Rating Agencies Finally Drawing Fire They Richly Deserve — But Will They be Prosecuted?

“The Justice Department claims that the faulty projections were not simply naïveté, but rather a deliberate effort to produce inflated, fraudulent ratings. “The complaint asserts that S.& P. staff chose not to update computer programs because the changes would have led to harsher ratings, and a potential loss of business,” (e.s.)

“I was there. It is not possible that companies like S&P, Fitch and other rating agencies didn’t know how to do securities analysis — they invented it. The S&P Book was widely used as a shorthand method of evaluating a stock or bond for decades before I arrived on Wall Street. They were known and trusted for their data and their crunching of data. It isn’t possible that they wouldn’t know that the ratings were artificially inflated. They were only concerned with collecting fees and covering their behinds with “plausible deniability.”What they gave up was the their reputation for truth and clarity. Now they can’t be trusted.

And the same goes triple for the investment banks who brought those bogus mortgage bonds to market. Wall Street is a small place. Everyone but the customers and borrowers knew what was going on and everyone knew a huge bust was coming. If they knew and the regulators knew, why did they allow it play out when the warning signs were already clear in the early 2000’s.” Neil F Garfield, www.livinglies.me

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Editor’s Analysis: When you see movies like Too Big to Fail and read any of the hundreds of books published on the great recession, you must be left with a sense of outrage  and/or disappointment that our government and our major banks tacitly approved of the illegal activities undertaken by all the participants in what turned out to be a PONZI scheme covered over by a fraudulent scheme they called “Securitization.”

Despite some people raising the concern that the homeowners were hit hardest by the criminal enterprise, any concern for them vanished in the face of an invalid assumption by Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke that the economy would fail and society would fall apart if they didn’t bail out the banks. If anything, the behavior of the banks was the equivalent of NOT bailing them out because they never honored their part of the bargain — increasing the flow of capital into the economy through loans and investments. While that understanding should have been reduced to writing, it was obvious that the banks would lend out money with extra capital infused into their balance sheet. Except they didn’t.

And the world didn’t end, but there was chaos all over the world because the banks were and continue sitting on a bounty that has not been subject to any audit or accounting.

As I expected, the rating agencies are now being sued not for negligence but for intentionally skewing the ratings knowing that stable managed funds were restricted from investing in anything but the safest securities (meaning the highest rating from a qualified rating agency). It is the same story as the appraisers of real property who were pressured into inflating and then re-inflating the prices of property whose value was left far behind. Both the rating agencies and the appraisers who participated in this illicit scheme caved in to threats from Wall Street that they would never see any business again if they didn’t “play ball.”

The very structure and the actual movement of money and documents would tip off an amateur securities analyst. Starting with the premise of securitization and an understanding of how it works (easily obtained from numerous sources) any analysis would have revealed that something was wrong. Securities analysis is not just sitting at a desk crunching numbers. It is investigation.

Any investigation at random picking apart the loan deals, the diversion of title from the REMIC trusts, the diversion of money from the investors to a mega-account in which the investors’ money was indiscriminately commingled, thus avoiding the REMICs entirely, would lead to the inevitable conclusion that even the highest rated tranches and the highest rated bonds, were a complete sham. Indeed internal memos at S&P shows that it was well understood by all — they even made up a song about it.

The analysis by the people at S&P omitted key steps so they wouldn’t be accused of knowing what was going on. It is the same as the underwriting of the loans themselves where the underwriting process was reduced to a computer platform in which the aggregator approved the loan — not he originator — and the investment banker wired the funds for the loan on behalf of the Investors, but the documents showed that it was the originator, who was not allowed to touch any of the money funded for loans, whose name was placed on the note and mortgage. Why?

Any good analyst would have and several did ask why this was done. They got back a double-speak answer that would have resulted in an unrated or low-rated mortgage bond, with a footnote that the REMICs may never have been funded and that therefore without other sources of capital they could not possibly have purchased the loans. Which means of course that the REMICs named in foreclosures over the past 5-6 years.

Some of the best analysts on Wall Street saw at a glance that this was a PONZI scheme and a fraudulent play on the word “Securitization.” Simply tracing the parties to their real function would and still will reveal that all of them were acting in nominee capacities and not as true agents of the investors or participants in the securitization scheme.

And the nominees include but are not limited to the REMIC itself, the Trustee for the REMIC, the subservicer, the Master Servicer, the Depositor, the aggregator, the originator, and the law firms, foreclosure mills and companies like LPS and DOCX who sprung up with published price sheets on fabrication of documents and forgeries of of those documents to convince a court that the foreclosure was real and valid. The whole thing was a sham.

If I saw it at a glance after being out of Wall STreet for many years, you can bet that the new financial and securities analysts at the rating agencies also saw it. Instead they buried their true analysis behind a mountain of fabricated data that in itself was a nominee for the real data and then crunched the numbers in the way that the Wall Street firms dictated.

The fact that there were algorithms that took the world’s fastest computers a full weekend to process without the ability to audit the results should have and did in fact alert many people that the bogus mortgage bonds were unratable because there was no way to confirm their assumptions or their outcome.

