Tag: monetary policy

From the Bank of Canada to Threadneedle Street – Finally

On July 1st 2013, Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney will assume the position of Governor of the Bank of England . Will Carney’s hat-switching be good for the UK? At present, one thing is certain; Carney has delivered to Canada the one thing that matters – money .

A quick comparison of the money supply in Canada to that of the UK shows the stark differences in the health of their respective money supplies  (and thus, of their respective economies).

 

 

The Canadian money supply has managed to stay near trend throughout the post-Lehman era. In fact, the Canadian total money supply is currently 0.5% above trend, while the UK’s money supply is a dismal 12.1% below trend – no wonder the UK keeps flirting with recession. Although Canada’s GDP growth rates are less than stellar, they are above the average of the 34 OECD nations . Indeed, Canada’s overall economic outlook is much stronger than that of the UK .

In his new position, Carney will face the formidable challenge of turning around the UK’s slumping money supply. Regardless of Carney’s success in Canada, we will have to wait and see if he’ll be able to pull it off on the other side of the pond.

How to Increase the Money Supply, Without Increasing the Government’s Debt

In my August 2012 Globe Asia column, “Money, Where’s the Money?”, I explained why the global economy is still sputtering, and proposed a partial solution. In short, I called for governments (not central banks) to engage in debt market operations – a way to increase the money supply directly, without increasing the overall level of government debt. A number of readers have since contacted me with questions about the specific example I discussed in my column. The most frequent question was:

“Isn’t your proposal just the same as the Fed’s Operation Twist, where the Fed purchases long-term government securities from the public and increases high-powered money?”

The answer is, in short, no – and here’s why:

The first thing that should be noted is that both a central bank and a government can conduct debt market operations. Debt market operations constitute either central bank, or government, transactions with non-banks, which change the bank deposits held by those non-banks. There are many combinations of such operations that can be employed, but with all debt market operations of the type I am envisioning, long-dated debt is replaced with short-dated debt (and so, in one sense, there would be some similarity with Operation Twist).

In my Globe Asia example, however, the government would conduct the debt market operations with no involvement by the central bank. The government would borrow from private banks and purchase outstanding long-dated government debt from the public, and then cancel the debt that had been purchased. The result would be an increase in the money supply, with no change in the monetary base. If the government were instead to borrow from the central bank, both base money and broad money would increase – a fundamental difference.

The central bank could engage directly in debt market operations (and several have done so in recent QE operations). But, in this case, the long-dated bonds purchased by the central bank would end up on the central bank’s balance sheet. The debt would not be canceled out, as it would be if the government was to conduct debt market operations. It is this fact that defines one of the fundamental differences between debt market operations conducted by a central bank and those conducted by a government. A central bank engaged in debt market operations would be left with holdings of long-dated government debt and be exposed to interest rate risk on those securities. It could incur large accounting losses if interest rates were to rise. This would not be the case if the government conducted debt market operations.

Will More Federal Debt Improve the U.S. Government’s Creditworthiness?

Writing in today’s Washington Post, former Obama economist Larry Summers put forth the strange hypothesis that more red ink would improve the federal government’s long-run fiscal position.

This sounds like an excuse for more Keynesian spending as part of another so-called stimulus plan, but Summers claims to have a much more modest goal of prudent financial management.

And if we assume there’s no hidden agenda, what he’s proposing isn’t unreasonable.

But before floating his idea, Summers starts with some skepticism about more easy-money policy from the Fed:

Many in the United States and Europe are arguing for further quantitative easing to bring down longer-term interest rates. …However, one has to wonder how much investment businesses are unwilling to undertake at extraordinarily low interest rates that they would be willing to undertake with rates reduced by yet another 25 or 50 basis points. It is also worth querying the quality of projects that businesses judge unprofitable at a -60 basis point real interest rate but choose to undertake at a still more negative rate. There is also the question of whether extremely low, safe, real interest rates promote bubbles of various kinds.

This is intuitively appealing. I try to stay away from monetary policy issues, but whenever I get sucked into a discussion with an advocate of easy money/quantitative easing, I always ask for a common-sense explanation of how dumping more liquidity into the economy is going to help.

Maybe it’s possible to push interest rates even lower, but it certainly doesn’t seem like there’s any evidence showing that the economy is being held back because today’s interest rates are too high.

