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Posts Tagged ‘Bernanke’

By taking advantage of  “must-pass” pieces of legislation, Republicans have three chances this year to restrain the burden of government.  They didn’t do very well with the ‘CR fight” over appropriated spending for the rest of FY2011, which was their first opportunity. I was hoping for an extra-base hit off the fence, but the GOP was afraid of a government shutdown and negotiated from a position of weakness. As such, the best interpretation is that they eked out an infield single.

The next chance to impose fiscal discipline will be the debt limit. Currently, the federal government “only” has the authority to borrow $14.3 trillion (including bookkeeping entries such as the IOUs in the Social Security Trust Fund). This is a very big number, but America’s gross federal debt will hit that limit soon, perhaps May or June.

Republicans say they will not raise the debt limit unless such legislation is accompanied by meaningful fiscal reforms. The political strategists in the Obama White House understandably want to blunt any GOP effort, so they are claiming that any delay in passing a “clean debt limit” will have catastrophic consequences. Specifically, they are using Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Ben Bernanke to create fear and uncertainty in financial markets.

Just a few days ago, for instance, the Treasury Secretary was fanning the flames of a financial meltdown, as noted by Bloomberg:

“Default would cause a financial crisis potentially more severe than the crisis from which we are only now starting to recover,” Geithner said. “For these reasons, default by the United States is unthinkable.”

The Fed Chairman also tried to pour gasoline on the fire. Here’s a passage from an article in the New York Times earlier this year:

Mr. Bernanke said the debt ceiling should not be used as a negotiating tactic, warning that even the possibility of the United States not being able to pay its creditors could create panic in the debt markets.

There are two problems with these statements from Geithner and Bernanke. First, it is a bit troubling that the Treasury Secretary and Fed Chairman are major players in a political battle. The Treasury Secretary, like the Attorney General, traditionally is supposed to be one of the more serious and non-political people in a  President’s cabinet. And the Fed Chairman is supposed to be completely independent, yet Bernanke is becoming a mouthpiece for Obama’s fiscal policy.

But let’s set aside this first concern and focus on the second problem, which is whether Geithner and Bernanke are being honest. Simply stated, does a failure to raise the debt limit mean default? According to a wide range of expert opinion, the answer is no.

Donald Marron, head of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and former Director of the Congressional Budget Office, explained what actually would happen in an article for CNN Money.

Our monthly bills average about $300 billion, while revenues are about $180 billion. If we hit the debt limit, the federal government would be able to pay only 60 cents of every dollar it should be paying. But even that does not mean that we will default on the public debt. Geithner would then choose which creditors to pay promptly and which to defer. …Geithner would undoubtedly keep making payments on the public debt, rolling over the outstanding principal and paying interest. Interest payments are relatively small, averaging about $20 billion per month, and paying them on time is essential to America’s enviable position in world capital markets.

And here is the analysis of Stan Collender, one of Washington’s elder statesman on budget issues (and definitely not a small-government conservative).

There is so much misinformation and grossly misleading talk about what will happen if the federal debt ceiling isn’t increased that, before any more unnecessary bloodcurdling language is used that increases everyone’s anxiety, it’s worth taking a few steps back from the edge. …if a standoff on raising the debt ceiling lasts for a significant amount of time, the alternatives to borrowing eventually may not be enough to provide the government with the cash it needs to meet its obligations. Even at that point, however, a default wouldn’t be automatic because payments to existing bondholders could be made the priority while payments to others could be delayed for months.

The Economist magazine also is nonplussed by the demagoguery coming from Washington.

Tim Geithner, the treasury secretary, sent Congress a letter on January 6th describing in gory detail the “catastrophic economic consequences” such an event would entail. …Even with no increase in the ceiling, the Treasury can easily service its existing debt; it is free to roll over maturing issues, and tax revenue covers monthly interest payments by a large multiple. But in that case it would have to postpone paying something else: tax refunds, Medicare or Medicaid payments, civil-service salaries, or Social Security (pensions) cheques.

