What the Federal Reserve Can and Can’t Do

 

I have a good impression of Ben Bernanke, chair of the Federal Reserve from 2006-2014. Partly because he comes across as being both competent and honest and partly because Sheila Bair, chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation from 2006-2011, and whom I greatly admire, gives him high marks in her book, “Bull by the Horns,” about the financial crisis.
CaptureMr. Bernanke has an excellent Op Ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “How the Fed Saved the Economy,” clearly describing what the Federal Reserve both can and can’t do. What it can do is:

  • Make recessions less severe. The unemployment rate has been steadily dropping and now is apparently almost back to normal at 5.1% even though the relatively low labor-force participation rate and lack of wage pressure indicate remaining weakness.
  • Keep inflation low and stable. The Fed’s expansionary monetary policy has helped bring down unemployment without igniting inflation whose underlying rate is currently only 1.5%.

Mr. Bernanke states that “the Fed has little or no control over long-term economic fundamentals – the skills of the workforce, the energy and vision of entrepreneurs, and the pace at which new technologies are developed and adapted for commercial use.” He goes on to say that “further economic growth will have to come from the supply-side, primarily from increases in productivity. … Fiscal-policy makers in Congress need to step up” by adopting policies to:

  • Improve worker skills. (how about immigration reform, better vocational education, reforming SSDI and expanding the EITC to boost incentives to work)
  • Foster capital investment. (how about both individual and corporate tax reform and relaxing Dodd-Frank regulations on main street banks)
  • Support research and development. (how about making life easier for entrepreneurs with fewer regulations)

Mr. Bernanke has a very good handle on our current financial situation. The Federal Reserve has done and is doing its job. It’s time (long past time!) for fiscal policy makers (i.e. Congress and the President) to adopt policies, such as above, to speed up economic growth.

Get Out While the Getting Is Good!

 

David Malpass, president of Encima Global LLC, has an op-ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “The Economy Is Showing Signs of Life”, pointing out that business loans, auto sales and hourly earnings are up.  Mr. Malpass says that “The sequester is a bad way to set spending priorities, but it reduces the risk of future tax increases, contributing to the upturn in consumer and business confidence. … The good news is that an end to the latest version of the Fed’s quantitative easing would create space for more growth in private credit and a shift back toward market, not government allocation of credit. …Because America’s private economy is the world’s biggest net creditor and capital allocator, the United States will be the biggest beneficiary of a return to market based interest rates, with vast potential in efficiency, intellectual property and the capacity to innovate.”
Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, is given much credit for the fact that the Great Recession did not turn into another depression.  But now, four years after the end of the recession, we have the twin problems of a slow growth economy, which keeps the unemployment rate much too high, and the potential for huge inflation caused by the vast increase in the money supply.  Mr. Malpass makes an excellent argument that the economy has recovered enough so that further quantitative easing will now retard future growth.  It clearly also increases the chance of runaway inflation.
Current artificially low interest rates also disguise the future damage now being created by huge federal deficit spending.  When interest rates go back up, as they inevitably will, interest payments on our rapidly increasing national debt will also increase dramatically, and force far greater cuts in federal spending than are currently being caused by the sequester.
In other words, to speed up economic growth, curtail the risk of future inflation and to put more pressure on Congress to control federal spending, the Federal Reserve should begin to exit from quantitative easing in the very near future!