No, this isn’t a story about the “War on Christmas”, it’s a story that uses Christmas and its symbols as an example of government overreach.
A bank in Oklahoma was forced by federal bank regulators to remove Christian verses and symbols because the Federal bank examiners thought they were “inappropriate”.
This is the “separation of the church and state” and “non-discrimination” gone wild. Last time I checked, most banks were private enterprises which were regulated by the federal government. Furthermore the supposed doctrine of “separation of church and state” doesn’t apply to private enterprises. It is a prohibition aimed at the federal government. And yes, I know it’s not found in the Constitution per se, but the phrase “freedom of religion” is enough for me to agree that the state should not be promoting a single religion.
That said, it has absolutely no say over what a private enterprise might promote or favor.
Which brings us to “non-discrimination”, which one assumes is the real basis for the ruling by the feds here. The reason for the federal bank examiners decision is a regulation penned by bureaucrats with apparently no understanding of private markets and no concern whatsoever about the impact of their regulation on the real world. And they essentially decided to interpret those regulations any darn way they feel like interpreting them:
Specifically, the feds believed, the symbols violated the discouragement clause of Regulation B of the bank regulations. According to the clause, "…the use of words, symbols, models and other forms of communication … express, imply or suggest a discriminatory preference or policy of exclusion."
The feds interpret that to mean, for example, a Jew or Muslim or atheist may be offended and believe they may be discriminated against at this bank. It is an appearance of discrimination.
BS. Here’s a dirty little secret about private enterprises such as banks – if people feel “discriminated” against, they can go elsewhere. Yup, they actually have a choice. Don’t like bible verses and Christian crosses, bank at a bank that doesn’t have them. There is no requirement for a Muslim or atheist to bank there. None. Don’t like the Perkins County Bank for that reason? Go across the street to the Stroud National Bank for heaven sake.
When did the possibility that someone might be offended become the top problem we face, such that the federal government feels the need to move preemptively to ensure that doesn’t happen.
What’s next, the removal of all pork products from grocery stores because they may offend Muslims? The removal of crosses from church steeples because atheists traveling by may take offense? This is lunacy.
But, to the point of the title – this little story was picked up and blasted around the blogosphere. Guess what?
The small-town bank in Oklahoma will be able to restore its Christian signs and symbols after all, thanks in part to public outcry against the Federal Reserve.
That’s right – the bureaucrats backed down. Why?
The story garnered national attention overnight from bloggers and Twitter users who posted links to KOCO.com’s story.
This is the power of the blogosphere – something that is a force to be reckoned with when riled up and one that people seem to take rather lightly at times. It’s also an example of why even the smallest stories of government overreach should be addressed. In fact, it puts and exclamation point on the saying “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance!”
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
In fact, it may set in motion inflationary pressures that will blow up in the Fed’s face.
Randall Wray has put together one of the best summaries I’ve seen on the subject, and it doesn’t give me a warm fuzzy at all. Essentially QE2 (“quantitative easing”) has the Fed buying up toxic bank assets to push up their excess reserves. The thinking is that pushing those reserves into excess will stimulate loans. But it will also stimulate inflation.
Bernake’s claim is the reserve creation will be “temporary”. But – and this is the crux of the problem – it will have difficulty buying back those reserves because of the quality of the assets the Fed is sucking up to create them:
Bernanke carefully tries to navigate these waters by agreeing with the hawks that in the long run, Fed creation of too many reserves would be inflationary, but argues that in current circumstances the greater danger is deflation. Still, he reassures markets that reserves creation is temporary, and that the Fed will “exit its accommodative policies at the appropriate time”. Yet, if the Fed buys junk assets that will never have any value, it will not be able to sell these back to markets later — so there is no way to remove the reserves it created when it buys trash.
Indeed. So without the ability to sell back marketable assets, the reserves remain out there and inflation does too. You might think “deflation” is the biggest threat until you see run-away inflation reduce your retirement funds to zip and push your wages to poverty level.
This is a mess. And as we discussed in this week’s podcast, screwing with the economy at the central bank level is very delicate thing and could go wrong quickly and dramatically.
And what I’m hearing and reading – to include this article – says the possibility of that happening is high.
Today’s release of the Producer Price Index raises some interesting and scary questions. The core PPI was up only 0.1%, but a 1.2% increase in good prices and a 0.5% increase in energy prices brought the overall PPI up by 0.4%.
Now, the reason that food and energy are excluded from the core PPI and CPI is that they often show a lot of monthly volatility. Those prices simply rise and fall quickly, so, on a month-to-month basis, they may not mean much. Ultimately, however, a trend of price increases in, say, energy will trend to raise prices across the board, as that increases the cost of production.
