Central Banking

Oh, The Irony

In case you needed any more evidence that top policymakers are divorced both from reality and from understanding the consequences of their actions, witness Federal Reserve Board Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer’s interview today, in which he stated that “we had a financial crisis which was caused by behavior in the banking and other parts of the financial system and it did enormous damage to this economy.” Sorry, but it wasn’t bad actors in the banking system that caused the financial crisis. The Federal Reserve System was pumping money into the economy as fast as it could, pushing interest rates too low for too long and encouraging excessive risk-taking. Government housing policies were pushing for higher and higher homeownership rates, spurring lenders to reduce their lending standards to meet the government’s targets. And then once the crisis hit the Fed and the federal government tried to wipe their hands of the whole mess and blame everything on a few bad actors. That’s why Dodd-Frank and the whole mess of post-crisis regulations that have come down the pike completely missed the mark. Not only WILL they do nothing to stop a future crisis, they CAN do nothing to stop a future crisis because they misdiagnosed the cause. Dodd-Frank was just an attempt to use the crisis to force through a bevy of legislation that otherwise would have floundered in Congress for years. The worst part of it is that even after everyone will have realized that the bill was a complete flop, it will remain on the books for decades.

Rules for International Monetary Stability

The Hoover Institution’s DC office held a short event this morning on “Rules for International Monetary Stability” which highlighted papers from last year’s Hoover Institution Monetary Policy Conference. While much of the discussion devolved into the minutiae of the particular monetary rules that “should” be implemented, there was one thing that stuck out to me that didn’t seem to be picked up on either by the audience or by the presenters. Professor Michael Bordo, in his presentation on monetary policy rules mentioned on several occasions how well the international gold standard worked as a monetary policy rule from 1880 to 1914. However, he also stated that it “stopped working” after World War I.

But as George Selgin and others have pointed out, not only did it work well, it didn’t just “stop working” – it was done away with by governments the world over. The gold standard was a hindrance to government spending, so governments around the world decided to jettison it. That was not a fault of the gold standard, it was a feature, keeping governments from being able to print money ad infinitum. Once governments got off gold, all sorts of mischief ensued – bank holidays, successive devaluations, hyperinflation, etc. I was tempted to ask the presenters: “If the gold standard worked so well, why not use that as the monetary policy rule going forward?” You can hear the scoffing now, and the protestations that the gold standard is impractical and that’s why it was abandoned. But in reality, the gold standard is no different than the Taylor Rule or any other monetary policy rule – once it begins to handcuff the government’s ability to inflate its way out of a recession it will be discarded. Fiscal dominance will always win out.

At the end of the day, discussions about central bank independence are moot. The success of any monetary policy rule, or indeed any monetary policy, is dependent on the government’s AND the central bank’s willingness to voluntarily set very limited boundaries for its own actions and to adhere to those boundaries. Once those boundaries have been crossed, the credibility of the government or the central bank to withdraw and retrench within those boundaries is gone. That’s what we face today. Central banks that have engaged in relentless quantitative easing, credit accommodation, and experimental negative interest rate policies cannot be trusted to return even to a pre-crisis monetary policy stance, let alone anything resembling a stable monetary policy rule.

First Quarter: Temporary Slide or Precursor to the Plunge?

Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer today said that weak growth in the US economy in the first quarter is likely only temporary, and that the Fed could continue on with its planned rate hikes. Time will tell whether he’s right or wrong, but there is so much evidence out there that the economy is dependent on central bank money printing for its continued health that we can’t help but think that Fischer really isn’t in tune with what’s going on. Once the central bank stock and bond purchases wind down, stock markets will lose their luster, markets will begin to panic, and in the absence of any further quantitative easing the malinvestments that have been propagated through a decade of easy money will eventually be brought to light. Fischer, like most economists of the past few decades, doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions because of his failure to believe the teachings of Austrian Business Cycle Theory. That disbelief is irrelevant, however, and the consequences of the Fed’s decisions will occur regardless. When they do, let this post be a reminder that the Vice Chairman of the most powerful central bank in the world didn’t see the crisis coming.

