And so, as they say in the horror movies, it begins…! The unwinding of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet. Such an esoteric concept!
Is there one in ten thousand of the millions of people who sit at desks all day long from sea to shining sea who have a clue how this works? Or what its relationship is to the real world?
I confess, my understanding of it is incomplete and schematic at best — in the way that my understanding of a Las Vegas magic act might be. All the flash and dazzle conceals the magician’s misdirection. The magician is either a scary supernatural being or a magnificent fraud. Anyway, the audience ‘out there’ for the Federal Reserve’s magic act — x-million people preoccupied by their futures slipping away, their cars falling apart, their kid’s $53,000 college loan burden, or the $6,000 bill they just received for going to the emergency room with a cut finger — wouldn’t give a good goddamn even if they knew the Fed’s magic show was going on.
So, the Fed has this thing called a balance sheet, which is actually a computer file, filled with entries that denote securities that it holds. These securities, mostly US government bonds of various categories and bundles of mortgages wrangled together by the mysterious government-sponsored entity called Freddie Mac, represent about $4.5 trillion in debt. They’re IOUs that supposedly pay interest for a set number of years. When that term of years expires, the Fed gets back the money it loaned, which is called the principal. Ahhhh, here’s the cute part!
You see, the money that the Fed loaned to the US government (in exchange for a bond) was never there in the first place. The Fed prestidigitated it out of an alternate universe. They gave this money to a “primary dealer” bank in exchange for the bond, which the bank abracadabraed up for the US Treasury. Well, not really. In fact, the Fed just made a notation on the bank’s “reserve” account that the money from the alternate universe appeared there. Somehow that money was sent via a virtual pneumatic tube to the US Treasury, where it was used to pay for drones to blow up Yemeni wedding parties, and for the Secret Service to visit pole dancing bars when the president traveled to foreign lands.
Here’s the fun part. The Fed announces that it is going to shed this nasty debt, at about $10 billion worth a month starting this past October. Their stated goal is to reach an ultimate wind-down velocity of $50 billion a month (cue laugh track). If they ever get there (cue laugh track) it would take 20 years to complete the wind-down. The chance of that happening is about the same as the chance that Janet Yellen will come down your chimney on December 24 with a sack-full of chocolate Bitcoins. But never mind the long view for the moment.
One way they plan to accomplish this feat is to “roll off” the bonds. That is, when the bonds mature — i.e. come to the end of their term — they will cease to exist. Poof! Wait a minute! When a bond matures, the issuer has to send the principal back to the lender. After all, the Fed lent the US Treasury X-billion dollars, the US Treasury paid interest on the loan for X-years, and now it has to fork over the full value of the loan (hopefully in dollars that have magically inflated over the years and are now worth less than when they were borrowed — another magic trick!). But that doesn’t happen.
Instead, when the theoretical principal is returned to the Fed, the Fed disappears the money, like the girl in a bikini onstage who enters the magician’s sacred box and vanishes. Now you see her, now you don’t. The explanation, of course, might be that the money was never really there in the first place, so it makes sense to fire it back to the alternative universe it came from. Well, uh, I guess….
The catch is: for a while it was here on earth and folks were doing stuff with it, such as the aforementioned drone strikes and pole dancers. Not only that, but the “primary dealer” banks were allowed to loan out ten times the reserve minimum denoted on their Fed accounts for participating in the scheme. Who did they lend all that money to? Apparently, a lot of it went to corporations who borrowed it at ultra-low interest rates in order to buy back their own stock, which paid dividends way higher than the interest rate they borrowed at to buy the stuff, and which also pumped up the share value of the stocks, which also happened to make the executives of the corporations way richer in terms of their stock options and bonuses (awarded for boosting the share value of the stock!).
And so, shazzam: I give you the one-percent! And a bankrupt United States of America.
And don’t even ask about all those bundles of janky Freddie Mac mortgages fobbed off on the Fed. The reason they did that in the first place was because those mortgages weren’t being paid off, and the banks and insurance companies that held them were choking to death on them. So they parked them in a crawl space under the Fed’s Eccles Building in Washington, hoping they would just turn to compost And guess what: they’re no more valuable now then they were then. File that one under Necrophilia.