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Losing Altitude (The Economist)

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If there was a positive spin on the final quarter of 2011, and the overall year, it was that things were worse three years ago. No big bank, for example, went bust or seems on the verge of doing so. Bank of America, notable for its vast potential to make both profits and losses, has seen its share price rise substantially off its lows so far this year, a consequence either of the innate benefits of scale or a hesitation on the part of regulators to bury it in yet more mortgage-related litigation. Other banks, including perennial money-maker Goldman Sachs, have reported net revenues down substantially on the year. There is one financial institution in America, however, that has found a way to make money in classic, risk-be-damned fashion. The Federal Reserve announced provisional profits for 2011 of $77 billion. The comparison is inexact, of course, but the Fed has “outperformed” the rest of America’s financial industry put together for four years running. That might be a triumph in a state-controlled economy. In America, it is another cause for concern.

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