Tag: Fed

On the Great Inflation Canard

Charles W. Calomiris and Peter Ireland, two distinguished economists and friends, wrote an edifying piece in The Wall Street Journal on 19 February 2015. That said, their article contains a great inflation canard.

They write that “Fed officials should remind markets that monetary policy takes time to work its way through the economy—what Milton Friedman famously referred to as “long and variable lags”—and on inflation.” That’s now a canard.

For recent evidence, we have to look no further than the price changes that followed the bursting of multiple asset bubbles in 2008. The price changes that occurred in the second half of 2008 were truly breathtaking. The most important price in the world — the U.S. dollar-euro exchange rate — moved from 1.60 to 1.25. Yes, the greenback soared by 28% against the euro in three short months. During that period, gold plunged from $975/oz to $735/oz and crude oil fell from $139/bbl to $67/bbl.

What was most remarkable was the fantastic change in the inflation picture. In the U.S., for example, the year-over-year consumer price index (CPI) was increasing at an alarming 5.6% rate in July 2008. By February 2009, that rate had dropped into negative territory, and by July 2009, the CPI was contracting at a -2.1% rate. This blew a hole in a well-learned dogma: that changes in inflation follow changes in policy, with long and variable lags.

Milton Friedman was certainly correct about the period covered in the classic, which he co-authored with Anna J. Schwartz: A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. Recall that the world of that era was one in which the fixed exchange rates ruled the roost. That’s not today’s world. Indeed, many important currencies now float. Since the world adopted a flexible exchange-rate “non-system”, changes in inflation can strike like a lightning bolt.

Audit the Fed: What Would Milton Friedman Say?

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced a bill (S.264) which is popularly known as “Audit the Fed” (ATF). The bill picked up 30 initial co-sponsors. Although the Fed is already extensively audited in the accounting sense of the term, the ATF bill would expand the scope and scale of Fed auditing. Indeed, monetary policy decisions, which have been exempt from any sort of “auditing” since 1978, would see their auditing exemption lifted if the bill becomes law.

There is popular support for the idea that the Fed should be audited. More than three-quarters of registered voters would give the general idea of auditing the Fed a green light. It’s no surprise, then, that there has been bipartisan support for similar proposals in the past. However, none of these have become law because the push-back from Fed officials and other “experts” has been strong. Today is no different, with the Fed and the Obama White House all singing the same tune: “It’s Dangerous.” 

The real issue at stake is whether the Fed should be independent. The opponents of the ATF bill naturally think that the law would imperil the Fed’s autonomy and that this would be objectionable.

What would Milton Friedman say? Well, we don’t know for certain because unfortunately he is unable to read S.264. That said, Friedman weighed in on the issue of central bank independence on several occasions. Indeed, an essay he penned in 1962 was titled “Should there be an Independent Monetary Authority?” (In: In Search of a Monetary Constitution, edited by Leland B. Yeager, Harvard University Press). Friedman concluded that “The case against a fully independent central bank is strong indeed.”

Milton Friedman’s position on this issue was quite clear at the time. There is little doubt as to whether he would see the situation at hand any differently. 

The Federal Reserve’s “Foreign Banking Organization” Rule Is Unnecessary

Last November, Arthur Long and I released a policy study on the likely impact of the Federal Reserve’s 2012 “Foreign Banking Organization” proposal.

We argued – along with many others – that the proposal amounted to little more than a costly corporate reshuffling exercise. Of even greater concern, we suggested that the proposal threatened the ability of global banks to allocate capital and liquidity in an efficient manner, would increase financial instability, and dampen economic growth.

Yesterday, the Federal Reserve released a final rule that is essentially the same as the original proposal. The final rule is more lenient only in the sense that it increases the timeframe for compliance, simplifies the leverage requirements a little, and impacts fewer organizations. To that end, the fundamental criticisms still apply, as does the confusion around why such a proposal is necessary.

