When Fed makes profits in a struggling business world..

One very wise (and largely forgotten) former central banker once remarked that when a central bank makes record profits when others are struggling, it is signs of serious concern. As most of this free income is passed onto the govt, it raises questions over independence and all that..

David Howden of Mises writes on similar thing happening with Federal Reserve:

Last year was a tough one for investors. Gold was down 10 percent. The Dow Industrials fell 2.5 percent, and most bond indexes finished down by at least that much. 

One institution that performed remarkably well in 2015 was the Federal Reserve. It just finished its most profitable year on record. The $100 billion in net income earned last year was a slight improvement over the previous year. That total was also roughly three times higher than the Fed’s income from 2007, the last year before it initiated its Quantitative Easing programs in the wake of the financial crisis.

Since the Fed does not exist to generate profits, some may be confused as to how it could have such a great year at doing so.

Here’s how it works. Every time the Fed expands the money supply it buys an asset. Typically the asset is a financial security, like a US Treasury bond, and the counterparties are typically large banks. Figure 1 gives a simplified look at the Fed’s balance sheet at the end of 2015 and how it evolved over the year..

Compared to previous years, 2015 was relatively uneventful at the Fed. Having completed the tapering of its Quantitative Easing programs in October 2014, the Fed’s asset holdings held constant over the year. This was in stark contrast to the previous six years, during which the Fed purchased $3.5 trillion of assets. The Fed earns interest on its assets but most of its liabilities are non-interest bearing, like the $1.4 trillion worth of Federal Reserve notes crumpled in people’s pockets or buried under our mattresses. The Fed does pay interest on Reserve Bank balances, but at the current rate of 0.5 percent, this figure was a drop in the bucket relative to its total income. (Almost all of the Fed’s assets earn interest, while it incurs an interest expense on less than half of its liabilities.

As all this money earned goes to the Government as part of seignorage, it is just a windfall of sorts:

For the US Treasury, Fed remittances are something of a free lunch. When someone buys a Treasury bond, the government must pay them interest. This applies to the Fed as well, but then at year-end the Fed remits the interest back to the Treasury.

The federal government paid out $223 billion in interest payments last year. The Fed remitted almost $100 billion back, leaving the net interest expense at around $125 billion. It’s not just historically low interest rates that are making it easier for the Treasury to borrow in a way that, if it were done by anyone else, would classify them as subprime. The Fed is also chipping in and helping out where it can.

Also shown in figure 2 is the percentage of the federal interest expense that is remitted back by the Fed. For 2015, this figure neared 45 percent. That figure is a good way to think about the free lunch that the Fed gives to the Treasury.

In more “normal” times (i.e., prior to 2008) around 10 to 15 percent of the Treasury’s interest payments were paid back to it by the Fed. This figure has grown to almost four times that amount over the past seven years and it doesn’t look like this trend will abate anytime soon.



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