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Alan Greenspan Admits Ron Paul Was Right About Gold – Article by Ryan McMaken

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Categories: Economics, History, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
Ryan McMaken
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In the next issue of The Austrian, David Gordon reviews Sebatian Mallaby’s new book, The Man Who Knew, about the career of Alan Greenspan. Mallaby points out that prior to his career at the Fed, Greenspan exhibited a keen understanding of the gold standard and how free markets work. In spite of this contradiction, Mallaby takes a rather benign view toward Greenspan.

However, in his review, Gordon asks the obvious question: If Greenspan knew all this so well, isn’t it all the more worthy of condemnation that Greenspan then abandoned these ideas so readily to advance his career?

Perhaps not surprisingly, now that his career at the Fed has ended, Old Greenspan — the one who defends free markets — has now returned.

This reversion to his former self has been going on for several years, and Greenspan reiterates this fact yet again in a recent interview with Gold Investor magazine. Greenspan is now a fount of sound historical information about the historical gold standard:

I view gold as the primary global currency. It is the only currency, along with silver, that does not require a counterparty signature. Gold, however, has always been far more valuable per ounce than silver. No one refuses gold as payment to discharge an obligation. Credit instruments and fiat currency depend on the credit worthiness of a counterparty. Gold, along with silver, is one of the only currencies that has an intrinsic value. It has always been that way. No one questions its value, and it has always been a valuable commodity, first coined in Asia Minor in 600 BC.

The gold standard was operating at its peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period of extraordinary global prosperity, characterised by firming productivity growth and very little inflation.

But today, there is a widespread view that the 19th century gold standard didn’t work. I think that’s like wearing the wrong size shoes and saying the shoes are uncomfortable! It wasn’t the gold standard that failed; it was politics. World War I disabled the fixed exchange rate parities and no country wanted to be exposed to the humiliation of having a lesser exchange rate against the US dollar than itenjoyed in 1913.

Britain, for example, chose to return to the gold standard in 1925 at the same exchange rate it had in 1913 relative to the US dollar (US$4.86 per pound sterling). That was a monumental error by Winston Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer. It induced a severe deflation for Britain in the late 1920s, and the Bank of England had to default in 1931. It wasn’t the gold standard that wasn’t functioning; it was these pre-war parities that didn’t work. All wanted to return to pre-war exchange rate parities, which, given the different degree of war and economic destruction from country to country, rendered this desire, in general, wholly unrealistic.

Today, going back on to the gold standard would be perceived as an act of desperation. But if the gold standard were in place today we would not have reached the situation in which we now find ourselves.

Greenspan then says nice things about Paul Volcker’s high-interest-rate policy:

Paul Volcker was brought in as chairman of the Federal Reserve, and he raised the Federal Fund rate to 20% to stem the erosion [of the dollar’s value during the inflationary 1970s]. It was a very destabilising period and by far the most effective monetary policy in the history of the Federal Reserve. I hope that we don’t have to repeat that exercise to stabilise the system. But it remains an open question.

Ultimately, though, Greenspan claims that central-bank policy can be employed to largely imitate a gold standard:

When I was Chair of the Federal Reserve I used to testify before US Congressman Ron Paul, who was a very strong advocate of gold. We had some interesting discussions. I told him that US monetary policy tried to follow signals that a gold standard would have created. That is sound monetary policy even with a fiat currency. In that regard, I told him that even if we had gone back to the gold standard, policy would not have changed all that much.

This is a rather strange claim, however. It is impossible to know what signals a gold standard “would have” created in the absence of the current system of fiat currencies. It is, of course, impossible to recreate the global economy under a gold standard in an economy and guess how the system might be imitated in real life. This final explanation appears to be more the sort of thing that Greenspan tells himself so he can reconcile his behavior at the fed with what he knows about gold and markets.

Nor does this really address Ron Paul’s concerns, expressed for years, toward Greenspan and his successors. Even if monetary policymakers were attempting to somehow replicate a gold-standard environment, Paul’s criticism was always that the outcome of the current monetary regime can be shown to be dangerous for a variety of reasons. Among these problems are enormous debt loads and stagnating real incomes due to inflation. Moreover, thanks to Cantillon effects, monetarily-induced inflation has the worst impact on lower-income households.

