federal reserve notes

so today I was in line at the store with my lil bro, and the guy in front of us needs change for a 100. he asks the store manager if they have change, so they check the back. then some lady with box dreads comes up behind me and says stuff like “you know, money isn’t even real. check the bills they say federal reserve note. you don’t own that, the government does” and i’m nodding my head like yup she gets it. Then she starts saying stuff like “black people are also native Americans and that black is only a color, it cant be used to describe an entire culture or ethnic background” …and i’m standing there like…”i just came in to buy sprite and blunt wraps”

Initially, Federal Reserve notes were backed 40% by gold, and they were redeemable 100% in gold and silver. If you had a twenty dollar Federal Reserve note, it was an I.O.U. for twenty dollars. It was a ‘note’, which is a debt instrument, that’s why they’re called 'Federal Reserve notes’, because it’s a debt. It’s a liability to the Federal Reserve. And what did the Federal Reserve owe you? They owed you twenty dollars. What was twenty dollars? An ounce of gold; that’s what you were owed if you owned a Federal Reserve note. What are you owed now if you have a Federal Reserve note? Nothing! What is the Federal Reserve promised to pay you for a twenty dollar bill? Nothing! Two tens? Four fives? You don’t get anything. I don’t even know why they call it a note, yes, it’s technically a liability on their balance sheet, but they’re not liable for anything. They don’t have to pay you anything. It’s not real money. It was supposed to be real money, but it isn’t anymore. It’s no different than Monopoly money.
—  Peter Schiff

anonymous asked:

What is the Federal Reserve? Why is it bad? Or good? Why do weird right-wing types hate it? How does it work? How does money work in the Federal Reserve system and how would it work without it?

okay, i think i have enough time now to go back to posting and writing things, but first off i should post this thing that i’ve been sitting on.

The Federal Reserve is the central bank of America. Its functions and motives are rather arcane, quite deliberately, both because the maintenance of global capitalism is such a daunting task and to deter laymen from ever taking a peek. In practical terms, it’s a few things: a bank for all the nation’s banks, a bank for the government, the creator and regulator of money (technically the physical production of bills is a separate department under the Treasury but they’re totally under Fed control, coins is another department, the US Mint, but they do what the Fed says), an expression of the desires of banks, a regulator of banks, a payments system/clearing house, the main fighter of financial crises, and, since the US dollar is what trade between nations is conducted in, a regulator of global trade. It’s probably the single most powerful institution in capitalism, and certainly the one most responsible for its growth since WW2.

I’m gonna place this in historical context. The first two central banks in the world were the Swedish and English ones. In England in the 1600s, there was a lot of back and forth fighting between the long-dominant monarchy and the increasingly assertive parliament, which were to some degree representatives of the feudal and capitalist classes respectively. They had a whole civil war in the 1640s and 50s, and then things settled down for a while with the king still in charge. By the late 1680s, there were a lot of capitalists who were pissed off at the way the king was running the place, especially in financial terms. They organized and financed a coup against him, putting his daughter Mary and her husband William, the monarch of the Netherlands, in power. Consequently, those two agreed to the English Bill of Rights, which placed power over the kingdom’s finances squarely in the hands of parliament. Parliament then delegated these powers to a group of capitalists willing to lend them money, in exchange for the right to be the kingdom’s bankers and to found a bank for this purpose, the Bank of England. The founding of the Swedish central bank, the Riksbank, was fairly similar. The Swedish parliament came into possession of a defunct bank in 1668, and decided, as a way to assert the power of parliament over the king, to make it their own bank to finance their debts.

