Backfield in Motion at the Fed

Under Bernanke’s direction, the Federal Reserve has completely rewritten its mission. Many articles in the International Speculator and The Casey Report have reported the strange growth in the loans they have made and explained that Bernanke has, for a long time, espoused unconventional actions to avert deflation and to expand the economy. So the charts below tell that story, and it is truly amazing.

The Federal Reserve was never envisioned to be lender of last resort to a whole slew of investment banks, money market mutual funds, and commercial paper issuers.

The situation is not easy to sort out, for the simple reason that the extent of their actions is not presented by the Fed via clear and concise data. Instead, the data is complex and hard to analyze, partly because of the piecemeal way the actions were taken, but also probably due to a desire by the Fed to avoid public scrutiny and criticism.

Digging into the details of the Fed’s balance sheet reveals, however, the complete change of composition and direction of the Fed. The most obvious change is that they have doubled the size of their assets and liabilities. A year ago, the Fed’s assets consisted almost entirely of government Treasuries and a little gold.

That is a clean, safe balance sheet.

The only important liability was the currency they issued (our paper dollars). They also had a small reserve of deposits from all the banks. When Greenspan wanted to give the economy a boost by lowering short-term interest rates, he would create some money and buy Treasuries. He could also do the reverse.

Bernanke has turned this upside down. Initially he made focused loans to big banks. But then the loans became bigger than the reserve deposits, leaving the banks in total as net borrowers. The concept of a fractional reserve no longer applies when the reserve is net negative.

To fund yet more loans, Bernanke then sold off half of the Fed’s Treasuries. And he traded Treasuries for toxic waste of poor-quality mortgage-backed securities. And he encumbered half of the remaining Treasuries with “off balance sheet” swaps of about $220 billion. (Does this sound like Enron accounting?) The balance sheet started with $800 billion of mostly reliable assets and now has about $250 billion of unencumbered Treasuries.

The biggest source of funding is from the Treasury. Banks are leaving deposits in the Fed now that the Fed is paying interest.

The important conclusion is that the paper dollars are now issued by a far less soundly structured Fed, an organization that is more interested in bailing out the financial community than defending the dollar.

The other side of the balance sheet shows that the Fed has borrowed and taken in deposits to fund the loans that are as big as the issuance of currency. In effect, the Fed has doubled its footprint and doubled its responsibilities. Mostly under the covers, they added almost $1 trillion new credit to the financial world in about two months.


There are additional important Fed actions not included in their balance sheet. For example, they invented a Money Market Investor Funding Facility (MMIF) to guarantee up to 90% of $600 billion of loans to that sector. They do this through special-purpose vehicles established by the private sector (PSPVs). The latest Commercial Paper Funding Facility (CPFF) started October 27 and has issued $143 billion so far. These are both in addition to the Asset-Backed Commercial Paper Money Market Mutual Fund Liquidity Facility initiated September 19. The programs are beyond keeping up with.

Nothing like this has ever been done before by the Federal Reserve. In time, the consequences in terms of confidence in the dollar will be bad.

Bud Conrad

November 12, 2008

A hearty thanks to Bud Conrad. This is Bud’s first appearance in the Whiskey Room and we’re thrilled to have him, but after reading that last bit I really need a stiff drink. Good thing this is a bar.

“Nothing like this has ever been done before by the Federal Reserve.” I can’t be the only one who feels a little anxious after reading that. If you want to be able to sleep soundly tonight, you could take some Xanax.