Ruling The World of Money: The Money Club – Part 3

by Edward Jay Epstein

The inner club is made up of the half dozen or so powerful central bankers who find themselves more or less in the same monetary boat: along with Pohl are Volcker and Wallich from the Fed, Leutwiler from the Swiss National Bank, Lamberto Dini of the Bank of Italy, Haruo Mayekawa of the Bank of Japan, and the retired governor of the Bank of England, Lord Gordon Richardson (who had presided over the G-10 meetings for the past ten years). They are all comfortable speaking English; indeed, Pohl recounted how he has found himself using English with Leutwiler, though both are of course native German-speakers. And they all speak the same language when it comes to governments, having shared similar experiences. Pohl and Volcker were both under secretaries of their respective treasuries; they worked closely with each other, and with Lord Richardson, in the futile attempts to defend the dollar and the pound in the 1960s. Dini was at the IMF in Washington, dealing with many of the same problems. Pohl had worked closely with Leutwiler in neighboring Switzerland for two decades. “Some of us are very old friends,” Pohl said. Far more important, these men all share the same set of well-articulated values ‘about money.

The prime value, which also seems to demarcate the inner club from the rest of the BIS members, is the firm belief that central banks should act independently of their home governments. This is an easy position for Leutwiler to hold, since the Swiss National Bank is privately owned (the only central bank that is not government owned) and completely autonomous. (“I don’t think many people know the name of the president of Switzerland-even in Switzerland,” Pohl joked, “but everyone in Europe has heard of Leutwiler.”) Almost as independent is the Bundesbank; as its president, Pohl is not required to consult with government officials or to answer the questions of Parliament-even about such critical issues as raising interest rates. He even refuses to fly to Basel in a government plane, preferring instead to drive in his Mercedes limousine.

The Fed is only a shade less independent than the Bundesbank: Volcker is expected to make periodic visits to Congress and at least to take calls from the White House-but he need not follow their counsel. While in theory the Bank of Italy is under government control, in practice it is an elite institution that acts autonomously and often resists the government. (In 1979, its then governor, Paolo Baffi, was threatened with arrest, but the inner club, using unofficial channels, rallied to his support.) Although the exact relationship between the Bank of Japan and the Japanese government purposely remains inscrutable, even to the BIS governors, its chairman, Mayekawa, at least espouses the principle of autonomy. Finally, though the Bank of England is under the thumb of the British government, Lord Richardson was accepted by the inner club because of his personal adherence to this defining principle. But his successor, Robin Leigh-Pemberton, lacking the years of business and personal contact, probably won’t be admitted to the inner circle.

In any case, the line is drawn at the Bank of England. The Bank of France is seen as a puppet of the French government; to a lesser degree, the remaining European banks are also perceived by the inner club as extensions of their respective governments, and thus remain on the outside.

A second and closely related belief of the inner club is that politicians should not be trusted to decide the fate of the international monetary system. When Leutwiler became president of the BIS in 1982, he insisted that no government official be allowed to visit during a “Basel weekend.” He recalled that in 1968, U.S. Treasury undersecretary Fred Deming had been in Basel and stopped in at the bank. “When word got around that an American Treasury official was at the BIS,” Leutwiler said, “bullion traders, speculating that the U.S. was about to sell its gold, began a panic in the market.” Except for the annual meeting in June (called “the Jamboree” by the staff ), when the ground floor of the BIS headquarters is open to official visitors, Leutwiler has tried to enforce his rule strictly. “To be frank,” he I have no use for politicians. They lack the judgment of central bankers.” This effectively sums up the common antipathy of the inner club toward “government muddling,” as Pohl puts it.

The inner-club members also share a strong preference for pragmatism and flexibility over any ideology, whether that of Lord Keynes or Milton Friedman. Rather than resorting to rhetoric and invoking principles, the inner club seeks any remedy that will relieve a crisis. For example, earlier this year, when Brazil failed to pay back on time a BIS loan that was guaranteed by the central banks, the inner club quietly decided to extend the deadline instead of collecting the money from the guarantors. “We are constantly engaged in a balancing act-without a safety net,” Leutwiler explained.

THE FINAL and by far the most important belief of the inner club is the conviction that when the bell tolls for any single central bank, it tolls for them all. When Mexico faced bankruptcy in the early eighties. The issue for the inner club was not the welfare of that country but, as Dini put it, “the stability of the entire banking system.” For months Mexico had been borrowing overnight funds from the interbank market in New York-as every bank recognized by the Fed is permitted to do-to pay the interest on its $80 billion external debt. Each night it had to borrow more money to repay the interest on the previous night’s transactions, and, according to Dini, by August Mexico had borrowed nearly one quarter of all the “Fed Funds,” as these overnight loans between banks are called.

The Fed was caught in a dilemma: if it suddenly stepped in and forbade Mexico from further using the interbank market, Mexico would be unable to repay its enormous debt the next day, and 25 percent of the entire banking system’s ready funds might be frozen. But if the Fed permitted Mexico to continue borrowing in New York, in a matter of months it would suck in most of the interbank funds, forcing the Fed to expand drastically the supply of money.

It was clearly an emergency for the inner club. After speaking to Miguel Mancera, director of the Banco de Mexico, Volcker immediately called Leutwiler, who was vacationing in the Swiss mountain village of Grison. Leutwiler realized that the entire system was confronted by a financial time bomb: even though the IMF was prepared to extend $4.5 billion to Mexico to relieve the pressure on its long-term debt, it would require months of paperwork to get approval for the loan. And Mexico needed an immediate 1.85 billion dollar loan to get out of the interbank market, which Mancera had agreed to do. But in less than forty eight hours, Leutwiler had called the members of the inner club and arranged the temporary bridging loan.

While this $1.85 billion appeared in the financial press to have come from the BIS, virtually all the funds came from the central banks in the inner club. Half came directly from the United States -$600 million from the Treasury’s exchange-equalization fund and $325 million from the Fed’s coffers; the remaining $925 million mainly from deposits of the Bundesbank, Swiss National Bank, Bank of England, Bank of Italy, and Bank of Japan, deposits that were specifically guaranteed by these central banks, though advanced pro forma by the BIS (with a token amount advanced by the BIS itself against the collateral of Mexican gold). The BIS undertook virtually no risk in this rescue operation; it merely provided a convenient cloak for the inner club. Otherwise, its members, especially Volcker, would have had to take the political heat individually for what appeared to be the rescue of an underdeveloped country. In fact, they were true to their paramount values: rescuing the banking system itself.

Inner club members publicly pay lip service to the ideal of preserving the character of the BIS and not turning it into a lender of last resort for the world at large. Privately, however, they will undoubtedly continue their maneuvers to protect the banking system at whatever point in the world it seems most vulnerable. After all, it is ultimately the central banks’ money at risk, not the BIS’s. And the inner club will also keep using the BIS as its public mask, and pay the requisite price for the disguise.