Tag: Federal Reserve

Must Rising Oil Prices Compel the Fed to Tighten More?

As crude oil prices recently approached $68 a barrel, a Wall Street Journal writer concluded that “inflation fears got an added jolt this week as oil prices rose to a three-year high.”

Two other Wall Street Journal writers added that “If crude continues to move higher, it could begin to stifle economic growth.”  They suggest that “higher consumer prices for gasoline and other energy products act like a tax, while pushing inflation higher and increasing pressure on the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates more aggressively.” 

Such anxieties about $70 oil are obviously overwrought. Crude prices were usually above $100 from March 2011 to September 2014, yet nobody was then fretting about inflation fears forcing the Fed to raise the fed funds rate.   

But this does raise two very important issues: First, the importance of soaring oil prices in the recession of 2008-2009.  Second, the way the Federal Reserve has overreacted to surging oil prices by pushing up interest rates before and during oil-shock recessions and (in 2008) leaning against their fall after the recession was well under way.

In May 2009, economist James Hamilton of U.C. San Diego testified before the Joint Economic Committee.  He noted that, “Big increases in the price of oil that were associated with events such as the 1973-74 embargo by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Iranian Revolution in 1978, the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, and the First Persian Gulf War in 1990 were each followed by global economic recessions. The price of oil doubled between June 2007 and June 2008, a bigger price increase than in any of those four earlier episodes.”  

Like every postwar recession except 1960, the “Great Recession” of 2008-09 was preceded by a spike in the price of crude oil.  West Texas crude soared from $54 at the start of 2007 to $145 by mid-July 2018.  Yet U.S. reporters and economists still write as though the Great Recession had nothing to do with a global energy shock but was instead a “financial crisis” that began with the collapse of an investment bank (Lehman Brothers) on September 15, 2008.  This is a stubborn myth.

In reality, the inability of unemployed homeowners to pay their mortgage bills, and the failure of investments tied to those mortgages, were secondary complications of a global energy shock which cut industrial production in Canada and Europe in 2017 before that happened in the U.S.  By the end of 2008, the contraction of real GDP “was twice as deep in Germany and Britain  [as it was in the U.S.] and much worse in Japan and Sweden.”

Because energy is a key part of the cost of doing business, higher energy costs made production and distribution less profitable and thereby shrunk the global economy’s supply.  Yet even as late as June 2008, as crude prices soared above $140, The New York Times and Washington Post were hysterical about illusory inflation – not recession. 

Did the Fed also mistake a temporary oil price spike for a sustained rise in the overall trend of inflation?  I believe it did that in 2008 and even more obviously in prior incidents of a sudden surge in oil prices.

The big oil price spikes (and recessions) between 1973 and 1980 that Hamilton mentioned were clearly matched by huge spikes in the Fed-controlled interest rate on federal funds.  Oil prices and the fed funds rate were also rising before the 1991 and 2001 recessions. When crude rose from $34 to $74 from May 2004 to June 2006, the fed funds rate rose from 1 percent to 5.25 percent.  Once recessions were well underway the Fed always began to bring interest rates back down, but always (including 2008) too slowly.

On January 2, 2008, The Financial Times published my article, “Why I am Not Using the-R-Word This Time.”   Citing James Hamilton, I wrote that “if the emphasis on oil prices in Prof Hamilton’s 1983 study is correct, the US economy is likely to slip into recession because of higher energy costs alone, regardless of what the Fed does. If Mr. Bernanke’s 1997 study is right, timely reductions in the Fed funds rate should avert such a recession.”  Once he became Fed chairman, unfortunately, Bernanke did not aggressively cut the funds rate in a timely manner – but instead tried hard to prop rates up.  As Cato’s George Selgin documented, “Between December 2007 and September 2008, the Fed sold over $300 billion in Treasury securities, withdrawing a like amount of reserves from the banking system, or just enough to make up for reserves it created through its emergency lending,” One result was to keep the fed funds rate above 2 percent until September when oil prices finally fell.  In October the Fed also began paying interest on bank reserves (above 1 percent until mid-December) to discourage bank lending.  

Although an oil price of around $70 is only half as high as the peak in 2008, and lower than it was just a few years ago, we do have a lot of experience with sudden increases in oil prices that always ended in recession.  And we have a lot of experience with the Fed acting as though they were not focused on “core” inflation at all (i.e., excluding energy) but were unduly influenced by the misleading and ephemeral impact of oil price gyrations on headline inflation numbers.  

So, the Wall Street Journal’s recent warning that “If crude continues to move higher, it could begin to stifle economic growth” would be likely only if crude moved a lot higher.  And the warning that a higher oil price must put “pressure on the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates more aggressively” would be likely only if the Fed has still not learned anything from one of its biggest and most frequently repeated mistakes.

Poll: Public Distrusts Wall Street Regulators as Much as Wall Street, Say Gov’t Regulators Are Ineffective, Biased, and Selfish

The new Cato Institute 2017 Financial Regulation national survey of 2,000 U.S. adults released today finds that Americans distrust government financial regulators as much as they distrust Wall Street. Nearly half (48%) have “hardly any confidence” in either. 

