Can Central Banks Go Bankrupt?

Finnish crisis researcher Tuomas Malinen has for some time been predicting the collapse of the Western financial system, starting with the melt-down of the European Central Bank. Malinen, an associate professor of economics at the University of Helsinki, offers his views on his substack and elsewhere. He correctly warned in early/mid 2021 of coming inflation, which would present central bankers with severe challenges.

Among other things, by raising interest rates (to counter inflation), the banks necessarily cause the value of bonds to drop. However, a lot of the assets of the central banks consist of medium and long term bonds, especially those issued by sovereign governments. We have come to the point where some central banks are technically insolvent: the current cash value of their liabilities exceed their assets.

Is that a problem? Most authors I found did not seem to think so. For a normal private bank, as soon as the word got out that it was insolvent, customers would rush to withdraw their funds, in a classic “run on the bank”. Customers who waited too late to panic would simply lose their money, since there would not be enough assets on the bank’s balance sheet to cover all withdrawals.

However, no one seems to be in a hurry to beat down the doors of the Fed and demand their money. Most of the liabilities of the Fed are (a) paper currency in circulation, and (b) “Reserve” accounts of major banks at the Fed.

Bandyopadhyay, et al. note that negative equity in central banks (including those of smaller countries) is not uncommon; at any given time, about one out of seven central banks worldwide in the 2014-2017 timeframe suffered operating losses, some of which were large enough to wipe out their capital. However, most central banks are owned by, or have some other synergistic  relationship to , the governments of their respective countries. For instance, there is a standard contractual relationship between the Bank of England (BOE) and the British government. Thus, when the BOE recently fell into arrears, the government provided them with additional funds. This was apparently a routine non-event. (I don’t know where the government came up with those additional funds; did they just issue more bonds, which in turn were purchased by the BOE?)

The Fed, as a privately-owned public/private hybrid, technically has a more arms-length distancing from the U.S. Treasury. For instance, the Fed is not supposed to buy government bonds directly from the government. Rather, the government sells them to large banks, who in turn sell them to the Fed (if the Fed is buying). It is possible for the U.S. Treasury to transfer funds to the Fed to recapitalize it; but for now, the Fed is just booking losses as a “deferred asset”. Voila, the magic of central bank accounting. The presumption is that sometime in the future, the Fed will receive enough net income to overcome these losses.

The biggest debate is over the fate of the European Central Bank (ECB). Its relation to sovereign governments is even more arms-length; it is difficult to see all the European countries, with their own budget issues, agreeing to cough up money to give to ECB. As Malinen sees it, this likely leads to the “deferred asset” accounting scheme to handle negative equity for the ECB. He worries, “Will the markets or the banks trust the ECB after losses starts to mount forcing the Bank to operate with (large) negative equity? We simply do not know.” This is a weighty issue. As we noted earlier, “money” is in the end a social construct, an item of trust among parties for future payments of value. Central banks are the lenders of last resort, the source of money when it has dried up elsewhere; they regularly have to step into financial liquidity crises to inject more money to keep the system going. If people stopped accepted the keystroke-created money from central banks, the whole economy could freeze up.

A more sanguine view of central bank negative equity issues from MMT proponent Bill Mitchell. In his “Central banks can operate with negative equity forever” Mitchell heaps scorn on the very idea that central banks could run into solvency problems. He states that a “government bailout” is an inconsequential paper operation, merely transferring money from the left pocket to the right pocket of the government/central bank joint entity (as he views it). Furthermore, central banks have the capability of creating money out of thin air, so they can always meet their obligations and therefore can never be deemed insolvent:

The global press is full of stories lately about how central banks are taking big losses and risking solvency and then analysing the dire consequences of government bailouts of the said banks. All preposterous nonsense of course. It would be like daily news stories about the threat of ships falling off the edge of the earth. But then we know better than that. But in the economic commentariat there are plenty of flat earthers for sure. Some day, humanity (if it survives) will look back on this period and wonder how their predecessors could have been so ignorant of basic logic and facts. What a stupid bunch those 2022 humans really were.

The Bank of England Bought Bonds Last Week to Keep UK Pension Funds from Imploding

The ups and downs of the U.S. stock market are largely driven by the degree to which the Federal Reserve makes easy money available. After (ridiculously) insisting for most of 2021 that inflation was merely “transitory”, chairman Powell has finally put on his big boy pants and started to attack the problem by raising short term interest rates, and (only now) starting to reduce the Fed’s holdings of bonds. Massive buying of bonds is termed “Quantitative Easing” (QE), and its opposite is known as “quantitative tightening” or QT. QT can be accomplished by outright sales of bonds into the open market, or (as the Fed is doing) simply letting bonds mature and not replacing them with purchases of new bonds.

The specter of Fed tightening drove stock prices down all year, to a low in June. Then a new mantra began to circulate on Wall Street, that the Fed would relent at the first sign of economic slowdown, and hence would “pivot” back to easy money (low interest rate) policies. Stocks enjoyed 15% rise until stern speeches from the Fed in August convinced the Street that the Fed was going to stay the course until inflation is broken, and so stocks slumped back down to their June lows. Other major central banks like the European Central Bank and the Bank of England have likewise pledged tighter money policies in order to curb inflation.

However, stocks had a short-lived rally last Wednesday, when the Bank of England intervened in the markets by buying up long-term bonds. Aha, the central banks are caving at last! QE is back!!

It turns out that the reason the BOE intervened was not because of tight money conditions affecting general employment and income. Rather, there was a specific, technical reason. Many pension funds in the UK had entered into so-called “liability-driven investments” (LDIs), which involve interest rate swap agreements. I won’t try to explain the mechanical details of these beyond showing one figure:


In a stable world, these instruments allow pension funds to take money that they would have invested in boring, stable, low-interest bonds, and allocate it to (hopefully) higher-yielding investments such as stocks. But there is a huge catch, involving posting collateral, which in turn involves margin calls if the market price of long term bonds declines (as always happens when long-term interest rates go up).

The world has become less stable in the past six months, particularly since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. UK finances are shaky in the base case, and a proposal by the new prime minister for an unfunded tax cut that would exacerbate the budget deficit pushed the markets over the edge. Yields on British government bonds (“gilts”) surged, which would have triggered forced disastrous selling of assets (margin calls) by the pension funds at ever-lower prices.  This death spiral would have imperiled the solvency of these nationally-important funds. See here and here for more explanations.

Typical commentary:

…according to Cardano Investment’s Kerrin Rosenberg, most UK pension funds “would have been wiped out” were it not for the bond buying.

“If there was no intervention today, gilt yields could have gone up to 7% to 8% from 4.5% this morning and in that situation around 90% of UK pension funds would have run out of collateral,” Rosenberg told The Financial Times.

Will other central banks be forced to abandon money-tightening because of imperiled pension funds? The consensus seems to be probably not. The UK funds had a relatively high exposure to these derivatives, and British finances are in worse shape than most other major economies. That said, this is a cautionary example of the vulnerabilities of cleverly engineered financial instruments. In the end, there is no free lunch.