Tag: Bernanke

The Federal Reserve vs. Small Business

Given all the attention that the Federal Reserve has garnered for its monetary “stimulus” programs, it’s perplexing to many that the U.S. has been mired in a credit crunch. After all, conventional wisdom tells us that the Fed’s policies, which have lowered interest rates to almost zero, should have stimulated the creation of credit. This has not been the case, and I’m not surprised.

As it turns out, the Fed’s “stimulus” policies are actually exacerbating the credit crunch. Since credit is a source of working capital for businesses, a credit crunch acts like a supply constraint on the economy. This has been the case particularly for smaller firms in the U.S. economy, known as small and medium enterprises (“SMEs”).

To understand the problem, we must delve into the plumbing of the financial system, specifically the loan markets. Retail bank lending involves making risky forward commitments, such as extending a line of credit to a corporate client, for example. The willingness of a bank to make such forward commitments depends, to a large extent, on a well-functioning interbank market – a market operating with positive interest rates and without counterparty risks.

With the availability of such a market, banks can lend to their clients with confidence because they can cover their commitments by bidding for funds in the wholesale interbank market.

At present, however, the interbank lending market is not functioning as it should. Indeed, one of the major problems facing the interbank market is the so-called zero-interest-rate trap. In a world in which the risk-free Fed funds rate is close to zero, there is virtually no yield be found on the interbank market.

In consequence, banks with excess reserves are reluctant to part with them for virtually no yield in the interbank market. As a result, thanks to the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policies, the interbank market has dried up (see the accompanying chart).


Without the security provided by a reliable interbank lending market, banks have been unwilling to scale up or even retain their forward loan commitments. This was verified in a recent article in Central Banking Journal by Stanford Economist Prof. Ronald McKinnon – appropriately titled “Fed ‘stimulus’ chokes indirect finance to SMEs.” The result, as Prof. McKinnon puts it, has been “constipation in domestic financial intermediation” – in other words, a credit crunch.

When banks put the brakes on lending, it is small and medium enterprises that are the hardest hit. Whereas large corporate firms can raise funds directly from the market, SMEs are often primarily reliant on bank lending for working capital. The current drought in the interbank market, and associated credit crunch, has thus left many SMEs without a consistent source of funding.

As it turns out, these “small” businesses make up a big chunk of the U.S. economy – 49.2% of private sector employment and 46% of private-sector GDP. Indeed, the untold story is that the zero-interest-rate trap has left SMEs in a financial straightjacket.

In short, the Fed’s zero interest-rate policy has exacerbated a credit crunch that has been holding back the economy. The only way out of this trap is for the Fed to abandon the conventional wisdom that zero-interest-rates stimulate the creation of credit. Suppose the Fed were to raise the Fed funds rate to, say, two percent. This would loosen the screws on interbank lending, and credit would begin to flow more readily to small and medium enterprises.

Hoenig for FDIC

On July 8th, Sheila Bair will step down as Chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).  While I believe she’s gotten a lot wrong (such as not preparing the fund for the coming crisis), she has been about the only voice among senior bank regulators for actually ending too-big-to-fail.  With her departure, we might lose that one voice.  Later this year, Kansas City Fed President Tom Hoenig is also scheduled to leave his current position.

Hoenig has actually gone beyond Bair in trying to address too-big-to-fail, having called for the largest banks to be broken up.  While I don’t believe that should be our first approach, having an advocate for both the taxpayer and the overall economy at the helm of the FDIC could make a significant difference.

Given that Section 2 of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act requires the FDIC to have a bipartisan board, President Obama is faced with the choice of either appointing a non-Democrat or asking Vice-Chair Marty Gruenberg to leave.  While I have no idea as to Hoenig’s politics, he’d likely be able to pass that test.

Hoenig has also been willing to publicly challenge Bernanke on a number of issues.  Given the narrow group-think among regulators that contributed to the crisis, having a loud, credible, independent voice among bank regulators is solely needed.  Hoenig again fits that bill.  His appointment would also offer Obama a chance to show that he is not completely beholden to the Geithner “never seen a bailout I didn’t like” worldview.

Perhaps with Hoenig at the helm, we can actually begin a debate about reducing the moral hazard created by the Federal Reserve.  While Bair was all too willing to see both insurance coverage and regulatory powers of the FDIC expanded, Hoenig strikes me as open-minded to the very real excess bank risk-taking that is encouraged by the existence of the FDIC.