The traditional Keynesian argument about inflation is that it tends to decrease when the economy is struggling, as aggregate demand is stifled. Sadly, in the 1970’s we learned that simply wasn’t true, and the existence of stagflation sent the Keynesians back to the drawing board for about 15 years to reformulate a Neo-Keynesian economic model. Essentially what happened in the late 60’s and early 70’s was that the Fed pursued a very accomodative monetary policy. Ultimately, even a slow economy couldn’t prevent that monetary expansion from showing up as inflation.
It should, because the housing boom was kicked off by a similar policy, and since the collapse, the Fed has pursued a policy of “quantitative easing”, i.e., buying $1.2 trillion of securities with hastily printed money. Overall, the monetary base has more than doubled over the past two years, also, as the Fed has kept short-term interest rates at 0%.
So, I guess the question is whether today’s PPI is just a monthly outlier due to the volatile sectors, or whether it’s a sign that monetary expansion is beginning to kick off an inflationary spike that will soon begin to show up in the CPI as real, noticeable inflation.
Well, not really, but that pretty much describes metaphorically how often Paul Krugman and I agree on things. But today, Krugman, wondering what Ben Bernanke of the Fed is going to say today in his big speech believes it will probably be more of the same. Albeit, we’re in a recovery, more slowly than we’d like and things will soon get better. Krugman isn’t buying it (and neither am I. If this is a recovery, I’d hate to see a recession). :
Unfortunately, that’s not true: this isn’t a recovery, in any sense that matters. And policy makers should be doing everything they can to change that fact.
Krugman also zeros in on the main problem that those policy makers should focus on:
The important question is whether growth is fast enough to bring down sky-high unemployment. We need about 2.5 percent growth just to keep unemployment from rising, and much faster growth to bring it significantly down. Yet growth is currently running somewhere between 1 and 2 percent, with a good chance that it will slow even further in the months ahead.
In fact, the GDP number for this past quarter is 1.6%. That’s revised sharply downward from the original 2.4% reported and touted by Democrats recently. That, as Krugman points out, isn’t a good number when you are looking at unemployment.
Krugman then chastises those who are pumping sunshine up our skirts when the real economic news doesn’t warrant it – like the President and VP. Bernanke and Geithner:
Why are people who know better sugar-coating economic reality? The answer, I’m sorry to say, is that it’s all about evading responsibility.
Ya think! Gee wish I’d been saying that for, oh, I don’t know, 18 months. For 12 of that it was Bush’s fault. For the past 6, it’s been all sunshine, roses and “recovery summer”. In effect, although not at all as blatantly, Krugman is validating John Boehner’s call to fire Obama’s economic team. Because it is clear that the policy makers haven’t a clue of how to fix this mess.
At this point in his op-ed, Krugman reverts to his old self – a hack. After talking about evading responsibility, he goes for the “obstructive Republicans” canard.
And when he finally gets around to saying what he’d do, as you might suppose, it is spend more money that we don’t have.
Addressing the Fed he says:
The Fed has a number of options. It can buy more long-term and private debt; it can push down long-term interest rates by announcing its intention to keep short-term rates low; it can raise its medium-term target for inflation, making it less attractive for businesses to simply sit on their cash. Nobody can be sure how well these measures would work, but it’s better to try something that might not work than to make excuses while workers suffer.
In layman’s terms he’s saying let inflation loose and buy more debt (borrow). He then covers his rear by saying “hey, it may not work, but it is better than doing nothing”.
I’m not at all sure that’s the case. In fact, my guess is if you let the inflation dragon out of the cage, you’ll never recapture it until it has ravaged the economy. All that money that’s been pumped into the economy has to be wrung out at some point. And there are no painless ways to do that of which I’m aware.
As for the administration his advice is as follows:
The administration has less freedom of action, since it can’t get legislation past the Republican blockade. But it still has options. It can revamp its deeply unsuccessful attempt to aid troubled homeowners. It can use Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored lenders, to engineer mortgage refinancing that puts money in the hands of American families — yes, Republicans will howl, but they’re doing that anyway. It can finally get serious about confronting China over its currency manipulation: how many times do the Chinese have to promise to change their policies, then renege, before the administration decides that it’s time to act?
Sure, let’s hand even more money to the two financial black holes – Freddie and Fanny – that have already sucked down half a trillion dollars we don’t have trying to shore up their loses and return them to solvency. Republicans have every reason to howl about Freddie and Fannie. If Krugman were anything but a hack, he’d have to admit that.
And if he thinks the Chinese – who are actually in a real recovery – are going to stomp on their economic progress to fix ours, he’s dreaming. Both proposals are absurd on their face. But then when it comes to actual solutions, I’ve come to expect that from him.
However, at least in the first part of his column, he and I were in pretty much perfect agreement. I need to go take a bath now.
