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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 5/4/20

Crushing the States, Saving the Banks

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From LA Progressive


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The Fed's Generous New Rules

Congress seems to be at war with the states. Only $150 billion of its nearly $3 trillion coronavirus relief package, a mere 5% has been allocated to the 50 states; and they are not allowed to use it where they need it most, to plug the holes in their budgets caused by the mandatory shutdown. On April 22, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was opposed to additional federal aid to the states, and that his preference was to allow states to go bankrupt.

No such threat looms over the banks, which have made out extremely well in this crisis. The Federal Reserve has dropped interest rates to 0.25%, eliminated reserve requirements, and relaxed capital requirements. Banks can now borrow effectively for free, without restrictions on the money's use. Following the playbook of the 2008-09 bailout, they can make the funds available to their Wall Street cronies to buy up distressed Main Street assets at fire sale prices, while continuing to lend to credit cardholders at 21%.

If there is a silver lining to all this, it is that the Fed's relaxed liquidity rules have made it easier for state and local governments to set up their own publicly-owned banks, something they should do post haste to take advantage of the Fed's very generous new accommodations for banks. These public banks can then lend to local businesses, municipal agencies, and local citizens at substantially reduced rates while replenishing the local government's coffers, recharging the Main Street economy and the government's revenue base.

The Covert War on the States

Payments going to state and local governments from the Coronavirus Relief Fund under the CARES Act may be used only for coronavirus-related expenses. They may not be used to cover expenses that were accounted for in their most recently approved budgets as of March 2020. The problem is that nearly everything local governments do is funded through their most recently approved budgets, and that funding will come up painfully short for all of the states due to increased costs and lost revenues forced by the coronavirus shutdown. Unlike the federal government, which can add a trillion dollars to the federal debt every year without fear of retribution, states and cities are required to balance their budgets. The Fed has opened a Municipal Liquidity Facility that may buy their municipal bonds, but this is still short-term debt, which must be repaid when due. Selling bonds will not fend off bankruptcy for states and cities that must balance their books.

States are not legally allowed to declare bankruptcy, but Sen. McConnell contended that "there's no good reason for it not to be available." He said, "we'll certainly insist that anything we borrow to send down to the states is not spent on solving problems that they created for themselves over the years with their pension programs." And that is evidently the real motive behind the bankruptcy push. McConnell wants states to put through a bankruptcy reorganization to get rid of all those pesky pension agreements and the unions that negotiated them. But these are the safety nets against old age for which teachers, nurses, police and firefighters have worked for 30 or 40 years. It's their money.

It has long been a goal of conservatives to privatize public pensions, forcing seniors into the riskier stock market. Lured in by market booms, their savings can then be raided by the periodic busts of the "business cycle," while the more savvy insiders collect the spoils. Today political opportunists are using a crushing emergency that is devastating local economies to downsize the public sector and privatize everything.

Free Money for Banks: The Fed's Very Liberal New Rules

Unlike the states, the banks were not facing bankruptcy from the economic shutdown; but their stocks were sinking fast. The Fed's accommodations were said to be to encourage banks to "help meet demand for credit from households and businesses." But while the banks' own borrowing rates were dropped on March 15 from an already-low 1.5% to 0.25%, average credit card rates dropped in the following month only by 0.5% to 20.71%, still unconscionably high for out-of-work wage earners.

Although the Fed's accommodations were allegedly to serve Main Street during the shutdown, Wall Street had a serious liquidity problem long before the pandemic hit. Troubles surfaced in September 2019, when repo market rates suddenly shot up to 10%. Before 2008, banks borrowed from each other in the fed funds market; but after 2008 they were afraid to lend to each other for fear the borrowing banks might be insolvent and might not pay the loans back. Instead the lenders turned to the repo market, where loans were supposedly secured with collateral.

The problem was that the collateral could be "rehypothecated" or used for several loans at once; and by September 2019, the borrower side of the repo market had been taken over by hedge funds, which were notorious for risky rehypothecation. The lenders therefore again pulled out, forcing the Fed to step in to save the banks that are its true constituents. But that meant the Fed was backstopping the whole repo market, including the hedge funds, an untenable situation. So it flung the doors wide open to its discount window, where only banks could borrow.

The discount window is the Fed's direct lending facility meant to help commercial banks manage short-term liquidity needs. In the past, banks have been reluctant to borrow there because its higher interest rate implied that the bank was on shaky ground and that no one else would lend to it. But the Fed has now eliminated that barrier. It said in a press release on March 15:

The Federal Reserve encourages depository institutions to turn to the discount window to help meet demands for credit from households and businesses at this time. In support of this goal, the Board today announced that it will lower the primary credit rate by 150 basis points to 0.25% ." To further enhance the role of the discount window as a tool for banks in addressing potential funding pressures, the Board also today announced that depository institutions may borrow from the discount window for periods as long as 90 days, pre-payable and renewable by the borrower on a daily basis.

Banks can get virtually free loans from the discount window that can be rolled over from day to day as necessary. The press release said that the Fed had also eliminated the reserve requirement -- the requirement that banks retain reserves equal to 10% of their deposits and that it is "encouraging banks to use their capital and liquidity buffers as they lend to households and businesses who are affected by the coronavirus."

It seems that banks no longer need to worry about having deposits sufficient to back their loans. They can just borrow the needed liquidity at 0.25%, "renewable on a daily basis." They don't need to worry about "liquidity mismatches," where they have borrowed short to lend long and the depositors have suddenly come for their money, leaving them without the funds to cover their loans. The Fed now has their backs, providing "primary credit" at its discount window to all banks in good standing on very easy terms. The Fed's website states:

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Ellen Brown is an attorney, founder of the Public Banking Institute, and author of twelve books including the best-selling WEB OF DEBT. In THE PUBLIC BANK SOLUTION, her latest book, she explores successful public banking models historically and (more...)
 

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