Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

The Dollar, Oil Prices and Exports: Lessons of Recent History

Business news pages are suddenly full of hand-wringing about how the rising dollar threatens to slash U.S. exports and economic growth.  “The strong dollar is the biggest threat to economic recovery,” warns one reporter.  Others quote White House chief economist Jason Furman saying “the strong dollar is undoubtedly a headwind” for the U.S. economy.

It’s not that simple.

dollar and exports

The graph above compares real U.S. exports with the trade-weighted exchange rate.  The dollar was rising much faster in 1995-2000, when both exports and the economy were growing at an impressive pace.  Exports eventually fell with recession, as always.  But it is much harder to blame the recession on exchange rates than on interest rates – the Fed pushed the fed funds rate 4.7 percentage points above core inflation.   

From 2001 to 2007, the dollar fell and exports rose.  That pattern might appear to justify recent lobbying for a lower dollar were it not for the familiar connection between oil prices and the dollar.  As the dollar fell, the price of West Texas crude soared from $19 a barrel in December 2001 to over $133 in June-July 2008.  Every postwar recession except 1960 was preceded by a spike in oil prices, and the Great Recession turned out to be no exception.

The dollar weakened at the start of this recovery, but related inflation cut average real wages by 1.5% in 2011 and 0.6% in 2012.   As the dollar firmed up, by contrast, real wages rose by 0.7 % in 2013 and 0.8% in 2014.

The recent rise in the dollar has merely brought it back to about where it was in 1998 or 2006, which were not bad years.  The latest exchange rate gyrations are dominated by self-inflicted wounds to the euro and yen, but U.S. exports to the EU are only 1.3% of GDP, and exports to Japan are 0.4% of GDP.

U.S. multinationals have complained about “translation losses” – the fact that profits of subsidiaries in Europe or Japan will be less valuable when translated into dollars.  But that is equally true for earnings of European and Japanese firms too (and for their stock prices when translated into dollars). And multinationals often leave foreign earnings abroad, due to the uniquely foolish U.S. tax if offshore earnings are brought home.  

The weakened euro and yen will raise the cost of living and cost of production for citizens of the afflicted countries (including the price of oil and other commodities).  It is true that such expertly planned impoverishment of such large economies can scarcely benefit the global economy. If other countries want to make their money less trustworthy and less desirable, however, there is not much we can do about that.  

Furman’s Folly: Nostalgia about 1973 and Nonsense about the Bottom 90 Percent

Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, set out to explain “middle-class economics” in the Wall Street Journal, March 11, in an earlier Vox blog and in a presentation to National Association of Business Economists (NABE), as well as the first chapter of the Economic Report of The President

The intent is to make the recent economy look healthier (massaging 2.3-2.4 percent growth for 2013-14 into 2.7 percent), and to claim that “subpar” 2010-14 income gains for the middle class (generously defined as the bottom 90 percent) are not due to a subpar recovery but to something that has gone on ever since 1973.  His Wall Street Journal article complains of “the decades-long trend of slower income growth for the middle class.”

Furman says, “Congressional Budget Office data (with a minor extrapolation) show, median U.S. incomes are up 17 percent since 1973.”  Actually, CBO data start with 1979 and end with 2011, so it takes more than minor extrapolation to extend that back to 1973 or forward to 2013.  CBO estimates show real after-tax median income rising from $45,400 in 1983 to $68,000 in 2008 (in 2011 dollars), but not yet back to the 2008 level by 2011. Making up a number for 1973 can’t undo stagnation after 2008. 

He continues: “But from 1948-73, median incomes rose 110 percent, according to broadly comparable Census estimates.”  Yet the two series aren’t remotely comparable.  Unlike pre-tax “money income” from the Census Bureau, the CBO subtracts federal taxes (middle-income tax rates were nearly cut in half since 1981) and includes rapidly increased health and other in-kind benefits from employers and government (Medicaid, SNAP, CHIP and housing allowances). 