Even Greenspan admits this is the case with debt: “We would never have reached this position of extreme indebtedness were we on the gold standard, because the gold standard is a way of ensuring that fiscal policy never gets out of line.”

Certainly, debt loads have taken off since Nixon closed the gold window in 1971, breaking the last link with gold:

Ryan W. McMaken is the editor of Mises Daily and The Free Market. He has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre. 

This article was published on Mises.org and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

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Central Banks Should Stop Paying Interest on Reserves – Article by Brendan Brown

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Categories: Economics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
Brendan Brown
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In 2008, the Federal Reserve began paying interest on reserve balances held on deposit at the Fed. It took more than seven decades from the US leaving the gold standard — in 1933 — for the fiat regime to do this and thus revoke a cardinal element of the old gold-based monetary system: the non-payment of any interest on base money.

The academic catalyst to this change came from Milton Friedman’s essay “The Optimum Quantity of Money” where he argued that the opportunity cost of paper money (any foregoing of interest compared to on alternative money-like instruments such as savings deposits) should be equal to its virtually-zero marginal cost of production. Opportunity cost could indeed be brought down to zero if base money (bank reserves, currency) in large part paid interest at the market rate. Under the gold standard, the opportunity cost of holding base money largely in metallic form (gold coin) was indeed typically significant. All forms of base money paid no interest. And the stream of interest income foregone in terms of present value was equal in principle to the marginal cost of gold production (this was equal to the gold price).

Interest on Reserves are Important to Controlling Markets and Imposing Negative Rates
Friedman, however, did not identify the catch-22 of his proposal. If the officials of the fiat money regime indeed take steps to close the gap between the marginal production cost and opportunity cost of base money, with both at zero, then there can be no market mechanism free of official intervention and manipulation for determining interest rates.

That is what we are now finding out in the few years since central banks in the US, Europe, and Japan started paying interest on reserves. (The ECB was authorized to do this since its launch in 1999, while the Fed and BoJ began following the 2008 financial crisis.) Central banks can now bind the invisible hand operating in the interest rate market to an extent almost unprecedented in peacetime. In some cases, central banks have even deployed a negative interest rate “tool” which would have been impossible under the prior status quo where base money paid no interest.

How We Got Here
The signing into law of the Financial Services Regulatory Relief Act in 2006 authorized the Federal Reserve to begin paying interest on reserves held by depository institutions beginning October 1, 2011. On the insistence of then Fed Chief Bernanke, that date was brought forward to October 1, 2008 by the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act. He was in the process of dispensing huge loans to troubled financial institutions but wanted nonetheless to keep interest rates at a positive level (one purpose here was to protect the money market fund industry).

Accordingly, the Federal Reserve Board amended its regulation D so that the interest rate paid on required reserves and on excess reserves would be at levels tied (according to distinct formulas at the start) to market rates. An official communiqué explained that the new procedure would eliminate the opportunity cost of holding required reserves (and thereby “deregulate”) and help to establish a lower limit for the Federal Funds rate, becoming thereby a useful tool of monetary policy.

This was useful indeed from the viewpoint of rate manipulators: by setting the rate on excess reserves the Fed could now determine the path of short-term interest rates and strongly influence longer term rates regardless of how the supply of monetary base was growing relative to trend demand. By contrast, under the gold standard and the subsequent first seven decades of the fiat money regime, interest rates in the money market were determined by forces which brought demand for base money into balance with the path of supply as set by gold mining conditions or by central bank policy decision respectively. A rise in rates meant that the public and the banks would economize on their direct or indirect holdings of base money and conversely.

Back Before the Fed Paid Interest on Reserves
Yes, under the fiat money system the central bank could effectively peg a short-term rate and supply whatever amount of base money was needed to underwrite that — but the consequential growth of supply in base money was a variable which got wide attention and remained an ostensible policy concern. Right up until the Greenspan era, the FOMC implemented policy decisions by directing the New York Fed money desk to increase or reduce the pace of reserve growth and changes in the Fed funds rate occurred ostensibly to accomplish that purpose. This old method of determining money market interest rates under a fiat regime — in which banks’ need for reserves was minute given deposit insurance, a generous lender of last resort, and too-big-to-fail — depended on the banking industry enduring what was essentially a tax on its deposit business, which was then magnified by fairly high legal reserve requirements. Thus, it is not surprising that the original impetus to paying interest on reserves, whether in the US or Europe, came from the banking lobby. There was no such burden under the gold standard even though the yellow metal earned no interest. Banks in honoring their pledge to deposit clients that their funds were convertible into gold had to visibly hold large amounts of the metal in their vaults or at hand in a reserve center. Actual and potential demand for monetary base by the public is more limited under a fiat money regime than under the gold standard as bank notes are hardly such a distinct asset as gold coin from other financial instruments.

