December 13, 2011

Fed Critics Hot Under Collar Over Dollar-Swaps to Europe

Bank analyst Chris Whalen blasts Fed over swaps agreement; unconstitutional?

Fed chief Ben Bernanke. (Photo: AP) Fed chief Ben Bernanke. (Photo: AP)

The Fed’s decision two weeks ago to lower the cost of dollar funding to liquidity-starved European banks has aroused criticism on the both the left and right, but also strong words from a noted bank analyst. Republican presidential candidate and fierce Fed critic Ron Paul was swift in his denunciation of the Fed’s Nov. 30 move, lamenting that “under current law Congress cannot examine these types of agreements. “

In less than two weeks, European banks anonymously clamed nearly $600 billion from the ECB’s discount window, prompting former Clinton administration advisor and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz to say in a Bloomberg report, that the Fed hypocritically sought “capital market discipline without information” that markets need to perform properly.

But those criticisms from the political right and left were mild in comparison to Chris Whalen, bank analyst and chairman of Lord, Whalen. Writing in this week’s edition of the firm’s blog, The Institutional Risk Analyst, Whalen says that “by providing financing to the bankrupt nations of Europe, the Fed is interfering in the internal political affairs of foreign nations,” and in so doing helping to protect entrenched business and political interests. Europe’s voters, he argues, might “throw the rascals out” if the U.S. Federal Reserve didn’t act to keep European institutions solvent.

In his blog, Whalen interviews Walker Todd, a former Fed official and current scholar at the American Institute for Economic Research, who calls the Fed’s move unconstitutional. “The Constitution clearly and squarely prohibits a congressional delegation of the power to create monetary claims against the United States. What else is a swap agreement, after all? The Congress cannot allow claims to be created permanently to an entity not subject to congressional (a) appropriations or (b) review,” Todd said.

The financial scholar warned the Fed is allowing the ECB to create “unlimited amount claims” against the Fed. The Fed has described its recent move to reduce the overnight dollar index swap rate by 50 basis points as a technical action whose risk is borne by its central bank counterparties. According to Whalen, that is “true if the central banks on the other side of the swap still exist a year from now.”

A Fed spokeswoman told Bloomberg, “U.S. taxpayers have never lost a penny” on the crisis program, which was earlier active between 2007 and 2010.

Douglas Roberts, chief investment officer of Channel Capital Research, a global macro research firm with a focus on the Fed, is less exercised about the Fed’s swaps move, saying  -- from a practical perspective – “It’s not going to solve the problem.”

Roberts, author of Follow the Fed to Investment Success, explained the Fed move’s unpopularity in a phone interview with AdvisorOne. “Now [the Fed is printing] currency to bail out a foreign body. It was not part of the Fed’s original mandate. If you have to do it, you should at least have some transparency. You’re making a major move in terms of the country. This was a unilateral decision. It used to be an emergency operation, not standard operating procedure.”

Roberts’ bottom line though is that the move did little more than put a little short-term fear into market vigilantes: “It gives a little bounce, but doesn’t do too much. It squeezed the shorts out,” he said.

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