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Archive for the ‘Bernanke’ Category

When speaking about the difference between the private sector and the government, I sometimes emphasize that mistakes and errors are inevitable, and that the propensity to screw up may be just as prevalent in the private sector as it is in the public sector.

I actually think the government is more likely to screw up, for reasons outlined here, here, and here, but let’s bend over backwards to be fair and assume similar levels of mistakes.

The key difference between capitalism and government, though, is the feedback mechanism.

Private firms that make errors are quickly penalized. They lose customers, which means they lose profits. Or perhaps they even fail and go out of business (remember, capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell).

This tends to concentrate the mind. Executives work harder, shareholders and bondholders focus more on promoting good corporate governance. All of which benefits the rest of us in our roles as workers and consumers.

But mistakes in the public sector rarely lead to negative feedback. Indeed, agencies and departments that make mistakes sometimes get rewarded with even bigger budgets. This means the rest of us are doubly victimized because we are taxpayers and we have to rely on certain government services.

Citing the Federal Reserve as an example, Thomas Sowell explains how this process works. He starts with a look at the Fed’s recent failures and asks some basic questions about why we should reward the central bank with more power.

The recent release of the Federal Reserve Board’s transcripts of its deliberations back in 2007 shows that their economic prophecies were way off. How much faith should we put in their prophecies today — or the policies based on those prophecies?

Here’s another example.

Ben Bernanke said in 2007, “The impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the subprime market seems likely to be contained.” It turned out that financial disasters in the housing market were not “contained,” but spread out to affect the whole American economy and economies overseas.

And here’s the icing on the cake.

Bernanke said: “It is an interesting question why what looks like $100 billion or so of credit losses in the subprime market has been reflected in multiple trillions of dollars of losses in paper wealth.” What is an even more interesting question is why we should put such faith and such power in the hands of a man and an institution that have been so wrong before.

Sowell acknowledges that we all make errors, but then makes the key point about the risks of giving more and more power to a central bank that has such a dismal track record.

We all make mistakes. But we don’t all have the enormous and growing power of the Federal Reserve System — or the seemingly boundless confidence that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke still shows as he intervenes in the economy on a massive scale.

Sowell then highlights some of the reasons why we should worry about concentrating more power into the hands of a few central bankers.

Being wrong is nothing new for the Federal Reserve System. Since this year is the one hundredth anniversary of the Fed’s founding, it may be worth looking back at its history. …In the hundred years before there was a Federal Reserve System, inflation was less than half of what it became in the hundred years after the Fed was founded. The biggest deflation in the history of the country came after the Fed was founded, and that deflation contributed to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

If you want a more detailed examination of the Fed’s performance, this George Selgin video is withering indictment.

In other words, instead of giving the Fed more power, we should be looking at ways of clipping its wings.

I realize my fantasy of competitive currencies isn’t going to be realized anytime soon, and I’ve already explained why we should be very leery of trusting the government to operate a gold standard.

So I’m not sure whether I have any firm recommendations – other than perhaps hoping to convince policy makers that easy money is the not the right way of boosting an economy that is listless because of bad fiscal and regulatory policy.

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In the past, I’ve shared Federal Reserve humor, including this special Fed toilet paper, Ben Bernanke’s hacked Facebook page, the Bernanke-who-stole-Christmas image, a t-shirt celebrating the Fed Chairman, and the famous “Ben Bernank” video.

But this film from Bernanke’s childhood years may be the best of all of them. It is a good symbol of how he learned to conduct monetary policy.

Though, to be fair, it is theoretically possible that the Fed Chairman’s monetary easing is simply the well-timed provision of liquidity and he will soak up all the extra money at precisely the right moment.

But I’m skeptical, as you can see here, here, and here.

The real problem, though, is that we’ve given government a monopoly over money. This video is a good introduction to how governments replaced market-based money with central banking.

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I posted this t-shirt about Bernanke’s easy-money approach a couple of days ago, but I should have waited ’til today since it would be a perfect accompaniment to any analysis of the Fed Chairman’s unveiling of QE3.

