Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Bernanke and the Depression of Damocles

It's showtime for Ben Bernanke, Fed Chairman. The moment of truth, so skillfully postponed by months of swapping good money for toxic debt, is once again at hand.

He will either be the hero or a punch line in some future Fed Chairman's speech.


The first lesson--economic prosperity depends on financial stability--seems obvious, but this connection was not always well understood. After the stock market crash of 1929, many thought a financial and economic crisis was necessary--even desirable--to wring out speculative excesses that had built up in the 1920s. Remarkably, despite the fact that the Federal Reserve had been founded to mitigate financial panics, the central bank made essentially no effort to prevent the wave of bank failures that paralyzed the financial system at the start of 1930s. Indeed, the Treasury Secretary at the time, Andrew Mellon, believed in the tonic effects of weeding out weak banks and famously advised President Herbert Hoover, "Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate … It will purge the rottenness out of the system."

The Depression of Damocles hangs over his head while he deliberates long run strategies for managing the Fed's balance sheet- a hot topic at the Fed's meeting late last month.

The staff next gave a presentation on potential longer-run strategies for managing the SOMA. At previous meetings, Committee participants had expressed support for steps to reduce the size of the Federal Reserve's balance sheet over time and return the composition of the SOMA to only Treasury securities. The staff discussed the potential portfolio paths and macroeconomic consequences of a number of different strategies for accomplishing these objectives. To date, the Desk had been reinvesting the proceeds of all maturing Treasury securities in newly issued Treasury securities, but it had not been reinvesting principal and interest payments on maturing agency debt and agency MBS, nor had it been selling securities. One strategy considered in the staff presentation was a continuation of the current practice, which would normalize the balance sheet very gradually. In addition, the staff presented information on a number of other strategies that included sales of SOMA holdings of agency debt and MBS and under which the proceeds of maturing Treasury securities would not be reinvested; these strategies differed by the date and circumstances under which sales would be initiated, by the average pace of sales, and by the degree to which the timing and pace of such sales would be adjusted in response to financial and economic developments.

Ironically, the Fed is not debating whether to "liquidate" à la Andrew Mellon, toxic debt purchased from the banking sector, but rather the pace of liquidation.

The modern Fed, if it tries to drain liquidity by liquidating toxic assets, may well, like its counterpart in the early 1930s bury the economy under a mountain of unpayable debt in order to maintain a "strong dollar", which, as an aside, has risen roughly 20% so far this year in Forex markets.

Let's return to Ben's jab at Andrew Mellon, The first lesson--economic prosperity depends on financial stability--seems obvious, but this connection was not always well understood. Whether this first lesson is currently well understood at the Fed remains to be seen.

While there are many aspects of financial stability, one key feature is sufficient income to service liabilities, a task which gets most difficult the higher the ratio of liabilities to income.

The graph below depicts total US financial liabilities (source Fed's Flow of Funds data) divided by US national income (source BEA).

As you can see, current trends do not engender a sense of US financial stability. Income needs to rise to avoid a Mellon-esque liquidation. Financial stability, in my view, does not flow from support to financial institutions, which but buys time, but from a financially stable real sector. Right now, the last thing the US real sector needs is less liquidity and a strong dollar.

The question, in my mind, is why the Fed tolerates a "strong dollar". Will the words of men like Bob Rubin- "a strong dollar is in the US national interest"- become Mr. Bernanke's ironic epithet?

In time, economic historians may realize the only interests served by a strong dollar in recent times are those of the TBTF banks, who get a "free ride" on the exorbitant privilege of the US$'s role as main global reserve. Bernanke, to avoid being the goat, needs to solve Triffin's Paradox as Alexander the Great solved the Gordian Knot, by cutting it in half- and choosing to support the domestic (real) economy.

The real economy in the US needs a weak dollar and inflation or it will not be able to service its debt. How one can think finance needed the Fed's shock and awe in 2008-09 but the real sector doesn't, and can instead service its debt with a long and gradual decline in unemployment, escapes me.  The US needs some inflationary shock and awe.

"But," you might be thinking," hasn't the US been inflating?"

Yes and no. While the monetary base has tripled over the past decade, growing even faster than in the 70s, when it doubled, broader money stock measures are not responding in kind- M2 has roughly doubled during the past decade while it more than tripled during the 70s. Credit, more and more over the years, is flowing to the financial markets, (and overseas- some $300B of US currency is in foreign hands source: BEA) bypassing the US real sector.

Debates over the pace of Fed credit draining via toxic debt liquidation is ample proof. US monetary policy has been hijacked by international financial concerns who don't want the value of their dollar holdings inflated away (but don't seem to realize current income without inflation only invites default). 

Bernanke needs to make a choice. Supporting the TBTF banks and the "strong dollar" as basis of global reserves got us into this mess. More of the same won't get us out of it.

32 comments:

cbritton said...

I find your historical references in your entries to be useful for the financial illiterate among us refreshing. However, I think the more appropriate comparison for Bernanke is "between Scylla and Charybdis" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scylla).

I don't believe that inducing inflation will have the desired affect of reducing debt. There's no driver for job creation for those in debt and jobless to reduce their liabilities. Artificially inflating home prices via stimulus (and shadow inventory) has only gotten the Fed deeper into debt. Prices will start falling when the stimulus ends and there will still be high unemployment.

There's no hope for either of these choices.

Dude said...

cbritton,

I'm glad you enjoy the references.

As to the appropriateness of the metaphor, it seems to me to depend on the allusion one wishes to draw.

I've used the scylla, charybdis allusion before ( http://dharmajoint.blogspot.com/2009/10/from-black-scholes-to-black-holes-part.html )which doesn't mean I won't use it again.

We'll see what unfolds if the Fed ever decides to liquify the economy.

biofuel said...

If we take money to be blood of a society/organism, then in my humble view the malady is not too much or too little of it; the malady is that the body parts do not work well. The Fed could manipulate the blood flow – do a kind of blood transfusion - and to a certain extent ameliorate the problem, but only that - ameliorate. Why do liabilities grow faster than income? The “strong dollar” policy was a conscious decision on the part of the ruling regime. Everyone knew that it would undermine US manufacturers and exporters, but be good to the US financials. The brush off was that US exporters would become more competitive. Why has “strong dollar” been in place? How have financials achived hegemony in the political life? Is it even Bernanke's call whether to have a strong dollar policy or not? So many questions, but focusing only on the monetary policy answers none.

Dude said...

biofuel,

Thanks for sharing your humble view that monetary analysis is useless in economics.

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NC Jim said...

Dude: I am surprised you truncated the Mellon quote. It continues :

"It will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up from less competent people.”

This "social conservative" message sounds very current. Beck couldn't have said it better himself.

Jim

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