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Amid the clamor over the crisis on Wall Street, the U.S. Treasury’s $700 billion Troubled Asset Rescue Program, or “TARP,” bill and the evolving collapse of the global banking system, little attention has been paid to the extraordinary credit extensions at the Federal Reserve. But these are now without parallel in Fed history, including during the Great Depression. In the last three weeks, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, with the help of Treasury Sec. Henry Paulson Jr., has increased the Fed’s credit extensions by $650 billion — roughly the same amount as the TARP. Taken together with the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac bailouts, new Fed credits in just the last month or so now amount to some $1.6 trillion. Here’s how they did it. Illustration by: Matt Mahurin Illustration by: Matt Mahurin The Fed, to begin with, is a bank. Like other banks, it makes loans and investments, which are its “assets.” It finances them by taking deposits, mostly from its member banks, and raising capital, its “liabilities.” In the normal case, almost all its assets are loans to the government, or Treasury bills, notes and bonds; while its primary liabilities are its own debt certificates. You’ve seen the Fed’s debt certificates; they’re green and carry the legend “Federal Reserve Note.” In other words, money. The Fed’s role in the economy is to stabilize the money supply so it is neither too plentiful, which can generate inflation, nor too scarce. It does so largely by manipulating the rate of interest that banks charge each other for overnight loans, the “Fed Funds” rate. If the Fed issues more currency to buy Treasuries from its member banks, banks become more liquid and the Fed Funds rate should fall; and vice-versa.
The first attempt, in December, 2007, was appropriately cautious — it was relatively small and short-term; open only to Federal Reserve system member banks, and circumspect on acceptable securities. But step-by-step, he expanded the eligible borrowers from member banks to broker-dealers, then to AIG, an insurance company, and, most recently, directly to major corporations, mostly on an unsecured basis. At the same time, Bernanke greatly increased the volume and the range of targeted securities he would lend against, to include “investment-grade” (translation: “anything not junk”) CDOs.
The Fed’s weekly balance sheet has evolved into a fever-chart of Bernanke’s interventions. Start with the balance sheet of a year ago, in October, 2007. Total Fed assets were $890 billion, of which $780 billion comprised Treasuries, with the balance scattered among gold certificates, physical plant and other miscellany — or roughly the size it had been for several years.
Now jump ahead to the balance Sheet from last week. The Fed’s assets have swelled to $1.6 trillion, an increase of 80 percent. But only $265 billion are Treasuries actually held at the Fed. The rest are a mélange of god-knows-what instruments vacuumed up from banks and investment banks.
There are $149 billion in dicey securities exchanged for Treasuries in bi-weekly auctions; “Other Loans,” to the tune of $420 billion (all we know is that it includes the credit extension to AIG, which has climbed to about $100 billion); a special $29-billion line for Bear Stearns, and $145 billion in direct lending to companies. There is also $325 billion in “Other Assets” — probably mostly dollars for foreign central banks to help local banks choking on dollar-based CDOs and other poison apples from America.
The total lending expansion, therefore, was about $700 billion, with about $650 billion in just three weeks since Paulson and Bernanke proposed what became TARP to purchase banks’ bad assets, or otherwise provide them with new equity.
In other words, even as academics and Congress agonized over TARP, Bernanke and Paulson had already pumped out roughly that amount of money — without so much as asking for a by-your-leave. Paulson even engineered a special $400-billion Treasury borrowing program -– i.e., increased the federal debt — to supply part of the extra cash needed to support Bernanke’s lending.