Some analysts noted that the Fed has lost credibility. But perhaps traders have just had too much faith in the omniscience of central bankers all along. They don’t have a crystal ball and are apparently as vulnerable as anyone else to misreading economic tea leaves. There is no corner on certainty in an uncertain world.
In the last 30 years, the FED has been good at only one thing and that is creating bubbles. Greenspan started them, handed off to Bernanke who then handed off to Yellen. One double talking FED chair after another seeking to destroy the middle class under the guise of ‘this is good for you.’ Financial engineering is reaching epidemic proportions while destroying everything in its path.
U.S. economic growth between January and March was 0.8% compared to the same time frame a year ago. That’s better than the initial estimate of 0.5%, which came in April, but still pretty sluggish.
Job creation tumbled in May, with the economy adding just 38,000 positions, casting doubt on hopes for a stronger economic recovery as well as a Fed rate hike this summer.
The Labor Department also reported Friday that the headline unemployment fell to 4.7 percent. That rate does not include those who did not actively look for employment during the month or the underemployed who were working part time for economic reasons. A more encompassing rate that includes those groups held steady at 9.7 percent.
The drop in the unemployment rate was primarily due to a decline in the labor force participation rate, which fell to a 2016 low of 62.6 percent, a level near a four-decade low. The number of Americans not in the labor force surged to a record 94.7 million, an increase of 664,000.
We’ve been predicting such disappointing results of ineffectual monetary and fiscal policies since this blog began back in August of 2011. And providing corroborating evidence along the way. Yet our policy experts continue to double-down on failed policies.
The problem is that when a nation inflates asset bubbles like we did with commodities, houses, stocks, and bonds over the past 20 years, there is no silver-lining policy correction that does not involve some economic pain for the body politic. We had that awakening in 2008, but since then we have merely jumped on the same train by pumping out cheap credit for 8+ years.
Perhaps a medical metaphor works here. When prescribing antibiotics to combat an infection one can use small doses to avoid side-effects or one large overkill dose to knock-out the offending bacteria. The first treatment is the conservative, prudent approach that seeks a gradual recovery. The second risks a sudden shock to the system that kills off the infection so the patient can begin healing.
In medicine we’ve discovered that the gradual treatment can enable the bacteria to evolve and resist the antibiotics, making them ineffectual. In a nutshell, this is what we have done with economic policy, especially monetary policy that has distorted interest rates for more than 15 years.
The conservative approach marked by bailouts and government bail-ins has kept the patient flat on his back for 8 years. The more disciplined approach would have shocked the economy severely but gotten the patient out of the recovery room much quicker. We’ve seen that with other countries, like Iceland, that were forced to swallow their medicine in one quick dose.
But, of course, that would have meant a lot of politicians would have lost their cozy jobs. That may happen anyway after the next election.
In fact, the combination of pumping-up inflation toward 2% and hammering-down interest rates to the so-called zero bound is economically lethal. The former destroys the purchasing power of main street wages while the latter strip mines capital from business and channels it into Wall Street financial engineering and the inflation of stock prices.
In the case of the 2% inflation target, even if it was good for the general economy, which it most assuredly is not, it’s a horrible curse on flyover America. That’s because its nominal pay levels are set on the margin by labor costs in the export factories of China and the EM and the service sector outsourcing shops in India and its imitators.
Accordingly, wage earners actually need zero or even negative CPI’s to maximize the value of pay envelopes constrained by global competition. Indeed, in a world where the global labor market is deflating wage levels, the last thing main street needs is a central bank fanatically seeking to pump up the cost of living.
So why do the geniuses domiciled in the Eccles Building not see something that obvious?
The short answer is they are trapped in a 50-year old intellectual time warp that presumes that the US economy is more or less a closed system. Call it the Keynesian bathtub theory of macroeconomics and you have succinctly described the primitive architecture of the thing.
According to this fossilized worldview, monetary policy must drive interest rates ever lower in order to elicit more borrowing and aggregate spending. And then authorities must rinse and repeat this monetary “stimulus” until the bathtub of “potential GDP” is filled up to the brim.
Moreover, as the economy moves close to the economic bathtub’s brim or full employment GDP, labor allegedly becomes scarcer, thereby causing employers to bid up wage rates. Indeed, at full employment and 2% inflation wages will purportedly rise much faster than consumer prices, permitting real wage rates to rise and living standards to increase.
