Weekly Audit: Time to Audit the Fed

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

Two key lawmakers on the House Financial Services Committee, Reps. Alan Grayson (D-FL) and Ron Paul (R-TX), are pushing to authorize a full, comprehensive audit of the Federal Reserve. The plan has sparked fury from both the Fed and the corporate banking industry, but the proposal is so appealing that the controversy is almost laughable.

The Federal Reserve is one of the most powerful economic institutions in the world, but most of its operations are conducted in total secrecy. The Fed's rescue activities have dwarfed the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, but without any public accounting. Some of these efforts may have been entirely appropriate, but we don't even know who the Fed is helping. That fact is a major barrier to establishing effective and fair economic policy.

As Glenn Greenwald observes for Salon:

"The Fed is a typical Washington institution that operates un-democratically and in virtually total secrecy, and a Congressionally-mandated audit that they (and much of the DC establishment) desperately oppose would be a serious step towards changing the dynamic of how things function. At the very least, it would provide an important template for defeating the interests which, in Washington, almost never lose."

Under the Grayson-Paul plan, which is offered as an amendment to the Financial Stability Improvement Act of 2009, the Government Accountability Office would be given the authority to audit all of the Federal Reserve's activities, just as it can audit other public programs and institutions.

Last week, the House Financial Services Committee approved the audit-the-fed bill, despite opposition from panel Chairman Barney Frank (D-MA), who tried to gut the plan. Even on the Financial Services Committee, where the banks concentrate their campaign contributions, Grayson was able to convince 14 other Democrats to stand up to the financial establishment.

The vote of approval scarcely registered on mainstream media's radar, and even then, the Grayson-Paul legislation was portrayed as an assault on the Fed's "political independence." As Dean Baker notes for Talking Points Memo, it's hard to see how a simple, public accounting can be construed as a political hit on the Fed's policy-making.

By setting interest rates, the Fed has enormous power to do almost anything under the economic sun, from fueling quick growth to destroying jobs. All of these powers have useful functions under the right circumstances, and we really don't want Congress to make decisions about the economy based on the interests of powerful lobby groups. The Grayson-Paul bill wouldn't do anything of the sort. As John Nichols explains for The Nation, audits of sensitive economic policy decisions would be subject to a six-month lag before they could be publicly released. If the Fed needs to act fast, Congress won't be able to get in its way. The public will eventually know how its own money is being spent, however, and learn how a public institution is conducting itself.

"In other words, this is about simple transparency, which everyone should favor," Nichols writes.

The White House and the Congressional Democratic leadership need to support a full and comprehensive audit of the Federal Reserve. It's an issue of basic democratic accountability. There is no good reason why economic policy should be conducted in secret.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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Weekly Audit: Unemployment Fueling Political Storm

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

Unemployment figures in the U.S. are staggering: The official rate stands at 10.2%, the highest in 26 years. A broader measure that includes people who are involuntarily working part-time or who have given up looking for work is at 17.5%. That's a full-blown economic emergency.

But, as Joshua Holland explains for AlterNet, President Barack Obama's response to the unemployment crisis has not matched the urgency of his response to the crisis on Wall Street. This isn't just unfair, it's bad economics.

"It's important to understand that the economic crisis in which we find ourselves is not just a function of a shaky financial system but of a crash in consumption that's come along with the evaporation of $14 trillion worth of the wealth of American families," Holland writes.

Widespread joblessness can be every bit as damaging to the economic structure as a financial crisis. When people are out of work, they buckle down on household expenses. When several million people cut back at the same time, the economic machine grinds to a halt. If people are not buying and selling stuff, the economy isn't working.

As Mary Kane explains for The Washington Independent, about 40% of families don't have enough money to cover expenses through a three-month stretch of unemployment--even if one member of the household is receiving unemployment benefits. Kane highlights a Brandeis University study that reveals the haggard state of the American household and the unfair distribution of wealth along racial lines. A full 66% of African-American and Latino families can't afford three months without work. At a time when 5.6 million workers have been jobless for at least six months, the study highlights just how dire finances have become for many households.

GRITtv's Laura Flanders discusses potential labor market remedies with economist Dean Baker and The Nation's John Nichols. Baker suggests a work-share arrangement, in which employers cut back on their workers' hours to allow more people to work. To prevent losses for households, the government would step in and pay for the shortfall in hours. Employers would have more part-time jobs available, but the government would make sure everyone was paid as if they were working full-time. Baker also endorses a public jobs program, which he says could be especially useful in cities like Detroit and Cleveland that have been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn.

