…Aren’t Presidential Candidates Talking About the Federal Reserve?

Yes, why? Much of our economic and financial lives are being guided by an unelected board of Federal Reserve governors who have been flying blind for about 8 years now…manipulating interest rates and asset markets to what end? Nobody seems to know, except to try to prevent a financial reckoning for previous misguided policies. A less charitable interpretation is the financial industry’s desire to keep the casino open as the only game in town.

By Jordan Haedtler

In an election fueled by populist anger and dominated by talk of economic insecurity, why aren’t any of the presidential candidates talking about the Federal Reserve?

After nearly a decade of high unemployment, severe racial and gender disparities and wage stagnation, voters are heading to the ballot box in pursuit of a fairer economy with less rampant inequality. In California and New York, low-wage workers are celebrating historic agreements to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. And the economy and jobs consistently rank among the top concerns expressed by voters of all political stripes.

One government institution reigns supreme in its ability to influence wages, jobs and overall economic growth, yet leading candidates for president have barely discussed it at all. The Federal Reserve is the most important economic policymaking institution in the country, and it is critical that voters hear how candidates plan to reform and interact with the Fed.

Related: The Federal Reserve Bank, Explained [Well, kind of.]

The Fed too often epitomizes the problems with our economy and democracy over which voters are voicing frustration: Commercial banks literally own much of the Fed and are using it to enrich themselves at the expense of the American working and middle class. When Wall Street recklessness crashed the economy in 2008, American families paid the price.

At the time, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon sat on the board of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, which stepped in during the crisis to save Dimon’s firm and so many other banks on the verge of collapse. Although the Fed’s actions helped Wall Street recover, that recovery never translated to Main Street, where jobs and wage growth stagnated.

Commercial banks should not govern the very institution that oversees them. It’s a scandal that continues to threaten the Fed’s credibility. An analysis conducted earlier this year by my parent organization, The Center for Popular Democracy, showed that employees of financial firms continue to hold key posts at regional Federal Reserve banks and that leadership throughout the Federal Reserve System remains overwhelmingly white and male and draws disproportionately from the corporate and financial world.


When the Fed voted in December to raise interest rates for the first time in nearly a decade, the decision was largely driven by regional Bank presidents — the very policymakers who are chosen by corporate and financial interests. In 2015, the Fed filled three vacant regional president position, and all three were filled with individuals with strong ties to Goldman Sachs; next year, 4 of the 5 regional presidents voting on monetary policy will be former Goldman Sachs insiders. Can we trust these blue-chip bankers to address working Americans’ concerns?

Yet despite the enormous power it wields and the glaring problems it continues to exemplify, the Fed has received little attention this election cycle. As noted by Reuters last week, two of the remaining candidates for president, Hillary Clinton and John Kasich, have been mute on what they would do about the central bank. Donald Trump’s sporadic statements about the Fed have been characteristically short on details, prompting former Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Narayana Kocherlakota to call for Clinton, Trump and all presidential candidates to clarify exactly how they plan to oversee the Fed’s management of the economy. Ted Cruz has piped up about the Fed on a few occasions, although his vocal endorsement of “sound money” and other policies that contributed to the Great Depression warrant clarification. [One expects that none of the candidates really understand the arcana of central banking and prefer to leave well enough alone.]

The most detailed Fed reform proposal from a presidential candidate to date was a December New York Times op-ed in which Bernie Sanders wrote that “an institution that was created to serve all Americans has been hijacked by the very bankers it regulates,” and urged vital reforms to the Fed’s governance structure.

On Monday, Dartmouth economist Andy Levin, a 20-year Fed staffer and former senior adviser to Fed Chair Janet Yellen and her predecessor Ben Bernanke, unveiled a bold proposal to reform the Federal Reserve and make it a truly transparent, publicly accountable institution that responds to the needs of working families. [That’s pretty vague, as the interests of all are best served by a monetary policy that insures the stability of the price level and value of the currency as a unit of exchange and store of value. Employment growth is best addressed through fiscal policy.]

The New York primary provides a perfect opportunity for the remaining presidential candidates to tell us what they think about the Federal Reserve. Candidates in both parties should specify whether they support Levin’s proposals, and if not, articulate their preferred approach for our federal government’s most opaque but essential institution.

As Trump, Cruz and Kasich gear up for a potentially decisive primary, they would do well to respond to the many calls for clarity on the Fed. And on Thursday night, Sanders and Clinton will have the chance to clarify their stances on the Fed when they debate in Brooklyn, just a few miles away from Wall Street and the global financial epicenter that is the New York Federal Reserve Bank.

As New York voters get ready to decide which of the remaining candidates would make the best president, they will be asking themselves which candidate will better handle the economy. The candidates’ positions on the Fed must be part of the equation.

Over Fed

Bernanke Spinning the Roulette Wheel

The central bank did its job. What about everyone else?

In today’s Wall St. Journal, former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke offered up this generous performance review of his stint leading monetary policy after the financial crisis (appended below).

