Can’t put it any clearer than this. From the WSJ:
Fed Policy Is a Drag on Recovery
The stock market is soaring. Yet real median income has fallen 5%, unheard of for a recovery.
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker said in a speech to the Economic Club of New York on Wednesday that the Fed should not be asked to “accommodate misguided fiscal policies” and “will inevitably fall short.” He outlined a preferred monetary policy based on orthodox central banking aimed at a stable currency in order to maximize employment. “Credibility is an enormous asset,” he said. “Once earned, it must not be frittered away.” Those words are true and timely.
As this month’s stock and bond market gyrations showed, traders are obsessively focused on every nuance of the Fed’s monetary plans. Billions of dollars are at stake for Wall Street, which profits mightily from the Fed’s bond buying and cheap credit.
The problem is the broader economy’s poor performance in growth and jobs. The Fed, which was once a key proponent of market-based economic policies, has forced U.S. interest rates to near zero for four-and-a-half years with no plans to stop. It has bought nearly $3 trillion in bonds, with the express goal of channeling credit to the government, government-owned enterprises and large corporations in the hope that this will boost employment.
The Fed’s bond-market interventions probably helped during the 2008 crisis when markets had frozen, but after that the economy would have done much better without them. Recoveries are normally fast and broad once markets are allowed to clear and begin operating. Quarterly growth topped 9% in 1983 after a deep recession and 7% in 1996 leading into President Clinton’s re-election. Interest rates were high, yet median incomes were rising sharply.
Growth in the current recovery only rose above 4% once, in the fourth quarter of 2011, and averaged just 2% per year in its first four years versus 5% in the same period of the 1980s recovery, 3.2% in the 1990s recovery and 2.9% in the 2000s recovery. The underperformance over the past four years translates into more than three million jobs that should have been created but weren’t, an economic disaster that lowered real median incomes by 5%.
The disastrous state of affairs was rationalized as a “new normal” following the Great Recession, but the reality is that poor policy choices hurt growth. Tax-and-spend policies sapped investment, and the Fed’s low rates and bond purchases damaged markets, hurt savers and channeled credit to the government at the expense of job creators. It’s a zero-sum process that should be stopped because of the bad effect on growth and jobs.
Incredibly, as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke alluded to in his May 22 congressional testimony, the Fed is now angling to create a semi-permanent control dial with which the Fed can increase its $85 billion in monthly bond purchases when growth slows and reduce them if growth ever speeds up. This creates maximum uncertainty for the private sector, giving an advantage to traders, the government and the rich but hurting growth and long-term investors.
Washington thrives on the impression that the economy and markets are dependent on the Federal Reserve and deficit spending. This is the wrong lesson. More likely, past government excesses—trillions added to the national debt and the Fed’s liabilities—lowered the growth rate. The economy and markets would adjust and be better off without them.
One line of Fed criticism has emphasized money printing and an inflation risk. This is off target and, with inflation low, gives the Fed an opening to keep going. When the Fed buys bonds, it pays for them with liabilities to banks called excess reserves. There’s no creation of new money in the private sector. The M2 money supply, the measure of bank deposits often used by monetarists to anticipate inflation, is unaffected. Private-sector credit grew only 0.8% from the end of 2008 through the end of 2012, whereas credit to the government grew 58%.
Rather than money printing that turns into cash, the excess reserves are, in effect, an IOU from the Fed. Interest is paid on them and they aren’t spent or used by banks to increase lending. This distinguishes current policy from the inflationary 1960s and 1970s, when the Fed created reserves that banks used as backing for multiple loans and rapid growth in private-sector credit.
The stronger criticism is that the Fed’s policy is contractionary, harming growth. The Fed’s intention is that the low bond rates it provides the government will spill over to big corporations and banks, who in turn will help the little guy. This trickle-down monetary policy has contributed to very fast growth in corporate profits, part of the explanation for the record stock market, but also to weak GDP growth and declining middle-class incomes. The extra credit the Fed channeled to government and big corporations meant less credit elsewhere in the economy, a contractionary influence since most new jobs come from small businesses.
Still, three important developments may lift the economy despite the Fed, forcing it to taper its bond purchases and allow the recovery to accelerate. First, the Jan. 2 tax bill removed the risk of tax rate increases—on income, dividends, estates and the alternative minimum tax—that depressed growth in 2010-12. Second, most businesses are encouraged by the sequester and the idea of the government tackling spending, however clumsily. Third, private credit has started to grow, helped by thousands of new nonbank lenders. Total credit grew at a 5.6% annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2012 after contracting for much of 2009-12.
But whether the economy turns up or not, it should be clear that the Fed’s unprecedented and far-reaching monetary policy has been a drag, not a stimulus.