Tag: Federal Reserve

Show Me the Money

A number of economists have been warning about the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policy, but defenders of the central bank often ask, “if there’s an easy money policy, why isn’t that showing up in the form of higher prices?” Thomas Sowell has an answer to this question, explaining that people and businesses are sitting on cash because anti-business policies have dampened economic activity.

Not only has all the runaway spending and rapid escalation of the deficit to record levels failed to make any real headway in reducing unemployment, all this money pumped into the economy has also failed to produce inflation. The latter is a good thing in itself but its implications are sobering. How can you pour trillions of dollars into the economy and not even see the price level go up significantly? Economists have long known that it is not just the amount of money, but also the speed with which it circulates, that affects the price level. Last year the Wall Street Journal reported that the velocity of circulation of money in the American economy has plummeted to its lowest level in half a century. Money that people don’t spend does not cause inflation. It also does not stimulate the economy. …Banks have cut back on lending, despite all the billions of dollars that were dumped into them in the name of “stimulus.” Consumers have also cut back on spending. For the first time, more gold is being bought as an investment to be held as a hedge against a currently non-existent inflation than is being bought by the makers of jewelry. There may not be any inflation now, but eventually that money is going to start moving, and so will the price level.

I do my best to avoid monetary policy issues and certainly am not an expert on the subject, so I asked a few people for their thoughts and was told that perhaps the strongest evidence for Sowell’s hypothesis comes from the Federal Reserve’s data on “Aggregate Reserves of Depository Institutions” - specifically the figures on excess reserves. This is the money that banks keep at the Federal Reserve voluntarily because they don’t have any better options. As you can see from the chart, excess reserves shot up during the financial crisis. But what’s important is that they did not come back down afterwards. Some people refer to this as “money on the sidelines” and Sowell clearly is worried that it will have an impact on the price level if banks start circulating it. That doesn’t sound like good news. On the other hand, it’s not exactly good news that banks are holding money at the Fed because there are not enough profitable opportunities.

What this really tells us is that the combination of easy money and big government isn’t working any better today than it did in the 1970s.

Public Wants Fed Audit

A new Rasmussen poll has 80% of the American public supporting an audit of the Federal Reserve.  Only 9% of the public oppose, with the rest unsure.

Unfortunately the poll did not ask specific questions over whether such an audit should cover monetary policy or just the Fed’s 2008 bailout activities.  So while the poll is likely to keep pressure on Congress, during its conference negotiations over financial regulation, to retain some audit of the Fed, the likely result is that Congress will leave out any real, on-going audit of monetary policy. 

After Sen. Bernie Sanders essentially gutted his own amendment, Senator Dodd and the Obama administration agreed to a minor audit of the Fed’s emergency lending programs.  Ron Paul, sponsor of the House version of the audit, quickly labeled this as a “sell-out”.  Fortunately Congressman Paul looks to be a House conferee on the bill, so some hope remains of a full audit being included.

Opponents of a Fed audit claim this would undermine the Fed’s political independence.  Sadly what opponents, including many economists, are missing is that the Fed is currently far from independent of politics.  This is again an area where the public gets what the experts miss, as just 20% of poll respondents thought the Fed has acted independently.  A full 60% felt the Fed was too much influenced by the President, getting at a crucial point concerning Fed independence:  it is independence from the Executive branch that is critical.

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.”