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Posts Tagged ‘Easy money’

During periods of economic weakness, governments often respond with “loose” monetary policy, which generally means that central banks will take actions that increase liquidity and artificially lower interest rates.

I’m not a big fan of this approach.

If an economy is suffering from bad fiscal policy or bad regulatory policy, why expect that an easy-money policy will be effective?

What if politicians use an easy-money policy as an excuse to postpone or avoid structural reforms that are needed to restore growth?

And shouldn’t we worry that an easy-money policy will cause economic damage by triggering systemic price hikes or bubbles?

Defenders of central banks and easy money generally respond to such questions by assuring us that QE-type policies are not a substitute or replacement for other reforms.

And they tell us the downside risk is overstated because central bankers will have the wisdom to soak up excess liquidity at the right time and raise interest rates at the right moment.

I hope they’re right, but my gut instinct is to worry that central bankers are not sufficiently vigilant about the downside risks of easy-money policies.

But not all central bankers. While I was in London last week to give a presentation to the State of the Economy conference, I got to hear a speech by Kristin Forbes, a member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee.

She was refreshingly candid about the possible dangers of the easy-money approach, particularly with regards to artificially low interest rates.

Here is one of the charts from her presentation.

Those of us who are old enough to remember the 1970s will be concerned about her first point. And this is important. It would be terrible to let the inflation genie out of the bottle, particularly since there may not be a Ronald Reagan-type leader in the future who will do what’s needed to solve such a mess.

But today I want to focus on her second, fourth, and fifth points.

So here are some of the details from her speech, starting with some analysis of the risk of bubbles.

…when interest rates are low, investors may “search for yield” and shift funds to riskier investments that are expected to earn a higher return – from equity markets to high-yield debt markets to emerging markets. This could drive up prices in these other markets and potentially create “bubbles”. This can not only lead to an inefficient allocation of capital, but leave certain investors with more risk than they appreciate. An adjustment in asset prices can bring about losses that are difficult to manage, especially if investments were supported by higher leverage possible due to low rates. If these losses were widespread across an economy, or affected systemically-important institutions, they could create substantial economic disruption. This tendency to assume greater risk when interest rates are low for a sustained period not only occurs for investors, but also within banks, corporations, and broader credit markets. Studies have shown that during periods of monetary expansion, banks tend to soften lending standards and experience an increase in their assessed “riskiness”. There is evidence that the longer an expansion lasts, the greater these effects. Companies also take advantage of periods of low borrowing costs to increase debt issuance. If this occurs during a period of low default rates – as in the past few years – this can further compress borrowing spreads and lead to levels of debt issuance that may be difficult to support when interest rates normalize. There is a lengthy academic literature showing that low interest rates often foster credit booms, an inefficient allocation of capital, banking collapses, and financial crises. This series of risks to the financial system from a period of low interest rates should be taken seriously and carefully monitored.

Her fourth and fifth points are particularly important since they show she appreciates the Austrian-school insight that bad monetary policy can distort market signals and lead to malinvestment.

Here’s some of what she shared about the fourth point.

…is there a chance that a prolonged period of near-zero interest rates is allowing less efficient companies to survive and curtailing the “creative destruction” that is critical to support productivity growth? Or even within existing, profitable companies – could a prolonged period of low borrowing costs reduce their incentive to carefully assess and evaluate investment projects – leading to a less efficient allocation of capital within companies? …For further evidence on this capital misallocation, one could estimate the rate of “scrappage” during the crisis and the level of capital relative to its optimal, steady-state level. Recent BoE work has found tentative evidence of a “capital overhang”, an excess of capital above that judged optimal given current conditions. Usually any such capital overhang falls quickly during a recession as inefficient factories and plants are shut down and new investment slows. The slower reallocation of capital since the crisis could partly be due to low interest rates.

And here is some of what she said about the fifth point.

A fifth possible cost of low interest rates is that it could shift the sources of demand in ways which make underlying growth less balanced, less resilient, and less sustainable. This could occur through increases in consumption and debt, and decreases in savings and possibly the current account. …if these shifts are too large – or vulnerabilities related to overconsumption, overborrowing, insufficient savings, or large current account deficits continue for too long – they could create economic challenges.