There are countless other experts I could cite, but you get the point. The United States does not default if the debt limit remains at $14.3 trillion. The only exception to that statement is that default is possible if the Treasury Secretary makes a deliberate (and highly political) decision to not pay bondholders. And while Geithner obviously is willing to play politics, even he would be unlikely to take this step since it is generally believed that the Treasury Secretary may be personally liable if there is a default.

The purpose of this post is not to argue that the debt limit should never be raised. That would require an instant 40 percent reduction in the size of government. And while that may be music to my ears (and some people are making that argument), I have zero faith that politicians would let that happen. Instead, my goal is to help fiscal conservatives understand that Geithner and Bernanke are being dishonest and that they should not be afraid to hold firm in their demands for real reform in exchange for a debt limit increase.

Last but not least, with all this talk about the debt limit, it’s worth reminding everyone that deficits and debt are merely symptoms of too much government spending. As this video explains, spending is the disease and debt is merely one of the symptoms.

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As I’ve noted on previous occasions, I’m not a fan of Ben Bernanke and his actions at the Federal Reserve, though it is possible that QE2 may be the right policy (albeit for different reasons than publicly stated by the Fed Chairman).

I’ve had several people say to me, however, that it doesn’t make sense for the government to engage in an inflationary monetary policy because that will worsen the fiscal situation. Why inflate, after all, if it results in higher cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security recipients and higher pay for government bureaucrats?

My first response is to say that long-run fiscal policy almost surely is not a big (or even little) factor in monetary policy decisions. Central Banks tend to behave poorly for short-run reasons such as financing deficits (a problem in the developing world) or manipulating interest rates in hopes of goosing growth (a problem is all nations).

It goes without saying, of course, that a series of bad short-run policy decisions translates into bad long-run policy, which is why the dollar has lost 95 percent of its value since the Federal Reserve was created.

My second response is to tell folks that we should hope that long-run fiscal policy is not a factor in monetary policy. Because they are right that inflation leads to higher expenditures, but the government reaps a big windfall from higher tax revenue.

But don’t believe me. You can find this information in Table 3.1 on page 23 of the Economic and Budget Analysis section of Obama’s budget.

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Earlier this week, the Washington Post predictably gave some publicity to the Keynesian analysis of Mark Zandi, even though his track record is worse than a sports analyst who every year predicts a Super Bowl for the Detroit Lions. The story also cited similar predictions by the politically connected folks at Goldman Sachs.

Zandi, an architect of the 2009 stimulus package who has advised both political parties, predicts that the GOP package would reduce economic growth by 0.5 percentage points this year, and by 0.2 percentage points in 2012, resulting in 700,000 fewer jobs by the end of next year. His report comes on the heels of a similar analysis last week by the investment bank Goldman Sachs, which predicted that the Republican spending cuts would cause even greater damage to the economy, slowing growth by as much as 2 percentage points in the second and third quarters of this year.

Republicans understandably wanted to discredit this analysis. But rather than expose Zandi’s laughably inaccurate track record, they asked the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, for his assessment. But this is like asking Alex Rodriguez to comment on Derek Jeter’s prediction that the Yankees will win the World Series.

Not surprisingly, as reported by McClatchy, Bernanke endorsed the notion that spending cuts (actually, just tiny reductions in planned increases) would be “contractionary.”

Bernanke was asked repeatedly about GOP proposals to trim anywhere from $60 billion to $100 billion in government spending during the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. These cuts would do little to bring down long-term budget deficits but would slow the economic recovery, he cautioned. “That would be ‘contractionary’ to some extent,” Bernanke said, projecting that “several tenths” of a percentage point would be shaved off of growth, and it would mean fewer jobs. …While Democrats got what they wanted out of Bernanke with that answer, he frowned on some of their projections that the spending cuts that are being debated could reduce growth by a full 2 percentage points.

