Mitchell’s Musings 7-17-2017: Much Ado About Accounting

13 Jul 2017 3:47 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 7-17-2017: Much Ado About Accounting


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


You walk into the local commercial bank where you have an account and deposit a check for, say, $100. The bank “credits” your account for the $100. Why? Because that deposit is now a claim that you have on the bank; the bank owes you $100 and the $100 thus represents an increase in the bank’s total liabilities. At the same time, the bank now has an asset worth $100, namely its claim upon the commercial bank on which the check you deposited was written. So its assets have also increased by $100. That increase in assets is the “debit” that balances the credit. It is standard double-entry bookkeeping. The bank, on Day 1, has an increase in liabilities and an increase in assets of equal value: $100.


Over time, however, your bank will invest a good portion of its deposits in interest-earning assets such as securities, mortgages, or loans it makes to businesses. It will keep only a limited amount in cash that it needs for routine business to cover temporary excesses of withdrawals over deposits.


But suppose the bank makes some bad investment choices with its assets. Suppose, for example, that the securities it holds fall in value. Suppose that some of the loans and mortgages it makes go into default. If the bank’s assets fall in value relative to liabilities, depositors may became nervous about their claims on it. Back in the day, before there were such cushions such as deposit insurance and central banks as creditors of last resort, such nervousness could cause a run on the bank. If all depositors try to get their money out at once, the bank might not have the liquidity on hand it needed to honor all the requests.


But even apart from short-term illiquidity problems, if the bank’s assets are permanently worth less than its liabilities, some of the bank’s creditors (including depositors) will get back only a fraction of what they are owed or maybe nothing at all. In effect, the institution would be in bankruptcy. The very word “bankruptcy” conveys the notion of a disrupted, ruptured, and destroyed institution.


Now let’s move from local to global. When the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was created towards the end of World War II to administer the Bretton Woods international monetary system, it was established, not as a world central bank, but as a financial intermediary. It would operate similarly to the local commercial bank in which you made your hypothetical $100 deposit. While a central bank can create money, a financial intermediary can only borrow money (in the example above, in the form of deposits), and then invests and lends the funds it has borrowed. It creates nothing.


For reasons we don’t have to go into here, in the late 1960s, the IMF was given limited authority to act like a central bank and create something called Special Drawing Rights (SDRs). When authorized by its member nations, the IMF essentially creates a dollop of SDRs and gives them out to its member states in proportion to their “quotas” (essentially, in proportion to their deposits). Over the years, over $280 billion worth of SDRs have been created. The member states can then use their SDRs as a kind of restricted currency to be utilized only by official monetary institutions (central banks, treasuries) to pay off debts to each other. So unlike your local bank in the example above, the IMF has created something in the case of SDRs. But it has gotten nothing in return for them. It sounds a lot like a credit (a deposit of the member states) with no balancing debit.


The IMF takes pains to deny that SDRs are really a currency (although in any meaningful sense of that word they are) and also denies that they are a liability of the IMF.[1] Why the denials? Because in conventional thinking, if the IMF recognized a liability with no corresponding asset, someone might say it was heading toward bankruptcy. So, officially, the SDRs are said to be, not the liability of the IMF, but instead the liability of all the member states who jointly agreed to accept them as payoffs for debts.


If that’s so, if SDRs are the creation of the member states, what are the assets that all the member states have to balance their liability? (Should we worry, for example, that if there are no such assets, all the member states are risking bankruptcy?) If you pushed the IMF, it would undoubtedly say that the missing assets DO exist, and that they are the self-same SDRs the member states authorized it to create!


I hope, by now, that you are beginning to recognize that there is something funny about thinking that an institution that can create money can go bankrupt. When the IMF creates SDRs, it is - in effect - creating a form of money (even if it denies that the SDR is a “currency”) and it is acting like a central bank. In essence, if you have an institution that can create money – which is what a true central bank does – it CAN’T go bankrupt.[2] More generally, you should not think of central banks as if they were commercial entities like financial intermediaries that borrow something they can’t create and then lend it out. If financial intermediaries make bad choices, or if the fates are against them, they CAN go bankrupt. As the IMF case illustrates, a money-creating institution can even create a liability, essentially get nothing for it, and yet not go bankrupt.

