The New Lombard Street: How the Fed Became the Dealer of Last Resort

The New Lombard Street: How the Fed Became the Dealer of Last Resort

The New Lombard Street: How the Fed Became the Dealer of Last Resort

The New Lombard Street: How the Fed Became the Dealer of Last Resort

Synopsis

Walter Bagehot's Lombard Street, published in 1873 in the wake of a devastating London bank collapse, explained in clear and straightforward terms why central banks must serve as the lender of last resort to ensure liquidity in a faltering credit system. Bagehot's book set down the principles that helped define the role of modern central banks, particularly in times of crisis--but the recent global financial meltdown has posed unforeseen challenges. The New Lombard Street lays out the innovative principles needed to address the instability of today's markets and to rebuild our financial system.


Revealing how we arrived at the current crisis, Perry Mehrling traces the evolution of ideas and institutions in the American banking system since the establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913. He explains how the Fed took classic central banking wisdom from Britain and Europe and adapted it to America's unique and considerably more volatile financial conditions. Mehrling demonstrates how the Fed increasingly found itself serving as the dealer of last resort to ensure the liquidity of securities markets--most dramatically amid the recent financial crisis. Now, as fallout from the crisis forces the Fed to adapt in unprecedented ways, new principles are needed to guide it. In The New Lombard Street, Mehrling persuasively argues for a return to the classic central bankers' "money view," which looks to the money market to assess risk and restore faith in our financial system.

Excerpt

The financial crisis that started in August 2007 and then took a sharp turn for the worse in September 2008 has proven to require more than the Subprime Solution advocated by the Yale professor Robert Shiller, and to involve significantly greater loss than the Trillion Dollar Meltdown foreseen by Charles Morris. It is instead proving to be what Mark Zandi has called an “inflection point in economic history.” That means that we need a historical perspective in order to understand our current predicament and to see beyond it to a possible future.

The intellectual challenge of producing such an account is large, given the scope of the crisis that is transforming not only banking and financial institutions and markets but also the regulatory and supervisory apparatus within which those institutions operate, including most dramatically the role of the Federal Reserve. On this last point alone, textbooks still teach that the main task of the Fed is to control the short-term rate of interest in order to achieve a long-run inflation target. Ever since the crisis began, however, the Fed has instead been fighting a war, using every weapon at hand, including a number of new ones never used before.

“Lender of last resort” is the classic prescription for financial crisis. “Lend freely but at a high rate” is the mantra of all central bankers, ever since the publication of Walter Bagehot’s magisterial Lombard Street: a Description of the Money Market (1873). That is what the Fed did during the first stages of the crisis, as it sold . . .

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