Click here for full survey report

Americans have a love-hate relationship with regulators. Most believe regulators are ineffective, selfish, and biased:

  • 74% of Americans believe regulations often fail to have their intended effect.
  • 75% believe government financial regulators care more about their own jobs and ambitions than about the well-being of Americans.
  • 80% think regulators allow political biases to impact their judgment.

But most also believe regulation can serve some important functions:

  • 59% believe regulations, at least in the past, have produced positive benefits.
  • 56% say regulations can help make businesses more responsive to people’s needs.

However, Americans do not think that regulators help banks make better business decisions (74%) or better decisions about how much risk to take (68%). Instead, Americans want regulators to focus on preventing banks and financial institutions from committing fraud (65%) and ensuring banks and financial institutions fulfill their obligations to customers (56%).

Americans Are Wary of Wall Street, But Believe It Is Essential

Nearly a decade after the 2008 financial crisis, Americans remain wary of Wall Street.

  • 77% believe bankers would harm consumers if they thought they could make a lot of money doing so and get away with it.
  • 64% think Wall Street bankers “get paid huge amounts of money” for “essentially tricking people.”
  • Nearly half (49%) of Americans worry that corruption in the industry is “widespread” rather than limited to a few institutions.

At the same time, however, most Americans believe Wall Street serves an essential function in our economy.

  • 64% believe Wall Street is “essential” because it provides the money businesses need to create jobs and develop new products.
  • 59% believe Wall Street and financial institutions are important for helping develop life-saving technologies in medicine.
  • 53% believe Wall Street is important for helping develop safety equipment in cars.

The War against Cash, Part III

Although it doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it warrants, one of the greatest threats to liberty and prosperity is the potential curtailment and elimination of cash.

As I’ve previously noted, there are two reasons why statists don’t like cash and instead would prefer all of us to use digital money (under their rules, of course, not something outside their control like bitcoin).

First, tax collectors can’t easily monitor all cash transactions, so they want a system that would allow them to track and tax every possible penny of our income and purchases.

Second, Keynesian central planners would like to force us to spend more money by imposing negative interest rates (i.e., taxes) on our savings, but that can’t be done if people can hold cash.

To provide some background, a report in the Wall Street Journal looks at both government incentives to get rid of high-value bills and to abolish currency altogether.

Some economists and bankers are demanding a ban on large denomination bills as one way to fight the organized criminals and terrorists who mainly use these notes. But the desire to ditch big bills is also being fueled from unexpected quarter: central bank’s use of negative interest rates. …if a central bank drives interest rates into negative territory, it’ll struggle to manage with physical cash. When a bank balance starts being eaten away by a sub-zero interest rate, cash starts to look inviting. That’s a particular problem for an economy that issues high-denomination banknotes like the eurozone, because it’s easier for a citizen to withdraw and hoard any money they have got in the bank.

Now let’s take a closer look at what folks on the left are saying to the public. In general, they don’t talk about taxing our savings with government-imposed negative interest rates. Instead, they make it seem like their goal is to fight crime.

Quantitative Easing: A Requiem

When the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meets in Washington next week, its members are widely expected to vote to raise interest rates for the first time since June 2006.  By doing so, they will move towards monetary policy normalization, after more than seven years of near-zero interest rates, and a vast expansion of the central bank’s balance sheet.

But how did monetary policy become so abnormal in the first place?  Were the Fed’s unconventional monetary policies a success?  And how smoothly will implementation of the Fed’s so-called “exit strategy” go?  These are among the questions addressed by Dan Thornton, a former vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, in “Requiem for QE,” the latest Policy Analysis from Cato’s Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives.

Are State Regulators A Source of Systemic Risk?

The Dodd-Frank Act creates the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC).  One of the primary responsibilities of the FSOC is to designate non-banks as “systemically important” and hence requiring of additional oversight by the Federal Reserve.  Setting aside the Fed’s at best mixed record on prudential regulation, the intention is that additional scrutiny will minimize any adverse impacts on the economy from the failure of a large non-bank.  The requirements and procedures of FSOC have been relatively vague.  We have, however, gained some insight into the process since MetLife has chosen to contest FSOC’s designation of MetLife as systemically important.

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.

Fact Checking the Fed on “Audit the Fed”

With the introduction of bills in both the House (H.R. 24) and Senate (S.264) allowing for a GAO audit of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy, officials at both the Board and regional Fed banks have launched an attack on these efforts.  While we should all welcome this debate, it should be one based on facts.  Unfortunately some Fed officials have made a number of statements that could at best be called misleading. 

For instance Fed Governor Jerome Powell recently claimed “Audit the Fed also risks inserting the Congress directly into monetary policy decisionmaking”.  I’ve read and re-read every word of these bills and have yet to find such.  H.R. 24/S.264 provide for no role at all for Congress to insert itself into monetary policy, other than Congress’ existing powers.  I would urge Governor Powell to point us to which particular part of the bill he is referring to, as I cannot find it.

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