Bernanke vs Greenspan?

Submitted by Andrew Fruth of AcceptanceTake

Bernanke and Greenspan appear to have differing opinions on whether the Fed will monetize the debt.

Bernanke, on behalf of the Federal Reserve, said in 2009 at a House Financial Services Committee that “we’re not going to monetize the debt.

Greenspan, meanwhile, on Meet the Press in 2011 that “there is zero probability of default” because the U.S. can always print more money.

But they can’t both be true…

There is only 0% probability of formal default if the Fed monetizes the debt. If they refuse, and creditors refuse to buy bonds when current bonds rollover, then the U.S. would default. But Ben said the Fed will never monetize the debt back on June 3, 2009. That’s curious, because in November 2010 in what has been termed “QE2” the Fed announced it would buy $600 billion in long-term Treasuries and buy an additional $250-$300 of Treasuries in which the $250-$300 billion was from previous investments.

Is that monetization? I would say yes, but it’s sort of tricky to define. For example, when the Fed conducts its open market operations it buys Treasuries to influence interest rates which has been going on for a long time — way before the current U.S. debt crisis.

So then what determines whether the Fed has conducted this egregious form of Treasury buying we call “monetization of the debt?”

The only two factors that can possibly differentiate monetization from open market operations is 1) the size of the purchase and 2) the intent behind the purchase.

This is how the size of Treasury purchases have changed since 2009:

Since new data has come out, the whole year of 2011 monetary authority purchases is $642 billion – not quite as high as in the graph, but still very high.

Clearly you can see the difference in the size of the purchases even though determining what size is considered monetization is rather arbitrary.

Then there’s the intent behind the purchase. That’s what I think Bernanke is talking about when he says he will not monetize the debt. In Bernanke’s mind the intent (at least the public lip service intent) is to avoid deflation and to boost the economy – not to bail the United States out of its debt crisis by printing money. Bernanke still contends that he has an exit policy and that he will wind down the monetary base when the time is appropriate.

So In Bernanke’s mind, he may not consider buying Treasuries — even at QE2 levels — “monetizing the debt.”

The most likely stealth monetization tactics Bernanke can use — while still keeping a straight face — while saying he will not monetize the debt, will be an extreme difference between the Fed Funds Rate and the theoretical rate it would be without money printing, and loosening loan requirements/adopting policies that will get the banks to multiply out their massive amounts of excess reserves.

If, for example, the natural Fed Funds rate — the rate without Fed intervention — is 19% and the Fed is keeping the rate at 0%, then the amount of Treasuries the Fed would have to buy to keep that rate down would be huge — yet Bernanke could say he’s just conducting normal open market operations.

On the other hand, if the banks create money out of nothing via the fractional reserve lending system and a certain percentage of that new money goes into Treasuries, Bernanke can just say there is strong private demand for Treasuries even if his policies were the reason behind excessive credit growth that allowed for the increased purchase of Treasuries.

Maybe Bernanke means he will not monetize a particular part of the debt that was being referred to in the video. Again, though, he could simply hide it under an open market operations 0% policy or encourage the banking system to expand the money supply.

Whatever the case, if you ever hear Bernanke say “the Federal Reserve will not monetize the debt” again, feel free to ignore him. When he says that, it doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t buy a large quantity of Treasuries with new money created out of nothing.

Remember, Greenspan says there’s “zero probability of default” because the U.S. can always print more money. Does Greenspan know something here? There’s only zero probability if the Fed commits to monetizing the debt as needed. If Greenspan knows something there will be monetization of the debt, even if Bernanke wants to call it something else.

Out of the Liquidity Trap?

Professor Krugman has produced an interesting graph that — according to his calculation — suggests that while we’re not quite out of the liquidity trap, we are getting closer:

It’s a useful contribution, that shows just what the Federal Reserve does in terms of trying to match interest rates to the broader inflationary outlook. The liquidity trap at the zero bound is clearly visible — the Fed cannot cut rates below the zero bound, which renders traditionally monetary policy essentially useless. (Austrians will of course interject here that traditional monetary policy is worse than useless, but that is another story for another day).

If the liquidity trap is ended, we should eventually see higher demand (Krugman’s point is broadly that stimulus would fight off the problem of the liquidity trap and solve the problem sooner). The Krugmanites think that demand is the only problem, and higher demand (even if that is down the line and later than Krugman would like it) will cure our economic woes.