But given the potential economic consequences, I suppose this isn’t a time for jokes. Let’s look at some of what the Wall Street Journal wrote this morning.

This is the Fed’s third round of quantitative easing (QE3) since the 2008 panic, and the difference this time is that Ben is unbounded. The Fed said it will keep interest rates at near-zero “at least through mid-2015,” which is six months longer than its previous vow. The bigger news is that the Fed announced another round of asset purchases—only this time as far as the eye can see. The Fed will start buying $40 billion of additional mortgage assets a month, with a goal of further reducing long-term interest rates. But if “the labor market does not improve substantially,” as the central bankers put it, the Fed will plunge ahead and buy more assets. And if that doesn’t work, it will buy still more. And if. . .

The “And if…” is the key passage. For all intents and purposes, Bernanke has said that the Fed is going to relentlessly focus on the variable it can’t control (employment) at the risk of causing bad news for the variable it can control (inflation).

A trip to the store in Bernankeville

Since that hasn’t worked in the past, it presumably won’t work in the future. The WSJ notes that recent Fed easings have made the economy worse.

Will it work? Mr. Bernanke recently offered a scholarly defense of his extraordinary policy actions since 2008, and there’s no doubt that QE1 was necessary in the heat of the panic. We supported it at the time. The returns on QE2 in 2010-2011 and the Fed’s other actions look far sketchier, even counterproductive. QE2 succeeded in lifting stocks for a time, but it also lifted other asset prices, notably commodities and oil. The Fed’s QE2 goal was to conjure what economists call “wealth effects,” or a greater propensity to spend and invest as consumers and businesses see the value of their stock holdings rise. But the simultaneous increase in commodity prices lifted food and energy prices, which raised costs for businesses and made consumers feel poorer. These “income effects” countered Mr. Bernanke’s wealth effects, and the proof is that growth in the real economy decelerated in 2011. It decelerated again this year amid Operation Twist. When does the Fed take some responsibility for policies that fail in their self-professed goal of spurring growth, rather than blaming everyone else while claiming to be the only policy hero?

For those of us who worry about the pernicious impact of inflation, it’s possible that the Fed will soak up all this excess liquidity at the right time. But don’t hold your breath. The WSJ continues.

The deeper into exotic monetary easing the Fed goes, the harder it will also be to unwind in a timely fashion. Mr. Bernanke says not to worry, he has the tools and the will to pull the trigger before inflation builds. That’s what central bankers always say. But good luck picking the right moment, which may be before prices are seen to be rising but also before the expansion has begun to lift middle-class incomes. That’s one more Bernanke Cliff the economy will eventually face—maybe after Ben has left the Eccles Building.

Last but not least, the WSJ is not terribly happy about the Fed seeking to influence the election.

Given the proximity to the Presidential election, the Fed move can’t be divorced from its political implications. Mr. Bernanke forswore any partisan motives on Thursday, and we’ll give him the benefit of the personal doubt. But by goosing stock prices, and thus lifting the short-term economic mood, the Fed has surely provided President Obama an in-kind re-election contribution.

If we go to the other side of the Atlantic, Allister Heath of City A.M. has some very wise thoughts about QE3.

In the long run, real sustainable growth comes from entrepreneurs inventing better ways of conducting business, from investment in productivity enhancing capex financed from savings, and from more people finding viable jobs. Eventually, the short-term becomes the long-term – and that is where we are today. Cheap money is just a temporary fix – and like all drugs, the economy needs more and more of it merely to stay still now it is hooked. …manipulating the housing and construction markets is a dangerous game that the Fed should not be playing; it would be better to allow the market to clear freely. In a brilliant new paper for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, William R White, one of the few economists to have predicted the financial crisis, warns of the disastrous unintended consequences of ultra easy money. He explains why there are limits to what central banks can do, that monetary “stimulus” is less effective in bolstering aggregate demand than previously, that it triggers negative feedback mechanisms that weaken both the supply and demand-sides of the economy, threatens the health of financial institutions and the functioning of financial markets, damages the independence of central banks, and encourages imprudent behaviour on the part of governments.

In other words, Allister is worried about the Fed acting as some sort of central planning body, attempting to steer the economy.

