Free Markets, Free People

monetary policy


Observations: The QandO Podcast for 15 Sep 13

This week, Bruce, Michael, and Dale discuss the Republican-led House’s decision to fully fund Obamacare, the economy, and the Obama Administration’s Syria-related stupidity.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here.


QEIII: It’s ON, bitches! (Text updated with more details)

Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, announced today that the Fed will embark on another round of Quantitative Easing, beginning immediately. The Fed will increase its holdings by an estimated $85 billion per month in securities, about half of which will be long-term Treasury bonds, and the remaining $40 billion or more will be agency mortgage-backed securities. The agency paper will be purchased with new cash, while the long-term Treasuries will be acquired in exchange for short-term Treasury paper, as a continuation of Operation Twist.

There is no ultimate target amount or end date specified for this round of easing. Essentially, the Fed will buy or exchange $1 trillion in securities per year, until chairman Bernanke says to stop. It is completely open-ended. Additionally, the Fed expects to keep interest rates at or near 0% until sometime in 2015.

Let’s be clear about what this announcement means: The Fed will print $500 billion per year in new money, and inject it into the economy by buying agency paper (Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, et al.), while also flooding the market with $500 billion of short-term paper in exchange for long bonds. That new money is not based on any realistic estimate of economic growth, or economic requirement to expand the money supply. It is pure, Keynesian monetary stimulus.

This will, of course, be done in a completely responsible way, and there is no threat whatsoever that this will cause an increase in inflation, and in any case, the Fed is fully prepared to sterilize this move at any time conditions warrant. Seriously, it’s best for the Fed to do this, and nothing could possibly go wrong.

Some may disagree.

Anyway, here’s some video of the first round of this open-ended QE being implemented:

qeiii

Image via Max Keiser

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Observations: The Qando Podcast for 21 Nov 10

In this podcast, Bruce and Dale discuss the Democrats’ response to their electoral drubbing, and the Federal Reserve’s Quantitative Easing policy.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2009, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.


Maybe I’m just an alarmist

In the Financial Times today, Martin Wolf comes out swinging (free registration required) against those who are afraid the Fed’s Quantitative Easing programs carry a danger of sparking serious inflation.

The essence of the contemporary monetary system is creation of money, out of nothing, by private banks’ often foolish lending. Why is such privatisation of a public function right and proper, but action by the central bank, to meet pressing public need, a road to catastrophe? When banks will not lend and the broad money supply is barely growing, that is just what it should be doing (see chart).

The hysterics then add that it is impossible to shrink the Fed’s balance sheet fast enough to prevent excessive monetary expansion. That is also nonsense. If the economy took off, nothing would be easier. Indeed, the Fed explained precisely what it would do in its monetary report to Congress last July. If the worst came to the worst, it could just raise reserve requirements. Since many of its critics believe in 100 per cent reserve banking, why should they object to a move in that direction?

Now turn to the argument that the Fed is deliberately weakening the dollar. Any moderately aware person knows that the Fed’s mandate does not include the external value of the dollar. Those governments that have piled up an extra $6,800bn in foreign reserves since January 2000, much of it in dollars, are consenting adults. Not only did no one ask China, the foremost example, to add the huge sum of $2,400bn to its reserves, but many strongly asked it not to do so.

Everything he says is correct, but that’s not really any help, because the implications are pretty severe, even if he’s completely right.

First, let’s assume the Fed can, via repos or changes in reserve requirements, sterilize the increase in the money supply. The problem then becomes when does the Fed do this sterilization. let’s go back to 1981-1982.  When the Fed was looking at monetary aggregates in the wake of the 1981 recession, they saw the money supply growing far faster than their target. At the time, the Fed’s primary tool was securities sales and purchases to control the rate of growth in the money supply directly, while letting the markets set interest rates. (Today, the fed primarily uses changes in the Discount Rate and Federal Funds target rate to run monetary policy.)