Except it doesn’t remotely work that way because the US economy is blessed with a decent measure of free trade in goods and services and virtually no restrictions on the flow of capital and short-term financial assets. That is, the Fed can’t fill up the economic bathtub with aggregate demand because it functions in a radically open system where incremental demand is as likely to be satisfied by off-shore goods and services as by domestic production.
This leakage through the bathtub’s side portals into the global economy, in turn, means that the Fed’s 2% inflation and full employment quest can’t cause domestic wage rates to rev-up, either. Incremental demands for labor hours, on the margin, are as likely to be met from the rice paddies of China as the purportedly diminishing cue of idle domestic workers.
Indeed, there has never been a theory so wrong-headed. And yet the financial commentariat, which embraces the Fed’s misbegotten bathtub economics model hook, line and sinker, disdains Donald Trump because his economic ideas are allegedly so primitive!
The irony of the matter is especially ripe. Even as the Fed leans harder into its misbegotten inflation campaign it is drastically mis-measuring its target, meaning that flyover American is getting an extra dose of punishment.
On the one hand, real inflation where main street households live has been clocking in at over 3% for most of this century. At the same time, the Fed’s faulty measuring stick has led it to keep interest pinned to the zero bound for 89 straight months, thereby fueling the gambling spree in the Wall Street casino. The baleful consequence is that more and more capital has been diverted to financial engineering rather than equipping main street workers with productive capital equipment.
As we indicated in Part 1, even the Fed’s preferred inflation measuring stick——the PCE deflator less food and energy—has risen at a 1.7% rate for the last 16 years and 1.5% during the 6 years. Yet while it obsesses about a trivial miss that can not be meaningful in the context of an open economy, it fails to note that actual main street inflation—led by the four horseman of food, energy, medical and housing—–has been running at 3.1% per annum since the turn of the century.
After 16 years the annual gap, of course, has ballooned into a chasm. As shown in the graph, the consumer price level faced by flyover America is now actually 35% higher than what the Fed’s yardstick shows to the case.
Stated differently, main street households are not whooping up the spending storm that our monetary central planners have ordained because they don’t have the loot. Their real purchasing power has been tapped out.
To be sure, real growth and prosperity stems from the supply-side ingredients of labor, enterprise, capital and production, not the hoary myth that consumer spending is the fount of wealth. Still, the Fed has been consistently and almost comically wrong in its GDP growth projections because the expected surge in wages and consumer spending hasn’t happened.
Martin Feldstein is nowhere near as excitable as David Stockman on Fed manipulations (link to D.S.’s commentary), but they both end up at the same place: the enormous risks we are sowing with abnormal monetary policies. The economy is not nearly as healthy as the Fed would like, but pockets of the economy are bubbling up while other pockets are still deflating. There is a correlation relationship, probably causal.
The problem with “inflation targeting” is that bubble economics warps relative prices and so the correction must drive some prices down and others up. In other words, massive relative price corrections are called for. But inflation targeting targets the general price level as measured by biased sample statistics – so if the Fed is trying to prop up prices that previously bubbled up and need to decline, such as housing and stocks, they are pushing against a correction. The obvious problem has been these debt-driven asset prices, like stocks, government bonds, and real estate. In the meantime, we get no new investment that would increase labor demand.
The global economy needs to absorb the negative in order to spread the positive consequences of these easy central bank policies. The time is now because who knows what happens after the turmoil of the US POTUS election?
Ending the Fed’s Inflation Fixation
The focus is misplaced—and because it delays an overdue interest-rate rise, it is also dangerous.
By MARTIN FELDSTEIN
The Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2016 7:02 p.m. ET
The primary role of the Federal Reserve and other central banks should be to prevent high rates of inflation. The double-digit inflation rates of the late 1970s and early ’80s were a destructive and frightening experience that could have been avoided by better monetary policy in the previous decade. Fortunately, the Fed’s tighter monetary policy under Paul Volcker brought the inflation rate down and set the stage for a strong economic recovery during the Reagan years.
The Federal Reserve has two congressionally mandated policy goals: “full employment” and “price stability.” The current unemployment rate of 5% means that the economy is essentially at full employment, very close to the 4.8% unemployment rate that the members of the Fed’s Open Market Committee say is the lowest sustainable rate of unemployment.
For price stability, the Fed since 2012 has interpreted its mandate as a long-term inflation rate of 2%. Although it has achieved full employment, the Fed continues to maintain excessively low interest rates in order to move toward its inflation target. This has created substantial risks that could lead to another financial crisis and economic downturn.
