Economy

Wanted: Fed Policy Focused on Jobs for Americans Instead of Profits for Banks

As the stock market rises, prospects for too many ordinary folks remain grim.

File photo shows members of the media reflected in the glass at the entrance to the JPMorgan Chase global headquarters on Park Avenue in New York pictured July 13, 2012

There is a prevailing, politically expedient myth that the Fed’s bond purchase programs are somehow akin to job fairs; as if there’s an economic umbilical cord stretching from a mortgage-backed security lying on the Fed’s books to a decent job becoming available in the heart of America. Yet, since the Fed began its unprecedented zero-interest rate and multi-trillion dollar bond-buying policies - the real beneficiaries have been the Big Six banks (that hold more than $500 billion of assets): JPM Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.

The Big Six banks’ stock prices have outperformed the Dow’s rise by a factor of more than TEN times, since early 2009. Moreover, low to zero percent interest rates on citizens’ savings accounts have catalyzed depositors, pensions, and mutual funds to buy more stocks to make up for low returns on bonds and money market instruments, further buoying the stock market.

Quantitative Easing ‘QE’ entails buying bonds, not creating jobs

No matter how many articles and politicians claim the Fed is buying Treasury and mortgage-backed securities (MBS) to help the a) economy or b)  unemployed, it isn’t true.

According to the Economic Policy Institute “the unemployment rate is vastly understating weakness in today’s labor market.” True, the official unemployment rate  (called ‘U-3’ on the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports) has inched downward from a high of 10% in early 2009 to 7%. But, that’s because people have dropped out of the hunt for jobs. The number of these ‘ workers’ as EPI calls them, has risen with the stock market’s rise; that’s not a sign of a healthier employment situation.

If those workers were still ‘participating’ in the employment-seeking crowd, the adjusted U-3 unemployment rate would have hovered between 10 and 11.8% since early 2009. It is currently at 10.3%. In other words, it’s still pretty damn high.

And that’s a more conservative estimate of unemployment than places like John Williams’ Shadowstats computes, which pegs the unemployment rate at Great Depression levels of just below 23%.

(The BLS’s estimate of the U-6 unemployment rate, which includes people who have briefly stopped looking (short-term discouraged or marginally attached workers) or found part-time rather than full time jobs, is at 13.2%. It has declined along with the official U-3 estimate, but does not account for the “missing” 5.7 million workers, either. Plus, the BLS long-term jobless figures have remained steady around 4 million people.)

Happy Hundredth Birthday Fed! (Bank to the bankers, not the people)

As I explore in greater detail in my upcoming book, All the Presidents’ Bankers, the Fed wasn’t created in the wake of the Panic of 1907 to help people find jobs. It was created to provide bankers a backstop to the pitfalls of risky bets gone wrong, and propel the US to a financial superpower position competitive with major European banks via supporting the US dollar.

As per its official summary in the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 (approaching its century anniversary on December 23, 2013), the Federal Reserve was formed to “provide for the establishment of Federal Reserve banks, to furnish an elastic currency, to afford means of rediscounting commercial paper, to establish a more effective supervision of banking in the United States, and for other purposes.”

Besides, if the Fed really wanted to make a dent in unemployment today, it could have spent the nearly $1.4 trillion it used to buy MBS to create 14 million jobs paying $100K or 28 million jobs paying $50k, or funded the small businesses that the big banks are not. Equating QE with employment illogically equates offering the biggest banks a  dumping ground for their securities with middle and lower class prosperity.

QE is ongoing because the Big Six still hold crappy mortgages and like trading

According to the latest New York Fed's quarterly trends report; the Big Six banks’ annualized trading income, as a percentage of trading assets, is higher than pre-crisis levels, whereas non-trading non-interest income as a percentage of total assets is lower. That means banks are making more money out of trading post-crisis than pre-crisis relative to other businesses.

In addition, total non-performing loans, as a percent of total loans, is 4.75% (from a 2009 high of 7.25%) for the Big Six. This figure remains more than double pre-crisis levels, and more than double that of the rest of the industry (i.e. the smaller banks).

Nearly 10% of the residential mortgage loans of the Big Six banks are non-performing. This is not very different from the 11% highs in 2009 (compared to smaller banks whose ratios are 3.5% vs. 6% in 2009). In other words, the Big Six banks still hold near record high levels of bad mortgages, and in higher concentrations than smaller banks. That’s why the Fed isn’t tapering, not because it’s waiting for a magic unemployment rate.

QE Propels Big Six Bank Stock Prices

Since the financial crisis, the Fed has amassed a $3.88 trillion book of securities, or quintupled the size of its pre-crisis book. As of December 2013, the Fed owns $1.44 trillion MBS, many purchased from its largest member banks, the ones engaged in settlements and litigations over the integrity of similar securities and loans within them.