More Problems with Friedmanite “Solutions”
Friedman, when he advocated eliminating the opportunity cost of base money under a fiat regime, hypothesized that this could occur under a long-run declining trend of prices rather than by the payment of interest. The real rate of return on base money could then be in line with the equilibrium real interest rate. This proposal for perpetually declining prices would also have been problematic, though. The interest rate would fluctuate, and in boom times be well above the rate of price decline. In any case, the rate of price decline would surely vary (sometimes into positive territory) in a well-functioning economy even when the long-run trend was constant (downward). The equilibrium real interest rate would be below the rate of price decline sometimes (for example, during business downturns), meaning that market rates even at zero would be too high. That situation did not occur often under the gold standard where prices were expected to be on a flat trend from a very long-run perspective and move pro-cyclically (falling to a low-point in the recession from which they were expected to rise in the subsequent business expansion, meaning that real interest rates would then be negative).

What Can Be Done?
So what is to be done to escape the curse? A starting point in the US would be for Congress to ban the payment of interest on bank reserves. And the US should use its financial power with respect to the IMF to argue that Japan and Europe act similarly within a spirit of G-7 coordination such as to combat monetary instability. We have seen in recent years how rate manipulation and negative rates are made possible by the payment of interest on reserves, and are potent weapons of currency warfare. Yes, the ban in the immediate would force the Federal Reserve to slim down its balance sheet so that supply and demand for base money would balance at a low positive level of interest rates. The Fed might have to swap its holdings of long-maturity debt for T-bills at the Treasury window so as to avoid any dislocation of the long-term interest rate market in consequence. That, not the Yellen-Fischer “rate lift off day and beyond,” is the road back to monetary normalcy.

Brendan Brown is an associated scholar of the Mises Institute and is author of Euro Crash: How Asset Price Inflation Destroys the Wealth of Nations and The Global Curse of the Federal Reserve: Manifesto for a Second Monetarist Revolution. See Brendan Brown’s article archives.

This article was published on Mises.org and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

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Asset-Price Inflation Enters Its Dangerous Late Phase – Article by Brendan Brown

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Categories: Economics, Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance HatBrendan Brown
August 12, 2015
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Asset price inflation, a disease whose source always lies in monetary disorder, is not a new affliction. It was virtually inevitable that the present wild experimentation by the Federal Reserve — joined by the Bank of Japan and ECB — would produce a severe outbreak. And indications from the markets are that the disease is in a late phase, though still short of the final deadly stage characterized by pervasive falls in asset markets, sometimes financial panic, and the onset of recession.

Global Signs of Danger

A key sign of danger, recognizable from historical patterns of how the disease progresses, is the combination of steep speculative temperature falls in some markets, with still-high — and in some cases, soaring — temperatures in other markets. Another sign is some pull-back in the carry trade, featuring, in particular, the uncovered arbitrage between a low (or zero) interest rate, and higher rate currencies. For now, however, this is still booming in some areas of the global market-place. Specifically, we now observe steep falls in commodity markets (also in commodity currencies and mining equities) which were the original area of the global market-place where the QE-asset price inflation disease attacked (back in 2009–11). Previously hot real estate markets in emerging market economies (especially China and Brazil) have cooled at least to a moderate extent. Most emerging market currencies — with the key exception of the Chinese yuan — once the darling of the carry traders, are in ugly bear markets. The Shanghai equity market bubble has burst.Yet in large areas of the high-yield credit markets (including in particular the so-called covenant-lite paper issued by highly leveraged corporations) speculative temperatures remain at scorching levels. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley equities (both in the public and private markets), and private equity funds enjoy fantasy valuations. Ten-year Spanish and Italian government bond yields are hovering below 2 percent, and hot spots in global advanced-economy real estate — whether San Francisco, Sydney, or Vancouver — just seem to get hotter, even though we should qualify these last two observations by noting the slump in the Canadian and Australian dollars. Also, there is tentative evidence that London high-end real estate is weakening somewhat.

