US Dollar Value under Management by the Federal Reserve

us-dollar-1913-to-2013

Eye-opening graph.

Fed advocates will argue that dollar depreciation over this period has also led to more than twenty times growth in wages and incomes. But the uncertainty of currency values does not affect all sectors uniformly and arbitrarily creates winners and losers. So, the growth in incomes has come at the expense of savers and older Americans living on fixed income pensions. It has greatly favored those who have done little except borrow to buy financial assets and real estate. So the question is: do we want an economy of ‘four walls and a roof’ or one of productive factories? The first is a depreciating asset, the second an appreciating asset.

As James Rickards puts it in his book, Currency Wars: “The effect of creating undeserving winners and losers is to distort investment decision making, cause misallocation of capital, create asset bubbles, and increase income inequality. Inefficiency and unfairness are the real costs of failing to maintain price stability.”

More pointedly he writes:

The U.S. Federal Reserve System is the most powerful central bank in history and the dominant force in the U.S. economy today. The Fed is often described as possessing a dual mandate to provide price stability and to reduce unemployment. The Fed is also expected to act as a lender of last resort in a financial panic and is required to regulate banks, especially those deemed “too big to fail.” In addition, the Fed represents the United States at multilateral central-bank meeting venues such as the G20 and the Bank for International Settlements, and conducts transactions using the Treasury’s gold hoard. The Fed has been given new mandates under the Dodd-Frank reform legislation of 2010 as well. The “dual” mandate is more like a hydra-headed monster.

From its creation in 1913, the most important Fed mandate has been to maintain the purchasing power of the dollar; however, since 1913 the dollar has lost over 95 percent of its value. Put differently, it takes twenty dollars today to buy what one dollar would buy in 1913. Imagine an investment manager losing 95 percent of a client’s money to get a sense of how effectively the Fed has performed its primary task.

There is also an implication in the pro-Fed position that gradual inflation is necessary in order to grow the economy – an analogy to greasing the machine. But that is conjecture and disproven by robust growth during the latter half of the 19th century while we experienced mild deflation.  As I have argued in Common Cent$, economic growth is a function of technology and population growth through increased labor productivity. Manipulating price values through monetary policy does little to promote long-term stable growth and only aggravates unfair economic inequality. It seems it takes a long time for each generation to discover this truth.

Honey, I Shrunk the Money

gold-fools

Here we go, or should we say it’s time to open our eyes to where we have been going for some time. The unelected heads of the world’s central banks now explicitly control our economic fates. But as I mentioned in a previous post, they have little experience or power to influence politics and so central bankers risk serious political fallout from their currency machinations. In the meantime, anyone holding dollars, or yen, or euros, or renminbi, or promises to be paid in any such paper, can watch the real value of their wealth slowly dissipate. This should have wonderful consequences.

From the WSJ:

‘Loose Talk’ and Loose Money

The G-20 concedes that central banks rule the world economy.

The main message out of the Group of 20 nations meeting in Moscow on the weekend boils down to this: Countries can continue to devalue their currencies so long as they don’t explicitly say they want to devalue their currencies. Markets got the message and promptly sold off the yen on Monday in anticipation of further monetary easing by the Bank of Japan.

This contradiction between economic word and deed shows the degree to which policy makers have defaulted to easy money as the engine of growth. The rest is commentary.

The days before the Moscow meeting were dominated by blustery fears about the “currency war” consequences of money printing in the service of devaluation. Lael Brainard, the U.S. Treasury under secretary for international affairs, gave a speech in Moscow warning against “loose talk about currencies.” She seemed to have in mind Japan, whose new prime minister Shinzo Abe has made a weaker yen the explicit centerpiece of his economic policy.

In the diplomatic event, all of that angst went by the wayside. The G-20 communique bowed toward a vow to “refrain from competitive devaluation.” But the text also repeated its familiar promise “to move more rapidly toward more market-determined exchange rate systems”—words that essentially mean a hands-off policy on currency values. So Japan can do what it wants on the yen as long as it doesn’t cop to it publicly.

That message was also underscored by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who implicitly endorsed Japan’s monetary easing and declared that the U.S. would continue to use “domestic policy tools to advance domestic objectives.” When the chief central banker of the world’s reserve currency nation announces that he is practicing monetary nationalism, it’s hard to blame anyone else for doing the same.

The upshot is that this period of extraordinary monetary easing will continue. Economist Ed Hyman of the ISI Group counts dozens of actions in recent months in what he calls a “huge global easing cycle.” The political pressure will now build on the European Central Bank to ease in turn to weaken the euro. South Korea and other countries that are on the receiving end of “hot money” inflows may feel obliged to ease as well to prevent their currencies from rising or to experiment with exchange controls.

This default to monetary policy reflects the overall failure of most of the world’s leading economies to pass fiscal and other pro-growth reforms. Japan refuses to join the trans-Pacific trade talks that might make its domestic economy more competitive. The U.S. has imposed a huge tax increase and won’t address its fiscal excesses or uncompetitive corporate tax regime. Europe—well, suffice it to say that Silvio Berlusconi is again playing a role in Italian politics and the Socialists are trying to resurrect the ghost of early Mitterrand in France.

So the central bankers are running the world economy, with the encouragement of politicians who are happy to see stock markets and other asset prices continue to rise. Here and there someone will point out the danger of asset bubbles if this continues—ECB President Mario Draghi did it on Monday—but no one wants to be the first to take away the punchbowl. It’s still every central bank, and every currency, for itself.

