Free Markets, Free People

Federal Reserve

Sometimes A Picture …

Is definitely worth a thousand words.

Or a chart.

Arthur Laffer is not amused:

Here we stand more than a year into a grave economic crisis with a projected budget deficit of 13% of GDP. That’s more than twice the size of the next largest deficit since World War II. And this projected deficit is the culmination of a year when the federal government, at taxpayers’ expense, acquired enormous stakes in the banking, auto, mortgage, health-care and insurance industries.

With the crisis, the ill-conceived government reactions, and the ensuing economic downturn, the unfunded liabilities of federal programs — such as Social Security, civil-service and military pensions, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, Medicare and Medicaid — are over the $100 trillion mark. With U.S. GDP and federal tax receipts at about $14 trillion and $2.4 trillion respectively, such a debt all but guarantees higher interest rates, massive tax increases, and partial default on government promises.

But as bad as the fiscal picture is, panic-driven monetary policies portend to have even more dire consequences. We can expect rapidly rising prices and much, much higher interest rates over the next four or five years, and a concomitant deleterious impact on output and employment not unlike the late 1970s.

And what have those “panic-driven monetary policies” brought us? Well, first the picture:ed-aj638a_laffe_ns_20090609175213

The chart is certainly no laffer.

Remember, we’re being told by “experts” (*cough* Krugman *cough*) that we’ll be able to handle this with no problem, really, if we just manage it properly. A tweak here, a tweak there and bingo – no inflation.

Hmmm … let’s get a little context here, shall we?

The percentage increase in the monetary base is the largest increase in the past 50 years by a factor of 10 (see chart nearby). It is so far outside the realm of our prior experiential base that historical comparisons are rendered difficult if not meaningless. The currency-in-circulation component of the monetary base — which prior to the expansion had comprised 95% of the monetary base — has risen by a little less than 10%, while bank reserves have increased almost 20-fold. Now the currency-in-circulation component of the monetary base is a smidgen less than 50% of the monetary base.

So that means that what? Well Laffer goes into a good explanation of bank reserves and how they function, etc. etc. – bottom line, banks are going to be loaning a bunch of money, thereby injecting liquidity into the marketplace.

But.

With the present size of the monetary base, and …

With an increased trust in the overall banking system, the panic demand for money has begun to and should continue to recede. The dramatic drop in output and employment in the U.S. economy will also reduce the demand for money. Reduced demand for money combined with rapid growth in money is a surefire recipe for inflation and higher interest rates. The higher interest rates themselves will also further reduce the demand for money, thereby exacerbating inflationary pressures. It’s a catch-22.

And what does that mean could happen? Well again, we’re in uncharted territory, but the last time we had anything even similar, eh, not so good:

It’s difficult to estimate the magnitude of the inflationary and interest-rate consequences of the Fed’s actions because, frankly, we haven’t ever seen anything like this in the U.S. To date what’s happened is potentially far more inflationary than were the monetary policies of the 1970s, when the prime interest rate peaked at 21.5% and inflation peaked in the low double digits. Gold prices went from $35 per ounce to $850 per ounce, and the dollar collapsed on the foreign exchanges. It wasn’t a pretty picture.

Yeah. I remember it well. And here we are again – on steriods. So now what?

Per Laffer, the Fed must contract the money supply back to where it was plus a little increase for economic expansion. And if it can’t do that, it should increase the reserve requirement on banks to soak up the excess.

But Laffer doubts that can or will be done:

Alas, I doubt very much that the Fed will do what is necessary to guard against future inflation and higher interest rates. If the Fed were to reduce the monetary base by $1 trillion, it would need to sell a net $1 trillion in bonds. This would put the Fed in direct competition with Treasury’s planned issuance of about $2 trillion worth of bonds over the coming 12 months. Failed auctions would become the norm and bond prices would tumble, reflecting a massive oversupply of government bonds.

In addition, a rapid contraction of the monetary base as I propose would cause a contraction in bank lending, or at best limited expansion. This is exactly what happened in 2000 and 2001 when the Fed contracted the monetary base the last time. The economy quickly dipped into recession. While the short-term pain of a deepened recession is quite sharp, the long-term consequences of double-digit inflation are devastating. For Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke it’s a Hobson’s choice. For me the issue is how to protect assets for my grandchildren.

Nice.

Yes friends – we’re in the best of hands. I’m just wondering how the present administration is going to attempt the blame shifting when the inevitable happens.