Now, to understand why both banks originated with debts, you have to understand what money is at its core. You can read a lot more in the works of A. Mitchell Innes, but I’ll sum it up. Say Hillary, Bernie, and Donald are friends. Hillary does something for Bernie on the basis of Bernie owing her a favour later. Say Hillary wants something from Donald, so she offers him Bernie’s favour, and Donald accepts. Now, Bernie’s debt to Hillary has become something that Hillary spent on something else. That is, Hillary’s credit (credit is the other side of a debt) is money. All money is an extension of this principle. This is why Marx calls it dead labour. Technically it embodies three characteristics: it holds value, it can be traded in some way, and it’s accepted by a wide enough group of people. This doesn’t mean it has to exist as a physical object. Bernie’s favour doesn’t. It does mean it has to represent a deferred payment, something owed to somebody, a debt. A state’s monopoly on force means that it’s easy to make something be all 3. It can quite easily say it owes something to somebody and then never pay it back.

In the 18th and 19th century though, everybody thought that gold had specific properties as money. They didn’t understand that it was debt that was the root of money, and thought gold was special in the way seemingly everybody valued it (gold of course was mostly valued by Europeans). Putting the value of your money only in terms of how much gold exists is known as the gold standard. It works fine for a remote agricultural community, but if you’re an industrializing nation, it puts a strain on your economy, since there’s usually less money than there are things that need to be paid for. This causes deflation, or an increasing value of money, and means that debt costs more and more to pay the longer it’s not paid off, something that benefits bankers and few other people. It typically means that holding money is better than spending it, which isn’t good for an economy that functions on people spending. The gold standard also forced austerity. If the government spent too much, it wouldn’t have enough gold on hand to pay for it. This created heavy economic instability, causing many crises since debt was a more serious matter than in an inflationary economy, and a poor economy couldn’t have government spending to resume growth. Normally, debts “amortize” themselves, or pay themselves back through the money made from whatever investment they’re spent on. For instance, if I take out money from the bank to build a factory, I can give the bank back some of the profit I’ve made as interest. In a deflationary economy though, the money I have to pay back keeps growing in value, making it a much steeper hill to climb and often getting me caught in dire straits when the profits don’t cover the interest. Suddenly, the bank controls me, since I now have to start taking money out of whatever else I’m doing to pay off that loan, like limiting my consumption of food. This is the key to why banks prefer deflation or low inflation to high inflation. If there’s lots of money going around, and money is worth less by the day, then it becomes a lot easier to pay off debt. In an economy with deflation, the banks instead gain power over others, forcing personal austerity. Only the intense population growth America went through in that era combined with the heavy use of scrip, or mediums of exchange between a small group like the employees of a company, kept the economy growing. Likewise, normally, industrial capitalists wouldn’t want a policy like this, since it limits the amount of money they can invest productively. America was a rather strange country though, since it had lots of available land after slaughtering the millions of people who lived on it. It was relatively easy for settlers to eke out a living that was more comfortable than what they’d get from factory level wages. By creating lots of economic crises, the gold standard caused many farmers to lose their land, forcing them into cities to work at whatever wages the factory owners would pay.

Now, hopefully you have a dollar bill somewhere. Take it out. That’s something specifically called a “Federal Reserve Note”. That indicates that it’s a debt from the Federal Reserve to whomever has it. It even has a little sentence that says “legal tender for all debts”. The Federal Reserve only came into being in 1913 though, so did everybody only use the coins produced by the United States Mint before then? In fact, banks were legally allowed to use their own debt as money, since the state that chartered banks would accept them as payment for taxes or other obligations, a system spelled out in the bank’s charter. Way back in the day, you even had banknotes that had the original owner of the debt’s name on them, that would then pass through many hands. Just imagine if every dollar bill in your pocket had the name of whoever it was first paid to on it! This put banks in control of the supply of money, since there was rarely enough gold and silver coins floating around to cover transactions. There were a few periods in which the American federal government tried to print its own money through a central bank, but these didn’t last because of opposition from Southern farmers which coalesced around President Andrew Jackson. At the time, printing of banknotes by the Second Bank of the United States was allowing industrialization in the north to proceed apace, but creating inflation that hurt the value of cotton and other commodities that southern farmers sold. Jackson refused to recharter the bank, causing it to fold. Some measure of liquidity was provided over the next few decades from government repurchases of its own bonds at a hefty premium, “paying down the debt” that it had borrowed from private banks, which benefited bankers primarily. Growing population meant that such tight monetary policies could be pursued even in the face of damage they caused. In 1861, the federal government again printed money to pay its debts in order to fight the Civil War. These banknotes, called Greenbacks, were printed in such numbers that they remain in circulation as legal tender today, although are very rare. It also allowed the chartering of national banks to create this money and accept deposits on a national scale, increasing the complexity of the banking system and making future crises much worse. These actions were important in making sure the American economy grew rapidly during these years, along with a move off the gold standard until 1879.

