Tag: Ben Bernanke

The Fed’s New Round of Quantitative Easing

Last Thursday, the Fed announced its intention to proceed with another round of quantitative easing, or QE3. To summarize my reactions:

  1. By introducing another program to buy MBSs, to the tune of $40 billion per month, the FOMC is supporting the long-standing federal policy of special aid to housing, real estate and mortgage interests. These federal policies were the largest single contributor to the financial crisis. Why would the Federal Reserve want  to encourage continuation of these federal policies? Almost every economist, except those allied with housing interests, agrees that the mortgage-interest and real-estate tax deductions in the federal tax code should be eliminated or scaled back. I’ll wager that almost every Federal Reserve economist shares this view. The Federal Reserve says that it is apolitical but this decision is directly supportive of continuation of the current status of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This action is not monetary policy but fiscal policy, extending credit to a favored industry. This policy is crony capitalism, whether practiced by the federal government or by the Federal Reserve.
  2. The FOMC’s decisions create yet another exit problem for the Fed. If job growth picks up, or inflation rises, before every future FOMC meeting the market will wonder if the Fed will stop buying MBSs. The Fed has refused to offer any genuine guidance as to when the policy will end. Conversely, if job growth remains weak, market participants will wonder before every FOMC meeting whether the Fed will do more, or introduce some new and untried policy.
  3. In his press conference, Chairman Bernanke appropriately emphasizes the need for fiscal policies to stabilize federal finances. Yet, he is promising that the Fed can make a material contribution to bringing down unemployment. That promise reduces the pressure on Congress to act. Why should Congress deal with the tough political issues if the Fed can do the job, even if more slowly than if Congress acted?

The Federal Reserve, the ‘Twist,’ Inflation, QE3, and Pushing on a String

In a move that some are calling QE3, the Federal Reserve announced yesterday that it will engage in a policy called “the twist” – selling short-term bonds and buying long-term bonds in hopes of artificially reducing long-term interest rates. If successful, this policy (we are told) will incentivize more borrowing and stimulate growth.

I’ve freely admitted before that it is difficult to identify the right monetary policy, but it certainly seems like this policy is – at best – an ineffective gesture. This is why the Fed’s various efforts to goose the economy with easy money have been described as “pushing on a string.”

Here are two related questions that need to be answered.

1. Is the economy’s performance being undermined by high long-term rates?

Considering that interest rates are at very low levels already, it seems rather odd to claim that the economy will suddenly rebound if they get pushed down a bit further. Japan has had very low interest rates (both short-run and long-run) for a couple of decades, yet the economy has remained stagnant.

Perhaps the problem is bad policy in other areas. After all, who wants to borrow money, expand business, create jobs, and boost output if Washington is pursuing a toxic combination of excessive spending and regulation, augmented by the threat of higher taxes.

2. Is the economy hampered by lack of credit?

Low interest rates, some argue, may not help the economy if banks don’t have any money to lend. Yet I’ve already pointed out that banks have more than $1 trillion of excess reserves deposited at the Fed.

Perhaps the problem is that banks don’t want to lend money because they don’t see profitable opportunities. After all, it’s better to sit on money than to lend it to people who won’t pay it back because of an economy weakened by too much government.

The Wall Street Journal makes all the relevant points in its editorial.

The Fed announced that through June 2012 it will buy $400 billion in Treasury bonds at the long end of the market—with six- to 30-year maturities—and sell an equal amount of securities of three years’ duration or less. The point, said the FOMC statement, is to put further “downward pressure on longer-term interest rates and help make broader financial conditions more accommodative.” It’s hard to see how this will make much difference to economic growth. Long rates are already at historic lows, and even a move of 10 or 20 basis points isn’t likely to affect many investment decisions at the margin. The Fed isn’t acting in a vacuum, and any move in bond prices could well be swamped by other economic news. Europe’s woes are accelerating, and every CEO in America these days is worried more about what the National Labor Relations Board is doing to Boeing than he is about the 30-year bond rate. The Fed will also reinvest the principal payments it receives on its asset holdings into mortgage-backed securities, rather than in U.S. Treasurys. The goal here is to further reduce mortgage costs and thus help the housing market. But home borrowing costs are also at historic lows, and the housing market suffers far more from the foreclosure overhang and uncertainty encouraged by government policy than it does from the price of money. The Fed’s announcement thus had the feel of an attempt to show it is doing something to help the economy, even if it can’t do much. …the economy’s problems aren’t rooted in the supply and price of money. They result from the damage done to business confidence and investment by fiscal and regulatory policy, and that’s where the solutions must come. Investors on Wall Street and politicians in Washington want to believe that the Fed can make up for years of policy mistakes. The sooner they realize it can’t, the sooner they’ll have no choice but to correct the mistakes.