Bernanke assertions regarding unemployment and inflation are questionable on both fronts. First, misguided monetary policy has made a mess of full productive resource utilization. Fed policies such as ZIRP and QE4ever distort relative prices and lead to uncertainty of fundamental valuations over time. Thus, investment time horizons and commitments are shortened (who lends out 30 years now at a fixed rate of interest?). Second, the misallocation of resources leads to increased malinvestment (see housing), portending even more dislocations and corrections in the future. The Fed’s fantasies are further aided by distorted statistical measures like “core inflation” and unemployment. The labor participation rate is weak and weakening and the real growth rate is anemic – that is a true lasting drag on Americans’ well-being. All of this will eventually be borne out by empirical studies, proving the ineffectiveness of global central bank policy.

What the Fed has really accomplished is to let the politicians off the hook by accommodating their dereliction of duty over productive fiscal policy. If economic headline statistics had threatened re-election chances, maybe the executive and legislatures would have stopped playing petty power games and gotten down to the business of governing the nation. This is Washington D.C. at work.

How the Fed Saved the Economy

Full employment without inflation is in sight. The central bank did its job. What about everyone else?

By Ben S. Bernanke

Oct. 4, 2015

For the first time in nearly a decade, the Federal Reserve is considering raising its target interest rate, which would end a long period of near-zero rates. Like the cessation of large-scale asset purchases in October 2014, that action will be an important milestone in the unwinding of extraordinary monetary policies, adopted during my tenure as Fed chairman, to help the economy recover from a historic financial crisis. As such, it’s a good time to evaluate the results of those measures, and to consider where policy makers should go from here.

To begin, it’s essential to be clear on what monetary policy can and cannot achieve. Fed critics sometimes argue that you can’t “print your way to prosperity,” and I agree, at least on one level. The Fed has little or no control over long-term economic fundamentals—the skills of the workforce, the energy and vision of entrepreneurs, and the pace at which new technologies are developed and adapted for commercial use.

What the Fed can do is two things: First, by mitigating recessions, monetary policy can try to ensure that the economy makes full use of its resources, especially the workforce. High unemployment is a tragedy for the jobless, but it is also costly for taxpayers, investors and anyone interested in the health of the economy. Second, by keeping inflation low and stable, the Fed can help the market-based system function better and make it easier for people to plan for the future. Considering the economic risks posed by deflation, as well as the probability that interest rates will approach zero when inflation is very low, the Fed sets an inflation target of 2%, similar to that of most other central banks around the world.

How has monetary policy scored on these two criteria? Reasonable people can disagree on whether the economy is at full employment. The 5.1% headline unemployment rate would suggest that the labor market is close to normal. Other indicators—the relatively low labor-force participation rate, the apparent lack of wage pressures, for example—indicate that there is some distance left to go.

But there is no doubt that the jobs situation is today far healthier than it was a few years ago. That improvement (as measured by the unemployment rate) has been quicker than expected by most economists, both inside and outside the Fed.

On the inflation front, various measures suggest that underlying inflation is around 1.5%. That is somewhat below the 2% target, a situation the Fed needs to remedy. But if there is a problem with inflation, it isn’t the one expected by the Fed’s critics, who repeatedly predicted that the Fed’s policies would lead to high inflation (if not hyperinflation), a collapsing dollar and surging commodity prices. None of that has happened.

It is instructive to compare recent U.S. economic performance with that of Europe, a major industrialized economy of similar size. There are many differences between the U.S. and Europe, but a critical one is that Europe’s economic orthodoxy has until recently largely blocked the use of monetary or fiscal policy to aid recovery. Economic philosophy, not feasibility, is the constraint: Greece might have limited options, but Germany and several other countries don’t. And the European Central Bank has broader monetary powers than the Fed does.

Europe’s failure to employ monetary and fiscal policy aggressively after the financial crisis is a big reason that eurozone output is today about 0.8% below its pre-crisis peak. In contrast, the output of the U.S. economy is 8.9% above the earlier peak—an enormous difference in performance. In November 2010, when the Fed undertook its second round of quantitative easing, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble reportedly called the action “clueless.” At the time, the unemployment rates in Europe and the U.S. were 10.2% and 9.4%, respectively. Today the U.S. jobless rate is close to 5%, while the European rate has risen to 10.9%.

Six years after the Fed, the ECB has begun an aggressive program of quantitative easing, and European fiscal policy has become less restrictive. Given those policy shifts, it isn’t surprising that the European outlook appears to be improving, though it will take years to recover the growth lost over the past few years. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is enjoying a solid recovery, in large part because the Bank of England pursued monetary policies similar to the Fed’s in both timing and relative magnitude.

It is encouraging to see that the U.S. economy is approaching full employment with low inflation, the goals for which the Fed has been striving. That certainly doesn’t mean all is well. Jobs are being created, but overall growth is modest, reflecting subpar gains in productivity and slow labor-force growth, among other factors. The benefits of growth aren’t shared equally, and as a result many Americans have seen little improvement in living standards. These, unfortunately, aren’t problems that the Fed has the power to alleviate. [Does Mr. Bernanke really think Fed policies have had a benign effect on these trends?]

With full employment in sight, further economic growth will have to come from the supply side, primarily from increases in productivity. That means that the Fed will continue to do what it can, but monetary policy can no longer be the only game in town. Fiscal-policy makers in Congress need to step up. As a country, we need to do more to improve worker skills, foster capital investment and support research and development. Monetary policy can accomplish a lot, but, as I often said as Fed chairman, it is no panacea. New efforts both inside and outside government will be essential to sustaining U.S. growth.