Nichols highlights the political consequences of failing to fix the unemployment mess. Unemployment directly affects the lives of voters. If widespread joblessness persists through November 2010, Democrats will net huge Congressional losses. If Obama thinks it's hard to garner bipartisan support for his legislative priorities now, imagine a few dozen more Republican obstructionists.

It's not that Obama failed to respond to the unemployment crisis. He did. That's what the stimulus package was all about. Today's 10.2% unemployment is a catastrophe, but it would be more like 12% without the stimulus package. But, given the seriousness of the issue, Obama is not giving unemployment enough attention.

In fact, Obama's economic priorities are a mirror-image of his campaign promises, as Robert Scheer argues in both a column for TruthDig and an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! After talking tough about reining in recklessness on Wall Street and making the financial system more accountable, Obama has hired many of the very policy makers who pushed through the deregulatory agenda back in the 1990s. Top Obama administration officials like Larry Summers, Timothy Geithner, Gary Gensler and Neal Wolin helped make this mess in the first place.

"This is not a minor criticism," Scheer says. "I think the guy is betraying his own presidency."

Obama's timid efforts to rein in Wall Street and heal the ailing job market are setting the stage for a political disaster. If Obama and Congressional Democrats can't take strong action to fix the economy, they will find themselves with much narrower majorities next November. The economy, and the public institutions that support it, are supposed to work for everyone, not just the financial elite.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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The Paul-Grayson Amendment Clears Committee

The House Financial Services Committee approved the Paul-Grayson Amendment by an overwhelming 43-26 vote. The proposal is an amendment to HR 3996, the "Financial Stability Improvement Act of 2009″, which is sponsored by Congressman Barney Frank.

The main provisions of the Paul-Grayson amendment include:

- Removes the blanket restrictions on GAO audits of the Federal Reserve.

- Allows audit of every item on the Federal Reserve's balance sheet, all credit facilities, all securities purchase programs, etc.

- Retains limited audit exemption on unreleased transcripts and minutes.

- Sets 180-day time lag before details of Federal Reserve market actions may be released.

- States that nothing in the amendment shall be construed as interference in or dictation of monetary policy by Congress or the GAO.

The Paul-Grayson Amendment drastically increases the power of the government to audit the Federal Reserve, which serves as the Central Bank of the United States that independently sets monetary policy. The Paul-Grayson amendment would give the Government Accountability Office (GAO) much greater ability to audit the Federal Reserve, which has a long history of independence from congressional audits. Paul and Grayson beat out a competing measure offered by Congressman Mel Watt of North Carolina who pushed for a less intrusive regulatory environment.

The full bill HR 3996, the "Financial Stability Improvement Act of 2009," faces a committee vote after the Thanksgiving Day recess.

Below the fold, a letter from Congressman Paul, Republican of Texas and Congressman Grayson, Democrat of Florida to their colleagues on the House Financial Services Committee outlining their rational for the amendment.

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Showdown in Chicago: Thousands Protest Bankers

More than 5,000 people are packing the streets of downtown Chicago this morning, chanting, marching and rallying against Big Bankers and financial institutions that have taken taxpayer money and are using it to give big bonuses to CEOs and to lobby against financial reforms that would ensure they don't go back on the public dole.

The crowd is marching to the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers, site of the American Bankers Association meeting, to protest the banking industry's greed and irresponsibility that crippled our economy, leaving millions of workers behind.

After the house of cards they built collapsed, bankers and the financial industry took $700 billion in taxpayer funds for a bailout. But rather than reform their failed practices, they want to go back to business as usual--with the chance of again precipitating another financial collapse and need for taxpayer bailout in coming years.

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Weekly Audit: Four More Years of Bailout Ben

By Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire Blogger

After Ben Bernanke allowed an $8 trillion housing bubble to ravage the global economy and nearly destroy the U.S. financial system, President Barack Obama has decided he deserves another term as Chairman of the Federal Reserve. (The UpTake has video of Obama's announcement here.) As the Fed Chair, Bernanke has more economic power than any other person on the planet. By heading the committee that sets interest rates, he can control the economy's rate of growth or contraction; as head regulator of the largest banks, Bernanke has more influence over the rules of the economic game than anyone else.

Why is the Bernanke reappointment a mistake? Matthew Rothschild of The Progressive turns to Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent democratic socialist from Vermont. Put simply, Bernanke is completely culpable for allowing an economic crisis to foment.

"Like the rest of the Bush administration, he was asleep at the wheel during this period and did nothing to move our financial system onto safer grounds," Sanders said.

Corporate media generally neglects to mention Bernanke's role at the Fed prior to 2008, and instead credits him with stopping a second Great Depression. It's true that the Fed has done everything possible to keep Wall Street from imploding, but Bernanke also repeatedly insisted that the subprime mortgage crisis would be "contained" as late as 2007 and made no plans for a situation that might prove worse than his rosy forecasts.

