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鲍威尔连任如坐针毡

鲍威尔连任如坐针毡

Christopher Leonard 2021年11月29日
美国针对美联储和鲍威尔个人的审查均在加强。

自从大多数的现场新闻发布会因为新冠肺炎疫情而取消后,美联储(Federal Reserve)的主席杰罗姆·鲍威尔就变成了一个“绿野仙踪”式的人物。多数时候,他都在以屏幕上看不到身体的头部特写形象出现在公众视线中,针对美国的货币供应和经济发表严肃的声明。在今年9月的一次公开露面中,鲍威尔显得格外坚毅——当时,他必须着手解决一件对于中央银行来说很罕见的事件,即美联储高级官员的内幕交易丑闻。两名美联储高级官员的道德披露报告表明,他们在做出最终推高股票价格的决定时,个人也交易了数百万美元的股票。鲍威尔则让全世界知道,他对这种情况十分不满。

他严肃地表示:“没有人会对此感到满意。这是我们应该严肃对待的事情。对美联储来说,这是一个很关键时刻。我坚信,我们应该迎难而上,以经得起时间考验的方式来处理这一问题。”

在较为正常的情况下,人们可能会期望美联储主席在公开场合对其他美联储官员表示适度的支持态度。该机构很重视共识以及共事关系。但68岁的鲍威尔是世界上最强大的中央银行的主席,而且在他任期内的这个关键时刻,旧的规则早已不再重要。未来不仅难以预测,甚至还可能有严峻的危险在逼近。美联储只能即兴发挥,通过该事件来改写美国经济的部分规则。

现在,针对美联储和鲍威尔个人的审查均在加强。不断上涨的通胀率给美联储带来了压力,要求其缩减非常规刺激计划,并可能在明年加息。与此同时,鲍威尔的美联储主席任期将在2022年2月届满。白宫于11月22日宣布,美国总统乔·拜登已经提名鲍威尔连任美联储主席。现在,鲍威尔的连任必须获得分歧激烈的美国国会参议院批准。而参议院对经济和通货膨胀的担忧,无疑加剧了其针对美联储和鲍威尔连任的激烈争论。就在几个月前,有关鲍威尔连任的讨论看起来还只是形式上的。但参议员伊丽莎白·沃伦等左倾政客均已经对鲍威尔对华尔街的友好态度表示担忧。沃伦甚至批评鲍威尔是领导美联储的“危险人物”,因为他放松了针对大银行的监管手段。

美联储是一个独一无二的强大机构——它是世界上唯一能够凭空创造新美元的实体。而在过去十年左右的时间里,美联储以空前的规模行使了这项权力。2008至2014年期间,美联储创造的货币大约是其在1913至2007年期间所创造的三倍。换句话说,它将约300年的货币增长压缩到了短短几年的时间里。随后,当新冠肺炎疫情在2020年暴发时,美联储又在几个月内印制了约300年的货币——约达3万亿美元。

美联储所创造的货币并不会出现在普通美国人的银行账户中。相反,它只能够在华尔街是24家被称作“一级交易商”精英机构的银行金库中创造美元,包括摩根大通(J.P. Morgan)和花旗集团(Citigroup)等银行。美联储在印钞时,基本上就是在从事一种极端形式的涓滴经济学——将新的现金交给美国最大的银行,期望它们最终可以创造就业并提高薪资。美联储的扩张政策已经成为过去十年间美国经济增长的关键组成部分,但其后果可能才刚刚开始显现。

鲍威尔的批评者已经开始留心他在气候变化、种族不平等和银行监管方面的立场。但鲍威尔在美联储最具争议性的政策核心——华尔街债务机器中的工作经历所受到的关注仍然相对较少。鲍威尔曾经做过多年的私募股权交易人,创造并出售他后来身为美联储主席进行纾困的各种债务工具。不少人认为,鲍威尔向市场注入更多资金的激进策略在新冠肺炎疫情期间帮助维持了经济的稳定。该策略同样也让他在私募股权行业的前同行们受益良多。需要明确的是,没有迹象表明,鲍威尔在美联储任职期间采取了任何行动来直接帮助自己或其前雇主获取收益。但鲍威尔的职业生涯揭示了关于美联储和美国经济更深层次的现实。美联储的政策不仅仅是忙着解数学方程式的经济学博士技术官员的领域。美联储一直在制定打造赢家和输家的计划。但一次又一次,赢家都是像鲍威尔这样的人,以及让他成为富人的投资公司。

针对美联储在美国社会中所扮演角色的质疑越来越多,而鲍威尔对此一直很敏感。也许这也能够解释为什么他在处理此前的内幕交易丑闻时态度十分坚决,甚至丝毫不留情面。引发争议的美联储官员是美联储达拉斯联邦储备银行行长罗伯特·卡普兰和波士顿联邦储备银行行长埃里克·罗森格伦。两人均是美联储强大的联邦公开市场委员会(Federal Open Markets Committee)的成员,而该机构最为人熟知的职能是提高或降低利率。卡普兰和罗森格伦涉嫌在去年该银行审议重大金融救助措施期间,通过滥用内部信息来中饱私囊。鲍威尔在今年9月的新闻发布会上曾经明确表示,这两位行长的行为让自己的工作变得格外困难。

鲍威尔说:“我们非常明白,美国人民的信任对我们有效履行使命至关重要。”在明确了鲍威尔不会公开为他们辩护后,两位银行行长均选择辞职。卡普兰发表声明称,他在中央银行任职期间“遵守了美联储所有的道德准则及政策”。罗森格伦则在辞职信中解释说,他是因为身体健康问题而决意辞职的。他同样发表声明称,自己遵守了美联储所有的道德准则。(在应要求置评时,达拉斯和波士顿联邦储备银行都提到了罗森格伦和卡普兰此前就此事所发表的声明。)

鲍威尔比任何人都清楚,两位行长的辞职并不会解决美联储所面临的最严重的问题。股价飙升,私募股权公司的利润创下新高,但真正的美国经济正在遭受机能失调的困扰。数百万劳动力拒绝重返劳动力市场,虽然失业率在下降,但从汉堡包到汽油等各种商品的价格都在上涨。美联储看似有能力拯救华尔街,但它能够带给其他人的益处尚不明确。

人们常说鲍威尔是一位“律师”,但这其实跟称摩根大通的首席执行官杰米·戴蒙为“经济学家”的原因差不多——戴蒙本科曾经主修经济学。鲍威尔确实有法学博士学位。但从法学院毕业后,他很快就离开了公司法领域,转而投身公司交易领域工作。鲍威尔在该领域一直不断晋升,缓步而稳定地在华尔街和华盛顿两地的不同职位之间向上进阶,并最终成为了历史上最富有的美联储主席之一。21世纪初,鲍威尔曾经是凯雷投资集团(Carlyle Group)的合伙人。凯雷投资集团是一家私募股权公司,专门雇用前政府官员并利用他们的人脉关系来实现收益。在该集团,鲍威尔亲身体验了私募股权业务的债务驱动型商业模式。该模式为高级合伙人创造了数亿美元的利润,同时也让他们买卖的公司背上了债务并被迫裁员。巧合的是,这也是美联储过去十年间一直坚持鼓励的经济活动。多年的宽松货币政策为凯雷投资集团等私募股权公司提供了强劲的推助力,因为廉价债务正是这类公司命脉。它可以为私募股权公司野心勃勃的收购计划提供资金,甚至能够直接帮助此类公司支付员工薪资。(有关鲍威尔在私募股权领域的工作经历,以及他在美联储任职期间的关键因素等详细问题已经通过美联储的发言人米歇尔·史密斯递交给了鲍威尔本人。但鲍威尔并没有进行答复,而且拒绝为本文接受正式采访。)

鲍威尔在2012年刚开始担任美联储领事时,曾经针对美联储的宽松货币政策表示反对意见。他反对该政策的原因之一,是他本人曾经亲眼见证市场可能具备的危险性。但后来,他接受了此类政策。这也是他职业生涯的一个特点。鲍威尔一直是一位解决问题的能手,能够兼顾大金融机构和大政府双方的需求。

 

图片来源:Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

鲍威尔出生在美国华盛顿特区一个富裕的郊区,也在那里长大。他本科就读于普林斯顿大学(Princeton University),然后又回到家乡,在乔治敦大学(Georgetown University)学习法律。不久之后,他进入了金融公司Dillon Read & Co.工作,正式走入了华尔街的金融世界。Dillon Read & Co.公司的历史能够追溯到19世纪,一直在以各种不同的形式经营。该公司的合伙人都是冷血、高效、为金钱服务的人。几十年来,Dillon Read & Co.公司一直在为大公司之间的合并计划提供相关细节方面的咨询服务。而像鲍威尔这样的人,则通过在法学院读书学会了在Dillon Read & Co.公司取得成功的关键技能——谨慎。

鲍威尔就职Dillon Read & Co.公司期间的时任董事总经理凯瑟琳·奥斯汀·菲茨回忆说:“该公司的企业文化是非常私密的。”菲茨表示,Dillon Read & Co.公司的合伙人就像是汉萨同盟(一个形成于1300年代、主要在欧洲北部经营的商业联盟)的成员。“他们的口号是:‘与长期合作伙伴认真地做生意。’这句话完美地总结了Dillon Read & Co.公司的历史。”菲茨说道,“他们低调地经营着自己的业务。谨慎是最重要的。当然,人脉也很关键。他们非常重视长期人脉关系。”

鲍威尔与Dillon Read & Co.公司董事会主席尼古拉斯·F·布雷迪的密切关系,对他的人生产生了至关重要的影响。后者于1988年移居华盛顿,成为了罗纳德·里根总统的财政部部长。等乔治·H·W·布什总统上台后,鲍威尔离开Dillon Read & Co.公司加入了布雷迪所在的财政部。鲍威尔早年在私募股权领域获得的成就并没有太多资料可查,但是,“如果他能够进财政部,显然他就得到了布雷迪的信任。”菲茨说,“布雷迪可不傻。”

这种信任几乎立刻就得到了证实。

美国财政部内部爆发了一起丑闻,刑事欺诈行为、高风险衍生品合约以及一家“大到不能倒”的华尔街投资公司等均被牵涉在内。鲍威尔被要求帮忙解决这个烂摊子,大约是因为这件事情就发生在他眼皮底下。他当时是美国财政部的助理部长,负责国内金融事务,其中包括国债发行。1991年,美国财政部获悉,一级交易商所罗门兄弟(Salomon Brothers)一直在欺骗政府。该公司一位名叫保罗·莫泽的交易员正在利用空壳公司非法超额购买国债,企图垄断市场。1991年5月,所罗门已经利用这一骗局买了很多国债,当时发行的国库券有94%都被其拿到了手。

操纵投标行为暴露后,尼古拉斯·布雷迪取消了所罗门兄弟的“一级交易商(可以直接投标由美国财政部发行、美联储拍卖的国库券)”资格。所罗门的高层管理人员认为,布雷迪此举可能会毁掉公司。

据所罗门兄弟华盛顿办事处的董事总经理史蒂文·贝尔称,该公司开始努力争取从财政部手下求得生存。贝尔的团队在公司厨房设立了一个紧急办公室,他们在那里接打电话。贝尔回忆道,当时电话另一端的财政部官员是杰伊·鲍威尔。

贝尔认为,所罗门破产会导致其他华尔街公司跟着破产。“设想一下,要是你推倒了森林里最大的一棵树,它倒了,还撞倒了许多其他树,接着会发生什么事情?”贝尔在采访中说。因为鲍威尔在华尔街工作过,他会理解这个论点。

贝尔回忆道:“杰伊对市场很了解。他之前和布雷迪一起工作过,部长很信任他。”美国财政部最终决定,所罗门可以保留其一级交易商身份。贝尔一直认为这次胜利以及所罗门的存活是鲍威尔的功劳。“我知道杰伊对这件事情的处理意见起到了关键作用。”贝尔说。

鲍威尔在华盛顿的声望因为其高水平的办事能力而得到了提高。1997年,鲍威尔成为凯雷投资集团的合伙人后,充分利用了这种声望。

凯雷投资集团于1987年由吉米·卡特的前员工大卫·鲁宾斯坦等人共同创立。后者曾经提到过,位于美国首都的公司相对于纽约的私募股权公司会更具优势。凯雷专门买卖那些与政府做生意的企业,并聘请了前政府官员来为其提供帮助。凯雷的合伙人包括财政部前部长詹姆斯·贝克三世和国防部前部长弗兰克·卡鲁奇。退休总统乔治·H·W·布什是该公司的顾问。

鲍威尔加入凯雷投资集团时才四十多岁。他的办公室坐落于宾夕法尼亚大道公司总部大楼的二楼,离白宫不远。按照私募股权界的标准来看,凯雷的办公室算不上奢华。该公司的审美是功利主义导向的,墙上挂的是印制的再版画而不是原画,合伙人们用来开会的办公室也相当简陋,是律师事务所或保险公司随处可见的那种。“我们的办公室朴素又乏味,简直是个笑话。”凯雷的前合伙人兼董事总经理克里斯托弗·厄尔曼回忆道。这些合伙人大多将注意力放在了市场上,市场也给予了回报。当时有许多银行来到凯雷,向其合伙人寻求交易。鲍威尔的工作是筛选这些产品,就像翻阅目录一样,寻找最有潜力的交易。

与其他私募股权公司一样,凯雷投资集团从富人和养老基金等机构投资者那里筹集资金,将大笔资金投入凯雷用于收购公司的现金池中。其基本目标是对那些规模较小的公司进行投资、改善其经营状况后再卖掉它们。凯雷通常会持有一家公司大约五年,然后将其出售,最理想的情况是卖价比买价高。

