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Is central banking the problem or the solution?

Francis Rivera

The fate of the global economy is held in the hands of very few people. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen is one of them; European Central Bank President Mario Draghi is one of them. There are others, but they don’t count nearly as much.

Welcome to the world of central banking, where the interplay of monetary policy decisions enacted by the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank will determine the payout on derivatives and other financial instruments representing hundreds of trillions of dollars.

{mosads}And if you think other issues or policies affecting your economic prospects are more important — or surely more interesting — than what central bankers choose to do in the next few months, think again. It doesn’t matter whether you care about a flat tax, ObamaCare reform, an immigration overhaul or bolstering the military. These issues deserve to get attention because they involve real economic and fiscal tradeoffs. But if the world heads into another financial crash on the scale of the last one, perhaps even bigger, there won’t be enough political oxygen in the campaign auditorium to deal with much else.

Remember what happened in late-September 2008, a mere six weeks before Election Day? Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the Republican presidential candidate, announced he was suspending his campaign to race back to Washington to discuss the bailout situation in light of the global financial crisis. “I cannot carry on a campaign as though this dangerous situation had not occurred, or as though a solution were at hand, which it clearly is not,” he said. “With so much on the line, for America and the world, the debate that matters most right now is taking place in the United States Capitol.”

Lest you have doubt that the market meltdown superseded every other political issue at that point, consider Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) declaration: “We need a solution on this financial crisis more than we need a foreign policy debate.”

For then-Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the Democratic presidential candidate, the 2008 crash was a windfall of sorts: It gave him the opportunity to demonstrate cool leadership under pressure. McCain had sought to rise above petty politics in showing his ability to prioritize, to drop everything in the face of global financial peril. But Obama quickly maneuvered to call his bluff, coordinating closely with leading Democrats to formulate a plan.

Ben Bernanke, who then chaired the Federal Reserve, was warning Congress and the White House about the potential collapse of the banking system; credit markets would seize up, dire economic consequences would follow. What should be done? When the rival presidential candidates, along with members of the House and Senate leadership, assembled in the Cabinet Room to discuss the urgent situation with then-President George W. Bush, one thing was obvious to then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson: “The Democrats had done their homework.”

Prepped by then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Obama cited the urgency of the situation and promised that Democrats would deliver the necessary votes to support an evolving bailout deal. McCain, who awkwardly demurred from proposing any alternative plan, found himself being challenged by Obama to articulate his own views. Aside from some general comments about the need to reach consensus, McCain had few suggestions. “As he spoke,” Paulson noted in his memoir On the Brink, “I could see Obama chuckling.”

So what happens if we get anything like a replay of the September 2008 debacle between now and November 2016? What if the central bankers get it wrong? What if Yellen and Draghi not only fail to anticipate the next global financial crisis, but inadvertently trigger it through misguided monetary policies?

Why isn’t anyone asking Hillary Clinton, or any of the leading Republican presidential candidates, what they would propose to do in the event the world is once more confronted with the prospect of going through the financial wringer and being left hung out to dry? Even more important: How would a future U.S. president seek to address global financial instability through serious reforms? It has been nearly seven years since we experienced the collapse described by Bernanke as “the worst financial crisis in global history, including the Great Depression.” Yet policymakers have neglected to make meaningful changes to the global financial architecture, even as the rise of financial complexity and bank interconnectedness across the world threatens a yet more spectacular collapse should things go wrong.

A report issued last month by the Bank of England notes that insufficient data exist on the scale of borrowing by emerging market countries in dollar-denominated instruments; it’s a disturbing revelation since, as the dollar appreciates, it becomes increasingly difficult for borrowers to repay these loans. Meanwhile, according to the Bank for International Settlements, the notional value of outstanding over-the-counter derivatives totals $691 trillion, which is higher than the amount held in June 2008 — and equals roughly nine times the value of global gross domestic product. Among the 30 firms that have been designated “systemically important financial institutions,” or SIFIs, holdings of derivatives have risen on average more than 50 percent since 2006. Sobering, too, is the fact that 92 percent of these financial contracts derive their value from interest rate or currency movements.

All of which explains the near-obsessive focus of global financial markets on the utterances of central bankers, which have the power to impact “trading assets” worth staggering amounts of money. One imprudent comment by Yellen or Draghi, one false move by a peripheral monetary authority, and it could all come tumbling down.

Which of the presidential candidates has the courage to say that the future of the global economy should not rest on such a fragile and error-prone structure? Where is the political leader who dares to suggest that a sound money foundation would provide a more stable platform for productive financial investment and global economic growth?

Americans should start demanding answers before we are asked to pay the price yet again for an unanticipated global financial crisis that is all too predictable.

Shelton, author of Money Meltdown, is a senior fellow at the Atlas Network and co-director of the Sound Money Project.

Tags Barack Obama Ben Bernanke Central banks ECB European Central Bank Federal Reserve Financial crisis George W. Bush Great Recession Hank Paulson Henry Paulson Janet Yellen John McCain Late-2000s financial crisis Lindsey Graham Mario Draghi

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