Tag: Federal Reserve

Not Too Late to “Audit the Fed”

Last week I wrote about Senator Sanders’ “compromise” with Senator Dodd and the White House on auditing the Federal Reserve.  To re-cap, the compromise would drop any auditing of monetary policy and simply focus on the Fed’s emergency lending facilities.  See my previous post for why I believe that compromise is a big win for the Fed and a loss for the American public.

The good news is that Senator Sanders’ compromise does not end the debate.  Senator Vitter has filed an amendment (#3760) that mirrors the original Sanders’ amendment, including an audit of monetary policy.  With any luck, other Senators will be able to decide for themselves whether the Sanders-Dodd compromise offers sufficient transparency of the Fed’s actions.

I also highly suggest reading Arnold Kling’s recent Cato briefing paper on the issue, “The Case for Auditing the Fed Is Obvious.”

Federal Reserve 1, Transparency 0

It is being reported that the Senate has reached a “compromise” on Bernie Sanders’ amendment to audit the Federal Reserve.  This amendment was a companion to Ron Paul’s House bill that would have subjected both the Federal Reserve’s lending facilities and monetary policy to a GAO audit.  The compromise?  Drop the monetary policy audit.  It is hard to match Ron Paul’s reaction:  “Bernie Sanders has sold out.”

Congressmen Paul is 100% right on this.  While it is important to get details on the Fed’s emergency lending facility, those decisions are behind us.  The public has a right to know who benefited from the Fed’s actions, but the reality is that such an audit would change little going forward.  The real action is monetary policy.

After having spent seven years as a staffer on the Senate Banking Committee, I can attest that most senators, congressman and their staff have little understanding of the mechanics of monetary policy.  Just listen to any random appearance of the Fed chairman before Congress and you will immediately know what I mean.  But then, congressman in general don’t understand the workings of most federal programs.  That is one of the purposes of the GAO: to help explain to Congress how programs work and evaluate how well those programs are working.  I can think of no area more in need of such understanding than monetary policy.

Of course, some worry that an audit would undermine the claimed independence of the Fed.  For instance, former Hartford insurance exec, now Obama Treasury official, Neal Wolin praised the compromise, claiming the original language would “threaten the central bank’s independence from Congress.”  Sadly, Mr. Wolin is confused about the nature of the Fed.  If there is a constitutional basis for the Fed, it is Article I, Section 8’s delegation to Congress of the ability “to coin money, regulate the value there of,”  which Congress has delegated to the Fed.  The supposed independence of the Fed is from the Executive branch, not Congress.  And one of the very reasons for an audit is for the public to have a window into the dealings of the Fed with the Executive branch, most importantly the Treasury.  What Mr. Wolin and others are trying to protect is the favored relationship between Treasury and the Fed.  A GAO audit would shift the balance of power over the Fed away from the Executive and back to Congress, who despite its many problems, is directly accountable to the American public.

The gutting of the Sanders’ amendment is a huge win for both Wall Street and the Treasury (is there any longer a difference between the two?), and a massive loss and missed opportunity for the American public, and its representatives in Congress, to regain some control over an agency (the Fed) that has acted as a piggybank for both Presidents Bush and Obama.

The Case for Auditing the Fed

Recently, the Federal Reserve has significantly altered the procedures and goals that it had followed for decades. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) has introduced a bill calling for an audit of the Fed.

Remarkably, there is significant opposition to such oversight, and the political prospects for undertaking such an audit are relatively bleak. In a new paper, Cato scholar Arnold Kling examines the processes and outcomes on which an audit should focus, and looks at opposition to the audit:

We should document why the Fed took each step, what the expected results were, and whether those results were achieved. …The profit or loss of the Fed’s investments would provide a very helpful indicator of whether the Fed’s actions served the economy as a whole or merely transferred wealth from ordinary taxpayers to bank shareholders.

Read the whole thing.

