Tag: monetary policy

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.

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.

Does High Unemployment Make Inflation Impossible?

Benn Steil and Paul Swartz wrote a technically brilliant yet readable Wall Street Journal tutorial explaining why “the Fed’s exit strategy is not credible, and that means a serious risk of high inflation down the road.” 

They are sure to be ignored by those of the Keynesian faith who have repeatedly assured us that inflation cannot possibly be a problem for many, many years.  Why not?  Because there is so much “slack” in the economy—a euphemism for high unemployment.
 
If this “slack theory” of inflation makes you too sanguine about future inflation, recall that it is the same theory that predicted stagflation would be impossible in 1973–75 and 1979–81.

Figures from The Economist, August 21, raise some doubts.  The latest unemployment rate in Argentina is 8.3%, but CPI inflation over the past year was 12.2%. Unemployment in Venezuela is 8.2%, but inflation is 13.3%. Unemployment in Egypt is 9.1%, but inflation is 10.7%.  Unemployment in India is 10.7%, but inflation is 13.7%.  Unemployment in Turkey is 11%, but inflation is 7.6%.   Wasn’t high unemployment supposed to make high inflation impossible

Perhaps Slack Theorists might take comfort from the fact that inflation is “only” 4.2% in South Africa, where unemployment is 25.3%.  But that is not exactly solid proof.

Whenever Keynesian dogma proves so completely at odds with the facts, there is a powerful inclination among true believers and their herd of media apostles to cling to the theory and diregard the facts. 

Some volatile economists who previously worried about near-term U.S. inflation have switched to assuming (as they did in 2003) that high unemployment will produce deflation.  Yet that is obviously not happening in the countries listed above.  The only country with falling prices is Japan, with an unemployment rate of 5.3% (and foolishly high tax rates and decades of wasteful ”fiscal stimulus”).

File the Steil-Swartz article away for future reference. 

And remember Reynolds’ Second Law: “Inflation is always lower before it moves higher.”

Senate Bill Sows Seeds of Next Financial Crisis

With Majority Leader Harry Reid’s announcement that Democrats have the 60 votes needed for final passage of the Dodd-Frank financial bill, we can take a moment and remember this as the moment Congress planted the seeds of the next financial crisis.

In choosing to ignore the actual causes of the financial crisis – loose monetary policy, Fannie/Freddie, and never-ending efforts to expand homeownership – and instead further expanding government guarantees behind financial risk-taking, Congress is eliminating whatever market discipline might have been left in the banking industry.  But we shouldn’t be surprised, since this administration and Congress have consistently chosen to ignore the real problems facing our country – unemployment, perverse government incentives for risk-taking, massive fiscal imbalances – and instead pursued an agenda of rewarding special interests and expanding government.

At least we’ll know what to call the next crisis: the Dodd-Frank Crash.

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.

Why Limits On Banker Bonuses Are Meaningless

The European parliament has just approved a measure that would limit bonus payments and other aspects of compensation for bankers. National finance ministers are expected to approve the measure next week, and it will take effect Jan. 1. The goal of the legislation is to limit banker incentives to take risk, since this was allegedly a major cause of the recent financial crisis.

The key question about compensation limits is why shareholders and creditors have not imposed these on bank executives already. If the possibility of large bonuses indeed generates excessive risk-taking, then bank stakeholders have ample incentive to adopt such limits without government coercion.

The answer is that bank risk-taking was not necessarily excessive from the perspective of the bank stakeholders, since banks were living in a world with private gains but public losses.  Stakeholders stood to earn large returns when times were good, and they knew taxpayers would cushion the losses – via deposit insurance or accomodative monetary policy – when times went bad.

Since events of the past two years have done nothing but reinforce the view that major banks are too big to fail, the incentive to pile on risk is stronger than ever.

So limits on bank compensation are fighting an uphill battle, and bankers will find ways around them via creative accounting and clever compensation packages. The limits are therefore just political pandering to populist outrage over banker excesses. That outrage is understandable, but limiting compensation will not prevent the next blow up.

C/P at Forbes.com

Congress to Expand Deposit Insurance

While I never had much hope that this Congress would actually fix the real causes of the financial crisis - loose monetary policy, Fannie/Freddie - I had hoped that they wouldn’t do a lot to make an already bad situation worse.  Boy, was that hope naive.

Take the area of federally provided deposit insurance.  There is a massive amount of scholarly work, much of it empirical, that demonstrates that expanding the level and scope of deposit insurance results in more frequent and severe financial crises.  So what is Congress considering?  Yes, you guessed it:  expanded deposit insurance.

Recall during the financial crisis Congress raised the coverage limit to $250,000 - forget that there were never any premiums charged ahead of time for this coverage.  The FDIC also, without any basis in law, offered unlimited coverage to non-interest bearing accounts, targeted mostly at business customers.  While these expansions may have brought the system some short term stability, they come at the cost of considerable long term instability.

Congress is also making the misguided change of basing  insurance premiums on total assets rather than total deposits.  This will punish banks for relying on sources of funding other than deposits, giving banks an incentive to shift their funding toward deposits, putting the taxpayer ultimately at even greater risk.

So why all these expanded bank guarantees? Smaller banks view these as changes that would give them a competitive advantage relative to larger banks.  After all community and regional banks are far more dependent on deposits as a source of funds.  And while big banks are damaged politically, the smaller banks, despite their higher failure rates, have managed to maintain their political ability to shift the costs of their risk-taking onto the backs of the taxpayer.