Tag: Federal Reserve

Fed Can’t Serve Two Masters

Last week Congressman Pence and Senator Corker announced a bill to end the Federal Reserve’s dual mandate of price stability and maximum employment.  Before getting into why this is a good start, what exactly is the dual mandate?  Section 2a of the Federal Reserve Act, which sets the Fed’s monetary policy objectives, directs the Fed to:

maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.

Building upon the notion of the Phillips curve, which suggests an historical relation between inflation and unemployment, some have read 2a as implying that the Fed should pick an inflation-unemployment trade-off that improves social welfare.  It is this perceived “trade-off” that dominates the current actions of the Federal Reserve. Quite simply, Fed leaders, such as Bernanke, believe with a little extra inflation we can get more employment.

The problem is that this isn’t so.  As soon as policymakers tried to exploit this trade-off, in the 1960s and 1970s, it disappeared.  From about 1961 to 1966, it did indeed appear that one could choose a mix of inflation and unemployment.  But from 1966 until 1980, when Volcker moved to bring down inflation, inflation and unemployment were positively correlated.  It appeared that all we got was more inflation and more unemployment.

Despite the painful experiences of the 1970s, Bernanke seems intent on repeating those mistakes.  Which gets to me to the point of removing the dual mandate.  It forces the Fed to focus on the only thing it really has any influence over: inflation.  It also removes the temptation to exploit an inflation-unemployment trade-off that never existed in the first place. 

Now given Bernanke’s views on price stability, eliminating the dual mandate can only be a first step.  We ultimately need to remove the discretion of the government to indulge in the Phillips curve fantasy.

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.

Bernanke’s Twist on Price Stability

While it’s been obvious for years, Bernanke showed his rationale for more easing in today’s Washington Post.  He believes we are in danger of too little inflation.  While common sense might imply that price stability means neither inflation nor deflation, in Bernanke’s book, anything below the Fed’s target of 2 percent is bad.

First of all, there really needs to be a public debate over the Fed’s 2% target.  After all, a 2% rate of inflation over, say, 30 years erodes almost half of one’s wealth.  How that can seriously be viewed as “price stability” is beyond me.  While a 2% rate of inflation is not going to bring the economy to a halt, it is still a massive theft of wealth over the long haul.

Bernanke has also expressed the fear that “low and falling” inflation could lead to deflation, which would raise the real value of debt, which could lead to additional defaults.  But what Bernanke doesn’t seem to get is that inflation isn’t falling. Let’s go to the data.

The graph below is simply the consumer price index (CPI) over the last year.  Does it appear to be falling?  Of course not.  In fact, the trend is one that is rising.

Now CPI includes lots of things, some of which are temporary trends.  The Fed has a nasty habit of excluding those items it doesn’t like.  But let’s take a look at something that matter to the typical family:  food.

In the next chart, we can see that the trend in food costs over the last year has been upward, not down.  Contrary to Mr. Bernanke’s worries, most families worry about putting food on the table, which has been getting more expensive, not less.

Another trend worth examining is the cost to producers, best measured via the producer price index (PPI).  As one can see from the next chart, that has been heading up as well.

The point to all of this is that we aren’t seeing this deflation that Bernanke constantly worries about and we aren’t headed in that direction either.  And the worse part is that we’ve been here before.  In the earlier part of the decade, then–Fed Governor Bernanke urged Greenspan to fight any chance of deflation by cutting rates to what were then all-time lows.  The result was a housing bubble.  Thanks again Ben. 

Now this might all be worth the cost if it reduced unemployment.  But it won’t.  The traditional way Fed policy brings down unemployment is by increasing bank lending, but banks are already sitting on a trillion in reserves.  Inflation, in and of itself, does not create jobs.

Bubbles, Uncertainty, and QE2

Within the Federal Reserve System, there is a tug of war over QE2 (2nd Quantitative Easing).  Some, mostly outside the system, are calling for $1 trillion-plus purchases of long-term bonds.  Within the Fed, there is little taste for purchases that large. I expect a compromise, with an initial purchase perhaps as low as $100 billion.

There is widespread doubt as to the efficacy of further purchases of long-term bonds. They will supply additional liquidity, but liquidity isn’t what is needed. Businesses and banks are suffering from fear and uncertainty: new taxes, new regulations, new mandates, and, for financial services, the uncertainty of the Dodd-Frank banking bill. 

Lower interest rates on long-term bonds will do nothing to diminish fear and uncertainty. Instead, QE2 will further inflate the bond bubble and the commodities bubbles.

Federal Reserve Bank Pay Soars

The public is concerned that governments are providing excessively generous compensation to their workers. Attention has focused on the high salaries and benefits of federal civilian employees and the often lavish pensions paid to state and local workers.