Moreover, what’s the point of “pushing on a string” with easy money if it just means more reserves sitting at the Fed?

After suggesting that monetary policy isn’t the answer, Summers then proposes to utilize government borrowing. But he’s proposing more debt for management purposes, not Keynesian stimulus:

Rather than focusing on lowering already epically low rates, governments that enjoy such low borrowing costs can improve their creditworthiness by borrowing more, not less, and investing in improving their future fiscal position, even assuming no positive demand stimulus effects of a kind likely to materialize with negative real rates. They should accelerate any necessary maintenance projects — issuing debt leaves the state richer not poorer, assuming that maintenance costs rise at or above the general inflation rate. …Similarly, government decisions to issue debt, and then buy space that is currently being leased, will improve the government’s financial position as long as the interest rate on debt is less than the ratio of rents to building values — a condition almost certain to be met in a world with government borrowing rates below 2 percent. These examples are the place to begin because they involve what is in effect an arbitrage, whereby the government uses its credit to deliver essentially the same bundle of services at a lower cost. …countries regarded as havens that can borrow long term at a very low cost should be rushing to take advantage of the opportunity.

Much of this seems reasonable, sort of like a homeowner taking advantage of low interest rates to refinance a mortgage.

But before embracing this idea, we have to move from the dream world of theory to the real world of politics. And to his credit, Summers offers the critical caveat that his idea only makes sense if politicians use their borrowing authority for the right reasons:

There is, of course, still the question of whether more borrowing will increase anxiety about a government’s creditworthiness. It should not, as long as the proceeds of borrowing are used either to reduce future spending or raise future incomes.

At the risk of being the wet-blanket curmudgeon who ruins the party by removing the punch bowl, I have zero faith that politicians would make sound decisions about financial management.

I wrote last month that eurobonds would be “the fiscal version of co-signing a loan for your unemployed alcoholic cousin who has a gambling addiction.”

Well, giving politicians more borrowing authority in hopes they’ll do a bit of prudent refinancing is akin to giving a bunch of money to your drug-addict brother-in-law in hopes that he’ll refinance his credit card debt rather than wind up in a crack house.

Considering that we just saw big bipartisan votes to expand the Export-Import Bank’s corporate welfare and we’re now witnessing both parties working on a bloated farm bill, good luck with that.

The Federal Reserve, the ‘Twist,’ Inflation, QE3, and Pushing on a String

In a move that some are calling QE3, the Federal Reserve announced yesterday that it will engage in a policy called “the twist” – selling short-term bonds and buying long-term bonds in hopes of artificially reducing long-term interest rates. If successful, this policy (we are told) will incentivize more borrowing and stimulate growth.

I’ve freely admitted before that it is difficult to identify the right monetary policy, but it certainly seems like this policy is – at best – an ineffective gesture. This is why the Fed’s various efforts to goose the economy with easy money have been described as “pushing on a string.”

Here are two related questions that need to be answered.

1. Is the economy’s performance being undermined by high long-term rates?

Considering that interest rates are at very low levels already, it seems rather odd to claim that the economy will suddenly rebound if they get pushed down a bit further. Japan has had very low interest rates (both short-run and long-run) for a couple of decades, yet the economy has remained stagnant.

Perhaps the problem is bad policy in other areas. After all, who wants to borrow money, expand business, create jobs, and boost output if Washington is pursuing a toxic combination of excessive spending and regulation, augmented by the threat of higher taxes.

2. Is the economy hampered by lack of credit?

Low interest rates, some argue, may not help the economy if banks don’t have any money to lend. Yet I’ve already pointed out that banks have more than $1 trillion of excess reserves deposited at the Fed.

Perhaps the problem is that banks don’t want to lend money because they don’t see profitable opportunities. After all, it’s better to sit on money than to lend it to people who won’t pay it back because of an economy weakened by too much government.

The Wall Street Journal makes all the relevant points in its editorial.