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As part of its effort to deal with the impact of the Great Recession, the Federal Reserve – the American central bank – bought a lot of assets and issued payment for them, i.e., lots of money was created in the process. Viewed as a bookkeeping matter, the value of the liabilities the Fed created for itself equaled the value of the assets that it bought, as the charts above and below show. You can argue about how the Fed responded to the Great Recession. You can argue about the causes of the Great Recession. But none of those debates matter to the point here. The point is that the Fed’s bailing out and stimulative efforts produced a large increase in both its assets and liabilities. It’s not an accident that the two charts look similar. One is the mirror of the other.

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Some commentators said at the time (and keep saying) that a vast inflation would (will) occur, due to this monetary creation. It didn’t happen, certainly to the surprise of ideological monetarists and even to the surprise of the more pragmatic Fed policy makers. But apart from the inflation issue, should you now be worried about the fact that the Fed is holding a lot of assets? Should you worry about the value of those assets? Should you worry, for example, that rising interest rates might cause the value of the Fed’s asset portfolio to fall below the value of its liabilities (since rising interest rates cause the market value of longer-term securities to fall)? And if you worry about that possibility, should you worry about the Fed going bankrupt?


The simple answer is that since the Fed can create money, it can’t go bankrupt in any meaningful sense of that word. Therefore, its monetary policy should not be driven by any such considerations. Unfortunately, however, because the growth of the Fed’s portfolio was very large, this type of thinking seems to be having an influence.


Here is an excerpt from a recent article from the Los Angeles Times:


Federal Reserve officials took bold steps to battle the financial crisis and the Great Recession, none more audacious than purchasing trillions of dollars in bonds in an unprecedented and politically charged attempt to boost economic growth. Now, with the economy healthier — and mixed opinions about how much the bond purchases actually helped — the Fed is preparing to scale back its massive stock of about $4.5 trillion in assets.


Those holdings of mostly Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities are more than quadruple what they were before the crisis, and reducing them is another risky move that could affect mortgage rates, consumer prices, bank lending, stock values and federal government borrowing. But there’s also risk to standing pat. Like any investor, the central bank could suffer losses on the bonds if it holds them too long and interest rates rise.  [Underline added] At the same time, holding a lot of assets could make it harder to buy more if that’s needed to fight a future recession. [Italics added]


So Fed policymakers plan to start trimming their holdings this year. They hope to do it gradually and seamlessly, without the controversy and fanfare that has made the once-boring institution a political target and shaker of financial markets.


“We think this is a workable plan and it will be … like watching paint dry,” Fed Chairwoman Janet L. Yellen said last month in detailing a methodical sell-off of some of the assets on the bank’s balance sheet. “This will just be something that runs quietly in the background.”…[3]


The underlined sentence suggests that important people (The reporters? The folks they interviewed?) think we should be tossing and turning about the Fed possibly taking losses on its portfolio, as if it were a private, commercial firm that could go bankrupt. The italicized sentence suggests that because the Fed has a lot of assets, it would be hard for it to buy more of them in the next recession. Why? It can create money and buy more. Are we to believe that holders of such assets won’t sell them for cash?


Finally, the last few sentences suggest that the Fed, in the face of such anxieties, feels it needs to respond to them. As noted, you can raise questions about how the Fed dealt with the last recession. But we should not create artificial issues that could hamstring the Fed’s responses to the next one, whenever it comes. And if those anxieties can’t be assuaged with logic, why not do what the IMF did when it created SDRs? Insist that the liabilities and assets are something other than what they are. Maybe take them off the books. Be creative and find other approaches to the accounting and bookkeeping that are cosmetic rather than real. If there are rules, laws, or practices that are mistakenly based on the idea that a central bank is like a commercial bank, change them or find ways around them.


There is enough to worry about, with the chairmanship of the Fed opening up for a new appointment by President Trump next year, without creating additional concerns.

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Footnotes

[1] http://www.imf.org/en/About/Factsheets/Sheets/2016/08/01/14/51/Special-Drawing-Right-SDR.  

[2] Note that when countries – as in the Euro-zone – give up their currencies, their former central banks stop being true central banks, whatever they call themselves. They have surrendered their money creation authority to the European Central Bank.

[3] http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-federal-reserve-stimulus-20170710-htmlstory.html.

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