When the Fed saw those big increases in money supply, they immediately moved to sterilize the increases, to keep inflation in check.  Sadly, the lack of velocity in the money supply, i.e., its actual rate of use in transactions, was near zero. as a result, the Fed’s tightening threw the economy into another recession, with unemployment rising to 11%. The policy may have been correct, but the timing was wrong.

So, what guarantee do we have that the Fed will perform sterilization at precisely the right time? If they move too early, the economy shuts down, a la 1982.  Too late, and inflation takes off. Then the Fed would really have to tighten, which would probably result in another recession to wring out the extra inflation.

The trouble with the Fed is that monetary policy moves take 6-18 months to fully percolate through the economy. And they make these decisions based on economic data gathered in previous months. It’s like driving down the street by looking only at the rear-view mirror.

That makes proper timing by the Fed…hard.

Perhaps the Fed will operate as if run by infinitely wise solons, who know precisely when to sterilize their quantitative easing, either through repo operations, or raising the banks’ reserve requirements appropriately.

If it doesn’t, however, we’re looking at either another steep recession, or a bout of serious inflation, follwed by another serious recession to tame the inflation.

Oh, and even if the Fed is that good, it doesn’t address the problem of how the Chinese will react to any increased currency risk they face by holding dollar-denominated securities if the value of the dollar falls in the FOREX. As Mr. Wolf admits, the Fed’s mandate has nothing to do with the foreign exchange value of the dollar.  So, maybe, the Chinese will decide to sell as much of their holdings in Treasuries as they can.  That implies a serious decline in treasury prices, and a concommittant rise in bond yields, i.e., interest rates. Aaaand, we’re back to a possibility of a steep recession again Especially if they do it while the Fed is already in the middle of money supply sterilization operations.

So, I guess the question is, “How much to you trust in the ability of the Federal Reserve to do exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time?” And, “How much do you trust the Chinese to go along with all this?”


Quantitative Easing II: Making No One Happy

The reactions to the Federal Reserve’s announcement that they would embark on a new, $600 billion round of quantitative easing is raising reactions from all around the world.

China:

Unbridled printing of dollars is the biggest risk to the global economy, an adviser to the Chinese central bank said in comments published on Thursday, a day after the Federal Reserve unveiled a new round of monetary easing.

Germany:

German Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle said on Thursday he was concerned at U.S. efforts to stimulate growth by injecting liquidity into its struggling economy.

“I view that not without concern,” Bruederle said, adding that a variety of measures were needed to solve the problem and it was not enough to pump in liquidity alone…

Bruederle also said there was some truth to the criticism that the United States was influencing the dollar’s exchange rate with monetary policy and voiced concern about increased protectionism in different forms around the world.

Brazil:

Brazilian officials from the president down have slammed the Federal Reserve’s decision to depress US interest rates by buying billions of dollars of government bonds, warning that it could lead to retaliatory measures.

“It’s no use throwing dollars out of a helicopter,” Guido Mantega, the finance minister, said on Thursday. “The only result is to devalue the dollar to achieve greater competitiveness on international markets.”

Brazil, especially, seems to be treating this as a currency devaluation war, and, according to the Financial Times, really doesn’t like that.

But the worries go far beyond trade and protectionism issues brought about by fears of devaluation.  It’s the domestic inflationary effects which have many–including me–worried:

Federal Reserve policies have put the US dollar the risk of crashing, which will hammer consumers through higher prices, strategist Axel Merk told CNBC…

“So we will have a cost-push inflation. We’re going to get inflation but not where Bernanke wants to have it. We’re not going to get wages to go up. We’ll get the price at the gas pump to go up instead.”

We’re right on a path towards high inflation and slow economic growth, otherwise known as “stagflation”.  Except that there’s a lot more monetary expansion this time than we experienced in the 1970s.  Maybe we’ll have to coin a new term, like “hyperstagflation”.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, it begins like this.

“So we will have a cost-push inflation. We’re going to get inflation but not where Bernanke wants to have it. We’re not going to get wages to go up. We’ll get the price at the gas pump to go up instead.”


