Since September 2022, the Federal Reserve has lost about $36 billion. A big number!—and notably big compared to the Fed’s stated capital of $42 billion. Thus the Fed has already run through about 85% of its capital and has only $6.6 billion (0.07 % of its total assets) left as of February 22. How long will it take to burn through that? Less than three weeks.
So the Fed’s real capital will hit zero in mid-March. By April Fools’ Day, it will be proceeding into ever more negative territory. [This is shown in the attached graph--could be used or not.]Nonetheless, it is surely embarrassing to have lost all your capital, let alone twice or three times your capital, as the Fed will have done by the end of this year. Whether it did this intentionally or unintentionally, it raises pointed questions about whether the Fed correctly anticipated such huge losses and how negative its capital would become, and, if it did, whether it informed Congress of what was coming.Thus the losses are the actualization of the immense financial risk the Fed knowingly took, while not knowing how bad the outcome would be. The Fed’s losses now make its capital negative, increase the federal deficit and are a fiscal burden on the Treasury.
What does negative capital mean for the world’s top central bank? As for any entity, it means that its liabilities exceed its assets, and that it is technically insolvent.
Here we are dealing with the Fed’s real capital, in contrast to the stated capital its financial statements report. For every organization, everywhere and necessarily, losses reduce retained earnings and thus total capital. Nothing could be more basic. The Fed’s real capital is its stated capital of $42 billion minus its accumulated losses of $36 billion. But the Fed wishes to exempt itself from this law of accounting, by treating its losses as an asset, which they aren’t. It wishes us to believe that if it loses $100 billion, as it probably will in 2023, or $200 billion, or even $1 trillion, that its capital would always be the same. “LOL,” as people text these days. The situation may make you think of the cynically realistic remark of Jean-Claude Juncker, when he was the head of the European finance ministers: “When it becomes serious, you have to lie.”
The Fed itself and most economists claim about the losses and the looming negative capital that “It doesn’t matter and no one cares.” They point out that the Fed can continue to print up more money to pay its obligations, no matter how much it has lost or how much less its assets are than its liabilities.
A second argument the Fed and its supporters make is that “Central banks are not supposed to make profits.” This is not correct. All central banks, including the Fed, are designed precisely to make profits for the government through their currency monopoly. They issue non-interest bearing currency, and make interest bearing investments. This makes profits automatically and thereby reduces the Treasury’s deficit. But no more. The easy profits have been wiped out by the losses on the Fed’s $5 trillion risk position of investing long and borrowing short, now upside down. The Fed has trillions of long-term “Quantitative Easing” investments it bought to yield 2% or 3 %, but the cost of funding them is now over 4 1/2%-- a guaranteed way to lose money. And the Fed’s borrowing costs are likely headed still higher, making its losses still bigger.
The Fed is not alone in this problem, since many central banks together set themselves up for losses. “Euro Area Braces for Era of Central-Bank Losses After QE Binge,” in the words of a recent Bloomberg headline. In Great Britain, His Majesty’s Treasury has committed to pay for losses of the Bank of England, and the Canadian Finance Ministry has entered into a contract with the Bank of Canada to offset any realized losses on the Bank’s QE bonds.
Should the U.S. Treasury recapitalize the Fed by buying stock in the Federal Reserve Banks? Unlike in most other countries, the U.S. government does not own the stock of its central bank— private banks do. The Fed does have a formal call on the private banks to require them to buy more stock-- the half of their stock subscription they have not paid in. This would raise about $36 billion in new capital.
But the Fed certainly does not want to be seen as needing to call this additional capital-- or needing to skip its dividend, as both the European Central Bank and the Swiss central bank have done this year.
Nor does the Fed wish its balance sheet to show its real capital. But if, as the Fed argues, it doesn’t matter and no one cares, why go through the charade? Why not simply report the true number?
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