Ladies and Gentlemen, this is what a lender of last resort looks like. What you’re looking at here are three lines. The black line is Morgan Stanley’s market capitalization, which tends to hover in the $40 billion range but which fell as low as $9.8 billion in November 2008. The orange line is the amount that Morgan Stanley owed to the Federal Reserve on any given day — an amount which peaked at $107 billion on September 29, 2008. And the red line is the ratio between the two: Morgan Stanley’s debt to the Federal Reserve, expressed as a percentage of its market value. That ratio, it turns out, peaked at some point in October, at somewhere north of 750%. Many congratulations are due to Bloomberg, for extracting this information from the Fed after a long and arduous fight. It couldn’t have come at a timelier moment: if the ECB wants to avert a liquidity crisis, charts like this give a sobering indication of just how far it might have to go, and how quickly it might have to act.
On September 16, 2008, Morgan Stanley owed $21.5 billion to the Fed. The next day, that number doubled, to $40.5 billion. And eight working days later, on the 29th, the bank’s total borrowings from the Fed reached $107 billion. The Fed didn’t blink: it kept on lending, as much as it could, to any bank which needed the money, because, in a crisis, that’s its job.
The Fed likes to say that it wasn’t taking much if any credit risk here: that all its lending was fully collateralized, etc etc. But it’s really hard to look at that red line and have a huge amount of confidence that the Fed was always certain to get its money back. Still, this is what lenders of last resort do. And this is what the ECB is most emphatically not doing. I find it very hard to imagine the ECB lending some random European investment bank €100 billion just for the sake of keeping liquidity flowing.
And it’s frankly ridiculous that it’s taken this long for this information to be made public. We’re now fully ten months past the point at which the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission’s final report was published; this data would have been extremely useful to them and to all of the rest of us trying to get a grip on what was going on at the height of the crisis. The Fed’s argument against publishing the data was that it “would create a stigma”, and make it less likely that banks would tap similar facilities in future. But I can assure you that at the height of the crisis, the last thing on Morgan Stanley’s mind was the worry that its borrowings might be made public three years later. When you need the money, and the Fed is throwing its windows wide open, you don’t look that kind of gift horse in the mouth.
Every time the Fed fights tooth and nail to prevent certain information from being made public, and loses, there’s a certain feeling of anticlimax: we get the information, and ask what on earth is so dangerous about normal people knowing it. The Fed is one of the most vital and least trusted institutions in America, and there’s a reason why a book called End the Fed is still riding high in the Amazon charts, more than two years after it was published. If the Fed wants to get Americans back on its side — and it needs to get Americans back on its side — then it will have to stop fighting these silly battles against transparency. Especially since the release of this data has a lot to teach the Fed’s counterparts in Frankfurt.