Despite all the happy talk from the Fed about its ability to manage the money supply and wring the excess out of the economy at the proper time, avoiding inflation, when and if the economy ever takes off, is going to be a lot tougher than advertised. And we’re beginning to see rumblings that inflation is trying to find it’s footing:
Inflation at the wholesale level surged in November, reflecting price jumps in energy and other products.
The bigger-than-expected increase is certain to get the attention of Federal Reserve policymakers beginning a two-day meeting on interest rates.
The Fed has been able to keep interest rates at record-lows to bolster the shaky recovery, but if inflation pressures begin to mount, the central bank could be forced to start raising rates sooner than expected to cool the economy and keep prices in check.
That’s the trade-off: raise interest rates to hold off inflation. The tricky part is knowing how much to raise them to do that without killing the recovery. And, with the massive amounts of cash pumped into the system, I’m not sure that’s possible. Which means it is probable, at some point, that the Fed is simply going to have to make a choice – inflation or high recovery killing interest rates. My guess is they’ll choose the latter (while the politicians holler foul and try to spend more money). That’s why many don’t see economic recovery in the cards any time soon despite the “green shoots” so many politicians continue to spot among the economic ruin of the present economy.
For the most part, both the Fed and the Obama Administration have been publicly confident of a number of things. They’ve assured us that the bailouts and stimulus spending, along with the great monetary expansion we’ve had since last October, were necessary to stave off economic collapse. They’ve also assured us that they have an end game for unwinding these policies when necessary.
But, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard is now warning that the negative results of the monetary expansion imposes more risk of inflation than generally believed.
I am concerned about a popular narrative in use today … that the output gap must be large since the recession is so severe … [and] any medium-term inflation threat is negligible, even in the face of extraordinarily accommodative monetary policy. I think this narrative overplays the output-gap story.
Take away Pres. Bullard’s Fed-speak, and what you have is a Federal Reserve bank president warning that the Fed’s accomodative policy runs a very real risk inflation when the economy picks up. Naturally, to fight this ionflation, the Fed will need to raise interest rates. With a doubling of the monetary base in the past year, that implies the possibility for raising rates quite substantially, which could strangle any nascent economic recovery in the cradle.
So, while Pres. Bullard also says that moderate economic growth for the end of the year is possible, we probably shouldn’t get our hopes up for a while.
Meanwhile, all of the extra dollars floating out there, combined with extremely large federal budget deficits for the next several years, is having an effect on the dollar. Not only has the number of dollars vastly expanded, the deficits require greatly increased bond sales, which encumber the federal government with a long-term debt obligation that will be harder and harder to meet. This is making the dollar…unattractive to heathen foreigners. Not only in terms of dollar-denominated investments, but also in making the dollar fundamentally unattractive as the world’s reserve currency. The rumblings about dumping dollar continue.
[T]he United Nations itself last week called for a new global reserve currency to end dollar supremacy, which had allowed the United States the “privilege” of building up a huge trade deficit.
UN undersecretary-general for economic and social affairs, Sha Zukang, said “important progress in managing imbalances can be made by reducing the (dollar) reserve currency country’s ‘privilege’ to run external deficits in order to provide international liquidity.”
Zukang was speaking at the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, whose President Robert Zoellick recently warned that the United States should not “take for granted” the dollar’s role as preeminent global reserve currency.
You cannot simultaneously have your currency act as the global reserve currency while deflating the currency to uselessness by using foreign investment in dollars to maintain huge current account deficits. The foreigners may talk funny, and have quaint ways, but they’re not big enough hayseeds to recognize who ultimately gets the short end of that deal if it continues.
Still, our government’s response has been heartening.
Following the summit, US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner repeated Washington’s commitment to a strong dollar.
At this point, I suspect that the international financial community takes this commitment as seriously as the attendees of the local junior college take my commitment to have sex with barely legal teen girls. Actually, my commitment probably has a better chance of coming to fruition, since the international financial community doesn’t have “daddy issues”.
Meanwhile, all of the teachers, cops, firemen, DMV workers, etc., who thought taking a relatively low-paying government job now in return for really good retirement benefits, may need to rethink that strategy.
The upheaval on Wall Street has deluged public pension systems with losses that government officials and consultants increasingly say are insurmountable unless pension managers fundamentally rethink how they pay out benefits or make money or both.
Within 15 years, public systems on average will have less half the money they need to pay pension benefits, according to an analysis by Pricewaterhouse Coopers. Other analysts say funding levels could hit that low within a decade.
After losing about $1 trillion in the markets, state and local governments are facing a devil’s choice: Either slash retirement benefits or pursue high-return investments that come with high risk.
In other words, start stocking up on Alpo for those hearty retirement meals, or hope that the pension fund’s investment in fur-bearing trout farms come through big-time.