The Fed did raise the federal-funds rate by 0.25 percentage points in December, but interest rates remain excessively low and are still driving investors and lenders to take unsound risks to reach for yield, leading to a serious mispricing of assets. The S&P 500 price-earnings ratio is more than 50% above its historic average. Commercial real estate is priced as if low bond yields will last forever. Banks and other lenders are lending to lower quality borrowers and making loans with fewer conditions.
When interest rates return to normal there will be substantial losses to investors, lenders and borrowers. The adverse impact on the overall economy could be very serious.
A fundamental problem with an explicit inflation target is the difficulty of knowing if it has been hit. The index of consumer prices that the Fed targets should in principle measure how much more it costs to buy goods and services that create the same value for consumers as the goods and services that they bought the year before. Estimating that cost would be an easy task for the national income statisticians if consumers bought the same things year after year. But the things that we buy are continually evolving, with improvements in quality and with the introduction of new goods and services. These changes imply that our dollars buy goods and services with greater value year after year.
Adjusting the price index for these changes is an impossibly difficult task. The methods used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics fail to capture the extent of quality improvements and don’t even try to capture the value created by new goods and services.
The true value of the national income is therefore rising faster than the official estimates of real gross domestic product and real incomes imply. For the same reason, the official measure of inflation overstates the increase in the true cost of the goods and services that consumers buy. If the official measure of inflation were 1%, the true cost of buying goods and services that create the same value to consumers may have actually declined. The true rate of inflation could be minus 1% or minus 3% or minus 5%. There is simply no way to know.
With a margin of error that large, it makes no sense to focus monetary policy on trying to hit a precise inflation target. The problem that consumers care about and that should be the subject of Fed policy is avoiding a return to the rapidly rising inflation that took measured inflation from less than 2% in 1965 to 5% in 1970 and to more than 12% in 1980.
Although we cannot know the true rate of inflation at any time, we can see if the measured inflation rate starts rising rapidly. If that happens, it would be a sign that true inflation is also rising because of excess demand in product and labor markets. That would be an indication that the Fed should be tightening monetary policy.
The situation today in which the official inflation rate is close to zero implies that the true inflation rate is now less than zero. Fortunately this doesn’t create the kind of deflation problem that would occur if households’ money incomes were falling. If that occurred, households would cut back on spending, leading to declines in overall demand and a possible downward spiral in prices and economic activity.
Not only are nominal wages and incomes not falling in the U.S. now, they are rising at about 2% a year. The negative true inflation rate means that true real incomes are rising more rapidly than the official statistics imply. [Sounds good, huh? Not quite. Read Stockman’s analysis.]
The Federal Reserve should now eliminate the explicit inflation target policy that it adopted less than five years ago. The Fed should instead emphasize its commitment to avoiding both high inflation and declining nominal wages. That would permit it to raise interest rates more rapidly today and to pursue a sounder monetary policy in the years ahead.
Somehow we cling to the hope that debt on our side of the world works differently than debt on the other side of the world. And then we wonder why GDP constantly falters and consumer spending is so reticent.
Beijing can rely only on stimulus. Extraordinary spending in March produced only a one-month bump—and that blip came at a high price. The government in March piled up debt at least four times faster than it created nominal GDP…eventually rapid credit creation must produce a disaster. Already, the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio is well north of 300 percent…
by Gordon G. Chang
After a near-disastrous start to the year and a one-month recovery in March, the Chinese economy looks like it’s now headed in the wrong direction again. The first indications from April show the country was unable to sustain upward momentum.
Even before the first dreadful numbers for last month were released, Anne Stevenson-Yang of J Capital Research termed the uptick the “Dead Panda Bounce.”
The economy is essentially moribund as there is not much that can stop the ongoing slide. A contraction is certain, and a severe adjustment downward—in common parlance, a crash—looks likely.
At the moment, China appears healthy. The official National Bureau of Statistics reported that growth in the first calendar quarter of this year was 6.7 percent. That is just a smidgen off 6.9 percent, the figure for all of last year. Moreover, the quarterly result cleared the bottom of the range of Premier Li Keqiang’s growth target for this year, 6.5 percent.
The first-quarter 6.7 percent was too good to be true, however. And there are two reasons why we should be particularly alarmed.