Since he is not a fool, Bernanke was careful not to embrace the absurd predictions made by Zandi and Goldman Sachs. But that’s merely a difference of degree. Bernanke’s embrace of Keynesian economics is disgraceful because he should know better. And his endorsement of deficit reduction (at least in the long run) is stained by crocodile tears since Bernanke supported bailouts and endorsed Obama’s failed stimulus.

But while Bernanke is not a fool, I can’t say the same thing about Republicans. Bernanke has made clear that he either believes in the perpetual-motion machine of Keynesianism, or he’s willing to endorse Keynesian policies to curry favor with the White House. Republicans should be exposing these flaws, not treating Bernanke likes he’s some sort of Oracle.

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The mid-term elections were a rejection of President Obama’s big-government agenda, but those results don’t necessarily mean better policy. We should not forget, after all, that Democrats rammed through Obamacare even after losing the special election to replace Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts (much to my dismay, my prediction from last January was correct).

Similarly, GOP control of the House of Representatives does not automatically mean less government and more freedom. Heck, it doesn’t even guarantee that things won’t continue to move in the wrong direction. Here are five possible bad policies for 2011, most of which the Obama White House can implement by using executive power.

1. A back-door bailout of the states from the Federal Reserve – The new GOP Congress presumably wouldn’t be foolish enough to bail out profligate states such as California and Illinois, but that does not mean the battle is won. Ben Bernanke already has demonstrated that he is willing to curry favor with the White House by debasing the value of the dollar, so what’s to stop him from engineering a back-door bailout by having the Federal Reserve buy state bonds? The European Central Bank already is using this tactic to bail out Europe’s welfare states, so a precedent already exists for this type of misguided policy. To make matters worse, there’s nothing Congress can do – barring legislation that Obama presumably would veto – to stop the Fed from this awful policy.

2. A front-door bailout of Europe by the United States – Welfare states in Europe are teetering on the edge of insolvency. Decades of big government have crippled economic growth and generated mountains of debt. Ireland and Greece already have been bailed out, and Portugal and Spain are probably next on the list, to be followed by countries such as Italy and Belgium. So why should American taxpayers worry about European bailouts? The unfortunate answer is that American taxpayers will pick up a big chunk of the tab if the International Monetary Fund is involved. Indeed, this horse already has escaped the barn. The United States provides the largest amount of  subsidies to the International Monetary Fund, and the IMF took part in the bailouts of Greece and Ireland. The Senate did vote against having American taxpayers take part in the bailout of Greece, but that turned out to be a symbolic exercise. Sadly, that’s probably what we can expect if and when there are bailouts of the bigger European welfare states.

3. Republicans getting duped by Obama and supporting a VAT – The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Obama Administration is contemplating a reduction in the corporate income tax. This sounds like a great idea, particularly since America’s punitive corporate tax rate is undermining competitiveness and hindering job creation. But what happens if Obama demands that Congress approve a value-added tax to “pay for” the lower corporate tax rate? This would be a terrible deal, sort of like a football team trading a great young quarterback for a 35-year old lineman. The VAT would give statists a money machine that they need to turn the United States into a French-style welfare state. This type of national sales tax would only be acceptable if the personal and corporate income taxes were abolished – and the Constitution was amended to make sure the federal government never again could tax what we earn and produce. But that’s not the deal Obama would offer. My fingers are crossed that Obama doesn’t offer to swap a lower corporate income tax for a VAT, particularly since we already know that some Republicans are susceptible to the VAT.

4. Regulatory imposition of global warming policy – This actually is an issue we needed to start worrying about before this year. The Obama Administration already is in the process of trying to use regulatory edicts to impose Kyoto-style restrictions on energy use, and 2011 may be a pivotal year for this issue. This issue is troubling because of the potential impact on economic growth, but it also represents an assault on the rule of law since the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency are engaging in regulatory overreach because they did not have enough support to get so-called climate change legislation through Congress. The new GOP majority presumably will try to use the “power of the purse” to limit the EPA’s power grab, and the outcome of that fight could have dramatic implications for job creation and competitiveness.