债务是凯雷模式的关键。凯雷收购公司的钱,一部分是自己的资金,更大一部分是贷款。重要的是,这笔债务被压到了凯雷收购的公司身上。然后那家公司不得不努力工作来偿还贷款。这就像买了一栋房子,这房子能够自己赚钱还清自己的抵押贷款。

2002年,一项交易引起了鲍威尔的注意。位于密尔沃基的一家名为莱克斯诺(Rexnord)的工业集团正在寻找新的所有者。莱克斯诺是重工业高精度昂贵设备制造商,例如专用滚珠轴承和传送带等。它拥有私募股权合伙人最看重的东西,稳定的现金流,意味着该公司有能力偿还将要承担的债务。

两位熟悉凯雷业务的人士表示,收购莱克斯诺是鲍威尔在私募股权领域的高光时刻。这也是莱克斯诺自身的一个转折点,它迎来了一段负债累累、充斥着裁员、降薪和离岸外包等字眼的时期。

莱克斯诺的总部位于密尔沃基中西部一座不起眼的两层砖房内,旁边是一个大停车场,周围是工薪阶层居住的普通住宅区。这座建筑很简陋,但莱克斯诺赚了不少钱。该公司专门生产工业传送带和飞机专用滚珠轴承。

该公司的前首席财务官汤姆·詹森解释说:“它所制造的东西是推动世界发展的必需品。”该公司的年销售额一向稳定,每年约为7.55亿美元。詹森自20世纪80年代以来一直在莱克斯诺公司工作。杰伊·鲍威尔和凯雷投资集团的到来给他留下了深刻印象。“他们的说辞是,我们想帮助你们,我们想帮助你们发展。”詹森回忆道。

凯雷于2002年9月收购了莱克斯诺,其资金主要靠借债筹集而来,并被计入了莱克斯诺的资产负债表。该公司的债务水平立即从4.13亿美元跃升至5.81亿美元,其债务年利息额也从2002年的2400万美元上升至2004年的4500万美元。在莱克斯诺为凯雷所有的那几年里,莱克斯诺支付的年利息成本比其获得的年利润都要多。

这笔债务使莱克斯诺压力倍增。2003年年初,位于密尔沃基的莱克斯诺雇员同意接受平均每小时3美元的降薪措施,以及其他一些让步,以说服管理团队不要将70个工作岗位转移到北卡罗来纳州。密尔沃基的员工此前成立了工会,所以把这些工作岗位转移到南部一个没有组织工会的州可能会为公司节省开支。但詹森表示,凯雷团队对此举可能会招致的新闻报道很敏感。“他们非常、非常清楚,如果必须削减开支,我们就首先要对员工抱有尊重之心。他们不希望这件事情引发任何负面报道。”他回忆道。

到2005年年初,莱克斯诺仍然背负着超过5.07亿美元的债务,年利息成本是年利润的两倍。但杰伊·鲍威尔和该公司董事会认为,莱克斯诺还有进一步举债的空间。一个收购目标引起了他们的注意,这是位于密尔沃基的另一家老牌制造公司福尔克公司(Falk Corporation),生产齿轮传动和联轴器等工业部件。莱克斯诺的执行团队制定了一个购买方案,获得了3.12亿美元的杠杆贷款,并将该贷款计入了莱克斯诺的资产负债表,将该公司的年利息支出从4400万美元推高至6200万美元。莱克斯诺的总债务从5.07亿美元跃升至7.54亿美元。不过,此次收购也增强了莱克斯诺对外部买家的吸引力。该公司已经实现了产品线的多元化,扩大了业务范围,并且经营性现金流依旧十分稳定。

现在是凯雷投资集团套现的时候了。

凯雷找到了另一家私募股权公司阿波罗管理公司(Apollo Management)作为莱克斯诺的买家。阿波罗也制定了一个收购莱克斯诺的方案,就像凯雷所做的那样,借入新的杠杆贷款并将其加诸于莱克斯诺本身。阿波罗在这方面雄心勃勃,最终筹措到了18.25亿美元,是凯雷四年前出价的两倍多。

鲍威尔和他的团队获得了巨大的回报。很难确定鲍威尔到底从这笔交易中获得了多少利润,因为凯雷没有披露这些数据,但阿波罗的收购价比凯雷高出9亿多美元。据一位熟悉凯雷业务的人士透露,根据凯雷的投资规则,80%的利润将归于为收购出资的有限合伙人投资者所有,20%归于凯雷。凯雷投资集团到手的资金中,45%流向了他们所称的公司“母舰”,55%流向了杰伊·鲍威尔的团队。2018年的政府披露表显示,到2018年,鲍威尔的个人财富总额在2000万美元至5500万美元之间。

鲍威尔在这之后离开了凯雷。在私募股权界待了几年后,他加入了华盛顿特区的一家智库,之后于2012年被贝拉克·奥巴马总统提名为美联储理事。

莱克斯诺本身的表现则不尽如人意。鲍威尔留下的公司债台高筑。它的总债务负担在一年内从7.53亿美元跃增到了20亿美元,其债务年利息额从2005年的4400万美元增加到了2007年的1.05亿美元。该公司年利息支出大于年利润的情况将还要持续十多年,其成为了私募股权界的典型。它不再是一家利用债务来实现其目标的公司,它变成了一家以偿还债务为目标的公司。

2011年至2020年间,负债累累的莱克斯诺与美联储的宽松货币政策交织在一起。杰伊·鲍威尔就在其中。

杰伊·鲍威尔刚到美联储的时候,在某种程度上算是个煽动者。当时,美联储主席本·伯南克在2012年敦促联邦公开市场委员会成员承诺实施新一轮量化宽松政策,这是美国分别曾经在2008年和2010年施行过首轮和二轮的试验性政策。

量化宽松的名称很复杂,但目标很简单。这是一种美联储施行零利率或近似零利率政策后,向24家一级交易商的银行金库注入数千亿美元的一种方式。这种向银行系统注入流动性资金,同时消除人们通过储蓄来赚取利息的动机的策略,在金融市场上创造出了一股强大的力量,称为“寻找收益”。每一个拥有大量资金的人或机构,例如养老基金或保险公司,都在疯狂地寻找能够提供哪怕是很低收益率的投资目标。这就是为什么量化宽松政策会像股市一样推高资产价格。数十亿美元的新资金都在追逐同样的资产,进而推高了这些资产的价格。

其中一种广受欢迎的资产是凯雷投资集团等公司用于达成交易的公司债券,比如杠杆贷款和公司垃圾债券。凯雷这样的公司可以将这些债券打包出售给寻找收益的投资者。

根据联邦公开市场委员会推迟了五年公布的会议记录,杰伊·鲍威尔曾经发表声明称,他认为这很危险。美联储向杠杆贷款市场注入了太多资金,将价格推高到了不可持续的水平。

鲍威尔曾经在1月的联邦公开市场委员会会议上表示:“尽管金融状况总体上是积极的,但我们持续购买资产所造成的日益严重的市场扭曲也值得让人担心。”(他提到的“资产购买”是量化宽松的后果。美联储将资金转移到华尔街的方式是通过购买国债等资产增加基础货币供给。)鲍威尔发出警告说,美联储关于自己能够在泡沫破裂后收拾残局的认知是错误的。

他说:“无论如何,我们应该对自己可以通过监管或管理来应对这类大型动态市场事件这类认知抱有较高的警惕性,由于我们的政策,这类市场事件越来越有可能发生。”

另一位对宽松货币政策持批评态度的人是理查德·费希尔,他当时是达拉斯联邦储备银行的主席。在一次会议上,费希尔指出,量化宽松政策主要对几家股本公司和银行有利。

“我认为,量化宽松政策已经产生了财富效应,但主要是针对富人和那些动作比较快的人,比如巴菲特、KKR、凯雷、高盛集团(Goldman Sachses)、鲍威尔,也许还有费希尔之类,他们能够免费借贷并推动债券、股票和房地产价格走高,进而把利润收进自己的腰包。”费希尔在一次会议上说。他辩称,这不会像美联储期待的那样创造就业机会或提高工资水平。

伯南克以美联储需要做些什么的论点占了上风。在21世纪10 年代,美国国会似乎无力应对美国的经济事务,而美联储有能力采取行动。2013年,美联储实施了迄今为止规模最大的一轮量化宽松政策,创造了大约1.6万亿美元。

随着鲍威尔在美联储的地位提高,他对量化宽松政策的看法改变了。回顾鲍威尔在会议上的言论可以发现,他发出的警告先是有所软化,然后似乎消失不见了。

直到2014年6月,鲍威尔似乎仍然对美联储的宽松货币政策持谨慎态度。“实施宽松政策已经约有六年之久,而我们的现有风险依然在不断累积。”鲍威尔在一次会议中发言道。他更担忧的问题是未来“市场流动性错配将加剧大幅修正。考虑到美国经济如今仍然十分疲软,这一变化将损害经济的发展,也可能让经济陷入停滞。”他提到许多贸易商与对冲基金承担了巨额债务,从而增加了风险头寸。如果膨胀的资产价格开始暴露其真实价值,市场就将会下跌,贸易商将抛售资产,从而诱发价格暴跌。

然而,仅在七个月后,为回应对央行的指责,杰罗姆·鲍威尔在华盛顿的美国天主教大学(Catholic University)发表了演讲。当时,包括前众议员罗恩·保罗在内的自由党人士正呼吁加强对美联储的监督。鲍威尔表示,美联储之所以会遭到日益激烈的指责,都是因为大家受到了误导。

“实际上,美联储所采取的行动都是有效的、必要的、恰当的,而且完全符合美联储及央行的传统本职。”鲍威尔说道。自从鲍威尔成为美联储委员会主席,他所推出的政策一直受到内部警告,而在那场演讲中,他不遗余力地为这些政策辩白。他表示,量化宽松等“非传统政策”对于发展美国经济而言尤为重要,况且事实也证明,错的是反对这些政策的人。“2012年5月,我加入美联储委员会。当时,我也怀疑过进一步实施资产购买的效果与风险。”鲍威尔说道,“但我们要看数据说话:根据现有证据可见,这些政策带来了巨大的收益,风险也尚未出现。”

鲍威尔曾经就量化宽松政策的风险与美国联邦公开市场委员会的同僚们展开争论,而他此次对反对意见的辩驳也受到了同僚们的关注。

“我认为那次演讲是一次十分值得关注的转变。”达拉斯联邦储备银行前主席费希尔在一次采访中说道。他关注了6月至次年2月期间发布的研究报告与新数据集,未发现有证据能够推翻鲍威尔关于量化宽松及零利率的判断。

“在2015年,这种争论不可能停息,也不需要停息。”费希尔说道。他认为,更有可能受到冲击的其实是美联储委员会主席的影响力。“随着在任时间变长,身边的同事个个才思敏捷、学术造诣高超,对许多问题也保有自身的偏向。”费希尔解释道,“他所处的环境是封闭的,只要进到那个门厅,他面对的就是一种完全不同的氛围。在这种环境下,他和同僚们会更趋于平等。我觉得没有什么不好,这就是一种活跃的社交模式。”

在内部会议中,鲍威尔继续对量化宽松政策的效益抛出质疑。2015年9月,鲍威尔在美国联邦公开市场委员会上发言称:“在我看来,我们仅仅只是把资产购买看作一种次优方案。我记得我们从最开始就在讨论量化宽松的问题——我们不知道它会产生什么影响、会引发什么后果,更不清楚它具备何种政治经济特点。”然而就在同年年底,一份鲍威尔的发言报告发布。从报告中可见他争论与警告的语气正在趋向缓和,不再像以往一样犀利,也没有再提到“激烈的大范围”市场崩盘。

鲍威尔的言辞开始降温,杠杆贷款与风险债务市场却在不断升温。最能够反映当时经济状况的企业莫过于鲍威尔的致富公司:美国莱克斯诺工业集团。

自2010年起的十年间,瑞士信贷集团(Credit Suisse,简称瑞信)的一位董事总经理罗伯特·赫图为资助莱克斯诺的运营,持续为其提供并发放杠杆贷款。赫图所在的办公楼可俯瞰麦迪逊广场公园(Madison Square Park),然而他团队中的所有员工都在埋头工作,忙得根本没有时间欣赏美景。瑞信的贷款业务维持每周七天的高强度运转。有一次,赫图到中国香格里拉的一个豪华度假村休假。那时,他本来与家人一同搭着旅游巴士去乡野观光,却在途中和一位律师开了一次电话会议。他还记得当时有一群猪在过马路,车停了,而他还在打电话和客户交涉。“这就是我们的生活方式。你在得到回报的同时,也要做出一些牺牲。”赫图回忆道。

2012年3月,赫图以贷款的方式为莱克斯诺重筹10亿美元,其中的交易合同长达344页。在这344页中,几乎每一个文段的编写都经历了严格的审核与磋商,而这一过程也饱含双方焦虑的心情。一份成功的债务合同需要囊括大量紧密结合的要素,不仅要避免触发法律争端,还要吸引其他有意买债的外部投资者。这一业务模式运转的关键在于贷款。瑞信提供了大量的杠杆贷款,但他们的目的从来不是留住这些贷款。“我们做的不是储存业务,我们的业务是需要流通的。”赫图解释道。

这种流通业务的发展十分迅猛。当时,在量化宽松政策条件下,一大波现金涌入华尔街,为瑞信等银行创造了崭新的机遇,贷款业务的规模空前广阔。这些银行扩大业务规模的具体手段是出售贷款抵押券(CLO)——本质上是一种卖给投资者的杠杆贷款组合包。

当时,瑞信提供的贷款抵押券数量居行业前列。2010年至2014年上半年,瑞信共发放了11份贷款抵押券,总价值达67亿美元,由此成为第三大发行贷款抵押券的瑞士企业。这一进展为罗伯特·赫图与其团队的杠杆贷款专员开启了一条崭新的业务渠道。买家们开始风尘仆仆地来到瑞信的CLO门店,急切地寻求收益。与此同时,莱克斯诺的债券也被拆分,从而分配至瑞信的各种基金中。