Quantitative Easing, Round II, Approved

The Federal Reserve announced today that it would embark on a second round of “quantitative easing”, to the tune of $600 billion. This will join the previous round of $1.3 trillion over the last 18 months. For those of you who don’t know, Quantitative Easing is a monetary policy transaction, whereby the Federal Reserve buys securities from banks–usually US Treasury Notes and Bonds–with cash.   This infuses fresh cash into the monetary system. After this second round of Quantitative Easing, the Fed will have injected $1.9 TRILLION in cash into the monetary system.

Now, sadly, the Fed did not, and does not, just have $1.9 trillion in cash lying around in big vaults to take Scrooge McDuck money swims in when the mood takes them. But that’s not particularly a problem, since the Federal Reserve simply prints up the required amount of cash (or creates it electronically for funds transfers). In any event, the Fed buys the securities with money that is newly made for that purpose.

With that in mind, my advice to you is to collect all of the printed currency you can.  You will then need to package it in extremely tightly-wrapped bundles.  Yes, it is a bit troublesome to do, but you’ll find that it burns much longer and hotter that way, which works far better for either cooking or heating purposes.


Observations: The Qando Podcast for 17 Oct 10

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael, and Dale discuss the Economy, and the government’s effect on it.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2009, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.


The Kangaroo is Still Hopping

Bruce mentioned yesterday that the 5-year note auction drew thin demand, with a low bid-to-cover ratio, and a steep drop in indirect buyers.  This led to a jump in interest rates for both the Fives and the Tens also went up by 13 basis points.  meanwhile, investors began moving into corporate paper, instead of treasuries.

I also note that this week saw weaker than expected durable goods orders, atrocious new home sales, and initial unemployment claims still at 442k–which is better than it was last week, but not great.

The “recovery”, apparently is still on pretty shaky ground.

Meanwhile, the new health care reform law attempts to shift a bunch of spending via Medicaid to the states, who are not really in a position to cover those costs, as state tax revenues have sharply declined from 2007.

In short, with a weak economy, we are planning on adding what may be as much as $2 trillion to the deficit over the next 10 years–deficits that are already at $1 trillion per year as far as the eye can see.  How neatly that coincides with the announcement that Social Security will run into the red this fiscal year, paying more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes, six years earlier than previously expected.

So, we got that going for us.

The United States is supposed to be the richest country in the world.  But, on our present fiscal course, that cognomen will not attain in a very few years.  We simply will not have enough money to service the debt load we will be carrying.  In a very real sense, it doesn’t matter whether the Republicans can win in November and repeal the HCR law just passed.  Or Cap & Trade.  Or Medicare Part D.  Or whatever.

We are directly on course to having to run massive inflation by monetizing the debt, or to simply defaulting on it, both of which will result in massively high interest rates, and economic stagnation. With the added bonus of runaway inflation, for good measure.

That this will happen cannot be in serious doubt if we continue our present course. Our fiscal and monetary policies are self-evidently unsustainable.

I can only presume that the Democrats believe that, at the appropriate time, fairies will appear out of thin air to sprinkle magical pixie dust on the economy, and all will be well.  The current raft of policies they are proposing to enact will crush the economy.  We’ve seen it happen time and again in South America, and now even in the EU, in which the Greeks are headed for a default in the very near future.

What is coming out of Washington is not policy.  it is full-scale flight from reality.


Scary Employment Chart of the Day

When it comes to employment, we have dug ourselves a tremendous hole. I will be surprised if unemployment is back to where it was four years from now. This chart gives us all an idea why:

Of particular interest is the path of the last two recessions which had anemic job growth despite relatively shallow initial dips. The recovery period for each far exceeded previous recessions. If we see a repeat this time the V shaped recovery in employment we keep hearing about is not going to happen. So why the difference?

The earlier recessions exhibited a similar pattern of sharp drops in employment followed by sharp recoveries as the economy snapped back. The change that we began to see in the 1990 recession is partly structural. The layoffs associated with the much larger manufacturing sector in recessions of the past were associated with a rundown in inventories which then snapped back once the inventories were depleted.

