Tag: Fed

Would Summers Be Any Worse than Bernanke?

As I have argued elsewhere, Bernanke’s record as both a Fed governor and Chair suggest we be better off with a new Fed Chair come January 2010, when Bernanke’s term as Chair expires. Outside of those who believe the bailouts have saved capitalism, two very reasonable arguments are put forth for keeping Bernanke at the helm:  1) in a time of crisis, the markets need certainty and dislike change; and 2) the alternatives, such as Larry Summers, would be worse.  Both these points have real merit, however I believe in both cases the pros of change outweigh the cons of staying the course with Bernanke.  I will save the “certainty” debate for another time, for now, let’s ask ourselves:  Would Summers really be any worse than Bernanke?

Before I make the case for Summers, I do want to make clear, President Obama, and the country, would best be served by a “Carter picks Volcker” type moment.  Go outside the Administration, go beyond the usual circle of easy-money, new Keynesians.  The Fed lacks creditability in two (at least two) important areas: bailouts and inflation.  And one doesn’t even need to go outside of the Federal Reserve System to find candidates.  Topping my list would be Jeff Lacker (Richmond Fed), Gary Stern (Minn Fed) and Charles Plosser (Philly Fed).  Any of these three know the workings of the Fed, have the respect of the Fed staff, and have taken strong positions on both “too big to fail” and easy money.  In the case of Gary Stern, it would seem especially appropriate, as his early warnings (see his 2004 book on bank bailouts) were largely ignored and dismissed.  If we want to reward and promote those who got it right, these guys are at the top of the list.

But let’s reasonably suppose that Obama wants someone close, someone he personally knows and will stick with tradition by picking a member of his own administration.  Without going into any detail, picking Romer would offer little substantial difference with keeping Bernanke.  The case for Summers is essentially that here is one instance where his enormous ego would be an asset.  One easily gets the sense that when Summers sits next to President Obama, Summers is thinking to himself just how lucky the President is to be sitting next to Larry Summers.  One can call Summers lots of things, starstruck is not one of them.  Given what we now need most in a Fed Chair is true independence, from especially the Administration but also from Congress, Summers is the only qualified economist close to the President who displays even the slightest streak of independent thinking.  Bernanke, in contrast, has endlessly pandered to the Administration and to Congressional Democrats.  Summers has been willing on occasion to actually defend the sanctity of contract (remember the debates over the AIG bonuses), a rarity on the Left, and more than Bernanke was willing to say.  

So forced to choose between Bernanke and Summers, the need for an independent Fed Chair willing to take on the Administration and Congress, when appropriate, makes Summers a far better choice.  That said, here’s to encouraging Obama go outside his comfort zone and pick someone who has the will to remove excess liquidity from the system before the next bubble gets going.

Gallup Poll: Federal Reserve Makes the IRS Look Good

A recent Gallup Poll surveyed the public’s impression of how various federal agencies were doing their job.  Of the agencies evaluated, on the bottom was the Federal Reserve Board.  Only 30 percent of the respondents rated the Fed’s performance as either excellent or good.  I can understand now why Chairman Bernanke felt the need to take his act on the road.  Even the IRS managed to get 40 percent of respondents to see its job performance as excellent or good. A majority of the public, 57 percent, sees the Fed’s current performance as either poor or fair.

The result is not just driven by a general public disdain for federal agencies; over a majority of respondents thought such agencies as the Center for Disease Control, NASA and the FBI were doing an excellent or good job.

Nor is the result driven by public ignorance or indifference to the Fed; only a few years ago, back in 2003, 53 percent of Americans said the Federal Reserve was doing an excellent or good job and only 5% called its job performance poor.  But then, the Fed was also giving us negative real interest rates at that time as well.  Perhaps there’s a good reason to insulate the Fed from short-term public and political pressures.  Let’s hope Chairman Bernanke does not read these results as an excuse for repeating the Fed’s 2003 monetary policies.