This whole system of banking is typically known as “fractional reserve”. Basically, banks can and want to lend more than they have on hand at any time, because it means they make money faster. When everybody panics and wants to get their money from a bank that doesn’t have enough banknotes and coins to give out though, the bank ends up folding, leading to whatever banks that bank owed money to also folding, and creating a crisis. Obviously, they can’t just create money at that point like they can in normal times because nobody trusts them to make good on their debts, and debt is the core of money. So everybody’s savings just go up in smoke and the economy collapses. This was considered a reasonable system for the entire 19th century in America because of the people it benefited, namely the rich, and because nobody really realized that gold wasn’t the only real money even when people were using things that clearly weren’t gold as money. The main way the state limited this was to deposit budget surpluses into banks around autumn, the time when banks needed liquidity on hand, and the previously alluded to buying back of state-debt that banks held, but this was a proverbial finger in the dyke. America was wracked continuously by major economic crises throughout the 1800s, including ones in 1873, 1882, 1893, and 1907. The last featured a major intervention by banker J.P. Morgan as well as other allies, who spent tens of millions of dollars buying bank stocks to prevent banks with “good debt” from failing. The Department of the Treasury simply didn’t have enough leeway to attack the causes of crises, leading to a discussion between 1908 and 1913 about how to rectify this issue, mostly centring on the creation of a central bank.

The general agreement of the time was that the board of directors for this bank should remain free from “political influence”, a codename for democracy. The Republicans of the time actually used this rhetoric to insist that the bank be outright dominated by bankers and answer in no way to the government, which would have kept control of money in the hands of America’s banks. State planners, however, had other ideas, and insisted on keeping state oversight as a sort of veto ability. They wished to ensure they could stop the bankers from getting out of hand while leaving no room for a possible democratic check on any single decision made, assuming a more populist Congress came to power. The whole thing came together under the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, under a Democratic administration. The central bank was, uniquely compared to other such institutions, 12 separate regional private banks, with the one based in New York City the most important, all with presidents who were answerable to a Senate-appointed Board of Governors that met in Washington D.C. to keep them on a close leash. Each of these banks work mostly like a normal bank, with lots of additional responsibilities and the caveat that only the government and other banks can have accounts with them. In fact, if you’re a bank and you want to gain the benefits of the Federal Reserve System, which includes being able to operate in more than one state, the ability to buy government debt when it’s made, and the ability to take out loans at the ultra low interest rates offered, you have to buy stock in your local Fed bank and have an account with them. That in turn gives the Federal Reserve the ability to dictate certain conditions to those banks, some of which benefit the government, some of which benefit the biggest private banks from which virtually all the staff come from in a “revolving door”. For instance, since the deposit in the Federal Reserve represents how much cash a bank has on hand, one of the conditions is that a bank must have a certain percentage of its total outstanding balances in that account in case of a bank run, improving the stability of the system.