5. U.N. control of the Internet – The Federal Communications Commission just engaged in an unprecedented power grab as part of its “Net Neutrality” initiative, so we already have bad news for both Internet consumers and America’s telecommunications industry. But it may get worse. The bureaucrats at the United Nations, conspiring with autocratic governments, have created an Internet Governance Forum in hopes of grabbing power over the online world. This has caused considerable angst, leading Vint Cerf, one of inventors of the Internet (sorry, Al Gore) to warn: “We don’t believe governments should be allowed to grant themselves a monopoly on Internet governance. The current bottoms-up, open approach works — protecting users from vested interests and enabling rapid innovation. Let’s fight to keep it that way.” International bureaucracies are very skilled at incrementally increasing their authority, so this won’t be a one-year fight. Stopping this power grab will require persistent oversight and a willingness to reject compromises that inevitably give bureaucracies more power and simply set the stage for further demands.

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The Chairman of the Federal Reserve is such a swell guy, but you already would know that if you saw his Facebook page. Well, thanks to his “QE2 plan,” he’s giving the rest of us a very thoughtful Christmas present.

To be fair, I suppose it should be noted that Bernanke’s policy isn’t necessarily a bad idea – but only if you think that there will be future deflation and “quantitative easing” is the way of preventing that from happening. I’m quite skeptical, as explained here, but freely admit that I’m not a monetary policy expert (thanks for catching my mistake, Charlie). But Christmas isn’t the right time for serious discussion, so let’s just enjoy a laugh and keep our fingers crossed that we’re not heading into Jimmy Carter Inflation-land.

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Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is at it again, giving an interview that combines all of the worst features of Keynesian economics. I have an excerpt below from a New York Times report, which features an amazing amount of mistakes in a very short amount of space. Here are three that demand correction.

1. The economy needs less government intervention, not more “government help.” Bernanke doesn’t understand that job creation and entrepreneurship are hurting because politicians are doing too much, yet he wants more interference from Washington.

2. The economy needs less government spending, not Keynesian nonsense about big deficits to boost consumer spending. Bernanke seems to think so-called stimulus schemes for more wasteful spending help the economy, even though those policies failed for Hoover, Roosevelt, Bush, and Obama.

3. The economy needs a strong and stable dollar, not inflationary quantitative easing. Bernanke wants us to believe that low interest rates are the key to growth, but apparently oblivious to the fact that interest rates are very low now (and have been very low in Japan during that country’s 20-year stagnation. Memo to Ben: People don’t invest when they expect to lose money, regardless of interest rates.

Here’s the excerpt about Helicopter Ben’s thinking:

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is stepping up his defense of the Fed’s $600 billion Treasury bond-purchase plan, saying the economy is still struggling to become “self-sustaining” without government help. In a taped interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday night, Bernanke also argued that Congress shouldn’t cut spending or boost taxes given how fragile the economy remains. The Fed chairman said he thinks another recession is unlikely. But he warned that the economy could suffer a slowdown if persistently high unemployment dampens consumer spending. The interview is part of a broad counteroffensive Bernanke has been waging against critics of the bond purchase plan the Fed announced Nov. 3. The purchases are intended to lower long-term interest rates, lift stock prices and encourage more spending to boost the economy.

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Maybe I’m crazy, or maybe I’m just getting into the Christmas spirit, but I saw this photo of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke on the Drudge Report and my mind instantly connected his image with this character from “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.”

This might explain Bernanke’s QE2 policy. I can see a film being released in time for next year’s holiday season: “The Grinch Who Debased the Dollar.”

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One of my first blog posts (and the first one to get any attention) highlighted the amusing/embarrassing irony of having Chinese students laugh at Treasury Secretary Geithner when he claimed the United States had a strong-dollar policy.

I suspect that even Tim “Turbotax” Geithner would be smart enough to avoid such a claim today, not after the Fed’s announcement (with the full support of the White House and Treasury) that it would flood the economy with $600 billion of hot money.

