Federal Reserve Accounting and Its Solvency

A good article from Jeffrey Rogers Hummel at George Mason’s History News Network:

The Federal Reserve’s H.4.1 Release for January 6, 2011, announced an accounting change in the Fed’s reporting of residual earnings distributed to the U.S. Treasury. This has raised alarm bells, not only among libertarian critics of the Fed (here and here) but also among others. The concern is that it will now be easier for the Fed to disguise losses from its expanded portfolio of potentially toxic assets and possibly even avoid any resulting insolvency. While there is an element of truth to this concern, in the final analysis, the accounting change hardly matters at all.

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2 replies on “Federal Reserve Accounting and Its Solvency”
  1. I am preparing an article for my Italian blog: this accounting change implies that the eventual Fed’s loss becomes an asset to be ammortized, hiding the eventual mutation of the Fed into a Zombi. It is simply a signal that the US fiscal policy has dried pubblic finances to making impossible for the Government to cover Central Bank’s losses.

    If you are interested I can translate it into English

  2. says: Corrigan

    As I wrote in January:-

    Even against [its]back drop of double-dealing and special pleading, it nonetheless marked a new low point to see the Fed announce a completely novel concept to the discipline of accounting – that of the ‘negative liability’ – and that for the basest of reasons; viz., an avoidance of oversight and public discussion regarding the conduct of its affairs.
    What is afoot is the following.

    The Fed system currently boasts a monster $2.4 trillion in assets (many of somewhat doubtful provenance and the vast majority highly sensitive in their valuation to the prevailing level of interest rates). Against this, it holds the princely sum of $53 billion in capital, meaning that a trifling, uncompensated 2.2% adverse shift in the value of its assets would render it theoretically insolvent. {We here suspend all our usual admonitions about the virtual nature of bank balance sheets whose two sides consist of virtual financial claims which the commercial banks themselves can generate almost without – and the central bank utterly without – effective limit, at least to the point of a hyperinflationary repudiation of their paper.}

    Thus, in the role which the Bernanke Fed has arrogated to itself both as a distributer of selective corporate welfare and as a shadow fiscal agency, it has clearly exposed itself to risks which would normally require that the US Treasury (i.e., the taxpayer) should reimburse it for any future losses incurred. Couched in such overt terms, this would naturally be a matter for an earnest and high-profiled debate about the wisdom of its chosen course as well as the trigger for an intensive Congressional scrutiny of its role in relation to the Constitution.

    However, by adopting this spurious ‘negative liability’ ruse, the Fed would not reflect, say, a $60 billion fall in the value of its assets in an equal decline in its exiguous veneer of capital, but would instead subtract that same $60 billion arbitrarily from the sum of its liabilities under the specious pretext that it owes almost all its seigniorage profits to the Treasury and so is just deferring their eventual disbursement!

    If only Bernie Madoff had thought of that in time to stave off the ruin of his own monstrous fraud, half the Upper East Side and half of Geneva’s private banks could still be kidding themselves that their respective trust funds and customer accounts were doing very nicely thank you!

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