Could Technical Default Today Save America from Greek-Style Fiscal Disaster in the Future?

There’s a lot of buzz about a Wall Street Journal interview with Stanley Druckenmiller, in which he argues that a temporary delay in making payments on U.S. government debt (which technically would be a default) would be a small price to pay if it resulted in the long-term spending reforms that are needed to save America from becoming another Greece.

One of the world’s most successful money managers, the lanky, sandy-haired Mr. Druckenmiller is so concerned about the government’s ability to pay for its future obligations that he’s willing to accept a temporary delay in the interest payments he’s owed on his U.S. Treasury bonds—if the result is a Washington deal to restrain runaway entitlement costs. “I think technical default would be horrible,” he says from the 24th floor of his midtown Manhattan office, “but I don’t think it’s going to be the end of the world. It’s not going to be catastrophic. What’s going to be catastrophic is if we don’t solve the real problem,” meaning Washington’s spending addiction. …Mr. Druckenmiller’s view on the debt limit bumps up against virtually the entire Wall Street-Washington financial establishment. A recent note on behalf of giant banks on the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee warned of a “severe and long-lasting impact” if the debt limit is not raised immediately. …This week more than 60 trade associations, representing virtually all of American big business, forecast “a massive spike in borrowing costs.” On Thursday Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke raised the specter of a market crisis similar to the one that followed the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. As usual, the most aggressive predictor of doom in the absence of increased government spending has been Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. In a May 2 letter to House Speaker John Boehner, Mr. Geithner warned of “a catastrophic economic impact” and said, “Default would cause a financial crisis potentially more severe than the crisis from which we are only now starting to recover.”

Mr. Druckenmiller is not overly impressed by this hyperbole. The article continues with this key passage.

“Here are your two options: piece of paper number one—let’s just call it a 10-year Treasury. So I own this piece of paper. I get an income stream obviously over 10 years … and one of my interest payments is going to be delayed, I don’t know, six days, eight days, 15 days, but I know I’m going to get it. There’s not a doubt in my mind that it’s not going to pay, but it’s going to be delayed. But in exchange for that, let’s suppose I know I’m going to get massive cuts in entitlements and the government is going to get their house in order so my payments seven, eight, nine, 10 years out are much more assured,” he says. Then there’s “piece of paper number two,” he says, under a scenario in which the debt limit is quickly raised to avoid any possible disruption in payments. “I don’t have to wait six, eight, or 10 days for one of my many payments over 10 years. I get it on time. But we’re going to continue to pile up trillions of dollars of debt and I may have a Greek situation on my hands in six or seven years. Now as an owner, which piece of paper do I want to own? To me it’s a no-brainer. It’s piece of paper number one.” …”Russia had a real default and two or three years later they had all-time low interest rates,” says Mr. Druckenmiller. In the future, he says, “People aren’t going to wonder whether 20 years ago we delayed an interest payment for six days. They’re going to wonder whether we got our house in order.”

This is a very compelling argument, but it overlooks one major problem – the complete inability of Republicans to succeed in forcing fiscal reform using this approach.

Here’s a sure-fire prediction, assuming GOPers in the House actually are willing to engage in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Obama on the debt limit.

  • There will be lots of political drama.
  • We will get to a point where the federal government exhausts its borrowing authority.
  • At that point, either Geithner or Bernanke (or probably both) will make some completely dishonest statements designed to rattle financial markets.
  • The establishment media will echo those statements.
  • The stock market and/or bond market will have a negative reaction.
  • Republican resolve will evaporate like a drop of water in the Mojave Desert.
  • The debt limit will be increased without any meaningful fiscal reform.

For all intents and purposes, this is what happened with the TARP vote in 2008. There were basically two choices of how to deal with the financial crisis. The establishment wanted a blank-check bailout, while sensible people wanted the “FDIC-resolution” approach (similar to what was used during the savings & loan bailouts about 20 years ago, which bails out retail customers but wipes out shareholders, bondholders and senior management). Republicans initially held firm and defeated the first TARP vote, but then they folded when the Washington-Wall Street establishment scared markets.

