The Guardian view on central bankers: growing power and limited success

I am now somewhat sceptical of the success of a merely monetary policy directed towards influencing the rate of interest. I expect to see the State, which is in a position to calculate the marginal efficiency of capital-goods on long views and on the basis of the general social advantage, taking an ever greater responsibility for directly organising investment.

– John Maynard Keynes

This editorial by The Guardian points out the futilities of current central banking policy around the world. Unfortunately, they only get it half right: the prescience of Keynes’s first sentence is only matched by the absurdity of his second sentence. Calculate the marginal efficiency of capital? Directing investment? Solyndra anyone? The captured State is the primary problem of politicized credit…

Reprinted from The Guardian, Thursday 25 August 2016

To find the true centre of power in today’s politics, ignore the sweaty press releases from select committees, look past the upcoming party conferences – and, for all our sakes, pay no mind to the seat allocations on the 11am Virgin train to Newcastle. Look instead to the mountains of Wyoming, and the fly-fishers’ paradise of Jackson Hole.

Over the next couple of days, the people who set interest rates for the world’s major economies will meet here to discuss the global outlook – but it’s no mere talking shop. What’s said here matters: when the head of the US Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, speaks on Friday, the folk who manage our pension funds will take a break from the beach reads to check their smartphones for instant takes.

This year the scrutiny will be more widespread and particularly intense. Since the 2008 crash, what central bankers say and do has moved from the City pages to the front page. That is logical, given that the Bank of England created £375bn of new money through quantitative easing in the four years after 2009 and has just begun buying £70bn of IOUs from the government and big business. But the power and prominence of central banks today is also deeply worrying. For one, their multibillion-pound interventions have had only limited success – and it is doubtful that throwing more billions around will work much better. For another, politicians are compelling them to play a central role in our politics, even though they are far less accountable to voters. This is politics in the garb of technocracy.

Next month is the eighth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Since then the US central bank has bought $3.7tn (£2.8tn) of bonds. [Note: We’re going on $4 trillion of free money pumped into the financial sector, folks] All the major central banks have cut rates; according to the Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, global interest rates are at their lowest in 5,000 years. Despite this, the world economy is, in his description, “stuck”. This government boasts of the UK’s recovery, but workers have seen a 10% drop in real wages since the end of 2007 – matched among developed economies only by Greece. Fuelling the popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is the fact that the US is suffering one of the slowest and weakest recoveries in recent history. In April, the IMF described the state of the global economy as “Too Slow for Too Long”.

Having thrown everything they had at the world economy, all central bankers have to show is the most mediocre of score sheets. When it comes to monetary policy, the old cliche almost fits: you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it avail itself of super-low interest rates to kickstart a sustainable recovery. Two forces appear to be at work. First, monetary policy has been used by politicians as a replacement for fiscal policy on spending and taxes, when it should really be complementary. Second, major economies – such as Britain after Thatcher’s revolution – have become so unequal and lopsided that vast wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few who use it for speculation rather than productive investment. QE has pushed up the price of Mayfair flats and art by Damien Hirst. It has done next to nothing for graphene in Manchester. [Does it take a rocket scientist to figure this out?]

All this was foreseen by Keynes in his General Theory: “I am now somewhat sceptical of the success of a merely monetary policy directed towards influencing the rate of interest. I expect to see the State, which is in a position to calculate the marginal efficiency of capital-goods on long views and on the basis of the general social advantage, taking an ever greater responsibility for directly organising investment.”

Eighty years on, it is time those words were heeded by policymakers. In Britain, that means using state-owned banks such as RBS and Lloyds to direct loans to those industries and parts of the country that elected and accountable politicians see as being in need. Couple that with a tax system that rewards companies on how much value they add to the British economy, and the UK might finally be back in business.

The State, run by the political class and their technocrats? Yikes!!! Will we ever learn?

Helicopter Money

Central bank “Helicopter Money” is to the economy what helicopter parents are to their unfortunate children. This from Bloomberg View:

`Helicopter Money’ Is Coming to the U.S.

Aug 5, 2016 5:41 AM EDT

Several years of rock-bottom interest rates around the world haven’t been all bad. They’ve helped reduce government borrowing costs, for sure. Central banks also send back to their governments most of the interest received on assets purchased through quantitative-easing programs. Governments essentially are paying interest to themselves.

