Friday, June 6, 2008

The Bermuda Triangle?

Is the United States flying into a period of economic turmoil that one can only describe as a Bermuda Triangle? Financial institutions are not out-of-the-woods yet in terms of cleaning up their balance sheets. The economy has surprisingly remained stronger than expected, yet there are layoffs in the airline industry, the car industry, the housing industry, and other industries that are bound to contribute to future weakness. And, there is talk within central banking circles that interest rates may need to be raised in upcoming months.

Furthermore, there seems to be some uncertainty among the pilots flying the monetary ship in the United States. After leading the Federal Reserve through a period of historically massive reductions in the Fed’s target Federal Funds rate, the introduction of major innovations in the way the Fed conducts its monetary policy, and after intervening into areas of the financial sector in ways that are reminiscent of the Great Depression (of which he is a major academic scholar), Chairman Bernanke has stated that maybe the Federal Reserve better look out after the decline in the value of the United States dollar.

But, now several other members of the Federal Reserve leadership have expressed doubts about how the Federal Reserve has acted in recent months. On June 5, Jeffrey Lacker, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond has come out and expressed concerns about the Federal Reserve lending to major securities firms. Charles Plosser, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia has also spoken out defining more clearly the boundaries of what the Federal Reserve System can and should do. Both raised concerns about whether or not the Fed should actually be doing these things.

But, these are not the only voices that have expressed concern. Two other presidents of Federal Reserve banks have expressed similar thoughts. Gary Stern, president of the Federal Reserve bank of Minneapolis, discussed, in April, the expansion of the Fed’s authority, while Thomas Hoenig, president of the Kansas City Federal Reserve bank discussed the threat of moral hazard in the financial system due to the Fed’s actions.

On the other side, Ben Bernanke, vice chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Donald Kohn, and Timothy Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, have defended the recent actions taken by the Fed.

I cannot remember a time when there has been so much discussion, in public, about what the Federal Reserve is doing or has done by the individuals within the Federal Reserve System that have responsibility for making the policy decisions that the Fed executes. The Federal Reserve does no usually “wash its dirty linen” for the whole world to see. Just what is going on here?

One final point: the timing of the departure of Governor Frederic Mishkin to return to his teaching position at this time raises a question mark. This is a very delicate time for the Federal Reserve System because the departure of Mishkin will reduce the number of openings in the ranks of the Governors to four…out of seven. This, of course, is not Mishkin’s fault because the administration has made appointments for the other three positions. It is just that the Democratically controlled confirmation process has held up the confirmation on these other three appointments for over a year. But, Mishkin’s resignation is tremendously awkward at this time. I don’t want to make too big a point out of this, but the timing, given the internal debate within the Fed and with the shortage of Governors on the Board, the timing of the departure is curious.

But, let’s return to the other points mentioned above. First, the condition of the financial system. Foreclosures remain high and will probably continue to rise. Bankruptcies have increased and probably will increase. Charge offs of credit card debt are high and rising. There remains the question about further charge offs at major financial institutions. And, if the economy is going to get softer, delinquencies and other financial dislocations are going to increase. The question still remains…how stable are the financial institutions of the United States, particularly if short term interest rates need to rise?

Second, the state of the economy, although it has been stronger than expected, shows signs of growing weakness. It is kind of like watching this whole thing evolve in slow motion. The bad news piles up, yet the economy seems to be hanging in there. However, the unemployment figures are up and the impacts of the higher oil and gas prices seem to be spreading to more and more major industries. The unexpected strength in the economy has allowed Chairman Bernanke to express concern about the weakness in the value of the United States dollar, but one really wonders about how much can be done in this election year to actually combat its falling value if the economy gets softer and financial institutions remain in a tenuous state.

Finally, there is the reality that the United States is “out-of-step” with the rest of the world in terms of where it is policy wise. On June 5, the European Central Bank and the Bank of England, both left their target interest rates at their current levels, but, especially Jean-Claude Trichet, the president of the European Central Bank, they both stated that there was a strong possibility that these target interest rates would need to be raised in the future. The focus of these central banks on inflation remains firm in spite of weakening economies. These central banks are earning their reputation for trying to keep inflation in their areas under control.

The direct effect of this effort has been to cause renewed weakness in the value of the United States dollar and a rebound in the price of oil. And, this points up the main dilemma facing the United States government and the Federal Reserve. Policy wise, the United States is in a different place than is much of the rest of the world. The “go-it-alone” attitude of the Bush administration which thumbed its nose to the international community in foreign relations as well as in its economic and financial policies has now left it at odds with much of the rest of the world and isolated it in terms of what it needs to do. Whereas the United States seemingly cannot act to protect the value of the dollar because of the fragility of its economic and financial system, other major players in the world now are indicating that they, in all likelihood, will raise interest rates in the future. If others do raise interest rates this can only put the United States in a more difficult position because if the Fed does need to act to further protect the economy or even if it does not move from the targets it now has, the weakness in the value of the dollar will only continue. The actions of others will place the dollar in a relatively worse position than it is now

Once again, we see the problem of a major nation going off on its own path. Now, when the United States is reaping the consequences of its past actions, the only way others can contribute to helping it resolve its difficulties is to weaken their own discipline and act in a way that is not consistent with the long term welfare of their own people. The future direction of the United States economy and the health of its financial system is heavily dependent upon what others might have to do to maintain the health and welfare of their countries. We have already seen the United States president “beg” for relief on the oil front. Will he also need to “beg” for other relief?

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