The government is very close, now that it is moving in on the ratings companies. They are close to revealing that this was not excessive risk taking it was excessive taking — theft — and that the rating companies should lose their status as rating companies, the officers and analysts who signed off should be prosecuted, and the receiver appointed over the assets should claw back the excessive fees paid to the ratings companies from officers of the ratings companies and, following the yellow brick road, the CEO’s of the investment banks.

We have found out, thanks to the greed and deception practiced by the banks on officers at the highest level of your government what will happen if the credit markets free up without the TARP money being used to free up those markets. It isn’t pretty but it isn’t apocalypse either. The proof is in. The mega banks should be taken down piece by piece and their function should be spread out over a wide swath of more than 7,000 community banks, credit unions and savings and loan associations — all of whom have access to the utilities at SWIFT, VISA, MasterCard, check 21, and other forms of interbank electronic funds transfer.

If the administration really wants a correction and really wants to increase confidence in the marketplaces around the world and the financial system supporting those markets, then it MUST take the harshest action possible against the people and companies who engineered this world-wide crisis. Eventually the truth will all be out for everyone to see. Which side of history do we mean to be aligned — the bank oligopoly or a capitalist, free, democratic society.

BY WILLIAM ALDEN, DealBook NY TIMES

DOCUMENTS IN S.&P. CASE SHOW ALARM Documents included in the Justice Department’s lawsuit against Standard & Poor’s provide a glimpse at the company’s inner working in the run-up to the financial crisis. “Tensions appeared to be escalating inside the firm’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan as it publicly professed that its ratings were valid, even as the home loans bundled into mortgage-backed securities, or M.B.S., were failing at accelerating rates,” Mary Williams Walsh and Ron Nixon write in DealBook. “Together, the documents show a portrait of some executives pushing to water down the firm’s rating models in the hope of preserving market share and profits, while others expressed deep concerns about the poor performance of the securities and what they saw as a lowering of standards.”

Some of the documents also showed some of the snark among the rank-and-file over the impending crisis. One analyst in March 2007 borrowed from the Talking Heads, creating new lyrics to “Burning Down the House,” according to the complaint: “Subprime is boi-ling o-ver. Bringing down the house.” In a confidential memo reproduced in the complaint, one executive said: “This market is a wildly spinning top which is going to end badly.”

At the heart of the civil case are the computer models S.&P. used to rate complex mortgage securities. The Justice Department claims that the faulty projections were not simply naïveté, but rather a deliberate effort to produce inflated, fraudulent ratings. “The complaint asserts that S.& P. staff chose not to update computer programs because the changes would have led to harsher ratings, and a potential loss of business,” Peter Eavis writes. But S.&P., which says the lawsuit is without merit, disagrees with the government’s characterization of the models. Catherine J. Mathis, an S.& P. spokeswoman, said the Justice Department had not “shown actual adjustment to the models or other changes that were not analytically justified.”

Indeed, the government faces an uphill battle in making its case that S.&P. intentionally inflated ratings. “The government will have to prove that ratings were in fact faulty, and published intentionally so as to deceive investors in the securities. In response, S.& P. could simply argue that the company was just as blinded by the financial crisis as anyone else, and that questionable e-mails are simply the work of lower-level employees who were not involved in the decision-making,” Peter J. Henning and Steven M. Davidoff write. “Even if the Justice Department can prove the agency acted to deceive investors, it still has to deal with something lawyers call reliance. In other words, did investors rely on these ratings to make their decisions?”

R.B.S APPROACHES SETTLEMENT OVER RATE-RIGGING The Royal Bank of Scotland said on Wednesday that it was in advanced discussions with authorities on both side of the Atlantic over settling accusations that it manipulated Libor. “Although the settlements remain to be agreed, R.B.S. expects they will include the payment of significant penalties as well as certain other sanctions,” the bank said.

A settlement, which could be announced as soon as Wednesday, is expected to include a penalty of about 400 million pounds, or $626 million, according to several news reports. “As part of the anticipated deal, R.B.S.’s Japanese unit is expected to plead guilty to a crime in the U.S., although the Justice Department isn’t expected to charge any individuals, according to one of the people briefed on the talks,” The Wall Street Journal writes. John Hourican, the head of R.B.S.’s investment bank, is also expected to resign, the reports said.

S&P Analyst Joked of ‘Bringing Down the House’ Ahead of Collapse
http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-02-05/s-p-analyst-joked-of-bringing-down-the-house-ahead-of-collapse.html

Case Details Internal Tension at S.&P. Amid Subprime Problems
http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2013/02/05/case-details-internal-tension-at-s-p-amid-subprime-problems/

Justice Sues S&P, But What Purpose are Ratings Agencies Serving Anyway?
http://business.time.com/2013/02/06/justice-sues-sp-but-what-purpose-are-ratings-agencies-serving-anyway/

S&P charged with fraud in mortgage ratings
http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/02/06/rate-f06.html

Jeff Merkley, Oregon Senator Takes on the Banks

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Editor’s Notes:  

Hat Tip to Nancie Koerber, whose efforts in Oregon have achieved more traction than virtually any other group in the nation. I endorse this petition. Senator Jeff Merkley’s efforts could have national implications if we the people get on this drive and enforce it through petitions and letters. I have often said in my speaking engagements and in my meetings with politicians, that if they really want to win big, they should capitalize on the one common idea about which all sides of the political spectrum are in agreement: the Banks did this to us and we should stop them. This applies to all politicians — Democrat, Republican, Independent and minor parties. Any politician who fails to grasp this essential truth of the American psyche is putting their political career behind them, not in front of them.