Let’s also take this issue to the next level. Some people are explicitly arguing in favor of more “quantitative easing” because they want some inflation. They argue that “moderate” inflation will help the economy by indirectly wiping out some existing debt.

This is a very dangerous gambit. Letting the inflation genie out of the bottle could trigger 1970s-style stagflation. Paul Volcker fires a warning shot against this risky approach in a New York Times column. Here are the key passages.

…we are beginning to hear murmurings about the possible invigorating effects of “just a little inflation.” Perhaps 4 or 5 percent a year would be just the thing to deal with the overhang of debt and encourage the “animal spirits” of business, or so the argument goes. The siren song is both alluring and predictable. …After all, if 1 or 2 percent inflation is O.K. and has not raised inflationary expectations — as the Fed and most central banks believe — why not 3 or 4 or even more? …all of our economic history says it won’t work that way. I thought we learned that lesson in the 1970s. That’s when the word stagflation was invented to describe a truly ugly combination of rising inflation and stunted growth. …What we know, or should know, from the past is that once inflation becomes anticipated and ingrained — as it eventually would — then the stimulating effects are lost. Once an independent central bank does not simply tolerate a low level of inflation as consistent with “stability,” but invokes inflation as a policy, it becomes very difficult to eliminate. …At a time when foreign countries own trillions of our dollars, when we are dependent on borrowing still more abroad, and when the whole world counts on the dollar’s maintaining its purchasing power, taking on the risks of deliberately promoting inflation would be simply irresponsible.

Last but not least, here is my video on the origin of central banking, which starts with an explanation of how currency evolved in the private sector, then describes how governments then seized that role by creating monopoly central banks, and closes with a list of options to promote good monetary policy.

And I can’t resist including a link to the famous “Ben Bernank” QE2 video that was a viral smash.

Inflation Expert

Who knows more about inflation, Richard Galanti or Ben Bernanke? I maintain that, when it comes to the facts, Mr. Galanti knows more than the Fed chairman. Galanti is the CFO of Costco Wholesale Corp.

The Wall Street Journal reported last Thursday (May 26th) on a conference call with Mr. Galanti. He said “we saw quite a bit of inflationary pricing” in the 3rd quarter.

Price increases occurred in a broad range of products” dry dog food (3.5%). Detergents (10%+), plastic products (8-9%). Costco will “hold prices as long as we can.” When it can no longer, the consumer will face rising prices.

Costco is a good leading indicator of inflation at the retail level. It turns over inventory quickly, and is leading other retailers in restocking at higher prices. Costco offers a forward-looking view of consumer price inflation.

Meanwhile the Fed and its chairman, Ben Bernanke, rely on backward looking measures of inflation, like the CPI. That index, and the “core” component that excludes food and energy prices, overweight the depressed housing sector. And they are yesterday’s news.

For years, American consumers have benefitted from cheap imports from China and India. When those countries liberalized and opened up to global commerce, Americans got the benefit of the hard work and low wages of 2 ½ billion workers. The era of cheap labor is coming to an end, and with it the flood of imports that held down prices in the U.S. Especially in China, wage rates are rising rapidly.

Heretofore, the flood of dollars has chiefly affected asset prices and inflation in other countries. The flow through to U.S. consumer prices will now be quicker. You’ll experience it when you go to Costco to restock.

Can We Rely on Inflation Expectations?

The Wall Street Journal has pointed out that in his recent press conference Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke used the words “inflation expectations” (or some variation) 21 times. His argument is that we need not worry about inflation because we will see it coming, and then the Fed will do something about it. Such an argument relies heavily on the ability of inflation expectations to predict inflation. Which of course raises the question, just how predictive are inflation expectations?

The graph below compares inflation, as measured by CPI, and inflation expectations, as measured by the University of Michigan consumer survey, the longest times series we have on inflation expectations.