Bernanke prayer

Economic Thrill Rides


The following is excerpted from an editorial in Barron’s by Thomas Donlan. (Full article Barrons. Subscription req’d)

Central planning that is intended to eliminate chaos eventually creates it. As Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom, state economic planning is unavoidably arbitrary: “The more the state plans, the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.”

Among many examples of this principle: If a government tweaks money supply to hit targets for interest rates and exchange rates, it will provide stability in those things, but the economy will fluctuate. Or, if the government tries to guarantee general economic growth, as measured by employment, gross domestic product, consumer confidence, business investment, or all of them, rates of interest and exchange will fluctuate. Either way, the economy will be under control of an unstable, unpredictable thing that seeks order instead of liberty, and so can deliver neither.

We should see in the recent market chaos the economic chaos created by planning — not just in China but in the U.S. and Europe, as well. Markets are trying to follow political orders. In China, the government wanted to let markets have more influence over the value of money, until it observed the results and ordered a devaluation. In Europe, the promise to do “whatever it takes” to stabilize a rickety monetary union has perpetuated chaos.

Naturally, markets gyrate under pressure of the sort generated by the president of the New York Federal Reserve. From one side of his desk, he said he still hopes that the Fed will raise interest rates this year, while from the other side, he observed that the case for a rise “seems less compelling.”

The great danger in a market tremor is what people do about it. China, the U.S., and Europe have given too much power to their monetary authorities, relying on central bankers to sail against the winds of economic change. They believe economies respond predictably to tinkering with money markets.

Actually, economies respond to stimuli with booms and to tightening with busts, unless they don’t. As economist Ed Yardeni suggested at midweek, perhaps with tongue in cheek, “Another 2008 crisis is imminent eventually.”

All over the world, there are people who imagine themselves to be masters of the material universe. They are the greatest threat to liberty and prosperity.

I have been arguing for some time that this is how we should understand economic policy over the past 30+ years, often referred to as the Great Moderation. We’ve tried to guarantee economic growth as measured by nominal GDP, interest rates, employment, and price stability as measured by the CPI. The result has caused asset prices such as commodities, exchange rates, real estate, and precious metals to fluctuate quite widely and wildly.

Asset price fluctuations impose their own costs on people, often with arbitrary effects, like when you are forced to buy or sell a house (see chart below). Asset price support by the Fed has also greatly enriched those who own more assets, widening the economic inequality gaps. It is hardly an ideal state of affairs, nor one that can easily be justified on philosophical grounds.

Housing index

Welcome to the Fed’s Casino


“What Happens in the Fed’s Vegas …Spreads Everywhere.”

The article below focuses on the role of traders as the middle men between buyers and sellers of financial securities and the inefficiencies they generate from excessive churning. But trading volatility occurs in the context of a much larger issue of winners and losers in capital markets and society at large. Not only is trading excessive, but the swings in asset prices are creating massive winners and losers with arbitrary outcomes while enriching a winner-take-all circle of financial wealth that can buy up and shape our politics and regulatory policy.

These are the kinds of things that raise hackles among average Americans, but if we wish to fix the problem the more important question is how and why this has happened. It is a direct result of the Fed’s monetary policy and our governments’ fiscal policies in the face of a changing global economy. As I have explained in a previous post, Banking Vegas-Style, the focus of all macroeconomic policy on stabilizing headline statistics such as GDP growth, unemployment, and inflation has led to much greater price volatility in asset markets.

Economists refer to the past 35 years as The Great Moderation, denoting the reduction in the volatility of business cycle fluctuations starting in the mid-1980s. But to stabilize GDP growth with monetary liquidity means that excess liquidity must lead to productive investment. This is predominantly what happened with technology investment during the 1990s. But eventually excess credit leads to malinvestment and the misallocation of resources (Pets.com?). This is reflected in the volatility of asset prices, as we saw reflected in currency crises, the dotcom crash,  commodity and housing bubbles during this same period we refer to as The Great Moderation. Others mark this time as the transition to the Bubble Economy.

The  data that most reveals what has happened has been the explosion in trading and the transformation of capital markets into asset price casinos dominated by hedge funds, private equity, and big banking conglomerates. In other words, our policies created the hedge fund industry with currency volatility, credit bubbles and crunches, housing bubbles and crashes, commodity bubbles and crashes, and Too Big to Fail banks.

Think about it. If prices don’t move in wild gyrations, there is almost no money to be made from constant trading. Instead we’ve turned such markets into casino gambling dens.

So, should this all be a surprise to our policymakers?

Legendary Fund Manager John Bogle Calls Wall Street’s Number—–99% Of Trading ($32 Trillion/Year) Is A Waste

by MITCH TUCHMAN @  • July 30, 2015

An astonishing $32 trillion in securities changes hands every year with no net positive impact for investors, charges Vanguard Group Founder John Bogle.

Meanwhile, corporate finance — the reason Wall Street exists — is just a tiny slice of the total business. The nation’s big investment banks probably could work for less than a week and take the rest of the year off with no real effect on the economy.