How to Identify Late Stages of Asset Inflation

We can identify similar late phases of asset price inflation characterized by highly divergent speculative temperatures across markets in past episodes of the disease. In 1927–28, steep drops of speculative temperature in Florida real estate, the Berlin stock market, and then more generally in US real estate, occurred at the same time as speculative temperatures continued to soar in the US equity market. In the late 1980s, a crash in Wall Street equities (October 1987) did not mark the end-stage of asset price inflation but a late phase of the disease which featured still-rising speculation in real estate and high-yield credits.In the next episode of asset price inflation (the mid-late 1990s), the Asian currency and debt crisis in 1997, and the bursting of the Russian debt bubble the following year, accompanied still rising speculation in equities culminating in the Nasdaq bubble. In the episode of the mid-2000s, the first quakes in the credit markets during summer 2007 did not prevent a further build-up of speculation in equity markets and a soaring of speculative temperatures in winter 2007–08 and spring 2008 in commodity markets, especially oil.What insights can we gain from the identification of the QE-asset price inflation disease as being in a late phase?The skeptics would say not much. Each episode is highly distinct and the disease can “progress” in very different ways. Any prediction as to the next stage and its severity has much more to do with intuition than scientific observation. Indeed some critics go as far as to suggest that diagnosis and prognosis of this disease is so difficult that we should not even list it as such. Historically, such critics have ranged from Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz (who do not even mention the disease in their epic monetary history of the US), to Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke who claimed throughout their years in power — and these included three virulent attacks of asset price inflation originating in the Federal Reserve — that it was futile to try to diagnose bubbles.

We Can’t Ignore the Problem Just Because It’s Hard to Measure

Difficulties in diagnosis though do not mean that the disease is phantom or safely ignored as just a minor nuisance. That observation holds as much in the field of economics as medicine. And indeed there may be a reliable way in which to prevent the disease from emerging in the first place. The critics do not engage with those who argue that the free society’s best defense against the asset price inflation disease is to follow John Stuart Mill’s prescription of making sure that “the monkey wrench does not get into the machinery of money.”Instead, the practitioners of “positive economics” demonstrate an aversion to analyzing a disease which cannot be readily identified by scientific measurement. Yes, the disease corrupts market signals, but by how much, where, and in what time sequence? Some empiricists might acknowledge the defining characteristic of the disease as “where monetary disequilibrium empowers forces of irrationality in global markets.” They might agree that flawed mental processes as described by the behavioral finance theorists become apparent at such times. But they despair at the lack of testable propositions.

Mis-Measuring Increases in Asset Prices

The critics who reject the usefulness of studying asset price inflation have no such qualms with respect to its twin disease — goods and services inflation. After all, we can depend on the official statisticians! In the present monetary inflation, a cumulative large decline in equilibrium real wages across much of the labor market, together with state of the art “hedonic accounting” (adjusting prices downward to take account of quality improvements) has meant that the official CPI has climbed by “only” 11 percent since the peak of the last business cycle (December 2007). The severity of the asset price inflation disease makes it implausible that the official statisticians are measuring correctly the force of monetary inflation in goods and services markets.

What Is the Final Stage?

A progression of the asset price inflation disease into its final stage (general speculative bust and recession) would mean the end of monetary inflation and also inflation in goods and services markets. What could bring about this transition? Most plausibly it will be a splintering of rose-colored spectacles worn by investors in the still hot speculative markets rather than Janet Yellen’s much heralded “lift-off” (raising official short-term rates from zero). What could cause the splinter? Perhaps it will be a sudden rush for the exit in the high-yield credit markets, provoked by alarm at losses on energy-related and emerging market paper. Or financial system stress could jump in consequence of the steep falls of speculative temperature already occurring (including China and commodities). Perhaps there will be a run from those European banks and credit funds which are up to their neck in Spanish and Italian government bonds. Or the Chinese currency could tumble as Beijing pulls back its support and the one trillion US dollar carry trade into the People’s Republic implodes. Perhaps scandal and shock, accompanied by economic disappointment will break the fantasy spell regarding US corporate earnings, especially in Silicon Valley. As the late French President Mitterrand used to say, “give time to Time!”

