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Posts Tagged ‘Bernanke’

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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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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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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Ben Bernanke is definitely trying hard to overtake Arthur Burns and G. William Miller (those wonderful guys who helped give us the 1970s) as the worst Fed Chairman of the modern era. But unlike Burns and Miller, who “earned” their poor reputations with bad monetary policy, Bernanke is trying to cement his place in history by being a stooge for the big-government policies of the Washington establishment (he also is getting lots of criticism for QE2 and other monetary policy actions, but let’s give Bernanke the benefit of the doubt and assume all those decisions will somehow work out for the best).

Bernanke frequently pontificates about the supposed horrors of deficits and debt (I write “supposed” because the real problem is spending, with red ink being a symptom of a government that is far too large). Yet he endorsed Obama’s failed stimulus. He’s also asserted that reducing the burden of government spending would hurt the economy. And he was an avid supporter of the TARP bailout.

Now he’s trying to discourage GOPers from seeking budgetary savings as part of a proposed increase in the debt limit. Here’s a blurb from the AP report.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Tuesday urged Republicans to support raising the nation’s borrowing limit. He said threatening to block the increase to gain deeper federal spending cuts could backfire and worsen the economy. Even a short delay in making payments on the nation’s debt would cause severe disruptions in financial markets, damage the dollar and raise serious doubts about the nation’s creditworthiness, Bernanke said.

By the way, I’ve previously debunked Bernanke’s demagoguery about disrupted financial markets. The federal government this year will collect 10 times as much revenue as needed to service the national debt.

Let’s close with a thought experiment. What do you think Bernanke would say if Senate Republicans got suckered into a tax increase and that tax hike was attached to a debt limit, but House GOPers were refusing to go along? It’s just a guess, of course, but I’m quite confident that Bernanke would completely reverse his position about the debt limit and suddenly say something like “it is critical to include such a measure to demonstrate seriousness about fixing the fiscal mess in DC.”

What it would actually demonstrate, though, is that Bernanke is a tool for big government.

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There’s a lot of buzz about a Wall Street Journal interview with Stanley Druckenmiller, in which he argues that a temporary delay in making payments on U.S. government debt (which technically would be a default) would be a small price to pay if it resulted in the long-term spending reforms that are needed to save America from becoming another Greece.

One of the world’s most successful money managers, the lanky, sandy-haired Mr. Druckenmiller is so concerned about the government’s ability to pay for its future obligations that he’s willing to accept a temporary delay in the interest payments he’s owed on his U.S. Treasury bonds—if the result is a Washington deal to restrain runaway entitlement costs. “I think technical default would be horrible,” he says from the 24th floor of his midtown Manhattan office, “but I don’t think it’s going to be the end of the world. It’s not going to be catastrophic. What’s going to be catastrophic is if we don’t solve the real problem,” meaning Washington’s spending addiction. …Mr. Druckenmiller’s view on the debt limit bumps up against virtually the entire Wall Street-Washington financial establishment. A recent note on behalf of giant banks on the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee warned of a “severe and long-lasting impact” if the debt limit is not raised immediately. …This week more than 60 trade associations, representing virtually all of American big business, forecast “a massive spike in borrowing costs.” On Thursday Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke raised the specter of a market crisis similar to the one that followed the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. As usual, the most aggressive predictor of doom in the absence of increased government spending has been Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. In a May 2 letter to House Speaker John Boehner, Mr. Geithner warned of “a catastrophic economic impact” and said, “Default would cause a financial crisis potentially more severe than the crisis from which we are only now starting to recover.”

Mr. Druckenmiller is not overly impressed by this hyperbole. The article continues with this key passage.

“Here are your two options: piece of paper number one—let’s just call it a 10-year Treasury. So I own this piece of paper. I get an income stream obviously over 10 years . . . and one of my interest payments is going to be delayed, I don’t know, six days, eight days, 15 days, but I know I’m going to get it. There’s not a doubt in my mind that it’s not going to pay, but it’s going to be delayed. But in exchange for that, let’s suppose I know I’m going to get massive cuts in entitlements and the government is going to get their house in order so my payments seven, eight, nine, 10 years out are much more assured,” he says. Then there’s “piece of paper number two,” he says, under a scenario in which the debt limit is quickly raised to avoid any possible disruption in payments. “I don’t have to wait six, eight, or 10 days for one of my many payments over 10 years. I get it on time. But we’re going to continue to pile up trillions of dollars of debt and I may have a Greek situation on my hands in six or seven years. Now as an owner, which piece of paper do I want to own? To me it’s a no-brainer. It’s piece of paper number one.” …”Russia had a real default and two or three years later they had all-time low interest rates,” says Mr. Druckenmiller. In the future, he says, “People aren’t going to wonder whether 20 years ago we delayed an interest payment for six days. They’re going to wonder whether we got our house in order.”

This is a very compelling argument, but it overlooks one major problem – the complete inability of Republicans to succeed in forcing fiscal reform using this approach.

Here’s a sure-fire prediction, assuming GOPers in the House actually are willing to engage in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Obama on the debt limit.

o There will be lots of political drama.

o We will get to a point where the federal government exhausts its borrowing authority.

o At that point, either Geithner or Bernanke (or probably both) will make some completely dishonest statements designed to rattle financial markets.

o The establishment media will echo those statements.

o The stock market and/or bond market will have a negative reaction.

o Republican resolve will evaporate like a drop of water in the Mojave Desert.

o The debt limit will be increased without any meaningful fiscal reform.

For all intents and purposes, this is what happened with the TARP vote in 2008. There were basically two choices of how to deal with the financial crisis. The establishment wanted a blank-check bailout, while sensible people wanted the “FDIC-resolution” approach (similar to what was used during the savings & loan bailouts about 20 years ago, which bails out retail customers but wipes out shareholders, bondholders and senior management). Republicans initially held firm and defeated the first TARP vote, but then they folded when the Washington-Wall Street establishment scared markets.

I hope I’m wrong in my analysis, but I don’t see how Republicans could win a debt limit fight. At least not if they demand something like the Ryan budget. The best possible outcome would be budget process reform such as Senator Corker’s CAP Act, which would impose caps on future spending, enforced by automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. Because it postpones the fiscal discipline until after the vote, that legislation has a chance of attracting enough bipartisan support to overcome opposition from Obama and other statists.

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