The job of finance is to provide capital to companies. We do it to the tune of $250 billion a year in IPOs and secondary offerings,” Bogle told Time in an interview. “What else do we do? We encourage investors to trade about $32 trillion a year. So the way I calculate it, 99% of what we do in this industry is people trading with one another, with a gain only to the middleman. It’s a waste of resources.”

Rent seekers

It’s a lot of money, $32 trillion. Nearly double the entire U.S. economy moving from one pocket to another, with a toll-taker in the middle. Most people refer to them as “stock brokers,” but let’s call them what they are — toll-takers and rent-seekers.

Rent-seeking as an occupation is as old as the hills. In exchange for working to build up credentials and relative fluency in the arcane rules of an industry, one gets to stand back from actual work and just collect money.

Ostensibly, the job of a financial adviser is to provide advice. Do you actually get that from your broker? It is worth anything?

Research shows, over and over, that stock brokers can’t do much of anything demonstrably valuable. They don’t know which stocks will go up or down and when. They don’t know which asset classes will outperform this year or next.

Nobody knows. That’s the point. If you’re among that small cadre of extremely high-level traders who can throw loads of cash at a short-term fluke, fantastic. If you have a mind for numbers like Warren Buffett that allows you to buy companies on the cheap and hold them forever, excellent.

If you’re a normal retirement investor trying to get from A to B and retire on time, well, you have a really big problem to face: The toll-taker wants your money.

Dead weight

So he needs you to trade — a lot. Because that’s how stock brokers make money. Not by doling out retirement advice, but by ensuring that your account is active and churning commissions on behalf of them and their employers.

What’s a highway with no traffic on it? If you’re a toll-taker, it’s a money loser. So Wall Street’s rent-seekers need traffic in the form of regular trading. An account that sits invested for months at a time with no trades is dead weight to them.

Nevertheless, as Bogle maintains, doing nothing is the key. “Don’t do something, just stand there!” he has often said.

A portfolio indexing approach to investing codifies Bogle’s time-tested and effective way of investing for retirement — without lining the pockets of toll-taking stock brokers along the way.

The Greek Tragedy Enters the 3rd Act

stock_market_bubbleDavid Stockman will be wrong until he’s right.

The only thing in this utterly broken “market” which is really priced-in is an unshakeable confidence that any disturbance to the upward march of asset prices will be quickly, decisively and reliably countermanded by central bank action.

It Is NOT Priced-In, Stupid!

by  • July 6, 2015

Among all the mindless blather served up by the talking heads of bubblevision is the recurrent claim that “its all priced-in”. That is, there is no danger of a serious market correction because anything which might imply trouble ahead—-such as weak domestic growth, stalling world trade or Grexit——is already embodied in stock market prices.

Yep, those soaring averages are already fully risk-adjusted!

So the “oxi” that came screaming unexpectedly out of Greece Sunday evening will undoubtedly be explained away before the NYSE closes on Monday. Nothing to see here, it will be argued. Today’s plunge is just another opportunity for those who get it to “buy-the-dip”.

And they might well be right in the very short-run. But this time the outbreak of volatility is different. This time the dip buyers will be carried out on their shields.

Here’s why. The whole priced-in meme presumes that nothing has really changed in the financial markets during the last three decades. The latter is still just the timeless machinery of capitalist price discovery at work. Traders and investors in their tens-of-thousands are purportedly diligently engaged in sifting, sorting, dissecting and discounting the massive, continuous flows of incoming information that bears on future corporate profits and the present value thereof.

That presumption is dead wrong. The age of Keynesian central banking has destroyed all the essential elements upon which vibrant, honest price discovery depends. These include short-sellers which insure disciplined two-way markets; carry costs which are high enough to discourage rampant leveraged speculation; money market uncertainty that is palpable enough to inhibit massive yield curve arbitrage; option costs which are burdensome enough to deny fast money gamblers access to cheap downside portfolio insurance; and flexible, mobilized interest rates which enable imbalances of supply and demand for investable funds to be decisively cleared.

Not one of these conditions any longer exists. The shorts are dead, money markets interest rates are pegged and frozen, downside puts are practically free and carry trade gambling is biblical in extent and magnitude.

So a vibrant market of atomized competition in the gathering and assessment of information relevant to the honest pricing of financial assets has been replaced by what amounts to caribou soccer. That is, the game that six-year old boys and girls play when the chase the soccer ball around the field in one concentrated, squealing pack.

The soccer ball in this instance, alas, is the central banks. Until Sunday the herd of speculators was in full rampage chasing the liquidity, word clouds and promises of free money and market “puts” with blind, unflinching confidence.

The only thing in this utterly broken “market” which was really priced-in, therefore, was an unshakeable confidence that any disturbance to the upward march of asset prices would be quickly, decisively and reliably countermanded by central bank action. But now an altogether different kind of disturbance has erupted. It is one that does not emanate from short-term “price action” of the market or an unexpected macroeconomic hiccup or lend itself to another central bank hat trick.

Instead, the Greferendum amounts to a giant fracture in the apparatus of state power on which the entire rotten regime of financialization is anchored. That is, falsified financial prices, massive, fraudulent monetization of the public debt and egregious and continuous bailouts of private speculator losses, mistakes and reckless gambling sprees.

