- James I. Clark III
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The Fed’s 2010 Profit? A Cool $81.7 Billion
The Federal Reserve made some serious money in 2010. The central bank’s profit soared to $81.7 billion, a record high, primarily from growing interest earnings on federal agency and government-sponsored enterprise mortgage-backed securities. The Fed’s balance sheet — which also can be monitored monthly — ballooned to $2.43 trillion, up $193 billion from 2009, as holdings of the Treasury Department and mortgage-backed securities increased. The Fed gave back $79 billion to Treasury in last year, an 68 percent increase over $47 billion the Fed returned in 2009. The Fed’s previous record high earnings was $53.4 billion.
In reaction to the financial crisis, the Fed acquired securities whose value had collapsed due to fear and uncertainty in markets. Additionally, the Fed created emergency lending programs for banks and firms, which further boosted its balance sheet. The central bank came under attack for taking too many risks with taxpayer money and putting itself in a position to endure losses. So far the Fed’s crisis-lending programs have earned handsome profits. The 2010 income rise primarily resulted from $24 billion in interest earnings from the $1.0 trillion mortgage-backed securities and agency bonds it bought to stabilize the housing market. As of last week, the Fed held a virtually identical quantity of such securities.
The Treasury Department plans to slowly sell its $142 billion portfolio of mortgage-backed securities. Although there’s no direct implication for Fed policy, the market reaction to the Treasury sale provides valuable input into how the central bank may go about selling its own significantly larger holdings, which analyst expect to take place early in 2012. That’s a significant increase over the $907 billion it held in August 2008, just before the financial crisis. To help the nation’s economy recover, the Fed has created massive amounts of credit to support the banking system and buy bonds.
Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Doug French notes that “Amongst the assets Mr. Bernanke and Co. are shepherding include sub-prime mortgage bonds that once belonged to American International Group (AIG). The Wall Street Journal reports that AIG would like to repurchase these bonds as a part of its attempt to break free from government control through a public stock offering. ‘Ahead of that, AIG wants to be able to show investors it is putting its cash to work and boosting investment income in its insurance units,’ reports the WSJ’s Serena Ng. The rub is that AIG is offering 53 cents on the dollar for the mortgage bonds. Maybe the Fed can do better in the marketplace.”