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Prof. John H. Cochrane, writing in the Jan. 25 issue of the Hoover Digest:

Momentous changes are under way in what central banks are and what they do. We’re accustomed to thinking that central banks’ main task is to guide the economy by setting interest rates. Their main tools used to be “open market” operations, that is, purchasing short-term Treasury debt, and short-term lending to banks.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, however, the Federal Reserve . . . has crossed a bright line. Open-market operations do not have direct fiscal consequences, or directly allocate credit. That was the price of the Fed’s independence, allowing it to do one thing—conduct monetary policy—without short-term political pressure. But an agency that allocates credit to specific markets and institutions, or buys assets that expose taxpayers to risks, cannot stay independent of elected, and accountable, officials.

In addition, the Fed is now a gargantuan financial regulator. Its inspectors examine too-big-to-fail banks, come up with creative “stress tests” for them to pass, and haggle over thousands of pages of regulation. When we imagine the Fed of ten years from now, we’re likely to think first of a financial czar, with monetary policy the agency’s boring backwater.

Ben Bernanke: Currency Manipulator

From the WSJ:

Latin America is rightly worried about the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy.

By MARY ANASTASIA O’GRADY

The dollar is our currency, but it’s your problem.

—U.S. Treasury Secretary
John Connally, 1971

In the final televised presidential debate, Mitt Romney promised that if he is elected on Nov. 6 he will “label China a currency manipulator” on “day one” of his presidency. He also pledged to pay more attention to trade with Latin America, noting that the region’s “economy is almost as big as the economy of China.”

To be consistent, Mr. Romney should call out the Federal Reserve on day two for engaging in its own currency manipulation by way of “quantitative easing,” which undermines the value of the dollar relative to Latin American currencies. After all, no one can expect a healthy trade relationship with the region if the Fed is goading U.S. trading partners into competitive currency devaluations.

But that’s not the main reason why a new U.S. president should want to rein in the Fed. The greater worry is the one that International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde warned about at the IMF’s October meeting in Tokyo. Easy money from the central banks of developed countries, she said, creates the risk of “asset price bubbles” in emerging economies.

If history is any guide, such bubbles are likely to lead to financial crises that in turn lead to setbacks in development. Aside from the damage that does to middle-income countries like Brazil, emerging-market financial crises also undermine U.S. economic and geopolitical objectives.

From September 2008 through the end of 2011, Mr. Bernanke’s Fed created $1.8 trillion in new money. But Fed policy makers were only warming up. In September they announced that they will engage in a third round of quantitative easing—that is, more money creation, ostensibly to spur growth and thus bring down unemployment—at a rate of $40 billion per month with no deadline.

With so many dollars sloshing around in U.S. banks and with a fed-funds rate set near zero, investors have found it hard to earn a decent return. The scavenger hunt for yield has sent dollars rushing into emerging markets where, as they are converted into local currency, they put upward pressure on the exchange rate.

Brazil has experienced this in spades. Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega has complained bitterly about it because in his mind the higher relative value of the real makes Brazil worse off.

In Mr. Bernanke’s remarks at the IMF meeting in Tokyo, he suggested that emerging economies ought to simply let their currencies appreciate rather than “resist appreciation” through “currency management.” To do otherwise, he noted, can mean “susceptibility to importing inflation,” which means making Brazilians poorer.

Mr. Bernanke has a point. The closed, heavily regulated Brazilian economy is held back by too much government, not a strong real.

Indeed, the quest for a weak currency to boost exports is counterproductive if the goal is development. As former Salvadoran Finance Minister Manuel Hinds wrote earlier this month for the Atlantic magazine’s new online publication, Quartz, the Brazilian boom in industrial production, which stirred “the idea that [Brazil] would become the engine of the world,” came from “the inflow of dollars that Mr. Mantega hates so much.”

But Mr. Bernanke’s dismissive posture toward emerging economies missed the larger point. As Mr. Hinds also pointed out, “the exceptional prosperity would last only as long as the dollars kept on coming.” And there’s the rub. The boom is an artificially high valuation of the Brazilian economy, produced only because Mr. Bernanke has made the world awash in dollars.

The sustainability issue is troubling. As Bank of England Governor Mervyn King noted in a speech last week: “When the factors leading to a downturn are long-lasting, only continual injections of [monetary] stimulus will suffice to sustain the level of real activity. Obviously, this cannot continue indefinitely.”

In a perfect world, the end of the dollar flows—or a downturn in soaring commodity prices when investor expectations begin to shift—would simply mean an economic slowdown. But booms are almost always accompanied by credit expansions, and Brazil’s is no different. Since 2004, bank credit has grown to 167% of gross domestic product from 97%.

What happens when a leveraged economy, living on accommodative monetary policy, suddenly finds the spigot turned off? Ask Americans who were on the receiving end of Fed tightening in 2007.

In Tokyo, Mr. Bernanke spoke to the world the way former U.S. Treasury Secretary John Connally spoke to the G-10 in Rome in 1971 after the U.S. abandoned the Bretton Woods agreement that had tied the dollar to gold: Get over it. We do what we want.

That attitude wasn’t constructive for Americans or the rest of the world. If some future U.S. president intends to restore American prestige in economic leadership, restoring Fed credibility as a responsible manager of the world’s reserve currency is a necessary first step.