First, China’s statisticians appear to be just making the numbers up. For the first time since 2010, when it began providing quarter-on-quarter data, NBS did not release a quarter-on-quarter figure alongside the year-on-year one. And when NBS got around to releasing the quarter-on-quarter number, it did not match the year-on-year figure it had previously reported.
NBS’s 1.1 percent quarter-on-quarter figure for Q1, when annualized, produces only 4.5 percent growth for the year. That’s a long distance from the 6.7 percent year-on-year growth that NBS reported for the quarter.
Even China’s own technocrats do not believe their own numbers. Fraser Howie, the coauthor of the acclaimed Red Capitalism, notes that the chief of a large European insurance company, who had just been in meetings with the People’s Bank of China, said that even the Chinese officials were joking and laughing in derision when they talked about official reports showing 6 percent growth.
Second, the central government simply turned on the money taps, flooding the economy with “gobs of new debt,” as the Wall Street Journal labeled the deluge.
The surge in lending was one for the record books. Credit growth in Q1 was more than twice that in the previous quarter. China created almost $1 trillion in new credit during the quarter, the largest quarterly increase in history. [The Fed has created $3.5+ trillion and counting during our non-recovery.]
Of course, Chinese banks tend to splurge in Q1 when they get new annual quotas, but this year’s lending exceeded all expectations.
The Ministry of Finance also did its part to refloat the economy. Its figures show that in March, the central government’s revenue increased 7.1 percent while spending soared 20.1 percent.
All that money produced good results—for one month. In April, the downturn continued. Exports, in dollar terms, fell 1.8 percent from the same month last year, and imports tumbled 10.9 percent. Both underperformed consensus estimates. A Reuters poll, for instance, predicted that exports would decline only 0.1 percent, while imports would fall 5 percent.
Exports have now dropped in nine of the last ten months, and imports, considered a vital sign of domestic demand, have fallen for eighteen straight months.
Both figures show a marked deterioration from March, when exports jumped 11.5 percent and imports fell 7.6 percent.
The trade figures followed extremely disappointing surveys of the manufacturing sector. The official Purchasing Managers’ Index came in at 50.1, down from March’s 50.2, barely above the 50.0 that divides expansion from contraction.
The widely followed Caixin survey registered at 49.4, down from March’s 49.7. April was the fourteenth straight month of contraction in this more representative—and far more reliable—survey.
Beijing will release additional numbers in the next two weeks, but its reported figures—especially those showing consumer prices, retail sales and industrial output—have obviously become less accurate in recent months. By now, with the first indications for April, it’s clear the economy did not turn the March spike into a recovery.
That has grave implications for Beijing, as Chinese technocrats have evidently lost control of the economy. For one thing, they are no longer helped by strong external demand, and there is little prospect of relief in coming months. As Zhou Hao of Commerzbank told the Wall Street Journal, “China is on its own.”
And alone, Beijing can rely only on stimulus. Extraordinary spending in March produced only a one-month bump—and that blip came at a high price. The government in March piled up debt at least four times faster than it created nominal GDP.
Although debt does not work the same way in China’s state-directed economy as it does in freer ones, eventually rapid credit creation must produce a disaster. Already, the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio is well north of 300 percent, as Barron’s, referring to Victor Shih’s calculations, notes. Soros in January said the ratio could be as high as 350 percent, and Orient Capital Research in Hong Kong suggests 400 percent.
Whatever it is, China is just about at the limits of the debt it can bear, as growing defaults—and a stark warning from the Communist Party itself on Monday—indicate.
There are many problems, but state firms, backed by Beijing’s spend-like-there’s-no-tomorrow approach, are investing capital, and private ones are not. Leland Miller and Derek Scissors note that their China Beige Book survey of 2,200 Chinese businesses shows that in the first quarter, capital expenditure by lumbering state firms was “stable from a year ago” while private companies “cut back substantially.”
That is an issue because virtually no one thinks an even bigger state sector is a good idea. Yet Chinese leaders have opted for one because, as a practical matter, they have no choice. Structural economic reform, which everyone knows is necessary, would lower growth rates too far, well below zero. That’s politically unacceptable, so they continue with a strategy that must result in a crash, simply because it buys time.
It is no coincidence that Chinese leaders are now pressuring analysts and others to brighten their forecasts and not report dour news, to show zhengnengliang—“positive energy”—a sure indication Beijing has run out of real options.
China, therefore, has passed not only an inflection point but also the point of no return. There are no longer off ramps on the road leading over the cliff.
