Tag Archives: Federal Reserve System

Alexander Hamilton Supports Auditing the Federal Reserve

The Republican Party may add the call for an audit of the Fed to its party platform. Bloomberg.com reports:

Republicans are considering including a plank in their party platform calling for a full audit of the central bank.

Prodded by the failed primary bid of longtime Fed critic Ron Paul — and the grassroots enthusiasm the Texas congressman’s cause inspired among bail-out weary Tea Party activists and small government advocates — Republicans are entertaining a prospect that has long made them and some of their financial supporters cringe.

Paul, in an interview, warned that if Romney’s backers resist the effort, it could result in a politically distracting and messy fight in front of the national media. “It’s good economics and it’s good legislation, but it’s also good politics, because 80 percent of the American people agree with it,” Paul said. If Republican leaders “exclude it, I would think some of my supporters would be annoyed and feel strongly enough to take it to the floor under the rules.”

When Congress established the First Bank of the United States in 1791 at Alexander Hamilton’s recommendation, the Treasury Department was given the power to inspect the bank’s books at any time. Furthermore, while the Treasury oversaw the First Bank of the United States, the House of Representative repeatedly audited Hamilton and the Treasury Department, each time finding nothing wrong.

While it is important for the Federal Reserve to be independent, just as the First Bank of the United States was independent, this powerful government-created institution needs oversight. All publicly-traded corporations are audited by CPAs and federal government agencies are  audited  by the General Accounting Office. The Federal Reserve should be bound by rules similar to those established for government agencies and public corporation.

If we are to have a government-granted monopoly over money printing (something the Founders would have opposed), it should at least be subject to the principles of checks and balances that our Founding Fathers held so dear. A regular audit of the quasi-government agency known as the Federal Reserve is something the Founders would have supported to prevent the accumulation and misuse of power.

Alexander Hamilton’s Treasury Department had oversight over the First Bank of the United States. Today’s Treasury and Congress should have similar oversight over today’s central bank, which is much more powerful than the national bank of 200 years ago.

New bank fees the result of Fed policies

We all remember Bank of America’s recent attempt to initiate a debit card fee of $5. It failed because of bad publicity. However, BofA and the other banks are not giving up. The New York Times reported yesterday:

Banks Quietly Ramping Up Costs to Consumers

Even as Bank of America and other major lenders back away from charging customers to use their debit cards, many banks have been quietly imposing other new fees.

Need to replace a lost debit card? Bank of America now charges $5 — or $20 for rush delivery.

Deposit money with a mobile phone? At U.S. Bancorp, it is now 50 cents a check.

Want cash wired to your account? Starting in December, that will cost $15 for each incoming domestic payment at TD Bank. Facing a reaction from an angry public and heightened scrutiny from regulators, banks are turning to all sorts of fees that fly under the radar. Everything, it seems, has a price.

“Banks tried the in-your-face fee with debit cards, and consumers said enough,” said Alex Matjanec, a co-founder of MyBankTracker.com. “What most people don’t realize is that they have been adding new charges or taking fees that have always existed and increased them, or are making them harder to avoid.”

Banks can still earn a profit on most checking accounts. But they are under intense pressure to make up an estimated $12 billion a year of income that vanished with the passage of rules curbing lucrative overdraft charges and lowering debit card swipe fees. In addition, with lending at anemic levels and interest rates close to zero, banks are struggling to find attractive places to lend or invest all the deposits they hold. That poses another $8 billion drag.

Put another way, banks would need to recoup, on average, between $15 and $20 a month from each depositor just to earn what they did in the past, according to an analysis of the interest rate and regulatory changes on checking accounts by Oliver Wyman, a financial consulting firm.

For consumers, the result is a quiet creep of new charges and higher fees for everything from cash withdrawals at ATMs to wire payments, paper statements and in some cases, even the overdraft charges that lawmakers hoped to ratchet down. What is more, banks are raising minimum account balances and adding other new requirements so that it is harder for customers to qualify for fee waivers.

…read the rest of the story here…

While consumer blame the “greedy” banks and Occupy Wall Street whines and complains about how this is another example of the one percent sticking it to the ninety-nine percent, this is really a story of government policies. As mentioned in the article, the banks “are under intense pressure to make up an estimated $12 billion a year of income that vanished with the passage of rules curbing lucrative overdraft charges and lowering debit card swipe fees. In addition, with lending at anemic levels and interest rates close to zero, banks are struggling to find attractive places to lend or invest all the deposits they hold. That poses another $8 billion drag.”

The first change–new rules on overdraft and debit card swipe fees–come straight from new government regulations. The latter–low interest rates–come from the Federal Reserve. I will focus on how low interest rates hurt banks and consumers because it is not easily observed.