What is Helicopter Money? 

Since the beginning of their quantitative-easing activities, the Federal Reserve has returned $596 billion to the U.S. Treasury and the Bank of England has given back $47 billion. This cozy relationship between central banks and their governments resembles “helicopter money,” the unconventional form of stimulus that some central banks may be considering as a way to spur economic growth.

I’m looking for more such helicopter money — fiscal stimulus applied directly to the U.S. economy and financed by the Fed –no matter who wins the Presidential election in November.

It’s called helicopter money because of the illusion of dumping currency from the sky to people who will rapidly spend it, thereby creating demand, jobs and economic growth. Central banks can raise and lower interest rates and buy and sell securities, but that’s it. They can thereby make credit cheap and readily available, yet they can’t force banks to lend and consumers and businesses to borrow, spend and invest. That undermines the effectiveness of QE; as the proverb says, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

Furthermore, developed-country central banks purchase government securities on open markets, not from governments directly. You might ask: “What’s the difference between the Treasury issuing debt in the market and the Fed buying it, versus the Fed buying securities directly from the Treasury?” The difference is that the open market determines the prices of Treasuries, not the government or the central bank. The market intervenes between the two, which keeps the government from shoving huge quantities of debt directly onto the central bank without a market-intervening test. This enforces central bank discipline and maintains credibility.

In contrast, direct sales to central banks have been the normal course of government finance in places like Zimbabwe and Argentina. It often leads to hyperinflation and financial disaster. (I keep a 100-trillion Zimbabwe dollar bank note, issued in 2008, which was worth only a few U.S. cents as inflation rates there accelerated to the hundreds-of-million-percent level. Now it sells for several U.S. dollars as a collector’s item, after the long-entrenched and corrupt Zimbabwean government switched to U.S. dollars and stopped issuing its own currency.)

Argentina was excluded from borrowing abroad after defaulting in 2001. Little domestic funding was available and the Argentine government was unwilling to reduce spending to cut the deficit. So it turned to the central bank, which printed 4 billion pesos in 2007 (then worth about $1.3 billion). That increased to 159 billion pesos in 2015, equal to 3 percent of gross domestic product. Not surprisingly, inflation skyrocketed to about 25 percent last year, up from 6 percent in 2009.

To be sure, the independence of most central banks from their governments is rarely clear cut. It’s become the norm in peacetime, but not during times of war, when government spending shoots up and the resulting debt requires considerable central-bank assistance. That was certainly true during World War II, when the U.S. money supply increased by 25 percent a year. The Federal Reserve was the handmaiden of the U.S. government in financing spending that far exceeded revenue.

Today, developed countries are engaged not in shooting wars but wars against chronically slow economic growth. So the belief in close coordination between governments and central banks in spurring economic activity is back in vogue — thus helicopter money.

All of the QE activity over the past several years by the Fed, the Bank of England, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan and others has failed to significantly revive economic growth. U.S. economic growth in this recovery has been the weakest of any post-war recovery. Growth in Japan has been minimal, and economies in the U.K. and the euro area remain under pressure.

The U.K.’s exit from the European Union may well lead to a recession in Britain and the EU as slow growth turns negative. A downturn could spread globally if financial disruptions are severe. This would no doubt ensure a drop in crude oil prices to the $10 to $20 a barrel level that I forecast in February 2015. This, too, would generate considerable financial distress, given the highly leveraged condition of the energy sector.

Both U.S. political parties seem to agree that funding for infrastructure projects is needed, given the poor state of American highways, ports, bridges and the like. And a boost in defense spending may also be in the works, especially if Republicans retain control of Congress and win the White House.

Given the “mad as hell” attitude of many voters in Europe and the U.S., on the left and the right, don’t be surprised to see a new round of fiscal stimulus financed by helicopter money, whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is the next president.

Major central bank helicopter money is a fact of life in war time — and that includes the current global war on slower growth. Conventional monetary policy is impotent and voters in Europe and North America are screaming for government stimulus. I just hope it doesn’t set a precedent and continue after rapid growth resumes — otherwise, the fragile independence of major central banks could go the way of those in banana republics.