As I noted in an earlier post, monetary policy is not nearly as cut and dried as other issues, so I’m reluctant to make sweeping and definitive statements. That being said, I’m fairly sure that the Fed is on the wrong path. Here’s what my colleague Alan Reynolds wrote in the Wall Street Journal about Bernanke’s policy.

Mr. Bernanke…believes (contrary to our past experience with stagflation) that inflation is no danger thanks to economic slack (high unemployment). He reasons that if people can nonetheless be persuaded to expect higher inflation, regardless of the slack, that means interest rates will appear even lower in real terms. If that worked as planned, lower real interest rates would supposedly fix our hangover from the last Fed-financed borrowing binge by encouraging more borrowing. This whole scheme raises nagging questions. Why would domestic investors accept a lower yield on bonds if they expect higher inflation? And why would foreign investors accept a lower yield on U.S. bonds if they expect exchange rate losses on dollar-denominated securities? Why wouldn’t intelligent people shift their investments toward commodities or related stocks (such as mining and related machinery) and either shun, or sell short, long-term Treasurys? And if they did that, how could it possibly help the economy?

The rest of the world seems to share these concerns. The Germans are not big fans of America’s binge of borrowing and easy money. Here’s what Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble had to say in a recent interview.

The American growth model, on the other hand, is in a deep crisis. The United States lived on borrowed money for too long, inflating its financial sector unnecessarily and neglecting its small and mid-sized industrial companies. …I seriously doubt that it makes sense to pump unlimited amounts of money into the markets. There is no lack of liquidity in the US economy, which is why I don’t recognize the economic argument behind this measure. …The Fed’s decisions bring more uncertainty to the global economy. …It’s inconsistent for the Americans to accuse the Chinese of manipulating exchange rates and then to artificially depress the dollar exchange rate by printing money.

The comment about borrowed money has a bit of hypocrisy since German government debt is not much lower than it is in the United States, but the Finance Minister surely is correct about monetary policy. And speaking of China, we now have the odd situation of a Chinese rating agency downgrading U.S. government debt.

The United States has lost its double-A credit rating with Dagong Global Credit Rating Co., Ltd., the first domestic rating agency in China, due to its new round of quantitative easing policy. Dagong Global on Tuesday downgraded the local and foreign currency long-term sovereign credit rating of the US by one level to A+ from previous AA with “negative” outlook.

This development should be taken with a giant grain of salt, as explained by a Wall Street Journal blogger. Nonetheless, the fact that the China-based agency thought this was a smart tactic must say something about how the rest of the world is beginning to perceive America.

Simply stated, Obama is following Jimmy Carter-style economic policy, so nobody should be surprised if the result is 1970s-style stagflation.

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Chairman Ben Bernanke has announced that the Federal Reserve will buy about $600 billion of government bonds as part of what is being called QE2 (because this is the second big stage of “quantitative easing”).

This actually isn’t printing money, but it has the same effect in that it creates more liquidity by putting more money into the financial system. The theory is that all this extra money will drive down interest rates, and that lower interest rates will encourage people to take on more debt to finance additional spending.

There are several reasons why this is a bad idea and one potential argument why it is a good idea.

* It is a bad idea because rising prices are the inevitable result when there is more money chasing the same amount of goods.

* It is a bad idea because it assumes that the economy is weak because of low interest rates. That is nonsense. Interest rates already are very low. Trying to drive them lower in hopes of stimulating borrowing is like pushing on a string.

* It is a bad idea because you don’t solve bad fiscal and regulatory policy with bad monetary policy. The economy is weak in considerable part because of too much spending, new health care interventions, and the threat of higher taxes. You don’t solve those problems by printing money, just like you don’t make rotting fish taste good with ketchup.

* It is a bad idea because the easy-money policy of artificially low interest rates helped create the housing bubble and financial crisis, and “hair of the dog” is not the right approach.

* It is a bad idea because no nation becomes economically strong with a weak currency.

* It is a bad idea because it may lead to “competitive devaluation,” as other nations copy the Fed’s misguided policy in hopes of keeping their exports affordable.