Something else is going on here as well in my own opinion. As the eighties gave way to the nineties the US was in the early stages of an experiment in monetary and economic policy. Monetary policy was explicitly geared to reduce economic volatility. This led to attempts to reduce the severity of recessions, and also led to a reduction in upside volatility as well. This was (at least for a while) somewhat successful, resulting in what became known as “The Great Moderation.” The recession of 1990 was the first crack in that system. Attempts to limit volatility not only reduced the violence of the recession, but the explosive growth typical after recessions previously. It also was a recession which was a result of a financial crisis (the S&L’s) and the real estate boom of the late eighties. The deleveraging of the finance and debt recession (what we are going through now, only in miniature) was sluggish. It took a good while for the adjustment to occur.

We followed a familiar script of lowering interest rates and encouraging credit expansion. Constant expansions of credit whenever things slowed kept the engine running until a bigger crisis hit with the bursting of the tech and telecom bubble. Once again we applied even more credit easing to soften the blow, and the attempt to avoid wringing the excesses of credit from the system led to another sluggish recovery with anemic job growth. Profits however were large and the return for the steadily growing financial sector was immense. If the economy was going to be stabilized by constant applications of credit expansion, then the financial sector was the main beneficiary. Finally we have the latest crisis, one where the financial system itself was the most important bubble.

What we can now see is that the types of recessions we have been experiencing are successive deleveraging cycles, each “solved” by releveraging the economy and leading to a bigger crisis down the road. Sadly deleveraging processes, especially if drawn out by keeping them from running their course, result in tepid job growth. We are now in a massive deleveraging cycle which we are once again trying to solve by adding massive debt to the system. Once again job growth and recovery is slower. Unless we break this cycle (which would be very painful) we should expect nothing different in the outcome, except that the problem is bigger and will last longer.

Cross Posted at: The View from the Bluff


The Unemployment Situation

I see that Megan McCardle thinks the unemployment numbers released today are enough to make her make her “cautiously optimistic” about the jobs picture.  I’ll meet her halfway.  I see room for caution, but not yet for optimism.

Ms. McArdle writes:

It’s very solidly good news: the labor force participation rate was basically unchanged, which means we’re seeing an actual decline in the unemployment rate, not a spike in the number of people leaving the labor force because they can’t find a job.

My reading of the numbers is precisely the opposite.  It appears to me that teenagers, high school dropouts, and those with only a high school diploma, all of whom have high unemployment rates, did, in fact, drop out of the labor force, which led to the decrease in the employment rate.

I also think the numbers are skewed by the seasonal adjustments.  The BLS adjusts the figures for seasonal changes, with extra weighting given to more recent years.  Last November, the Lehman collapse led to the loss of 610,000 jobs–the largest ever recorded by the BLS–so I suspect the weighting for seasonal factors is skewed to the point where the jobs situation may look better than it actually is.

We do see an increase in hours worked of 0.6 hours, but that doesn’t really create new jobs, it just provides more hours for current part-timers.

However, temporary employment rose significantly for the 4th straight month, and it appears that the mass layoffs have petered out.

So, as far as I can tell, there may have been a bottom, but there are still some anomalies that need to be explained before I jump into the optimist camp.

And, of course, none of this even touches on the 800-pound gorilla in the room, which is monetary policy.  The Fed’s policy of quantitative easing, i.e. massive increases in the money supply, still present us with hundreds of billions of dollars in low-velocity money floating around, all of which will have to be absorbed through higher interest rates, or through significant inflation.  The possibility still remains that necessary credit tightening will strangle any nascent recovery over the next 12-18 months, and send the economy on a another downward leg.

It’s very solidly good news:  the labor force participation rate was basically unchanged, which means we’re seeing an actual decline in the unemployment rate, not a spike in the number of people leaving the labor force because they can’t find a job.
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