The Fed announced that through June 2012 it will buy $400 billion in Treasury bonds at the long end of the market—with six- to 30-year maturities—and sell an equal amount of securities of three years’ duration or less. The point, said the FOMC statement, is to put further “downward pressure on longer-term interest rates and help make broader financial conditions more accommodative.” It’s hard to see how this will make much difference to economic growth. Long rates are already at historic lows, and even a move of 10 or 20 basis points isn’t likely to affect many investment decisions at the margin. The Fed isn’t acting in a vacuum, and any move in bond prices could well be swamped by other economic news. Europe’s woes are accelerating, and every CEO in America these days is worried more about what the National Labor Relations Board is doing to Boeing than he is about the 30-year bond rate. The Fed will also reinvest the principal payments it receives on its asset holdings into mortgage-backed securities, rather than in U.S. Treasurys. The goal here is to further reduce mortgage costs and thus help the housing market. But home borrowing costs are also at historic lows, and the housing market suffers far more from the foreclosure overhang and uncertainty encouraged by government policy than it does from the price of money. The Fed’s announcement thus had the feel of an attempt to show it is doing something to help the economy, even if it can’t do much. …the economy’s problems aren’t rooted in the supply and price of money. They result from the damage done to business confidence and investment by fiscal and regulatory policy, and that’s where the solutions must come. Investors on Wall Street and politicians in Washington want to believe that the Fed can make up for years of policy mistakes. The sooner they realize it can’t, the sooner they’ll have no choice but to correct the mistakes.

Let’s also take this issue to the next level. Some people are explicitly arguing in favor of more “quantitative easing” because they want some inflation. They argue that “moderate” inflation will help the economy by indirectly wiping out some existing debt.

This is a very dangerous gambit. Letting the inflation genie out of the bottle could trigger 1970s-style stagflation. Paul Volcker fires a warning shot against this risky approach in a New York Times column. Here are the key passages.

…we are beginning to hear murmurings about the possible invigorating effects of “just a little inflation.” Perhaps 4 or 5 percent a year would be just the thing to deal with the overhang of debt and encourage the “animal spirits” of business, or so the argument goes. The siren song is both alluring and predictable. …After all, if 1 or 2 percent inflation is O.K. and has not raised inflationary expectations — as the Fed and most central banks believe — why not 3 or 4 or even more? …all of our economic history says it won’t work that way. I thought we learned that lesson in the 1970s. That’s when the word stagflation was invented to describe a truly ugly combination of rising inflation and stunted growth. …What we know, or should know, from the past is that once inflation becomes anticipated and ingrained — as it eventually would — then the stimulating effects are lost. Once an independent central bank does not simply tolerate a low level of inflation as consistent with “stability,” but invokes inflation as a policy, it becomes very difficult to eliminate. …At a time when foreign countries own trillions of our dollars, when we are dependent on borrowing still more abroad, and when the whole world counts on the dollar’s maintaining its purchasing power, taking on the risks of deliberately promoting inflation would be simply irresponsible.

Last but not least, here is my video on the origin of central banking, which starts with an explanation of how currency evolved in the private sector, then describes how governments then seized that role by creating monopoly central banks, and closes with a list of options to promote good monetary policy.

And I can’t resist including a link to the famous “Ben Bernank” QE2 video that was a viral smash.

Easy Money from the Federal Reserve Is Not the Solution for America’s Economic Problems

Allen Meltzer, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University, writes today in the Wall Street Journal about the Fed’s worrisome announcement that it will continue the easy-money policy of artificially low interest rates.

Professor Meltzer’s key point (at least to me) is that the economy is weak because of too much government intervention and too much federal spending, and you don’t solve those problems with a loose-money policy – especially since banks already are sitting on $1.6 trillion of excess reserves. (Why lend money when the economy is weak and you may not get repaid?)

Meltzer then outlines some of the reforms that would boost growth, all of which are desirable, albeit a bit tame for my tastes:

[T]he United States does not have the kind of problems that printing more money will cure. Banks currently hold more than $1.6 trillion of idle reserves at the Fed. Banks can use those idle reserves to create enormous amounts of money. Interest rates on federal funds remain near zero. Longer-term interest rates on Treasurys are at record lows. What reason can there be for adding more excess reserves? The main effect would be a further devaluation of the dollar against competing currencies and gold, followed by a rise in the price of oil and other imports. …Money growth (M2) reached 10% for the past six months, presaging more inflation ahead.

…What we need most is confidence in our future. That calls for:

  • Reducing corporate tax rates permanently to encourage investment (paid for by closing loopholes).
  • Agreeing on long-term reductions in entitlement spending.
  • A five-year moratorium on new regulations affecting energy, environment, health and finance.
  • An explicit inflation target between zero and 2% to force the Fed to pay more attention to the medium term and to increase public confidence that we will not experience runaway inflation.

