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Posts Tagged ‘Federal Reserve’

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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It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Ronald Reagan.

He’s definitely the greatest president of my lifetime and, with one possible rival, he was the greatest President of the 20th century.

If his only accomplishment was ending malaise and restoring American prosperity thanks to lower tax rates and other pro-market reforms, he would be a great President.

He also restored America’s national defenses and reoriented foreign policy, both of which led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire, a stupendous achievement that makes Reagan worthy of Mount Rushmore.

But he also has another great achievement, one that doesn’t receive nearly the level of appreciation that it deserves. President Reagan demolished the economic cancer of inflation.

Even Paul Krugman has acknowledged that reining in double-digit inflation was a major positive achievement. Because of his anti-Reagan bias, though, he wants to deny the Gipper any credit.

Robert Samuelson, in a column for the Washington Post, corrects the historical record.

Krugman recently wrote a column arguing that the decline of double-digit inflation in the 1980s was the decade’s big economic event, not the cuts in tax rates usually touted by conservatives. Actually, I agree with Krugman on this. But then he asserted that Ronald Reagan had almost nothing to do with it. That’s historically incorrect. Reagan was crucial. …Krugman’s error is so glaring.

Samuelson first provides the historical context.

For those too young to remember, here’s background. From 1960 to 1980, inflation — the general rise of retail prices — marched relentlessly upward. It went from 1.4 percent in 1960 to 5.9 percent in 1969 to 13.3 percent in 1979. The higher it rose, the more unpopular it became. …Worse, government seemed powerless to defeat it. Presidents deployed complex wage and price controls and guidelines. They didn’t work. The Federal Reserve — custodian of credit policies — veered between easy money and tight money, striving both to subdue inflation and to maintain “full employment” (taken as a 4 percent to 5 percent unemployment rate). It achieved neither. From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, there were four recessions. Inflation became a monster, destabilizing the economy.

The column then explains that there was a dramatic turnaround in the early 1980s, as Fed Chairman Paul Volcker adopted a tight-money policy and inflation was squeezed out of the system much faster than almost anybody thought was possible.

But Krugman wants his readers to think that Reagan played no role in this dramatic and positive development.

Samuelson says this is nonsense. Vanquishing inflation would have been impossible without Reagan’s involvement.

What Reagan provided was political protection. The Fed’s previous failures to stifle inflation reflected its unwillingness to maintain tight-money policies long enough… Successive presidents preferred a different approach: the wage-price policies built on the pleasing (but unrealistic) premise that these could quell inflation without jeopardizing full employment. Reagan rejected this futile path. As the gruesome social costs of Volcker’s policies mounted — the monthly unemployment rate would ultimately rise to a post-World War II high of 10.8 percent — Reagan’s approval ratings plunged. In May 1981, they were at 68 percent; by January 1983, 35 percent. Still, he supported the Fed. …It’s doubtful that any other plausible presidential candidate, Republican or Democrat, would have been so forbearing.

What’s the bottom line?

What Volcker and Reagan accomplished was an economic and political triumph. Economically, ending double-digit inflation set the stage for a quarter-century of near-automatic expansion… Politically, Reagan and Volcker showed that leaders can take actions that, though initially painful and unpopular, served the country’s long-term interests. …There was no explicit bargain between them. They had what I’ve called a “compact of conviction.”

By the way, Krugman then put forth a rather lame response to Samuelson, including the rather amazing claim that “[t]he 1980s were a triumph of Keynesian economics.”

Here’s what Samuelson wrote in a follow-up column debunking Krugman.

As preached and practiced since the 1960s, Keynesian economics promised to stabilize the economy at levels of low inflation and high employment. By the early 1980s, this vision was in tatters, and many economists were fatalistic about controlling high inflation. Maybe it could be contained. It couldn’t be eliminated, because the social costs (high unemployment, lost output) would be too great. …This was a clever rationale for tolerating high inflation, and the Volcker-Reagan monetary onslaught demolished it. High inflation was not an intrinsic condition of wealthy democracies. It was the product of bad economic policies. This was the 1980s’ true lesson, not the contrived triumph of Keynesianism.

If anything, Samuelson is being too kind.

One of the key tenets of Keynesian economics is that there’s a tradeoff between inflation and unemployment (the so-called Phillips Curve).

Yet in the 1970s we had rising inflation and rising unemployment.

While in the 1980s, we had falling inflation and falling unemployment.

But if you’re Paul Krugman and you already have a very long list of mistakes (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for a few examples), then why not go for the gold and try to give Keynes credit for the supply-side boom of the 1980s

P.S. Since today’s topic is Reagan, it’s a good opportunity to share my favorite poll of the past five years.

P.P.S. Here are some great videos of Reagan in action. And here’s one more if you need another Reagan fix.

P.P.P.S. And let’s close with some mildly risqué Reagan humor that was sent to me by a former member of Congress.

Reagan Clinton Joke

If you want more Reagan humor, click here, here, and here.

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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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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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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’ve expressed concern about QE3 and other decisions by the Federal Reserve about monetary policy, but I have also admitted that it’s difficult to know the right monetary policy because it requires having a good idea about both the demand for money and the supply of money.

But this raises a bigger issue. The only reason we expect the Fed to “know the right monetary policy” is because it’s been assigned a monopoly role in the economy. But not just a monopoly role, we also expect the Fed to be some sort of omniscient central planner, knowing when to step on the gas and when to hit the brakes.

And we also are asked to suspend reality and assume that the folks at the Fed will be good central planners and never be influenced by their political masters. Yeah, good luck with that.

With so many difficult – or perhaps impossible – demands placed upon them, no wonder the Fed has a lousy track record (as documented in this powerful George Selgin video).

So let’s ask a fundamental question. Is the Fed necessary? Are we stuck with a central-planning monopoly because there’s no alternative? Professor Larry White says no in this new video from Learn Liberty.

This is one of the best videos I’ve ever seen, so I strongly encourage everyone to share this post widely.

Professor White effectively demonstrates how private markets can replace the five different roles of the Fed. But his arguments are not just based on theory. He shows that the private sector used to handle those roles in the past.

And I especially like his point about how a decentralized market system would operate. Indeed, I would have stressed even more how such a system overcomes the knowledge problem that exists with a monopoly central planner.

Here’s my video on the Fed. I focus more on how central banks developed, but you’ll see some common themes in the two videos.

P.S. Here’s a video with 10 reasons to dislike the Fed.

P.P.S. If you want some Fed humor, we have a Who-is-Ben-Bernanke t-shirt, this Fed song parody, some special Federal Reserve toilet paperBen Bernanke’s hacked Facebook page, and the famous “Ben Bernank” video.

P.P.P.S. Professor White’s video shows how we can improve monetary policy, but let’s also be aware that there are proposals that would lead to even worse monetary policy.

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