Debt Relief for Whom? Part II – The D&S Blog – Dollars & Sense

Written by Amanda

Debt Relief for Whom? Part II – The D&S Blog  Dollars & Sense


Lords of Easy Money cover

Two new books address debt from opposite ends of the financial scale. In Part I, The Case for A Debt Jubilee in the United States, Richard Vague proposes a practical way to forgive crushing middle class debt. In Part II, The Lords of Easy Money, Christopher Leonard traces How the Federal Reserve Broke the American Economy as it protected the big banks that acquired unpayable debt.

Part II: The Lords of Easy

As a land economist, I was among
the few who predicted the bursting of the real estate bubble in 2008. (I tried
hard to persuade my husband to sell our two little brownstones before the
coming crash, but in vain.) At the time, the solution seemed obvious: The
federal government should allow underwater homeowners to write down mortgages.
And the government should do to large banks what it has historically done to
misbehaving smaller banks: Take over and restructure the banks, and prosecute
the crooked managers. In The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One
(2013), Bill Black recounts how the government cracked down on S&Ls in
the1980-90 crisis. But in 2009, newly-elected President Obama lacked the nerve
and probably also the support of the Wall Street friendly Democratic Party.
Instead, the Obama administration allowed the big banks like JP Morgan Chase,
Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo to become entrenched as
too-big-to-fail. Despite abundant evidence of fraud and inside-dealing during
the bubble, not a single banker was prosecuted. (See Wall Street on Parade for up-to-the
minute coverage of the “serially-criminal” banks.)

In The Lords of Easy Money,
Christopher Leonard tells how the Federal Reserve—the US central bank—fell into
its disastrous role of permanently supporting the big banks. Mostly, he follows
the story of Thomas Hoenig, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas
from 1991 to 2011. The Kansas Reserve is one of 12 regional banks belonging to
the Federal Reserve System. Bank presidents attend meetings of the Federal Reserve
in Washington DC, and rotate in and out of voting membership of the 12-member
Federal Open Market Committee which sets interest rates. Alone among bank
presidents and members of the FOMC, Hoenig opposed and voted against Fed policy
after 2000.

A lifetime banking professional
and conservative inflation hawk, Hoenig at first easily went along with the
policies of Federal Reserve Board Chair (1987-2006) Alan Greenspan. Greenspan
focused primarily on keeping interest rates low in order to stimulate the economy.
However, Hoenig gradually became uneasy as low rates set off asset price
inflation in the form of the dot-com stock market boom of the late 1990s. In
2000, as consumer price inflation became unmistakable, Greenspan raised rates
sharply, triggering the stock market crash of 2000.

Here let me take a break to
explain a bit about how the Fed works, or rather, how it used to work. In
theory, the Fed controls the economy’s interest rate. In reality, it controls
only one interest rate, the so-called “Fed-funds” rate, the lowest safest rate
in the economy, usually in low single digits. The Fed lowers (or raises) this
rate by buying (or selling) short-term government bonds or “Treasuries” from
banks and dealers, paying with newly-created money transferred electronically
into the sellers’ accounts. Buying bonds with new money bids up their price and
lowers their yield as a percent of their value. This yield determines the
Fed-funds rate.

By arbitrage*, the Fed funds rate
loosely determines rates throughout the rest of the economy. These range upward
from rates on longer-term government bonds, to “prime” rates banks charge their
best customers, to mortgage rates, continuing up to credit card rates in the
‘teens, twenties and even thirties. The rate spread is narrowest during booms,
meaning there’s more credit available to small and medium businesses and
middle-class borrowers. In downturns, banks cut these off, freezing businesses
and sending poorer people to payroll lenders, pawn shops and loan sharks.

The value of real estate is
inversely proportional to the so-called “cap” rate. This consists roughly of
the prime bank rate plus a risk premium plus property tax rate and minus
expected growth in value. It’s obvious from this formula that a low prime rate
and high expected growth both pump up the value of real estate. An increase in
prime rate together with nervousness about growth can make real estate values
suddenly plummet. That happened in 2008, and previously at roughly 18-20-year
intervals. The biggest prior real estate collapse happened in the late 1920s,
preceding the stock market crash of 1929.

Liberals love low rates and
ensuing booms and don’t mind a bit of price inflation. After all, booms can
raise wages and increase credit for consumers and small business, though of
course low rates hurt small savers. Conservatives hate price inflation,
especially wage inflation. It might surprise us that, while Hoenig objected,
arch-conservative Greenspan kept rates so low so long during the dot-com boom
of the late 1990s. The answer: Conservatives, who own most of the assets, love
asset-inflation. Greenspan kept the boom going as long as possible to avoid
pricking their bubble. Hoenig, though also conservative, recognized that
asset-inflation worsened inequality and low rates encouraged risky investments
in search of higher yields. Greenspan’s reluctance to prick bubbles also
created moral hazard, leading speculators to count on a rescue from the Fed.