And that thud you just heard when the first April numbers were issued? That was the big black-and-white bear hitting the floor.
[IllustratIon: Martin Kozlowski]
The rabbi and philosopher Shimon Green, founder of the Bircas Hatorah center in Jerusalem for the study of ancient wisdom, has observed that the fear of zombies is cross-cultural: “The fear stems from our own fear of living hopeless lives…a fear that our lives are nonproductive, and that we are the walking dead.”
Many fear that the U.S. economy is “the walking dead”—that the economy is a charade produced by an elixir of low interest rates administered by the Federal Reserve. In an effort partly intended to dispel that fear, the Fed raised the federal-funds rate in December.
With inflation languishing below its 2% target, the Fed began a process of interest-rate normalization, thereby demonstrating confidence in the economy. Raising the fed-funds rate was supposed to encourage expectations of higher growth, which resulted, in part, from the Fed’s recognition of considerable improvements in labor markets.
When the Fed raised rates, it said it was reasonably confident that inflation would rise to meet its objective, describing the impact of energy prices as transitory and predicting that they would pick up in 2016.
While 2016 got off to a rocky start with oil and stock prices declining, both have rebounded and are now trading at levels comparable to December. The Fed continues to project confidence, and the Federal Open Market Committee recently announced that it is on course to continue to raise rates.
The official dot plot of members’ expectations shows that they expect two rate hikes in 2016 and a fed-funds rate of 3% by mid-2018. This contradicts market expectations for a more muted path forward.
While the Fed sends a message of confidence, pointing to decreases in unemployment, a pickup in average hourly earnings, and core consumer-price-index inflation exceeding 2%, it is aware that inflation continues to run below its longer-run objective.
The Fed is also mindful of the potential for adverse shocks that could derail the economy. The International Monetary Fund last week lowered its global growth forecast, saying that the sluggish pace of growth leaves the world economy more exposed to risks.
The Fed needs to remain accommodative while continuing to raise the fed-funds rate. While that rate is a short-term one charged between banks for overnight money, longer rates have the greatest impact on asset purchases (like buying a home).
Thus, the Fed pursued quantitative easing, purchasing longer-term securities to directly lower long-term yields. It intended to encourage growth more directly.
The QE program effectively ended in 2014, but longer-term rates have continued to decline. Since the Fed raised fed-funds rates in December, 30-year yields have gone down from 3% to 2.5%.
THUS THE END OF QE and a rising fed-funds rate do not necessarily spell the end of easy money. The Fed continues to buy long bonds by reinvesting principal and interest from its maturing securities. Its balance sheet is about $4.5 trillion, of which approximately $1.5 trillion matures in fewer than seven years.
An oft-overlooked paragraph in FOMC statements promises to continue the reinvesting until the normalization of federal funds is “well under way.”
It is no surprise that the Fed’s balance sheet grew for over a year after QE ended. Reinvestment can keep pressure on longer-term rates as the Fed deploys its reinvestment across the curve. Its role in monetary policy will grow as short-dated bonds mature.
The Fed’s reinvestment policy is vital, considering the impact of rising rates and a shrinking balance sheet on fiscal policy. In 2007, the government paid $430 billion in interest on $9 trillion of debt. In 2015, the total interest paid on $19 trillion was about $402 billion. Like many Americans, Treasury has more debt and pays less interest.
If that is not enough to encourage the Fed to keep interest rates low, consider that Treasury effectively pays zero interest on T-bonds that the Fed keeps on its balance sheet (most of the interest Treasury pays to the Fed is given back to Treasury as profit). Higher rates and a shrinking balance would certainly create new burdens that might not be offset by economic growth.
Fiscal realities and the fear of adverse economic shocks drive the Fed to keep long rates lower. Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer recently said a larger balance sheet is accommodative and reduces risks to the economy. This would explain why the yield curve has flattened since December, as the market digested the distinction between higher fed-funds rates and an easy long-rate policy.
Raising the fed-funds rate demonstrates confidence in the economy; lowering long-term rates may be what is necessary to make that perception a reality. Former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke recently described longer-term “rate targeting” as a possible tool that the Fed could use to stimulate growth. With rate targeting, the Fed would peg long-term interest rates while creating a ceiling for long-term Treasury debt. Though he declared that such an “exotic” approach is not likely in the foreseeable future, he pointed out that “public beliefs about these tools may influence expectations.”