There is a lot of anger out there which has not been focused or directed at any particular result. This petition basically seeks to re-establish the protection of bank deposits from the whims of bankers who want to gamble with what is left of their money. It’s not the same as Glass-Steagal but it seeks the same result.

This is not a theoretical argument. banks were allowed to be created so that people would have a safe place to keep their money and the banks were allowed to lend out a percentage of that money to make a profit and pay expenses. Banking was never intended to be a vehicle for paying $10 million bonuses at the expense of protected pension funds, homeowners and consumers.

Investment\

firms were allowed to exist because they created a marketplace in which access to capital was easier than without that marketplace. The purpose was to fuel an expanding economy. It was never intended that brokerage firms would be a vehicle for draining wealth out of the economy. The very fact that we have that result indicates that the current investment bank infrastructure needs to be revamped.

It’s like driving a car. When you turn the key you expect the car to start. When you step on the accelerator you expect the car to move. But none of that can happen if there is no gas in the tank to drive the engine that turns on when you turn the key and makes the engine work when you press the accelerator. Until Glass-Steagal was repealed, we had the right infrastructure, more or less, for capital creation and access to capital. Then the whole model was turned upside down and the wealth drained from the economy into the investment banks. Now the Banks want to keep it upside down, meaning their goal is no longer to provide capital but to take it, converting our capitalist society into a fascist society. Look up the terms and you’ll see what I mean.

It is all up to you. The Banks have legislators by the throats and law enforcement is all tangled up in politics and “Settlements” that prevent them from acting properly. In the Savings and Loan crisis in the 1980’s, similar behavior landed more than 800 people in jail. This time we have nothing because some of the behavior was made legal. The excuse for not prosecuting fraud, forgery, fabrication and false recording of false documents with false information in them is yet to be explained.

And the remedy for the 5 million foreclosures that have been “closed out” is not yet in public discourse. I intend to make it central to public discourse because the return of property or money to the victims of this heinous economic crime is essential to the recovery of our economy. Right now, the financial services sector accounts for about half of our reported Gross Domestic Product whereas thirty years ago it accounted for 16%. They have tripled their size and influence at the expense of real economic activity, which has been replaced by trading fabricated documents and declaring false profits.

For those of you who like the idea of slavery, keep voting with the politicians who remove restrictions from the banks’ activities. If you think slavery was not a good idea, then sign this petition and start a few of your own. The physical chains of our immoral history allowing and promoting the trading of people as property has been replaced by the trading of people as property through derivatives and other false instruments. The net result is the same. Changing the title from plantation owner to banker does little to expand the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. With an increasing number of people earning less out of our economic growth than any other time in history and replacing earnings with debt, we are now subject to a system of slavery that is enforced by the government.

Below is an email from your U.S. Senator, Jeff Merkley (D-OR). Sen. Merkley created a petition on SignOn.org, the nonprofit site that allows anyone to start their own online petition. If you have concerns or feedback about this petition, click here

Dear Oregon MoveOn member,

Bankers on Wall Street wrecked our economy by taking reckless risks in pursuit of massive paydays. And, as J.P. Morgan has made clear, Wall Street learned nothing and is still gambling.

If you agree that gambling should happen in hedge funds, not in the federally insured banks that families and small businesses depend on, click here to sign my petition: 

http://www.moveon.org/r?r=276552&id=44278-19313702-uxkpvGx&t=2

I successfully fought, with your help, for a ban on high-risk trading by big Wall Street banks. This rule, called the Volcker rule firewall, is meant to ensure that when Wall Street’s bad bets blow up, you and I don’t get burned again. But for the last two years, Wall Street’s legion of lobbyists have been trying to blow holes in that firewall.

Wall Street lobbyists want the Fed to write the J.P. Morgan loophole into law. We can’t let that happen. And with your help, we won’t.

Please add your name to my SignOn.org petition urging Ben Bernanke and the Fed to close down the JP Morgan loophole.

Thanks!

–U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR)

This petition was created on SignOn.org, the progressive, nonprofit petition site that will never sell your email address and will never promote a petition because someone paid us to. SignOn.org is sponsored by MoveOn Civic Action, which is not responsible for the contents of this or other petitions posted on the site

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Unemployment Continues Downward Drag on Housing — And it was Housing that Caused the recession

How Unemployment Is Dragging Down The Housing Market

The Huffington Post Lila Shapiro  First Posted: 03/25/11 02:35 PM Updated: 03/25/11 02:35 PM


Housing Unemployment

Although the United States population has grown by 120 million people in the past fifty-odd years, today’s new homes are selling at just half the pace they were in 1963.