By Pulling His Punches, Bernanke Shatters ObamaCare’s Credibility

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke gave a speech in Dallas yesterday where he inadvertently discredited claims that ObamaCare would reduce health care costs and the federal deficit.  According to The Washington Post:

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke warned Wednesday that Americans may have to accept higher taxes or changes in cherished entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security if the nation is to avoid staggering budget deficits that threaten to choke off economic growth…

While the immediate audience for the speech was the Dallas Regional Chamber, his message was intended for Congress and the Obama administration…

Bernanke has urged Congress to address long-term fiscal imbalances in congressional testimony before, but usually only when he is asked about them by lawmakers. His speech Wednesday aimed to reach a broader audience, steering away from technical economic speak and using plain, sometimes wry, language – a rare thing for a Fed chairman.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projects the annual federal deficit will be at least $700 billion in each of the next 10 years.  Deficit spending is a form of taxation without representation, because it increases the tax burden of generations who cannot yet vote (often because they are as yet unborn).  Bernanke wants us to end deficit spending.  Kudos to him.

But consider the timing of his speech.  Why wait until April 7, 2010, to deliver that message directly to the public?  Why not give that speech in January? Or February? Or any time before March 21?

The reason is obvious: Bernanke held back to appease his political masters.

Until three weeks ago, the nation was locked in a debate over whether Congress should enact ObamaCare, the most sweeping piece of social legislation in American history.  That law includes two new health care entitlements – the very type of government spending driving the federal budget further into the red.  Democrats rigged the bill so that the CBO was obliged to score it as deficit-reducing, but 87 percent of the public weren’t buying it.

If Bernanke really wanted to warn the American public about the dangers of rising budget deficits, then a congressional debate over creating two new entitlement programs would be the most important time to deliver that message.  Democrats would have responded that ObamaCare would reduce the deficit.  But since voters believe ObamaCare to be a budget-buster, Bernanke’s warning would have dealt ObamaCare a serious blow.

Had Bernanke delivered his populist warning before January 28, it could have jeopardized his confirmation by the Senate to a second term as Fed chairman.  Had he done so between January 28 and March 21, he would have suffered a storm of criticism from Democrats (and possible retribution when his term came up for renewal in 2013) because his sensible, responsible warning would have made moderate House Democrats more skeptical about ObamaCare’s new entitlements.

So Bernanke pulled his punches.  As Dick Morris would put it, anyone who doesn’t think that political concerns affected Bernanke’s timing is too naive for politics.

Bernanke’s behavior thus reveals why ObamaCare’s cost would exceed projections and would increase the deficit.

Knowledgeable leftists, notably Tom Daschle and Uwe Reinhardt, recognize that Congress is no good at eliminating wasteful health care spending because politics gets in the way.  (Every dollar of wasteful health care spending is a dollar of income to somebody, and that somebody has a lobbyist.)

The Left’s central planners believe they can contain health care costs by creating an independent government bureaucracy that sets prices and otherwise rations care without interference from (read: without being accountable to) Congress.  ObamaCare’s new Independent Payment Advisory Board is a precursor to what Daschle calls a “Health Fed,” so named to convey that this new bureaucracy would have the same vaunted reputation for independence as the Federal Reserve.

Yet Fed scholar Allan Meltzer reports, and Bernanke’s behavior confirms, that not even the hallowed Federal Reserve can escape politics:

In reading the minutes of the Fed and watching what they do, the Fed has always been very much afraid of Congress…The idea of having a really independent agency in Washington, that’s just not going to happen…[The Fed] is very much concerned — always — about what the Congress is doing, and doesn’t want to deviate very far from that.

Politics affects Bernanke’s behavior and the Fed’s behavior.  Politics will defang the Independent Payment Advisory Board, and many of  ObamaCare’s other purported cost-cutting measures.  ObamaCare’s cost will outpace projections. The deficit will rise.

Repeal the bill.

Bernanke’s Hollow Deficit Warning

Even though I’ve been in Washington almost 25 years, I am endlessly amazed at the chutzpah of people who support higher spending and bigger government while piously lecturing the rest of us about the need to control deficits. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is a good (though “bad” might be a better term) example of this hypocrisy. He was an avid supporter of bailouts and so-called stimulus, yet the Washington Post reports that he is now hectoring us to be fiscally responsible:

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke warned Wednesday that Americans may have to accept higher taxes or changes in cherished entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security if the nation is to avoid staggering budget deficits that threaten to choke off economic growth. “These choices are difficult, and it always seems easier to put them off – until the day they cannot be put off anymore,” Bernanke said in a speech. “But unless we as a nation demonstrate a strong commitment to fiscal responsibility, in the longer run we will have neither financial stability nor healthy economic growth.”

