It’s the Fed, Stupid!

A Messaging Tip For The Donald: It’s The Fed, Stupid!

The Fed’s core policies of 2% inflation and 0% interest rates are kicking the economic stuffings out of Flyover AmericaThey are based on the specious academic theory that financial gambling fuels economic growth and that all economic classes prosper from inflation and march in lockstep together as prices and wages ascend on the Fed’s appointed path.

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The New Old World Order

I cite this article because it is quite insightful of the failed political culture in the modern democratic West and particularly the failures of US party elites. It also exposes the larger historical forces at work that suggest the road forward may be rather rocky.

For me this 2016 moment resonates with historical analogies such as the Savonarolan episode in Renaissance Florence that I wrote about in The City of Man, the dissolution of the Weimar Republic in 1930s Germany, and the Iranian Fundamentalist Revolution in 1979. We haven’t reached those precipices yet, but all arrows point in that direction unless we come to grips with our current failures of both modern liberalism and neo-conservatism.

Donald Trump Does Have Ideas—and We’d Better Pay Attention to Them

The post-1989 world order is unraveling. Here are 6 ideas Trump has to replace it.

Politico, September 15, 2016

Ideas really don’t come along that often. Already in 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that in America, “ideas are a sort of mental dust,” that float about us but seldom cohere or hold our attention. For ideas to take hold, they need to be comprehensive and organizing; they need to order people’s experience of themselves and of their world. In 20th-century America, there were only a few ideas: the Progressivism of Wilson; Roosevelt’s New Deal; the Containment Doctrine of Truman; Johnson’s War on Poverty; Reagan’s audacious claim that the Cold War could be won; and finally, the post-1989 order rooted in “globalization” and “identity politics,” which seems to be unraveling before our ey.es.

Yes, Donald Trump is implicated in that unraveling, cavalierly undermining decades worth of social and political certainties with his rapid-fire Twitter account and persona that only the borough of Queens can produce. But so is Bernie Sanders. And so is Brexit. And so are the growing rumblings in Europe, which are all the more dangerous because there is no exit strategy if the European Union proves unsustainable. It is not so much that there are no new ideas for us to consider in 2016; it is more that the old ones are being taken apart without a clear understanding of what comes next. 2016 is the year of mental dust, where notions that stand apart from the post-1989 order don’t fully cohere. The 2016 election will be the first—but not last—test of whether they can.
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If you listen closely to Trump, you’ll hear a direct repudiation of the system of globalization and identity politics that has defined the world order since the Cold War. There are, in fact, six specific ideas that he has either blurted out or thinly buried in his rhetoric: (1) borders matter; (2) immigration policy matters; (3) national interests, not so-called universal interests, matter; (4) entrepreneurship matters; (5) decentralization matters; (6) PC speech—without which identity politics is inconceivable—must be repudiated.

These six ideas together point to an end to the unstable experiment with supra- and sub-national sovereignty that many of our elites have guided us toward, siren-like, since 1989. That is what the Trump campaign, ghastly though it may at times be, leads us toward: A future where states matter. A future where people are citizens, working together toward (bourgeois) improvement of their lot. His ideas do not yet fully cohere. They are a bit too much like mental dust that has yet to come together. But they can come together. And Trump is the first American candidate to bring some coherence to them, however raucous his formulations have been.

***

(Blog Note: It’s Not about Trump.)

Most of the commentary about Trump has treated him as if he is a one-off, as someone who has emerged because of the peculiar coincidence of his larger-than-life self-absorption and the advent of social media platforms that encourage it. When the world becomes a theater for soliloquy and self-aggrandizement, what else are we to expect?
But the Trump-as-one-off argument begins to fall apart when we think about what else happened in politics this year. First of all, Trump is not alone. If he alone had emerged—if there were no Bernie Sanders, no Brexit, no crisis in the EU—it would be justifiable to pay attention only to his peculiarities and to the oddities of the moment. But with these other uprisings occurring this year, it’s harder to dismiss Trump as a historical quirk.

Furthermore, if he had been just a one-off, surely the Republican Party would have been able to contain him, even co-opt him for its own purposes. After all, doesn’t the party decide? The Republican Party is not a one, however, it is a many. William F. Buckley Jr. and others invented the cultural conservatism portion of the party in the 1950s, with the turn to the traditionalism of Edmund Burke; the other big portion of the party adheres to the free-market conservatism of Friedrich Hayek. The third leg of the Republican Party stool, added during the Reagan years, includes evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics of the sort who were still unsure of the implications of Vatican II. To Burke and Hayek, then, add the names John Calvin and Aristotle/Thomas Aquinas. Anyone who really reads these figures knows that the tension between them is palpable. For a time, the three GOP factions were able to form an alliance against Communism abroad and against Progressivism at home. But after the Cold War ended, Communism withered and the culture wars were lost, there has been very little to keep the partnership together. And if it hadn’t been Trump, sooner or later someone else was going to come along and reveal the Republican Party’s inner fault lines. Trump alone might have been the catalyst, but the different factions of the GOP who quickly split over him were more than happy to oblige.