I hope I’m wrong in my analysis, but I don’t see how Republicans could win a debt limit fight. At least not if they demand something like the Ryan budget. The best possible outcome would be budget process reform such as Senator Corker’s CAP Act, which would impose caps on future spending, enforced by automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. Because it postpones the fiscal discipline until after the vote, that legislation has a chance of attracting enough bipartisan support to overcome opposition from Obama and other statists.

Why Are Geithner and Bernanke Trying to Panic Financial Markets with Debt Limit Demagoguery?

By taking advantage of  “must-pass” pieces of legislation, Republicans have three chances this year to restrain the burden of government.  They didn’t do very well with the “CR fight” over appropriated spending for the rest of FY2011, which was their first opportunity. I was hoping for an extra-base hit off the fence, but the GOP was afraid of a government shutdown and negotiated from a position of weakness. As such, the best interpretation is that they eked out an infield single.

The next chance to impose fiscal discipline will be the debt limit. Currently, the federal government “only” has the authority to borrow $14.3 trillion (including bookkeeping entries such as the IOUs in the Social Security Trust Fund). This is a very big number, but America’s gross federal debt will hit that limit soon, perhaps May or June.

Republicans say they will not raise the debt limit unless such legislation is accompanied by meaningful fiscal reforms. The political strategists in the Obama White House understandably want to blunt any GOP effort, so they are claiming that any delay in passing a “clean debt limit” will have catastrophic consequences. Specifically, they are using Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Ben Bernanke to create fear and uncertainty in financial markets.

Just a few days ago, for instance, the Treasury Secretary was fanning the flames of a financial meltdown, as noted by Bloomberg:

“Default would cause a financial crisis potentially more severe than the crisis from which we are only now starting to recover,” Geithner said. “For these reasons, default by the United States is unthinkable.”

The Fed Chairman also tried to pour gasoline on the fire. Here’s a passage from an article in the New York Times earlier this year:

Mr. Bernanke said the debt ceiling should not be used as a negotiating tactic, warning that even the possibility of the United States not being able to pay its creditors could create panic in the debt markets.

There are two problems with these statements from Geithner and Bernanke. First, it is a bit troubling that the Treasury Secretary and Fed Chairman are major players in a political battle. The Treasury Secretary, like the Attorney General, traditionally is supposed to be one of the more serious and non-political people in a  President’s cabinet. And the Fed Chairman is supposed to be completely independent, yet Bernanke is becoming a mouthpiece for Obama’s fiscal policy.

But let’s set aside this first concern and focus on the second problem, which is whether Geithner and Bernanke are being honest. Simply stated, does a failure to raise the debt limit mean default? According to a wide range of expert opinion, the answer is no.

Donald Marron, head of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and former Director of the Congressional Budget Office, explained what actually would happen in an article for CNN Money.

Our monthly bills average about $300 billion, while revenues are about $180 billion. If we hit the debt limit, the federal government would be able to pay only 60 cents of every dollar it should be paying. But even that does not mean that we will default on the public debt. Geithner would then choose which creditors to pay promptly and which to defer. …Geithner would undoubtedly keep making payments on the public debt, rolling over the outstanding principal and paying interest. Interest payments are relatively small, averaging about $20 billion per month, and paying them on time is essential to America’s enviable position in world capital markets.

And here is the analysis of Stan Collender, one of Washington’s elder statesman on budget issues (and definitely not a small-government conservative).

There is so much misinformation and grossly misleading talk about what will happen if the federal debt ceiling isn’t increased that, before any more unnecessary bloodcurdling language is used that increases everyone’s anxiety, it’s worth taking a few steps back from the edge. …if a standoff on raising the debt ceiling lasts for a significant amount of time, the alternatives to borrowing eventually may not be enough to provide the government with the cash it needs to meet its obligations. Even at that point, however, a default wouldn’t be automatic because payments to existing bondholders could be made the priority while payments to others could be delayed for months.

The Economist magazine also is nonplussed by the demagoguery coming from Washington.

Tim Geithner, the treasury secretary, sent Congress a letter on January 6th describing in gory detail the “catastrophic economic consequences” such an event would entail. …Even with no increase in the ceiling, the Treasury can easily service its existing debt; it is free to roll over maturing issues, and tax revenue covers monthly interest payments by a large multiple. But in that case it would have to postpone paying something else: tax refunds, Medicare or Medicaid payments, civil-service salaries, or Social Security (pensions) cheques.