January 8, 1912: Report of the National Monetary Commission

On January 8, 1912 the National Monetary Commission established by the Aldrich-Vreeland Act issued its final report. The Aldrich-Vreeland Act had been passed in 1908 in response to the Panic of 1907. The act established a monetary commission that studied the banking systems of England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, and other countries, and issued a series of documents during its existence. The Commission’s final report contained suggestions for a National Reserve Association to further nationalize the banking system, centralize reserves, and respond to combat financial panics. The ideas and language in that final report formed the basis for the eventual creation of the Federal Reserve System. Some advocates of sound money have advocated the creation of a new monetary commission, the Centennial Monetary Commission, which would examine the Federal Reserve’s performance over the past century and put forth proposals for a potential overhaul of the American financial system.

Anniversary of Murray Rothbard’s Death

Today is the anniversary of the death of Austrian School economist Murray Rothbard in 1995. Along with Ludwig von Mises and others, Rothbard was one of the men most responsible for popularizing the Austrian School of Economics in the United States. Following in the vein of Carl Menger, the founder of the Austrian School, Rothbard made important contributions to economics as well as economic and monetary history, and gave penetrating insights into the public policy impacts of monetary policy. For those wishing to begin reading Rothbard’s work on money and banking, his short book “What Has Government Done to Our Money?” and the longer “The Mystery of Banking” are great introductions to and explanations of the workings of the American banking and monetary system.

The Bullard Flip Flop Continues

Coming in at the end of Friday, we have a little flashback to our article about St. Louis Fed President James Bullard and his penchant for constantly changing his views on the proper course for monetary policy. At the time we published the article, Bullard was in his hawkish phase, but he subsequently went back to being a dove, stated that the US economy only needed one rate hike through 2018. Now he is back to aligning himself with the hawks, stating that another rate hike next year would be appropriate, as would beginning to allow the Fed’s balance sheet to shrink. Perhaps that is why the FOMC can’t seem to make up its mind on what it wants to do, its members keep changing their opinions on what’s happening and what they should (or shouldn’t) do about it. As we wrote back in March:

At the end of the day, decisions on monetary policy are ultimately a judgement call, made with the same level of thought that might be given to where to hold the office Christmas party. The value of the dollar, the standard of living of the American people, and the health and well-being of money and banking in the United States are placed in the hands of a tiny group of people. It is a recipe for failure and disaster. Far better to leave everything to the workings of the market, where the choices of millions work together for mutual betterment and to outweigh the efforts of would-be tyrants, than to trust in the capricious and flighty fancies of our modern-day mandarins.

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What the Federal Reserve Will Do This Week

Just about everyone expects the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) to raise its target interest rate at its meeting this week. The talk of raising rates has occupied newspaper columns all year, and the comments from FOMC participants have become stronger in recent months in discussing their desire to raise rates. But the decision to raise rates won’t have come about because of any strong economic data, be it inflation hovering around the Fed’s target or the low unemployment rate showing strength in the labor market. Labor market activity has been relatively steady all year and there haven’t been any surprisingly strong signs of economic growth, so why the green light now? Because the European Central Bank (ECB) announced at its meeting last week that it would extend but taper its bond purchases.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, one central bank after another engaged in quantitative easing. The Federal Reserve, Bank of England, ECB, and Bank of Japan all engaged in large-scale asset purchases in attempts to drive down interest rates, remove overvalued assets from bank balance sheets, and attempt to jump-start their economies. Various interest rate targets were driven to near-zero, and even negative in Japan and Europe. Central bankers eventually realized that they couldn’t maintain those levels of policy accommodation indefinitely. But no one wanted to be the first one to start tightening. The fear was that if a central bank began to tighten policy while other central banks didn’t, the first country’s tighter policies would cause its economy to slow down, harming its relative position vis-a-vis other major countries. No central bank wanted to take the blame for weakening its country’s economy. So month after month, meeting after meeting, central banks just held pat.

Bubble Watch: A Compendium

Image: Alain B

Image: Alain B

With the massive amounts of monetary stimulus unleashed into world economies over the past decade by central banks, it stands to reason that much of that money is creating bubbles in numerous sectors. Much attention has been paid to the larger, more important bubbles such as the stock market bubble or the bond bubble. But other, smaller bubbles can also serve as leading indicators of bubble activity.

According to Austrian Business Cycle Theory, injections of money and credit by central banks lead to artificially low interest rates, incentivizing investment into longer-term, more capital-intensive projects that wouldn’t be profitable at higher interest rates. When those projects are completed the realization comes that there is insufficient demand for them. Resources have been malinvested, put to use in producing goods not demanded by the market. Companies are forced to lower prices, liquidate assets, and lay off workers in order to put their malinvested resources back to productive use.