Home sales are being dragged down by the weakness of the labor market and the number of Americans who have grown too discouraged to look for work, economists say. In previous recoveries, the housing market has sometimes buoyed the economy, creating new jobs and driving economic growth. This time, however, the housing market is now lagging behind.

Over at Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis, a new chart helps bring employment into the housing story by comparing the ratio of annual new home sales to the size of the civilian labor force. See the chart below.

The point is simple: while the working age population is steadily rising, the size of the labor force is actually shrinking. And those Americans who have grown so discouraged that they have given up looking for work — around 4.9 million as of last month — are unlikely to be in the market for a house.

With construction for new homes all but coming to a halt in February, Americans are on track to buy fewer new homes than in any year since the government began keeping data almost a half-century ago.

Mish lays out the problems, as he sees it:

• Those not in the labor force are not looking
• Those unemployed are not looking
• Those afraid of losing their job are not looking
• Those in a house and underwater are not looking
• Those just out of school and deep in school debt are not looking
• Those facing retirement may be looking to sell or downsize
• Mortgage standards are much tighter for those who are looking

Economists, however, are hard pressed to tie down the exact relationship between a slumping housing market and a weak labor market.

“It’s very hard to zero-in in that way,” said Bank of America-Merrill Lynch economist Michelle Meyer. “But one of the major components for why housing demand has remained very soft is because the labor market is very weak. And until we see that really changing, housing sales will continue to be soft.”

The more significant problem, for Meyer, is how these two factors taken together — housing and unemployment — indicate an economy still in trouble.

“When you think about new home sales, and housing specifically, that obviously ties to what share of Americans are participating in the labor force,” Meyer said. “But you can’t really say that because the labor force shrunk by X amount there is this many fewer homes needed. To me, it’s more of a signal that the fact that the labor force is weak. And that at this point in the recovery, people are still leaving the labor force — that signals to me that the fundamentals are soft.”

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has said that it will likely take five years for the unemployment rate to return to pre-recession levels, while a recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco concluded that the unemployment rate, now hovering around 9 percent, may never return to pre-recession levels.

Here is the chart from Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis, comparing annualized new home sales to the civilian labor force ratio, year over year. (Click image for more detail). More graphs over at Mish’s can be found here.

Reuters: Central Banks Worldwide: Past, Present And An Uncertain Future

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The farce of preserving the huge plume of vapor that was created by Wall Street is starting to come home to roost. Central Bankers, are in conflict and politicians are using their influence on what is now a highly politicized sector that SHOULD have been regulating and restricting. The “Too Big to Fail” banks are acting as if they won. Nothing has changed. Perhaps they are right.

The Fed is the ultimate regulator of financial institutions. It is part of the growing orthodoxy that the banks must be saved rather than restricted in their activities. It is a prescription for disaster. It won’t admit its ownership claim in the loans and mortgages, it hasn’t divulged the details of the mortgage bond purchases that would in turn reveal the fictitious nature of the entire securitization scheme that has been and will always be empty, and it has not uttered a word about the behavior of the banks because on a grand scale, it IS the banks.

Central Banks Global Policy

By Paul Carrel, Mark Felsenthal, Pedro da Costa, David Milliken and Alan Wheatley

FRANKFURT/WASHINGTON – On a warm, Lisbon day last May, Jean-Claude Trichet, the ice-cool president of the European Central Bank, was asked whether the bank would consider buying euro zone governments’ bonds in the open market.

“I would say we did not discuss this option,” Trichet told a news conference after a meeting of the ECB’s Governing Council. Four days later, the ECB announced that it would start buying bonds.

Trichet’s U-turn was part of an emergency package with euro zone leaders to stave off a crisis of confidence in the single currency. By reaching for its “nuclear option”, the ECB had also helped rewrite the manual of modern central banking.

That’s happened a lot over the past three years. Since the early days of the financial crisis in 2008, the European Central Bank, the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of England have all been forced to adopt policies that just a few years ago they would have dismissed as preposterous. And the Bank of Japan responded to the Sendai earthquake and tsunami by doubling its own asset-purchase programme, to keep the banking system of the world’s third-largest economy on an even keel.

For a generation, the accepted orthodoxy has been to focus on taming inflation. Financial stability has taken something of a back seat. Now, whether mandated to do so or not, western central banks have bought up sovereign debt to sustain the financial system, printed money by the truckload to stimulate their economies, sacrificed some of their independence to coordinate monetary policy more closely with fiscal decisions, and contemplated new ways of preventing asset bubbles. Some — such as Bank of England Governor Mervyn King — have joined wider political protests at commercial banks that are still behaving as if they are “too big to fail”, and as if being bailed out is just a hazard of business.

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In the measured world of central banking, it amounts to nothing short of a revolution. Otmar Issing, one of the euro’s founding fathers and a career-long monetarist hawk, told Reuters that in buying government bonds the ECB had “crossed the Rubicon”. The question now for the ECB — and for its counterparts in Britain, the United States and elsewhere — is what they’ll find on the other side.