There are countless other experts I could cite, but you get the point. The United States does not default if the debt limit remains at $14.3 trillion. The only exception to that statement is that default is possible if the Treasury Secretary makes a deliberate (and highly political) decision to not pay bondholders. And while Geithner obviously is willing to play politics, even he would be unlikely to take this step since it is generally believed that the Treasury Secretary may be personally liable if there is a default.

The purpose of this post is not to argue that the debt limit should never be raised. That would require an instant 40 percent reduction in the size of government. And while that may be music to my ears (and some people are making that argument), I have zero faith that politicians would let that happen. Instead, my goal is to help fiscal conservatives understand that Geithner and Bernanke are being dishonest and that they should not be afraid to hold firm in their demands for real reform in exchange for a debt limit increase.

Last but not least, with all this talk about the debt limit, it’s worth reminding everyone that deficits and debt are merely symptoms of too much government spending. As this video explains, spending is the disease and debt is merely one of the symptoms.

By the way, the final chance this year to impose spending restraint will be around October 1, when the 2011 fiscal year expires and the 2012 fiscal year begins. But I won’t be holding my breath for anything worthwhile if Republicans screw up on the debt limit just like they failed to achieve much on the CR fight.

Bernanke’s Soft-Core Keynesianism Is Even Worse than the Nonsensical Analysis of Hard-Core Keynesians

Earlier this week, the Washington Post predictably gave some publicity to the Keynesian analysis of Mark Zandi, even though his track record is worse than a sports analyst who every year predicts a Super Bowl for the Detroit Lions. The story also cited similar predictions by the politically connected folks at Goldman Sachs.

Zandi, an architect of the 2009 stimulus package who has advised both political parties, predicts that the GOP package would reduce economic growth by 0.5 percentage points this year, and by 0.2 percentage points in 2012, resulting in 700,000 fewer jobs by the end of next year. His report comes on the heels of a similar analysis last week by the investment bank Goldman Sachs, which predicted that the Republican spending cuts would cause even greater damage to the economy, slowing growth by as much as 2 percentage points in the second and third quarters of this year.

Republicans understandably wanted to discredit this analysis. But rather than expose Zandi’s laughably inaccurate track record, they asked the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, for his assessment. But this is like asking Alex Rodriguez to comment on Derek Jeter’s prediction that the Yankees will win the World Series.

Not surprisingly, as reported by McClatchy, Bernanke endorsed the notion that spending cuts (actually, just tiny reductions in planned increases) would be “contractionary.”

Bernanke was asked repeatedly about GOP proposals to trim anywhere from $60 billion to $100 billion in government spending during the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. These cuts would do little to bring down long-term budget deficits but would slow the economic recovery, he cautioned. “That would be ‘contractionary’ to some extent,” Bernanke said, projecting that “several tenths” of a percentage point would be shaved off of growth, and it would mean fewer jobs. …While Democrats got what they wanted out of Bernanke with that answer, he frowned on some of their projections that the spending cuts that are being debated could reduce growth by a full 2 percentage points.

Since he is not a fool, Bernanke was careful not to embrace the absurd predictions made by Zandi and Goldman Sachs. But that’s merely a difference of degree. Bernanke’s embrace of Keynesian economics is disgraceful because he should know better. And his endorsement of deficit reduction (at least in the long run) is stained by crocodile tears since Bernanke supported bailouts and endorsed Obama’s failed stimulus.

But while Bernanke is not a fool, I can’t say the same thing about Republicans. Bernanke has made clear that he either believes in the perpetual-motion machine of Keynesianism, or he’s willing to endorse Keynesian policies to curry favor with the White House. Republicans should be exposing these flaws, not treating Bernanke likes he’s some sort of Oracle.

Will the Federal Reserve’s Easy-Money Policy Turn the United States into a Global Laughingstock?

Early in the Obama Administration, there was an amusing/embarrassing incident when Chinese students laughed at Treasury Secretary Geithner when he claimed the United States had a strong-dollar policy.