The Folly of Fed Obeisance

As if to get my work week off to rotten start, my otherwise good pal Don Boudreaux greeted me first thing Monday morning with a link to Robert Samuelson’s Sunday evening Washington Post op-ed on “The Folly of Fed Bashing.” In it, Samuelson takes the Fed’s conservative critics to task for their “misinformed” attacks on the Fed, faulting them for failing to appreciate how much more transparent the Fed’s operations are today than they were some decades ago, and for not understanding that its actions, however undesirable they may seem, are generally “necessary for the nation’s long-term economic health.” As for the perception that “the Fed is a large and aloof agency that needs to be tamed,” it rests, Samuelson says, on a “simplistic” view of the Fed’s history.

Well I can’t speak for others, but I know something about the Fed’s history. And I’ve come to the conclusion, informed by careful consideration, over the course of several decades, of that history, and the history of numerous other monetary arrangements in the U.S. and elsewhere, that the Fed is actually…a large and aloof agency that needs to be tamed.

True, the Fed is in some respects more transparent than it used to be. But it has also been doing things that it never used to do. The ordinary Fed publications and disclosures to which Mr. Samuelson refers shed no light at all on many of these novelties. Not for nothing did Dodd-Frank provide for a special, one-time audit of the Fed’s crisis-related undertakings. Among other things, that audit pointed to some serious conflicts of interest that might otherwise have escaped censure. Yet according to Mr. Samuelson’s supposedly up-to-date Fed history, it should have been just as unnecessary as the recurring audits Fed “bashers” have been calling for.

Would such recurring audits themselves be otiose? The Dodd-Frank audit covers the Fed’s actions up to July 21, 2010. Consequently the GAO isn’t allowed to look into any of the Fed’s unorthodox measures since then, including later rounds of Quantitative Easing, Operation Twist, and its enhanced overnight reverse repo program, not to mention its stress tests and other financial-regulatory measures. More importantly, under existing law it can’t be asked to look into any “emergency” steps the Fed might take in the future. Should we always have to rely on special legislation after the fact to allow Congress to scrutinize unusual Fed actions?

Mr. Samuelson complains about simplistic history. Allow me to complain instead about simplistic conjectures about the future–conjectures to the effect that the Fed will never again engage in the sorts of activities that warranted the Dodd-Frank audit. Such conjectures are after all implicit in claims, like his, to the effect that a permanent enhancement of the GAO’s Fed-auditing powers would only serve to “fulfill conservatives’ political agenda” by allowing Congress to “harass” the Fed and to otherwise undermine its ability to do its job.* Does Mr. Samuelson believe that the GAO “harasses” the other government departments and agencies over which it has unlimited auditing powers? If not, why does he worry that it would harass the Fed? Conservative agenda? Does he think that only conservatives (or conservatives and libertarians) distrust the Fed, and welcome GAO scrutiny of its unusual activities? If GAO officials themselves argue for relaxing present limits on their agency’s Fed-auditing powers, must they be part of a conservative plot?

Samuelson also sees “no obvious advantage” in a measure that would compel the Fed to choose and stick to a monetary rule, such as a Taylor Rule or NGDP growth rule. But while the advantage of such a rule may not be obvious to him, others may find it obvious enough. Either a Taylor or a Sumner-style NGDP growth rule would have called for less expansionary monetary policy in the mid-2000s, and for more expansionary policy in late 2009–reason enough to wonder whether, in complaining (in Samuelson’s words) that a rule “might make policy too inflexible,” Janet Yellen bothered to consider how in practice policy tends to “flex” the wrong way.

Finally, although he recognizes that the Fed isn’t infallible, and even suggests that the recent financial crisis was proof of its fallibility, Samuelson remains convinced that the Fed’s unhindered exercise of almost unlimited discretionary powers has contributed more than rule-based arrangements might to “the nation’s long-term economic health.” On what, I wonder, is this judgment based? Certainly not on recent experience. But a longer view is just as hard to square with the assertion, as Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz went to great lengths to demonstrate. Mr. Samuelson worries that Fed “bashing”–by which he seems to mean any criticism of the Fed that seeks to justify a reduction of its considerable power–“adds to uncertainty and subtracts from confidence” upon which economic growth depends. In truth, the Fed’s actions are themselves often unpredictable, and especially so when it comes to their influence on the long-run course of prices and spending. Were the Fed really a sort of Ambrose Light of financial markets, as Mr. Samuelson imagines it to be, Fed watching, instead of being a growth industry, would be about as useful–and as boring–as watching paint dry.