EXTRAORDINARY CIRCUMSTANCES

Don Kohn, a former vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve, realized central banking was changing forever at a routine meeting of his peers in Basel, Switzerland, in March 2008. The shockwaves from the U.S. subprime mortgage meltdown had begun rocking banks around the world and Kohn, a 38-year veteran of the U.S. central bank, listened as one speaker after another described the fast-deteriorating economic conditions.

“It was terrible,” Kohn said. “One of the people at the meeting used the phrase, ‘It’s time to think about the unthinkable’.”
Kohn left the meeting early to return to Washington, but the line stuck in his head. He would use it a few days later to justify his support for a Federal Reserve decision to spend $29 billion to help J.P. Morgan buy investment bank Bear Stearns, which was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

That financial meltdown caused a credit crunch that triggered a severe recession and, in countries such as Greece, a sovereign debt crisis. After slashing interest rates practically to zero, central banks desperate to prevent a new global depression had no choice but to expand the volume of credit, rather than its price, by reaching for the money-printing solution known as “Quantitative Easing” (QE). In the eyes of critics, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was living up to his nickname of “Helicopter Ben” — a reference to a speech that he gave in 2002 in which he took a leaf out of the book of the renowned monetarist economist Milton Friedman and argued that the government ultimately had the capacity to quash deflation simply by printing money and dropping it from helicopters.

Until that point, the Fed was a lender of last resort for deposit-taking banks. By invoking obscure legislation from the Great Depression, it also became a backstop for practically any institution whose collapse could threaten the financial system. Kohn and others at the Bear Stearns meeting had just done the unthinkable.

“When the secretary of the (Fed) Board was reading off the proposals … my heart was racing,” Randall Kroszner, a Fed governor at the time, says of the decision.

An academic economist from the conservative, free market-oriented University of Chicago, Kroszner was instinctively against intervention. At the same time, he knew that a decision by the Fed to stay above the fray would trigger financial panic. Before the meeting Kroszner had chatted with Bernanke, another scholar of economic history, about a historic parallel in which financier J.P. Morgan — the person, not the company — opted against stepping in to save the Knickerbocker Trust, precipitating a financial panic in the first decade of the 20th century.

“I couldn’t believe that we were faced with these questions, and I couldn’t believe that I could support them,” Kroszner told Reuters in February. “In these extraordinary circumstances, it was very risky to just say no.”

By the time the $600 billion second round of quantitative easing wraps up in June, the central bank will have spent a staggering $2.3 trillion — more than 15 percent of GDP — buying bonds. It has also created new lending windows to channel funds to financial institutions and investors and expanded its financial safety net for everything from money market mutual funds to asset-backed securities and commercial paper. The Fed argues that its loans have been repaid without any cost to taxpayers, and that the beginning of a recovery in the U.S. economy and the fading of the threat of deflation, which gnawed at Bernanke, justify its bold improvisation.

But some experts, including a number of Fed officials themselves, believe the central bank is paying a big price. Some critics say the Fed’s open-ended provision of next-to-free money is encouraging more reckless risk-taking by banks and speculators. Others say the Fed has exceeded its remit and encroached on the turf of politicians. Some Republicans, in particular, want to curtail the Fed’s powers.

The United States has not been alone. In Britain, the Bank of England has run its own programme of quantitative easing, spending 200 billion pounds (about 14 percent of GDP) mostly on UK government securities, and has introduced a scheme for financial institutions to swap mortgage-backed securities for UK Treasury bills. The ECB took three main steps: adjusting its money market operations to offer unlimited amounts of funds, lowering standards on the collateral it accepts in such operations, and buying bonds. The bond buying, though amounting to 1.5 percent of euro zone GDP, is less radical than the Fed’s because the bank absorbs back the money that its purchases release. But its initiative is still highly controversial.

Issing, the ECB’s chief economist from 1998 to 2006, calls the bond-buying dangerous. But he also concedes that the problems of the past few years have required extreme measures. “It is difficult to justify within the context of the independence of the central bank,” says Issing. “But, on the other hand, the ECB was the only actor who could master the situation. What matters now is that it finalizes this programme and gets out.”

BLOWING UP THE ORTHODOXY

Central banks have historically often been subordinated to governments, but the high inflation and slow growth that followed the oil price shocks of the 1970s ushered in a relatively simple orthodoxy: their goal should be to keep inflation in check. Maintaining a slow and steady pace of price rises became the overriding aim of central bank policy, and independence from political pressures came to be seen as a pre-requisite for achieving this. Starting with New Zealand in 1989, central banks in more than 50 countries adopted explicit, public targets for inflation.

Western governments claimed this was responsible for the Great Moderation, a two-decade period of relatively stable growth in developed economies. It still has many proponents, but the credit crisis has made a mockery of that overriding simplicity, exposing serious flaws in how central banks defined their mission and operated. One flaw: they did little to prevent the build-up of the asset bubbles that triggered the financial crisis, such as the boom in U.S. subprime mortgages. Another: the obsession with inflation blinded them to dangerous trends in banking. After all, what is the point of keeping inflation low if lax lending and feckless financial supervision threaten to tip the economy into the abyss?
“The problem was not that the Fed lacked instructions to avoid a crisis,” says James Hamilton, a professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego and visiting scholar at the central bank on multiple occasions. “The problem was that the Fed lacked the foresight to see the crisis developing.”