I completely disagree and believe that depressed demand is not the main problem, but merely a symptom. I believe that the credit contraction that occurred in 2008 was a direct product of various non-monetary challenges that America faces, almost none of which have been solved, or will be solved by an end to the liquidity trap:

The three main problems are a lack of confidence stemming from high systemic residual debt, deindustrialisation in the name of globalisation (& its corollary, financialisation and that sprawling web of debt and counter-party risk), and fragility and side-effects (e.g. lost internal productivity due to role as world policeman) coming from America’s petroleum addiction.

In the months and years to come we will see who is right.

The Non-Paradox of Inactivity

The Paradox of Thrift states:

If everyone tries to save more money during times of recession, then aggregate demand will fall and will in turn lower total savings in the population because of the decrease in consumption and economic growth. The paradox is, narrowly speaking, that total savings may fall even when individual savings attempt to rise, and, broadly speaking, that increase in savings may be harmful to an economy.

It is in many ways a microcosm of Keynesian economics — mostly right, but in a few details spectacularly and outlandishly wrong

(A small detour: In many cases, these few details matter — big time. Austrian economics, of course, is the inverse of this — mostly wrong, but in a few details spectacularly and outlandishly right. I remain unsure as to which set of ideas gives more insight; although I am deeply impressed by some insights of Austrian economics, I generally think the only sensible economic outlook is to scavenge for whatever explanations fit the facts.)

If many people in the economy cease economic activity and hoard their capital, of course the economy will slow down — both in nominal (GDP) and generally also in real terms. Satisfying supply and demand requires a constant and continuous flow of productivity, and goods, and services and money.

Of course there is no paradox there: lowered economic activity is almost always deleterious (the exception being the rare cases when a type of economic activity is itself deleterious to the health of the economy.)

But here is where the paradox of thrift really falls down: saving is not necessarily the same thing as hoarding. Hoarding is saving without investment. And there’s a good chunk of evidence to suggest that more saving with investment is correlated with stronger economic health.

From Lawrence Kotlikoff:

Facts reinforce the idea that spending is no cure-all for what ails America. Most countries experiencing full employment and rapid growth do so while saving at very high rates. China is growing like crazy with a saving rate of more than 30 percent. Japan also saved at very high rates when it was booming. Since then, both rates have plummeted.

The U.S. has also done better when saving was high. In the 1950s and 1960s, saving averaged 14 percent of national income, which grew at 4.4 percent a year in real terms. In the 1990s and 2000s, saving averaged 5.1 percent and national income increased only 2.4 percent.

The connection between saving and growth runs through domestic investment. Countries that save invest not only by building inventory for tomorrow; they also invest in physical capital that makes workers more productive.

U.S. saving is highly correlated with domestic investment; when we save, we primarily invest here at home in starting businesses, buying equipment, and building factories.

In reality, Keynes (and his antecedents) identified an important economic eventuality — a slowdown resulting from hoarding. However, associating this with saving — and subsequently tilting policy toward consumption — is really a misidentification. Societies need investment to grow, and investment requires saving.

Stiglitz vs Krugman

A very interesting front is opening up regarding the current state of America.

Some economists believe that the main problem in America is a lack of demand, defined as the desire to buy, the willingness to buy, and the ability to pay for it

From Paul Krugman:

There is nothing — nothing — in what we see suggesting that this current depression is more than a problem of inadequate demand. This could be turned around in months with the right policies. Our problem isn’t, ultimately, economic; it’s political, brought on by an elite that would rather cling to its prejudices than turn the nation around.

The implication here is that people just don’t have the money in their pockets to spend at the levels they were five years ago, and the solution is (through whatever means) giving them that money.

As well as the obvious (and accurate) Austrian retort that demand in 2006 was being pushed skyward as part of a ridiculous and entirely artificial debt-financed bubble, other economists believe that a lack of demand is just a symptom of other underlying symptoms. I myself believe that the three main problems are a lack of confidence stemming from high systemic residual debt, deindustrialisation in the name of globalisation (& its corollary, financialisation and that sprawling web of debt and counter-party risk), and fragility and side-effects (e.g. lost internal productivity due to role as world policeman) coming from America’s petroleum addiction.