赫图认为这其实是一种两难的局面。一方面,有来自投资者的压力,比如养老基金的投资者们都一窝蜂地跑去贷款。另一方面,私募股权公司,例如凯雷投资集团等,是新贷款的最佳来源。这些私募股权公司会利用杠杆创收。它们提供的杠杆贷款所签的合同十分简洁,略去了许多保护投资者权益的条款。即使如此,这些私募股权公司也一直维持这样的做法,形成了一种普遍现象。华尔街还给这种简化合同的贷款起了一个绰号,叫低门槛贷款(Cov-lite loans)。

赫图的工作便是将低门槛贷款推向市场,观察是否有人愿意购买。而答案是肯定的,这种贷款永远都有买家。一笔10亿美元的贷款可以被买家炒到20亿美元。由于低门槛贷款的需求十分旺盛,贷款方受到了鼓舞,开始继续坚持这类业务。瞄准高标准回报的投资者们能够获取的收益非常充足。即便曾经被视为一种奇特的贷款手段,低门槛贷款已然成为行业标准。2010年,低门槛贷款在杠杆贷款市场的占比不到10%;2013年,这一比例升至50%以上;2019年,低门槛贷款在所有贷款类型中的占比高达85%。

“其实挺难接受的。你如果去看那些人签的合同,心里可能会想:‘我的天。你真的知道你签的是什么东西吗?’”赫图说,“就像之前所说的,由于市场资金十分充裕,这些合同的条款只会变得越来越松弛。我们需要用贷款抵押券来促进资金流动。如今,市场里的交易数量并不多,人们看到什么就会买什么。”

莱克斯诺员工并未从这种企业贷款中受益。在印第安纳波利斯的滚珠轴承分部工厂上班的约翰·费纳特就是其中一位员工。由于承担了巨额债务,莱克斯诺开始设法裁剪支出。2016年,莱克斯诺宣布关停费纳特所在的工厂,将生产线移至墨西哥的新厂。当时,共350位美国员工遭到裁员。最终,费纳特在本地的一家医院找到了新工作,然而其薪资并不能够达到之前工会工人的水平。被莱克斯诺裁员后,费纳特十分痛苦,失去了高薪收入,也被打破了安稳的生活节奏。但在工作生涯中,他已经习惯了这种变故——先前,他是因为被另一家不错的制造企业解雇了,才会来到莱克斯诺。“我觉得这是一种新常态。总会习惯的。”他说。

到2018年年底,美国贷款抵押券市场规模约达6000亿美元,是十年前的两倍。其中,美国国内银行所持债券价值约达1100亿美元。2019年,美国的企业债务总额达到新高,约有10万亿美元,相比2010年增长了6万亿美元,其价值几乎占美国经济总量的一半,创下了新纪录。但是,若情况如同鲍威尔在2013年所警告的那样——杠杆贷款与企业债券双双暴跌,就可能出现更广泛的毁灭性经济后果。

2020年2月,从美国查出第一例新冠肺炎病例开始,这一后果就出现了。

3月16日起的那一周内,华尔街的人们目睹了他们从未想象过的状况。古根海姆投资公司(Guggenheim)的首席投资官斯科特·迈纳德在震惊之中见证了美国国债市场的基本冻结。这种情况意味着买卖双方均无法以指定价格进行美国国债交易。早在2008年,抵押债券市场也发生过类似的崩溃现象。然而,美国国债市场规模高达20万亿美元,一直处于极其安稳的状态。因此,这种变故令人毛骨悚然,也让人难以理解。

公司债券市场开始急剧下跌。迈纳德称,公司债“在市场最动荡的时候,买卖价差可达30%,而那是不可想象的”。

鲍威尔和美联储采取了进取的行动。鲍威尔执掌的美联储几乎祭出了本·伯南克在2008年和2009年所做的一切措施——将利率降至零、向国外银行提供美元的“国际掉期额度” (swap Lines)、购买抵押债券和商业票据——并在几周内完成了所有工作。不过,这仍然不够奏效:公司债市场还在继续下跌。

脆弱的公司债市场引爆了环环相扣的风险链,让银行系统岌岌可危。第一个危机,源自那些争相获得现金的负债公司。在一片恐慌情绪中,这些公司迅速利用被称为循环信贷工具的紧急债务来源,短时间内借到了一定额度的现金。在3月16日股市暴跌后,美国西南航空(Southwest Airlines)提取了10亿美元的循环信用贷款,希尔顿酒店集团(Hilton)拿到了17.5亿美元。而在接下来的一周,通用汽车公司(General Motors)也获得了160亿美元。这些迹象解释了银行股在几周内几乎腰斩的原因。尽管银行在努力应对市场波动,但很有可能被循环信贷工具榨干。

随之而来的第二个危机,有可能发生在公司开始出现债务和贷款违约的时候。这将迫使标准普尔(Standard & Poor)、穆迪(Moody)等债务评级机构降低诸如福特汽车(Ford)等公司的评级,让众多公司被归入垃圾债的行列。这一波降级潮看起来在所避免,将给大银行带来严重的后果。降级就像是CLO里的一枚鱼雷:风雨欲来的信用降级潮,会对CLO的价值会构成巨大风险。大多数CLO都包含允许银行仅可持有限量垃圾债的合同条款,如果CLO里的大量杠杆贷款被降级为垃圾贷,这就会违反合同,迫使其出售和替换垃圾债,或者减记整个CLO的价值。如果多个CLO同时抛售持有的股票,市场就有可能暴跌,由此也将危及到银行。仅在2019年,大型银行持有的CLO价值就跃升了12%,达到995亿美元。绝大部分CLO投资由摩根大通、富国银行(Wells Fargo)和花旗集团持有,占银行持有CLO总量的81%,而其中许多贷款就是赫图出售的那种把更多风险转移给投资者的低门槛贷款(Cov-lite)。

在3月20日的这个周末,鲍威尔为一个复杂的救助计划敲定了细节,由此也把美联储推向了新境地——这将是美联储历史上规模最大、影响最深远、意义最重大的一次干预。救助计划共有三项措施,其中前两项首次授权美联储可以直接购买公司债券。此举将产生深远的影响:一旦美联储购买公司债券,就无法走回头路了。华尔街投资人会带着渴求的目光,永远记住所目睹的一切——以后每当美联储要进行干预时,大家可能就会猜到下一步措施了。现在,从事交易公司债券和杠杆贷款的人士得到了一颗定心丸:如果市场崩溃,美联储会来拯救他们的。

鲍威尔进一步往前推动计划。美联储在4月9日宣布将扩大救助范围,购买风险更大、被评为垃圾债的债券。但是,对垃圾债的购买不是无限量的。美联储只购买在新冠疫情爆发前被评为投资级的债券。

同日,美联储还出台了另一项新措施——定期资产支持证券贷款工具(TALF)。如此一来,美联储便可以首次直接购买大量的CLO债券。这是美联储延伸安全网的重要之举,在数千亿CLO面临贷款减记风险时安抚了市场焦虑情绪,也对持有巨额CLO债券的大银行提供了支持。

美国联邦公开市场委员会没有对这一措施进行全员表决,因为这是一项紧急贷款行动,只需要少数理事成员的批准即可。没有文字记录新措施的决议过程,其中部分内容是在4月8日的闭门投票中一致通过的(投票者有鲍威尔、副主席理查德·克拉里达以及美联储理事兰达尔·夸尔斯、莱尔·布雷纳德和米歇尔·鲍曼)。

该措施让债券交易人士感到震惊,堪称是会改写历史的重大事件:宣布措施后,市场机制会发生巨变。

“从根本上来说,我们现在已经将信贷风险社会化,也永久改变了我们的经济运作本质。” 美联储顾问、古根海姆投资公司的迈纳德说。“美联储已经明确表示,将不会容忍谨慎型投资。”

这次救市不仅拯救了公司债市场,还为它增添了助力。到2020年年底,公司发行了超过1.9万亿美元的新公司债,超过了2017年创下的纪录。大量举债帮助凯雷投资集团等私募股权公司收获了前所未有的利润。10月底,凯雷投资集团发布报告称,今年第三季度的资产销售达到创纪录的140亿美元,同时还创纪录地向股东支付了7.306亿美元的收益。自今年年初以来,凯雷投资集团的股价飙升了约86%。

现在,鲍威尔迎来了职业生涯中最大的挑战。他在寻求连任的同时,必须想出撤回美联储的金融刺激措施且不让市场崩溃的对策。最近,鲍威尔表示美联储将开始放缓2020年3月以来涌入华尔街的新资金流。美联储曾经每月购买1200亿美元的资产,现在计划放缓或“减少”购买,目标是明年年中停止。

想要扭转量化宽松政策和加息,建立清晰的沟通机制和缓慢地循序渐进是最容易的做法。如此一来,金融交易人士能够有所预见,也可以逐步重新调整仓位,而不会因为出现资产抛售潮而造成市场恐慌。但是,外部环境正在迫使美联储加快脚步,宝贵的时间也越来越少。

由于大规模疫苗接种计划让经济得以重振,通胀持续火热,比多位分析师在今年年初的预测更久。此外,新冠疫情造成的供应链受阻问题继续存在,但需求却出奇的强劲,由此推升通货膨胀率达到了近年来的新高。这都反过来给美联储带来了压力,迫使其停止量化宽松政策后,要最早于明年夏天开始加息。

出现通货膨胀的不只是消费者物价。由于美联储的宽松货币政策,资产价格也超级火爆。股票暴涨得如此之快,价格如此之高,连最不可能担心的领域都表达了忧虑。10月,摩根士丹利(Morgan Stanley)的首席执行官詹姆斯·戈尔曼公开承认了许多资产交易员私下讨论的话题——股票市场已经成为泡沫,美联储应该对此采取措施。

“必须把这个泡沫刺破一点点.”戈尔曼在接受彭博电视(Bloomberg Television)采访时说。“现在可用的钱有点太自由、太多了。”

从历史来看,加息和撤销量化宽松政策的过程将充满坎坷且工程浩大。上一次美联储试图撤销量化宽松政策时拥有约4.5万亿美元的资产,而如今持有的资产达约8.6万亿美元。一旦美联储缓解了追求收益率的压力,公司债市场的稳定程度就有待观察了。但私募股权公司、对冲基金和华尔街的投机者们从过去几年里学到了一件事情,那就是:鲍威尔将为他们提供帮助。(财富中文网)

本文摘自由克里斯托弗·伦纳德撰写、西蒙舒斯特公司(Simon & Schuster, Inc.)出版的新书《THE LORDS OF EASY MONEY: How the Federal Reserve Broke the American Economy》。版权归克里斯托弗·伦纳德所有。未经许可,不得印刷。

译者:张翯、谢慧慧、陈书陶、Emily

自从大多数的现场新闻发布会因为新冠肺炎疫情而取消后,美联储(Federal Reserve)的主席杰罗姆·鲍威尔就变成了一个“绿野仙踪”式的人物。多数时候,他都在以屏幕上看不到身体的头部特写形象出现在公众视线中,针对美国的货币供应和经济发表严肃的声明。在今年9月的一次公开露面中,鲍威尔显得格外坚毅——当时,他必须着手解决一件对于中央银行来说很罕见的事件,即美联储高级官员的内幕交易丑闻。两名美联储高级官员的道德披露报告表明,他们在做出最终推高股票价格的决定时,个人也交易了数百万美元的股票。鲍威尔则让全世界知道,他对这种情况十分不满。

他严肃地表示:“没有人会对此感到满意。这是我们应该严肃对待的事情。对美联储来说,这是一个很关键时刻。我坚信,我们应该迎难而上,以经得起时间考验的方式来处理这一问题。”

在较为正常的情况下,人们可能会期望美联储主席在公开场合对其他美联储官员表示适度的支持态度。该机构很重视共识以及共事关系。但68岁的鲍威尔是世界上最强大的中央银行的主席,而且在他任期内的这个关键时刻,旧的规则早已不再重要。未来不仅难以预测,甚至还可能有严峻的危险在逼近。美联储只能即兴发挥,通过该事件来改写美国经济的部分规则。

现在,针对美联储和鲍威尔个人的审查均在加强。不断上涨的通胀率给美联储带来了压力,要求其缩减非常规刺激计划,并可能在明年加息。与此同时,鲍威尔的美联储主席任期将在2022年2月届满。白宫于11月22日宣布,美国总统乔·拜登已经提名鲍威尔连任美联储主席。现在,鲍威尔的连任必须获得分歧激烈的美国国会参议院批准。而参议院对经济和通货膨胀的担忧,无疑加剧了其针对美联储和鲍威尔连任的激烈争论。就在几个月前,有关鲍威尔连任的讨论看起来还只是形式上的。但参议员伊丽莎白·沃伦等左倾政客均已经对鲍威尔对华尔街的友好态度表示担忧。沃伦甚至批评鲍威尔是领导美联储的“危险人物”,因为他放松了针对大银行的监管手段。

美联储是一个独一无二的强大机构——它是世界上唯一能够凭空创造新美元的实体。而在过去十年左右的时间里,美联储以空前的规模行使了这项权力。2008至2014年期间,美联储创造的货币大约是其在1913至2007年期间所创造的三倍。换句话说,它将约300年的货币增长压缩到了短短几年的时间里。随后,当新冠肺炎疫情在2020年暴发时,美联储又在几个月内印制了约300年的货币——约达3万亿美元。