Fed Chairman Bernanke doubts central banks can know for sure that an asset bubble has formed until after the event, and feels monetary policy is too blunt a tool to arrest any worrisome developments. At the same time Bernanke, former vice-chairman Kohn and others agree that the central bank might be able to employ broader tools to prevent asset prices from getting too frothy. For example, the Fed regulates margin requirements for buying equities with borrowed funds; it could use these to rein in a galloping stock market.

“The simplicities of extreme inflation targeting — which said if you meet your inflation target and keep inflation stable the rest of the economy would look after itself — have been blown apart,” Sir John Gieve, who was deputy governor at the Bank of England from 2006 to 2009, told Reuters. “The Bank’s objectives have become a lot more complicated. Some people have been quicker to realize this than others. If you talk to the Japanese, they would say they have been doing this for a while.”

ANY ANSWERS?

Could the Fed and its counterparts in Britain and Europe learn from Asian central banks, many of which limit the proportion of deposits that banks can extend as loans? Should they insist that a home buyer make a sizeable deposit when taking out a mortgage — a practice that might have tempered the U.S. housing bubble? Central banks in some emerging economies outside Asia already appear to be adopting such methods – known as ‘macroprudential’ steps – to complement traditional interest rate policy. Turkey has been raising commercial banks’ reserve ratios while simultaneously cutting interest rates, and Brazil signaled this month it would rely more on credit curbs and less on rate increases to fight inflation.

Or should they look closer to home, for example to the central banks of Australia and Canada? Both are inflation-targeters, but they sailed through the global crisis without having to resort to extreme measures. A history of conservative banking regulation in those countries meant they never faced severe credit problems.

“Prior to the crisis a lot more people were of the view that if it’s not broke don’t fix it,” said Dean Croushore, professor of economics at the University of Richmond in Virginia and a former economist at the Philadelphia Federal Reserve. “Policymakers didn’t react, particularly with respect to housing. Maybe being a bit more proactive is a good thing.”
Then again, some Republican lawmakers want the Fed, which has a dual mandate to keep inflation low and maximize employment, to focus exclusively on the first task. They contend that monetary policy is not the right tool to create jobs.
Buying up bonds and bailing out failing firms does indeed blur the boundaries between monetary and fiscal policy. Critically, it also suggests that supposedly autonomous central banks are doing the bidding of politicians.

“Things cannot change in a measured way,” said European Central Bank policy maker Axel Weber earlier this month. He is also head of Germany’s Bundesbank, but last month he stood down as a candidate to succeed Trichet at the ECB. His outspoken opposition to the bank’s bond-buying underlined the rift between the traditional approach to central banking and the political expediency born of the crisis. “There will have to be fundamental change … If institutions are too big to fail, they are too big to exist,” Weber said, echoing comments by King at the Bank of England.

MORE INTRUSIVE

The shift is already happening. “Bond investors are not facing a future change; they are living through a change,” said Gieve, the former Bank of England deputy governor. Inflation remains very important, and I have no doubt my colleagues at the Bank of England take it very seriously … But they are also aware of the need to stabilize the financial system. They need to get the economy on a sustainable growth track.”

Of course the Fed has never operated in a vacuum. Greenspan swiftly cut interest rates after the Black Monday stock market crash in October 1987 and again in September 1998, after the Fed had to organize a $3.5 billion rescue of LTCM, a big hedge fund. But some experts, including Stephen Roach, Morgan Stanley’s non-executive chairman in Asia, have long argued that an explicit financial stability mandate would force the Fed — and other banks — to pay closer attention to looming bubbles and weak links in the system rather than simply mopping the mess up later.

Legislators are giving central banks more powers to keep an eye on financial — as distinct from monetary or economic — trends. Academics have also broadened their reach in that direction, with the Federal Reserve’s prominent Jackson Hole conference last summer featuring a paper arguing that policymakers should pay closer attention to financial variables in their macroeconomic assessments.

That’s exactly the direction things are headed. Since the beginning of this year, ECB boss Trichet has chaired something called the European Systemic Risk Board (ESRB) — a body designed to take a bird’s eye view of Europe’s financial system and flag up emerging problems so the relevant authorities can act. In Britain, the government has decided to disband the Financial Services Authority and give the Bank of England the job of preventing any build-up of risk in the financial system, on top of its monetary policy role. And in the United States, newly enacted legislation gives the Fed a leading role in financial regulation as part of the Financial Stability Oversight Council.

“From a regulatory standpoint, we’ll be more aware and more intrusive in monitoring institutions that are systemically critical,” Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher told Reuters in an interview.

POLITICS, OF COURSE

With those expanded roles comes a greater need for central banks to explain their actions to citizens, markets and politicians alike. Investors will no longer be able to anticipate how policy makers will act just by tracking inflationary trends as they did for a generation before the Great Financial Crisis.