What’s A Dollar Worth?

It’s not just Americans worried about the flood of dollars from the Fed.  The Chinese and now the Malaysians also are wondering if they should keep dealing in greenbacks.

Reports the Wall Street Journal:

Malaysia’s prime minister said China and his country are considering conducting their trade in Chinese yuan and Malaysian ringgit, joining a growing number of nations thinking of phasing out the dollar.

“We can consider whether we can use local currencies to facilitate trade financing between our two countries,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak told reporters at a briefing Wednesday after meeting with China’s premier, Wen Jiabao.

“What worries us is that the [U.S.] deficit is being financed by printing more money,” Mr. Najib said. “That is what is happening. The Treasury in the United States is printing more notes.”

The dollar won’t easily be displaced as the world’s principal reserve currency.  But Washington appears to be doing everything possible to hasten that day.

Perhaps Americans should consider keeping their wealth in yuan or even ringgits.  At least they might retain their value even as the Fed and Treasury attempt to inflate and spend the U.S. economy into oblivion.

Our Tax Dollars Are Being Used to Lobby for More Government Handouts

The First Amendment guarantees our freedom to petition the government, which is one of the reasons why the statists who wants to restrict or even ban lobbying hopefully will not succeed. But that does not mean all lobbying is created equal. If a bunch of small business owners get together to lobby against higher taxes, that is a noble endeavor. If the same group of people get together and lobby for special handouts, by contrast, they are being despicable. And if they get a bailout from the government and use that money to mooch for more handouts, they deserve a reserved seat in a very hot place.

This is not just a hypothetical exercise. The Hill reports on the combined $20 million lobbying budget of some of the companies that stuck their snouts in the public trough:

Auto companies and eight of the country’s biggest banks that received tens of billions of dollars in federal bailout money spent more than $20 million on lobbying Washington lawmakers in the first half of this year. General Motors, Chrysler and GMAC, the finance arm of GM, cut back significantly on lobbying expenses in the period, spending about one-third less in total than they had in the first half of 2008. But the eight banks, the earliest recipients of billions of dollars from the federal government, continued to rely heavily on their Washington lobbying arms, spending more than $12.4 million in the first half of 2009. That is slightly more than they spent during the same period a year ago, according to a review of congressional records.

…big banks traditionally are among the most active Washington lobbying interests in the financial industry, and the recession has done little to dent their spending. …Since last fall, companies receiving government funds have argued that none of the taxpayer money they were receiving was being spent on lobbying.

…American International Group, the insurance firm crippled by trades in financial derivatives that received roughly $180 billion in bailout commitments, closed its Washington lobbying shop earlier this year. AIG continues to spend money on counsel to answer requests for information from the federal government, but the firm said it does not lobby on federal legislation.

The most absurd part of the story was the companies claiming that they did not use tax dollar for lobbying. I guess the corporate bureaucrats skipped the classes where their teachers explained that money is fungible.

The best part of the story was learning that AIG closed its lobbying operation, though that does not mean much since AIG basically now exists as a subsidiary of the federal government. The most important message (which is absent from the story, of course) is that the real problem is that government is too big and that it intervenes in private markets. Companies would not need to lobby if government left them alone and/or did not offer them special favors. Indeed, that was the key point of my video entitled, “Want Less Corruption: Shrink the Size of Government.”

Bernanke Rules?

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has outlined “The Fed’s Exit Strategy.” He tells the reader how the central bank will avoid an inflation of historic proportions resulting from all the money and credit it has injected into the economy. All of the strategies he outlines are technically feasible ways for the Fed to implement monetary restraint.

The op-ed has an air of a classroom exercise, however, rather than a practical central-bank strategy. Much of the article is devoted to explaining how the Fed can now pay interest on reserves, and how it could raise that interest rate so as to dissuade commercial banks from lending the reserves out. It could do that, but what would that rate need to be in order to meet a private bank’s threshold rate of return in normal economic times?