Interest rates near zero give banks little room to make money. In the good old days, banks would take deposits and use the proceeds to lend or buy bonds. Just a few years ago, banks could easily buy short-term debt yielding two or three percent. Now, it earns less than one percent. Banks today could choose to take on risk and earn about four percent lending money to a home buyer, if it can find a credit-worthy borrower. Just a few years ago, mortgages yield seven or eight percent. The spreads banks earn have clearly declined, giving them less opportunity to earn a profit or even to cover expenses.

Look at money market funds, for example. With the government’s 3-month T-bill yielding 0.01 percent, money markets that invest in those securities lose money even when it pays no interest because of fund expenses. Even the 3-month interbank rate at 0.46% makes it difficult for money markets investing in commercial paper to earn a profit.

Normally, banks make money using the risk spread or the time spread. With the risk spread, banks borrow cheaply and lend to riskier clients, booking a profit on the risk taking. With the time spread, banks pay out lower short-term interest rates and collect higher long-term interest rates. With the current environment of low rates all around–a result of deliberate Federal Reserve policies–earning a profit in normal banking operations has become impossible. Instead, the banks are forced to initiate or raise fees.

Of course, the government loves this. The government creates this problems, consumers blame the banks for the new fees, and then the government steps in to further regulate the banks. Government creates the problems without taking the blame, then solves it and takes all the credit.

– Michael E. Newton is the author of the highly acclaimed The Path to Tyranny: A History of Free Society’s Descent into Tyranny. His newest book, Angry Mobs and Founding Fathers: The Fight for Control of the American Revolution, was released by Eleftheria Publishing in July.

Schooling Ben Bernanke on the merits of gold

Yesterday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke got all confused when asked whether gold is money and why central banks hold gold instead of diamonds. Watch the last 32 seconds of this youtube clip:

I know I am not the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, but at least I’ve heard about fungibility. Heck, even wikipedia mentions:

Diamonds are not fungible because diamonds’ varying cuts, colors, grades, and sizes make it difficult to find many diamonds with the same cut, color, grade, and size.

In contrast to diamonds, gold coins of the same grade and weight are fungible, as well as liquid.

If the Fed Chairman needs more information about why gold is money, he should google “why gold is money.” Now, I just need a good answer as to why pieces of paper with pictures of Presidents on them are considered money.

Federal Reserve discovers that paying people not to work equals fewer people working.

In case you didn’t know, the Chicago Fed reports:

A research paper published by the Chicago Fed has concluded that extra jobless benefits — unemployed workers can now get up to 99 weeks of benefits — may be contributing up to 0.8 percentage points to the current unemployment rate, which was 9% in January. The Chicago Fed paper said the extra benefits may still be worthwhile, given that in their absence workers may be forced to take jobs that represent poor matches for their skill levels. Also on Thursday, Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota said the natural rate of unemployment — basically, the smallest rate of unemployment that won’t lift inflation — ranges between 5.9% and 8.9%.

For those who are not economically literate, let me summarize: If the government pays people not to work, fewer people will work.

I don’t know why the Fed had to do a study to determine that. Maybe they were just trying to figure out not if it had an effect but how large the effect is. Or maybe it was just a study devised to keep a few economics employed during the recession.

What I really don’t understand is this line:

The Chicago Fed paper said the extra benefits may still be worthwhile, given that in their absence workers may be forced to take jobs that represent poor matches for their skill levels.

So the Chicago Fed thinks it is better to have people sitting around doing nothing rather than do a job below their current skill level? These people really do live in ivory towers.

Boston Fed President invents new 1984-style system of economics.

Fed’s Rosengren: Higher gas prices may hurt growth:

Rising energy prices are a concern not that they will lead to higher inflation but that they will subtract from household income and thus weaken the economy, said Eric Rosengren, the president of the Boston Federal Reserve Bank on Friday. Rosengren said the lasting effect on energy prices on overall inflation “has been surprisingly small in recent years.” The surge in oil prices in mid-2008 were followed by significant declines in core inflation, he noted. Rosengren said the Fed’s innovative monetary policy has not been inflationary. “It has been more than two years since the Fed’s balance sheet expanded dramatically. Sine that time core inflation has fallen to something like 50 year lows, he said. Rosengren is not a voting FOMC member this year. He spoke to an event hosted by the Connecticut Mortgage Bankers Association.

Maybe Mr. Rosengren can explain to me how rising oil prices leads to falling household income? Spending money on oil is spending, obviously, not a change in income. I assume he meant that the rising prices eats up a larger portion of household income; in other words, non-discretionary spending rises. But there’s a term for this phenomenon of rising prices: INFLATION.