~McQ

Podcast for 31 May 09

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael, Billy, and Dale discuss the economy and the Sotomayor nomination.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

The intro and outro music is Vena Cava by 50 Foot Wave, and is available for free download 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 2007, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

Juxtaposition

Compare and contrast this rehabilitation effort of Timothy Geitner:

After his hellish opening weeks, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner started inviting White House economic officials across the street to his conference room for hours-long working dinners that have helped get — and keep — the whole team on the same page.

[…]

Geithner, a former president of the New York Federal Reserve who once looked like he was floundering in one of the administration’s most scrutinized jobs, is emerging in a new position of strength with the media and the markets, just as he launches President Barack Obama’s high-stakes effort to re-regulate the nation’s financial markets.

[…]

The secretary’s advisers acknowledge that his newfound political standing is tied, in part, to the state of the economy, which is now showing early signs of improvement. But Treasury officials also have updated their playbook after his Feb. 10 speech on financial recovery, which was panned by the press and blamed for a 381-point slide in the stock market.

They decided to “let Tim be Tim” and accepted the fact that his strength wasn’t giving a speech in front of a bunch of flags. Rather, they let reporters see him in off-camera, pen-and-pad settings, where he fielded questions with the confidence that his staff saw behind the scenes. He aced an interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose, thriving in a relaxed setting where he could explain issues at length.

… with this bit of economic reality:

China has warned a top member of the US Federal Reserve that it is increasingly disturbed by the Fed’s direct purchase of US Treasury bonds.

Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, said: “Senior officials of the Chinese government grilled me about whether or not we are going to monetise the actions of our legislature.”

“I must have been asked about that a hundred times in China. I was asked at every single meeting about our purchases of Treasuries. That seemed to be the principal preoccupation of those that were invested with their surpluses mostly in the United States,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

[…]

The Oxford-educated Mr Fisher, an outspoken free-marketer and believer in the Schumpeterian process of “creative destruction”, has been running a fervent campaign to alert Americans to the “very big hole” in unfunded pension and health-care liabilities built up by a careless political class over the years.

“We at the Dallas Fed believe the total is over $99 trillion,” he said in February.

“This situation is of your own creation. When you berate your representatives or senators or presidents for the mess we are in, you are really berating yourself. You elect them,” he said.

His warning comes amid growing fears that America could lose its AAA sovereign rating.

I guess since the media tried to talk down the economy for the previous eight years, they may as well try and talk it up now that their boy is in the White House. The shame of it is that as the economy worsens, a lot of people are going to be shocked.

“Bernanke Bucks” And The Danger Of Hyper-Inflation

I saw the following two quotes in a Patrick J. Buchanan piece. Now I’m not much of a Buchanan person by any stretch, but the quotes resonated with me and I found myself agreeing with much of what Buchanan said.

“The first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency; the second is war. Both bring a temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin. But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists.” –Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway wasn’t an economist, but there are plenty out there consider John Maynard Keynes a fairly good one, even now. And he said much the same thing about the economic side of the Hemingway quote:

“The best way to destroy the capitalist system is to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.”

Right now, in lieu of dollars, our Federal Reserve is in the midst of printing trillions of “Bernanke Bucks”. I hesitate to call them dollars, even though they’re similar in their look and feel. But in essence they are worth little more than the paper they’re printed on. And although you can’t tell them from the dollars circulating out there, their presence makes the those dollars worth less. The more BB’s there are out there, the less the remaining dollars are worth.

It is called “monetizing the debt”.

Or to pick up on Keyne’s point, we’re right in the middle of debauching our currency.

Now, there are several reasons for doing what is being done, and you may or may not agree with them. But it really doesn’t matter. Whether you agree or disagree, printing money for the right reasons or the wrong reasons still has the same effect.

If you think taxation is theft, inflation is no less than that. And in this case it is a calculated theft. Those printing the “Bernanke Bucks” know precisely what the effect on your net worth will be.

Buchanan concludes his piece pointing out what we’ve talked about here for months – this is all about the belief we can avoid the pain:

Yet one senses that we are doing again exactly what we have done before in this generation. Rather than endure the pain and accept the sacrifices to cure us of our addiction, we are going back to the heroin. And this time, with Dr. Bernanke handling the needle, we may just overdose.

The road to hyper-inflation is paved with good, but seriously misguided intentions.

~McQ