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As in any bank, operating costs are essentially fixed costs -- what it costs to manage the buildings, shredders, salaries of employees, security, overhead, etc., just like in any other business or government office.  It costs only trivially more to have a portfolio of $1 billion than it does to have a portfolio of $1 trillion, so this means that operating costs are not a relevant consideration for determining the size of a central bank's portfolio.

The Fed is a government arm which earns interest on its portfolio, but it is required to hand over all of its net profits to its real "owner," the US Treasury, so when the Fed owns government debt, regardless of how the Fed ended up with that debt in its portfolio, it is really just the US Treasury owing itself debt and paying itself interest.

That the Federal Reserve Banks technically have "shareholders" is not in any way similar to the way private corporations have shareholders.  The shareholding in the Fed refers to how banks are equitably charged (aka taxed) for the services of being regulated by the Fed and for having access to Fed lending, not to any "shares" in profits or to control over monetary policy in any way. National banks must pay the Fed, partly through a through a membership fee system, in order to be regulated by the Fed.

This means that US federal debt held by the Fed is really not debt at all.  The Fed could just declare that the debt no longer existed and nothing would happen. (And the reportedly high US debt to GDP ratio would fall from something over 90% to around 60%. Another word for this is "monetizing" the debt.) The reason the Fed doesn't do this is the belief that it needs an institutional means independent of Treasury or Congress to quickly take cash out of the financial system if inflation becomes a problem, and it does that by selling its federal debt holdings to the public in exchange for the public's cash, which is simply shredded when it arrives at Fed branches.  (Don't worry, they'll just print more if a bank needs more notes and sells Federal securities back to the Fed in exchange for cash.)

by santiago on Thu Oct 14th, 2010 at 12:46:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I didn't realise that Treasuries held by the Fed counted towards the sovereign debt. Does it work that way in all OECD countries, or are some places more sensible about aggregating the public sector?

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Thu Oct 14th, 2010 at 01:43:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That's a good question. I recently asked a Swedish banker if that was the case in Sweden or other European countries, and he didn't think it was.
by santiago on Fri Oct 15th, 2010 at 02:33:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I checked the page of the national debt office (Riksgälden) that handles the swedish national debt.

In the measurement of the unconsolidated debt, debt owned by government agencies is counted as debt, while in the measurement consolidated debt, debt owned by other government agencies is not counted as debt.

From that page, the international comparisons within the EU is based on the consolidated debt of the public sector, ie the consolidated debt of local, regional and national government.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Fri Oct 15th, 2010 at 04:20:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That sounds like the situation in the USA between Federal public debt, state public debt and municipal public debt. But all of these appear to be dwarfed by private sector debt, and most of the holders of debt don't have the same options as the Treasury and Fed. So if states, municipalities, corporations, private companies and individuals are to get out of debt they can only do so if either the Federal debt expands or they can export at a profit.

But debt that was based on counterfeit assets should be considered to be counterfeit debt and should be written down in a default like resolution. Even with such debt write-down, which had largely occurred during the Great Depression of the 1930 in the USA by 1933, government spending was still all that kept the system going -- really until after WWII.

Social perception and solidarity combined with government coercion via rationing and price controls during the war led to a large savings due to War Bonds and huge pent up demand that spurred a recovery that lasted until the wind-down from Viet Nam. And that recovery worked in the context of a quasi-gold standard, but the USA had the only large, intact economy left after the war.

This time the US Government has done all that it can to prevent the write down of bogus debt and devoted all efforts to propping up the vampire financial sector that is currently extracting ~$700 billion/yr from the productive and consumer economy, thanks to policies and regulatory forbearance, such as the Zero Interest Rate Policy or ZIRP combined with voracious interest rates and fees on individuals by the banking sector and the ability of TBTFs to borrow at zero and "invest" at whatever.

Were that $700 billion/yr injected into the base of the economy via infrastructure projects, increased benefits to retirees and unemployed, etc. And were policies, regulations and tax laws revised to favor domestic manufacturing, the real economy could start to recover.

Neither will the economy will recover with steadily rising energy costs, so investments in renewable energy would make possible a future in an environment of >$120/bl oil prices, which seems assured in any but a global collapse scenario. So renewable energy generation and both goods and passenger transportation via renewable energy both would help the economy recover from collapse and make a future possible in a post peak oil world.

The problems are more political than technical or resource constrained. Resource constraints can be dealt with if the power of economic incumbents can be overcome.    

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Oct 16th, 2010 at 01:27:48 PM EST
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