Tag: Federal Reserve

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.

If Not Fannie, then Who?

A common defense offered for keeping Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or something like them, is that the market simply cannot absorb the same level of mortgage lending without them.  The central flaw in this argument is that Fannie and Freddie themselves must be funded by the market.  So if the financial markets can absorb X in GSE debt, then the financial markets can absorb X in mortgages.

Different market participants currently face different capital requirements for the same assets.  To some extent, Fannie and Freddie were a vehicle for shifting mortgage risk from higher capitalized institutions to less capitalized.  If the Obama administration and bank regulators are serious about closing “regulatory gaps” then all entities backed by the govt, implicit or otherwise, should hold the same capital against the same risks.  In the following I will thus assume that differences in capital requirements behind mortgages are irrelevant.

So to determine who could absorb the GSEs’ buying of mortgages, let’s look at who holds GSE debt.  Of the approximately $5 trillion in GSE debt and mortgage backed securities (MBS), about a trillion is held by commercial banks and thrifts.  Another trillion is held by insurance companies and pension funds.  Close to a trillion is held by mutual funds.  That quickly gets one to 3 trillion.  Households and state/local governments also hold close to a trillion.  That leaves us with about a trillion left, held mostly by foreign governments (usually central banks).  For this analysis, I am using data pre-Federal Reserve purchases of GSE debt/MBS.

Given that banks hold about a trillion in excess reserves and over 9 trillion in deposits, I think its fair to assume commercial banks could easily absorb another $1 trillion in mortgages, as represented by foreign holders.   Some holders of GSE debt are legally prohibited from holding mortgages.  These entities can generally hold bank commercial paper (think mutual funds) which could then fund the same level of mortgages.  

The point here should be clear, by swapping out GSE debt for mortgages, our financial markets have sufficient capacity to replace Fannie and Freddie.  In fact, we are the only advanced country that does not fund our mortgage market primarily or exclusively with bank deposits.  This analysis also does not assume any reduction in the size of our mortgage market, which should actually be an objective of reform.  We devote too much capital to mortgages, at the expense of more productive sectors of our economy.

Bernanke on Monetary Policy

Every August, the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City sponsors a conference on monetary policy. It is the most valued invitation of the year for central bankers and Fed watchers. The Fed Chairman typically presents his views on monetary policy and the economy, and his talk inevitably makes headlines. (A select few reporters are invited.)

This year, Ben Bernanke promised the Fed will do whatever it takes to aid the faltering U.S. recovery, and most of all to prevent deflation. The problem for the Fed Chairman is that the central bank is plainly running out of options, as some had the cheek to observe. He suggested the Fed could do more of the same (purchase long-term securities), or try something new and untested (tweak the interest rate it pays on bank reserves).

Bernanke also suggested a third option, plus offered some professorial speculation on another. Taken together, these suggest the Fed may be prepared to chart a dangerous course.

In its policy statement, the Federal Open Market Committee has promised to keep interest rates low “for an extended period.” Bernanke suggested (as the third option) that the FOMC might make it clear that rates will remain low for an even longer period than markets are currently expecting. Within the Committee, there have been calls for caution and to remove the “extended period” language from the statement. These have been led by Thomas Hoenig, president of the KC Fed and host of the conference. By suggesting the only option was lengthening the period of low interest rates, Bernanke delivered the back of his hand to his host and the other inflation hawks on the FOMC.

Bernanke then mused about suggestions by some economists that perhaps the Fed should set an inflation target – that is, promise to deliver higher inflation rates to stimulate the economy. Fed chairmen do not engage in abstract speculation about policy, and to raise the inflationary option gave it place above all other possibilities. Bernanke hastened to add that there was at present no support for such a policy within the FOMC, and it “is inappropriate for the United States in current circumstances.”

In other words, the Fed chairman is thinking about an inflationary policy and, if circumstances change and he can build support within the FOMC, he is willing to implement it. When central bankers speculate in public about the possibility of an inflationary monetary policy, the currency is in jeopardy and the country in peril.

Biden’s Fatal Conceit

The White House’s misbegotten “Summer of Recovery” continued today with the release of another administration “analysis” that purportedly demonstrates the stimulus’s success in “transforming” the economy.

Vice President Joe Biden unveiled the report alongside Energy secretary Steven Chu and numerous businesses officials willing to serve as political props in return for Uncle Sam’s free candy. Biden bemoaned the nefarious “special interests” that were coddled by the previous administration. What does the vice president think those subsidized business officials attending his speech are called?

The money the White House has lavished on these privileged businesses isn’t free. The money comes from taxpayers—including businesses that do not enjoy the favor of the White House—who consequently have $100 billion (plus interest) less to spend or invest. Therefore, the fundamental question is: Are Joe Biden — an individual who has spent his entire career in government— and the Washington political class better at directing economic activity than the private sector?

Biden repeatedly stated that the “government plants the seed and the private sector makes it grow.” Because the government possesses no “seeds” that it didn’t first confiscate from the private sector, what the vice president is advocating is the redistribution of capital according to the dictates of the Beltway. This mindset exemplifies the arrogance of the political class, which at its core believes that free individuals are incapable of making the “right” decision without the guiding hand of the state.

Unfortunately for Joe Biden, the state’s hand guided the private sector into the economic downturn that the administration and its apologists would have us believe was a consequence of imaginary laissez faire policies. From the housing market planners at HUD to the money planners at the Federal Reserve, government interventions led to the economic turmoil that the perpetrating political class now claims it can fix.

Enough already.

The following are Cato resources that challenge the vice president’s breezy rhetoric on the ability of the federal government to direct economic growth:

  • Energy Subsidies: The government has spent billions of dollars over the decades on dead-end schemes and dubious projects that have often had large cost overruns.
  • Energy Regulations: Most federal intrusions into energy markets have been serious mistakes. They have destabilized markets, reduced domestic output, and decreased consumer welfare.
  • Energy Interventions: The current arguments for energy intervention and energy subsidies fall short.
  • High-Speed Rail: Policymakers are dumping billions of dollars into high-speed rail, even though foreign systems are money losers and carry only a small share of intercity passengers.
  • Special-Interest Spending: Many federal programs deliver subsidies to particular groups of individuals and businesses while harming taxpayers and damaging the overall economy.