In her speech, Ms. Forbes understandably focused on the current environment and speculated about possible future risks.

But the concerns about easy-money policies are not just theoretical.

Let’s look at some new research from economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the University of California, and the University of Bonn.

In a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, they look at the connections between monetary policy and housing bubbles.

How do monetary and credit conditions affect housing booms and busts? Do low interest rates cause households to lever up on mortgages and bid up house prices, thus increasing the risk of financial crisis? And what, if anything, should central banks do about it? Can policy directed at housing and credit conditions, with monetary or macroprudential tools, lead a central bank astray and dangerously deflect it from single- or dual-mandate goals?

It appears the answer is yes.

This paper analyzes the link between monetary conditions, credit growth, and house prices using data spanning 140 years of modern economic history across 14 advanced economies. …We make three core contributions. First, we discuss long-run trends in mortgage lending, home ownership, and house prices and show that the 20th century has indeed been an era of increasing “bets on the house.” …Second, turning to the cyclical fluctuations of lending and house prices we use novel instrumental variable local projection methods to show that throughout history loose monetary conditions were closely associated with an upsurge in real estate lending and house prices. …Third, we also expose a close link between mortgage credit and house price booms on the one hand, and financial crises on the other. Over the past 140 years of modern macroeconomic history, mortgage booms and house price bubbles have been closely associated with a higher likelihood of a financial crisis. This association is more noticeable in the post-WW2 era, which was marked by the democratization of leverage through housing finance.

So what’s the bottom line?

The long-run historical evidence uncovered in this study clearly suggests that central banks have reasons to worry about the side-effects of loose monetary conditions. During the 20th century, real estate lending became the dominant business model of banks. As a result, the effects that low interest rates have on mortgage borrowing, house prices and ultimately financial instability risks have become considerably stronger. …these historical insights suggest that the potentially destabilizing byproducts of easy money must be taken seriously

In other words, we’re still dealing with some of the fallout of a housing bubble/financial crisis caused in part by the Fed’s easy-money policy last decade.

Yet we have people in Washington who haven’t learned a thing and want to repeat the mistakes that created that mess.

Even though we now have good evidence about the downside risk of easy money and bubbles!

Sort of makes you wonder whether the End-the-Fed people have a good point.

P.S. Central banks also can cause problems because of their regulatory powers.

P.P.S. Just as there are people in Washington who want to double down on failure, there are similar people in Europe who think a more-of-the-same approach is the right cure for the problems caused in part by a some-of-the-same approach.

P.P.P.S. For those interested in monetary policy, the good news is that the Cato Institute recently announced the formation of the Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives, led by former UGA economics professor George Selgin, which will focus on development of policy recommendations that will create a more free-market monetary system.

P.P.P.P.S. If you watch this video, you’ll see that George doesn’t give the Federal Reserve a very high grade.

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Everyone, it seems, is worried about global economic stagnation.

And there is good reason to be concerned. Europe is in the doldrums. Japan is stagnant. The developing world is hampered by intervention, corruption, and absence of property rights. And the United States is stumbling through an abnormally weak recovery.

But what’s the solution to this economic malaise?

The international economic policymaking elite seems to think easy money is the right elixir. The Wall Street Journal editorial page is underwhelmed by this approach.

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi announced a plan to buy what amounts to €50 billion ($56.84 billion) a month in government bonds and other assets at least through September 2016 on top of the €10 billion the ECB already was buying through various programs. …This QE program is more a political than economic triumph. …someone has to point out—since the QE cheering section among the political and investor classes won’t—that Mr. Draghi himself warned in his press conference Thursday that quantitative easing by itself won’t revive stalling eurozone economies… Reforms that would displace entrenched interests, whether domestic businesses or unions, are hard for politicians to enact, while demanding easier money from the central bank is easy.

Unfortunately, the ECB’s easy-money policy will probably give politicians in national capitals further leeway to avoid real reforms.

Politicians should now get serious about reforms on the theory that the central bank has done what they want. Smaller, sicker European economies have no more monetary excuses for their failure to reform. Or at least we can dream. The likelier outcome is that to the extent quantitative easing drives down bond yields, it will reduce market pressure for reforms until another economic crisis or deflationary blip spurs calls for a QE expansion.

