There’s a Problem With Kicking the Can Down the Road

There’s a problem with kicking the can down the road

Ben Bernanke, (December 12 2012)

Bernanke

I’ve taken this quote out of context — Bernanke was actually talking about the fiscal cliff, and not monetary policy. But kicking the can down the road is exactly what Bernanke is doing in his domain.

Instead of letting the shadow banking bubble burst and liquidate in 2008, Bernanke has allowed it to slowly deflate, all the while pumping up the traditional banking sector with heavy, heavy liquidity:

Shadow vs Traditional Cumulative Q3

It’s been one long, slow brutal grind:

The Fed continues to fight a losing battle, in which it has no choice but to offset any ongoing deleveraging – be it through maturities, prepays, or counterparty failure, or just simple lack of demand for shadow funding conduits – in the shadow banking system.

Trillions and trillions of liquidity later, Bernanke is barely keeping the system afloat:

Shadow vs Traditional Combined Q3_0

The reduction in shadow liabilities remains a massive deflationary and depressionary force (and probably the main reason why a tripling of the monetary base has not resulted in very severe inflation). We could have taken the pain in one go back in 2008 — let the failed banks and failed sectors fail, let the junk be written down, and let all efforts go toward rebuilding a more robust system less sensitive to counterparty risk. But we chose to kick the can down the road, and try to reinflate the biggest bubble in history through helicopter drops to the financial sector, the outcome of which has been booming incomes for the rich, and a total lack of growth and opportunity for the poor (except, perhaps for the dubious “opportunity” to join the masses of the long-term unemployment and claim a slice of the increasingly unsustainable welfare pie).

We chose the path of Japan (which has spent the last twenty years depressed) not the path of Iceland (which is emerging from its depression). We chose to kick the can down the road. Like Bernanke said, there is a problem with that. No amount of buying financial sector assets up to an unemployment or inflation or NGDP target — which empirically seems to do more to enrich the financial sector and the big banks than to create jobs  — will fix that. The system is rotten, and the debt load is unsustainable.