The president is wrong to pose the issue as more taxes for millionaires to pay for more redistribution now. That path leads to future crises because higher taxes support the low productivity growth of the welfare state, delay the transition to export-led growth, and do not reduce future budget liabilities enough.

Meltzer’s final point about the futility of class-warfare taxes is very important. He doesn’t use the term, but he’s making a Laffer Curve argument. Simply stated, if punitive tax rates cause investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners to earn/declare less taxable income, then the government won’t collect as much money as predicted by the Joint Committee on Taxation’s simplistic models.

Of course, Obama said in 2008 than he wanted high tax rates for reasons of “fairness,” even if such policies didn’t lead to more tax revenue. That destructive mentality probably helps explain why not only banks, but also other companies, are sitting on cash and afraid to make significant investments.

But if you really want to understand how Obama’s policies are causing “regime uncertainty,” this cartoon is spot on.

Diamond Down

Today Nobel Prize-winning economist Peter Diamond announced he is withdrawing his nomination to the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System. 

Professor Diamond, in the pages of New York Times, blames the opposition to his nomination on both partisan politics and what he sees as a misunderstanding of the relationship between unemployment and monetary policy.  Mr. Diamond, however, is the one with a fundamental misunderstanding.  We all know unemployment is an important issue and needs to be addressed.  The question is whether it can be addressed with loose monetary policy.  Mr. Diamond apparently believes it can.  There are many who believe it cannot.  If all our labor market problems could be solved with loose money, then we’d already be at full employment.  In case Mr. Diamond didn’t notice, we aren’t.  We also have gone down this path too many times before. The belief in a long-run trade-off between unemployment and inflation has the been source of considerable economic harm.

It is interesting that Mr. Diamond does not address the legal obstacles to his nomination.  The foremost is that there can only be one board member from the same Fed district at any one time.  As Mr. Diamond notes he has been at MIT “since 1966” and not living in Chicago, as the White House claims.  Whatever his academic qualifications, by law he is prohibited from serving on the Fed Board.  If congressional Democrats don’t like the law, they can try to change it, but we should not just ignore it.  Such only breeds a contempt for the law and a belief that the laws only apply to the masses and not the elite. 

So to answer Mr. Diamond’s compaint that ” Nobel isn’t enough,” I would answer: Exactly. A Nobel does not place one above the law.  Sorry, Professor, you’re going to have to live with the same rules that apply to the rest of us.

Ben Bernanke: Central Planner

There’s a great piece in the spring issue of The Independent Review on Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke by San Jose State Professor Jeffrey Rogers Hummel.  Although a bit long, its well worth the read for anyone wanting to understand both Bernanke’s thinking and his actions during and since the financial crisis.

First, Prof. Hummel discusses the differences between Bernanke’s and Milton Friedman’s explanations for the Great Depression.  Those that debate whether Bernanke’s actions, especially the quantitative easings, would be approved of by Friedman will get a lot out of this discussion.  From this comparison, you get the point that Friedman was concerned about overall credit conditions and liquidity, whereas Bernanke is less focused on the monetary factors than on the impairment of credit intermediation, which explains his support of selective bailouts.

Hummel’s comparison of Greenspan and Bernanke is also insightful, particularly since many (myself included) often lump the two’s policies together.  From the analysis, it is clear that Greenspan falls into the Friedman camp, his “rescues” were of the financial system in general, and not of specific firms.

One might say a bailout is a bailout, so what’s the difference between rescuing the system and rescuing individual firms within the system?  Certainly that’s a view I have some sympathy for.  The “Greenspan put” was as much a contributor to reckless risk-taking as anything else.  Hummel, however, discuses why this difference ultimately matters, and why it shows Bernanke to fit the role of economic central planner.  In short, the facts are presented that during the financial crisis, Bernanke did not actually increase overall liquidity by much, he re-directed it to those firms he deemed most important.  This process of reducing liquidity to some sectors while re-directing it to others, arguably less efficient sectors, goes a considerable distance in explaining some of the decline in both aggregate demand and consumption in 2008.

Again, the piece is one of the more accessible and insightful I’ve read on Bernanke in quite a while.