Currency Issue Still a Red Herring

Following are some thoughts from a broader analysis of mine on  the state of U.S.-China relations, which will be published in the near future.

Between July 2005 and July 2008, the Chinese RMB appreciated by 21 percent against the dollar.  But over that 3-year period, the U.S. trade deficit with China increased from $202 to $268 billion.  Why, then, do policymakers think revaluation is the key to reducing the trade deficit?  Why do they even care about the bilateral trade deficit, which is meaningless in the context of our globalized economy.  Only one-third to one-half of U.S. imports from China is Chinese value added.  The rest is Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean, Australian, American and other countries’ value added.  The bilateral figures tell us nothing important.

During the aforementioned period of RMB appreciation, U.S. exports to China increased by $28 billion.  But U.S. imports from China increased by $94 billion.  Americans continued to purchase Chinese imports–despite the currency-induced price increase–for two primary reasons.  First, there aren’t many substitutes for the Chinese products U.S. consumers tend to purchase.  Second, Chinese exporters, by virtue of a stronger RMB, were able to reduce their costs of production because many of those costs are for imported inputs (made cheaper because of the stronger RMB), which subsequently enabled them to lower their prices for export to the United States.

There is no compelling reason to think things will be different this time.  Thus, all of the hollering, name-calling, and finger-pointing can only worsen the state of bilateral relations.

There are less provocative alternatives.

If it is desirable that China recycle some of its estimated $2.4 trillion in accumulated foreign reserves, U.S. policy (and the policy of other governments) should be more welcoming of Chinese investment in the private sector. Indeed, some of China’s past efforts to take equity positions or purchase U.S. companies or buy assets or land to build new production facilities have been viewed skeptically by U.S. policymakers, and scuttled, ostensibly over ill-defined security concerns.

As of the close of 2008, Chinese direct investment in the United States stood at just $1.2 billion—a mere rounding error at about 0.05 percent of the $2.3 trillion in total foreign direct investment in the United States. That figure does not come anywhere near the amount of U.S. direct investment held by foreigners in most of the world’s medium-sized economies, nevermind the large ones. U.S. direct investment in 2008 held in the United Kingdom was $454 billion; it was $260 billion in Japan; $259 billion in the Netherlands; $221 billion in Canada; $211 billion in Germany; $64 in Australia; $16 billion in South Korea; and even $1.7 billion in Russia.

In light of China’s large reserves, its need and desire to diversify, America’s need for investment in the real economy, and the objective of creating jobs and achieving sustained economic growth, U.S. policy should be clarified so that the benchmarks and hurdles facing Chinese investors are better understood. Lowering those hurdles would encourage greater Chinese investment in the U.S. economy and a deepening of our mutual economic interests.

Senator Bunning’s Unappreciated Gifts

Sen. Jim Bunning (R., Ky.) blocked “extended” unemployment benefits beyond their scheduled expiration on February 27. That thwarted bill would also have put off, again, a scheduled 21 percent cut in Medicare payments to physicians. Democrats were outraged. But why?

Bunning just wanted to use leftover “stimulus” money to pay for the benefits. Why not? Such transfer payments accounted for over 80 percent of stimulus spending last year.

Besides, as Federal Reserve policymakers noted, the evidence is overwhelming (see here and here) that extending unemployment benefits from six months to nearly two years has raised the unemployment rate by a percentage point or two. I’ve waited since 1991 for someone to prove I’m wrong about that. Nobody has, because nobody can.

If the maximum duration of jobless benefits were trimmed by 13 to 20 weeks (which is all that’s at stake), they would still be far more extended than ever before. But the unemployment rate by the time of this November’s elections would be much lower than otherwise. Would Democrats prefer to go into the elections with an unemployment rate near 10 percent or a rate below 9 percent?

As for Medicare, slashing payments to physicians is the Democrats’ favorite way of paying for expanding Medicaid enrollment and health-insurance subsidies for the non-poor. If they really think that will work, how can they possibly object to saving money sooner rather than later?

[Cross-posted at The Corner]