Not long ago, the CMFA staff and I were preparing to officially launch The Menace of Fiscal QE, my book aimed at countering efforts to have the Fed undertake or otherwise fund off-budget government spending programs.
Then came the crisis. Of course our plans were dashed. But so, I feared, were my hopes of having people take the message of Menace seriously. "Who now," I wondered, "wants to hear about the need to respect policy boundaries? More likely the hue-and-cry will be, 'Let's pull all the stops: boundaries be damned!'"
And so it has come to pass, in some quarters at least. Thus Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Chair of the House Committee on Financial Services (D-CA), declared on March 16th:
This is in many ways an unprecedented crisis which calls for extraordinary federal response. Unfortunately, the Fed appears to be using its old playbook in trying to calm funding markets by flooding them with liquidity. During this time of economic turbulence, it is critical that the Fed go beyond these steps and provide much-needed support to those who are on the front lines of this pandemic. …While Congress works on a bold, fiscal stimulus package to help these individuals, I call on the Fed to reevaluate its response and work creatively to address the needs of everyday Americans.
Some experts, in the meantime, are recommending that the Fed resort to "helicopter money." Jordi Gali, for example, suggests that it and other central banks finance emergency spending programs by simply crediting their governments' accounts:
That credit would not be repayable, i.e. it would amount to a transfer from the central bank to the government. …[S]uch a transfer from the central bank to the government would be equivalent to a commensurate purchase of government debt by the central bank, followed by its immediate writing-off, thus no longer having an impact on the government's effective debt liabilities.
Gali recognizes that his plan subordinates monetary policy to "the requirements of the fiscal authority" and that it could therefore be considered "an outright violation of the principle of central bank independence." "But," he says,
we have seen many occasions in which rules that were considered sacred have been relaxed in the face of extraordinary circumstances. …Furthermore, the central bank could agree to participate voluntarily in such a scheme, thus preserving its formal independence.
Perhaps I am reading this wrongly, but Gali seems to be saying that central banks need never worry about losing their independence so long as they do whatever the government asks them to do.
Notwithstanding such appeals, and the urgency of the crisis, I believe that it's as important as ever for the Fed and Congress to stick to their respective fiscal and monetary turfs, and that if there's any reason why they can't do so, while taking all necessary steps to address the crisis, it's that Congress refuses to take responsibility for any potentially risky operations it would rather have the Fed undertake.
The Power of the Purse
The case for insisting on a strict division of fiscal and monetary responsibilities rests on the principle, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, that Congress alone should determine how public funds, including funds secured by borrowing against future tax revenues, should be spent. Because losses stemming from any risky government program are also ultimately borne by taxpayers, such losses should also be treated as "potential" government expenditures which Congress alone should be allowed to authorize, and for which it should bear full responsibility.
These stipulations, far from being arbitrary, derive from the U.S. Constitution's Appropriations Clause (Article I, section 9, clause 7):
"No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time."
Nor should the rationale for this clause be difficult to fathom. It is simply the spending counterpart of the idea that there should be no taxation without representation, itself enshrined in another part (section 7, clause 1) of the Constitution's first article:
All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with amendments as on other Bills
Together these clauses are intended to award Congress exclusive control of the "power of the [national] purse."
Because it may result in losses that must come out of that purse, risky lending is properly regarded as something Congress alone can authorize, and for which it must be prepared to pay.
The Fed's Independence
The Constitution also awards Congress "the power to coin money [and] regulate the value thereof." Congress in turn has chosen—though hardly without controversy!—to exercise those powers by establishing the Fed and granting it some degree of independence from political, including Congressional, interference.
That the Fed is hardly as independent as it claims to be no one should gainsay. Still it possesses a modicum of independence, if no more than that, and that independence, such as it is, makes it somewhat easier for it to stick to its mandate, or at least to resist pressure to bend to Congress's will, or to that of the Executive.
The Fed's (limited) independence itself rests mainly on two provisions of the Federal Reserve Act. One of these grants members of its Board of Governors nonrenewable 14-year terms, except the Chair, who serves a renewable four-year term. It also prevents elected officials from serving on the Board. The other allows the Fed to operate without a budget from Congress, by covering its expenses using interest income from its security holdings and fees it charges for its services.
Any Congressional interference with the above-mentioned provisions necessarily chips away, however slightly, at the Fed's already tenuous independence. This goes for any action by Congress that might expose the Fed to losses. As Alex Cukierman explains, although central banks differ from ordinary banks in being able to operate with negative net worth, so that they are in that sense able to bear losses, those losses, should they become large enough, may force them to "depend on infusions of funds from the Treasury," thereby raising the possibility that the Treasury will "explicitly or implicitly, condition the recapitalization… on certain policy actions."
Cukierman's observations lead him to recommend that central banks not be asked to take on substantial risk unless the "political authorities" agree to cover any losses they may incur:
If, due to a financial crisis or other reasons, government decides to rescue financial institutions the implementation of such operations should not affect the net capital position of the CB [central bank]. This implies that such operations should appear as explicit items on the government's budget. Such an arrangement is desirable not only because it protects the instrument independence of the bank, but also because of transparency and accountability considerations of politicians to the public that elected them. … More generally, the CB net worth [had] better be shielded from the impact of decisions that are made by other authorities.
During the last crisis, the British government followed this advice, at least to some extent, by offering to indemnify the Bank of England for any losses it incurred by acquiring risky assets. However, as Willem Buiter reported then, even it failed to assume responsibility for the credit risk the Bank took on in offering "repos and other forms of collateralized lending to banks where the collateral offered consists of private securities." The ECB, in contrast, received no protection at all. Instead, Buiter says, it was "hobbled severely by the non-existence of a fiscal Europe, and specifically by the absence of a fiscal authority, fiscal facility, or fiscal arrangement that can recapitalize it should it suffer losses due to credit risk assumed as part of its monetary, liquidity, or credit-enhancing policies."
As for the Fed, although it was not "hobbled" as the ECB had been, it, too, took on risk without the benefit of anything beyond a meager fiscal guarantee or "backup":
For the Fed's potential $1 trillion exposure to private credit risk through the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, for instance, the Treasury only guarantees $100 billion. They call it 10 times leverage. I call it the Fed being potentially in the hole for $900 billion. Similar credit risk exposures have been assumed by the Fed in the commercial paper market, in its purchases of Fannie and Freddie mortgages, in the rescue of AIG, and in a host of other quasi-fiscal rescue operations mounted by the Fed and by the Fed, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the US Treasury jointly.
Buiter considered "this use of the Federal Reserve as an active (quasi-) fiscal player… extremely dangerous and highly undesirable from the point of view of the health of the democratic system of government in the US." Besides compromising the Fed's independence, he said, it "undermines Congressional and wider public accountability for this vast commitment of public resources." The Fed, he said, "should insist on a full Treasury indemnity for any private sector credit risk it assumes."