There is another reason why the Republican Party could not contain Trump, a perhaps deeper reason. Michael Oakeshott, an under-read political thinker in the mid-20th century, remarked in his exquisite essay, “Rationalism in Politics,” that one of the more pathological notions of our age is that political life can be understood in terms of “principles” that must be applied to circumstances. Politics-as-engineering, if you will. Republicans themselves succumbed to this notion, and members of the rank and file have noticed. Republicans stood for “the principles of the constitution,” for “the principles of the free market,” etc. The problem with standing for principles is that it allows you to remain unsullied by the political fray, to stand back and wait until yet another presidential election cycle when “our principles” can perhaps be applied. And if we lose, it’s OK, because we still have “our principles.” What Trump has been able to seize upon is growing dissatisfaction with this endless deferral, the sociological arrangement for which looks like comfortable Inside-the-Beltway Republicans defending “principles” and rank-and-file Republicans far from Washington-Babylon watching in horror and disgust.

Any number of commentators (and prominent Republican Party members) have said that Trump is an anti-ideas candidate. If we are serious about understanding our political moment, we have to be very clear about what this can mean. It can mean Trump’s administration will involve the-politics-of-will, so to speak; that the only thing that will matter in government will be what Trump demands. Or, it can mean that Trump is not a candidate who believes in “principles” at all. This is probably the more accurate usage. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he is unprincipled; it means rather that he doesn’t believe that yet another policy paper based on conservative “principles” is going to save either America or the Republican Party. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville was clear that the spirit of democracy is not made possible by great ideas (and certainly not by policy papers), but rather by practical, hands-on experience with self-governance. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s mystical musings in his essay, “Experience,” corroborate this. American democracy will not be rejuvenated by yet another policy paper from the Inside-the-Beltway gang. What I am not saying here is that Trump has the wisdom of an Oakeshott, a Tocqueville or an Emerson. What I am saying is that Trump is that quintessentially American figure, hated by intellectuals on both sides of the aisle and on the other side of the Atlantic, who doesn’t start with a “plan,” but rather gets himself in the thick of things and then moves outward to a workable idea—not a “principled” one—that can address the problem at hand, but which goes no further. That’s what American businessmen and women do. (And, if popular culture is a reliable guide to America, it is what Han Solo always does in Star Wars movies.) We would do well not to forget that the only school of philosophy developed in America has been Pragmatism. This second meaning of being an anti-ideas candidate is consonant with it.

If, as some have said, Trump’s only idea is, “I can solve it,” then we are in real trouble. The difficulty, of course, is that in this new, Trumpean moment when politics is unabashed rhetoric, it is very difficult to discern the direction a Trump administration will take us. Will he be the tyrant some fear, or the pragmatist that is needed?

It’s not unreasonable to think the latter. This is because, against the backdrop of post-1989 ideas, the Trump campaign does indeed have a nascent coherence. “Globalization” and “identity politics” are a remarkable configuration of ideas, which have sustained America, and much of the rest of the world, since 1989. With a historical eye—dating back to the formal acceptance of the state-system with the treaty of Westphalia in 1648—we see what is so remarkable about this configuration: It presumes that sovereignty rests not with the state, but with supra-national organizations—NAFTA, WTO, the U.N., the EU, the IMF, etc.—and with subnational sovereign sites that we name with the term “identity.” So inscribed in our post-1989 vernacular is the idea of “identity” that we can scarcely imagine ourselves without reference to our racial, gender, ethnic, national, religious and/or tribal “identity.” Once, we aspired to be citizens who abided by the rule of law prescribed within a territory; now we have sovereign “identities,” and wander aimlessly in a world without borders, with our gadgets in hand to distract us, and our polemics in mind to repudiate the disbelievers.

What, exactly, is the flaw with this remarkable post-1989 configuration of ideas? When you start thinking in terms of management by global elites at the trans-state level and homeless selves at the substate level that seek, but never really find, comfort in their “identities,” the consequences are significant: Slow growth rates (propped up by debt-financing) and isolated citizens who lose interest in building a world together. Then of course, there’s the rampant crony-capitalism that arises when, in the name of eliminating “global risk” and providing various forms of “security,” the collusion between ever-growing state bureaucracies and behemoth global corporations creates a permanent class of winners and losers. Hence, the huge disparities of wealth we see in the world today.

The post-1989 order of things fails to recognize that the state matters, and engaged citizens matter. The state is the largest possible unit of organization that allows for the political liberty and economic improvement of its citizens, in the long term. This arrangement entails competition, risk, success and failure. But it does lead to growth, citizen-involvement, and if not a full measure of happiness, then at least the satisfactions that competence and merit matter.

Trump, then, with his promise of a future in which the integrity of the state matters, and where citizens identify with the state because they have a stake in it rather than with identity-driven subgroups, proposes a satisfying alternative.

