Tag: QE2

The Ben Bernanke Variety Hour

April 27th begins a new chapter in Federal Reserve history: the Fed joins other major central banks in having a press conference after its monetary policy meetings (the Federal Open Market Committee).  Apparently the record lows in public support for the Fed, along with rising gas and food prices, have driven Bernanke to attempt to change the narrative.  After all, his appearance on “60 Minutes” did wonders for the Fed’s reputation.  I’m excited to hear even more about his childhood in Dillon, South Carolina or his time working at South of the Border.  Maybe an enterprising reporter could ask how much menu prices at South of the Border have increased since Bernanke took over the Fed.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I don’t have high expectations for his press conference.  It is probably fair to say that no Federal Reserve Chair has had as much public exposure as Bernanke.  Yet with all those public appearances, he has consistently managed to avoid any real discussion about the costs and benefits of the Fed’s actions.  Are we likely to hear concern about food and gas prices, and how such are being driven by loose money?  Probably not…just more on how increasing world demand is to blame.  Just like it was the “global savings glut” that drove  interest rates earlier this decade, it is always somebody else’s fault – never the Fed’s.  They are capable of only good.

Hopefully Bernanke will at least avoid the Obama line that it is those “speculators” that are behind the increase in energy prices.  After all, if we believe the governments of Europe, those evil speculators brought down Greece too.

As per usual, I truly hope I’m wrong here.  Bernanke has a real opportunity to be honest and straightforward with the American public.  We don’t need another lecture.  We need to hear that the Fed isn’t a slave to some imaginary Phillips Curve or that we can’t have inflation with slack in the economy (where was Bernanke in the 1970s?).   The real risk is that Bernanke uses the press conference to drown out the many voices of concern and dissent on the FOMC.  Which, of course, would be a real irony given all of Bernanke’s talk about “democratizing” the Fed when he first became chair.

Do Inflation Expectations Drive Consumption?

After proponents of the Federal Reserve’s second round of quantitative easing (QE2) abandoned the argument that QE2 would spur growth by bringing down interest rates (only after rates increased), the new defense became “we intended for rates to go up all along, as a result of increased inflation expectations.”  Since few would argue for increased inflation, or expectations of such, as an end in itself, the claim was that increases in inflation expectations would drive households to consume more, which would in turn causes businesses to hire more, bringing down the unemployment rate.  But does this chain of reasoning withstand empirical scrutiny?

It turns out looking at the historical data on inflation expectations, as collected at the University of Michigan, that inflation expectations and household savings rates (the inverse of consumption rates) are positively correlated.  Now of course correlation doesn’t mean causality,but what the data suggest is that instead of consuming more when inflation expectations increase, households have actually saved more.  This positive correlation also holds for the second half of the data series, so it’s not simply the result of a downward trend in either inflation or savings.

To review, the latest argument for QE2:  increase inflation expectations, which is assumed to increase consumption, which is hoped to increase employment.  The problem I’ve had all along with this position is that the only thing we know for certain is the first part, QE2 would increase inflation expectations.  The hope that it would increase consumption and hence employment was just that:  hope.  Given the disconnect we’ve seen between consumption and unemployment over the past 18 months, the third link in that chain is also a weak one.   So what do we have at the end of the day:  certain costs with fairly speculative and uncertain benefits.  And here I was thinking that reckless speculation was the sole province of the private sector.

Currency Wars Also Have Unintended Consequences and Collateral Damage

The Fed’s planned purchases of $600 billion of long-term Treasury bonds were targeted for domestic problems, but are having international consequences. The expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet drives down the foreign-exchange value of the U.S. dollar, and (same thing) forces other currencies to appreciate in value.

Emerging markets with high short-term interest rates will attract “hot money” flows. These flows are not stable sources of funding, and disrupt the small capital markets in these countries. Long-term, the appreciation of their currencies harms their competitiveness in global goods’ markets.

Brazil has already imposed capital controls and other emerging markets may follow. The Chinese in particular have reacted sharply.  According to a Reuters dispatch, Xia Bin, adviser to China’s central bank, said another financial crisis is “inevitable.” He added that China will act in its own interests.

In short, the Fed’s actions have undone whatever good came out of the G20 meetings. Any hope for cooperation on currency values and financial stability is out the window. There are potential spillovers in other areas of global cooperation.

Currency wars, like other wars, have unintended consequences and collateral damage.  Some countries will predictably react by imposing capital controls.  Moves to curb imports can follow. Monetary protectionism leads to trade protectionism.

However it might like matters to be, the Fed cannot simply act domestically.  It has reached the useful limits of further easing.