Walter Bagehot Explains to the Fed What They Should Have Done on Thursday

The day before yesterday, the Fed made a somewhat unusual announcement of $500,000,000,000 of REPO offers a day for three days in a row. The idea was to let banks unload risky assets before they panicked nipping a financial crisis in the bud.

This move was controversial. Unfortunately many critics act as if the Fed was giving away $ 1,500,000,000,000 rather than buying assets with it. I hazard a guess that the Fed will profit from the operation (their efforts to save the financial system in 2009 generated the largest profits recorded in human history as an unintended side effect). However, it is also clear that the transaction amounts to a subsidy to banks. The Fed will pay a higher price than would have cleared the market. $ 1.5 Trillion will do that. Back in 2009 the Fed bought mortgage backed securities at the market rate when they were the only buyer in the market. This means that the open market operation was a massive subsidy (which also generated record profits).

The fact that the Fed pays much more than the market would without their intervention is pleasant for banks. Driving up the price of risky assets is part of the point of the operation. However it is also very irritating.

Fortunately someone figured out what they should have done. Walter Bagehot explained it clearly in 1873. The idea is that the central bank should lend freely accepting as collateral assets which would be accepted by private agents in normal times but not during the crisis. But Bagehot did not advise lending at the rate which prevailed before the crisis. Rather the maxim is lend freely at a penalty rate


First. That these loans should only be made at a very high rate of interest. This will operate as a heavy fine on unreasonable timidity, and will prevent the greatest number of applications by persons who did not require it. The rate should be raised early in the panic, so that the fine may be paid early; that no one may borrow out of idle precaution without paying well for it; that the Banking reserve may be protected as far as possible.


Another way of putting it is that the Fed should buy risky assets at a price markedly lower than the pre.crisis price and contract to sell them back to banks at normal prices after the crisis is expected to be over. This is the REPO is the same as a collateralized loan irritating finance terminology issue (also there is no O in repurchase so why the hell is it called a REPO).

Another way of putting it is that we don’t want solvent firms to go bankrupt and be liquidated. In plain English this means if one can save a firm with a loan, then one should. The idea is that the firm should still exist when the crisis is over. In other words, the shares of the firm will still have positive value and won’t be worthless pieces of paper.

Bagehot’s point is that we also want that positive value to be low. Firms (which must be depositary institutions according to the Federal Reserve Act) should still exist even if they have to borrow from the lender of last resort. But to make sure it is the lender of very last resort, they shouldn’t be worth much.

Any value of a firm which needed the lender of last resort is basically a gift to owners who messed up and a moral hazard.

To combine this with the need for equity capital, it is possible to TARP, that is make the penalty rate loan junior to other debt as preferred shares not bonds.

Another point is that sometimes obtaining annual profits of only $97,700,000,000 is not satisfactory performance.

The main point is that if the Fed can make $97,700,000,000 while also granting a massive subsidy, then the previous arrangement was not efficient. The problem is that entities with deep but not infinitely deep pockets can’t always bear risk. The solution is for the government to be the residual claimant. That’s called socialism and the market says it works.

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