Ruling The World of Money: The Money Club – Part 2

by Edward Jay Epstein

The next three floors down are suites of offices reserved for the central bankers. All are decorated in three colors— beige, brown, and tan— and each has a similar modernistic lithograph over the desk. Each office also has coded speed-dial telephones that at a push of a button directly connect the club members to their offices in their central banks back home. The completely deserted corridors and empty offices, with nameplates on the doors and freshly sharpened pencils in cups and neat stacks of incoming papers on the desks, are again reminiscent of a ghost town. When the members arrive for their forthcoming meeting in November, there will be a remarkable transformation, according to Schleiminger, with multilingual receptionists and secretaries at every desk, and constant meetings and briefings.

On the lower floors are the BIS computer, which is directly linked to the computers of the member central banks and provides instantaneous access to data about the global monetary situation, and the actual bank, where eighteen traders, mainly from England and Switzerland, continually roll over short” term loans on the Eurodollar markets and guard against foreign-exchange losses (by simultaneously selling the currency in which the loan is due). On yet another floor, gold traders are constantly on the telephone arranging loans of the bank’s gold to international arbitragers, thus allowing central banks to make interest on gold deposits.

Occasionally there is an extraordinary situation, such as the decision to sell gold for the Soviet Union, which requires a decision from the “governors,” as the BIS staff calls the central bankers. But most of the banking is routine, computerized, and riskless. Indeed, the BIS is prohibited by its statutes from making anything but short-term loans. Most are for thirty days or less that are government guaranteed or backed with gold deposited at the BIS. The profits the BIS receives for essentially turning over the billions of dollars deposited by the central banks amounted to $162 million last year.

As skilled as the BIS may be at all this, the central banks themselves have highly competent staffs capable of investing their deposits. The German Bundesbank, for example, has a superb international trading department and 15,000 employees— at least twenty times as many as the BIS staff. Why then do the Bundesbank and the other central banks transfer some $40 billion of deposits to the BIS and thereby permit it to make such a profit?
One answer is of course secrecy. By commingling part of their reserves in what amounts to a gigantic mutual fund of short term investments, the central banks created’ a convenient screen behind which they can hide their own deposits and withdrawals in financial centers around the world. And the central banks are apparently willing to pay a high fee to use the cloak of the BIS.

There is, however, another reason why the central banks regularly transfer deposits to the BIS: they want to provide it with a large enough profit to support the other services it provides. Despite its name, the BIS is far more than a bank. From the outside, it seems to be a small, technical organization. Just eighty-six of its 298 employees are ranked as professional staff. But the BIS is not a monolithic institution: artfully concealed within the shell of an international bank, like a series of Chinese boxes one inside another, are the real groups and services the central bankers need-and pay to support.

The first box inside the bank is the board of directors, drawn from the eight European central banks (England, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, Sweden, and the Netherlands), which meets on the Tuesday morning of each “Basel weekend.” The board also meets twice a year in Basel with the central banks of other nations. It provides a formal apparatus for dealing with European governments and international bureaucracies like the IMF or the European Economic Community (the Common Market). The board defines the rules and territories of the central banks with the goal of preventing governments from meddling in their purview. For example, a few years ago, when the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris appointed a low-level committee to study the adequacy of bank reserves, the central bankers regarded it as poaching on their monetary turf and turned to the BIS board for assistance. The board then arranged for a high-level committee, under the head of Banking Supervision at the Bank of England, to preempt the issue. The OECD got the message and abandoned its effort.

To deal with the world at large, there is another Chinese box called the Group of Ten, or simply the “G-10.” It actually has eleven full-time members, representing the eight European central banks, the U.S. Fed, the Bank of Canada, and the Bank of Japan. It also has one unofficial member: the governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority. This powerful group, which controls most of the transferable money in the world, meets for long sessions on the Monday afternoon of the “Basel weekend.” It is here that broader policy issues, such as interest rates, money-supply growth, economic stimulation (or suppression), and currency rates are discussed-if not always resolved.

Directly under the G-10, and catering to all its special needs, is a small unit called the “Monetary and Economic Development Department,” which is, in effect, its private think tank. The head of this unit, the Belgian economist Alexandre Larnfalussy, sits in on all the G-10 meetings, then assigns the appropriate research and analysis to the half dozen economists on his staff. This unit also produces the occasional blue-bound “economic papers” that provide central bankers from Singapore to Rio de Janeiro, even though they are not BIS members, with a convenient party line. For example, a recent paper called “Rules versus Discretion: An Essay on Monetary Policy in an Inflationary Environment,” politely defused the Milton Friedmanesque dogma and suggested a more pragmatic form of monetarism. And last May, just before the Williamsburg summit conference, the unit released a blue book on currency intervention by central banks that laid down the boundaries and circumstances for such actions. When there are internal disagreements, these blue books can express positions sharply contrary to those held by some BIS members, but generally they reflect a consensus of the G-10.

Over A bratwurst-and-beer lunch on the top floor of the Bundesbank, which is located in a huge concrete building (called “the bunker”) outside of Frankfurt, Karl Otto Pohl, its president and a ranking governor of the BIS, complained to me in 1983 about the repetitiousness of the meetings during the “Basel weekend.” “First, there is the meeting on the Gold Pool, then, after lunch, the same faces show up at the G-10, and the next day there is the board which excludes the U.S., Japan, and Canada, and the European Community meeting which excludes Sweden and Switzerland.” He concluded: “They are long and strenuous-and they are not where the real business gets done.” This occurs, as Pohl explained over our leisurely lunch, at still another level of the BIS: “a sort of inner club.”