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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