This is also why it would be a big mistake to underestimate Trump and the ideas he represents during this election. In the pages of the current issue of POLITICO Magazine, one author writes: “The Trump phenomenon is about cultural resentment, anger and most of all Trump. It’s primal-scream politics, a middle finger pointed at The Other, a nostalgia for a man-cave America where white dudes didn’t have to be so politically correct.”
I have no doubt that right now, somewhere in America (outside the Beltway), there are self-congratulatory men, probably white, huddled together in some smoky man-cave, with “Make America Great Again” placards on their John-Deere-tractor-mowed lawns.
But do not mistake the part for the whole. What is going on is that “globalization-and-identity-politics-speak” is being boldly challenged. Inside the Beltway, along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, there is scarcely any evidence of this challenge. There are people in those places who will vote for Trump, but they dare not say it, for fear of ostracism. They think that identity politics has gone too far, or that if it hasn’t yet gone too far, there is no principled place where it must stop. They believe that the state can’t be our only large-scale political unit, but they see that on the post-1989 model, there will, finally, be no place for the state. Out beyond this hermetically sealed bicoastal consensus, there are Trump placards everywhere, not because citizens are racists or homophobes or some other vermin that needs to be eradicated, but because there is little evidence in their own lives that this vast post-1989 experiment with “globalization” and identity politics has done them much good.

The opposition to the post-1989 order is not just happening here in America; it is happening nearly everywhere. The Brexit vote stunned only those who believe in their bones that the very arc of history ends with “globalization” and identity politics.
The worry is that this powerful, growing disaffection with the status quo—both within Europe and elsewhere—will devolve into nefarious nationalism based on race, ethnicity or religion. To combat this, we are going to have to find constructive ways to build a new set of ideas around a very old set of ideas about sovereignty—namely, that the state and the citizens inside it matter. If we don’t find a way to base nationalism on a healthy understanding of what a liberal state is and what it does and expects from citizens to make it work well, dark nationalism, based on blood and religion, will prevail—again.
Nothing lasts forever. Is that not the mantra of the left? Why, then, would the ideas of globalization and identity politics not share the fate of all ideas that have their day then get tossed into the dust-bin of history?

***
Of course, when new ideas take hold, old institutional arrangements face upheaval or implosion. There is no post-election scenario in which the Republican Party as we knew it prior to Trump remains intact. The Republicans who vote for Hillary Clinton will not be forgotten by those who think Trump is the one chance Republicans have to stop “globalization-and-identity-politics-speak” cold in its tracks. And neither will Inside-the-Beltway Republicans forget those in their party who are about to pull the lever for Trump. One can say that Trump has revealed what can be called The Aristotle Problem in the Republican Party. Almost every cultural conservative with whom I have spoken recently loves Aristotle and hates Trump. That is because on Aristotelian grounds, Trump lacks character, moderation, propriety and magnanimity. He is, as they put it, “unfit to serve.” The sublime paradox is that Republican heirs of Aristotle refuse to vote for Trump, but will vote for Clinton and her politically left-ish ideas that, while very much adopted to the American political landscape, trace their roots to Marx and to Nietzsche. Amazingly, cultural conservatives who have long blamed Marx and Nietzsche (and German philosophy as a whole) for the decay of the modern world would now rather not vote for an American who expressly opposes Marx and Nietzsche’s ideas! In the battle between Athens, Berlin and, well, the borough of Queens, they prefer Athens first, Berlin second and Queens not at all. The Aristotle Problem shows why these two groups—the #NeverTrumpers and the current Republicans who will vote for Trump—will never be reconciled.

There are, then, two developments we are likely to see going forward. First, cultural conservatives will seriously consider a political “Benedict Option,” dropping out of the Republican Party and forming a like-minded Book Group, unconcerned with winning elections and very concerned with maintaining their “principles.” Their fidelity is to Aristotle rather than to winning the battle for the political soul of America. The economic conservatives, meanwhile, will be urged to stay within the party—provided they focus on the problem of increasing the wealth of citizens within the state.

The other development, barely talked about, is very interesting and already underway, inside the Trump campaign. It involves the effort to convince Americans as a whole that they are not well-served by thinking of themselves as members of different “identity groups” who are owed a debt that—surprise!—Very White Progressives on the left will pay them if they loyally vote for the Democratic Party. The Maginot Line the Democratic Party has drawn purports to include on its side, African-Americans, Hispanics, gays, Muslims and women. (Thus, the lack of embarrassment, really, about the “basket of deplorables” reference to Trump supporters.) To its credit, the Democratic Party has made the convincing case, really since the Progressive Era in the early part of the 20th century, that the strong state is needed to rearrange the economy and society, so that citizens may have justice. Those who vote for the Democratic Party today are not just offered government program assistance, they are offered political protections and encouragements for social arrangements of one sort or another that might not otherwise emerge.

