The Secret History of the Financial Crisis

PRINCETON – Balzac’s great novel Lost Illusions ends with an exposition of the difference between “official history,” which is “all lies,” and “secret history” – that is, the real story. It used to be possible to obscure history’s scandalous truths for a long time – even forever. Not anymore.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in accounts of the global financial crisis. The official history portrayed the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, and other major central banks as embracing coordinated action to rescue the global financial system from disaster. But recently published transcripts of 2008 meetings of the Federal Open Market Committee, the Fed’s main decision-making body, reveal that the Fed has effectively emerged from the crisis as the world’s central bank, while continuing to serve primarily American interests.

The most significant meetings took place on September 16 and October 28 – in the aftermath of the collapse of the US investment bank Lehman Brothers – and focused on the creation of bilateral currency-swap agreements aimed at ensuring adequate liquidity. The Fed would extend dollar credits to a foreign bank in exchange for its currency, which the foreign bank agreed to buy back after a specified period at the same exchange rate, plus interest. This gave central banks – especially those in Europe, which faced a dollar shortage as US investors fled – the dollars they needed to lend to struggling domestic financial institutions.

Indeed, the ECB was among the first banks to reach an agreement with the Fed, followed by other major advanced-country central banks, including the Swiss National Bank, the Bank of Japan, and the Bank of Canada. At the October meeting, four “diplomatically and economically” important emerging economies – Mexico, Brazil, Singapore, and South Korea – got in on the action, with the Fed agreeing to establish $30 billion swap lines with each of their central banks.