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Fed Leaders Ponder an Expanded Mission

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By Neil Irwin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 28, 2008

In the past two weeks, the Federal Reserve, long the guardian of the nation's banks, has redefined its role to also become protector and overseer of Wall Street.

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With its March 14 decision to make a special loan to Bear Stearns and a decision two days later to become an emergency lender to all of the major investment firms, the central bank abandoned 75 years of precedent under which it offered direct backing only to traditional banks.

Inside the Fed and out, there is a realization that those moves amounted to crossing the Rubicon, setting the stage for deeper involvement in the little-regulated markets for capital that have come to dominate the financial world.

Leaders of the central bank had no master plan when they took those actions, no long-term strategy for taking on a more assertive role regulating Wall Street. They were focused on the immediate crisis in world financial markets. But they now recognize that a broader role may be the result of the unprecedented intervention and are being forced to consider whether it makes sense to expand the scope of their formal powers over the investment industry.

"This will redefine the Fed's role," said Charles Geisst, a Manhattan College finance professor who wrote a history of Wall Street. "We have to realize that central banking now takes into its orbit everything in the financial system in one way or another. Whether we like it or not, they've recreated the financial universe."

The Fed has made a special lending facility -- essentially a bottomless pit of cash -- available to large investment banks for at least the next six months. Even if that program is allowed to expire this fall, the Fed's actions will have lasting impact, economists and Wall Street veterans said.

As they made a series of decisions over St. Patrick's Day weekend, Fed leaders knew that they were setting a precedent that would indelibly affect perceptions of how the central bank would act in a crisis. Now that the central bank has intervened in the workings of Wall Street banks, all sorts of players in the financial markets will assume that it could do so again.

Major investment banks might be willing to take on more risk, assuming that the Fed will be there to bail them out if the bets go wrong. But Fed leaders, during those crucial meetings two weeks ago, concluded that because the rescue caused huge losses for Bear Stearns shareholders, other banks would not want to risk that outcome.

More worrisome, in the view of top Fed officials: The parties that do business with investment banks might be less careful about monitoring whether the bank will be able to honor obscure financial contracts if they assume the Fed will back up those contracts. That would eliminate a key form of self-regulation for investment banks.

Fed leaders concluded that it was worth taking that chance if their action prevented an all-out, run-for-the-doors financial panic.

Those decisions were made in a series of conference calls, some in the middle of the night, against hard deadlines of financial markets' opening bells. Fed insiders are just beginning to collect their thoughts on what might make sense for the longer term.

"It has wrought changes far more significant than they were probably thinking about at the time," said Vincent Reinhart, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who was until last year a senior Fed staffer.


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