If the Fed continues to emphasize that it will be reinvesting in long bonds for some time, it can change public perception of rising short rates to navigate long rates lower without using exotic tools. On the path to normalization, the Fed then would maintain the flexibility to raise the fed-funds rate while keeping long rates low. [So we move into an inverted yield curve? That is supposed to signal tightening credit.]
Such an accommodative stance would help our economy grow while relieving some of the fiscal pressure. This is how the Fed’s balance sheet can buy time until we arrive at a point where the inflation data confirm that we are not zombies after all. [So, inflation is going to save us? Why, instead, does a little deflation scare the Fed so much? Because we are over-leveraged with cheap credit?]
…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.
From an interview of Bill Gross in Barron’s:
You have taken central bankers to task for impotence and ignorance, among other sins. In particular, you have written that Fed Chair Janet Yellen and others are ignorant of the harm done by their policies “to a classical economic model that has driven prosperity.” Just what did you mean, and what sorts of dangers do we face?
The Federal Reserve was created in 1913. President Nixon took the U.S. off the gold standard in 1971. For the past 40-plus years, central banks have been able to print as much money as they wanted, and they have. When I started at Pimco in 1971, the amount of credit outstanding in the U.S., including mortgages, business debt, and government debt, was $1 trillion. Now it’s $58 trillion. Credit growth, at least in its earlier stages, can be very productive. For all the faults of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the securitization of mortgages lowered interest rates and enabled people to buy homes. But when credit reaches the point of satiation, it doesn’t do what it did before.
Think of the old Monty Python movie, The Meaning of Life. A grotesque, rotund guy keeps eating to demonstrate the negatives of gluttony, and finally is offered one last thing, a “wafer-thin mint.” He swallows it and explodes. It’s pretty funny. Is our financial system, with $58 trillion of credit, to the point of a wafer-thin mint? Probably not. But we’re to the point where every bite is less and less fulfilling. Even though credit isn’t being created as rapidly as in the past, it doesn’t do what it did before.
Central banks believe that the historical model of raising interest rates to dampen inflation and lowering rates to invigorate the economy is still a functional model. The experience of the past five years, and maybe the past 15 or 20 in Japan, has shown this isn’t the case.
So where does that leave our economy?
In the developed financial economies, as a bloc, lowering interest rates to near zero has produced negative consequences. The best examples of this include the business models of insurance companies and pension funds. Insurers have long-term liabilities and base their death benefits, and even health benefits, on earning a certain rate of interest on their premium dollars. When that rate is zero or close to it, their model is destroyed.
To use another example, California bases its current and future pension payments to civil workers on an estimated future return of 8% or so from bonds and stocks. But when bonds return 1% or 2%, or nothing in Germany’s case, what happens? We’ve seen the difficulties that Puerto Rico, Detroit, and Illinois have faced paying their debts.
Now consider mom and pop and other people who read Barron’s. They are saving for retirement and to put their kids through college. They might have depended on a historic 8%-like return from stocks and bonds. Well, sorry. When interest rates get to zero—and that isn’t the endpoint; they could go negative—savers are destroyed. And savers are the bedrock of capitalism. Savers allow investment, and investment produces growth.
Are you suggesting a recession looms?
No. I see very slow growth. In the U.S., instead of 3% economic growth, we have 2%. In euroland, instead of 2%, growth is 1%-plus. In Japan, they hope for anything above zero.
What governments want, and what central banks are trying to do, is produce, in addition to minimal growth, a semblance of inflation. Inflating is one way to get out from under all the debt that has been accumulated. It isn’t working, because with interest rates at zero, companies and individual savers sense the futility of taking on risk. In this case, the mint eater doesn’t explode, but the system sort of grinds to a halt.
It doesn’t look like anything is grinding to a halt around here. You can see gorgeous golf courses from one window and a yacht basin from the other.
This isn’t the real economy. It is Disneyland and Hollywood. It is finance-based prosperity, based on money that doesn’t produce anything anymore because yields are so low.
Even in a negative-rate environment, as in Germany or Switzerland, banks and big insurance companies have little choice but to park their money electronically with the central bank and pay 50 basis points. But an individual can say “give me back my money” and keep it in cash. That’s what would make the system implode. I’m not talking about millionaires or Newport Beach–aires, but people with $25,000 or $50,000. Without deposits, banks can’t make loans anymore, so the system starts to collapse.
Let’s say Yellen steps down and President Obama appoints you the new head of the Fed. What would you do differently?