Even folks that lean more to the left don’t think dumping more money into the economy will solve underlying problems.

Here are some excerpts from a David Ignatius column in the Washington Post.

A sign of the concern among business and political leaders here about sluggish economic growth is that one of the World Economic Forum sessions this week was titled “Avoiding a Centennial Slump” — meaning a downturn that lasts a hundred years. …The European Central Bank did the equivalent of pushing the panic button Thursday, announcing a bond-buying program of 1.1 trillion euros meant to lower interest rates and encourage investment. …But rates are already rock-bottom, and although the ECB’s “quantitative easing,” as it’s known, will flood Europe with cash, there’s no guarantee that it will be used to cure the region’s structural impediments to growth. Indeed, persistent low rates are one of the attributes of a deflationary economy, rather than a cure.

I largely disagree with the policies that Ignatius then proposes, but at least we generally agree that the European economy isn’t in the dumps because of inadequate liquidity.

The problem isn’t just in Europe. Like the ECB, the Federal Reserve also has tried to goose growth with easy-money policies.

But that’s like pushing on a string. Maybe there are times that the financial system needs more liquidity, but folks shouldn’t labor under the impression that printing more money solves the structural problems caused by too much spending, too high taxes, and too onerous levels of regulation.

And it’s quite possible, of course, that easy-money policies actually undermine long-run prosperity by creating bubbles.

Though as this Chip Bok cartoon illustrates, Wall Street enjoys bubbles, at least when they’re expanding.

P.S. Since I cited a Washington Post columnist who’s attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this is a good opportunity to share some excerpts from a column Dan Hannan wrote for CapX.

As you can see, he’s not a big fan.

Davos is a place where powerful people pick up consultancies and directorships and international posts. Left-wingers rightly resent this. What they see, in Marxist terms, is a gang of rentiers coming together to devise new means to live off the sweat of the workers. …Yet, when it comes to free markets, Davos Man is often on the same side as the Lefties. He derives most of his income, directly or indirectly, from state patronage. If he is in the private sector – and he is more likely to be a lobbyist, politician or bureaucrat than a businessman – he’ll be an instinctive monopolist, keen to persuade ministers and officials to raise barriers against his potential rivals.

Since I’ve never been to one of these meetings and have never perused an attendance list, I don’t know if Hannan is being overly dour.

But I do worry that folks who are already rich and powerful are probably more focused on maintaining the status quo than on needed reforms.

As such, they’re susceptible to wanting to manage the economy rather than allow unfettered markets.

All right, you say, but surely it’s useful for powerful people to exchange ideas and learn from each other’s mistakes. Well, yes; but this lot rarely seem to learn. Whatever the problem, their preferred solution is always to establish a global bureaucracy staffed by people like themselves. Obviously, they don’t put it like that. “The stability of the global economy” is a much prettier phrase than “a juicy public sector post for me”. It’s like an Ayn Rand novel, where lobbyists reach cosy arrangements with each other in elliptical language. Remember the way she described members of a company board? “Men whose careers depended on keeping their faces bland, their remarks inconclusive and their clothes immaculate”. That’s Davos.

There’s also a bit of hypocrisy at Davos.

One of the big agenda items is the supposed horror of climate change.

So you would think participants would be taking every possible step to reduce their carbon footprints, right?

But according to CNN, not so much.

Look to the skies this week in Switzerland and you’ll see the heavens are cluttered with private jets. Billionaires and world leaders from across the globe are flying en masse to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — and they insist on traveling in style. Roughly 1,700 private flights are expected over the course of the week.

The problem isn’t that some rich people use private jets. But if they fly in luxury and then pontificate on how the rest of us should accept lower living standards, they open themselves to some well-deserved abuse.

Speaking of Davos, climate change, and hypocrisy, here’s a perfect example of an empty poseur.

Al Gore is teaming up with rapper and producer Pharrell Williams to promote ‘climate change’ awareness through a series of concerts called “Live Earth,” which will take place on June 18th across six continents. The concerts will help “build support for a U.N. climate pact in Paris among more than 190 nations in December,” ABC reports. The announcement was made at the World Economic Forum on Wednesday where Pharrell said he wants “to have a billion voices with one message–to demand climate action now.”