Governor Tarullo – a leading proponent of the rule – has argued that the Federal Reserve extended financial “support” to foreign banks at unprecedented levels during the crisis and therefore should be given greater oversight of these banks’ activities. That sounds reasonable. But upon closer review, the support he refers to was limited to liquidity provided through the Fed’s discount window. Foreign banks were not eligible to receive TARP or other forms of bailout assistance.

Fed officials have gone to great lengths to argue that providing liquidity through the discount window (which may be provided only to otherwise solvent institutions on a fully collateralized basis) is a legitimate central bank function and is NOT financial assistance constituting a bailout.

I agree (although on this point, I note that I depart quite radically from some of my contemporaries). However, this argument does undermine the central pillar supporting the Fed’s new rule. In addition, if protecting U.S. taxpayers is the fundamental aim, why implement a rule that will close-off the channels of liquidity and support that the U.S. subsidiary could receive from the foreign parent? 

The Fed’s rule may well spark retaliatory actions from foreign regulators, who are even more annoyed about it than the banks they oversee. The losers will be both local and foreign banks and, most importantly, consumers of credit. Governor Tarullo himself noted during yesterday’s open meeting that the rule “may not strike the right balance indefinitely.” The Fed had an opportunity to lead from the front. That it failed to do so is unfortunate. 

Some Preliminary Thoughts on the New “Final” Volcker Rule

There was only one way that the five regulatory agencies tasked with drafting the Volcker Rule–the provision of Dodd-Frank limiting proprietary trading by banks–were ever going to meet the year-end deadline and give meat to a poorly drafted statutory provision. That was if they retained maximum ex post facto discretion to decide whether bank activity is permissible or not under the rule. Unsurprisingly, this appears to be exactly what they have done.

I have some particular concerns:

The rule will require a “maze of regulators” (via the Wall Street Journal)

You thought the debate over the extraterritorial application of cross border derivatives (i.e., the fight between the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission)was contentious? Volcker is going to be five times worse. The rule still requires ongoing monitoring and enforcement by FIVE separate agencies and, as Wayne Abernathy of the American Bankers Association noted, there is still no mechanism for coordination built into the rule.

The rule lacks “bright line distinctions” (per Janet Yellen)

Basically banks won’t know if they’re in compliance or not until their regulator determines it. Ominously, SEC chairman Mary Jo White said that the regulators would be available to add “clarification.” Needless to say, a final rule should not need clarification.

The devil is in the enforcement

Several of the regulators noted that the key to “successful” implementation of the rule is ongoing monitoring and enforcement. But how do you monitor and enforce a rule that doesn’t have a bright line? So much for the rule of law.

The rule contains an exception for sovereign debt

In other words, banks can trade in as much sovereign debt as they want for their own account, but if they were to engage in similar activity with respect to investment grade corporate debt–Exxon Mobil for example–this will be illegal proprietary trading. (I feel safer already!)

Much of the “new final” rule does not have the benefit of public input

The two SEC commissioners who voted against the rule both complained they did not have sufficient time to review the contents–one labeled the year-end deadline “wholly political”–and were concerned that many of the new provisions did not have the benefit of public comment. They are correct that, at the very least, the rule should have been re-proposed as a draft.

For a full transcript of the final rule and Volcker related materials, see here.

Yellen and the Fed

The Senate Banking Committee just voted 14 to 8 to confirm Janet Yellen’s nomination to be the new Chair of the Federal Reserve. She will likely go on to be confirmed by the full Senate.

Much of the coverage has focused on Yellen as a person, when the real story is on the Fed as an institution. Sometimes individuals have profound influence on Fed policy, such as Paul Volcker  in the late 1970s and 1980s. Over time, however, the institutional structure of the central bank and the incentives facing policymakers matter more.

