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Central Banks: Profligacy in Lockstep

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This article was originally published by Law&Liberty. 

The Swiss National Bank’s (SNB) financial statements for the nine months ending September 30, 2022, show a bottom-line loss of US$150 billion.1 A number to get your attention!

Under the strong financial discipline of its charter act, the SNB must mark its investments to market, and reflect any market value loss or profit in its income statement and capital account. From having capital of $221 billion at the end of 2021, the SNB’s capital has been reduced by 73% to $59 billion on September 30 due to falling market prices. Still, the SNB has a capital ratio—a bank’s equity to its total assets—over 6%.

In contrast, the Federal Reserve’s reported capital ratio, which does not reflect the Fed’s massive mark-to-market losses, is 0.5%. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, by far the largest of the Federal Reserve Banks, has a reported capital ratio of 0.3%—again not counting its market value losses. “It helps the credibility of the central bank to be well capitalized,” said the Vice Chairman of the SNB in October 2022. Presumably, the Fed does not agree.

With Swiss candor, the Chairman of the SNB observed, also in October 2022, that many central banks “brought down longer-term interest rates by buying government and corporate bonds. This increased central banks’ balance sheets and the risks they bear.” (italics added) They certainly did run up their risk, all together, and now the big risks they assumed are turning into losses all around the central bank club.

The Reserve Bank of Australia announced in September that losses on its investments caused its capital to drop to a negative $8 billion on June 30. Its Deputy Governor admitted that “If any commercial entity had negative equity… [it] would not be a going concern,” but maintained, “there are no going concern issues with a central bank in a country like Australia.” Nonetheless, it’s pretty embarrassing to have lost more than all of your capital.

The Bank of England joined “the club of major central banks showing negative net worth” if its investments are marked-to-market, Grant’s Interest Rate Observer reported. Thus far, the Bank has lost $230 billion on its bond investments, 33 times the Bank’s capital of $7 billion as of February 2022, its fiscal year-end. Fortunately for the Bank, it has an indemnity from His Majesty’s Treasury—that is, the taxpayers—to cover the losses. “I am happy to reaffirm…that any future losses incurred by the Asset Purchase Fund will be met in full by the Government,” wrote a Chancellor of the Exchequer. In July 2022 the Financial Times summed it up: “With an indemnity provided by HM Treasury the Bank of England need not fret.” But should the taxpayers who bear the loss fret?

The Bank of Canada carries most of its investments at market value, and its financial statements reflect market value losses of $26 billion as of November 2022. These mark-to-market losses would render the bank’s capital negative were it not for a formal indemnity agreement it has with the Government of Canada. The Canadian government has contractually agreed to make up any realized losses on the Bank’s bond purchase programs. That’s a good thing for the Canadian central bank, since its capital ratio is only 0.1%.

While the Bank of Canada’s financial statements do show that its investment losses put the taxpayers at risk, you have to read the financial statement footnotes carefully to understand what the accounting means. The Bank carries an asset called “Derivatives: Indemnity agreements with the Government of Canada.” This asset is the amount that the government is on the hook for—in other words, it equals $26 billion in mark-to-market losses. Since the Bank’s total reported capital is only about $0.5 billion, the real capital of the Bank is its claim on Canadian taxpayers to reimburse its losses.

Now having created the same risks together, the world’s central banks are suffering big losses together.

The European Central Bank (ECB) has assets of over $9 trillion and a capital ratio of 1.3%. How do its mark-to-market losses compare to its $119 billion in capital? It’s hard to tell, but a German banking colleague wrote us, “ECB is not really transparent, [but] you can guess… Expect price losses in its portfolio of about $800 billion.” If his informed guess is accurate, the ECB has negative capital of about $680 billion on a mark-to-market basis. As our colleague also pointed out, many of the ECB’s investments are low-quality sovereign bonds. It will be interesting indeed to see how these ECB problems play out.

In September, the Governor of the Dutch central bank, De Nederlandsche Bank (DNB), formally wrote to the Ministry of Finance to discuss the Bank’s looming losses, and how “a situation may arise in which the DNB is faced with negative capital.” This is without considering the mark-to-market of its bond portfolio, because the DNB uses accounting conventions, like the Federal Reserve, that do not recognize mark-to-market losses on its QE investments.

“In an extreme case,” the letter continued, “a capital contribution from the shareholder may be necessary.” The sole shareholder is the Dutch government, so once again the cost would be transferred to the taxpayers.

In this unattractive situation the DNB has plenty of company: “All central banks implementing purchase programs, both in the euro area and beyond, are facing these negative consequences,” the Governor observed, adding that these included the Federal Reserve, the Swedish Riksbank, and the Bank of England.

Then, in an October television interview, the Governor brought up the old-fashioned idea of gold. The DNB’s negative capital problem could be ameliorated or avoided he said, by counting as capital the large unrealized profit on its gold. The Bank does mark its 19.7 million ounces of gold to market but keeps the appreciation in a separate $33 billion accounting “reserve,” which is not included in its capital account.

Although it is against the current rules of the Euro system, it would make perfect sense to include the market value of the gold when calculating the DNB’s capital, as the Swiss National Bank does. (This idea would not help the Federal Reserve, because it owns no gold.) It is no small irony that, to bolster their capital, modern fiat currency central banks would consider turning to the value of the “barbarous relic” of gold, against which their own currencies have over time so greatly depreciated.

Coming to the world’s leading central bank, the mark-to-market loss on the Federal Reserve’s investments, as we have previously written, is huge—estimated at a remarkable $1.3 trillion loss as of October 2022. This is 30 times the Fed’s total capital of $42 billion. More immediately pressing, the Fed is now running operating losses that it does recognize in its profit and loss statement of $1 billion or more a week, or annualized losses of $50 to $60 billion. Not counting the mark-to-market losses on its investments, the Fed’s operating losses at this rate will exceed its capital in less than a year.

Complicating the problem, the shares of the Federal Reserve Banks are owned not by the government, but by Fed member commercial banks. Under the Federal Reserve Act, the Fed’s shareholders are required to be assessed for a portion of any losses, but the Fed has thus far seemed to ignore the law and is sharing its operating losses with the taxpayers instead.

“Major central banks tend to move together,” as economist Gary Shilling pointed out recently. We believe this is because the major central banks are a coordinating elite club. They do not and cannot know the financial and economic future, and they must act based on highly unreliable forecasts. They face, and know they face, deep and fundamental uncertainty. Under these circumstances, intellectual and behavioral herding is natural and to be expected. Now having created the same risks together, they are suffering big losses together. In many cases, the accumulating losses will exceed central bank capital and be borne by the taxpayers.

  • 1. All currencies have been translated to US dollars at mid-November exchange rates.
Authors:

Alex J. Pollock

Alex J. Pollock is a Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute, and is the co-author of Surprised Again! — The Covid Crisis and the New Market Bubble (2022). Previously he served as the Principal Deputy Director of the Office of Financial Research in the U.S. Treasury Department (2019-2021), Distinguished Senior Fellow at the R Street Institute (2015-2019 and 2021), Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (2004-2015), and President and CEO, Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago (1991-2004). He is the author of Finance and Philosophy—Why We’re Always Surprised (2018) and Boom and Bust: Financial Cycles and Human Prosperity (2011), as well as numerous articles and Congressional testimony. Pollock is a graduate of Williams College, the University of Chicago, and Princeton University.  His professional and academic work is available on his website.

Paul H. Kupiec

Paul H. Kupiec is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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