What has transpired in a relative heartbeat is that one of the four central banks of the world that matter is suddenly on the ropes. In the hours and days ahead, the ECB will be battered by desperate actions emanating from Athens, as it struggles with a violent meltdown of its banking and payments system; and it will be simultaneously stymied and paralyzed by an outbreak of public confusion, contention and recrimination among the politicians and apparatchiks who run the machinery of the Eurozone and ECB superstate.

Yes, the Fed will reconfirm its hundreds of billions of dollar swap lines with the ECB, and the BOJ and the Peoples Printing Press of China will redouble their efforts to prop-up their own faltering stock markets and to contain the “contagion” emanating from the Eurozone.

But this time there is a decent chance that even the concerted central banks of the world will not be able to contain the panic. That’s because the blind confidence of the caribou soccer players will be sorely tested by the possibility that the ECB will be exposed as impotent in the face of a cascading crisis in the euro debt markets.

Here are the tells. If the Syriza government has any sense it will nationalize the Greek banking system immediately; replace the head of the Greek central bank with a pliant ally; refuse to heed any ECB call for collection of the dubious collateral that stands behind its $120 billion in ELA and other advances; and print ten euro notes until the plates on the Greek central bank’s printing presses literally melts-down.

If the Greeks seize their banking system and monetary machinery from their ECB suzerains in this manner—- out of desperate need to stop the asphyxiation of their economy—– those actions will trigger, in turn, pandemonium in the PIIGS bond markets. From there it would be only a short step to an existential crisis in Frankfurt and unprecedented, fractious conflict between Berlin, Paris, Rome and Madrid.

Either all of the Eurozone governments fall in line almost instantly in favor of a massive up-sizing of the ECBs bond buying campaign to stop the run on peripheral bond markets, or the Draghi “whatever it takes” miracle will be obliterated in a selling stampede that will expose the naked truth. Namely, that the whole thing since mid-2012 was a front-runners con job in which the ECB temporarily rented speculator balance sheets in order to prime the PIIGS bond buying pump, thereby luring the infinitely stupid and gullible managers of bank, insurance and mutual fund portfolios into loading up on the drastically over-valued public debt of the Eurozone’s fiscal cripples.

Needless to say, there is likely to emerge a flurry of leaks and trial balloons from the desperate precincts of Brussels, Berlin and Frankfurt. These will be designed to encourage the Greeks to leave their banking system hostage to “cooperation” with their paymasters, and to persuade traders that Draghi has been greenlighted to buy up the PIIGS debt hand-over-fist——-and to do so without regard to the pro-rata capital key under which the current program is straight-jacketed.

But that assumes that the Germans, Dutch and Finns capitulate to an open-ended and frenzied bond-buying campaign that would make the BOJ’s current madness look tame by comparison. Yet if they do, its only a matter of time before the euro goes into a terminal tail-spin. And if they don’t, collapsing euro debt prices will infect the entire global bond market in a tidal wave of contagion.

Either way, its not priced-in. That’s been the real stupid trade all along.

The Warren Buffett Economy


This is an interesting series of posts from David Stockman’s blog. This is Part 4 of 6 – the others can be found here. Stockman gives a concise overview of recent history to explain how we arrived at the point we are today. The old saying that “the road to ruin is paved with good intentions” seems appropriate here.

The Warren Buffett Economy——Why Its Days Are Numbered (Part 4)

By David Stockman

http://research.stlouisfed.org/fredgraph.jpg?hires=1&type=image/jpeg&chart_type=line&recession_bars=on&log_scales=&bgcolor=%23e1e9f0&graph_bgcolor=%23ffffff&fo=verdana&ts=12&tts=12&txtcolor=%23444444&show_legend=yes&show_axis_titles=yes&drp=0&cosd=1988-01-01&coed=2013-01-01&height=330&stacking=&range=Custom&mode=fred&id=MEHOINUSA672N&transformation=lin&nd=&ost=-99999&oet=99999&lsv=&lev=&scale=left&line_color=%234572a7&line_style=solid&lw=2&mark_type=none&mw=2&mma=0&fml=a&fgst=lin&fgsnd=2007-12-01&fq=Annual&fam=avg&vintage_date=&revision_date=&width=670As documented in Parts 1-3 (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), the Fed has generated a $50 trillion financial bubble since Alan Greenspan took the helm in August 1987. After 27 years, honest price discovery has been destroyed, thereby reducing the nerve centers of capitalism—-the money and capital markets—-to little more than gambling casinos.

Accordingly, speculative rent-seeking in the financial arena has replaced enterprenurial innovation and supply side investment and productivity as the modus operandi of the US economy. This has resulted in a severe diminution of main street growth and a massive redistribution of windfall wealth to the tiny share of households which own most of the financial assets. Warren Buffett’s $73 billion net worth is the poster boy for this untoward state of affairs.

The massive and systematic falsification of asset prices which lies at the heart of this deformation of capitalism is a direct and unavoidable consequence of monetary central planning. That is, the pursuit of Keynesian business cycle management and stimulus through central bank interest rate pegging and massive monetization of existing public debt and other securities—-especially since the latter has no purpose other than to artificially goose the price of bonds and lower their yields; and also via other indirect  methods of financial asset levitation such as the Greenspan/Bernanke/Yellen doctrine of wealth effects and the implicit central bank “put” which underpins the economics of buy-the-dip speculators.