Sadly, the Fed has a long track record of doing precisely that, as documented in this lecture by Professor George Selgin. It’s 40 minutes, so not for the faint of heart, but if you watch the video, you’ll have a hard time giving the Fed the benefit of the doubt.

And let’s also remember that bad monetary policy is not the only thing to worry about when considering the Fed’s behavior. It also has started to interfere with the functioning of credit markets, thus distorting the allocation of capital.

Here’s the bottom line. I think, at best, the Fed is pushing on a string. Why will it help to create more liquidity when banks already have more than $1 trillion of excess reserves?

The real problem in our economy is the overall burden of government. The tax system is punitive. Wasteful and excessive government spending is diverting resources from productive use. The regulatory burden continues to expand.

These are the policies that need to be fixed. Sadly, they are less likely to be addressed if politicians think they can paper over the problems by figuratively printing more money.

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Like most of you, I imagine, I get lots of email advertisements. It’s very rare that I ever click on something, and I’ve never purchased anything. But sometimes I have to acknowledge a clever pitch or product.

And since I’ve previously publicized special Federal Reserve toilet paper, Ben Bernanke’s hacked Facebook page, and the famous “Ben Bernank” video, you will understand why I think this t-shirt is quite amusing.

Though I’m not sure that’s a great likeness of Bernanke on the t-shirt. Heck, my Bernanke-who-stole-Christmas image may be more accurate.

But I guess that’s not overly important since the real reason for the t-shirt is to express concern about inflationary monetary policy. And that’s something that should worry all of us (it’s already worrying drug dealers).

To be momentarily serious, I don’t follow monetary policy closely enough to make definitive statements, but here’s a good summary of why I’m also worried. I further address monetary policy in this post, and express displeasure with Bernanke’s behavior in this post.

Last but not least, this video is a good introduction to central banking.

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Nothing compares to the depth and substance of Professor George Selgin’s scholarly take-down of the Federal Reserve, but this video by a local libertarian has a very authentic feel.

Julie lists 10 reasons to dislike the Fed.

1.    The Fed has too much power.
2.    The Fed has devalued the currency.
3.    The Fed hurts the poor and middle class.
4.    The Fed is unaccountable.
5.    The Fed destabilizes the economy.
6.    The Fed is too secretive.
7.    The Fed benefits special interests.
8.    The Fed is unconstitutional.
9.    The Fed facilitates bailouts.
10.    The Fed encourages deficit spending.

If I want to nit-pick, I’m not sure that I agree with number 8 since the Constitution gives the federal government the power to coin money. I guess it depends how one interprets that particular power.

Also, I suspect politicians would waste just as much money even if the Fed didn’t exist, so number 10 may be a bit superfluous.

The main argument against the Fed is number 5. Looking at the economic chaos of the 1930s and 1970s, as well as the recent economic crisis, it is no exaggeration to say that the Federal Reserve deserves the lion’s share of the blame.

For those that like monetary policy, here’s my video that looks at the origin of central banking.

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

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Welcome Instapundit readers: If you want a longer-term perspective on the Fed’s misdeeds, this George Selgin analysis is highly recommended.

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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.

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I generally try to avoid commenting on monetary policy. Not because I don’t have opinions, but for the simple reason that I don’t follow the issue closely enough to feel fully confident about what I say.

This doesn’t mean I’m happy with Fed Chairman Bernanke. But I’m most likely to be upset that he is making misguided statements about fiscal policy (endorsing the faux stimulus, endorsing bailouts, endorsing tax increases, and siding with Obama on the debt-limit fight).

On monetary policy, as I’ve previously explained, it’s possible that “easy money” is the right approach. I’m skeptical, but I admitted on CNBC that the TIPS data does suggest that future inflation is not a problem.

So with all these caveats out of the way, I don’t embrace everything in this video, which is very critical of the Fed, but it’s amusing and worth sharing.

If you find it even remotely interesting and/or amusing, then you definitely should watch the famous Ben-Bernank-quantitative-easing video.

And if you want to actually understand more about the Federal Reserve and monetary policy, then you should watch this video on the history of the Fed featuring Professor George Selgin.

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