But where does this use of political power to rearrange the economy and society end? Continue using political power in the service of “identity politics” to reshape the economy and society and eventually both of them will become so enfeebled that they no longer work at all. The result will not be greater liberty for the oppressed, it will be the tyranny of the state over all. Trump does have sympathies for a strong state; but correctly or incorrectly, he has managed to convince his supporters that a more independent economy and society matters. In such an arrangement, citizens see their first support as the institutions of society (the family, religion, civic associations), their second support as a relatively free market, and their third support as the state, whose real job is to defend the country from foreign threats. Under these arrangements, citizens do not look upward to the state to confirm, fortify and support their “identities.” Rather, they look outward to their neighbor, who they must trust to build a world together. Only when the spell of identity politics is broken can this older, properly liberal, understanding take hold. That is why Trump is suggesting to these so-called identity groups that there is an alternative to the post-1989 worldview that Clinton and the Democratic Party are still pushing.

Now that Trump has disrupted the Republican Party beyond repair, the success of the future Republican Party will hang on whether Americans come to see themselves as American citizens before they see themselves as bearers of this or that “identity.” The Very White Progressives who run the Democratic Party have an abiding interest in the latter narrative, because holding on to support of entire identity groups helps them win elections. But I do not think it can be successful much longer, in part because it is predicated on the continual growth of government, which only the debt-financing can support. Our debt-financed binge is over, or it will be soon. The canary in the coal mine—now starting to sing—is the African-American community, which has, as a whole, been betrayed by a Democratic Party that promises through government largesse that its burden shall be eased. Over the past half-century nothing has been further from the truth, especially in high-density inner-city regions. While it receives little media attention, there are African-Americans who are dubious about the arrangement by which the Democratic Party expects them to abide. A simultaneously serious and humorous example of this is the long train of videos posted on YouTube by “Diamond and Silk.” To be sure, the current polls show that Trump has abysmal ratings among minorities. If he wins the election, he will have to succeed in convincing them that he offers an alternative to permanent government assistance and identity politics consciousness-raising that, in the end, does them little good; and that through the alternative he offers there is a hope of assimilation into the middle class. A tall order, to be sure.

These observations are not to be confused as a ringing endorsement for a Republican Party that does not yet exist, and perhaps never will exist. But they are warning, of sorts, about impending changes that cannot be laughed off. The Republicans have at least been given a gift, in the disruption caused by Trump. The old alliances within it were held together by a geopolitical fact-on-the-ground that no longer exists: the Cold War. Now long behind us, a new geopolitical moment, where states once again matter, demands new alliances and new ideas. With the defeat of Bernie Sanders in the primaries, Democrats have been denied their gift, and will lumber on, this 2016, with “globalization-and-identity-politics-speak,” hoping to defend the world order that is predicated on it. If Sanders had won, the Democrats would have put down their identity politics narrative and returned to claims about “class” and class consciousness; they would have put down the banner of Nietzsche and taken up the banner of Marx, again. And that would have been interesting! Alas, here we are, with, on the one hand, tired old post-1989 ideas in the Democratic Party searching for one more chance to prove that they remain vibrant and adequate to the problems at hand; and on the other, seemingly strange, ideas that swirl around us like mental dust waiting to coalesce.

 

Book Review: Makers and Takers

Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business by Rana Foroohar

Crown Business; 1st edition (May 17, 2016)

Ms. Foroohar does a fine job of journalistic reporting here. She identifies many of the failures of the current economic policy regime that has led to the dominance of the financial industry. She follows the logical progression of central bank credit policy to inflate the banking system, that in turn captures democratic politics and policymaking in a vicious cycle of anti-democratic cronyism.

However, her ability to follow the money and power is not matched by an ability to analyze the true cause and effect and thus misguides her proposed solutions. Typical of a journalistic narrative, she identifies certain “culprits” in this story: the bankers and policymakers who favor them. But the true cause of this failed paradigm of easy credit and debt is found in the central bank and monetary policy.

Since 1971 the Western democracies have operated under a global fiat currency regime, where the value of the currencies are based solely on the full faith and credit of the various governments. In the case of the US$, that represents the taxing power of our Federal government in D.C.

The unfortunate reality, based on polling the American people (and Europeans) on trust in government, is that trust in our governmental institutions has plunged from almost 80% in 1964 to less than 20% today. Our 2016 POTUS campaign reflects this deep mistrust in the status quo and the political direction of the country. For good reason. So, what is the value of a dollar if nobody trusts the government to defend it? How does one invest under that uncertainty? You don’t.

One would hope Ms. Foroohar would ask, how did we get here? The essential cause is cheap excess credit, as has been experienced in financial crises all through history. The collapse of Bretton Woods in 1971, when the US repudiated the dollar gold conversion, called the gold peg, has allowed central banks to fund excessive government spending on cheap credit – exploding our debt obligations to the tune of $19 trillion. There seems to be no end in sight as the Federal Reserve promises to write checks without end.