What you’re really asking is: What is the way out? The way out is a little bit of pain over a relatively long period of time. That is a problem for politicians and central bankers who are concerned with their legacy. It means raising interest rates and returning the savings function to normal. The Fed speaks of normalizing the yield curve but knows it can’t go too fast. A 25-basis-point increase [in the federal-funds rate] in December had consequences in terms of strengthening the dollar and hurting emerging markets.
Will the Fed raise rates this year?
Yes, as long as the stock market permits it. They have to normalize interest rates over a period of two, three, four years, or the domestic and global economy won’t function. In today’s world, normalization would mean a 2% fed-funds rate, a 3.5% yield on the 10-year bond, and a 4.5% mortgage rate. Would this create some pain? Of course. Housing prices probably would stop rising, and might fall a bit. The Fed has to move gradually.
What will be the 10-year Treasury yield at the end of 2016?
Close to what it yields now. I expect the Fed to raise rates once or twice this year. That would put the fed-funds rate at 1%. Does the 10-year deserve to yield 1.90% with fed funds at 1%? Yes, so long as inflation is 2% or less. If the Fed raises rates, the euro and yen could weaken. That would mean rates in Europe and Japan don’t have to go negative, or to extreme lows. In a sense, the Fed is driving everything. But it can’t raise rates too much without threatening a country like Brazil, whose corporations have tons of dollar-dominated debt.
What will the global economy look like in five or 10 years?
Structurally, demographics are a problem for global growth. The developed world is aging, with Japan the best example. Italy is another good example, and Germany is a good, old society, too. As baby boomers get older, they spend less and less. But capitalism has been based on an ever-expanding number of people. It needs consumers.
Another thing happening is deglobalization, whether it’s Donald Trump building a wall to keep out Mexicans, or European nations putting up fences to keep out migrants. Larry Summers [former secretary of the Treasury] has talked about secular stagnation, or a condition of little or no economic growth. At Pimco, I used the term “the new normal” to refer to this condition. It all adds up, again, to very slow growth. The days of 3% and 4% annual growth are gone.
QE and ZIRP until the cows come home…
Clueless in Davos
By Peter Schiff
Making their annual pilgrimage to the exclusive Swiss ski sanctuary of Davos last week, the world’s political and financial elite once again gathered without having had the slightest idea of what was going on in the outside world. It appears that few of the attendees, if any, had any advance warning that 2016 would dawn with a global financial meltdown. The Dow Jones Industrials posted the worst 10 day start to a calendar year ever, and as of the market close of January 25, the Index is down almost 9% year-to-date, putting it squarely on track for the worst January ever. But now that the trouble that few of the international power posse had foreseen has descended, the ideas on how to deal with the crisis were harder to find in Davos than an $8.99 all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, with a free cocktail.
The dominant theme at last year’s Davos conference, in fact the widely held belief up to just a few weeks ago, was that thanks to the strength of the American economy the world would finally shed the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis. Instead, it looks like we are heading straight back into a recession. While most economists have been fixated on the supposed strength of the U.S. labor market (evidenced by the low headline unemployment rate), the real symptoms of gathering recession are easy to see: plunging stock prices and decreased corporate revenues, bond defaults in the energy sector and widening spreads across the credit spectrum, rising business inventories, steep falls in industrial production, tepid consumer spending, a deep freeze of business investments and, of course, panic in China. The bigger question is why this is all happening now and what should be done to stop it.
As for the cause of the turmoil, fingers are solidly pointing at China and its slowing economy (with very little explanation as to why the world’s second largest economy has just now come off the rails). And since everyone knows that Beijing’s policymakers do not take advice from the Western financial establishment, the only solutions that the Davos elite can suggest is more stimulus from those central banks that do listen.
Interviewed on an investment panel in Davos, American multi-billionaire and hedge fund manager, Ray Dalio, perhaps spoke for the elite masses when he said, “…every country in the world needs an easier monetary policy.” In other words, despite years (decades in Japan) of monetary stimulus, in the form of low, zero, and, in some cases, negative interest rates, and trillions of dollars in purchases of assets through Quantitative Easing (QE) programs, what the world really needs is more of the same. Lots more. Despite the fact that no country that has pursued these policies has yet achieved a successful outcome (in the form of sustainable growth and a subsequent return to “normal” monetary policy), it is taken as gospel truth that these remedies must be administered, in ever-greater dosages, until the patient improves. No one of any importance in Davos, or elsewhere for that matter, seems willing to question the efficacy of the policies themselves. And since the U.S. Federal Reserve is the only central bank officially considering policy tightening at present, Dalio’s comments should be seen as squarely addressing the Fed. But apparently they were not.