Clearly the two move together. For instance, the correlation between current inflation and expectations is almost 1 (its 0.93), while the correlation between inflation and actual inflation a year later is slightly less at 0.81. The relationship declines as we move further into the future. So yes, consumer expectations appear a reasonable predictor of the direction of inflation. However, they don’t appear to be a great predictor of the magnitude or the frequency of changes. For instance, the standard deviation of actual inflation is about twice that of expected inflation. As one can easily see from the chart, expectations are quite sticky and rarely pick up the extremes. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, expectations did move up, but then never reached the heights actually experienced, nor did consumers ever actually expect deflation during the recent financial crisis (if we are going to base policy on expectations, we should at least be consistent about it).

For about the last decade we also have market based measures of inflation, based upon inflation-indexed bonds. The TIPS measure tends to be less correlated with actual inflation, but does a better job of capturing the extremes. Although interesting enough, TIPS was already predicting that deflation would be short-lived before we even experienced any deflation.

The point is that while expectations are useful for qualitatively purposes, they do not have a strong record of recording the extremes. Given that most of us expect some positive level of inflation, the real debate is over how much. In this regard, either survey or market-based expectations are likely to be both a lagging indicator and an under-estimate of actual inflation.

Wednesday Links

The Ben Bernanke Variety Hour

April 27th begins a new chapter in Federal Reserve history: the Fed joins other major central banks in having a press conference after its monetary policy meetings (the Federal Open Market Committee).  Apparently the record lows in public support for the Fed, along with rising gas and food prices, have driven Bernanke to attempt to change the narrative.  After all, his appearance on “60 Minutes” did wonders for the Fed’s reputation.  I’m excited to hear even more about his childhood in Dillon, South Carolina or his time working at South of the Border.  Maybe an enterprising reporter could ask how much menu prices at South of the Border have increased since Bernanke took over the Fed.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I don’t have high expectations for his press conference.  It is probably fair to say that no Federal Reserve Chair has had as much public exposure as Bernanke.  Yet with all those public appearances, he has consistently managed to avoid any real discussion about the costs and benefits of the Fed’s actions.  Are we likely to hear concern about food and gas prices, and how such are being driven by loose money?  Probably not…just more on how increasing world demand is to blame.  Just like it was the “global savings glut” that drove  interest rates earlier this decade, it is always somebody else’s fault – never the Fed’s.  They are capable of only good.

Hopefully Bernanke will at least avoid the Obama line that it is those “speculators” that are behind the increase in energy prices.  After all, if we believe the governments of Europe, those evil speculators brought down Greece too.

As per usual, I truly hope I’m wrong here.  Bernanke has a real opportunity to be honest and straightforward with the American public.  We don’t need another lecture.  We need to hear that the Fed isn’t a slave to some imaginary Phillips Curve or that we can’t have inflation with slack in the economy (where was Bernanke in the 1970s?).   The real risk is that Bernanke uses the press conference to drown out the many voices of concern and dissent on the FOMC.  Which, of course, would be a real irony given all of Bernanke’s talk about “democratizing” the Fed when he first became chair.

Johan Norberg on Bubbles Yet to Come

Cato senior fellow Johan Norberg, author of In Defense of Global Capitalism and Financial Fiasco, has the cover story in this week’s issue of The Spectator, the eminent 182-year-old British weekly. Titled “The great debt bubble of 2011,” it warns that governments are repeating their mistakes of the past decade:

There is a broad consensus that the financial crisis of 2007 was at least in part a result of record-low interest rates, huge deficits and large-scale credit-financed consumption. Today, governments across the world are trying to solve the crisis — by means of record-low interest rates, huge deficits and large-scale credit-financed consumption. This time, they are also using more novel means of creating easy money: bank bailouts, stimulus packages and quantitative easing.

After discussing the soaring debt burdens of European countries, Norberg writes:

At this point, it is traditional to say: thank God for those roaring economics in East Asia, India and Brazil. But how real is their remarkable growth? Look closely, and even this may be in part a result of artificial stimulus. India’s and Brazil’s growth is financed by short-term capital from abroad: money that could disappear overnight. Easy money always ends up somewhere. The last time it was in property, this time it is in emerging markets (and often in the property markets of emerging markets)….

Aside from the foreign capital inflows, China had its own stimulus package, as big as America’s. Beijing has printed yuan and pushed banks and local governments to spend like drunken Keynesians. Absurdly, China’s money supply is now larger than America’s, even though its economy is a third of the size. We can see the results of this stimulus in stock market prices and in new roads, bridges and housing complexes all over the country.

Happy New Year! And watch for more on incipient bubbles in the January-February issue of Cato Policy Report.