The Federal Reserve famously has a dual mandate of promoting maximum employment and price stability. The Federal Open Market Committee, which sets monetary policy, has great discretion in weighting the two policy goals. As a practical matter, the vast majority of the time, full employment receives the greater weight. That is because the Fed is subject to similar pressures as are the members of Congress to which the Fed must report. In the short run, voters want to see more job creation. That is especially true today. The United States is experiencing weak growth with anemic job creation.

Never mind that the Fed is not capable of stimulating job creation, at least not in a sustained way over time. It has a jobs mandate and has created expectations that it can stimulate job growth with monetary policy. The Fed became an inflation-fighter under Volcker only when high inflation produced strong political currents to fight inflation even at the cost of recession and job creation.

The Federal Reserve claims political independence, but it has been so only comparatively rarely. Even Volcker could make tough decisions only because he was supported by President Carter, who appointed him, and President Reagan, who reappointed him. Conventionally defined inflation is low now, so the Fed under any likely Chair would continue its program of monetary stimulus. Perhaps Yellen is personally inclined to continue it longer than might some other candidates. But all possible Fed chiefs’ would face the same pressures to “do something” to enhance job growth, even if its policy tools are not effective.

The prolonged period of low interest rates has made the Fed the enabler of the federal government’s fiscal deficits. Low interest rates have kept down the government’s borrowing costs, at least compared to what they would have been under “normal” interest rates of 3-4 percent.

Congress and the president have been spared a fiscal crisis, and thus repeatedly punted on fiscal reform. They are likely to continue doing so until rising interest rates precipitate a crisis. How long that can be postponed remains an open question.

Easy Money from the Federal Reserve Is Not the Solution for America’s Economic Problems

Allen Meltzer, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University, writes today in the Wall Street Journal about the Fed’s worrisome announcement that it will continue the easy-money policy of artificially low interest rates.

Professor Meltzer’s key point (at least to me) is that the economy is weak because of too much government intervention and too much federal spending, and you don’t solve those problems with a loose-money policy – especially since banks already are sitting on $1.6 trillion of excess reserves. (Why lend money when the economy is weak and you may not get repaid?)

Meltzer then outlines some of the reforms that would boost growth, all of which are desirable, albeit a bit tame for my tastes:

[T]he United States does not have the kind of problems that printing more money will cure. Banks currently hold more than $1.6 trillion of idle reserves at the Fed. Banks can use those idle reserves to create enormous amounts of money. Interest rates on federal funds remain near zero. Longer-term interest rates on Treasurys are at record lows. What reason can there be for adding more excess reserves? The main effect would be a further devaluation of the dollar against competing currencies and gold, followed by a rise in the price of oil and other imports. …Money growth (M2) reached 10% for the past six months, presaging more inflation ahead.

…What we need most is confidence in our future. That calls for:

  • Reducing corporate tax rates permanently to encourage investment (paid for by closing loopholes).
  • Agreeing on long-term reductions in entitlement spending.
  • A five-year moratorium on new regulations affecting energy, environment, health and finance.
  • An explicit inflation target between zero and 2% to force the Fed to pay more attention to the medium term and to increase public confidence that we will not experience runaway inflation.

The president is wrong to pose the issue as more taxes for millionaires to pay for more redistribution now. That path leads to future crises because higher taxes support the low productivity growth of the welfare state, delay the transition to export-led growth, and do not reduce future budget liabilities enough.

Meltzer’s final point about the futility of class-warfare taxes is very important. He doesn’t use the term, but he’s making a Laffer Curve argument. Simply stated, if punitive tax rates cause investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners to earn/declare less taxable income, then the government won’t collect as much money as predicted by the Joint Committee on Taxation’s simplistic models.

Of course, Obama said in 2008 than he wanted high tax rates for reasons of “fairness,” even if such policies didn’t lead to more tax revenue. That destructive mentality probably helps explain why not only banks, but also other companies, are sitting on cash and afraid to make significant investments.

But if you really want to understand how Obama’s policies are causing “regime uncertainty,” this cartoon is spot on.

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.