So what about arguments in favor of the Fed’s policy? There’s only one possible reason to support Bernanke’s policy, and at least one monetarist friend has offered this as justification for what is happening. I hope he’s right.

* The only legitimate argument for quantitative easing is if more money needs to be put in the system to counteract deflation. In other words, if the Fed focuses on its one appropriate responsibility – price stability, and if there is a legitimate concern of falling prices in the future, then an “easy-money” policy today could offset that future deflation.

By the way, some people say that the stock market’s recent performance is a sign that Bernanke’s policy is good for the economy. This is wrong because it confuses portfolio shifting with long-term economic performance. When the Fed creates liquidity, that drives down interest rates. What does that mean for investors? Well, it means that putting money into bonds will yield a lower return, so the only other major option is stocks. That is why Fed policy often leads (seemingly inexplicably) to short-term results that are at odds with the long-term consequences.

Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said the central bank must focus on the U.S. rather than overseas economies when trying to spur the recovery by purchasing an additional $600 billion in Treasuries. …Bernanke came under fire yesterday from officials in Germany, China, and Brazil, who said his plan to pump cash into the banking system may jar other economies and fail to fuel U.S. growth. Critics including Michael Burry, the former hedge-fund manager who predicted the housing market’s plunge, have said Fed policy is encouraging investors to take on too much risk and threatens to undermine the dollar. …“We are showing insufficient stimulus,” Bernanke said yesterday in his remarks, mostly in response to questions. Asset purchases have “the goal of reducing interest rates, providing more stimulus to the economy and, we hope, creating a faster recovery and an inflation rate consistent with long-run stability,” Bernanke said to students.

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Two CNBC stories are linked on the Drudge Report this morning, and they both highlight the growing risk of the Fed’s easy-money policy. The first story discusses whether the dollar will continue to depreciate. Since the “optimist” argument is based on global instability, this is hardly encouraging regardless of what you think will happen to the dollar.

The dollar’s slump could get far worse if the dollar index takes out last year’s low, Robin Griffiths, technical strategist at Cazenove Capital, told CNBC Monday. …”The dollar is being trashed, we’ve actually had effectively devaluation of about 14 percent in the last two months,” Griffiths said. His view is contrary to that of HSBC foreign exchange strategist David Bloom, who told CNBC that a continuation of the currencies war after the G20 might put pressure on risky assets, causing a flight to safety into the dollar.

The Germans certainly are not happy about U.S. monetary policy. The other story reveals that Bernanke’s easy-money policy met with criticism from other nations at the recent G-20 meeting in South Korea.

German Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle on Saturday took issue with what he called a U.S. policy of increasing liquidity, saying it indirectly manipulated exchange rates. The U.S. Federal Reserve is widely expected to embark on a fresh round of asset purchases to prop up the economy. “There was criticism of the American policy of monetary easing, or creating more liquidity,” Bruederle said after a meeting in South Korea of finance officials from the Group of 20 economic powers. “I tried to make clear in my contribution to the discussion that I regard that as the wrong way to go,” he said.

But maybe this image captures the real meaning of what’s happening to the dollar. On a more serious note, the United States is not in danger of becoming another Zimbabwe or Argentina, but there are real reasons to be concerned that political manipulation of monetary policy will bring us back to 1970s-style inflation. At that point, the question becomes whether we get a leader like Reagan who is willing to make the tough choices needed to restore a sound currency.

The Wall Street Journal obviously isn’t happy about the Fed’s policy. Writing about what happened in South Korea, they opine this morning that:

…the clear implication is that the U.S. will continue to print dollars until China and other surplus nations with currencies pegged to the dollar cry uncle and revalue. As for Europe and those countries whose currencies float against the dollar, they’ll have to decide whether to join the Fed’s easing binge or accept rising currencies too. This is a recipe for more currency turmoil, not less. And it is likely to drive more capital, not less, to Asia and elsewhere other than the U.S.

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