But it’s not just government workers who may be looking at a bleak future. The government’s actions since last October are also having unintended consequences on the domestic economy that affects all of us–although I should point out that these unintended consequences were entirely predictable.
The Fed’s policy of essentially free money means that household savers get no return at all on CD’s, T-bills, Money Markets, etc., while speculators can borrow money at no cost, and toss them at any speculative investment that promises any return at all. So traditional savings are being gutted.
Excessive government borrowing is sucking the air out of the private credit markets. While goverment borrowing is proceeding at a $1.9 trillion annual rate, private credit is collapsing.
Last year, banks provided new credit at the annual pace of $472.4 billion in the first quarter and $86.7 billion in the second. This year, on a net basis, they’re not providing any credit whatsoever. In fact, they’re actually liquidating loans at the rate of $857.2 billion in the first quarter and $931.3 billion in the second.
Ditto for mortgages. Last year, mortgages were being created at the annual clip of $522.5 billion and $124 billion in the first and second quarters, respectively. This year, they’ve been liquidated at an annual pace of $39.3 billion in the first quarter and $239.5 billion in the second.
This lack of credit means that businesses have been unable to expand or hire–or even maintain their workforce. As a result, 7.2 million jobs have been lost in the last 21 months, compared to the 2.7 million jobs lost in the 30 months of the last recession. The official unemployment rate of 9.8% hides the effect of discouraged job seekers, or the under-employed, which means the actual unemployment rate, as it was calculated prior to 1973 is 17%. Shadow Government Statistics places the actual unemployment rate at an even worse 21%.
And now, after all the unintended consequences of our past actions, some in Congress are now calling for Stimulus II. Apparently, Stimulus I did such a bang-up job, that they want to double down on two sixes.
Hop. Hop. Hop.
Today was one of those days when a couple of trends came together that should be making us think seiously about changing our current fiscal and monetary policies.
The first thing I was was this debt chart from John B Taylor that shows how our current policy will effect the national debt.
This what you call your unsustainable debt path.
Then, there was this:
Since the crisis began, the Fed has pumped more than $800 billon into the banking system, kept the federal funds rate near zero and purchased so many Treasurys and mortgage-backed debt that the amount of assets on its balance sheets has now swollen to $2.14 trillion.
“If you think the Federal Reserve had it tough devising a strategy to rescue the U.S. economy from of the worst recession in 70 years, just wait,” wrote Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist, at the Economic Outlook Group. “We think it is going to be hellishly more complicated this time to come up with a plan that encourages growth and keeps inflation expectations well anchored.”
All of which leads directly to this:
Chinese central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan, who supervises more than two trillion dollars worth of dollar reserves, the world’s largest, raised the stakes by calling for a new reserve currency in place of the dollar.
He wanted the new reserve unit to be based on the SDR, a “special drawing right” created by the International Monetary Fund, drawing immediate support from Russia, Brazil and several other nations.
“These countries realize that they would suffer losses if inflation eroded the value of the dollar securities they own,” said Richard Cooper, a professor of international economics at Harvard University.
Here’s the problem. Because we are on an unsustainable debt path, we will eventually accrue more debt than we can possibly repay. There are many people who think that–since our debt, coupled with Social Security and Medicare obligations currently outstanding, are greater than the entire capital stock of the United States–we’re there already. We ill be unable to pay the debt, so our choices are to repudiate it outright, or to destroy the value of the currency and inflate it away, both of which amount to essentially the same thing. In doing so, the government will destroy the life savings of everyone in the country, save those that are in hard assets
The Chinese, whatever else they may be, are not stupid. they know this, and they want a new worldwide reserve currency now, before everyone realizes that the dollar is in very serious danger of becoming worthless. They don’t want to be stuck holding dollars when that happens–although their holdings in bonds will probably have to be written off.
I’ve written previously that China moved their gold reserves into the BoC a few months ago. Some international trade deals are already being denominated in gold, tool. It looks very much like the dollar’s days as the world reserve currency are numbered. In fact, the dollar’s days may very well be numbered.
And we’ve let it happen. Over the past 80 years, we’ve sat by and watched as the Fed–whose primary mission was supposed to be the stability fo the currency–has presided over a tenfold reduction in the dollar’s value. For the last 30 years, we’ve watched as the debt has mushroomed–yes, even during Bill Clinton’s presidency–and we’ve refused to either cut spending or to raise taxes to a level commensurate with our increased spending. In short, we’ve looted the system, and the looting is nearly complete now.
And now, with all the trumpetings of a coming economic recovery, the Fed has to try and figure out how to re-call the more than doubling of the monetary base we’ve engaged in in the past year without completely crashing the economy. Failure to do so, of course, means serious inflation–which will further degrade the value of the dollar.