Brendan Brown is an associated scholar of the Mises Institute and is author of Euro Crash: How Asset Price Inflation Destroys the Wealth of Nations and The Global Curse of the Federal Reserve: Manifesto for a Second Monetarist Revolution. See Brendan Brown’s article archives.

This article was published on Mises.org and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

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The Japanese Deflation Myth and the Yen’s Slump – Article by Brendan Brown

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The New Renaissance Hat
Brendan Brown
October 4, 2014
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The slide of the yen since late summer has brought it to a level some 40 percent lower against the euro and US dollar than just two years go. Yet still Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his central bank chief Haruhiko Kuroda warn that they have not won the battle against deflation. That caution is absurd — all the more so in view of the fact that there was no deflation in the first place.

Some cynics suggest that Abe’s and Haruhiko’s battle cry against this phoney phantom is simply a ruse to gain Washington’s acquiescence in a big devaluation. But whatever the truth about their real intent, Japan’s monetary chaos is deepening.

Japanese Prices Have Been Stable

The CPI in Japan at the peak of the last cycle in 2007 was virtually at the same level as at the trough of the post-bubble recession in 1992, and up a few percentage points from the 1989 cycle peak. Hence, Japan alone has enjoyed the sort of price stability as might be enjoyed in a gold-standard world. Prices have fallen during recessions or during periods of especially-rapid terms-of-trade improvement or productivity growth. They have risen during cyclical booms or at times of big increases in the price of oil.

If price-indices in Japan were adjusted fully to take account of quality improvements they would have been falling slightly throughout, but that would also have been the case under the gold standard and was fully consistent with economic prosperity.

yenslumpSuch swings in prices are wholly benign. For example, lower prices during recession coupled with expectation of higher prices in expansion induce businesses and households to spend more. A valid criticism of the Japanese price experience of the past two decades has been that these swings have lacked vigour due to various rigidities. Particularly valid is the claim that price falls should have been larger during the post-bubble recession of 1990-93 and subsequent potential for recovery would have been correspondingly larger.

Prices in Japan did fall steeply during the Great Recession (2008-10) but the perceived potential for recovery was squeezed by the Obama Monetary Experiment (the Fed’s QE) which meant an immediate slide of the US dollar. It was in response to the related spike of the yen that Prime Minister Abe prepared his counter-stroke. This involved importing the same deflation-phobic inflation-targeting policies that the Obama Federal Reserve was pursuing. Washington could hardly criticize Tokyo for imitating its own monetary experiment.

Deflation and “The Lost Decade”

The architects of the Obama Monetary Experiment have cited as justification Japan’s “lost decade” and the supposed source in deflation. In fact, though, the only period during which the Japanese economy underperformed other advanced economies (as measured by the growth of GDP per capita) was from 1992-97. The underperformance of that period had everything to do with insufficient price and wage flexibility downward, the Clinton currency war, and the vast malinvestment wrought by the prior asset price inflation, coupled with a risk-appetite in Japan shrunken by the recent experience of bust.

Moreover, as time went on, from the early 1990s, huge investment into the Tokyo equity market from abroad compensated for ailing domestic risk appetites. Yes, Japan’s economy could have performed better than the average of its OECD peers if progress had been made in de-regulation, and if Japan had had a better-designed framework of monetary stability to insulate itself from the Greenspan-Bernanke asset price inflation virus of the years 2002-07. (The Greenspan-Bernanke inflation caused speculative temperatures in the yen carry trade to reach crazy heights.) But deflation was never an actual or potential restraint on Japanese prosperity during those years.

True, there was a monetary malaise. Japan’s price stability was based on chance, habit, and economic sclerosis rather than the wisdom of its monetary policy. It had been the huge appreciation of the yen during the Clinton currency war that had snuffed out inflation. Then the surge of cheap imports from China had worked to convince the Japanese public that inflation had indeed come to an end. Lack of economic reform meant that the neutral rates of interest remained at a very low level and so the Bank of Japan’s intermittent zero rate policies did not stimulate monetary growth.

The monetary system in Japan had no secure pivot in the form of high and stable demand for non-interest bearing high-powered money. In Japan the reserve component of the monetary base is virtually indistinguishable from a whole range of close substitutes and banks had no reason to hold large amounts of this (given deposit insurance and the virtual assurance of too-big-to-fail help in need). Monetary policy-making in Japan meant highly discretionary manipulation of short-term interest rates in the pursuance of fine-tuning the business cycle rather than following a set of rules for monetary base expansion.

