasoning, it should have been raising rates.

The explanation of market pundits was that we’re in a trade war and a currency war. Other central banks were cutting their rates and the Fed had to follow suit, in order to prevent the dollar from becoming overvalued relative to other currencies. The theory is that a cheaper dollar will make American products more attractive on foreign markets, helping our manufacturing and labor bases.

Over the weekend, President Trump followed the rate cuts by threatening to impose a new 10% tariff on $300 billion worth of Chinese products effective September 1st. China responded by suspending imports of U.S. agricultural products by state-owned companies and letting the value of the yuan drop. On Monday, August 5, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 770 points, its worst day in 2019. The war was on.

The problem with a currency war is that it is a war without winners. This was demonstrated in the beggar-thy-neighbor policies of the 1930s, which just prolonged the Great Depression. Continue reading