Sounds noble, right? But Mr. Williams isn’t exactly the poster child for energy asceticism.

…when he’s not fighting to decrease your carbon footprint, Pharrell is flying across the planet on his private jet, sailing the seas on fossil fuel-burning yachts, and driving around in his pollution pumping luxury cars. …Pharrell owns a Mercedes-Benz SLR, which gets about 12 miles to the gallon. He has a McLaren Roadster, which gets him about 13 miles per gallon. Pharrell also owns a Rolls Royce Phantom and a Porsche Spyder 550, which both get about 10 and 20 miles per gallon.

Hmmmm…, sounds like another multi-millionaire hypocrite from the entertainment industry.

P.S. Returning to the issue of monetary policy, don’t forget that there are very strong arguments for getting governments out of the business of money.

P.P.S. And on the issue of boosting growth, there’s no substitute for free markets and limited government.

P.P.P.S. Yet most European nations are traveling in the opposite direction. Even more absurd, Obama wants to copy their failures, as captured by these cartoons from Michael Ramirez, Glenn Foden, Eric Allie and Chip Bok.

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Back in 2010, I shared a video that predicted a catastrophic end to the welfare state.

I said it was an example of “Libertarian Porn” because:

…it is designed for the dark enjoyment of people who think the government is destroying the nation. If you don’t like bloated government and statist intervention and you think that the policies being imposed by Washington are going to lead to hyperinflation and societal collapse, then you will get a certain level of grim satisfaction by watching the video.

While I also stated in that post that I thought the video was far too dour and pessimistic, I don’t automatically reject the hypothesis that the welfare state will lead to societal chaos.

UK RiotsIndeed, I’ve specifically warned that America might experience European-type disarray because of big government and I even wrote about which nations that might be good escape options if the welfare state causes our country to unravel.

Moreover, I’ve speculated about the possible loss of democracy in Europe and specifically said that people should have the right to be well armed just in case society goes you-know-where in a handbasket.

So I’m definitely not a Pollyanna.

I’ve given this background because here’s another video for those of you who revel in the glass being nine-tenths empty. It’s about the United Kingdom, but these numbers from the BIS, OECD, and IMF show that the long-term spending problem is equally severe in the United States.

Be warned, though, that it’s depressing as well as long. And I gather it’s also designed to sell a magazine, so you can ignore that (particularly if you’re not British).

Now that I’ve shared the video, I’ll add a couple of my own observations.

First and foremost, no country is past the point of no return, at least based on the numbers. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the United Kingdom, the United States, Greece, or France. Politicians always have the option of reforming entitlements and restraining the burden of government spending. So long as they follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule over an extended period of time, they can dig out of the mess.

That’s why I’m a big fan of Switzerland’s spending cap, That policy, technically known as the debt brake, imposes a rolling cap on budgetary growth and has been very effective. Colorado also has a spending cap that has been somewhat effective in restraining the cost of the public sector.

My second observation, however, is that some nations may be past the psychological point of return. This is not easy to measure, but it basically means that there’s good reason to be pessimistic when the majority of citizens in a country think it’s morally acceptable to have their snouts in the public trough and to live off the labor of others. When you have too many people riding in the wagon (or riding in the party ship), then it’s difficult to envision how good policy is implemented.

Indeed, the video includes some discussion of how a growing number of people in the United Kingdom now live off the state. And if you add together the votes of people like NatailijaTraceyAnjem, Gina, and Danny, perhaps the United Kingdom has reached a grim tipping point. Especially since welfare spending has dramatically increased in recent years!

A third and final point about the video. I think it focuses too much on deficits and debt. Red ink is a serious issue, to be sure, but it’s very important to understand that too much borrowing is merely a symptom of too much spending.

P.S. On a totally separate matter, everyone should read the USA Today column by Glenn Reynolds. He explains how government is perverting our criminal justice system.

Here are some of the most important passages, but you should read the whole thing.