The Yen After Abenomics

When Prime Minister Abe effected his coup against the old guard at the Bank of Japan there was no monetary constitution to flout. Massive purchases of long-dated Japanese government bonds by the Bank of Japan are lowering the proportion of outstanding government debt held by the public in fixed-rate form. But this is all a slow-developing threat given a gross government debt to GDP ratio of around 230 percent and a current fiscal deficit of 6 percent of GDP. Bank of Japan bond-buying has strengthened irrational forces driving 10-year yields down to almost 0.5 percent despite underlying inflation having risen to 1 percent per annum.

It is doubtless the possibility of an eventual monetization of government debt has been one factor in the slump of the yen. More generally, as the neutral level of interest rates in Japan rises in line with demographic pressures (lower private savings, increased social expenditure) one might fear that BoJ manipulation of rates will eventually set off inflation. Part of the yen’s slump, though, is due to a tendency for that currency to fall when asset price inflation is virulent in the global economy. This stems from the huge carry trade in the yen.

The yen could indeed leap when the global asset price-inflation disease — with its origins in Fed QE — moves to its next phase of steep speculative temperature fall. The yen is now in real effective exchange rate terms at the record low point of the Japan banking crisis in 1997 or the global asset inflation peak of 2007. So, the challenge for investors is to decide when the Abe yen has become so cheap in real terms that its hedge properties make it a worthwhile portfolio component.

Brendan Brown is an associated scholar of the Mises Institute and is author of Euro Crash: How Asset Price Inflation Destroys the Wealth of Nations and The Global Curse of the Federal Reserve: Manifesto for a Second Monetarist Revolution. See Brendan Brown’s article archives.

This article was published on Mises.org and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

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Bernanke’s Legacy: A Weak and Mediocre Economy – Article by John P. Cochran

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The New Renaissance Hat
John P. Cochran
February 8, 2014
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As Chairman Bernanke’s reign at the Fed comes to an end, the Wall Street Journal provides its assessment of “The Bernanke Legacy.” Overall the Journal does a reasonable job on both Greenspan and Bernanke, especially compared to the “effusive praise from the usual suspects; supporters of monetary central planning. The Journal argues when accessing Bernanke’s performance it is appropriate to review Bernanke’s performance “before, during, and after the financial panic.”

While most assessments of Bernanke’s performance as a central banker focus on the “during” and “after” financial-crisis phases with much of the praise based on the “during” phase, the Journal joins the Austrians and John Taylor in unfavorable assessment of the more critical “before” period. It was this period when the Fed generated its second boom-bust cycle in the Greenspan-Bernanke era. In the Journal’s assessment, Bernanke, Greenspan, and the Fed deserve an “F.” While this pre-crisis period mostly fell under the leadership of Alan Greenspan, the Journal highlights that Bernanke was the “leading intellectual force” behind the pre-crisis policies. As a result of these too-loose, too-long policies, just as the leadership of the Fed passed from Greenspan to Bernanke, the credit boom the Fed “did so much to create turned to mania, which turned to panic, which became a deep recession.” The Journal’s description of Bernanke’s role should be highlighted in any serious analysis of the Bernanke era:

His [Bernanke’s] role goes back to 2002 when as a Fed Governor he gave a famous speech warning about deflation that didn’t exist [and if it did exist should not have been feared].[1] He and Mr. Greenspan nonetheless followed the advice of Paul Krugman to promote a housing bubble to offset the dot-com crash.

As Fed transcripts show, Mr. Bernanke was the board’s intellectual leader in its decision to cut the fed-funds rate to 1% in June 2003 and keep it there for a year. This was despite a rapidly accelerating economy (3.8% growth in 2004) and soaring commodity and real-estate prices. The Fed’s multiyear policy of negative real interest rates produced a credit mania that led to the housing bubble and bust.