Why has this caused the complete financialization of the economy? Because real economic growth depends on technology and demographics and cannot keep up with 4-6% per year. So the excess credit goes into asset speculation, mostly currency, commodity, and securities trading. This explosion of trading has amped incentives to develop new financial technologies and instruments to trade. Thus, we have the explosion of derivatives trading, which essentially is trading on trading, ad infinitum. Thus, Wall Street finance has come to be dominated by trading and socialized risk-taking rather than investing and private risk management.

After 2001 the central bank decided housing as an asset class was ripe for a boom, and that’s what we got: a debt-fueled bubble that we’ve merely re-inflated since 2008. There is a fundamental value to a house, and in most regions we have far departed from it.

So much money floating through so few hands naturally ends up in the political arena to influence policy going forward. Thus, not only is democratic politics corrupted, but so are any legal regulatory restraints on banking and finance. The simplistic cure of “More regulation!” is belied by the ease with which the bureaucratic regulatory system is captured by powerful interests.

The true problem is the policy paradigm pushed by the consortium of central banks in Europe, Japan, China, and the US. (The Swiss have resisted, but not out of altruism for the poor savers of the world.) Until monetary/credit policy in the free world becomes tethered and disciplined by something more than the promises of politicians and central bankers, we will continue full-speed off the eventual cliff. But our financial masters see this eventuality as a great buying opportunity.

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

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

– John Maynard Keynes

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

Reprinted from The Guardian, Thursday 25 August 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helicopter Money

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

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

Aug 5, 2016 5:41 AM EDT

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

What is Helicopter Money? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ZIRP Perps: Fed

 

Bill Gross Says a $10 Trillion Economic Supernova is Waiting to Explode

With massive losses for bondholders.

“Bond king” Bill Gross did not mince words Thursday when he called out a problem in the credit markets that could have catastrophic consequences.

In a tweet though his firm, Janus Capital JNS 2.59% , Gross asserted that the spread of negative interest rate policy though central banks around the world will cause the record-breaking $10.4 trillion of negative-interest-rate sovereign bonds on the market to “explode one day.” 

Gross has often noted that negative interest rates could lead to a credit bubble with massive damages to bondholders. Here’s at least part of the reason why:

Negative interest rates have been adopted by stunted economies in Japan and parts of the eurozone in a bid to promote spending where more conventional policies have failed. The policy effectively causes bondholders to pay the issuer if they hold it to maturity. But demand for the bonds is still growing. That’s because there are positives to buying bonds with negative interest rates—they generally promise lower risk. Banks in the euro currency bloc are also piling in as a result of higher capital requirements. And since yields have an inverse relationship to price, demand has helped push down yields.

“Unconventional monetary policies, regulatory risk mitigation by banks, and a flight to safety in global financial markets have all contributed to the ongoing rise in the amount of sovereign debt trading with a negative yield,” head of macro credit at Fitch, Robert Grossman, wrote in a note earlier this month.

While some investors are trudging through lower yields, others investors have been driven to riskier and/or higher yielding areas—such as U.S. treasuries and longer maturity bonds. But should yields rise, investors holding such bonds could also face massive losses.

Goldman Sachs released a note to clients earlier this month, estimating if U.S. interest rates rise by 1% (noting that the rate is currently 0.25%), bondholders could lose $1 trillion as the value of the underlying bond falls and yields rise, hitting securities with longer maturities the hardest. That exceeds the losses from mortgage-backed bonds during the financial crisis.

Gross, who runs the $1.4 billion Janus Global Unconstrained Bond Fund, is not the only major investor to decry negative interest rates. DoubleLine’s Jeff Gundlach called the policy “the stupidest idea I have ever experienced,” Reuters reported, while BlackRock’s Larry Fink wrote in his most recent letter to investors: “Not nearly enough attention has been paid to the toll these low rates—and now negative rates—are taking on the ability of investors to save and plan for the future.”

bond bubble

Disconnects

…between central bank policies, economic growth and unemployment. Stockman distinctly and colorfully explains why we are experiencing 1-2% growth these days. I’m not sure any of the candidates for POTUS have a good answer for this…It’s a sad commentary on our intellectual and political leaders.

Losing Ground In Flyover America, Part 2

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.

Flyover CPI vs PCE Since 1999

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.

growth chart

Statistical Fixations

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.

inflation-vs-employment

Unicorns, Tooth Fairies, and Free Markets

The most frequent criticism of free markets lies in their comparison to unicorns, fairies, and leprechauns. In other words, they exist only in our imaginations and thus are unworthy of serious discussion. This is sheer nonsense. It is like denying the value of Plato’s ideal forms as a means of comparison and judgment. Democracy also does not exist in its pure, idealistic form, so, is it a useless figment of our imaginations? I don’t believe so.

Free markets should be thought of as markets for free people, much like democracy is a political market for free people. In terms of exchange, people are free when buyer and seller can either mutually agree on an exchange or walk away. This freedom obtains best when there are lots of competing and comparable alternatives to any particular good or service. Also, voluntary action is enhanced when the terms of the transaction are transparent to both parties. Some markets offer better and more options than others, while some are more transparent than others, so markets are defined along a continuum from “free” to “unfree.” The whole thrust of free market theory is to point us in the right direction.