I suspect that even Geithner would be smart enough to avoid such a claim today, not after the Fed’s announcement (with the full support of the White House and Treasury) that it would flood the economy with $600 billion of hot money. Here’s what my colleague Alan Reynolds wrote in the Wall Street Journal about Bernanke’s policy.

Mr. Bernanke…believes (contrary to our past experience with stagflation) that inflation is no danger thanks to economic slack (high unemployment). He reasons that if people can nonetheless be persuaded to expect higher inflation, regardless of the slack, that means interest rates will appear even lower in real terms. If that worked as planned, lower real interest rates would supposedly fix our hangover from the last Fed-financed borrowing binge by encouraging more borrowing. This whole scheme raises nagging questions. Why would domestic investors accept a lower yield on bonds if they expect higher inflation? And why would foreign investors accept a lower yield on U.S. bonds if they expect exchange rate losses on dollar-denominated securities? Why wouldn’t intelligent people shift their investments toward commodities or related stocks (such as mining and related machinery) and either shun, or sell short, long-term Treasurys? And if they did that, how could it possibly help the economy?

The rest of the world seems to share these concerns. The Germans are not big fans of America’s binge of borrowing and easy money. Here’s what Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble had to say in a recent interview.

The American growth model, on the other hand, is in a deep crisis. The United States lived on borrowed money for too long, inflating its financial sector unnecessarily and neglecting its small and mid-sized industrial companies. …I seriously doubt that it makes sense to pump unlimited amounts of money into the markets. There is no lack of liquidity in the US economy, which is why I don’t recognize the economic argument behind this measure. …The Fed’s decisions bring more uncertainty to the global economy. …It’s inconsistent for the Americans to accuse the Chinese of manipulating exchange rates and then to artificially depress the dollar exchange rate by printing money.

The comment about borrowed money has a bit of hypocrisy since German government debt is not much lower than it is in the United States, but the Finance Minister surely is correct about monetary policy. And speaking of China, we now have the odd situation of a Chinese rating agency downgrading U.S. government debt.

The United States has lost its double-A credit rating with Dagong Global Credit Rating Co., Ltd., the first domestic rating agency in China, due to its new round of quantitative easing policy. Dagong Global on Tuesday downgraded the local and foreign currency long-term sovereign credit rating of the US by one level to A+ from previous AA with “negative” outlook.

This development shold be taken with a giant grain of salt, as explained by a Wall Street Journal blogger. Nonetheless, the fact that the China-based agency thought this was a smart tactic must say something about how the rest of the world is beginning to perceive America.

Simply stated, Obama is following Jimmy Carter-style economic policy, so nobody should be surprised if the result is 1970s-style stagflation.

Lehman’s Failure Taught Us Nothing

Several commentators have reacted to Senator McConnell’s floor statement regarding the Dodd bill as a defense of “doing nothing”.  And accordingly argue that such a position would be, in the words of Simon Johnson, both dangerous and irresponsible.  This familiar canard is based upon the oft repeated assertion that the failure of Lehman proved that we cannot simply let large financial companies enter bankruptcy.

The simple, but important, fact is that we have no idea what would have happened had we let AIG and Bear go into bankruptcy proceedings.  Nor do we know what would have happened if Lehman had been saved.  Macroeconomics does not have the luxury of running natural experiments to determine the impact of a corporate failure.   Scholars have an obligation to accurately reflect the uncertainties in the debate.  Those that assert Lehman proved anything, are being at best disingenuous, and at worst, dishonest.

Let us, however, put forth a few things we do know:

  1. We know none of Lehman’s counterparties failed as a result of Lehman’s failures.  Just as we know none of AIG”s counterparties would have failed if they did not get 100 cents on the dollar from their CDS positions.  So where exactly is the proof of contagion?
  2. We know we had a nasty housing bubble.  We were going to lose millions of jobs in construction and real estate regardless of what we did.  We knew financial institutions heavily invested in housing would suffer.  How exactly would saving Lehman have prevented any of that?

The debate over ending bailouts and too-big-to-fail will not progress, we will not learn a thing, if we let simple, empty assertion pass as fact.  Much of the public remains angry at Washington because those responsible, such as Bernanke and Geithner, have never laid out a believable or plausible narrative for the bailouts.  It always comes back to “panic.”  If we are ever to hope to return to being a country governed by the rule of law, rather than the whims of men, then we need a lot more of an explanation than “panic.”