Since the Fed announced QE3, a $40 billion extension asset purchases per month (over the then-prevailing limit of $45 billion) on September 13, 2012,

the Dow has jumped 19%. BUT meanwhile - the Big Six bank stocks are up on average 53.5% (JPM Chase is up 43%, Bank of America 74%, Goldman 42%, Citigroup 57%, Morgan Stanley 77% and Wells Fargo 27%.)

Since its March 2009 lows, the Dow is up 142%. BUT - the Big Six bank stocks are up on average 1042% or 10 times more than the Dow. (JPM Chase is up 258%, BofA 396%, Goldman 122%, Citigroup 4992% (it was trading close to a buck on March 6, 2009) Morgan Stanley 80%, and Wells 408%.) Yes, they were near death, but you can’t argue the Fed’s policy helped the broad economy as opposed to mega-disproportionally helping the banks. These numbers don’t lie. And help from the Fed won’t stop with a new Chair.

Yellen to the (bank) rescue?

In her statement to Obama on October 9, 2013, Janet Yellen said “thank you for giving me this opportunity to continue serving the Federal Reserve and carrying out its important work on behalf of the American people.”

A month later, she told the Senate Banking Committee, “It could be costly to fail to provide accommodation [to the market],” underscoring her support for quantitative easing and zero-interest rate monetary policy (and Big Six bank stock prices).

In its latest FOMC meeting release, the Fed reiterated, “the Committee decided to await more evidence that progress [in the economy] will be sustained before adjusting the pace of its purchases.” It says the same thing every month, with slightly different wording. Every time the market wobbles on ‘taper’ fears, it jumps back, because professionals know the Fed will keep on buying bonds, because that’s what the Big Six banks need it to do. To analyze taper-time, look at the banks’ mortgage book, not the unemployment rate.

Resolution Plans and Downgrading for the Wrong Reasons

On November 14, Moody’s downgraded 3 of the Big Six banks - Goldman, JPM Chase, and Morgan Stanley - and also Bank of New York a notch each because “there’s less likelihood in the future that these banks will be helped by the government” in a financial emergency. Moody’s has the downgrade right, but for the wrong reasons.

The big banks had to present ‘living wills” as the media calls them, or Dodd-Frank Title II required resolution strategies. They amount to the big banks selling whatever crap they own in an emergency and dumping whatever remains of their firms on the FDIC. 

I examined the plans submitted to the Fed on October 30.  They aren’t long. The ones for JPM Chase and Goldman Sachs, for instance, tally 31 pages each, of which 30 pages discuss their businesses and just one page - resolution strategy.

The FDIC basically would get the toxic stuff unsellable by the ‘troubled’ bank and place it in a newly established ‘bridge bank’ before the ‘troubled’ bank finds another buyer or declares bankruptcy. Which is exactly what happened with IndyMac and other banks that were ‘taken over’ by the FDIC and then resold to private equity and other firms.

If all else fails, each firm would undergo bankruptcy proceedings, in an “orderly” manner and “with minimum systemic disruption” and “without losses to taxpayers.”  Or so the process is characterized by JPM Chase and the others.

Goldman Sachs also waited until page 31 of 31 to present its main resolution idea, consisting of  “recapitalizing our two major broker-dealers, one in the U.S. and one in the U.K., and several other material entities, through the forgiveness of intercompany indebtedness...” This amounts to massaging inter-company numbers if things go haywire.

But banks oozing eloquences like “orderly market” or ‘minimum-disruption” bankruptcy and the reality being so, are two different things. Lehman Brothers tried most of these methods and still catalyzed a widespread economic meltdown. Bear Stearns didn’t declare bankruptcy, but the Fed and Treasury still conspired to guarantee its assets in a sale to JPM Chase. Technically, politicians and bankers argued no taxpayer money was used in that scenario because the guarantee wasn’t part of the TARP funds, but it was a government guarantee all the same so the distinctions amounts to splitting political hairs.

There is simply NOTHING NEW in these plans, no safety shield for the world. The problem remains that the FDIC can’t handle a systemic banking collapse, which is a threat that the Big Six banks, in all their insured-deposit-holding-glory still pose.

If all of the banks implode on the back of still existing co-dependent chains of derivatives or toxic assets or whatever the next calamity delivers, even if the Treasury Department doesn’t get Congress to pony up funds to purchase preferred shares in the big banks, and even if the FDIC creates bridge banks to take over trillions of dollars of bad assets - which it can’t afford to do, the Fed would simply enter QE-Turbo Mode.

It doesn’t matter if bankers and politicians don’t consider this a ‘taxpayer-backed’ bailout as per the lofty aspirations of a tepid Dodd-Frank Act. Because whatever subsidies are offered in that case, we will all still be screwed, and we will all pay in some manner. The Fed’s balance sheet and Treasury debt would bloat further. The cycle would continue.

Nomi Prins, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of six books, a speaker, and a distinguished senior fellow at the non-partisan public policy institute Demos. Her most recent book is All the Presidents' Bankers: The Hidden Alliances That Drive American Power (Nation Books). She is a former Wall Street executive.

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