Now Joe Stiglitz has weighed in in a lengthy and essential Vanity Fair piece:

The trauma we’re experiencing right now resembles the trauma we experienced 80 years ago, during the Great Depression, and it has been brought on by an analogous set of circumstances. Then, as now, we faced a breakdown of the banking system. But then, as now, the breakdown of the banking system was in part a consequence of deeper problems. Even if we correctly respond to the trauma—the failures of the financial sector—it will take a decade or more to achieve full recovery. Under the best of conditions, we will endure a Long Slump. If we respond incorrectly, as we have been, the Long Slump will last even longer, and the parallel with the Depression will take on a tragic new dimension.

Many have argued that the Depression was caused primarily by excessive tightening of the money supply on the part of the Federal Reserve Board. Ben Bernanke, a scholar of the Depression, has stated publicly that this was the lesson he took away, and the reason he opened the monetary spigots. He opened them very wide. Beginning in 2008, the balance sheet of the Fed doubled and then rose to three times its earlier level. Today it is $2.8 trillion. While the Fed, by doing this, may have succeeded in saving the banks, it didn’t succeed in saving the economy.

Reality has not only discredited the Fed but also raised questions about one of the conventional interpretations of the origins of the Depression. The argument has been made that the Fed caused the Depression by tightening money, and if only the Fed back then had increased the money supply—in other words, had done what the Fed has done today—a full-blown Depression would likely have been averted. In economics, it’s difficult to test hypotheses with controlled experiments of the kind the hard sciences can conduct. But the inability of the monetary expansion to counteract this current recession should forever lay to rest the idea that monetary policy was the prime culprit in the 1930s. The problem today, as it was then, is something else. The problem today is the so-called real economy. It’s a problem rooted in the kinds of jobs we have, the kind we need, and the kind we’re losing, and rooted as well in the kind of workers we want and the kind we don’t know what to do with. The real economy has been in a state of wrenching transition for decades, and its dislocations have never been squarely faced. A crisis of the real economy lies behind the Long Slump, just as it lay behind the Great Depression.

At the beginning of the Depression, more than a fifth of all Americans worked on farms. Between 1929 and 1932, these people saw their incomes cut by somewhere between one-third and two-thirds, compounding problems that farmers had faced for years. Agriculture had been a victim of its own success. In 1900, it took a large portion of the U.S. population to produce enough food for the country as a whole. Then came a revolution in agriculture that would gain pace throughout the century—better seeds, better fertilizer, better farming practices, along with widespread mechanization. Today, 2 percent of Americans produce more food than we can consume.

What this transition meant, however, is that jobs and livelihoods on the farm were being destroyed. Because of accelerating productivity, output was increasing faster than demand, and prices fell sharply. It was this, more than anything else, that led to rapidly declining incomes. Farmers then (like workers now) borrowed heavily to sustain living standards and production. Because neither the farmers nor their bankers anticipated the steepness of the price declines, a credit crunch quickly ensued. Farmers simply couldn’t pay back what they owed. The financial sector was swept into the vortex of declining farm incomes.

The cities weren’t spared—far from it. As rural incomes fell, farmers had less and less money to buy goods produced in factories. Manufacturers had to lay off workers, which further diminished demand for agricultural produce, driving down prices even more. Before long, this vicious circle affected the entire national economy.

The parallels between the story of the origin of the Great Depression and that of our Long Slump are strong. Back then we were moving from agriculture to manufacturing. Today we are moving from manufacturing to a service economy. The decline in manufacturing jobs has been dramatic—from about a third of the workforce 60 years ago to less than a tenth of it today. The pace has quickened markedly during the past decade. There are two reasons for the decline. One is greater productivity — the same dynamic that revolutionized agriculture and forced a majority of American farmers to look for work elsewhere. The other is globalization, which has sent millions of jobs overseas, to low-wage countries or those that have been investing more in infrastructure or technology. (As Greenwald has pointed out, most of the job loss in the 1990s was related to productivity increases, not to globalization.) Whatever the specific cause, the inevitable result is precisely the same as it was 80 years ago: a decline in income and jobs. The millions of jobless former factory workers once employed in cities such as Youngstown and Birmingham and Gary and Detroit are the modern-day equivalent of the Depression’s doomed farmers.

The consequences for consumer spending, and for the fundamental health of the economy — not to mention the appalling human cost—are obvious, though we were able to ignore them for a while. For a time, the bubbles in the housing and lending markets concealed the problem by creating artificial demand, which in turn created jobs in the financial sector and in construction and elsewhere. The bubble even made workers forget that their incomes were declining. They savored the possibility of wealth beyond their dreams, as the value of their houses soared and the value of their pensions, invested in the stock market, seemed to be doing likewise. But the jobs were temporary, fueled on vapor.