美联储所创造的货币并不会出现在普通美国人的银行账户中。相反,它只能够在华尔街是24家被称作“一级交易商”精英机构的银行金库中创造美元,包括摩根大通(J.P. Morgan)和花旗集团(Citigroup)等银行。美联储在印钞时,基本上就是在从事一种极端形式的涓滴经济学——将新的现金交给美国最大的银行,期望它们最终可以创造就业并提高薪资。美联储的扩张政策已经成为过去十年间美国经济增长的关键组成部分,但其后果可能才刚刚开始显现。

鲍威尔的批评者已经开始留心他在气候变化、种族不平等和银行监管方面的立场。但鲍威尔在美联储最具争议性的政策核心——华尔街债务机器中的工作经历所受到的关注仍然相对较少。鲍威尔曾经做过多年的私募股权交易人,创造并出售他后来身为美联储主席进行纾困的各种债务工具。不少人认为,鲍威尔向市场注入更多资金的激进策略在新冠肺炎疫情期间帮助维持了经济的稳定。该策略同样也让他在私募股权行业的前同行们受益良多。需要明确的是,没有迹象表明,鲍威尔在美联储任职期间采取了任何行动来直接帮助自己或其前雇主获取收益。但鲍威尔的职业生涯揭示了关于美联储和美国经济更深层次的现实。美联储的政策不仅仅是忙着解数学方程式的经济学博士技术官员的领域。美联储一直在制定打造赢家和输家的计划。但一次又一次,赢家都是像鲍威尔这样的人,以及让他成为富人的投资公司。

针对美联储在美国社会中所扮演角色的质疑越来越多,而鲍威尔对此一直很敏感。也许这也能够解释为什么他在处理此前的内幕交易丑闻时态度十分坚决,甚至丝毫不留情面。引发争议的美联储官员是美联储达拉斯联邦储备银行行长罗伯特·卡普兰和波士顿联邦储备银行行长埃里克·罗森格伦。两人均是美联储强大的联邦公开市场委员会(Federal Open Markets Committee)的成员,而该机构最为人熟知的职能是提高或降低利率。卡普兰和罗森格伦涉嫌在去年该银行审议重大金融救助措施期间,通过滥用内部信息来中饱私囊。鲍威尔在今年9月的新闻发布会上曾经明确表示,这两位行长的行为让自己的工作变得格外困难。

鲍威尔说:“我们非常明白,美国人民的信任对我们有效履行使命至关重要。”在明确了鲍威尔不会公开为他们辩护后,两位银行行长均选择辞职。卡普兰发表声明称,他在中央银行任职期间“遵守了美联储所有的道德准则及政策”。罗森格伦则在辞职信中解释说,他是因为身体健康问题而决意辞职的。他同样发表声明称,自己遵守了美联储所有的道德准则。(在应要求置评时,达拉斯和波士顿联邦储备银行都提到了罗森格伦和卡普兰此前就此事所发表的声明。)

鲍威尔比任何人都清楚,两位行长的辞职并不会解决美联储所面临的最严重的问题。股价飙升,私募股权公司的利润创下新高,但真正的美国经济正在遭受机能失调的困扰。数百万劳动力拒绝重返劳动力市场,虽然失业率在下降,但从汉堡包到汽油等各种商品的价格都在上涨。美联储看似有能力拯救华尔街,但它能够带给其他人的益处尚不明确。

人们常说鲍威尔是一位“律师”,但这其实跟称摩根大通的首席执行官杰米·戴蒙为“经济学家”的原因差不多——戴蒙本科曾经主修经济学。鲍威尔确实有法学博士学位。但从法学院毕业后,他很快就离开了公司法领域,转而投身公司交易领域工作。鲍威尔在该领域一直不断晋升,缓步而稳定地在华尔街和华盛顿两地的不同职位之间向上进阶,并最终成为了历史上最富有的美联储主席之一。21世纪初,鲍威尔曾经是凯雷投资集团(Carlyle Group)的合伙人。凯雷投资集团是一家私募股权公司,专门雇用前政府官员并利用他们的人脉关系来实现收益。在该集团,鲍威尔亲身体验了私募股权业务的债务驱动型商业模式。该模式为高级合伙人创造了数亿美元的利润,同时也让他们买卖的公司背上了债务并被迫裁员。巧合的是,这也是美联储过去十年间一直坚持鼓励的经济活动。多年的宽松货币政策为凯雷投资集团等私募股权公司提供了强劲的推助力,因为廉价债务正是这类公司命脉。它可以为私募股权公司野心勃勃的收购计划提供资金,甚至能够直接帮助此类公司支付员工薪资。(有关鲍威尔在私募股权领域的工作经历,以及他在美联储任职期间的关键因素等详细问题已经通过美联储的发言人米歇尔·史密斯递交给了鲍威尔本人。但鲍威尔并没有进行答复,而且拒绝为本文接受正式采访。)

鲍威尔在2012年刚开始担任美联储领事时,曾经针对美联储的宽松货币政策表示反对意见。他反对该政策的原因之一,是他本人曾经亲眼见证市场可能具备的危险性。但后来,他接受了此类政策。这也是他职业生涯的一个特点。鲍威尔一直是一位解决问题的能手,能够兼顾大金融机构和大政府双方的需求。

鲍威尔出生在美国华盛顿特区一个富裕的郊区,也在那里长大。他本科就读于普林斯顿大学(Princeton University),然后又回到家乡,在乔治敦大学(Georgetown University)学习法律。不久之后,他进入了金融公司Dillon Read & Co.工作,正式走入了华尔街的金融世界。Dillon Read & Co.公司的历史能够追溯到19世纪,一直在以各种不同的形式经营。该公司的合伙人都是冷血、高效、为金钱服务的人。几十年来,Dillon Read & Co.公司一直在为大公司之间的合并计划提供相关细节方面的咨询服务。而像鲍威尔这样的人,则通过在法学院读书学会了在Dillon Read & Co.公司取得成功的关键技能——谨慎。

鲍威尔就职Dillon Read & Co.公司期间的时任董事总经理凯瑟琳·奥斯汀·菲茨回忆说:“该公司的企业文化是非常私密的。”菲茨表示,Dillon Read & Co.公司的合伙人就像是汉萨同盟(一个形成于1300年代、主要在欧洲北部经营的商业联盟)的成员。“他们的口号是:‘与长期合作伙伴认真地做生意。’这句话完美地总结了Dillon Read & Co.公司的历史。”菲茨说道,“他们低调地经营着自己的业务。谨慎是最重要的。当然,人脉也很关键。他们非常重视长期人脉关系。”

鲍威尔与Dillon Read & Co.公司董事会主席尼古拉斯·F·布雷迪的密切关系,对他的人生产生了至关重要的影响。后者于1988年移居华盛顿,成为了罗纳德·里根总统的财政部部长。等乔治·H·W·布什总统上台后,鲍威尔离开Dillon Read & Co.公司加入了布雷迪所在的财政部。鲍威尔早年在私募股权领域获得的成就并没有太多资料可查,但是,“如果他能够进财政部,显然他就得到了布雷迪的信任。”菲茨说,“布雷迪可不傻。”

这种信任几乎立刻就得到了证实。

美国财政部内部爆发了一起丑闻,刑事欺诈行为、高风险衍生品合约以及一家“大到不能倒”的华尔街投资公司等均被牵涉在内。鲍威尔被要求帮忙解决这个烂摊子,大约是因为这件事情就发生在他眼皮底下。他当时是美国财政部的助理部长,负责国内金融事务,其中包括国债发行。1991年,美国财政部获悉,一级交易商所罗门兄弟(Salomon Brothers)一直在欺骗政府。该公司一位名叫保罗·莫泽的交易员正在利用空壳公司非法超额购买国债,企图垄断市场。1991年5月,所罗门已经利用这一骗局买了很多国债,当时发行的国库券有94%都被其拿到了手。

操纵投标行为暴露后,尼古拉斯·布雷迪取消了所罗门兄弟的“一级交易商(可以直接投标由美国财政部发行、美联储拍卖的国库券)”资格。所罗门的高层管理人员认为,布雷迪此举可能会毁掉公司。

据所罗门兄弟华盛顿办事处的董事总经理史蒂文·贝尔称,该公司开始努力争取从财政部手下求得生存。贝尔的团队在公司厨房设立了一个紧急办公室,他们在那里接打电话。贝尔回忆道,当时电话另一端的财政部官员是杰伊·鲍威尔。

贝尔认为,所罗门破产会导致其他华尔街公司跟着破产。“设想一下,要是你推倒了森林里最大的一棵树,它倒了,还撞倒了许多其他树,接着会发生什么事情?”贝尔在采访中说。因为鲍威尔在华尔街工作过,他会理解这个论点。

贝尔回忆道:“杰伊对市场很了解。他之前和布雷迪一起工作过,部长很信任他。”美国财政部最终决定,所罗门可以保留其一级交易商身份。贝尔一直认为这次胜利以及所罗门的存活是鲍威尔的功劳。“我知道杰伊对这件事情的处理意见起到了关键作用。”贝尔说。

鲍威尔在华盛顿的声望因为其高水平的办事能力而得到了提高。1997年,鲍威尔成为凯雷投资集团的合伙人后,充分利用了这种声望。

凯雷投资集团于1987年由吉米·卡特的前员工大卫·鲁宾斯坦等人共同创立。后者曾经提到过,位于美国首都的公司相对于纽约的私募股权公司会更具优势。凯雷专门买卖那些与政府做生意的企业,并聘请了前政府官员来为其提供帮助。凯雷的合伙人包括财政部前部长詹姆斯·贝克三世和国防部前部长弗兰克·卡鲁奇。退休总统乔治·H·W·布什是该公司的顾问。

鲍威尔加入凯雷投资集团时才四十多岁。他的办公室坐落于宾夕法尼亚大道公司总部大楼的二楼,离白宫不远。按照私募股权界的标准来看,凯雷的办公室算不上奢华。该公司的审美是功利主义导向的,墙上挂的是印制的再版画而不是原画,合伙人们用来开会的办公室也相当简陋,是律师事务所或保险公司随处可见的那种。“我们的办公室朴素又乏味,简直是个笑话。”凯雷的前合伙人兼董事总经理克里斯托弗·厄尔曼回忆道。这些合伙人大多将注意力放在了市场上,市场也给予了回报。当时有许多银行来到凯雷,向其合伙人寻求交易。鲍威尔的工作是筛选这些产品,就像翻阅目录一样,寻找最有潜力的交易。

与其他私募股权公司一样,凯雷投资集团从富人和养老基金等机构投资者那里筹集资金,将大笔资金投入凯雷用于收购公司的现金池中。其基本目标是对那些规模较小的公司进行投资、改善其经营状况后再卖掉它们。凯雷通常会持有一家公司大约五年,然后将其出售,最理想的情况是卖价比买价高。

债务是凯雷模式的关键。凯雷收购公司的钱,一部分是自己的资金,更大一部分是贷款。重要的是,这笔债务被压到了凯雷收购的公司身上。然后那家公司不得不努力工作来偿还贷款。这就像买了一栋房子,这房子能够自己赚钱还清自己的抵押贷款。

2002年,一项交易引起了鲍威尔的注意。位于密尔沃基的一家名为莱克斯诺(Rexnord)的工业集团正在寻找新的所有者。莱克斯诺是重工业高精度昂贵设备制造商,例如专用滚珠轴承和传送带等。它拥有私募股权合伙人最看重的东西,稳定的现金流,意味着该公司有能力偿还将要承担的债务。

两位熟悉凯雷业务的人士表示,收购莱克斯诺是鲍威尔在私募股权领域的高光时刻。这也是莱克斯诺自身的一个转折点,它迎来了一段负债累累、充斥着裁员、降薪和离岸外包等字眼的时期。

莱克斯诺的总部位于密尔沃基中西部一座不起眼的两层砖房内,旁边是一个大停车场,周围是工薪阶层居住的普通住宅区。这座建筑很简陋,但莱克斯诺赚了不少钱。该公司专门生产工业传送带和飞机专用滚珠轴承。

该公司的前首席财务官汤姆·詹森解释说:“它所制造的东西是推动世界发展的必需品。”该公司的年销售额一向稳定,每年约为7.55亿美元。詹森自20世纪80年代以来一直在莱克斯诺公司工作。杰伊·鲍威尔和凯雷投资集团的到来给他留下了深刻印象。“他们的说辞是,我们想帮助你们,我们想帮助你们发展。”詹森回忆道。

凯雷于2002年9月收购了莱克斯诺,其资金主要靠借债筹集而来,并被计入了莱克斯诺的资产负债表。该公司的债务水平立即从4.13亿美元跃升至5.81亿美元,其债务年利息额也从2002年的2400万美元上升至2004年的4500万美元。在莱克斯诺为凯雷所有的那几年里,莱克斯诺支付的年利息成本比其获得的年利润都要多。

这笔债务使莱克斯诺压力倍增。2003年年初,位于密尔沃基的莱克斯诺雇员同意接受平均每小时3美元的降薪措施,以及其他一些让步,以说服管理团队不要将70个工作岗位转移到北卡罗来纳州。密尔沃基的员工此前成立了工会,所以把这些工作岗位转移到南部一个没有组织工会的州可能会为公司节省开支。但詹森表示,凯雷团队对此举可能会招致的新闻报道很敏感。“他们非常、非常清楚,如果必须削减开支,我们就首先要对员工抱有尊重之心。他们不希望这件事情引发任何负面报道。”他回忆道。

到2005年年初,莱克斯诺仍然背负着超过5.07亿美元的债务,年利息成本是年利润的两倍。但杰伊·鲍威尔和该公司董事会认为,莱克斯诺还有进一步举债的空间。一个收购目标引起了他们的注意,这是位于密尔沃基的另一家老牌制造公司福尔克公司(Falk Corporation),生产齿轮传动和联轴器等工业部件。莱克斯诺的执行团队制定了一个购买方案,获得了3.12亿美元的杠杆贷款,并将该贷款计入了莱克斯诺的资产负债表,将该公司的年利息支出从4400万美元推高至6200万美元。莱克斯诺的总债务从5.07亿美元跃升至7.54亿美元。不过,此次收购也增强了莱克斯诺对外部买家的吸引力。该公司已经实现了产品线的多元化,扩大了业务范围,并且经营性现金流依旧十分稳定。