One thing the Federal Reserve has is a monopoly over the creation of money, since virtually nobody nowadays would accept random banknotes as currency. In the real world though, this is subject to many caveats. First of all, that bills are actually printed by the treasury and then bought by the Federal Reserve, which gives them to banks. Second, that most money is actually made on paper or in computers rather than in real life. I don’t know if you’ve ever paid a bill at an ATM from another account, but that’s how over 90% of the money in the economy has moved since the Federal Reserve was formed, without a single physical bill changing hands. More importantly, the power to create money is still effectively held by banks. At any point, the banks can get a loan from the Federal Reserve, with simply a few keyboard presses (or earlier, a few numbers written) creating a debit and a credit on both banks’ balance sheets. Since that’s a debt coming into existence where none was previously, that’s money being made. The Federal Reserve basically never turns down a request for a loan, and banks mostly take out those loans any time they need money for a loan themselves. It’s like a more complicated version of the 1800s system. Instead of money going from each bank to each person, it goes from the Fed to each bank to each person on the bank’s request. One major change in this is one that helps out big banks. The Federal Reserve constantly looks at the rate banks are willing to lend money to each other on a day to day basis, the so-called “overnight” rate, or Federal Funds Rate. This gives an important clue to how the economy is doing. If banks aren’t willing to lend to each other, that means they’re scared that they won’t make any profits from doing so, indicating an economic crisis. The Federal Reserve wants to keep the Federal Funds Rate lower than the rate at which the Fed lends at, to make sure banks are still making money and to make sure that as little money as possible has to be created so that inflation is kept in check. When you see a news story about “interest rates going up at the Fed” or something similar, they’re talking about the FFR target. There’s two other rates, the “discount window” or “repo rate” for emergency funds, which the Fed keeps at 1%ish above the FFR, and the “prime rate” for normal lending, which the Fed keeps at 3%ish above the FFR. Those are the two rates that banks request money to be made at. On the government side, interest rate targeting plays an important role in class warfare. Lets say I’m a company with enough profitability that I can afford to pay an interest rate of 3% on my debt. Lets say the interest rate goes up to 4%. Suddenly, I have to increase that profitability or I go bankrupt. I can do this in a few ways, but the easiest is to cut costs. Best way to do that is to either get workers to accept lower wages, or fire some workers and make the others work longer hours or replace them with machines (or some combination, or even some other tactics). This forces companies to increase their rate of profitability or die. In the 1970s, it was felt that the business community was coddling their workers too much, endangering the rate of profit. Paul Volcker, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve at the time, fixed that by raising interest rates to 20%, inducing a recession and putting millions out of work. The deregulation of numerous industries and the Reagan administration’s decision not to bother enforcing labour laws, signalled by the 1981 PATCO strike, allowed companies to fire whomever they wanted. The opening of China and Eastern Europe to foreign investment, although slow-going at first, and the development of information technology that allowed supervision of supply chains at a distance allowed those lower wage workers to replace them. This cemented Neoliberal control of America.

When the federal government wants to pay for something, it’s not allowed to take out a loan directly from the Federal Reserve like banks are. This is because banks want to make money off of government debt, and so use their cartel power to prevent the government from borrowing directly. Instead, the government must issue its own debt through the Department of the Treasury, which fall into a number of categories. Since 1929, all have been sold through an auction-style process, because there’s so much demand for American-government debt that a sales process will make banks bidding lower and lower interest rates in the hopes of offering the lowest possible one to buy the debt. It functions as a sort of class of money more secure than money itself, and everybody wanted to have some to keep their money safe. American government debt comes in 4 classes: Treasury Bills, debt paid off within a year, Treasury Notes, debt paid off in 2-10 years, Treasury Bonds, debt paid off within 20-30 years, and TIPS, the same as before except their values are indexed to inflation. For the Federal Reserve to make a loan as described in the previous section, it must be backed by “physical assets”. Since US government debt counts as a “physical asset”, it’s highly sought after by banks. This means that whenever the government wants to do something, it can quickly find financing for whatever it wants, whether that’s invading Iraq and killing a million people, or giving jobs to every American citizen. Only 22 financial institutions have access to this bidding process. The thousands of other institutions must then hope to buy some Treasury “securities” (security simply means a financial asset that isn’t money itself) from those 22 banks when they want to sell. This number and the identities of these institutions can and do change.