Similar things happen on a smaller scale in households. As money flows into the economy and salaries rise, people feel flush with cash and begin to increase their discretionary spending. Expectations about the future increase too, leading people to believe that the good times will never end. As the bubbles burst, however, and the layoffs begin, people begin to realize what is coming and pull back on their spending. Dining out is replaced by dinners at home, cars and houses may be downsized, and spending on frills and luxuries is curtailed.

It’s been a while since we’ve put together a bubble watch post, so here is a little compendium of some news items from the past few months that might be indicators of bubbles. While it isn’t always possible to identify which bubbles are going to burst and when, nor how important such bubbles bursting may be, smaller bubbles can serve as leading indicators of overall bubble creation or point to even larger bubbles in the overall economy. The skyscraper index is a well-known example of a smaller bubble indicator, but it’s not the only one.

Fed Holds Rates Steady: Setting Up for December Hike?

In an unsurprising decision, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) decided today once again to keep its target federal funds rate steady at 0.25-0.50%. It was widely speculated that the FOMC would hold rates steady at today’s meeting due to concerns about influencing next week’s Presidential election. Expectations now are that the Fed, if it decides to raise rates, will do so at next month’s FOMC meeting.

There were no significant changes in the language of the statement from September’s meeting. Household spending was described as “rising moderately” rather than growing strongly, price inflation and measures of inflation expectations have risen but still remain lower than what the Fed would like to see, and the case for raising rates has continued to strengthen. Voting against today’s action were Esther George from Kansas City and Loretta Mester from Cleveland, both of whom wanted to raise the target federal funds rate to 0.50-0.75%. Eric Rosengren, who voted against September’s FOMC action, switched this month to supporting the most recent FOMC action.

It remains to be seen when the Fed might raise rates, as it seems that central banks are waiting to see what the other central banks are going to do before they make their own decision. The Fed, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank, and others are playing a game of chicken. They are like cars heading full-speed towards a volcanic crater, soon to plunge into the chasm and assured of destruction. Yet none of them want to be the first to hike rates. That would be tantamount to admitting error, or at least admitting defeat, and would be a tremendous blow to their pride. And so meeting after meeting we see central bank after central bank holding steady.

Some of them like to talk a good game, jawboning markets into thinking that more easing might be on the way (BOJ, ECB) or that rate hikes are just around the corner (Federal Reserve), but they never back up their tough talk with action. Watching central banks nowadays is like watching a game of poker in which each player has a horrible hand, tries to bluff, and is unwilling to show his hand. And so it goes again today. Even if the Fed were to raise rates next month, it would likely only be to 0.50-0.75%, still an abnormally low figure. Given that the Fed spent all year talking about raising rates and not doing anything, it would be safe to say that rates won’t even approach 1% until December of 2017. Don’t expect full “normalization” to be reached until 2020 at the earliest, assuming the economy doesn’t go down the toilet before then, which is very likely given the huge asset bubbles that easy money policies have inflated all across the world.

The Symbiotic Relationship Between Central Banking and Total War

The following is the prepared version of a speech delivered at the Ron Paul Institute Conference in Sterling, VA.

I am here today to talk about one of the most important, but also most overlooked, issues of our day: the relationship between central banking and total war. When you focus on central banking and the problems that result from it, it’s very easy to see how central banks enable larger, more centralized, and more pervasive governments. But it isn’t always easy for those who oppose war to see how central banks enable war. So I’ll go ahead and give you kind of the 10,000 foot view of the symbiotic relationship between central banking and war.

One of the primary activities that states engage in is fighting wars. But wars cost money. Armies march on their stomachs, and someone has to buy the necessary food and transport it. Weapons and armament cost money too, all of which has to be paid for. So where have kings and governments historically gotten that money from, particularly when their own treasuries ran out? As Willie Sutton could have told them – banks.

Banks developed initially as a means for merchants to store their funds safely and securely. But eventually those banks took in so much money that they got the idea to loan out some of those funds, hoping that they could juggle loans and receive enough payment on outstanding loans to satisfy demands for redemption by depositors. Thus was born fractional reserve banking and the recourse to banks as lenders of money. Sure, kings could expropriate money from banks, but that only went so far. If you continued to rob banks outright, they would eventually either hide their money or disappear from the kingdom and the king was left with no money to fight his wars. So what developed was a relationship that has developed over time and become ever closer and more symbiotic over the course of time between banks and governments.