As has been widely reported, the Federal Reserve announced today that it will start buying commercial paper directly from issuing companies. (Commercial paper, as expertly explained in last weekend’s episode of This American Life, is a short-term IOU that companies issue when they need to smooth out the short-term fluctuations in their bank balances; the issuer promises to pay $1 million in 7 days’ time and, for example, gets $999,000 from the lender immediately.) Highly experienced journalists have described this action as using the Fed’s “emergency powers,” although the Fed was itself careful not to use the word “emergency” in its press release. Rather, the terms and conditions released this morning cite the authorization of Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act. That section reads as follows (bold emphasis added; you don’t need to read it carefully, there won’t be a quiz):
3. Discounts for Individuals, Partnerships, and Corporations
In unusual and exigent circumstances, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, by the affirmative vote of not less than five members, may authorize any Federal reserve bank, during such periods as the said board may determine, at rates established in accordance with the provisions of section 14, subdivision (d), of this Act, to discount for any individual, partnership, or corporation, notes, drafts, and bills of exchange when such notes, drafts, and bills of exchange are indorsed or otherwise secured to the satisfaction of the Federal Reserve bank: Provided, That before discounting any such note, draft, or bill of exchange for an individual, partnership, or corporation the Federal reserve bank shall obtain evidence that such individual, partnership, or corporation is unable to secure adequate credit accommodations from other banking institutions. All such discounts for individuals, partnerships, or corporations shall be subject to such limitations, restrictions, and regulations as the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System may prescribe.
(“Discounting” just means that the Fed can loan the holder or issuer of the commercial paper a little less than the face value of the paper.)
So while the phrase “emergency powers” can be frightening, this doesn’t mean that martial law has been declared, or its financial equivalent; just that the Fed identified an “unusual and exigent circumstance” in the market. By this action, the Fed is intervening in the short-term credit market for ordinary companies directly; previously, its actions had been devoted to encouraging banks to provide short-term credit to those companies. We can infer from this that the Fed has decided that the previous strategy wasn’t working, at least not well enough. Because it bypasses the banking sector altogether to provide credit to the real economy, this should reduce borrowing costs for companies, which is a good thing. (The downside is that theoretically it creates exposure for the government, and hence the taxpayer, if any issuers default on their commercial paper.)
Still, though, this latest Fed action points out two concerns. First, the Fed still appears to be reacting to events as they arise rather than plotting a strategy to get ahead of the crisis and stop it in its tracks. (A set of steps that might stop a crisis of confidence, if announced in one fell swoop, could fail to have that effect if spread out over several weeks or months.) Second, there is no Congress in session, and there won’t be until after the election at the earliest. The election is only four weeks away, but as we have seen markets can shift significantly from one day to the next. Today’s action can be seen as a signal that the Fed will do whatever it takes to keep credit flowing until Congress can reconvene and develop a more fundamental set of solutions. Which is a good thing, assuming that Bernanke doesn’t run out of tools in his magic toolbox.