Oddly enough, the failure of unfree, or controlled, markets is often cited as proof that markets don’t work. This is like pulling the wheels off my car and then stating that since it can’t go anywhere, cars are a poor form of transportation. Such arguments should be the butt of jokes, not serious debate. Some may qualify this argument by saying some markets are easier to manipulate or control by narrow interests or are less transparent, and thus need to be regulated by a disinterested third party such as a government bureaucracy. But that just begs the more important question over what means will insure that any particular market becomes freer?

Regulation vs. Competition

We can’t really answer this question without a careful analysis of behavioral incentives, of both the economic and political variety. It is widely accepted that economic and political actors pursue their narrow self-interests, with economic behavior determined by loss aversion and profit/utility maximization and political behavior more influenced by power, status, and control. These behaviors dovetail in real people as we all seek to survive by pursuing wealth, power, and control over our own destinies. When we scrape beneath the surface we find that survival is more about not losing (loss aversion), than winning (big rewards).

We would assume from these incentives that most actors would like to manipulate markets to their personal advantage, so how do we constrain or redirect this?

Most people would look to contract law as the explanation for what keeps us honest, but that offers only a narrow understanding of how markets work. We make dozens, if not hundreds, of market transactions every day and very few ever reach that threshold where we feel the need to consult legal counsel or call our Congressperson in Washington. Instead, we rely on more efficient means, such as trust, reciprocity, the implicit value of repeat business, and competing alternatives to guide our choices.

This point about competing alternatives is crucial because while trust, reciprocity, and relationships help ameliorate the need for transparency, competition gives us freedom of choice. Anti-competitive monopolies are considered economic evils because they control the market for their product or service, so consumers must pay their price or go without. (Likewise why we despise political tyranny.) Critics often deride market capitalism as a competitive conflictual system, but that too is a myopic point of view. Markets foster cooperation as much as competition, and many of the transactions in economic markets are win-win positive sum games rather than win-lose zero-sum games.

Think about it: Sellers compete among themselves in order to develop a long-term cooperative relationship with their buyers and suppliers. Ever wonder why a department store takes back that dress or pair of shoes you bought last week because you changed your mind? That doesn’t seem in their immediate profit interest, but it does when you consider how the retailer values repeat business against the freedom you have to take your business elsewhere.

It is not laws or regulatory watchdogs but open competition under accepted market rules that constrains most of our selfish economic behavior. In addition, market competitors have the biggest incentive to insure all play by the established rules, thus they are the watchdogs. This implies the need for transparency. Third party regulatory agencies are inadequate to the task of monitoring the multitude of transactions in markets, especially financial markets. For example, the banking industry is the most regulated industry in the US, and yet the financial crisis of “too big to fail” revealed how ineffective that regulation was. So the test should not be regulation OR competition, but regulation FOR competition. Financial markets in particular need to be open, transparent, and competitive to constrain behavior that risks the integrity of the financial system. In financial markets, failure is a big inducement for prudence.

For an illustrative case, consider the policy response to the financial crisis of 2008, the 2010 Dodd-Frank law. Under that legislation, “too big to fail” banks have gotten even bigger, while 1,500 community banks—the source of half of all loans to local businesses—reportedly have been destroyed. The remaining community banks have had to hire 50% more compliance staff just to keep up with the regulations. That means far less competition among lenders to serve borrowers and more concentrated finance that does not respond to the bankruptcy constraint. It means a far less efficient and just credit market and far more control centralized in a financial oligopoly seeking to influence the policymaking process in its favor. According to the practice of regulatory capture – where lobbyists “buy” politicians with campaign contributions to formulate policy to constrain their competitors – we’ve discovered too often that big government mostly works for big business, the powerful, the wealthy and the well-connected to the detriment of open and honest competition among free people.

One could make the same argument against health care reform under the Affordable Care Act. Has policy made the market more open, transparent, and competitive, or less? Health care provision is really about competition and abundance in the supply of health care rather than the price and distribution of access. With an abundance of competitive health care providers, price and access take care of themselves.

The most important argument in favor of markets is the crucial role they play in providing information feedback signals. Free markets provide the most accurate and essential signals to consumers and producers needed to make efficient economic decisions, like comparing alternatives to maximize preferences, or where to invest and how much to produce, and how to adapt to changing market conditions. These signals are embodied in prices and inventory quantities and without these, producers are operating in the dark about what people want. Hayek was the first to point out the lack of private exchange markets would make central planning under socialism untenable over time. He was right.

Market failures do exist and we don’t live in a world of idealized free markets. But in addressing those failures we should strive not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, because free markets support free people and that’s the bottom line.

Besides, it would be heartbreaking to admit to our children that this is best we can do when it comes to unicorns and tooth fairies:

adult-unicorn-costume toothfairy1

America’s Bank – A Review

Interesting book review with highlights of the history of the Federal Reserve. We should keep in mind that all financial crashes are rooted in excess credit creation. Unconstrained credit creation has now become the primary strategy of our central banks.