Trying to give the Fed President the benefit of the doubt, I thought maybe the article was misconstruing what he said. So I searched Google and found his actual words:

My primary concern about rising energy prices is not so much that they will lead to higher inflation, but that they will subtract from household income and thus weaken the economy.

Apparently, we live in a new economic reality. In the new economics, rising prices weaken the economy (by somehow hurting “household income” but I assume he meant income available for discretionary spending) but does not lead to inflation. Get that? I admit, this new economics is confusing so here it is in simple English: rising prices cause deflation or, at the least, disinflation.

We really are living in George Orwell’s 1984. “WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.” And now, INFLATION IS DEFLATION.

Deflation bad for government, not so much for you and me.

According to Marketwatch, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned against deflation:

He also said the risk of deflation, a steady decline in prices and wages, remained a threat.

He stressed to the Senate panel that deflation would increase debt burdens and lower living standards.

If prices and wages declined at the same rate, how would that hurt us? We’d make less, but our expenses would go down. Yes, it would hurt somebody in debt, but it would help the person holding that debt, i.e. savers.

Now, who would get hurt the most? Who owes the most money of anybody? THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT.

What the Federal Reserve fears is the real value of the government’s debt increasing, making it harder to pay back. Furthermore, in a deflationary environment, the Fed would lose its ability to keep rates low and inflate the money supply. How so? Currently, if inflation is about zero, the Fed can keep interest rates near zero as well. But if we have deflation of two percent, the Fed can’t really lower rates below zero, so the inflation adjusted interest rates would be two percent. In effect, the government will be paying a two percent interest rate, increasing its deficit and expanding the debt, and the Fed will lose control of interest rate policy.

Currency devaluation’s effect on the markets and the importance of diversification

With commodities rallying across the board this year (most are up between 20% and 100%), copper is at an all-time high, palladium at a 10-year high, oil near its two-year highs, and the Treasuries falling, traders are obviously look for real assets.

The realest assets are commodities, but behind those are shares in companies that produce real goods and earn real profits. We tend to look at those profits in Dollar terms, but they really aren’t. A company making a 10% margin is making a 10% margin in the goods it sells, not in Dollars. In other words, a company could sell 90% of its goods to breakeven and hold the other 10% of the goods produced as profit instead of converting it into Dollars. Or that extra 10% could be converted into gold, silver, or whatever it wants, as long as it has a place to store the profits. Therefore, as long as a company continues to sell, the devaluation of currencies should affect it less than non-performing assets, such as Treasuries which will get hit by rising interest rates and inflation.

Actually, stocks tend to do well during periods of inflation, as long as the economy does well too. If a company’s costs rise, it simply passes along all or most of that to its customers. So if costs rise 10%, a company raises its selling price by the same amount to maintain its margin. As long as all countries experience the same inflation, there will little effect on the company. If we are seeing a worldwide currency devaluation, as I believe, stocks should rise as long as the economy holds up. Of course, commodities will likely do best, but stocks won’t be far behind. They’ll continue to earn a real rate of return of 4% to 7% or so. Bonds though will get double hit by rising interest rates and devaluation. Buying a bond yielding 4% today will yield a negative return if inflation exceeds that amount. And rising interest rates will reduce the Present Value of the bond too.

I would add a major caveat to all this: there is a chance of a major economic decline. With government’s deep in debt and many cutting back, the economy could suffer. Whether we see sub-par growth for the next generation or a double-dip recession remains to be seen. But if this economic decline occurs, stocks will get hit, of course. Commodities will also fall. Industrial commodities, such as copper and oil, may do even worse than stocks while precious metals will hold up better, but they too are likely to decline as they did during the 2008 market crash.

I’m not an economic adviser, but I always recommend diversification. Unless you have a lot of time to spend analyzing the market and become very good at it, chances are you won’t be able to “beat the market.” In fact, even the experts have a hard doing so and, statistically speaking, it has not been proven that anybody can beat the market (those that appear to do so may just be black swans). So own some stocks, some bonds, some commodities, and hold some cash. How much in each depends on your age and risk tolerance. You will not make a killing by diversifying, but in this political and economic environment, protecting your money is paramount. And with the future so uncertain, diversification is the only way to be sure your wealth won’t disappear in a market crash or rally, if governments go bankrupt or become solvent, or if the economy strengthens or weakens. No single investment will perform well in all the possible situations. Remember gold’s decline in 2008 or the larger decline from 1981 to 1998. Cash could be eaten up by inflation. Treasuries by rising interest rates. Stocks by an economic decline. But it is very unlikely that all four will decline together.

For example, learn more about Harry Browne’s Permanent Portfolio. I don’t necessarily recommend his portfolio as is. Much depends on your age and risk tolerance and ability to purchase these funds/instruments. But it certainly gives you a clearer picture of the importance of diversification.