August 24th, 2021

Legitimacy Gap

We live in the age of the central bank. The financial crisis of 2008 and the COVID-19 crash of last year have made visible the central role of the US Federal Reserve and its overseas counterparts in the international financial system, and their dramatic actions earned them applause for avoiding a second and third Great Depression. Rescuing banks and preventing financial collapse are the tasks of central banks, and their success brought relief to the economy. But these actions bore a distributional impact. Most of the financial policies adopted in response to the crisis—quantitative easing, bond purchases, and low interest rates—have protected wealth without creating opportunities to accrue new wealth for those who don’t possess it. As the “K-shaped“ charts of the 2020 recovery made plain, a market rebound did not spell economic wellbeing for ordinary people.

The outsize role of central banks—especially the Fed—in the international financial system has led to some of skepticism about central banks and their independence.

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June 24th, 2021

Preferred Shares

Inflation, wages, and the fifty-year crisis

In one of her first statements as Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen said that the United States faced “an economic crisis that has been building for fifty years.” The formulation is intriguing but enigmatic. The last half-century is piled so high with economic wreckage that it is not obvious how to name the long crisis, much less how to pull the fragments together into a narrative. One place to start is with the distribution of national income between labor and capital (or, looked at another way, between the wage share and the profit share of national income). About fifty years ago, the share of income going to labor began to decline, forming a statistical record of the epochal collapse of working class power. Episodes of high employment in the 1990s and the late 2010s did not reverse the long-term pattern. Even today, with a combination of easy money and fiscal stimulus unprecedented since World War II, it is unclear what it would take to reverse the trend in distribution.

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June 2nd, 2021

Risks and Crises

Market makers and risk managers after 2008

In the 1945 film It’s a Wonderful Life, banker protagonist George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) struggles to exchange his well-functioning loans for cash. He lacks convertibility—known as liquidity risk in modern finance—and so cannot pay impatient depositors. Like any traditional financial intermediary, Bailey seeks to transform short-term debts (deposits) into long-term assets (loans). In the eyes of traditional macroeconomics, a run on the bank could be prevented if Bailey had borrowed money from the Fed, and used the bank’s assets as collateral. In the late-nineteenth-century, British journalist Walter Bagehot argued that the Fed acts as a “lender of last resort,” injecting liquidity into the banking system. As long as a bank was perceived solvent, then, its access to the Fed’s credit facilities would be almost guaranteed. In an economy like the one in It's A Wonderful Life, the primary question was whether people could get their money out in the case of a crisis. And for a long time, Bagehot’s rule, “lend freely, against good collateral, but at a high rate,” maintained the Fed’s control over the money market and helped end banking panics and systemic banking crises.

This control evaporated on September 15, 2008, with Lehman Brothers’ collapse. On that day, an enormous spike in interbank lending rates was caused not by a run on a bank, but by the failure of an illiquid securities dealer.

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April 28th, 2021

Reconstruction Finance

Reconstructing the RFC

Like the world system as a whole, segregated cities in the United States have their own finance driven core-periphery dynamics. The world economy is structured by countries with competitive export sectors and trade surpluses, like Germany and China, who exhibit underconsumption and excess savings; the US's debt-fueled economy receives these savings through its domination of global financial markets. The dynamic strengthens the power of global finance at the expense of wages and living standards. And within the US, the allocation of credit and investment has exacerbated racial disparities and altered the municipal geography of debt. At the level of the city and the financial system, these developments warrant a powerful political response. But what form can that response take?

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October 1st, 2020

A Popular History of the Fed

On Populist programs and democratic central banking

Since Lehman collapsed in 2008, central banks have broken free of historical norms, channelling trillions into the banking system to prop up global finance and the savings of depositors from Germany to Hong Kong. The corona crash has only accelerated this emancipation. In April, the Bank of England helped the Johnson government finance an ambitious furlough scheme, while the European Central Bank stepped up their older quantitative easing program, pumping liquidity back into the bank sector. Swap lines by state banks have been set up in the United States, while the latest European recovery plan ratified an extension of the Pandemic Emergency Purchase program. Adam Tooze cast all of this as “a remarkable display of technocratic energy and imagination in western financial centers”—necessary to both “control the epidemic” and “restore the world economy.”

Amongst these institutions none possess as much luster as the American Federal Reserve. While other banks waver or bow to political leadership, the Federal Reserve’s action is swift and decisive, protecting against financial collapse at home while safeguarding assets abroad. Unsurprisingly, the Fed is often singled out as one of the greatest triumphs of capitalist statecraft, from its creation in 1913 under Woodrow Wilson to its decisive role in the neoliberal counterrevolution of the 1980s under Paul Volcker. Yet while the bank seemed deeply conservative for the intermittent period, its proactive capacity asserted itself with a vengeance in 2008, when Timothy Geithner’s New York Fed almost single-handedly saved the global financial system from collapse.

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