The Last Washington Secret: How the Federal Reserve Works – Economics (2000)

The Film Archives

Published on Apr 4, 2015

The Federal Reserve System has faced various criticisms since its inception in 1913. These criticisms include the assertions that the Federal Reserve System violates the United States Constitution and that it impedes economic prosperity. Critic Miranda Fleschert contends that the twelve regional Federal Reserve banks (as opposed to the entire Federal Reserve System) consider themselves to be private corporations with private funding.[179] The movement to audit the Federal Reserve System has gained national traction; a bill related to the movement was passed through the House of Representatives in 2012.[180] Many critics see auditing the Federal Reserve System as a means of gaining insight into an institution they contend has historically had little to no transparency, that has acted without congressional approval or oversight, and that has the power to create and loan U.S. dollars based on a monetary policy determined by its own interests.

In 2009, fresh off the financial crisis, a Columbia University finance professor named David Beim was tapped by the New York Fed President William Dudley to conduct a confidential investigation. This was meant to be an internal document and allowed unlimited access. Surprisingly, the biggest obstacle in overseeing the nation’s biggest financial institutions was the Fed’s own culture. His report states, “Our review of lessons learned from the crisis reveals a culture that is too risk-averse to respond quickly and flexibly to new challenges.” One supervisor said, “Within three weeks on the job, I saw the capture set in.” When asked to remove the quotation from his report, Beim refused. He claims, “They didn’t give an argument. They were embarrassed.” The report further quotes Fed employees saying, “Until I know what my boss thinks I don’t want to tell you,” as well as, “no one feels individually accountable for financial crisis mistakes because management is through consensus.” Unsurprisingly, one of the recommendations listed in his report encourages a “sustained effort to overcome excessive risk-aversion and get people to speak up when they have concerns, disagreements or useful ideas. Encourage a culture of critical dialogue and continuous questioning.”

In 2012 Carmen Segarra, New York Federal Reserve’s appointed regulator to Goldman Sachs, was dismissed for refusing to falsify a report regarding improper actions of Goldman Sachs relating to a conflict of interest when it advised El Paso Corporation on selling itself to Kinder Morgan, in which Goldman Sachs had a US$4 billion stake. Segarra later also revealed that Goldman Sachs did not fulfil their obligation to check that the Federal Reserve had no objection to the terms under which they held shares belonging to Spanish Santander Bank in a transaction described as “legal but shady”. The Federal Reserve was criticised for ineffectual behaviour as a government agency, being expected to hold to account an organisation, but instead making only minor criticism and taking no action on being presented with disturbing or threatening information.[183][184][185][186][187]

In the excerpts released by ProPublica, Fed examiners worry about pushing Goldman too hard. Talking about one controversial deal, Michael Silva says, “My own personal thinking right now is that we’re looking at a transaction that’s legal but shady.” One examiner says, “I think we don’t want to discourage Goldman from disclosing these types of things in the future…Don’t mistake our inquisitiveness, and our desire to understand more about the marketplace in general, as a criticism of you as a firm necessarily.” After witnessing a Goldman employee declare that “once clients are wealthy enough, certain consumer laws don’t apply to them,” Segarra was told by a fellow regulator, “You didn’t hear that.”[188]

In an interview for This American Life, Segarra says, “credibility at the Fed is about subtleties, perceptions as opposed to reality.”

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