As previously indicated, the Keynesian bathtub model of a closed, volumetrically driven economy is a throwback to specious theories about the inherent business cycle instabilities of market capitalism that originated during the Great Depression. These theories were wrong then, but utterly irrelevant in today’s globally open and technologically dynamic post-industrial economy.

As reviewed in Part 3, the very idea that 12 people sitting on the FOMC can adroitly manipulate an economic ether called “aggregate demand” by means of falsifying market interest rates is a bad joke when in it comes to that part of “potential GDP” comprised of goods production capacity. In today’s world of open trade and massive excess industrial capacity, the Fed can do exactly nothing to cause the domestic steel industry’s capacity utilization rate to be 90% or 65%.

It all depends upon the marginal cost of labor, capital and materials in the vastly oversized global steel market. Indeed, the only thing that the denizens of the monetary politburo can do about capacity utilization in any domestic industry is to re-read Keynes’s 1930 essay in favor of homespun goods and weep!

As I detailed in the Great Deformation, the Great Thinker actually came out for stringent protectionism and economic autarky six years before he published the General  Theory and for good and logical reasons that his contemporary followers choose to completely ignore. Namely, protectionism and autarky are an absolutely necessary correlate to state management of the business cycle and related efforts to improve upon the unguided results generated by business, labor and investors on the free market.  Indeed, Keynes took special care to make sure that his works were always translated into German, and averred that Nazi Germany was the ideal test bed for his economic remedies.

Eighty years on from Keynes’ incomprehensible ode to statist economics and thorough-going protectionism, the idea of state management of the business cycle in one country is even more preposterous. Potential labor supply is a function of the global labor cost curve and now comes in atomized form as hours, gigs, and temp agency contractual bits, not census bureau headcounts.

In fact, the Census Bureau survey takers and the BLS numbers crunchers have not the foggiest idea as to what the real world’s potential labor force computes to, and how much of it is deployed on any given day, month or quarter. Accordingly, printing money and pegging interest rates in pursuit of “full employment”, which is the essence of the Yellen version of monetary central planning, is completely nonsensical.

Likewise, the Fed’s current “soft” target of 5.2% on the U-3 unemployment rate is downright ridiculous. When in the year 2015 you have 93 million adults not in the labor force—-of which only half are retired and receiving social security benefits(OASI)—-and a U-3 computational method that counts as “employed” anyone who works only a few hour per week—-then what you have in the resulting fraction is noise, pure and simple. The U-3 unemployment rate as a proxy for full employment does not even make it as primitive grade school economics.

At the present time, there are 210 million adult Americans between the ages of 16 and 68—to take a plausible measure of the potential work force. That amounts to 420 billion potential labor hours, if we accept the convention that all adults are at least theoretically capable of holding a full-time job (2,000 hours/year) and pulling their share of society’s need for production and work effort.

By contrast, during 2014 only 240 billion hours were actually supplied to the US economy, according to the BLS estimates. Technically, therefore, there were 180 billion unemployed labor hours, meaning that the real unemployment rate was 42.9%, not 5.5%!

Yes, we have to allow for non-working wives, students, the disabled, early retirees and coupon clippers. We also have drifters, grifters, welfare cheats, bums and people between jobs, enrolled in training programs, on sabbaticals and much else.

But here’s the thing. There are dozens of reasons for 180 billion unemployed labor hours, but whether the Fed is monetizing $80 billion of public debt per month or not, and whether the money market interest rate is 10 bps or 35 bps doesn’t even make the top 25 reasons for unutilized adult labor. What actually drives our current 43% unemployment rate is global economic forces of cheap labor and new productive capacity throughout the EM and dozens of domestic policy and cultural factors that influence the decision to work or not.

To be sure, for a brief historical interval—-from roughly the New Economics of the Kennedy Administration to the 2007 eve of the housing crash and financial crisis—- the Fed did levitate the GDP and meaningfully impact the labor utilization rate. That was owing to the one-time trick of levering up the household and business sector through the inducements of cheap debt.

Household Leverage Ratio - Click to enlarge

But that monetary parlor trick is over and done. Household’s are still de-levering relative to income, and the Fed’s bubble economics have channeled incremental business borrowing almost entirely into the secondary market of financial engineering. That is, borrowings which are applied to stock buybacks, M&A deals and LBOs result in a re-pricing of existing equity claims and more gambling stakes in the casino, but do not add to demand for new plant, equipment and other tangible assets.

So the transmission channels through which monetary central planning could historically impact the labor utilization rate are now broken and done. The Fed’s default business, therefore, is inflating the financial bubble and subsidizing carry trade speculators. That’s all there is to monetary policy at the limits of peak debt.

In that context, consider the complete foolishness of school marm Yellen’s campaign to fill up the bathtub of potential GDP by causing labor utilization to reach full employment. And start with the case of non-monetized labor.

Back in the 1970s during one of those periodic debates about full-employment, legendary humorist Art Buchwald proposed a sure fire way to double the GDP and do it instantly. That was in the time that most women had not yet entered the labor force and politically incorrect discussion was still permitted on the august pages of the Washington Post.