Here’s how things all-too-often work today: Law enforcement decides that a person is suspicious (or, possibly, just a political enemy). Upon investigation into every aspect of his/her life, they find possible violations of the law, often involving obscure, technical statutes that no one really knows. They then file a “kitchen-sink” indictment involving dozens, or even hundreds of charges, which the grand jury rubber stamps. The accused then must choose between a plea bargain, or the risk of a trial in which a jury might convict on one or two felony counts simply on a “where there’s smoke there must be fire” theory even if the evidence seems less than compelling.

This is why, Glenn explains, there are very few trials. Almost everything gets settled as part of plea bargains.

But that’s not a good thing, particularly when there are no checks and balances to restrain bad behavior by the state.

…although there’s lots of due process at trial — right to cross-examine, right to counsel, rules of evidence, and, of course, the jury itself, which the Framers of our Constitution thought the most important protection in criminal cases — there’s basically no due process at the stage when prosecutors decide to bring charges. Prosecutors who are out to “get” people have a free hand; prosecutors who want to give favored groups or individuals a pass have a free hand, too.When juries decide not to convict because doing so would be unjust, it’s called “jury nullification,” and although everyone admits that it’s a power juries have, many disapprove of it. But when prosecutors decide not to bring charges, it’s called “prosecutorial discretion,” and it’s subject to far less criticism, if it’s even noticed.

Here’s the bottom line.

…with today’s broad and vague criminal statutes at both the state and federal level, everyone is guilty of some sort of crime, a point that Harvey Silverglate underscores with the title of his recent book, Three Felonies A Day: How The Feds Target The Innocent, that being the number of felonies that the average American, usually unknowingly, commits. …The combination of vague and pervasive criminal laws — the federal government literally doesn’t know how many federal criminal laws there are — and prosecutorial discretion, plus easy overcharging and coercive plea-bargaining, means that where criminal law is concerned we don’t really have a judicial system as most people imagine it. Instead, we have a criminal justice bureaucracy that assesses guilt and imposes penalties with only modest supervision from the judiciary, and with very little actual accountability.

Glenn offers some possible answers.

…prosecutors should have “skin in the game” — if someone’s charged with 100 crimes but convicted of only one, the state should have to pay 99% of his legal fees. This would discourage overcharging. (So would judicial oversight, but we’ve seen little enough of that.) Second, plea-bargain offers should be disclosed at trial, so that judges and juries can understand just how serious the state really thinks the offense is. …And finally, I think that prosecutors should be stripped of their absolute immunity to suit — an immunity created by judicial activism, not by statute — and should be subject to civil damages for misconduct such as withholding evidence. If our criminal justice system is to be a true justice system, then due process must attach at all stages. Right now, prosecutors run riot. That needs to change.

Amen to all that. And you can read more on this topic by clicking here.

The Obama years have taught us that dishonest people can twist and abuse the law for ideological purposes.

Obamacare rule of law cartoonWhether we’re talking about the corruption of the IRS, the deliberate disregard of the law for Obamacare, or the NSA spying scandal, the White House has shown that it’s naive to assume that folks in government have ethical standards.

And that’s also true for the law enforcement bureaucracy, as Glenn explained. Simply stated, people in government abuse power. And jury nullification, while a helpful check on misbehavior, only works when there is a trial.

Indeed, I’m now much more skeptical about the death penalty for many of the reasons Glenn discusses in his column. To be blunt, I don’t trust that politically ambitious prosecutors will behave honorably.

That’s why, regardless of the issue, you rarely will go wrong if you’re advocating fewer laws and less government power.

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Like John Stossel and Thomas Sowell, I’m not a big fan of the Federal Reserve.

It’s not just that I’m a libertarian who fantasizes about the denationalization of money.

I also think the Fed hasn’t done a good job, even by its own metrics. There’s very little doubt, for instance, that easy-money policies last decade played a major role in creating the housing bubble and causing the financial crisis.

Yes, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac played a big role, but it was the Fed that provided the excess liquidity that the GSEs used to subsidize the subprime lending orgy.

But I’m not writing today about possible alternatives to the Fed or big-picture issues dealing with monetary policy.

Instead, I want to highlight three rather positive signs about the Janet Yellen, the new Chair of the Fed’s Board of Governors.