So far, so excellent. Stiglitz first shovels shit over the view of Fisherian debt-deflation as the main cause of the slump in demand — debt-deflation is a symptom, and a very nasty one, but not really a cause. Second, Stiglitz also correctly notes that today’s ailments are the result of social, infrastructural and productive upheaval in the real economy. He correctly identifies the leading trend here — manufacturing (and, it should be added, primary industry) has been ripped out of America by the forces of globalisation, and the powerful pull of cheaper wages. This is a strong explanation of why Krugman’s view — that the only thing missing is demand, and that government can fix that in an instant — is nonsense.

As I wrote earlier this month:

The point here is that economic health — and real industrial output, measured in joules, or in “needs met” — and money circulation are in reality almost totally decoupled. Getting out of a depression requires debt erasure, and new organic activity, and there is absolutely no guarantee that monetary easing will do the trick on either count. Most often, depressions and liquidity traps are a reflection of underlying structural and sociological problems, and broken economic and trade systems. Easing kicks the can down the road a little, and gives some time and breathing room for those problems to be fixed, but very often that just doesn’t happen. Ultimately, societies only take the steps necessary (e.g. a debt jubilee) when their very existence seems threatened.

Stiglitz continues:

What we need to do instead is embark on a massive investment program—as we did, virtually by accident, 80 years ago—that will increase our productivity for years to come, and will also increase employment now. This public investment, and the resultant restoration in G.D.P., increases the returns to private investment. Public investments could be directed at improving the quality of life and real productivity—unlike the private-sector investments in financial innovations, which turned out to be more akin to financial weapons of mass destruction.

Now, I don’t really have a problem with the idea that government can do some good. If people in a democracy choose to solve problems via public spending, well, that’s part of the bargain in a democratic state. Even Adam Smith noted that government should fund “certain great institutions” beyond the reach of private enterprise.

But here we reach the great problem with Stiglitz’s view:

The private sector by itself won’t, and can’t, undertake structural transformation of the magnitude needed—even if the Fed were to keep interest rates at zero for years to come. The only way it will happen is through a government stimulus designed not to preserve the old economy but to focus instead on creating a new one. We have to transition out of manufacturing and into services that people want — into productive activities that increase living standards, not those that increase risk and inequality.

The United States spent the last decade (arguably longer) and trillions of dollars embroiled in wars aimed at keeping oil cheap, and maintaining the flow of global goods precisely because America is dependent upon those things. America does not play global policeman out of nicety or vanity — she does it out of economic necessity. That is precisely because America let globalisation take away all of her industry, making her dependent not only on the continued value of her paper dollar, but on the flow of global trade in energy and goods.

Investing more money in services will leave America dependent on these contingencies. And dependency is fragility — and the more fragile America becomes, the more aggressive she becomes in maintaining and controlling the flow of global goods.

Any stimulus package ought to instead be focussed on making America energy independent, and encouraging innovative new forms of manufacturing (e.g. 3-D printing) that can undercut Chinese labour.

So while Stiglitz must be commended for seeing through the haze, it is rather puzzling that his alternative is services, rather than self-sufficiency.

While America is dependent on foreign goods and energy, she is prone to not only waste huge amounts of productive capital on war and weapons, but she also risks serious economic damage from events such as oil shocks, geopolitical shocks, regional wars, and — well — anything that might slow down or endanger global trade. Her need to police the world makes her even hungrier for oil, which means she spends more money on the world, which makes her hungrier for oil.

Artificially Low Interest Rates in Europe

My chart of the day, illustrating a pretty brutal reversion to the mean:

Of course, all interest rates in a fiat system are artificial. Interest rates are the price of money, and if a central bank is determining the level of money, then they are in effect determining the level of interest, which is one reason why sovereigns who borrow in their own currency do not tend to face a danger of rising interest rates even at high levels of borrowing.

The post-Euro low-rates euphoria was a cunning trick: the single monetary policy disguised each state’s true fiscal picture. Fiscal union might have prevented this blowup, but introducing it now seems unlikely given Germany’s severe aversion to such a thing.

If AIG is considered ‘too big to fail’ what does that make the Eurozone given the very high levels of integration across the global economy today? (I don’t have the answer, but I think we can all guess).