Said Buchwald, “Pass a law requiring all men to hire their neighbor’s wife!” That is, monetize all of the cleaning, cooking, washing and scrubbing done every day in American households and get the monetary value computed in the GDP; and, in the process get homemakers factored into the labor force and their contribution to the economy’s real output in the labor utilization rate.

As a statistical matter—-even though four decades of women entering the labor force have passed since Buchwald’s tongue-in-cheek proposal—- there are still approximately 75 billion un-monetized household labor hours in the US economy. Were they to be counted in both sides of the equation, our 43% unemployment rate would drop to 25% for that reason alone.

Needless to say, whether household labor is monetized or not has no impact whatsoever on the real wealth and living standards of America, even if it does involve important social policy implications. The point is, as an economic matter Janet Yellen can’t do a damn thing about it, even as she dithers about asking Wall Street speculators to pay 35 bps for their overnight borrowings.

And the same thing is true for almost every single factor that drives the true hours based unemployment rate. Front and center is the massive explosion of student debt—now clocking in at $1.3 trillion compared to less than $300 billion only a decade ago. The point is not simply that this debt bomb is going to explode in the years ahead; the larger point is that for better or worse, Washington has made a policy choice to keep upwards of 20 million workers out of the labor force and to subsidize them as students.

Whether millions of these debt serfs will get any real earnings enhancing benefits out of this “education” is an open question—–one that leans heavily toward not likely in either this lifetime or the next. But these 40 billion potential labor hours are far greater in relative terms than under the stingy student subsidy programs which existed in 1970 when Janet Yellen was learning bathtub economics from James Tobin at Yale.

Likewise, there are currently about 17 billion annual potential labor hours accounted for by social security disability recipients. Again, that is a much larger relative number than a few decades back, and it is owing to the deliberate liberalization of social policy by Congressional legislators and administrative law judges. The FOMC has nothing to do with this form of unemployment, either.

Then there is the billions of potential labor hours in the un-monetized “underground” economy. While the work of drug runners and street level dealers is debatable as a social policy matter, it is self-evident that state policy—–in the form of the so-called “war on drugs” and the DEA and law enforcement dragnet—–account for this portion of unutilized labor, not the central bank.

The same is true of all the other state interventions that keep potential labor hours out of the monetized economy and the BLS surveys—-most especially the minimum wage laws and petty licensing of trades like beauticians, barbers, electricians and taxi-drivers, among countless others.

Finally, there is the giant question of the price of labor as opposed to the quantity. And here it needs be noted that “off-shoring” is not just about shoe factories and sheet and towel mills that went to China because American labor was too expensive. Owing to the rapid progress of communications technology, an increasing share of what used to be considered service work, such as call centers and financial back office activities, have already been off-shored on account of price. And that process of wage suppression has ricocheted into adjacent activities owing to the willingness of off-shored workers to accept lower wages in purely domestic sectors when push comes to shove.

Indeed, the cascade of the China “labor price” through the warp and woof of the entire economy is so pervasive and subtle that it cannot possibly be measured by the crude instruments deployed by the Census Bureau and BLS.

In short, Janet Yellen doesn’t have a clue as to whether we are at 30% or 20% unemployment of the potential adult labor hours in the US economy.  But three things are quite certain.

First, the real unemployment rate is not 5.5%—–the U-3 number is an absolute and utterly obsolete joke.

Secondly, the actual deployment rate of America’s 420 billion potential labor hours is overwhelmingly a function of domestic social policy and global labor markets, not the rate of money market interest.

And finally, the Fed is powerless to do anything about the real labor utilization rate, anyway. The only tub its lunatic money printing policies are filling is that of the Wall Street speculators.

And that’s what the Warren Buffett economy is actually all about.

In Part 5, the possibility that the free market in finance could function just fine without activist monetary policy intervention and bubble finance fortunes like Warren Buffett’s $73 billion will be further explored.

Don’t Bet (Against?) the House


Fighting the Last War

By Rodney Johnson, Senior Editor, Economy & Markets

A problem with most humans is that we’re really bad at letting go of what happened yesterday. So too with nations.
When estimating potential threats, it’s easy for leaders to adapt to whatever happened in the latest conflict, developing their military accordingly.

Think of the U.S. after World War II. We built up land forces across Europe to guard against an invasion by the U.S.S.R. Later on in Vietnam we dove into jungle warfare, where tanks and mass forces were less useful.

We were set up to fight the last war, not the next one.

In our economy we do the same thing. We develop economic policies and responses that work great, as long as history repeats. When things stray from the script, we run into problems.

For six long years, the Fed has been fighting the last war.

In an effort to bolster the housing sector after the subprime crisis, the Fed has held rates at record lows to make debt cheaper. At the same time, it gobbled up trillions of dollars’ worth of mortgage-backed securities, hoping to free up new capital to buy newly originated mortgages. The hope was that by getting the housing market back in gear, home builders would crank up production, and hundreds of thousands of new, middle class jobs in construction would appear.

But something strange happened on the way to economic recovery. Housing didn’t bounce right back.

In fact, the housing market kept falling for two more years as excess supply and the heavy weight of mortgage indebtedness worked through the system.

When real estate finally turned around in terms of prices paid and units sold, the gains weren’t exactly stellar. And as recent reports show, new home sales are growing, but not very quickly.