现在是凯雷投资集团套现的时候了。

凯雷找到了另一家私募股权公司阿波罗管理公司(Apollo Management)作为莱克斯诺的买家。阿波罗也制定了一个收购莱克斯诺的方案,就像凯雷所做的那样,借入新的杠杆贷款并将其加诸于莱克斯诺本身。阿波罗在这方面雄心勃勃,最终筹措到了18.25亿美元,是凯雷四年前出价的两倍多。

鲍威尔和他的团队获得了巨大的回报。很难确定鲍威尔到底从这笔交易中获得了多少利润,因为凯雷没有披露这些数据,但阿波罗的收购价比凯雷高出9亿多美元。据一位熟悉凯雷业务的人士透露,根据凯雷的投资规则,80%的利润将归于为收购出资的有限合伙人投资者所有,20%归于凯雷。凯雷投资集团到手的资金中,45%流向了他们所称的公司“母舰”,55%流向了杰伊·鲍威尔的团队。2018年的政府披露表显示,到2018年,鲍威尔的个人财富总额在2000万美元至5500万美元之间。

鲍威尔在这之后离开了凯雷。在私募股权界待了几年后,他加入了华盛顿特区的一家智库,之后于2012年被贝拉克·奥巴马总统提名为美联储理事。

莱克斯诺本身的表现则不尽如人意。鲍威尔留下的公司债台高筑。它的总债务负担在一年内从7.53亿美元跃增到了20亿美元,其债务年利息额从2005年的4400万美元增加到了2007年的1.05亿美元。该公司年利息支出大于年利润的情况将还要持续十多年,其成为了私募股权界的典型。它不再是一家利用债务来实现其目标的公司,它变成了一家以偿还债务为目标的公司。

2011年至2020年间,负债累累的莱克斯诺与美联储的宽松货币政策交织在一起。杰伊·鲍威尔就在其中。

杰伊·鲍威尔刚到美联储的时候,在某种程度上算是个煽动者。当时,美联储主席本·伯南克在2012年敦促联邦公开市场委员会成员承诺实施新一轮量化宽松政策,这是美国分别曾经在2008年和2010年施行过首轮和二轮的试验性政策。

量化宽松的名称很复杂,但目标很简单。这是一种美联储施行零利率或近似零利率政策后,向24家一级交易商的银行金库注入数千亿美元的一种方式。这种向银行系统注入流动性资金,同时消除人们通过储蓄来赚取利息的动机的策略,在金融市场上创造出了一股强大的力量,称为“寻找收益”。每一个拥有大量资金的人或机构,例如养老基金或保险公司,都在疯狂地寻找能够提供哪怕是很低收益率的投资目标。这就是为什么量化宽松政策会像股市一样推高资产价格。数十亿美元的新资金都在追逐同样的资产,进而推高了这些资产的价格。

其中一种广受欢迎的资产是凯雷投资集团等公司用于达成交易的公司债券,比如杠杆贷款和公司垃圾债券。凯雷这样的公司可以将这些债券打包出售给寻找收益的投资者。

根据联邦公开市场委员会推迟了五年公布的会议记录,杰伊·鲍威尔曾经发表声明称,他认为这很危险。美联储向杠杆贷款市场注入了太多资金,将价格推高到了不可持续的水平。

鲍威尔曾经在1月的联邦公开市场委员会会议上表示:“尽管金融状况总体上是积极的,但我们持续购买资产所造成的日益严重的市场扭曲也值得让人担心。”(他提到的“资产购买”是量化宽松的后果。美联储将资金转移到华尔街的方式是通过购买国债等资产增加基础货币供给。)鲍威尔发出警告说,美联储关于自己能够在泡沫破裂后收拾残局的认知是错误的。

他说:“无论如何,我们应该对自己可以通过监管或管理来应对这类大型动态市场事件这类认知抱有较高的警惕性,由于我们的政策,这类市场事件越来越有可能发生。”

另一位对宽松货币政策持批评态度的人是理查德·费希尔,他当时是达拉斯联邦储备银行的主席。在一次会议上,费希尔指出,量化宽松政策主要对几家股本公司和银行有利。

“我认为,量化宽松政策已经产生了财富效应,但主要是针对富人和那些动作比较快的人,比如巴菲特、KKR、凯雷、高盛集团(Goldman Sachses)、鲍威尔,也许还有费希尔之类,他们能够免费借贷并推动债券、股票和房地产价格走高,进而把利润收进自己的腰包。”费希尔在一次会议上说。他辩称,这不会像美联储期待的那样创造就业机会或提高工资水平。

伯南克以美联储需要做些什么的论点占了上风。在21世纪10 年代,美国国会似乎无力应对美国的经济事务,而美联储有能力采取行动。2013年,美联储实施了迄今为止规模最大的一轮量化宽松政策,创造了大约1.6万亿美元。

随着鲍威尔在美联储的地位提高,他对量化宽松政策的看法改变了。回顾鲍威尔在会议上的言论可以发现,他发出的警告先是有所软化,然后似乎消失不见了。

直到2014年6月,鲍威尔似乎仍然对美联储的宽松货币政策持谨慎态度。“实施宽松政策已经约有六年之久,而我们的现有风险依然在不断累积。”鲍威尔在一次会议中发言道。他更担忧的问题是未来“市场流动性错配将加剧大幅修正。考虑到美国经济如今仍然十分疲软,这一变化将损害经济的发展,也可能让经济陷入停滞。”他提到许多贸易商与对冲基金承担了巨额债务,从而增加了风险头寸。如果膨胀的资产价格开始暴露其真实价值,市场就将会下跌,贸易商将抛售资产,从而诱发价格暴跌。

然而,仅在七个月后,为回应对央行的指责,杰罗姆·鲍威尔在华盛顿的美国天主教大学(Catholic University)发表了演讲。当时,包括前众议员罗恩·保罗在内的自由党人士正呼吁加强对美联储的监督。鲍威尔表示,美联储之所以会遭到日益激烈的指责,都是因为大家受到了误导。

“实际上,美联储所采取的行动都是有效的、必要的、恰当的,而且完全符合美联储及央行的传统本职。”鲍威尔说道。自从鲍威尔成为美联储委员会主席,他所推出的政策一直受到内部警告,而在那场演讲中,他不遗余力地为这些政策辩白。他表示,量化宽松等“非传统政策”对于发展美国经济而言尤为重要,况且事实也证明,错的是反对这些政策的人。“2012年5月,我加入美联储委员会。当时,我也怀疑过进一步实施资产购买的效果与风险。”鲍威尔说道,“但我们要看数据说话:根据现有证据可见,这些政策带来了巨大的收益,风险也尚未出现。”

鲍威尔曾经就量化宽松政策的风险与美国联邦公开市场委员会的同僚们展开争论,而他此次对反对意见的辩驳也受到了同僚们的关注。

“我认为那次演讲是一次十分值得关注的转变。”达拉斯联邦储备银行前主席费希尔在一次采访中说道。他关注了6月至次年2月期间发布的研究报告与新数据集,未发现有证据能够推翻鲍威尔关于量化宽松及零利率的判断。

“在2015年,这种争论不可能停息,也不需要停息。”费希尔说道。他认为,更有可能受到冲击的其实是美联储委员会主席的影响力。“随着在任时间变长,身边的同事个个才思敏捷、学术造诣高超,对许多问题也保有自身的偏向。”费希尔解释道,“他所处的环境是封闭的,只要进到那个门厅,他面对的就是一种完全不同的氛围。在这种环境下,他和同僚们会更趋于平等。我觉得没有什么不好,这就是一种活跃的社交模式。”

在内部会议中,鲍威尔继续对量化宽松政策的效益抛出质疑。2015年9月,鲍威尔在美国联邦公开市场委员会上发言称:“在我看来,我们仅仅只是把资产购买看作一种次优方案。我记得我们从最开始就在讨论量化宽松的问题——我们不知道它会产生什么影响、会引发什么后果,更不清楚它具备何种政治经济特点。”然而就在同年年底,一份鲍威尔的发言报告发布。从报告中可见他争论与警告的语气正在趋向缓和,不再像以往一样犀利,也没有再提到“激烈的大范围”市场崩盘。

鲍威尔的言辞开始降温,杠杆贷款与风险债务市场却在不断升温。最能够反映当时经济状况的企业莫过于鲍威尔的致富公司:美国莱克斯诺工业集团。

自2010年起的十年间,瑞士信贷集团(Credit Suisse,简称瑞信)的一位董事总经理罗伯特·赫图为资助莱克斯诺的运营,持续为其提供并发放杠杆贷款。赫图所在的办公楼可俯瞰麦迪逊广场公园(Madison Square Park),然而他团队中的所有员工都在埋头工作,忙得根本没有时间欣赏美景。瑞信的贷款业务维持每周七天的高强度运转。有一次,赫图到中国香格里拉的一个豪华度假村休假。那时,他本来与家人一同搭着旅游巴士去乡野观光,却在途中和一位律师开了一次电话会议。他还记得当时有一群猪在过马路,车停了,而他还在打电话和客户交涉。“这就是我们的生活方式。你在得到回报的同时,也要做出一些牺牲。”赫图回忆道。

2012年3月,赫图以贷款的方式为莱克斯诺重筹10亿美元,其中的交易合同长达344页。在这344页中,几乎每一个文段的编写都经历了严格的审核与磋商,而这一过程也饱含双方焦虑的心情。一份成功的债务合同需要囊括大量紧密结合的要素,不仅要避免触发法律争端,还要吸引其他有意买债的外部投资者。这一业务模式运转的关键在于贷款。瑞信提供了大量的杠杆贷款,但他们的目的从来不是留住这些贷款。“我们做的不是储存业务,我们的业务是需要流通的。”赫图解释道。

这种流通业务的发展十分迅猛。当时,在量化宽松政策条件下,一大波现金涌入华尔街,为瑞信等银行创造了崭新的机遇,贷款业务的规模空前广阔。这些银行扩大业务规模的具体手段是出售贷款抵押券(CLO)——本质上是一种卖给投资者的杠杆贷款组合包。

当时,瑞信提供的贷款抵押券数量居行业前列。2010年至2014年上半年,瑞信共发放了11份贷款抵押券,总价值达67亿美元,由此成为第三大发行贷款抵押券的瑞士企业。这一进展为罗伯特·赫图与其团队的杠杆贷款专员开启了一条崭新的业务渠道。买家们开始风尘仆仆地来到瑞信的CLO门店,急切地寻求收益。与此同时,莱克斯诺的债券也被拆分,从而分配至瑞信的各种基金中。

赫图认为这其实是一种两难的局面。一方面,有来自投资者的压力,比如养老基金的投资者们都一窝蜂地跑去贷款。另一方面,私募股权公司,例如凯雷投资集团等,是新贷款的最佳来源。这些私募股权公司会利用杠杆创收。它们提供的杠杆贷款所签的合同十分简洁,略去了许多保护投资者权益的条款。即使如此,这些私募股权公司也一直维持这样的做法,形成了一种普遍现象。华尔街还给这种简化合同的贷款起了一个绰号,叫低门槛贷款(Cov-lite loans)。

赫图的工作便是将低门槛贷款推向市场,观察是否有人愿意购买。而答案是肯定的,这种贷款永远都有买家。一笔10亿美元的贷款可以被买家炒到20亿美元。由于低门槛贷款的需求十分旺盛,贷款方受到了鼓舞,开始继续坚持这类业务。瞄准高标准回报的投资者们能够获取的收益非常充足。即便曾经被视为一种奇特的贷款手段,低门槛贷款已然成为行业标准。2010年,低门槛贷款在杠杆贷款市场的占比不到10%;2013年,这一比例升至50%以上;2019年,低门槛贷款在所有贷款类型中的占比高达85%。

“其实挺难接受的。你如果去看那些人签的合同,心里可能会想:‘我的天。你真的知道你签的是什么东西吗?’”赫图说,“就像之前所说的,由于市场资金十分充裕,这些合同的条款只会变得越来越松弛。我们需要用贷款抵押券来促进资金流动。如今,市场里的交易数量并不多,人们看到什么就会买什么。”

莱克斯诺员工并未从这种企业贷款中受益。在印第安纳波利斯的滚珠轴承分部工厂上班的约翰·费纳特就是其中一位员工。由于承担了巨额债务,莱克斯诺开始设法裁剪支出。2016年,莱克斯诺宣布关停费纳特所在的工厂,将生产线移至墨西哥的新厂。当时,共350位美国员工遭到裁员。最终,费纳特在本地的一家医院找到了新工作,然而其薪资并不能够达到之前工会工人的水平。被莱克斯诺裁员后,费纳特十分痛苦,失去了高薪收入,也被打破了安稳的生活节奏。但在工作生涯中,他已经习惯了这种变故——先前,他是因为被另一家不错的制造企业解雇了,才会来到莱克斯诺。“我觉得这是一种新常态。总会习惯的。”他说。

到2018年年底,美国贷款抵押券市场规模约达6000亿美元,是十年前的两倍。其中,美国国内银行所持债券价值约达1100亿美元。2019年,美国的企业债务总额达到新高,约有10万亿美元,相比2010年增长了6万亿美元,其价值几乎占美国经济总量的一半,创下了新纪录。但是,若情况如同鲍威尔在2013年所警告的那样——杠杆贷款与企业债券双双暴跌,就可能出现更广泛的毁灭性经济后果。