1. Unlike a normal political animal and typical bureaucratic empire builder, she didn’t assert powers that she doesn’t have. She was asked at a congressional hearing about bitcoin and she forthrightly stated that the Federal Reserve has no legislative authority to mess with the online currency.

The Federal Reserve has no authority to supervise or regulate Bitcoin, chair Janet Yellen told Congress on Thursday. …On Wednesday, Manchin wrote to the Fed, Treasury and other regulators warning that the currency was “disruptive to our economy” and calling for its regulation. “Bitcoin is a payment innovation that’s taking place outside the banking industry. To the best of my knowledge there’s no intersection at all, in any way, between Bitcoin and banks that the Federal Reserve has the ability to supervise and regulate. So the Fed doesn’t have authority to supervise or regulate Bitcoin in anyway,” said Yellen.

This is very refreshing. A government official who is willing to be bound by the rule of law.

President Obama, by contrast, is now infamous for his radical and unilateral rewrites of his failed healthcare law.

Eighteen of them for those keeping count at home.

But it’s not just Obamacare.

Because of my interest in tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy, I’m upset that his Treasury Department pushed through a regulation that overturns – rather than enforces – laws about protecting American banks from tax inquiries by foreign governments.

But let’s not wander into other issues. Today’s post is about positive signs from Janet Yellen.

2. And here’s another one.

Political Cartoons by Gary VarvelThe Fed Chair poured cold water on the left’s fantasy view that higher minimum wage mandates don’t kill jobs.

The new Federal Reserve chairman, Janet Yellen, seemed to offer some support for the CBO’s recent conclusion that increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, as President Obama and Senate Democrats propose, would cost a significant number of jobs. The CBO projected that the proposal would mean 500,000 fewer jobs by the end of 2016, a conclusion the White House took issue with. Yellen said the CBO “is as qualified as anyone to evaluate the literature” about the employment effects of the minimum wage (some of which argues there would be little to no jobs losses, and some of which suggests there would be significant job losses), and that she “wouldn’t want to argue with their assessment.”

In the cautious-speak world of Fed officials, this is a very strong statement.

Congratulations to Yellen for putting intellectual honesty above partisan loyalty.

3. Most important of all, Yellen also affirmed that she plans on continuing the “taper,” which is the buzzword for winding down the Fed’s easy-money policy.

…she reiterated that it would take a “significant change” to the economy’s prospects for the Fed to put plans to wind down its bond-buying program on hold. …After more than five years of ultra easy monetary policy in the wake of the 2007-2009 recession, the Fed is taking the first small steps towards a more normal footing. It trimmed its bond buying by $10 billion in each of the past two months, and it expects to raise interest rates some time next year as long as the economy continues to improve. Yellen reiterated her concerns about possible asset price bubbles, and suggested the Fed would move to a more qualitative description of when it plans to finally raise rates. …Yellen acknowledged that such low borrowing costs “can give rise to behavior that poses threats to financial stability.”

And she even acknowledged that easy money can cause bubbles.

A refreshing change from some previous Fed Governors.

Now let’s give a caveat. None of this suggests Yellen is a closet libertarian.

She is perceived as being on the left of the spectrum, and it’s worth noting that many hardcore statists in the Democratic Party urged her selection over Larry Summers because he was (incorrectly) seen as somehow being too moderate.

Moreover, I suspect she will say many things in the coming years that will add to my collection of gray hair.

All that being said, I’m glad Obama picked her over Summers. By all accounts, Yellen is honest and will focus her attention on monetary policy.

Summers, by contrast, is a far more political animal and would have used the position of Fed Chair to aggressively push for more statism in areas outside of monetary policy.

P.S. Private financial institutions also played a role in the housing bubble and financial crisis, which is why those entities should have been allowed to go bankrupt instead of benefiting from the corrupt TARP bailout.

P.P.S. Since this post mentions bitcoin and since I sometimes get asked about the online currency, I’ll take this opportunity to say that I hope that it is ultimately successful so that we have alternatives to government monetary monopolies. That being said, I wouldn’t put my (rather inadequate) life savings in bitcoin.

P.P.P.S. If you want an amusing video mocking the Fed, here’s the famous “Ben Bernank” video. And if you want a serious takedown of the Fed, here’s George Selgin’s scholarly but accessible analysis.