The above two systems (the Federal Funds Rate and Treasury security auctions) play a part in what are known as “Open Market Operations”. The Federal Reserve uses a combination of the two to control the amount of money in existence at any given time. If too much money is in existence, then the FFR would be lower than the target, because it would be easy to get money if there was more supply than demand. The Fed would respond by selling Treasury securities to the banks, which would reduce the amount of money in existence, since when money goes into the Federal Reserve, it’s destroyed (the debt is cleared). If too little money is in existence, the FFR would be higher than the target, since the supply of money would be lower than the demand. The Fed would then pay for Treasury securities, buying them up to provide cash to the banks immediately in so-called “repo purchases”. The price at which banks can get money is hugely important in the economy. This is the first line of defence against crises, and is a considerable portion of what the Federal Reserve does. An entire separate board, the Federal Open Market Committee, consisting of a combination of the Board of Governors and the presidents of some of the Fed banks, meets every one to two months to discuss this. There, they in effect set the economic growth rate of the entire nation, since the interest that banks charge for their loans is based on the loans they themselves get. Your mortgage, for instance, is tied to the FFR. This is a key part of why libertarians hate the Fed. Since libertarianism is the political expression of rentiers, the expansion of the money supply tends to create inflation that lowers the values of the debts owed to them, while control of the money supply being under a government bureaucracy is anathema to their beliefs. What’s worse, the Federal Reserve, if ordered by the government, can use its money-creating powers to finance the government’s debt, which happened during WW2, making the government less responsive to the bond markets (and possibly more responsive to the people). If a government has to sell its debt on the free market, that means that capitalists who disagree with policies can refuse to buy the debt, forcing the government to change its ways. It also means that if the interest rates are higher than the rate of inflation, then debtholders will profit (if it’s lower than the rate of inflation, then at least they’ll lose less than if they were just holding money).

That’s one of the key purposes of Treasury Securities. Way back, just after the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson wanted a hard money policy to benefit landholders, while Alexander Hamilton wanted an inflationary policy to help industrialization. They feuded over the creation of a central bank and whether American debt would be monetized to effect a transfer of wealth from the notoriously stingy smallholders that made up the bulk of the population into the hands of the emerging financial class that could then invest in industrial capitalism. Hamilton won on the debt issue, while Jefferson won on the bank issue. The American government has since financed its debt largely by going to domestic institutions and selling a commodity at a level of reliability similar to gold. American banks know if they keep dollars, they’re going to inflate to some degree, while if they keep treasury securities, they’re going to be in much better shape over the long term. While the bond markets are easy to blame for the fucked up nature of American foreign policy, it’s only when an absolutely egregious violation of capitalist etiquette occurs that bond markets revolt, and even then, the American state can usually calm them down through some other method. It’s ultimately the American state that leads policy-making, enlisting bankers to assist but also making sure that the policies are pro-banker in the long term. The state is the responsible adult in the room, and the bankers are usually the petulant children, but those kids still need to grow up healthy if America’s going to be strong. Much is made of foreign countries buying up debt, but that’s because American imperialism encourages it. Since the American dollar is the global unit of trade, countries that are industrializing and exporting to America face dollar gluts. If they try to sell these dollars on the global market, they risk decreasing the value of the dollar through increasing the amount (again, supply and demand), while if they keep the dollars they make, they not only lose out on actually buying things, but inflation causes the value of those dollars to depreciate. Only Treasury Securities provide an adequate outlet for dollars, which leads to the irony of Chinese, Russian, and Iranian trade surpluses going to fund American military actions.