An All Too Visible Hand

When Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act into law in 1913, the very idea of a macroeconomy—something to be measured and managed—was yet to be invented

By James Grant

The Federal Reserve is America’s problem and the world’s obsession. When will Janet Yellen choose to lift the federal-funds rate from its longtime resting place of zero, thereby upending or not upending (it depends on whom you ask) individuals and markets in all four corners of the earth? Her subjects await a sign. While tapping their feet, they may ponder how things ever came to this pass. How, indeed, did such all-powerful body come into existence in the first place—and why?

Roger Lowenstein’s “America’s Bank,” which chronicles the passage of the 1913 Federal Reserve Act, is victor’s history. Its worldview is that of today’s central bankers, the bailers-out of markets, suppressors of interest rates and practitioners of money conjuring. In Mr. Lowenstein’s telling, what preceded the coming of the Federal Reserve was a financial and monetary dark age. What followed was the truth and the light.

It sticks in the craw of good Democrats that, in 1832, their own Andrew Jackson vetoed the rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States, the predecessor of the Federal Reserve. Just as galling is the fact that Old Hickory’s veto message is today counted as one of America’s great state papers. In it, Jackson denies to Congress the power to delegate its constitutionally given duty to “coin money and regulate the value thereof.” To do so, Jackson affirmed, would render the Constitution a “dead letter.”

America’s Bank

By Roger Lowenstein

Mr. Lowenstein contends that, in the creation of the Federal Reserve 80 years later, Congress and the people commendably put that hard-money Jacksonian claptrap behind them. Mandarin rule is the way forward in monetary policy, he suggests—the Ph.D. standard, as one might call it, under which former tenured economics faculty exercise vast discretionary power over the value of money and the course of interest rates, financial markets and business activity. Give Mr. Lowenstein this much: As the world awaits the raising of the Fed’s minuscule interest rate, the questions he provokes have never been timelier. Not for the first time the thoughtful citizen must wonder: What’s money and who says so?

When Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act into law in 1913, the dollar was defined as a weight of gold. You could exchange the paper for the metal, and vice versa, at a fixed and statutory rate. The stockholders of nationally chartered banks were responsible for the solvency of the institutions in which they owned a fractional interest. The average level of prices could fall, as it had done in the final decades of the 19th century, or rise, as it had begun to do in the early 20th, without inciting countermeasures to arrest the change and return the price level to some supposed desirable average. The very idea of a macroeconomy—something to be measured and managed—was uninvented. Who or what was in charge of American finance? Principally, Adam Smith’s invisible hand.

How well could such a primitive system have possibly functioned? In “The New York Money Market and the Finance of Trade, 1900-1913,” a scholarly study published in 1969, the British economist C.A.E. Goodhart concluded thus: “On the basis of its record, the financial system as constituted in the years 1900-1913 must be considered to have been successful to an extent rarely equalled in the United States.”

The belle epoque was not to be confused with paradise, of course. The Panic of 1907 was a national embarrassment. There were too many small banks for which no real diversification, of either assets or liabilities, was possible. The Treasury Department was wont to throw its considerable resources into the money market to effect an artificial reduction in interest rates—in this manner substituting a very visible hand for the other kind.

Mr. Lowenstein has written long and well on contemporary financial topics in such books as “When Genius Failed” (2000) and “While America Aged” (2008). Here he seems to forget that the past is a foreign country. “Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth,” he contends, “the United States—alone among the industrial powers—suffered a continual spate of financial panics, bank runs, money shortages and, indeed, full-blown depressions.”

If this were even half correct, American history would have taken a hard left turn. For instance, William Jennings Bryan, arch-inflationist of the Populist Era, would not have lost the presidency on three occasions. Had he beaten William McKinley in 1896, he would very likely have signed a silver-standard act into law, sparking inflation by cheapening the currency. As it was, President McKinley signed the Gold Standard Act of 1900, which wrote the gold dollar into the statute books.

The doctrine that interest rates are the Federal Reserve’s to manage has come to be regarded, at least by the mandarins, as settled science. It was not so when the heroes of Mr. Lowenstein’s story were conspiring to create a new central bank. Abram Piatt Andrew Jr. took to the scholarly journals to denounce the government’s attempts to pin down money-market interest rates.

Indiana-born, Andrew came East to study, taught economics at Harvard and lent his talents to the National Monetary Commission in 1909 and 1910—the group that conducted the field work to prepare for the grand banking reform. Somewhere along the line, he conceived the idea that the money market should be free of federal manipulation. As prices had been rising—a gentle inflation had begun just before the turn of the 20th century—interest rates should have followed prices higher. That they did not was the complaint that Andrew laid at the doorstep of the government.