For some of the best analysis of the Fed’s pre-crisis culpability one should turn to Roger Garrison’s excellent analysis. In a 2009 Cato Journal paper, Garrison (2009, p. 187) characterizes Fed policy during the “Great Moderation” as a “learning by doing policy” which, based on events post-2003, would be better classified as “so far so good” or “whistling in the dark.” The actual result of this “learning by doing policy” is described by Garrison in “Natural Rates of Interest and Sustainable Growth”:

In the earlier episode [dot.com boom-bust], the Federal Reserve moved to counter the upward pressure of interest rates, causing actual interest rates not to deviate greatly from the historical norm. In the later episode [housing bubble/boom-bust], the Federal Reserve moved to reinforce the downward pressure on interest rates, causing the actual interest rates to be exceedingly low relative to the historical norm. Although the judgment, made retrospectively by economists of virtually all stripes, that the Fed funds target rate was “too low for too long” between mid-2003 and mid-2004, it was almost surely too low for too long relative to the natural rate in both episodes. (p. 433)

Given this and other strong evidence of the Fed’s role in creating the credit-driven boom, the Journal faults “Mr. Bernanke’s refusal to acknowledge that the Fed made any mistake in the mania years.”

On the response to the crisis, the Journal refrains from the accolades of many who credit the Fed led by the leading scholar of the Great Depression from acting strongly to prevent another such calamity. According to the Fed worshipers, things might not be good, but without the unprecedented actions and bailouts things would have been catastrophic. The Journal’s more measured assessment:

Once the crisis hit, Mr. Bernanke and the Fed deserve the benefit of the doubt. From the safe distance of hindsight, it’s easy to forget how rapid and widespread the financial panic was. The Fed had to offset the collapse in the velocity of money with an increase in its supply, and it did so with force and dispatch. One can disagree with the Fed’s special guarantee programs, but we weren’t sitting in the financial polar vortex at the time. It’s hard to see how others would have done much better.

But discerning readers of Vern McKinley’s Financing Failure: A Century of Bailouts might disagree. Fed actions, even when not verging on the illegal, were counter-productive, unnecessary, and contributed to action-freezing policy uncertainty which contributed to the collapse of the velocity of money. McKinley describes much of what was done as “seat-of-the-pants decision-making” (pp. 305-306):

“Seat of the pants” is not a flattering description of the methods of the regulators, but its use is justified to describe the panic-driven actions during the 2000s crisis. It is only natural that under the deadline of time pressure judgment will be flawed, mistakes will be made and taxpayer exposure will be magnified, and that has clearly been the case. With the possible exception of the Lehman Brothers decision … all of the major bailout decisions during the 2000s crisis were made under duress of panic over a very short period of time with very limited information at hand and with input of a limited number of objective parties involved in the decision making. Not surprisingly, these seat-of-the-pants responses did not instill confidence, and there was no clear evidence collected that the expected negative fallout would truly have occurred.

While a defense of some Fed action could be found in Hayek’s 1970s discussion of “best” policy under bad institutions (a central bank) where he argued that during a crisis a central bank should act to prevent a secondary deflation, the Fed actions went clearly beyond such a recommendation. Better would have been an immediate policy to end the credit expansion in its tracks. The Fed’s special guarantee programs and movement toward a mondustrial policy should be a great worry to anyone concerned about long-term prosperity and liberty. Whether any human running a central bank could have done better is an open question, but other monetary arrangements could clearly have led to better outcomes.

The Journal’s analysis of post-crisis policy, while not as harsh as it should be,[2] is critical. Despite an unprecedented expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet, the “recovery is historically weak.” At some point “a Fed chairman has to take some responsibility for the mediocre growth — and lack of real income growth — on his watch.” Bernanke’s policy is also rightly criticized because “The other great cost of these post-crisis policies is the intrusion of the Fed into politics and fiscal policy.”

Because the ultimate outcome of this monetary cycle hinges on how, when, or if the Fed can unwind its unwieldy balance sheet, without further damage to the economy; most likely continuing stagnation or a return to stagflation, or less likely, but possible hyper-inflation or even a deflationary depression, the Bernanke legacy will ultimately depend on a Bernanke-Yellen legacy. Given, as the Journal points out, “Politicians — and even some conservative pundits — have adopted the Bernanke standard that the Fed’s duty is to reduce unemployment and manage the business cycle,” the prospect that this legacy will be viewed favorably is less and less likely. Perhaps if the editors joined Paul Krugman in reading and fully digesting Joe Salerno’s “A Reformulation of Austrian Business Cycle Theory in Light of the Financial Crisis,” they would correctly fail Bernanke and Fed policy before, during, and after the crisis.