But the Fed needs more than mere watching. It needs scrutiny. It needs criticism. Above all, it needs to be reined in–not for conservatives’ sake, but for everyone’s. Mr. Samuelson may not like it. But I, for one, intend to keep bashing away.


*Like many commentators who take the Fed’s side in the “audit the Fed” debate, Samuelson suggests that there only two possible kinds of GAO audits to which the Fed might be subject: simple “do the books balance” audits, as are already provided for, and ones by which the GAO would “second guess” the Fed’s conduct of ordinary monetary policy. In fact, the Fed does a lot more than engage in ordinary monetary policy, and, as the special audit provided for in Dodd-Frank illustrates, there are correspondingly many ways in which the GAO might scrutinize it’s conduct. The real debate is about these other sorts of scrutiny. To represent it as a debate about whether the GAO (or “Congress”) should be allowed to interfere with the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy is missing the point, if it isn’t something rather worse than that.

Audit the Fed: What Would Milton Friedman Say?

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced a bill (S.264) which is popularly known as “Audit the Fed” (ATF). The bill picked up 30 initial co-sponsors. Although the Fed is already extensively audited in the accounting sense of the term, the ATF bill would expand the scope and scale of Fed auditing. Indeed, monetary policy decisions, which have been exempt from any sort of “auditing” since 1978, would see their auditing exemption lifted if the bill becomes law.

There is popular support for the idea that the Fed should be audited. More than three-quarters of registered voters would give the general idea of auditing the Fed a green light. It’s no surprise, then, that there has been bipartisan support for similar proposals in the past. However, none of these have become law because the push-back from Fed officials and other “experts” has been strong. Today is no different, with the Fed and the Obama White House all singing the same tune: “It’s Dangerous.” 

The real issue at stake is whether the Fed should be independent. The opponents of the ATF bill naturally think that the law would imperil the Fed’s autonomy and that this would be objectionable.

What would Milton Friedman say? Well, we don’t know for certain because unfortunately he is unable to read S.264. That said, Friedman weighed in on the issue of central bank independence on several occasions. Indeed, an essay he penned in 1962 was titled “Should there be an Independent Monetary Authority?” (In: In Search of a Monetary Constitution, edited by Leland B. Yeager, Harvard University Press). Friedman concluded that “The case against a fully independent central bank is strong indeed.”

Milton Friedman’s position on this issue was quite clear at the time. There is little doubt as to whether he would see the situation at hand any differently. 

China: Hot Money In, Now Out

For some years, hot money flowed in, adding massively to China’s foreign reserve stockpile. Speculators borrowed cheaply in U.S. dollars and bought yuan-denominated assets in anticipation of an ever-appreciating yuan. Well, this carry trade has shifted into reverse, with $91 billion in net outflows in the last quarter of 2014. And with that, the ever-appreciating yuan story has come to a close, too. Indeed, the yuan has lost 1.8% against the greenback since the New Year.

A clear picture of the drag that the hot money outflows are putting on China is shown by inspecting the annual growth rate in the People’s Republic of China’s net foreign assets. With the reserve of the carry trade, the slowdown in net foreign assets growth has been pronounced.   

This, in turn, has reduced the foreign asset component of the growth in China’s money supply, putting a squeeze on the economy’s fuel supply. Indeed, China’s money growth rate has fallen well below its trend rate since mid-2012.

In an attempt to reverse the slump in China’s money supply growth, the People’s Bank has just reduced its benchmark interest rates for the second time in three months. A wise move.

