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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Who Owns the Fed?

Have you heard? The Federal Reserve System raked in profits of $79.3 billion last year, almost triple what runner-up ExxonMobil made. The Fed’s business model is a snap—just print money—and unlike poor beleaguered Exxon, the Fed has no competition to worry about. This means a gigantic windfall for the big banks because, although they don’t like to admit it, they actually own the Fed.

Or not. These are all half-truths and distortions, all too easy to find on the Internet. Bloggers like to begin with the discovery that commercial banks hold shares of Fed stock and those shares pay an annual dividend. A further discovery that the Fed makes big profits is all it takes to send some of them off on a conspiracy tangent. Because shareholders in a profit-seeking corporation are its owners, so it must be with the Fed, they think. Profiteering, world-government schemes, and who knows what else, must surely follow. As I will show, these half-baked ideas are distractions from the serious issues that surround the Federal Reserve System.

Yes, commercial banks hold shares of stock in their local Federal Reserve branch, but these shares do not confer ownership in any meaningful sense. Ownership is defined as the legal and moral right to use and dispose of some asset. Ownership can be conditional or temporary, as when you lease an apartment and acquire the right to occupy it for a limited time, but not to run a business in it or do major renovations. Your purchase of shares of stock in a public corporation gives you rights to vote in shareholder elections, receive any dividends declared, and sell your shares—but that’s about all. You may not walk into the corporate offices and start giving orders; on the other hand, you may not be held liable for any misdeeds of corporate officers or employees. If you acquire shares in a nonpublic company like Facebook, you accept additional restrictions on when and to whom you may sell your shares.

Member banks receive a fixed 6 percent annual dividend on their Fed stock and enjoy limited voting rights. But there the resemblance to ordinary shares ends. The banks are obliged to acquire shares when they become members of the Fed, and they may not sell their shares or pledge them as collateral. An initial issue of stock was seen as a good way to capitalize the Fed when it began, but there has been no need for additional capital and those shares are no longer significant.

Each branch has a board of directors with six members elected by local member banks and three appointed by the central board of governors. However, board members are not all bankers. Moreover, under a rule recently enacted by Congress, only nonbankers may serve on committees that select Fed bank presidents. This new rule is one way in which the ground has been shifting under the Fed recently; more about this below.

In the beginning the Fed was quite decentralized. A dollar bill in my wallet is imprinted “Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco,” a remnant of the formerly dispersed power. The headquarters operation was initially a modest one, operating out of an office in the Treasury Department, but it now has its own imposing building, greatly expanded powers, and a correspondingly larger staff. With so much power now centralized, the branches engage mainly in monitoring local conditions and passing recommendations up to the board of governors. They have also become known for differing interests and points of view. The St. Louis Fed, for example, has an excellent collection of data available to the public. The Cleveland Fed is known for innovative research.

The Fed is a nonprofit institution, but that designation means only that profits are not its primary mission. The Red Cross is also a nonprofit, and like the Fed, it does earn a profit during any year in which gross income exceeds expenses. From an accounting point of view, such profits are essentially the same as those earned by firms in competitive markets, but not from an economic point of view. Competitive profits serve the vital function of directing scarce capital resources to the most urgent unmet demands of consumers. The Fed’s profits serve no such function.

Its income consists primarily of interest earned on its securities portfolio. Until recently the portfolio was made up almost entirely of Treasury securities. It has expanded greatly since 2008 to include mortgage-backed securities, loans to such pillars of the financial system as Harley-Davidson, and other assets including direct real-estate holdings. It incurs operating expenses of the usual sort: salaries, buildings, supplies, and more.

Remember that $79.3 billion profit? The 2010 figure, far higher than the $47.4 billion recorded for 2009, did not benefit the Fed’s managers or member bank shareholders because the money was remitted to the Treasury. That’s the law. It happens every year. If any private firm earned that much in a year it would be headline news and a boon to stockholders. For the Fed this is just an interesting statistic.

Who Calls the Tune?

The answer to the question “Who owns the Fed?” is that it’s the wrong question. Instead, we should ask: Who calls the Fed’s tune? That’s not such an easy question, yet it’s the only way to reach an understanding of why the Fed acts as it does and why it has done so much economic damage.

First and foremost, the Fed was created by Congress and can be modified or abolished by Congress. Clearly Congress is the Fed’s most important constituent.

