Mises Daily Articles
The Fed's Swap Bailout of the Eurozone
On Tuesday, March 26, 2012, I was invited by Ron Paul and his staff to assist a meeting of the Domestic Monetary Policy and Technology Subcommittee of the House Committee on Financial Services. The title of the hearing was "Federal Reserve Aid to the Eurozone: Its Impact on the U.S. and the Dollar."
Unfortunately, Ben Bernanke had not come to the hearing, being busy with propaganda lectures in favor of the Fed. Instead, two of his colleagues, Mr. William C. Dudley (president and chief executive officer, Federal Reserve Bank of New York) and Dr. Steven B. Kamin (director, Division of International Finance, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System), showed up to answer the committee's questions on currency swaps with other central banks.
But why did European banks need help from the Fed in the first place? European banks had borrowed dollars short term in international wholesale markets and lent these dollars for the long term to US companies or households. The maturity mismatch is highly risky, because once a bank cannot renew its short-term debts it becomes illiquid.
We approached such a situation last year. European banks had been pressured by their governments to buy their governments' debts. Italian banks are loaded with Italian government bonds, Spanish banks with Spanish bonds and so on. As the sovereign-debt crisis increased once again in the summer of 2011 with governments short of collapsing, European banks had increasing difficulties renewing their short-term dollar loans. As the ECB can only print euros, not dollars, European banks got nervous. While US banks did not want to lend to European banks anymore, in September 2011, the Fed stepped in and bailed out European banks through currency swaps. Through the swaps, the Fed assumed its role as the international lender of last resort.
During the financial crisis between 2007 and 2009, the Fed had bailed out European banks mainly through direct loans to subsidiaries in the United States. In order to conceal the bailouts, the Fed now uses mainly currency swaps. In the swap, the Fed sells dollars to the ECB and buys them back later at the same price, receiving interests. This construction resembles a dollar loan to the ECB at about 0.6 percent (0.5 percent above the federal-funds rate). The ECB can then use these dollars to lend them to troubled European banks.
At the hearing the Fed officials did not deny the obvious: the bailout of European banks by the Fed. Rather, they claimed that the bailout was basically a free lunch for US taxpayers, as they would get an almost-risk-free benefit in the form of the interest on the swap.
Further, the Fed officials maintained that the bailout was necessary because a default of European banks would cause stress in financial markets. Through the interconnectivity of financial markets, US banks would get into problems; lending to US households and companies would be affected negatively.
Lastly, they made assurances that the Fed will end the swap-bailout policy once it becomes imprudent and the costs and risks of such a policy exceed the benefits for the US public.
Let's have a look at these startling arguments.
First, there ain't no such a thing as a free lunch; not even for the Fed, the ultimate money producer. Just remember that US banks did not want to lend to European banks, because they regarded it as too risky. Even the central-bank swap is not risk free. It is true that the Fed has locked in the exchange rate and expects to get back the same amount of dollars plus interest. Yet there remains counterparty risk: what if the ECB, goes bust? Then the creditors, including the Fed, will take over the ECB's assets. Creditors would receive assets such as Greek government bonds, or loans to Portuguese banks. These banks depend on ECB liquidity lines and are collateralized by bonds issued by the Portuguese government, which also depends on the ECB to support it.
In the end, the ECB balance sheet is backed to a large extent by bonds from insolvent governments that are only kept afloat thanks to the ECB's promises to keep printing money and the pledged support of German taxpayers.
While an ECB bankruptcy does not seem imminent, the ECB has increased its capital to make good for potential losses already back in 2010, and the Bundesbank increased its provisions for losses in 2011. In the mean time, the ECB has bought even more Greek government debt. The ECB is probably one of the most highly leveraged banks in history.
Of course, the Fed hopes that eurozone governments will always recapitalize the ECB if it is necessary, so that ultimately taxpayers return the dollars to the Fed. But what if Germany leaves the eurozone? While this is unlikely in the short term, the possibility exists for the long run. Then southern European governments will default on their debts — and take their banks and the ECB down with them. Then who will pay back dollar swaps to the Fed?
The swap is also no free lunch as opportunity costs are involved. By abstaining from producing dollars and lending them to the ECB, the US-dollar money supply would be smaller and backed by better-quality assets (not indirectly by Greek government bonds). The dollar production also implies a redistribution toward the first receivers of the new dollars, the ECB, European banks, and their borrowers (mainly irresponsible and insolvent governments) to the detriments of the last receivers, mainly US citizens, who are confronted with a debased dollar.
There are other opportunity costs. The Fed could have produced the same amount of dollars and not invested in the central-bank swaps. These swaps earn very low interest. Instead of the swaps, the Fed could have purchased other assets, like stocks of Apple or gold, which may rise more in value.
One cost of the swap operation acknowledged by the officials in the hearing is the moral hazard created. Banks and governments worldwide may expect that the Fed will come to save them, too, especially if they are well connected with the US financial system. So why be prudent?
The highest cost of the swaps, though, may be something else. Through the swaps, the Fed is helping the ECB to bail out European banks that finance insolvent and irresponsible governments. The Fed is indirectly bailing out countries like Greece, Portugal, and Spain, debasing the dollar. Thanks to the bailouts, the political project of the euro continues. Without the swaps, some European banks might have failed, and with them their sovereigns. Thanks to the swaps, the eurozone stays intact.
The project of the euro leads to an ever-increasing rescue fund, and gradually toward a fiscal union and more centralization. A European financial government and the European super state, which would most likely abolish tax competition in Europe, are on the horizon. The highest cost of the Fed policy, therefore, may be liberty in Europe.
The Fed officials also made clear that they think the swap arrangement benefits the US public by keeping stress away from US banks and financial markets. The Fed does not want stock markets to fall or interest rates to increase. For them, low interest rates are the panacea for all economic ills. However, having artificially low interest rates climb back to more normal levels is no disaster. Sustainable investments are always restricted by real savings. Lowering interest rates does not increase the amount of real savings at all. Moreover, an important feature of a market economy is that people take responsibility for their actions. If US banks have granted loans to European banks and governments, they should assume the losses from their risky behavior.
Finally, the Fed claims to be prudent. But how can the Fed know the point at which it is no longer prudent to bail out foreign banks? How can it know when the costs of the bailouts start to exceed the benefits to the US public? How can they know what is best for the United States? Interpersonal-utility comparisons are arbitrary. Thanks to the bailouts, some banks may win, some stock owners may win, but at the cost of liberty in Europe and to the detriment of dollar users. Moreover, bailouts produce moral hazards, crises, and losses for individuals in the future. Yet the Fed claims to know what to do: social engineering at its best — or, as Hayek would put it, a fatal conceit on the part of central (banking) planners.
In sum, the Fed has assumed the task of bailing out the financial industry and governments worldwide by debasing the dollar. Fed officials claim to know that the bailout-swaps are basically a free lunch for US taxpayers and a prudent thing to do. Thank God the world is in such good hands.