The annualized rate of new home sales in April was 517,000 units. That’s a far cry from February 2011’s level of 270,000 homes sold — the lowest in 50 years. But it’s light years away from July 2005’s staggering 1.389 million.

The Fed must be looking back at the mid-2000s with envy. However, today’s rate of new home sales isn’t the outlier; the high rate in the mid-2000s was.

After recording of new home sales began in 1963, they averaged 512,000 units through the rest of the 60s, then 656,000 in the 70s, and fell back to 610,000 in the 1980s. As the boomers plowed into the market in the 90s, new home sales jumped to 700,000, then took off with a bang in the 2000s with an average of 1.105 million per year. Among those data points, which one doesn’t belong?

So far this decade new home sales are averaging 382,000 units per year. Even when you consider the low rates of sale in 2010 and 2011, the move up from those years has been gradual.

The waning demand for new homes has naturally affected residential construction employment as well. Between mid-2006 and January 2011, that employment number dropped by almost half from just over one million, to 557,000. It’s picked up since, growing to 694,000 in April of this year, but is nowhere near what the Fed must have been hoping for as they printed trillions of dollars to prop up the sector.

It’s been clear for some time: By targeting housing with monetary policy, the Fed has been fighting the last war.

They pinned their hopes for an economic rebound on a resurgence in home building that would flow through to employment, leading to the creation of middle class jobs.

Instead, we experienced a rebound that simply brought building back near the long-run average of previous decades, excluding the bubble years of the 2000s.

Unfortunately for the millennial generation, who should be buying homes at a fast clip as they settle in for family life, many of the new homes coming to market are high-priced units. The average price of a new house in April was $297,000 — four times the average income of an American household.

With strict lending rules in place regarding debt-to-mortgage ratios, the new homes hitting the market today aren’t exactly geared toward the younger generation. They’re made for older workers with more income, or the thin slice of the millennial generation that can qualify for a home loan.

Either way, a spike in homebuilding doesn’t seem likely in the near future, which will keep a lid on employment in the sector, and continue to foil the plans of the Fed.

Ben the Blogger

BenBernankeReposted article by David Stockman responding to Ben Bernanke’s first blog. I hope Ben’s baseball commentary is more insightful.

Central Banking Refuted In One Blog—–Thanks Ben!

By David Stockman

Blogger Ben’s work is already done. In his very first substantive post as a civilian he gave away all the secrets of the monetary temple. The Bernank actually refuted the case for modern central banking in one blog.

In fact, he did it in one paragraph. This one.

A similarly confused criticism often heard is that the Fed is somehow distorting financial markets and investment decisions by keeping interest rates “artificially low.” Contrary to what sometimes seems to be alleged, the Fed cannot somehow withdraw and leave interest rates to be determined by “the markets.” The Fed’s actions determine the money supply and thus short-term interest rates; it has no choice but to set the short-term interest rate somewhere.

Not true, Ben.  Why not ask the author of the 1913 Federal Reserve Act and legendary financial statesman of the first third of the 20th century—–Carter Glass.

Read more


God Bless the Child


Them that’s got shall have,
Them that’s not shall lose,
So the Bible said and it still is news.
Mama may have, Papa may have,
But God bless the child that’s got his own,
That’s got his own.

            – Billie Holiday, God Bless the Child

See post: Why Ownership Matters

The Making of Financial Policy


The following is excerpted from an article by Jay Cost:

How about Wall Street reform? Obama likes to pose as a people-versus-the-powerful crusader, but he staffed his administration with friends of the big banks. Unsurprisingly, that has enormously influenced policy.

David Skeel, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, writes about the framework “that would eventually become the Dodd-Frank legislation,” in particular the resolution rules that enables Treasury to intervene when too-big-to-fail institutions fall into distress.  He explains:

Both the resolution rules and the overall framework read as if they had been written by Timothy Geithner in consultation with the large banks he had worked with as head of the New York Fed. Geithner would get all of the powers that he and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson wished they had when they intervened with Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and AIG. But the framework also did not overly ruffle the feathers of the largest financial institutions. There was no call to break them up…While systemically important status might subject the biggest institutions to greater oversight, it also would bring benefits in the marketplace. They could borrow money more cheaply than could smaller competitors, because lenders would assume they would be protected in the event of a collapse, as the creditors of Bear Stearns and AIG were.

The suspicion that the legislation might be a little too accommodating to the largest banks was further aroused by the discovery that David, Polk & Wardell, “a law firm that represents many banks and the financial industry’s lobbying group,” as the New York Times put it…had been deeply involved in the early drafting of the legislation. Treasury had worked from a draft first written by Davis Polk, and the legislation literally had the law firm’s name on it when Treasury submitted it to Congress, thanks to a computer watermark that Treasury had neglected to delete.

That’s not all. In Confidence Men, Ron Suskind reports that Obama instructed Geithner to develop a plan to break up Citi — as a warning to the other banks and a signal to the broader marketplace that the government was in charge, not the banks. But, per Suskind, Geithner disobeyed Obama, and never put together the plan. He suffered no consequences.

The best that can be said about this president and Wall Street is that, when it mattered most, he was a passive observer in his own administration. He allowed shills to write a bill enormously favorable to the biggest interests.