2020年2月,从美国查出第一例新冠肺炎病例开始,这一后果就出现了。

3月16日起的那一周内,华尔街的人们目睹了他们从未想象过的状况。古根海姆投资公司(Guggenheim)的首席投资官斯科特·迈纳德在震惊之中见证了美国国债市场的基本冻结。这种情况意味着买卖双方均无法以指定价格进行美国国债交易。早在2008年,抵押债券市场也发生过类似的崩溃现象。然而,美国国债市场规模高达20万亿美元,一直处于极其安稳的状态。因此,这种变故令人毛骨悚然,也让人难以理解。

公司债券市场开始急剧下跌。迈纳德称,公司债“在市场最动荡的时候,买卖价差可达30%,而那是不可想象的”。

鲍威尔和美联储采取了进取的行动。鲍威尔执掌的美联储几乎祭出了本·伯南克在2008年和2009年所做的一切措施——将利率降至零、向国外银行提供美元的“国际掉期额度” (swap Lines)、购买抵押债券和商业票据——并在几周内完成了所有工作。不过,这仍然不够奏效:公司债市场还在继续下跌。

脆弱的公司债市场引爆了环环相扣的风险链,让银行系统岌岌可危。第一个危机,源自那些争相获得现金的负债公司。在一片恐慌情绪中,这些公司迅速利用被称为循环信贷工具的紧急债务来源,短时间内借到了一定额度的现金。在3月16日股市暴跌后,美国西南航空(Southwest Airlines)提取了10亿美元的循环信用贷款,希尔顿酒店集团(Hilton)拿到了17.5亿美元。而在接下来的一周,通用汽车公司(General Motors)也获得了160亿美元。这些迹象解释了银行股在几周内几乎腰斩的原因。尽管银行在努力应对市场波动,但很有可能被循环信贷工具榨干。

随之而来的第二个危机,有可能发生在公司开始出现债务和贷款违约的时候。这将迫使标准普尔(Standard & Poor)、穆迪(Moody)等债务评级机构降低诸如福特汽车(Ford)等公司的评级,让众多公司被归入垃圾债的行列。这一波降级潮看起来在所避免,将给大银行带来严重的后果。降级就像是CLO里的一枚鱼雷:风雨欲来的信用降级潮,会对CLO的价值会构成巨大风险。大多数CLO都包含允许银行仅可持有限量垃圾债的合同条款,如果CLO里的大量杠杆贷款被降级为垃圾贷,这就会违反合同,迫使其出售和替换垃圾债,或者减记整个CLO的价值。如果多个CLO同时抛售持有的股票,市场就有可能暴跌,由此也将危及到银行。仅在2019年,大型银行持有的CLO价值就跃升了12%,达到995亿美元。绝大部分CLO投资由摩根大通、富国银行(Wells Fargo)和花旗集团持有,占银行持有CLO总量的81%,而其中许多贷款就是赫图出售的那种把更多风险转移给投资者的低门槛贷款(Cov-lite)。

在3月20日的这个周末,鲍威尔为一个复杂的救助计划敲定了细节,由此也把美联储推向了新境地——这将是美联储历史上规模最大、影响最深远、意义最重大的一次干预。救助计划共有三项措施,其中前两项首次授权美联储可以直接购买公司债券。此举将产生深远的影响:一旦美联储购买公司债券,就无法走回头路了。华尔街投资人会带着渴求的目光,永远记住所目睹的一切——以后每当美联储要进行干预时,大家可能就会猜到下一步措施了。现在,从事交易公司债券和杠杆贷款的人士得到了一颗定心丸:如果市场崩溃,美联储会来拯救他们的。

鲍威尔进一步往前推动计划。美联储在4月9日宣布将扩大救助范围,购买风险更大、被评为垃圾债的债券。但是,对垃圾债的购买不是无限量的。美联储只购买在新冠疫情爆发前被评为投资级的债券。

同日,美联储还出台了另一项新措施——定期资产支持证券贷款工具(TALF)。如此一来,美联储便可以首次直接购买大量的CLO债券。这是美联储延伸安全网的重要之举,在数千亿CLO面临贷款减记风险时安抚了市场焦虑情绪,也对持有巨额CLO债券的大银行提供了支持。

美国联邦公开市场委员会没有对这一措施进行全员表决,因为这是一项紧急贷款行动,只需要少数理事成员的批准即可。没有文字记录新措施的决议过程,其中部分内容是在4月8日的闭门投票中一致通过的(投票者有鲍威尔、副主席理查德·克拉里达以及美联储理事兰达尔·夸尔斯、莱尔·布雷纳德和米歇尔·鲍曼)。

该措施让债券交易人士感到震惊,堪称是会改写历史的重大事件:宣布措施后,市场机制会发生巨变。

“从根本上来说,我们现在已经将信贷风险社会化,也永久改变了我们的经济运作本质。” 美联储顾问、古根海姆投资公司的迈纳德说。“美联储已经明确表示,将不会容忍谨慎型投资。”

这次救市不仅拯救了公司债市场,还为它增添了助力。到2020年年底,公司发行了超过1.9万亿美元的新公司债,超过了2017年创下的纪录。大量举债帮助凯雷投资集团等私募股权公司收获了前所未有的利润。10月底,凯雷投资集团发布报告称,今年第三季度的资产销售达到创纪录的140亿美元,同时还创纪录地向股东支付了7.306亿美元的收益。自今年年初以来,凯雷投资集团的股价飙升了约86%。

现在,鲍威尔迎来了职业生涯中最大的挑战。他在寻求连任的同时,必须想出撤回美联储的金融刺激措施且不让市场崩溃的对策。最近,鲍威尔表示美联储将开始放缓2020年3月以来涌入华尔街的新资金流。美联储曾经每月购买1200亿美元的资产,现在计划放缓或“减少”购买,目标是明年年中停止。

想要扭转量化宽松政策和加息,建立清晰的沟通机制和缓慢地循序渐进是最容易的做法。如此一来,金融交易人士能够有所预见,也可以逐步重新调整仓位,而不会因为出现资产抛售潮而造成市场恐慌。但是,外部环境正在迫使美联储加快脚步,宝贵的时间也越来越少。

由于大规模疫苗接种计划让经济得以重振,通胀持续火热,比多位分析师在今年年初的预测更久。此外,新冠疫情造成的供应链受阻问题继续存在,但需求却出奇的强劲,由此推升通货膨胀率达到了近年来的新高。这都反过来给美联储带来了压力,迫使其停止量化宽松政策后,要最早于明年夏天开始加息。

出现通货膨胀的不只是消费者物价。由于美联储的宽松货币政策,资产价格也超级火爆。股票暴涨得如此之快,价格如此之高,连最不可能担心的领域都表达了忧虑。10月,摩根士丹利(Morgan Stanley)的首席执行官詹姆斯·戈尔曼公开承认了许多资产交易员私下讨论的话题——股票市场已经成为泡沫,美联储应该对此采取措施。

“必须把这个泡沫刺破一点点.”戈尔曼在接受彭博电视(Bloomberg Television)采访时说。“现在可用的钱有点太自由、太多了。”

从历史来看,加息和撤销量化宽松政策的过程将充满坎坷且工程浩大。上一次美联储试图撤销量化宽松政策时拥有约4.5万亿美元的资产,而如今持有的资产达约8.6万亿美元。一旦美联储缓解了追求收益率的压力,公司债市场的稳定程度就有待观察了。但私募股权公司、对冲基金和华尔街的投机者们从过去几年里学到了一件事情,那就是:鲍威尔将为他们提供帮助。(财富中文网)

本文摘自由克里斯托弗·伦纳德撰写、西蒙舒斯特公司(Simon & Schuster, Inc.)出版的新书《THE LORDS OF EASY MONEY: How the Federal Reserve Broke the American Economy》。版权归克里斯托弗·伦纳德所有。未经许可,不得印刷。

译者:张翯、谢慧慧、陈书陶、Emily

Ever since COVID pandemic shut down most in-person news conferences, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome “Jay” Powell has become a figure something like the Wizard of Oz. He appears mostly as the disembodied head on a screen, delivering solemn pronouncements about America’s money supply and the economy. During one of these appearances in September, Powell appeared to be particularly stoic. He was forced to address something rare in the world of central banking—an insider trading scandal among his top lieutenants. Two senior Fed officials reported in ethical disclosure forms that they personally traded millions of dollars in stock shares at the very time that they were making decisions that ended up stoking stock prices. Powell let the world know that he was displeased with this situation.

“I think no one is happy,” he said sternly. “It’s something we take very, very seriously. This is an important moment for the Fed, and I’m determined that we will rise to the moment and handle it in ways that will stand up over time.”

In more normal times, a Fed Chairman might have been expected to offer at least a modicum of support for other Fed officials in public—the institution prizes consensus and collegiality. But Powell, 68, is chairman of the world’s most powerful central bank at a moment when the old rules don’t matter. Nothing is predictable, and profound danger looms on the horizon. The Fed is improvising as it goes, and in process it is rewriting some of the rules of the U.S. economy.

Now scrutiny is intensifying on the Fed, and on Powell personally. Rising inflation is putting pressure on the Federal Reserve to scale back its extraordinary stimulus programs and possibly raise interest rates next year. Meanwhile, Powell’s term as Fed chairman will expire in February. The White House announced Monday that President Joe Biden has renominated Powell to serve another term as chairman. But Powell must now face confirmation by a bitterly divided Senate, where anxiety about the economy and inflation has added fuel to a surprisingly contentious debate about the Fed and Powell’s tenure. The debate over Powell’s reappointment seemed pro-forma just months ago. But left-leaning politicians such as Senator Elizabeth Warren have raised concerns about Powell’s friendliness toward Wall Street. Warren went so far as to say Powell would be a “dangerous man” to lead the bank because of his preference for a lighter touch on bank regulation.

The Federal Reserve is a uniquely powerful institution: It is the only entity in the world that can create new U.S. dollars out of thin air. And the Fed has exercised this power on an unprecedented scale over the past decade or so. Between 2008 and 2014, the Federal Reserve created roughly three times as much money as it had created between 1913 and 2007. In other words, it crammed about 300 years’ worth of money growth into a few short years. And then when COVID hit in 2020, the Fed printed about another 300 more years’ worth of money in a period of months—some $3 trillion.

The Fed doesn’t create dollars in the bank accounts of ordinary Americans. Rather, it can only create dollars inside the bank vaults of 24 elite institutions on Wall Street, called “primary dealers,” which include banks like J.P. Morgan and Citigroup. When the Fed prints money, it essentially engages in an extreme form of trickle-down economics by giving new cash to the biggest banks in America in hopes that they will eventually create jobs and boost wages. The Fed’s expansionist policy has become a key component of U.S. economic growth over the past decade—with consequences that may only be taking hold now.

Powell’s critics have drawn attention to his stances on climate change, racial inequality, and bank rules. But what has gotten less attention is Powell’s career inside the Wall Street debt machine that is at the center of the Fed’s most controversial policies. Powell spent years as a private equity dealmaker, creating and selling the kinds of debt instruments that he later bailed out as Fed chairman. Powell’s radical actions to pump more money into markets, credited by many with keeping the economy afloat throughout the pandemic, have also greatly benefitted his former peers in the private equity business. To be clear, there is no indication that Powell has taken any actions at the Fed to directly enrich himself or his former employers. But Powell’s career illuminates the deeper realities about the Federal Reserve and the American economy. The Fed’s policies are not just the realm of technocrat PhD economists who are solving math equations. The Fed is enacting programs that create winners and losers. And the winners, time and again, are people like Jay Powell and the investment firms that made him rich.

Powell has been sensitive to the growing questions about the Fed’s role in U.S. affairs. This might help explain why he was uncompromising, even brutal, when it came to the recent insider trading scandal. The Fed officials in question—Robert Kaplan, president of the Fed’s regional bank in Dallas, and Eric Rosengren, president of the Boston bank—sat on the Fed’s powerful Federal Open Markets Committee, or FOMC, which is best known as the body that raises or lowers interest rates. They were accused of enriching themselves by abusing their access to inside information as the bank deliberated about major financial bailouts last year. During his press conference in September, Powell made clear that the bank presidents’ actions had made his job harder.

“We understand very well that the trust of the American people is essential for us to effectively carry out our mission,” Powell said. After it became clear that Powell would not defend them publicly, both bank presidents resigned. Kaplan released a statement saying that during his tenure at the central bank, he “adhered to all Federal Reserve ethical standards and policies.” Rosengren’s letter of resignation explained that he was stepping down due to health reasons, and he also released a statement saying that he had complied with all Fed ethics rules. (When asked for comment, both the Dallas and Boston Fed banks referred to earlier statements from Rosengren and Kaplan on the matter.)

Powell knows better than anyone that the dual resignations will not put to rest the biggest question about the Fed. Stock prices are soaring, private equity firms are booking record profits, but the real American economy is plagued by dysfunction. Millions of employees are refusing to return to the labor market, even as the unemployment rate falls, and prices are rising for everything from hamburger to gasoline. It seems that the Fed has been able to rescue Wall Street, but the benefit it provides everyone else seem less clear.

*****

Powell is often referred to as a “lawyer,” but that’s sort of like calling JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon an “economist” because of some classes he took in college. It’s true that Jay Powell has a law degree. But almost immediately after law school he abandoned the world of corporate law for the world of corporate deal-making. Powell’s ascent within this world was unbroken—a slow and steady upward rotation between jobs on Wall Street and in Washington—which ultimately made him among the wealthiest Fed chairmen in history. In the early 2000s, Powell was a partner at the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm that specialized in hiring former government officials and cashing in on their connections. At Carlyle, Powell learned firsthand about the debt-driven business model of the private equity business, which delivered hundreds of millions of dollars of profit to senior partners while saddling the companies they bought and sold with debt and downsizing. As it happened, this is exactly the kind of economic activity that the Fed has been relentlessly encouraging over the past decade. Many years of easy money policies have been rocket fuel for private equity firms like Carlyle Group because cheap debt is their lifeblood. It funds their ambitious takeover plans and even funds their paychecks directly. (Powell was provided with detailed questions about his private equity career and key elements of his tenure at the Fed through Federal Reserve spokeswoman Michelle Smith, but did not provide responses and he was not made available for an on-the-record interview for this story.)