When the 2000-2001 crash
happened, Greenspan apparently hoped he could quickly repair the damage by
sharply cutting rates. Alone, Hoenig objected that the cut went too far too
fast and remained too long. Indeed so. It helped set off the real estate bubble
of the ‘oughts and crash of 2008. (There were other factors, notably the failure
to regulate
crazy derivatives and the 1999 repeal of the Glass Steagall Act
of 1933, which had constrained speculation by commercial banks. Also, the
roughly eighteen-year real estate cycle was due for a downturn in 2008.) In mid-2004,
Greenspan belatedly began to raise rates, too little too late.

In February 2006, President Bush
appointed Ben Bernanke as Fed Chair, replacing Alan Greenspan. A conservative
academic economist with no banking experience, Bernanke shared Greenspan’s
optimistic view that the economy was largely self-regulating. But he soon faced
a growing banking crisis. It became apparent that the major banks were
overloaded with bad assets—notably securitized mortgages—and pyramids of bad
debt, often owed to one another.

The 19th century
British economist Walter Bagehot (BADjet) advised that in a crisis the central
bank should lend freely to solvent firms at a penalty rate and against good
collateral. Instead, the Fed lent freely to insolvent firms at low rates with
no strings attached. Bernanke began cutting the Fed funds rate, over Hoenig’s
lonely but now strong objections, all the way down to zero by December 2008.
And there the rates would stay until well after Bernanke left in 2014. (Hoenig
retired in 2011.)

A zero-interest rate policy, or
ZIRP as it became known, was unprecedented. It also was impossible using the
traditional method of buying short-term government bonds—you can’t divide by
zero. The Fed turned
to unorthodox means
, starting with buying longer term government bonds.
When Lehman Brothers failed in September 2008, the Fed began to “expand its
balance sheet”, that is to buy and hold more assets. And not just government
bonds, but private securities like the mortgage-backed securities that had
brought down the banks. The practice became known as “quantitative easing” or

In buying all this stuff, the Fed
put money in the hands of banks. Supposedly they would lend the money to
investors and consumers, stimulating the economy. Instead, banks and their
major corporate customers used much of the money to buy back shares of their
stock, enriching their executives and worsening inequality. In 2013, the Fed
started a feeble effort “taper” off its purchasing and raise the Fed funds
rate. It quickly faced a “taper tantrum” by the banks, that is, an incipient
bank panic and spike in market rates.

The Fed’s
balance sheet
tells us the total value of assets it holds. This value
jumped from a bit under a trillion dollars before Lehman failed to over 2
trillion. The number slowly increased until the pandemic hit in 2020. Then it
took an unprecedented 3 trillion leap as the Fed bought up buckets of junk
securities, sending the stock market soaring. As Leonard writes, the resources
from this bailout “went to large corporations that used borrowed money to buy
out their competitors; it went to the very richest of Americans who owned the
majority of assets; it went to the riskiest of financial speculators on Wall
Street, who use borrowed money to build fragile positions in global markets;
and it went to the very largest of U.S. banks, whose bigness and inability to
fail was now an article of faith.”

 The Fed’s balance sheet now stands at almost 9
trillion. That’s compared to US GDP of 23 trillion and national debt of 30

Today, as the pandemic eases, disruptions
of monopolized supply chains
are causing serious price inflation. The Fed
is trying again to raise rates a bit. If the Fed succeeds, higher rates will
undermine all those risky assets out there, including crypto Ponzi schemes and
the new real estate bubble. World financial markets may panic and crash. If the
Fed fails to raise rates, the US will become that much more hostage to the

A hundred and forty years ago,
American economist Henry George published his worldwide bestseller, Progress
and Poverty
. He argued that great civilizations carry the seeds of their
own destruction. As they prosper, they become ever more unequal and corrupt. In
the end they can no longer defend themselves from inside and outside enemies.
George proposed a solution: shift all taxes onto land. By this he meant not
only the land component of real estate, but all government-protected
monopolies. Today these would include monopolies like spectrum licenses,
geosynchronous orbits, and Big Tech. George’s ideas inspired the Progressive
Movement and the New Deal. The New Deal remedy applies as much today as then:
impose high progressive taxes, rein in the banks and other monopolies, and call
a debt jubilee for ordinary people.

* “By arbitrage” means by the
effect of comparison shopping. If the Fed drives up the price of short-term
bonds, some dealers will switch to buying longer-term bonds instead, driving up
their price too. The effect will ripple through the whole economy.

Source: dollarsandsense.org

About the author


Hi there, I am Amanda and I work as an editor at impactinvesting.ai;  if you are interested in my services, please reach me at amanda.impactinvesting.ai

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