As William Greider explains for The Nation, it's a bit too soon to celebrate our economic salvation at Bernanke's hands. Small banks are failing at an alarming rate, job losses remain heavy and households are being squeezed by plummeting property values and growing credit card debt.

Greider emphasizes that Bernanke repeatedly bailed out financial giants without demanding anything in return, which bodes poorly for any future economic crisis. Kenneth Lewis remains Bank of America's CEO, even though the company has needed $45 billion in taxpayer funds to date, and high-level Fed officials think Lewis may be guilty of securities fraud. On the one bailout where the Fed did assume ownership of the company and discharge it's top-level management, AIG, the deal was structured to funnel no-strings-attached money to other Wall Street companies. Goldman Sachs raked in $12.9 billion from the arrangement. It's one thing to funnel money to financial firms in the name of economic necessity. It's quite another to allow executives at those companies to be paid like princes and subsidize their shareholders.

As economist James K. Galbraith discusses in a piece for The Washington Monthly, it's not clear if Bernanke and Co. actually saved the economy. Even if the financial system gets back to normal functioning, that stability has been purchased with massive taxpayer support. In order to do just about anything involving finance in the United States, a company now needs a very explicit government seal of approval to convince investors that they're safe to do business with. Just ask Colonial Bank, which failed earlier this summer after being denied bailout funds under the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

But there has been secret support as well. Bernanke's Fed committed over $2 trillion in emergency loans to keep the financial system from collapsing during the crisis, and has refused to tell the public who got the money, and on what terms. We don't know who we saved, or at what the consequences of this massive bank support operation will be. Bernanke always believed that rescuing Wall Street would prevent major damage to the broader economy, but Galbraith questions whether the economy would be stronger if policymakers had focused more on direct aid to workers and homeowners, including an earlier, more robust economic stimulus package.

"Perhaps the right thing would have been less focus on saving banks, and much more on saving jobs, families, and homes."

Writing for In These Times, Roger Bybee profiles a new group called Americans for Financial Reform, which is  pushing for changes on Wall Street and fighting against business-as-usual at the Fed. The bank lobby is probably the most powerful interest group on Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, there hasn't been a strong and consistent voice urging lawmakers to protect the entire economy, rather than the banks. The very structure of the Fed makes it more responsive to Wall Street interests than those of the general public. Private-sector banks like Citigroup and Bank of America are shareholders in each of the Fed's regional branches, while private-sector bank executives sit on the board of directors at each branch. Since the boards get to name the regional presidents, private-sector bank CEOs are given major power to name their own regulators. Regional presidents also rotate through positions on the Fed's monetary policy board, making decisions to set interest rates.

The Fed's institutional structure, and its reliance on mainstream economists overly acquiescent to the financial sector has helped fuel the boom-and-bust bubble economy, as the Real News explains in this video piece.

In addition to the turmoil surrounding the Bernanke appointment, the recent budget deficit projections have been receiving a lot of attention lately. By throwing around a lot of big numbers that end in "trillion," deficit hawks have created the impression of crisis where none exists. The government will have a $1.6 trillion shortfall this year, equal to about 11% of the U.S. economy. That's the highest such number since the U.S. economy started to soar in the years after World War II, high enough to mobilize CNBC pundits to warn of financial apocalypse and a bankrupt U.S. government.

But as Robert Reich notes for Salon, it's not really worth getting too worked up over the current deficit projections. In a recession, countries want to run a deficit: the government needs to fill hole created by the drop-off in private-sector economic activity. If the U.S. doesn't run a big deficit, it will shed millions of additional jobs. And the country is nowhere near losing control of its currency. The federal debt stands at about 54% of our economic output right now, and is projected to reach 68% by 2019. But Reich notes that in 1945, the number was far higher: 120%. This number shrank dramatically over the next few years, not because of draconian cuts to government programs, but because the economy grew so much that the debt burden became less severe. We are nowhere near a crisis with the budget that compares to the current unemployment crisis, so pulling back spending right now doesn't make much sense.

Bernanke has always argued that the Fed chair's only duty is to control inflation. But managing the economy means not only attending to inflation, but making sure the true engine of economic growth--financially secure households--isn't sacrificed to the short-term interests of a few Wall Street elites. Bernanke failed to block that economic predation early in his tenure as Fed Chairman. If Bernanke is going to be with us for another four years, President Obama needs to find other ways to restore our economic balance.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy and is free to reprint. Visit StimulusPlan.NewsLadder.net and Economy.NewsLadder.net for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out Healthcare.NewsLadder.net and Immigration.NewsLadder.net. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.

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