When he joined the Fed in 2012, Powell argued against the bank’s easy money policies, in part he said because he’d seen firsthand how risky the market could become. But he later came to embrace them. This was characteristic of his career. Powell has always been a fixer, with a deft hand, who has helped accommodate the needs of big money and big government.

Powell was born and raised in a wealthy suburb of Washington, D.C. He went to Princeton, then came back home to learn about the world of law at Georgetown University. Shortly after, he plunged into the world of money on Wall Street when he joined the financial firm Dillon Read & Co. The company had been around, in one form or another, since the 1800s. Partners at Dillon Read were relentlessly effective servants of big money. For decades, when two big companies were plotting a merger, Dillon Read often got the call to handle the details. Legal training prepared someone like Jay Powell in a key skill set necessary for success at Dillon Read: discretion.

“The corporate culture was very private,” recalled Catherine Austin Fitts, a managing director at the firm during Powell’s tenure there. Fitts says that the partners at Dillon Read were like members of the Hanseatic League, a guild of merchants who operated in northern Europe during the 1300s. “Their tagline was ‘Serious business with long-term partners,’ which is a perfect description of Dillon, Read,” Fitts says. “They went about their things very quietly. Discretion was everything. And relationships. They really prized long-term relationships.”

One relationship was especially important for Powell. He became close with Dillon Read’s chairman, Nicholas F. Brady, who moved to Washington in 1988 to become the Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan. After George H. W. Bush was elected, Powell left Dillon Read to join Brady at Treasury. There is no more telling sign of Powell’s success during his early years in private equity. “He clearly had Brady’s trust, if he went to Treasury,” Fitts says. “Brady was no fool.”

Brady’s trust in Powell was validated almost immediately.

A scandal erupted inside the Treasury Department involving criminal fraud, risky derivatives contracts, and a too-big-to-fail Wall Street investment house. Powell was called upon to help fix the mess, in part because it had happened right under his nose. Powell was the assistant Treasury secretary for domestic finance, a job that put him in charge of issuing the government’s debt. In 1991, the Treasury department discovered that the trading firm Salomon Brothers, which was a primary dealer, had been defrauding the government. A trader at Solomon named Paul Mozer was using shell companies to buy up an illegally high proportion of Treasury bonds in a scheme to corner the market. In May 1991, Salomon used the scam to buy so many Treasury bills that it controlled 94% of the supply.

When the bid-rigging was exposed, Nicholas Brady moved to revoke Salomon Brothers’ special status as a “primary dealer,” which is what allowed the company to directly purchase Treasury Bills from the Fed, which auctions them on behalf of Treasury. Senior officials at Salomon believed Brady’s move might kill the company.

According to Steven Bell, who was managing director of Salomon Brothers’ Washington office, the firm started fighting to get a lifeline from the Treasury department. Bell’s team set up an emergency office in the company’s kitchen, where they worked the phones. The Treasury official on the other end of the phone line was Jay Powell, Bell recalled.

Bell believed that allowing Salomon to go broke would take down other Wall Street firms. “What if you knock down the biggest tree, and it collapses, and knocks down a lot of other trees in the forest?” Bell says in an interview. Powell would have understood this argument because of his background on Wall Street.

“Jay knew markets well. He had been with Brady earlier. He had the trust of the secretary,” Bell recalls. The Treasury Department eventually decided that Salomon could keep its designation as a primary dealer. Bell would always credit Powell with the victory, and with keeping Salomon alive. “I know that Jay was critical in informing Secretary Brady’s decision,” Bell says.

Powell’s reputation in Washington was enhanced by his high-level government service. In 1997, Powell was able to leverage this reputation when he became a partner at the Carlyle Group.

*****

Carlyle Group was cofounded in 1987 by David Rubenstein, a former staffer to Jimmy Carter, who said the company’s location in the nation’s capital was what gave it an advantage over private equity firms in New York. Carlyle specialized in buying and selling businesses that relied on government spending, and it hired former government officials to help it. Carlyle partners included James Baker III, a former Treasury secretary, and Frank Carlucci, a former defense secretary. President emeritus George H. W. Bush was an advisor to the firm.

Powell was in his mid-forties when he joined Carlyle. His office was on the second floor of the company’s headquarters building on Pennsylvania Avenue, not too far from the White House. The Carlyle offices were hardly lavish by the standards of private equity. The aesthetic at Carlyle was utilitarian. The company hung prints instead of original paintings, and the partners met in stripped-down conference rooms that could have been found in any law firm or insurance office. “Our offices were so boring and plain that it was a joke,” recalled Christopher Ullman, a former Carlyle partner and managing director. The partners kept their focus on the marketplace. And the marketplace returned the favor. A parade of banks came to Carlyle to advertise deals to its partners. Powell’s job was to sift through these offerings, like flipping through the pages of a catalog, seeking out deals with the most potential.

The Carlyle Group, like other private equity firms, went out and raised money from wealthy people and institutional investors, like pension funds, that put big chunks of money into a pool of cash that Carlyle would use to buy companies. The basic goal was to “invest, improve, and sell” those smaller companies. Carlyle typically held on to a company for about five years and then sold it, ideally for a profit.

Debt was key to Carlyle’s model. Carlyle bought companies using some of its own cash, which it super-charged by borrowing much more to fund the deal. Importantly, this debt was loaded onto the company that Carlyle bought. Then that company had to work hard to pay off the loan. It was like being able to buy a house that earned cash and paid off its own mortgage.

In 2002, one deal caught Powell’s attention. An industrial conglomerate called Rexnord, based in Milwaukee, was looking for a new owner. Rexnord made expensive high-precision equipment that was used in heavy industry, like specialty ball bearings and conveyor belts. It produced the thing that private equity partners valued above all—a steady cash flow. This meant the company was in a good position to pay down the debt that would be loaded on to it.

The Rexnord deal was Powell’s shining moment in the private equity world, according to two people familiar with Carlyle’s operations. It was also a turning point for Rexnord itself, ushering in a period of crushing debt, layoffs, pay cuts and offshoring.

*****

Rexnord’s headquarters were located in an unremarkable two-story brick building next to a big parking lot in west-central Milwaukee, surrounded by working-class neighborhoods of modest houses. The building was modest, but Rexnord made serious money. The company specialized in making highly engineered conveyor belts and specialized ball bearings used in airplanes.

“It made things that people needed to make the world move,” explained the company’s former Chief Financial Officer, Tom Jansen. The company’s annual sales were reliable, at about $755 million a year. Jansen had been working at Rexnord since the 1980s. He was impressed when Jay Powell and the Carlyle Group team arrived. “Their pitch was—we want to help you. We want to help you grow,” Jansen recalled.

Carlyle bought Rexnord in September 2002, funded mostly by corporate debt that was loaded onto Rexnord’s balance sheet. Rexnord’s debt level instantly jumped from $413 million to $581 million and its annual interest payments on debt rose from $24 million in 2002 to $45 million in 2004. Rexnord would pay more money on interest costs than it earned in profit during every full year that Carlyle owned it.

The debt put pressure on Rexnord. In early 2003, Rexnord employees in Milwaukee agreed to take an average pay cut of $3 an hour, along with other concessions, to convince the management team not to move seventy jobs to North Carolina. The Milwaukee employees were unionized, and so moving those jobs to a nonunionized southern state might have saved Rexnord money. But Jansen says the Carlyle team was sensitive about the headlines such an action might create. “They were very, very aware that if cuts had to be made, we had to make them with respect. Treat people with respect. They did not want any bad publicity at all over this stuff,” he recalled.

By early 2005, Rexnord still carried more than $507 million in debt and paid twice as much money on interest costs than it earned in profit. But Jay Powell, and the company’s board of directors, decided that there was room for Rexnord to borrow more. A corporate takeover target caught their eye—it was another old-line manufacturing firm based in Milwaukee, called Falk Corporation, which made industrial components like gear drives and couplings. Rexnord’s executive team engineered a deal to borrow $312 million in the form of a leveraged loan, which was loaded onto Rexnord’s balance sheet, pushing the company’s annual interest payments from $44 million to $62 million. Rexnord’s total debt jumped from $507 million to $754 million. Still, this acquisition made Rexnord more attractive to an outside buyer. The company had diversified its product line, expanded its footprint, and still enjoyed a steady flow of cash from operations.

It was time for the Carlyle Group to cash out its position.

Carlyle found a buyer for Rexnord in the form of another private equity firm, called Apollo Management. Apollo devised a plan to purchase Rexnord just as Carlyle had done, by syndicating new leveraged loans and loading them onto Rexnord itself. Apollo’s ambition on this front was remarkable. Apollo raised $1.825 billion, more than twice what Carlyle had paid just four years earlier.

The payoff to Powell and his team was immense. It is difficult to determine just how much profit Powell earned from the sale, because Carlyle does not disclose such figures. But Apollo’s purchase price was more than $900 million higher than Carlyle’s. Under Carlyle’s investment rules, 80% of the profits would have gone to the limited partner investors who put up money for the buyouts and 20% to Carlyle, according to one person familiar with Carlyle’s operations. Of the Carlyle money, 45% went to the corporate “mothership,” as they called it, and 55% would go to Jay Powell’s team. Government disclosure forms from 2018 indicate that Powell’s personal wealth was worth between $20 million and $55 million by 2018.

Powell left Carlyle after the Rexnord deal. He dabbled in private equity for a few years and then he joined a think tank in Washington, D.C., before President Barack Obama nominated him to be a Fed governor in 2012.

Rexnord itself didn’t fare as well. The company Powell left behind was crippled with debt. Its total debt burden rose from $753 million to $2 billion in one year. Its annual interest-rate payments rose from $44 million in 2005 to $105 million in 2007. The company would pay more money in interest than it earned in profit every year for more than a decade. Rexnord became a company that was emblematic of the private equity world. It was no longer a company that used debt to pursue its goals. It was now a company whose goal was to service its debt.

Between 2011 and 2020, the debt-heavy world of Rexnord would intersect with the Fed’s easy money policies. And Jay Powell was in the middle of it.

*****

Jay Powell was something of an agitator when he arrived at the Fed. At the time, in 2012, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke was pushing FOMC members to commit to another round of quantitative easing, the experimental program first used in 2008 and then used again in 2010.

Quantitative easing has a complicated name, but a simple goal. It was a way to pump hundreds of billions of dollars into the bank vaults of the 24 primary dealers during a time when the Fed was keeping short-term interest rates pegged at zero. This strategy—pumping money into the banking system while removing the incentive to earn interest by saving it—created an all-powerful force in financial markets called a “search for yield.” Anyone with lots of money, like pension funds or insurance companies, were frantically searching for investments that would provide even a small yield. This is why quantitative easing drives up the price of assets, like the stock market. Billions of new dollars are all chasing the same assets, which boosts the price of those assets.

One type of asset that gained popularity was the kind of corporate debt that Companies like Carlyle Group used for buyout deals, like leveraged loans and corporate junk bonds. Companies like Carlyle could package and sell this debt to investors who were searching for yield.

Jay Powell thought that this was dangerous, according to the statements he made inside of FOMC meetings, the transcripts of which are released after a five-year delay. The Fed was pushing too much money into the leveraged loan market and was driving up prices to unsustainable levels.

“While financial conditions are a net positive, there’s also reason to be concerned about the growing market distortions created by our continuing asset purchases,” Powell had said at the January FOMC meeting (the “asset purchases” he referred to were the result of quantitative easing. The way the Fed moved money to Wall Street was by purchasing assets, like Treasury bonds, with newly created dollars). Powell warned that the Fed was wrong to presume that it could clean up the mess after a bubble burst.

“In any case, we ought to have a low level of confidence that we can regulate or manage our way around the kind of large, dynamic market event that becomes increasingly likely, thanks to our policy,” he said.

Another critic of easy money was Richard Fisher, who was the then-president of the Dallas regional bank. During one meeting, Fisher pointed out that quantitative easing primarily helped primary equity firms and banks.

Quantitative easing “has, I believe, had a wealth effect, but principally for the rich and the quick—the Buffetts, the KKRs, the Carlyles, the Goldman Sachses, the Powells, maybe the Fishers—those who can borrow money for nothing and drive bonds and stocks and property higher in price, and profit goes to their pocket,” Fisher said during one meeting. He argued that this would not create jobs, or boost wages, to nearly the degree the Fed hoped it would.

Bernanke prevailed with the argument that the Fed needed to do something. Congress seemed incapable of managing America’s economic affairs during the 2010s, and the Fed had the ability to act. During 2013, the Fed operated its biggest round of quantitative easing yet, creating roughly $1.6 trillion.

As Powell gained stature within the Federal Reserve, he changed his outlook on quantitative easing. A review of Powell’s comments during meetings show that his warnings softened and then seemed to disappear.

As late as June 2014, Powell seemed wary of the Fed’s easy money stance. “After almost six years of highly accommodative policy, the risks are out there and continue to build,” Powell said during one meeting. What worried him more was the prospect of “a sharp correction amplified by the liquidity mismatch in the markets that would damage or halt the progress of what is still a weak economy.” He was saying that a lot of traders and hedge funds had built up risky positions using a lot of debt. If markets fell—because inflated asset prices started to reflect their real value—then traders might dump their assets and cause prices to crater.

But just seven months later, Jay Powell gave a speech at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., aimed at disarming the central bank’s critics, such as libertarian figures like former congressman Ron Paul, who was calling for more oversight of the Fed. Powell said that the increasingly vocal criticisms of the Fed were misguided.