Bernanke made it a priority from the start of his tenure in 2006 to improve communications. He didn’t have to do much to improve upon his oracular and sometimes opaque predecessor, Alan Greenspan, who famously said, “if I turn out to be particularly clear, you’ve probably misunderstood what I’ve said.”

But the crisis exposed the Fed to withering fire. “It’s hard to maintain mystique when there have manifestly been a series of policy errors, not just at the Fed but in many branches of government,” says Maurice Obstfeld, a professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley.

Even harder, when the big central banks themselves have yet to work out how they will implement their new powers. The new rules in the United States, for instance, give regulators more leeway to wind down global financial institutions deemed too large to fail in case they touch off a catastrophic domino effect as loans are called in. But how that will work in practice remains to be seen.

“At the end of the day it comes down to whether or not the too-big-to-fail resolution mechanisms are robust. There’s still some thinking to be done on that,” David Altig, research director at the Atlanta Fed and a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, said in a telephone interview.

To judge by comments by Weber and King, that’s a big, unanswered, politically charged question. The BoE chief has been vocal in complaining that the concept of “too important to fail” has not been addressed, and that bankers continue to be driven by incentives to load up on risk.

Then there’s the fact that deciding which firm should live and which not is an intensely political process. Look no further than the furor over the U.S. authorities’ decision to bail out insurer AIG and car maker GM, but to let investment bank Lehman Brothers go to the wall months after arranging a rescue of Bear Stearns.

With an expanded awareness of their mandates, wouldn’t central banks be forced to take into account such dilemmas when they are setting interest rates?

“It’s a risk, but one has to be aware of the risk and to avoid it,” says Issing, the former ECB chief economist. “It’s macroeconomic supervision; it’s not micro control of individual banks. But if the European Systemic Risk Board identifies systemic risk, it must be solved with tools of regulation and not by lax monetary policy.”

A FACT OF LIFE

In truth, central banking, by its nature, has always been an intensely political enterprise. To pretend otherwise is naive. War, revolution, depression and calamity have always subjugated central banks to political necessity, and most are still state-owned. Like a country’s highest court, a central bank cannot — no matter how vaunted its independence — be unaware of the political and social mood. The Fed chairman and the U.S. Treasury secretary worked hand in glove during the financial crisis and have the freedom to discuss a range of topics when they meet informally every week.

The political nature of central banking was brought home last month when Weber decided to stand down early. He had judged that he did not have enough political support from the 17 members of the euro zone, and his relationship with German chancellor Angela Merkel was also rocky. He will hand over to Jens Weidmann, Merkel’s economic adviser. Critics of the appointment — and there is no shortage of them in a country that likes its central bankers tough and independent — worry that Weidmann will weaken the Bundesbank’s statutory freedom from political influence.

That misses the point completely, says David Marsh, co-chair of the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum, which brings together central banks, sovereign wealth funds and investors. Marsh says the launch of the euro in 1999 was a political act itself, one that has already led to a much more politicized regime of monetary management.

“The interplay with governments — whatever the statutes say about the supreme independence of the European Central Bank — is a fact of life,” he says. “The mistakes and miscalculations of the last 12 years show how monetary union has to be part of a more united political system in Europe. That is not loss of independence. That is political and economic reality.”

It is against this backdrop that Trichet’s apparent conversion on the road from Lisbon to Brussels last May must be seen.

Niels Thygesen, a member of the committee that prepared the outline of European Economic and Monetary Union in 1988-9, says the euro zone debt crisis forced the ECB to show some flexibility by agreeing to the bond-buying programme. “It is a departure relative to the original vision for the European Central Bank, which was supposed to be a bit isolated from dialogue with the political world,” he says. “On the other hand, I never thought that was quite a tenable situation.”

Thygesen, now a professor at the University of Copenhagen, said he did not particularly like the idea but acknowledged that the ECB might in fact have gained some clout by agreeing to the bond-buying plan. Trichet helped rally euro zone leaders into arranging standby funds and loan guarantees that could be tapped by governments in the currency bloc shut out of credit markets — relieving the ECB of some of the burden of crisis management. “It was part of a bargain and I’m sure Mr Trichet bargained very hard and in a way successfully,” says Thygesen. “The ECB has stood up well and gained substantial respect for its political clout in bringing about actions on the part of governments, which otherwise might not have taken place.”

LESSONS FROM JAPAN

It doesn’t always work out that way. Just ask the Bank of Japan.

The BOJ embarked on quantitative easing as far back as 2001. But a decade on, it has still failed to decisively banish the quasi-stagnation and deflation that has dogged Japan’s economy since the early 1990s. Only once in the past decade, in 2008, has Japan experienced inflation of more than 1 percent — the central bank’s benchmark for price stability.

When the global crisis hit, the BOJ revived a 2002 scheme to buy shares from banks and took a range of other unorthodox steps to support corporate financing. But its actions failed to placate critics who view it as too timid. Senior figures in the ruling party and opposition parties talk of watering down the BOJ’s independence and forcing it to adopt a rigid inflation target.