Andrew contended that the Treasury Department—under Lyman J. Gage, who served from 1897 to 1902, and his successor, Leslie M. Shaw, who resigned in 1907—“succeeded in keeping the money rate of interest below the rate which would have been ‘normal’ or ‘natural.’ . . . They had kept alive a continuously excessive demand for credit by making it available at less than the normal cost. They had sown the wind and their successor was to reap the whirlwind.”

It is an indictment that comes ready-written against the Federal Reserve’s policy today. Interest rates are prices. Far better that they be discovered in the marketplace than administered from on high. One has to wonder what Andrew would say if he were spirited back to earth to read a random edition of this newspaper in the seventh year of the Fed’s attempt to create prosperity through the technique of zero-percent interest rates. He might want a quiet word with Ms. Yellen.

Andrew is not the only vivid personality in this tale of unintended consequences. Mr. Lowenstein entertainingly limns a gallery of them: Paul Warburg, a German-banker immigrant eager to import European ideas into his adopted country; Carter Glass, an irritable Virginia newspaperman turned congressman (later senator) and currency reformer; Nelson Aldrich, a suspiciously affluent Rhode Island senator and central-bank exponent; Robert Owen, a former Indian agent from the Oklahoma Territory who pushed the Federal Reserve Act through the Senate; William Gibbs McAdoo Jr., the Treasury secretary who married the boss’s daughter; that boss himself, Woodrow Wilson; and Frank Vanderlip, president of what today is Citigroup.

Vanderlip, not alone among his fellow agitators for a central bank, was keen on the gold standard and “fervent,” as Mr. Lowenstein puts it, in his “denunciations of government control.” Here is a fine piece of irony. Government control is exactly what the authors of the Federal Reserve Act unintentionally achieved, though Andrew, at least, might have anticipated this public-policy reversal. He noticed that, under Leslie Shaw’s meddling stewardship in the early years of the 20th century, the Treasury had shifted government deposits to private institutions in times of crisis. “Outside relief in business, like outdoor charity,” as Mr. Lowenstein quotes him saying, “is apt to diminish the incentives to providence, and to slacken the forces of self-help.”

Centralized government control arrived in force with the Banking Act of 1935. It established the centralization of monetary power within the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, and it repealed the so-called double-liability law on bank stocks: No more would the holders of common stocks in failed banks be assessed to help defray the debts of the institutions in which they had invested. Anyway, there would be precious few failures to deal with, proponents of the new thinking contended. Knowing that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. stood behind their money, depositors would give up running; they would rather walk to the bank.

The new doctrines repulsed H. Parker Willis, a key player during the organization of the Fed and later a professor of banking at Columbia University. “It is far better, both for the depositor and the banker,” said Willis of the FDIC, “that the actual net irreducible losses growing out of bank failure should fall where they belong. The universal experience with this kind of insurance—if it may be called—has pointed to the danger of increasing losses as the result of bad banking management induced by belief in deposit guarantee.”

Willis didn’t imagine the half of it. On top of deposit insurance evolved the notion that some banks—Citi, for instance—were too big to fail. They must be nurtured through subsidy and bank-friendly monetary policy: low money-market interest rates, for example. It happened that the Citigroup that evolved from Vanderlip’s National City Bank became a ward of the state in 2008. The massive federal bailout of Citi exacted many costs, including a level of regulatory micromanagement that Vanderlip could not have begun to conceive.

J.P. Morgan Chase, which did not fail in 2008, recently went public to describe the intensity of the federal oversight it labors under. More than 950 employees, it revealed, are dedicated to complying with 750 requirements laid down by 21 government entities to achieve and maintain capital adequacy. The Fed itself is high among those demanding overseers. The workers shuffle 20,000 pages of documentation and manipulate 225 econometric models.

The rage to micromanage spans the world. “It can’t be,” the head of Sweden’s Nordea Bank was quoted forlornly saying last year in the Financial Times, “that the only purpose of banking is to stop banks from going bankrupt.” Oh, yes it can.

One thinks back to the supposed financial dark ages when, in 1842, New Orleans bankers, setting down a kind of operational manifesto, succeeded in committing the essentials of safe and sound banking practice to one side of one page. They prospered by simple maxims—e.g., do what you will with your own capital but do not abuse the depositor’s funds—well after the Civil War. Some may protest that banking has become more complex since those days. The boggling, 23,000-page length of the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (complete with supporting rules) would suggest that it has become 23,000 times more complex. I doubt that.

The legislation to which President Wilson affixed his signature in 1913—Mr. Lowenstein observantly notes that he signed with gold pens—included no intimation of the revolutionary techniques of monetary control that would come into being after 2008: zero-percent interest rates, “quantitative easing,” and central-bank-sponsored bull markets in stocks and real estate, among others.

The great value of “America’s Bank” is the comparison it invites between what lawmakers intend and what they achieve. The act’s preamble described a modest effort “to provide for the establishment of the Federal Reserve banks, to furnish an elastic currency, to afford means of rediscounting commercial paper and to establish a more effective supervision of banking in the United States and for other purposes.” “And for other purposes”—our ancestors should have known.

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