The U.S. president also holds substantial sway over the Fed. He appoints the seven-member board of governors subject to Senate confirmation. The powerful Open Market Committee, which makes monetary policy decisions, consists of those seven plus the president of the New York Fed and four seats that are rotated among the 11 regional presidents.

But even though it exercises ultimate control, Congress has given the Fed a degree of independence that no other federal agency enjoys. Although its profits are swept back to the Treasury, the Fed enjoys a sweet deal that is unavailable to ordinary Federal agencies, which must plead with Congress for an annual appropriation. The Fed spends whatever it wants on operations, constrained only by the necessity to keep up appearances—not to look like fat-cat bankers. Its profit is whatever remains after all expenses have been paid, and, in contrast to ordinary corporate accounting, after dividends have been paid.

The Fed’s vaunted independence is a good thing, the thinking goes, because we don’t want the stewards of our money to be caught up in the swirl of day-to-day politics. But independence trades off against accountability. After all, in a democracy the bureaucracies are supposed to be accountable to Congress. The purse strings are the primary means of accountability among the other agencies, but there are no such strings tying Congress to the Fed.

Such control as commercial banks exert is not so much a function of their nominal stockholdings as it is of their connections through the network of good ol’ boys that weaves through government and “private” financial institutions. The Fed surely looks out for the interests of major private institutions, especially big banks, insurance companies, and securities firms. It does not want big-bank failures or a stock-market crash. It must be cognizant of foreigners who hold $3 trillion in U.S. Treasury debt and are keenly aware of the Fed’s actions and pronouncements.

These incentives have little to do with the Fed’s official dual mandate: stable prices and high employment. That mandate was established by the Employment Act of 1946 and the Humphrey-Hawkins act of 1978. These were times when no one questioned the Keynesian idea that inflation and unemployment always trade off against each other (the Phillips curve) and that monetary and fiscal policy must steer a course between two extremes. If the proponents of the mandate could see the relatively stable prices of recent years coupled with high unemployment, they would call for major Fed “easing.” If they then found out how much easing we have already had and the consequent monstrous increases in debt, they would surely be speechless.

Swift Changes

Some congressmen are calling for reassessing the dual mandate. This is just one way in which things are changing fast for the Fed. This once-staid institution is under increasing attack and is finding it necessary to defend itself, as when Chairman Ben Bernanke came out of his cloister to appear on 60 Minutes, a decision he may regret given the reaction to his astonishing claim that further “quantitative easing” will not increase the money supply.

New rooms are being added to the Fed mansion even as the sand shifts under it. Congress has given it extensive new powers unrelated to monetary policy, most notably a new consumer protection agency. The idea is that the Fed’s independence will ward off regulatory capture, something that always seems to happen to ordinary regulatory agencies. We shall see.

Rep. Ron Paul is the Fed’s most prominent critic. Last year his bill to require an audit of the Fed garnered a great many cosigners in the House. He reintroduced it at the start of the 2011 session, this time with his son Rand Paul on hand in the Senate to file the same bill there.

But in some ways the Fed is already quite transparent. Its website has extensive reports, updated regularly and more detailed than any releases from commercial banks or private corporations. And while deliberations of the powerful Open Market Committee are secret, detailed minutes are now made available shortly after each meeting.

In other ways it is quite secretive. For example, the Fed refused to disclose the names of banks that got loans during April and May 2008, denying Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by Bloomberg and Fox News. Responding to lawsuits, the Fed did not claim it was a private institution and therefore exempt. Instead it cited potential harm to the banks that had borrowed, but the court sensibly ruled against a “test that permits an agency to deny disclosure because the agency thinks it best to do so. . . .” The information was released.

“End the Fed” has become a rallying cry for Ron Paul and his supporters. His little book by that name will not earn any academic awards, but as a mass-market polemic it does a good job of making his case without conspiracy theories or private-ownership sideshows. There is, however, room for honest debate about fractional-reserve banking, which he opposes.

About the Fed, though, Ron Paul is right. Whatever good intentions its managers may have, the Fed, like all central banks, exists ultimately as an enabler of ever bigger government. My colleague Jeffrey Rogers Hummel may be right when he says the Fed is becoming the central planner of the U.S. economy. But when we argue for replacing the Fed with market institutions, we must take the time and effort to get our facts straight and to expose the complex network of special interests that supports the Fed. Wrongheaded and simplistic arguments only hinder the cause.

  • Warren Gibson teaches engineering at Santa Clara University and economics at San Jose State University.