“In fact, the Fed’s actions were effective, necessary, appropriate, and very much in keeping with the traditional role of the Fed and other central banks,” he said. He went out of his way, during that speech, to defend the very policies that he had been warning about internally since he had become a Fed governor. He said that “unconventional policies,” such as quantitative easing, were largely responsible for America’s economic growth, and that the critics of those programs had been proven wrong. “After I joined the Federal Reserve Board in May 2012, I too expressed doubts about the efficacy and risks of further asset purchases,” Powell said. “But let’s let the data speak: The evidence so far is clear that the benefits of these policies have been substantial, and that the risks have not materialized.”

His reversal was noted by his colleagues at the FOMC who had previously argued alongside him about the risks of quantitative easing.

“There was a shift, and I think it’s noteworthy,” Fisher, the former Dallas Fed president, says in an interview. Fisher was not aware of any study or new data set released between June and February that would justify a reversal of Powell’s judgment about quantitative easing or zero-percent interest rates.

“There was no condition in 2015 that would have indicated, or necessitated, easing off that argument,” Fisher says. More likely, he believed, was the effect of being a Fed governor. “The evolution may well have come from being there longer, being surrounded by brilliant staff that has a very academic side to them and bias,” Fisher says. “You’re living in a cloistered atmosphere. It’s a different environment when you’re in that hallway. You conform more. I don’t think there’s anything nefarious about it. I just think it’s the social dynamic.”

In closed-door meetings, Powell continued to cast doubt on the efficacy of quantitative easing. “I think we’ve never looked at asset purchases as other than a second-best tool,” he said during the FOMC meeting in September 2015. “I think that’s been the way it’s been talked about since the very beginning—uncertain as to its effect, uncertain as to bad effects, and certainly uncertain as to political economy characteristics,” he said. But a review of his comments, which are available only through the end of 2015, indicate that Powell was softening his arguments and his warnings. The language became less vivid and less focused on “large and dynamic” market crashes.

As Powell’s rhetoric appeared to cool, the markets for leveraged loans and risky debt were heating up. No company better illustrated what was happening than the company that made Jay Powell rich: Rexnord.

*****

Robert Hetu, a managing director at Credit Suisse, helped create and sell leverage loans that funded Rexnord’s operations during the 2010s. Hetu’s office overlooked Madison Square Park, but everyone on his team was working too hard to enjoy the view. The corporate debt business was a seven-days-a-week endeavor. Hetu took a vacation once, to a luxury resort in Shangri-La, China, where he joined his family in a tour van to see the countryside and ended up on his cell phone in meetings with a lawyer; he remembered the van stopping to let a bunch of pigs cross the road while he negotiated over the phone. “That’s the lifestyle. You get rewarded for it, but there’s a price to it,” Hetu recalled.

Hetu helped Rexnord refinance $1 billion in debt in March 2012, and the contract for the deal was 344 pages long. Virtually all of the paragraphs in those 344 pages were produced under heavy scrutiny, negotiation, and anxiety. A successful debt contract contained a multitude of components that had to fit together snugly, immune from legal challenge, in such a way that it would entice outside investors to buy the debt. Selling the debt was crucial for the business model to work. Credit Suisse arranged the leveraged loans, but never meant to keep a lot of them. “They’re not in the storage business, they’re in the moving business,” says Hetu.

The moving business was brisk. As the tidal wave of quantitative easing cash arrived on Wall Street, it created a new chance for banks like Credit Suisse to expand their leveraged loan business to an unprecedented scale. They did this through the creation of something called the collateralized loan obligation, or CLO for short. A CLO was essentially a package of leveraged loans that were grouped together and sold to investors.

Credit Suisse was a leading producer of CLOs, issuing eleven between 2010 and the first half of 2014, worth a total of $6.7 billion, making it the third-largest CLO dealer in the country. This opened a new pipeline for Robert Hetu and his team of leveraged loan makers. The buyers came storming into Credit Suisse’s CLO shop, desperately searching for yield. Rexnord’s debt was chopped up and distributed into a wide variety of funds that were offered by Credit Suisse.

Hetu described this situation as being caught in a vise. On the one side, there was pressure from investors, like pension funds, clamoring to buy loans. On the other side there were the private equity companies, like the Carlyle Group, which were the best source for these new loans. The private equity firms had leverage, and they began to use it to their benefit. They started to offer leveraged loans for sale that had very loose covenants, meaning the contract terms that protected investors. But private equity firms started insisting that they be cut. This became so common that Wall Street came up with a nickname for loans with the covenants stripped out, calling them Cov-lite loans.

It was Hetu’s job to take the Cov-lite loans out to the market and see if anyone would buy them, which didn’t turn out to be a problem. There was always a buyer. A $1 billion loan would have $2 billion worth of takers. The demand for Cov-lite loans was intense, which only encouraged the deal sponsors to insist upon them more. There was just too much money looking for yield for investors to demand high standards. The Cov-lite loan, once an exotic debt instrument, became the industry standard. In 2010, they accounted for less than 10% of the leveraged loan market. By 2013, they were over 50%, and by 2019 they accounted for 85% of all leveraged loans.

“It’s tough. You see what people agree to and you’re like: ‘Oh my god. Do you realize what you’re agreeing to?’” Hetu says. “These deals get more and more aggressive by the day because the market, again, is supplied with a lot of cash. The CLOs have to put money to work. There’s a limited number of deals that are coming to market. They all love it. They buy it.”

All this corporate debt didn’t benefit Rexnord employees like John Feltner who worked at the company’s ball-bearing plant in Indianapolis. As it labored under so much debt, Rexnord looked for ways to cut costs. In 2016, Rexnord announced that it was shuttering the plant where Feltner worked and sending the production to a new facility in Mexico, cutting 350 jobs in the United States. Feltner eventually found a new job at a local hospital, but the pay didn’t match what he earned as a unionized factory worker. Although it had been painful, expensive, and destabilizing to be laid off from Rexnord, Feltner had grown accustomed to it during his career—he’d been laid off from another good manufacturing job before joining Rexnord. “I call that the new normal. It’s something you get used to,” he says.

By the end of 2018, the U.S. market for CLOs was about $600 billion, double the level a decade earlier. Banks in the United States held about $110 billion. The total amount of corporate debt in America reached new highs in 2019 of about $10 trillion, up from about $6 trillion in 2010, a value that was worth almost half of the total U.S. economy, also a new record. If the price of these leveraged loans and corporate bonds fell dramatically, as Powell had warned they might back in 2013, the broader economic effects could be ruinous.

That’s exactly what started to happen in late February of 2020, when the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in the United States.

*****

The week of March 16 was when people on Wall Street saw things happen that they didn’t think were possible. Scott Minerd, the chief investment officer at Guggenheim, was amazed when he saw the market for Treasury bills essentially freeze, meaning that buyers and sellers couldn’t on a given price for U.S. government debt. There had been a similar collapse in the mortgage bond market, back in 2008. But to see it happen in the $20 trillion market for ultrasafe Treasurys wasn’t just scary. It was difficult to comprehend.

The market for corporate debt was in a tailspin. “At the height of the thing, the bid/offer spread was, in some cases, 30%” on corporate debt, Minerd says. “That is unthinkable.”

Powell and the Federal Reserve moved aggressively. Powell’s Fed did virtually everything that Ben Bernanke’s had done in 2008 and 2009—slashing rates to zero, offering “swap lines” of dollars to foreign banks, purchasing mortgage bonds and commercial paper—all in a matter of weeks. It still wasn’t enough. The markets for corporate debt continued to fall.

The fragility of the corporate debt markets created an interlocking set of crises, each linked to the next like a chain, that threatened to take down the banking system. The first, immediate crisis arose from the indebted corporations that were scrambling to get cash. In their panic, these companies rapidly drew upon a source of emergency debt called a revolving credit facility, which allowed them to quickly borrow cash up to a certain limit. After markets crashed on March 16, Southwest Airlines drew down a $1 billion revolving credit facility. The hotel operator Hilton drew down $1.75 billion. General Motors, the following week, would draw down $16 billion. This helped explain why bank stocks fell by almost half in a matter of weeks. The revolving credit facilities threatened to bleed the banks dry even as they struggled to cope with the market volatility.

The second link in the chain of failures would happen when companies started to miss debt payments and default on the loans. This would force debt-rating agencies, like Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s, to downgrade companies like Ford, moving many into the realm of junk debt. A wave of such downgrades looked inevitable, and it carried a grave consequence for the big banks. The downgrades would be like a torpedo in the side of the CLO industry. The approaching tide of credit downgrades posed a serious risk to the value of the CLOs. Most CLOs contained a contract clause that allowed them to hold only a certain amount of junk debt. If more of the leveraged loans inside the CLOs were downgraded to junk, this would breach the contracts and force the CLOs to sell off their junk debt and replace it, or write down the value of the whole CLO. If the CLOs dumped their holdings at the same time, the market could plunge. This posed a danger to banks. In 2019 alone, the value of CLOs held by big banks jumped by 12% to $99.5 billion. The vast majority of these CLO investments were held by three big banks: JPMorgan, Wells Fargo, and Citigroup, who together owned about 81% of all CLO bank holdings. Many of the loans inside the CLOs were the kinds of Cov-lite loans that Hetu sold, which shifted more risk to investors.

Over the weekend of March 20, Powell finalized the details of a complex rescue package that would push the Fed into new territory. It would be the largest, most far-reaching, and most consequential intervention in the history of the Federal Reserve. The bailout created three new programs, the first two of which authorized the Fed to directly purchase corporate bonds for the first time. This had a far-reaching impact. Once the Fed bought corporate bonds, it could never undo the action. The eager eyes on Wall Street would always remember what they had seen—every time the Fed intervened, its future intervention was assumed. Now, people who traded corporate bonds and leveraged loans had an assurance that the Fed would save them if the market collapsed.

Powell pushed further. The Fed announced on April 9 it would expand the bailout and buy even riskier bonds, which were rated as junk debt. The junk bond purchases would not be unlimited. The Fed would only buy debt that had been rated as investment-grade before the pandemic.

Also that day, the Fed updated a separate new program (called TALF, for “term asset-backed-securities loan facility”) so that it could directly purchase, for the first time, big chunks of CLO debt. This was a significant extension of the Fed’s safety net, and it played a large role in quelling the anxiety around the hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of CLOs that faced loan write downs. It also helped the big banks that owned billions in CLO debt.

The full FOMC did not vote on this program because it was an emergency lending effort, only requiring the approval of a handful of members on the board of governors. There are no transcripts available to determine the thinking behind the new initiatives, parts of which were approved by a unanimous, closed-door vote on April 8 (The vote was taken by Powell, his vice chairman Richard Clarida, and Fed Governors Randal Quarles, Lael Brainard, and Michelle Bowman).

This program was shocking to people who traded bonds. It was one of those things that divided history: There was the way things worked before the announcement and the way things worked afterward.

“Fundamentally we have now socialized credit risk. And we have forever changed the nature of how our economy functions,” says Minerd, at Guggenheim Investments, who is also an advisor to the Fed. “The Fed has made it clear that prudent investing will not be tolerated.”

This bailout didn’t just save the corporate debt market. It fueled it. By the end of 2020, companies issued more than $1.9 trillion in new corporate debt, beating the previous record that was set in 2017. The cheap debt has helped deliver record profits to private equity firms like Carlyle Group. In late October, Carlyle reported a record $14 billion in asset sales for the third quarter of the year, helping it pay $730.6 million in earnings to its shareholders, also a record. Carlyle’s stock price has jumped about 86% since the beginning of the year.

*****

Jay Powell now faces the biggest challenge of his career. He must figure out how to withdraw the Fed’s financial stimulus without crashing markets at the very moment he is fighting for his job. Recently, Powell said that the Fed will begin slowing its flow of new money that has been pouring into Wall Street since March of 2020. The Fed was purchasing $120 billion in assets each month, and plans to slow or “taper” the purchases each month with the goal of ending them by the middle of next year.

The easiest way to reverse quantitative easing, and raise interest rates, is to do so very slowly and with clear communication. That way, financial traders know what’s coming and can position themselves gradually without dumping assets and creating a market panic. But outside events are forcing the Fed’s hand, and eliminating the luxury of time.

Price inflation is running hot and lasting longer than many analysts predicted earlier this year as mass vaccination programs allowed the economy to begin reopening. The supply chain snarls caused by COVID has remained surprisingly consistent, while demand has remained surprisingly strong, pushing inflation higher than it has been in years. This, in turn, has put pressure on the Fed to hike interest rates as early as next summer, after it has stopped its quantitative easing.

Consumer prices aren’t the only kind of inflation. Asset prices are also super-heated thanks to the Fed’s easy money policies. Stock prices have risen so fast and so high that it is raising concern in the most unlikely of corners. In October, Morgan Stanley’s Chief Executive Officer James Gorman acknowledged publicly what so many asset traders say privately—the stock market has become a bubble, and the Fed should do something about it.

“You’ve got to prick this bubble a little bit,” Gorman said during an interview with Bloomberg Television. “Money is a bit too free and available right now.”

If history is any indication the process of raising rates and withdrawing quantitative easing it will be, at the very least, a bumpy ride. And the job is enormous. The last time the Fed tried to withdraw quantitative easing, the central bank owned about $4.5 trillion in assets. Today, it owns about $8.6 trillion. It remains to be seen how stable corporate debt markets once the Fed eases the pressure to search for yield. But private equity firms, hedge funds and Wall Street speculators can take one lesson from the past few years: Jay Powell will be there for them.

Copyright 2022 by Christopher Leonard. From the forthcoming book "THE LORDS OF EASY MONEY: How the Federal Reserve Broke the American Economy" by Christopher Leonard to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.

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