More importantly, the Fed has never lacked the technical tools to combat inflation. What it has so often lacked is the will to make tough decisions. And, quite frankly, it does not possess the information needed to fine-tune the economy in the way Chairman Bernanke imagines (a point made by Milton Friedman many years ago). Lack of will and lack of information combine to keep the Fed behind the curve. Its policy was too easy after 2001, and so it fueled the housing boom. It was late to recognize the turn in housing and the economy, and its policy was then too tight. If past is prologue, it will be late to implement its exit strategy.

The Fed Chairman has presented a laundry list of policy tools. What investors need is some assurance that the right tools will be used at the right moment. The mere promise of a policymaker to do the right thing has little credibility. There is no monetary rule in place, only the rule of a man.

Is an Independent Fed Better?

Rep. Ron Paul now has a majority of the House of Representatives supporting his bill for an independent audit of the Federal Reserve System. He presented his case at a Cato Policy Forum recently, with vigorous responses from Bert Ely and Gilbert Schwartz.

Now more than 200 economists have signed a petition calling on Congress to “defend the independence of the Federal Reserve System as a foundation of U.S. economic stability.” The petition seems implicitly a rebuttal to Paul’s bill.

Allan Meltzer, a leading monetary scholar and frequent participant in Cato’s annual monetary conferences, declined to sign the petition and explained why: “I wrote them back and said, ‘the Fed has rarely been independent and it strikes me that being independent is very unlikely’” in the current environment.

Cato senior fellow Gerald O’Driscoll adds:

it is not the critics of the Fed who threaten its independence, but the Fed’s own actions.  Its intervention in the economy is unprecedented in size and scope. It is inevitable that those actions would lead to calls for further Congressional oversight and control. 

One of the lessons here is that once you create powerful government agencies, from tax-funded schools to central banks, there are no perfect libertarian rules for how they should be run. The way to protect freedom is to let people make their own decisions in civil society.  Schools have to decide what to teach, offending the values of some parents and taxpayers. The Fed can be independent and unaccountable and undemocratic, or it can be subject to the political whims of elected officials; neither is a very attractive prospect.

What Fed Independence?

More than 250 economists have signed an “Open Letter to Congress and the Executive Branch” calling upon them to “defend the independence of the Federal Reserve System as a foundation of U.S. economic stability.”

Allan Meltzer is not a signatory to the petition and he has explained why not.  The Fed has frequently not shown independence in the past, and there is no reason to expect it to do so reliably in the future.  Professor Meltzer has just completed a multi-volume history of the Fed and knows all-too-well of the Fed’s willingness to accommodate the policies of administrations from FDRs to Lyndon Johnson’s. 

I would add that the Fed’s behavior under Chairman Bernanke breaks new ground in aligning the central bank’s policy with Treasury’s.  Much of what the Fed has done, first under Bush/Paulson, and now under Obama/Geithner, involves credit allocation.  Since that ultimately involves the provision of public money for private purpose, it is pre-eminently fiscal policy.  Central bank independence is a fuzzy concept.  If it means anything, however, it is that monetary policy is conducted independently of Treasury’s fiscal policy.

In short, it is not the critics of the Fed who threaten its independence, but the Fed’s own actions.  Its intervention in the economy is unprecedented in size and scope. It is inevitable that those actions would lead to calls for further Congressional oversight and control.  The Fed is a creature of Congress and ultimately answerable to that body. 

The petition raises legitimate concerns about whether the Fed will be able to tighten monetary policy when the time comes, and exit from its interventions in credit markets.  But it is precisely the Fed’s own recent actions that raise those problems.  Critics of recent Fed policy actions have for some time complained that the Fed has no exit strategy.  Apparently the critics are now going to be blamed for the Fed’s inability to extricate itself from its interventions.

Cross-posted at ThinkMarkets