P.P.P.P.S. On a completely unrelated topic, if you’re a fan of “House of Cards,” I invite you to pay close attention at about the 30:00 mark of Episode 5, Season 2. If you don’t blink, you may notice an unexpected cameo appearance. Maybe this person has a future acting career if he ever succeeds in restoring limited government and needs to find something new to occupy his time. After all, if President Obama has a future on the silver screen, why not others?

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At the beginning of the year, I was asked whether Europe’s fiscal crisis was over. Showing deep thought and characteristic maturity, my response was “HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, are you ;@($&^#’% kidding me?”

But I then shared specific reasons for pessimism, including the fact that many European nations had the wrong response to the fiscal crisis. With a few exceptions (such as the Baltic nations), European governments used the crisis to impose big tax hikes, including higher income tax rates and harsher VAT rates.

Combined with the fact that Europe’s demographic outlook is rather grim, you can understand why I’m not brimming with hope for the continent. And I’ve shared specific dismal data for nations such as Portugal, France, Greece, Italy, Poland, Spain, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.

But one thing I’ve largely overlooked is the degree to which the European Central Bank may be creating an unsustainable bubble in Europe’s financial markets. I warned about using bad monetary policy to subsidize bad fiscal policy, but only once in 2011 and once in 2012.

Check out this entertaining – but worrisome – video from David McWilliams and you’ll understand why this issue demands more attention.

I’ve openly argued that the euro is not the reason that many European nations got in trouble, but it appears that Europe’s political elite may be using the euro to make a bad situation even worse.

And to add insult to injury, the narrator is probably right that we’ll get the wrong outcome when this house of cards comes tumbling down. Instead of decentralization and smaller government, we’ll get an expanded layer of government at the European level.

Or, as I call it, Germany’s dark vision for Europe.

That’s Mitchell’s Law on steroids.

P.S. Here’s a video on the five lessons America should learn from the European crisis.

P.P.S. On a lighter note, the mess in Europe has generated some amusing videos (here, here, and here), as well as a very funny set of maps.

P.P.P.S. If all this sounds familiar, that may be because the Federal Reserve in the United States could be making the same mistakes as the European Central Bank. I don’t pretend to know when and how the Fed’s easy-money policy will turn out, but I’m not overly optimistic about the final outcome. As Thomas Sowell has sagely observed, “We all make mistakes. But we don’t all have the enormous and growing power of the Federal Reserve System… 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.”

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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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This is an easy question for me to answer. To be honest, I have no idea.

If I knew such things, I could time the market and I’d be rich beyond my wildest dreams and relaxing on the beach in the Cayman Islands instead of sitting in my kitchen in chilly Virginia.

Heck, I don’t even know whether the Fed’s policy is wrong or just worrisome. It’s possible, after all, that the central bank has provided appropriate liquidity and it will soak it up at the right time.

I don’t think that’s the case. I fear Bernanke is in over his head and that the Fed is engaging in the monetary version of Keynesian economics.

And if that’s true, something bad will happen at some point. If there’s too much liquidity out there, it presumably will show up at some point as either rising prices or an asset bubble.

Then again, we know banks are keeping more than $1 trillion of excess reserves parked at the Fed and maybe it will stay that way forever. In which case the private sector is inadvertently protecting us from bad monetary policy. Thomas Sowell has suggested that something like this is happening.

I can say for sure is that we wouldn’t have to worry if we were in a libertarian fantasy world and the private sector was responsible for money.

You may think that sounds crazy, but that’s the way it used to be, as explained in this short video.

John Stossel has made the same point about competing market-based currencies.

And if you want to see how well money has maintained its value since the Federal Reserve took over, this link has an excellent video.

P.S. I often get asked about the gold standard. It’s good in theory, but the real issue is whether governments can be trusted to operate it prudently and honestly.

P.P.S. Since Christmas is just two days away, we can all wonder whether we will get this present from Ben Bernanke. And if you still have some last-minute shopping to do, here’s a Bernanke t-shirt for your liberal friends.

P.P.P.S. For some laughs, check out Ben Bernanke’s Facebook page.

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