“The government tends to blame everything on the BOJ,” Kazumasa Iwata, a former BOJ deputy governor, told Reuters. Makoto Utsumi, a former vice finance minister for international affairs, defended the bank’s current set-up, saying it would be “absurd” and “unthinkable” for a developed country like Japan to make its central bank a handmaiden of the government.

The bank’s prompt response to the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami has since earned it widespread plaudits. The BOJ poured cash into the banking system, doubled its purchases of an array of financial assets and intervened in the foreign exchange market in coordination with the central banks of other rich nations to halt a surge in the yen that was hurting Japan’s exporting companies.

Charles Goodhart, a professor at the London School of Economics who was on the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee from 1997 to 2000, believes a measure of central bank independence can be preserved, even if cooperation with ministers is needed to keep the banking system stable. “I think trying to maintain the independent role of the central bank in interest rate setting remains a very good idea,” he told Reuters. “When it comes to financial stability issues, at any rate under certain circumstances and at certain times, there will have to be a greater involvement of the government.”
How to achieve that balance is the subject of a whole other debate. “None of this is going to be quite in the separate boxes it has been in the past,” says Gieve, the former Bank of England deputy governor. “If you have inappropriate monetary policy, all the macroprudential instruments in the world will find it very difficult to push water up hill.”

IMPORTING INFLATION

As if the political dimension was not enough of a headache, central bank rate-setters seem to be finding it harder to nail down the sources of the inflation they are tasked to fight. One reason is globalization.

Central banks have traditionally turned a blind eye to a one-off rise in prices stemming from, say, an increase in consumption taxes, a sharp drop in the exchange rate that boosts import costs or, as now, a spike in oil. As long as the price jolt does not change inflationary expectations or worm its way into the broader economy by prompting workers to ask for higher wages, policy makers have usually felt comfortable in keeping their eye on underlying cost pressures at home.

That remains the consensus, as demonstrated by the Bank of England, which has failed to keep inflation down to its 2 percent target for much of the past five years.

But in a world of integrated supply chains, can inflationary impulses be neatly attributed to either domestic or international forces? Does it now make sense, as some analysts argue, to estimate how much spare capacity there is globally, not locally?

The answers to those questions will have huge implications for monetary policy.

Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, one of six members of the ECB’s Executive, has warned that sharper rises in the prices of commodities and goods imported from emerging economies will push up euro zone inflation unless domestic prices are controlled. “A permanent and repeated increase in the prices of imported products will tend to impact on inflation in the advanced countries, including the euro area,” he said in Bologna in January.

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard admits the United States could not consider its own inflation outlook in complete isolation from the rest of the world.

“Perhaps global inflation will drive U.S. prices higher or cause other problems,” he told a business breakfast in Kentucky in February. The ties that bind global banks and the ease with which capital flows across borders mean that central banks have to be more aware than ever of the international consequences of their policy actions.

Because the dollar is the dominant world currency, the Fed came under widespread fire for its second round of bond buying. Critics in China and Brazil among others charged that dollars newly minted by the Fed would wash up on their shores, stoking inflation and pumping up asset prices.

“How do we conduct monetary policy in a globalised context?” asks Richard Fisher, the Dallas Fed president. “How do we regulate and supervise and develop our peripheral vision for those that we don’t supervise in a formal way, in a globalised context? Not easy.”

Structural shifts in the world economy also raise questions about how long central banks should give themselves to hit their inflation goals — further blurring the picture for investors.

“The central bank always has the choice of the time horizon over which it hits its inflation target,” Thygesen, the Copenhagen professor, said. “As the Bank of England is now learning, it may have to extend that horizon somewhat in particularly difficult circumstances. There may be good reasons for doing it, but that is where the element of discretion lies.”

The Bank of England expects inflation to remain above target this year before falling back in 2012. The ECB, which seeks medium-term price stability, is resigned to inflation remaining above its target of just below 2 percent for most of 2011. In the last 12 months, it stood at 2.3 percent.

It all adds up to a significant shift in the environment in which central banks operate. Policy-making is a whole lot more complicated. With a broader mandate for keeping the banking system safe comes increased political scrutiny. With fast-expanding export economies like China becoming price setters instead of price takers, offshore inflation and disinflation are of growing importance. If the rise in oil prices is due to increased demand from developing nations, for instance, can western central banks still play down ever-higher energy bills as transient?

That all means it will become tougher for central banks to preserve their most precious asset, credibility.

“Look at the ’90s and the early years of this century — central banks were at the peak of their reputation worldwide, and I was already saying at that time that we know from experience that the risk is highest when you are on top,” Issing says. “Central banks have to take care to restore their reputation, if it has been lost. I think this is a difficult situation for central banks worldwide.”

(Paul Carrel reported from Frankfurt, David Milliken from London and Mark Felsenthal and Pedro Nicolaci da Costa from Washington; Additional reporting by Rie Ishiguro in Tokyo; Writing by Alan Wheatley; Editing by Simon Robinson and Sara Ledwith)

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