The compensation policies of the Federal Reserve System also deserve scrutiny. The chart compares average wages of workers in the U.S. private sector and workers in the 12 Federal Reserve Banks. In recent years, the average wage in the Fed’s regional banks has soared, reaching $84,054 in 2009, or 67 percent greater than the private sector average wage of $50,462. Meanwhile, the average wage of the 2,100 workers in the Fed’s Board of Governors in Washington reached $116,030 in 2009. (Federal Reserve Bank data is from this annual report table. Private sector pay is from the BEA, as discussed here).

However, there is a major caveat to this Federal Reserve Bank data. Bank employment has fallen from a stable level before 2002 of about 23,000 to just 17,398 in 2009. One reason is that a major Fed activity—check processing—is rapidly declining due to technological changes. Thus, it is likely that many lost Fed jobs were at relatively lower salary levels.

Nonetheless, despite a 26 percent workforce reduction since 1995, overall Fed Bank compensation costs (wages and benefits) have grown just as fast as the overall economy. Fed compensation costs doubled between 1995 and 2009 as U.S. GDP doubled. The Fed’s total current operating expenses—including compensation, buildings, etc—also doubled during this period. (The Fed’s expenses are from this table in its annual reports. I excluded the new “interest on reserves” expense).

In 2009, total average wages and benefits of Fed Bank workers was $124,974, or more than double the $61,051 average compensation in the U.S. private sector. Fed workers have very generous benefits, including rare perks such as subsidized cafeteria meals.

Let’s look at top end of the Fed’s workforce. In 2009, the average salary of the Fed’s 12 regional presidents was $340,323. In addition, there were 1,183 “officers” in the Fed Bank system with an average salary of $198,960, which is up 94 percent from the average officer salary in 1995.

Also note that the number of these high-paid “officers” in the 12 Fed Banks increased 25 percent between 1995 and 2009 (950 to 1,183), even as the number of overall Fed employees fell 26 percent, as noted. The system is thus becoming very top-heavy.

Federal Reserve annual reports are available online back to 1995. But a 1996 report from the Government Accountability Office discussed the fairly rapid rise in Fed operating expenses during the 1988 to 1994 period, thus indicating that rising costs have been an issue for some time.

How does this affect the general public? Rising costs result in fewer central bank profits being transferred to the U.S. Treasury. That means higher federal deficits or taxes. The GAO explains:

“The Federal Reserve is a self-financing entity that deducts its expenses from its revenues and transfers the remaining amounts to the U.S. Treasury. Because an additional dollar of Federal Reserve cost is an additional dollar of lost federal revenue, the costs of operating the Federal Reserve System are borne by U.S. taxpayers just like the costs of any federal agency.”

As a monopoly immune from competition, the Fed will tend to have a bloated bureaucracy. That makes oversight by Congress very important so that technological efficiencies gained in Fed functions such as check-clearing are passed along to taxpayers, and not gobbled up, for example, by rising numbers of high-paid officers. As the Congress next year looks for ways to reduce the budget deficit, it should look for cost savings at the Fed.

Policymakers might consider whether the Fed really needs 12 regional bank organizations, each with huge fortress-like buildings in cities across the nation. They should ask why the number of high-paid “officers” has increased, even as the number of overall Fed workers has fallen. And they should ask whether Fed employees really need such generous benefit packages—including, for example, both a defined contribution and a defined benefit plan.

I’m not convinced that we need a monopoly central bank. But until policymakers explore alternatives such as free banking, they should try to reduce costs at the Fed as they scour the entire budget for savings.   

(Assistance was provided by intern Michael Nicolini).

Meltzer on Looming Inflation

Allan H. Meltzer, a frequent participant in Cato’s annual monetary conferences, warns in the Wall Street Journal that the Federal Reserve may be about to lay the groundwork for another Great Inflation like we saw in the 1970s:

The Federal Reserve seems determined to make mistakes. First it started rumors that it would resume Treasury bond purchases, with the amount as high as $1 trillion. It seems all but certain this will happen once the midterm election passes.

Then the press reported rumors about plans to raise the inflation target to 4% or higher, from 2%. This is a major change from the Fed’s quick rejection of a higher target when the International Monetary Fund suggested it a few months ago.

Anyone can make a mistake, but wise people don’t repeat the same one. Increasing inflation to reduce unemployment initiated the Great Inflation of the 1960s and 1970s. Milton Friedman pointed out in 1968 why any gain in employment would be temporary: It would last only so long as people underestimated the rate of inflation. Friedman’s analysis is now a standard teaching of economics. Surely Fed economists understand this….

Yes, a sustained deflation would be a big problem, but it is unlikely in today’s circumstances. Countries with a depreciating exchange rate, an unsustainable budget deficit, and more than $1 trillion of excess monetary reserves are more likely to inflate. That’s our problem today, and it’s another reason the Fed should give up this nonsense about more stimulus and offer a credible long-term program to prevent the next inflation.

Register for Cato’s upcoming monetary conference here. More on inflation risks here and here.