New York Proposes Special Bitcoin Regulation, But Won’t Say Why

Yesterday, the New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) issued the second draft of its “BitLicense” proposal, a special, technology-specific regulation for digital currencies like Bitcoin. For a second time, the NYDFS claims to have a strong rationale for such regulation, but it has not revealed its rationale to the public, even though it is required to do so by New York’s Freedom of Information Law.

If you’re just joining the “BitLicense” saga, the NYDFS welcomed Bitcoin in August 2013 by subpoenaing every important person in the Bitcoin world. A few months later, New York’s Superintendent of Financial Services announced his plan for a special “BitLicense,” which would be required of anyone wanting to provide Bitcoin-based services in New York.

About a year later, Superintendent Lawsky released the first draft of the “BitLicense” proposal, to strongly negative reviews from the Bitcoin community. It didn’t help that after a year’s work the NYDFS offered the statutory minimum of 45 days to comment. Relenting to public demand, the NYDFS extended the comment period.

In announcing the regulation, the NYDFS cited “extensive research and analysis” that it said justifies placing unique regulatory burdens on Bitcoin businesses. On behalf of the Bitcoin Foundation, yours truly asked to see that “extensive research and analysis” under New York’s Freedom of Information Law. The agency quickly promised timely access, but in early September last year it reversed itself and said that it may not release its research until December.

Does Fed Leverage and Asset Maturity Matter?

Debate over whether to subject the Federal Reserve to a policy audit has occasionally focused on the size and composition of the Fed’s balance sheet. While I don’t see this issue as central to the merits of an audit, it has given rise to a considerable amount of smug posturing. Let’s step beyond the posturing and give these questions some of the attention they deserve.

First the facts. The Fed’s balance sheet has ballooned over the last few years to about $4.5 trillion. And yes, the Fed discloses such. No argument there. The Fed, like most central banks, has traditionally conducted its open-market operations in the “short end” of the market. The various rounds of quantitative easing have changed that. For instance the vast majority of its holdings of Fannie & Freddie mortgage-backed securities ($1.7 trillion) have an average maturity of well over 10 years. Similarly the Fed’s stock of treasuries have long maturities, about a fourth of those holdings in excess of 10 years.

Now the leverage question. We all get that the Fed cannot go “bankrupt” like Lehman. But that’s because “bankrupt” is a legal condition and one from which the Fed has been exempted. Just like Fannie and Freddie cannot go “bankrupt” (they are considered legally outside the bankruptcy code). The eminent economist historian Barry Eichengreen tells us the Fed’s leverage doesn’t matter as “the central bank can simply ask the government to replenish its capital, much like when a government covers the losses of its national post office.” Some of us would say that’s a problem not a solution, just like it is with the Post Office.

Others would suggest the Fed’s leverage doesn’t matter because “the Fed creates money”. Again that misses the point. Any losses could be covered by printing money, but isn’t that inflationary?  And that, of course, is just another form of taxation. So it seems Senator Paul’s primary point, that the Fed’s balance sheet exposes the taxpayer to some risk has actually been supported, not discredited, by these supposed rebuttals.

Let’s get to another issue, the maturity of the Fed’s assets. There’s a good reason central banks generally stay in the short end of the market. It avoids taking on any interest rate risk.  When rates go up, bond values fall. Yes the Fed can avoid recognizing those losses by simply not selling those assets. But that creates problems of its own. If we do see inflation, normally the Fed would sell assets to drain liquidity from the market. But would the Fed be willing to sell assets at a loss? At the very least there would be some reluctance. And yes they could cover those losses by printing money, but that’s hardly helpful if the Fed finds itself in a situation of rising prices.

The point here is that the Fed’s balance sheet does raise tough questions about its exit strategy.  Perhaps the economy will remain soft for years and the Fed can exit gracefully.  Perhaps not.  I raised this possibility before Congress a year ago.  I don’t know anyone with a crystal ball on these issues.  But one thing is certain, this is a debate we should be having.  Its the “nothing to see here, move along” crowd that poses the true risk to our economy.