Another thing the Fed targets other than the FFR is the various indexes of inflation. The only major law defining the Fed’s responsibilities was the Federal Reserve Reform Act of 1977. This was back in those heady post-Watergate days when there was some effort by Congress to enact reforms that limited the imperial powers of the American government, and this was originally a bill that was going to do that. Fortunately for capitalism, it was rewritten under pressure and turned into a bill that expressly stated that the Fed was to pursue full employment only in the context of “price stability”, an early Neoliberal coup. That made getting people back to their jobs a secondary objective and protecting bank assets from being inflated away a primary one, and explicitly legitimated the large increase in interest rates, the “Volcker Shock”, that followed in 1978. Nowadays, people at Fed meetings barely even talk about employment, but inflation is still a top priority, despite runaway inflation only ever being a problem in times of sudden production collapse like a nuclear bomb attack, something that America definitely hasn’t been facing and won’t face soon. Officially, the inflation rate targeted is 2%, which would imply a modest rate of economic growth, but even this is too much for a lot of Fed officials, as shown by the recent increase in interest rates despite a current 1.4% inflation rate. The Fed is one of the top employers of economics graduates in the country. Since Neoliberals spent the last 40 years targeting the economic programs of America’s universities with millions of dollars in funding in exchange for ideological control over course material, they’ve instilled a heavy fear of inflation in those students. In turn, the Fed has become a locus of Neoliberal control, protecting the assets of rentiers before it does virtually anything for anybody else.

Federal Reserve power has traditionally been asserted and extended during financial crises, particularly in the Panic of 1907, the Great Depression, and the 1970s crisis. Much of what it does is simply to keep the regular conduct of banks from destroying capitalism. For instance, in a financial crisis, many banks will refuse cheques from other banks because they’re unsure of which banks are still in business and which banks aren’t. One of the Federal Reserve’s powers established it as a cheque clearing operation, so that banks could accept money from other banks without worry. This evolved into a country-wide payments system. Today, the Fed runs “Fedwire” and “FedACH”, a real time gross settlement system and clearing house, respectively. What that means is that the former takes each transaction and makes it occur immediately when filed, and the latter tallies up all of the transactions within a set period of time and see who owes what to whom (ie if I owe you $100 in the morning and you owe me $50 in the afternoon for separate things, then at the end of the day it takes $50 from my account and puts it in yours). The reason why these are Fed responsibility is because everybody keeps a deposit with the Fed, so it’s simply a matter of changing their books for them. Neither of these are politically relevant, but it’s one of the key functions of the Fed in keeping the economy running smoothly. This centralization does make it very easy for the government to cut off funds to a country, company, or person it doesn’t like though, like in the case of imposing sanctions.

The Federal Reserve is the first line of defence against banking crises, and is always coming up with new bullshit to save capitalism at the last minute. For instance, in the last crisis, there was a shortage of American dollars in foreign banks, so the Fed had to open facilities to move money into their hands, indicating just how global the American state’s capacity has to be in modern times. Another tactic that has drawn up major media attention is what’s known as “quantitative easing”. Since much of the problem with banks is that they had assets on books that were worth a certain amount on paper but couldn’t be sold for that amount, so-called “toxic loans”, the Federal Reserve announced that it would serve as a buyer for these assets, creating money that the banks would hopefully lend out and get the economy moving again (of course, banks simply invested the money in third world nations with higher interest rates for a guaranteed profit). A lot of US government policy towards the economy has to be handled in this way now, because Neoliberalism has made actual government intervention in the economy a red line for the business community, which prefer an institution staffed, advised by, and largely beholden to the private sector to manage things.

There’s also a Federal Reserve Police that only guards Federal Reserve buildings, and somehow three people have managed to die in the line of duty, which I think is hilarious.

Basically, the Fed, like many government institutions, is an awful being that protects capitalism from its own failings, and the only thing worse than it would be if it didn’t exist. You could pretty easily make the case for a good Fed, and I think it’s an important task that the left wing has completely disregarded since the 19th century. It used to be that a major goal of the left was to create a publicly-owned bank that would extend money at low or no interest rates to people who needed it most, especially in times of crisis. Hell, it was in the fucking Communist Manifesto. Nowadays though, the financial system has gotten so complex that nobody really wants to take any time to think about it when there are culture wars to fight that can get you published in Buzzfeed and bring you a paying job. It’s only libertarians with cushy think tank jobs that still agitate for free banking, which is why it’s only the right wing that ever talks about it, subsequently making it seem like something only the right wing should be concerned about.