While economists are calling for central banks in Brussels, Beijing, and Tokyo to pull out more of the monetary stops, few have called for the Federal Reserve in Washington to do the same. Most on Wall Street are, publicly at least, supporting rate increases from the Fed, albeit at a slower pace than what was envisioned just a few months, or even weeks, ago. As many economists were very public in excoriating the Fed for moving too slowly in 2015, perhaps they are unwilling to admit that their confidence was misplaced. Many also may realize the colossal embarrassment that would await Fed policymakers if they were to reverse policy so quickly. To have waited nearly 10 years to raise interest rates in the U.S., only to cut rates less than three months later would be to admit that the Fed was both clueless AND ineffective. This could cause an even greater panic as investors became aware that there is no one flying the plane.
But perhaps the main reason other central bankers are reluctant to urge the Fed to ease is that the United States is supposedly the poster boy that proves quantitative easing actually works. After all, the rest of the world is being told to emulate the successes that were achieved in the U.S. Ben Bernanke had the courage to act while European central bankers were too timid, and the result was not only full employment and a recovery strong enough to withstand higher rates in the U.S., but a best-selling book and magazine covers for Bernanke. The world’s central bankers are not quite ready to consign Bernanke’s book to the fiction section where it rightfully belongs, as it would call into question their own commitment to following a failed policy.
But some doubt is starting to creep in publicly. An underlying headline in a January 25 story in the Wall Street Journal finally said what most mainstream pundits have refused to say: “Fed is a key reason markets have plunged and risk of recession is rising.” But even in that article, which analyzes why six years of zero percent interest rates created bubble-like conditions that were vulnerable to even the small pin that a 25-basis point increase would provide, the Journal was reluctant to say that the Fed should begin to ease policy. At most, they seemed to urge the Fed to call off any future increases until the market could adjust and digest what has already happened.
However, George Soros, another legendary hedge fund billionaire (with a well-known political agenda), is dipping his toes in that controversial pool, by nearly telling the Fed that the time had come to face the music and eat some humble pie. In an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Francine Lacqua on January 17, Soros claimed that the Fed’s decision to raise rates in December was “a mistake” and that he “would be surprised” if the Fed were to compound the mistake by raising rates again. (Officially the Fed has forecast that it is likely to boost rates four times in 2016). When pressed on whether the Fed would actually do an about-face and cut rates, Soros would simply say that “mistakes need to be corrected and it [a Fed reversal] could happen.” Look for many more investors to join the crowd and call for a reversal, regardless of the loss of credibility it would cause Janet Yellen and her crew.
But when I publicly made similar statements months ago, saying that if the Fed were to raise rates, even by a quarter point, the increase would be sufficient to burst the stock bubble and tip the economy into recession, my opinions were considered completely unhinged. My suggestion that the Fed would have to later reverse policy and cut rates, after having raised them, was looked at as even more outrageous, akin to predicting that the U.S. would be invaded by Canada. Now those pronouncements are creeping into the mainstream.
I was able to see through to this scenario not because I have access to some data that others don’t, but because I understood that stimulus in the form of zero percent interest rates and quantitative easing is not a means to jump start an economy and restore health, but a one-way cul-de-sac of addiction and dependency that pushes up asset prices and creates a zombie economy that can’t survive without a continued stimulus. In the end, stimulus does not create actual growth, but merely the illusion of it.
This is consistent with what is happening in the global economy. China is in crisis because commodities and oil, which are priced in dollars, have sold off in anticipation of a surging dollar that would result from higher rates. The financial engineering that has been made possible by zero percent interest rates is no longer available to paper over weak corporate results in the U.S. Our economy is addicted to QE and zero rates, and without those supports, I feel strongly we will spiral back into recession. This is the reality that the mainstream tried mightily to ignore the past several years. But the chickens are coming home to roost, and they have a great many eggs to lay.
Investors should take heed. The bust in commodities should only last as long as the Fed pretends that it is on course to continue raising rates. When it finally admits the truth, after its hand is forced by continued market and economic turmoil, look for the dollar to sell off steeply and commodities and foreign currencies to finally move back up after years of declines. The reality is fairly easy to see, and you don’t need an invitation to Davos to figure it out.