Tags: Bruce | Fed | policies | crisis

New Movie Nails the Fed

Monday, 16 Sep 2013 01:54 PM

By Robert Feinberg

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The theme for the articles this week is the fifth anniversary of the 2008 episode of the ongoing financial crisis, which coincides roughly with the third anniversary of the yet-to-be-implemented Dodd-Frank Act. I have predicted will not be implemented.

Last week, a new movie titled "Money for Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve" was screened in Washington and will be playing for at least a week in Washington and New York and then open in other selected cities.

This event claimed the prime space above the fold in the Sunday Business section of The Washington Post, with a gold-toned picture of the producer, Jim Bruce, seated at the head of the table in the Fed's boardroom.

The article recounts the discovery by Bruce that collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) were being used by financial institutions as a sham device to move risks off their books, despite the fact that their actual effect was to magnify risk to an extent that helped "to fuel a new bubble that could bring down the entire economy."

Bruce found that no one would listen. (I had a similar experience, from a different perspective, beginning in 1981. It was evident even then that "too big to fail" financial institutions threatened the financial institution, but no one would listen.)

Bruce daringly shorted financial stocks and has used the proceeds as a base to finance the documentary. The article says, "People are listening now." This remains to be seen.

Ironically, Bruce made a fortune shorting the most levered financial firms and homebuilders, whereas policymakers have intervened on behalf of the public to support these same companies and industries. Bruce sees irony in the notion that the Fed, the same institution that fueled the housing bubble by flooding the markets with cheap money, is now the institution markets look to for rescue, but he warns, "As forward-looking investors, we must consider what the Fed's next big mess will be."

Bruce concludes that the story needs to be told and that if he hadn't invested in the movie, he might be shorting financials again. (These articles will never give financial advice, but one contemplating shorting financials now should keep in mind that the too big to fail banks are backed by the federal government, and even Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who is a key player in the scenario, has admitted that markets do not believe that the policy of too big to fail has ended.)

The movie has first-rate graphics throughout, a legion of recognizable faces and is narrated by the actor and filmmaker Liev Schreiber, the only cast member who receives billing. Schreiber's is one of the most recognizable and authoritative documentary voices. The overall impression is that Bruce thought his message was so important that he spared no expense.

More than any other public voice, Bruce recognizes that the financial crisis did not erupt suddenly and without warning in 2008, and it did not end with the extraordinary interventions that followed.

Given the insistence by Fed officials that it is not the role of the Fed to identify and prick bubbles and that if a bubble had formed, it would be contained before it could spread beyond the housing sector to the broader economy, viewers could get the impression that the only people who didn't know what was going on were the policymakers and so-called regulators at the Fed.

Besides an overview of the history of the Fed and the dangers its policies continue to pose to the economy and standard of living of this country, viewers of the film will get glimpses of the actual federal safety net and of the proverbial punchbowl that the cliche holds the Fed is supposed to take away just as the party is getting good.

As I am writing this, CNBC's Becky Quick asked Pimco's Mohamed El-Erian whether the Fed might lose control of the timing, just as I was thinking the same thing. This time El-Erian cited the expected tapering of quantitative easing as reason to expect the economy to have time to heal.

However, in a previous interview, he pointed out that whereas policymakers focus on the inevitable rise in interest rates as a process, investors tend to focus on the destination. The markets have already raised rates in anticipation of tapering. Perhaps if the Fed actually moves, the financial markets may go farther than the measured amounts the policymakers decree, or perhaps some other event — one that is either unforeseen or whose effect is unforeseen — might trigger a spike in rates that would put sudden pressure on the balance sheets of too big to fail financial institutions that have taken advantage of protracted easing to do exactly what the Fed wanted them to do — to pile on more risk.

The overriding reason why there will inevitably be more episodes in the ongoing financial crisis is the same as always — over the last four decades, nothing has ever been done to contain it, both the number and size of too big to fail financial institutions have grown and the same people are in charge of policy.

There's a familiar cliche about insanity defined as taking the same actions and expecting different results. What might be even scarier is the thought that for the people who created this policy and are still in charge, their wealth and power have grown, so the policies have worked.

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