December 17, 2015
ICYMI: Using the Fed to Fund Highways
Posted by David Zaring

Earlier this week, while on the road, I had a column in DealBook on the use of the Fed's balance sheet to fund the bipartisan highway bill.  I'm skeptical:

The bill exemplifies a new trend of legislative hostility toward the agency, which has expressed itself in Republican-sponsored bills calling for audits of the central bank, efforts to limit the Fed’s discretion in setting monetary policy and even calls for its dissolution.

Those bills had never gone far. But now, the tax-averse legislature has chosen to pay for new highway funding through two raids on the Fed’s budget. If this bill becomes law, it will represent a new and troubling interference by Congress in the affairs of the central bank.

The first raid drains the central bank’s “rainy day fund,” money set aside from revenue earned from its trading operations – it trades government debt to set monetary policy — to deal with the possibility of market losses.

The second raid reduces the dividend that the Fed has paid to its member banks. Since 1913, that dividend has been set at 6 percent. Under the highway bill, the new, lower dividend would track the rate of return on the 10-year Treasury note, currently around 2.2 percent, with the difference being used for highway funding.

Reactions and corrections welcome!

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