But what should be the main lesson of a Greenspan-Bernanke legacy? Clearly, if there was no pre-crisis credit boom, there would have been no large financial crisis and thus no need for Bernanke or other human to have done better during and after. While Austrian analysis has often been criticized, incorrectly,[3] for not having policy recommendations on what to do during the crisis and recovery, it should be noted that if Austrian recommendations for eliminating central banks and allowing banking freedom had been followed, no such devastating crisis would have occurred and no heroic policy response would have been necessary in the resulting free and prosperous commonwealth.

Notes

[1] See Joseph T. Salerno, “An Austrian Taxonomy of Deflation — With Applications to the U.S.” Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics 6, no. 4 (2001).

[2] See John P. Cochran’s, Bernanke: The Good Engineer? Mises Daily Article, 21 March 2013 and Bernanke: A Tenure of Failure, Mises Daily Article, 31, July 2013.

[3] See John P. Cochran, Recessions: The Don’t Do List, Mises Daily Article, 17 February 2013.

John P. Cochran is emeritus dean of the Business School and emeritus professor of economics at Metropolitan State University of Denver and coauthor with Fred R. Glahe of The Hayek-Keynes Debate: Lessons for Current Business Cycle Research. He is also a senior scholar for the Mises Institute and serves on the editorial board of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. Send him mail. See John P. Cochran’s article archives.

This article was published on Mises.org and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

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Inflation is a Monetary Phenomenon – Article by Ron Paul

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The New Renaissance Hat
Ron Paul
July 18, 2012
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Later this month Congress will have an unprecedented opportunity to force the Federal Reserve to provide meaningful transparency to lawmakers and taxpayers. HR 459, my bill known as “Audit the Fed,” is scheduled for a vote before the full Congress in July. More than 270 of my colleagues cosponsored the bill, and it has the support of congressional leadership. But its passage in the House of Representatives is only the beginning of the battle, as many Senators and the President still don’t see the critical need to have a national discussion about monetary policy.

The American public now senses that the Fed’s actions, especially since 2008, are enormously inflationary and will cause great harm to the American economy in the long run. They are beginning to understand what so many economists still don’t understand, which is that inflation is a monetary phenomenon, and rising prices are merely a symptom of that phenomenon.  Prices eventually rise when the supply of US dollars (paper or electronic) grows faster than the available goods and services being chased by those dollars.

This fundamental truth has been thoroughly explained by Milton Friedman and many others, so today’s Keynesian economists have no excuse for their claims that “inflation is under control.”  Ordinary Americans don’t need a PhD simply to look at the Fed’s balance sheet and understand the staggering amount of money creation that has occurred in recent years. They know it will have harmful consequences for all of us eventually.

I’ve spoken at length about inflation, and how Fed money creation is effectively a tax. Every dollar created out of thin air dilutes the value of the dollars in your pocket and your savings in the bank. But the truth is that we are only beginning to see the results of the Fed’s dramatic increase in the money supply. As former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan himself explained last week to Larry Kudlow, most of the dollar deposits created by the Fed via successive rounds of “quantitative easing” remain on the balance sheet of Fed member banks. Because of very rational economic fears, banks are not lending, businesses are not expanding, and individuals are shedding debt. So, the trillions of dollars created by the Fed since 2008 remained largely undeployed. When those dollars eventually make their way into the world economy, prices across all sectors of the economy are likely to rise dramatically.

The true evil of inflation is that newly created money benefits politically favored financial interests, especially banks, on the front end. Over time, however, the net result of monetary inflation is always the devaluation of savings and purchasing power. This devaluation discourages saving, which is the key to capital accumulation and investment in a healthy economy. Inflation also tends to hurt seniors and those living on fixed incomes the most.

For decades the Fed has operated without any meaningful oversight whatsoever, resulting in the loss of savings, loss of purchasing power, and loss of quality of life for all Americans. It causes individuals and businesses to make bad decisions, misallocating their capital because market signals have been distorted. It causes financial ruin by engineering the inevitable boom and bust cycles that so many erroneously blame on capitalism. And it does all this in secrecy, to the benefit of the financial and political classes. It is time to Audit the Fed, as a first step toward ending its unchecked power over our money and economic fortunes.

Representative Ron Paul (R – TX), MD, is a Republican candidate for U. S. President. See his Congressional webpage and his official campaign website

This article has been released by Dr. Paul into the public domain and may be republished by anyone in any manner.