Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Mr. Bernanke and the Fed Don't Know What is Going On!

Recently, the Federal Reserve has held 43 meetings around the country on the financing needs of small business. These meetings began February 3, 2010. Yesterday, Mr. Bernanke hosted a forum on small business lending at the offices of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System in Washington, D. C.

The conclusion of all these meetings about the financing needs of small business?

“Mr. Bernanke’s remarks,” on Monday, “suggested that the Fed was not sure why lending had contracted.” (See “Small-Business Lending is Down, but Reasons Still Elude the Experts,” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/13/business/economy/13fed.html?_r=1&ref=business.)

Now there’s a confidence builder.

The Federal Reserve and its Chairman don’t know!

And, they held 43 meetings around the country plus the one on Monday and they haven’t a clue?

I have been writing about the decline in business lending at small banks (in fact at all banks) for 18 months now. Did the Fed just become aware of this fact early this year and are now just trying to understand what is going on?

Go back to your equations, Mr. Bernanke!

The Federal Reserve, the federal government, most economists like Mr. Bernanke, and politicians don’t understand debt. Their models don’t include debt and their thinking doesn’t include debt. They seem to believe that debt is something that can be issued without fear of having to pay it back and if one does get into trouble because of the debt that was issued in the past then they can just issue more debt and that will get them out of their problem.

The banks, particularly the 8,000 banks that are smaller in size than the largest 25 domestically chartered banks in the country, face three factors that are particularly troublesome. First, many of these banks have troubled assets on their balance sheets, especially commercial real estate loans that must be re-financed over the next 18 months or so. Debt can go bad and those that hold the debt must reduce their net worth, their capital, when they write the debt off.

Second, the business environment, both in the United States and in the rest of the world, is very uncertain. The future is very unpredictable and this makes balance sheets extremely fragile. This situation makes banks very unwilling to commit to create more debt on their balance sheets and it also makes businesses, very reluctant to add more debt to their balance sheets. In fact, there are plenty of incentives for these organizations to actually reduce the amount of debt on their balance sheets.

Third, banks need capital, not more debt. About one out of every eight banks in the United States is on the list of financial institutions that are facing severe problems as determined by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. My guess is that maybe three other banks in eight in the United States need a capital infusion. And, with new financial reform legislation about to be enacted, commercial banks will be facing higher capital ratios and a more diligent examination of bank capital positions. Banks are going to be very careful about creating more additional debt that place them in a precarious position relative to the new capital requirements.

What is there not to understand?

And, the headlines read, “Bernanke in call for banks to lend more,” (See http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c40445b2-8e07-11df-b06f-00144feab49a.html.)

The Federal Reserve is keeping its target rate of interest between zero and 25 basis points and has injected $1.0 trillion of excess reserves into the banking system! This is to provide incentives to banks to lend.

And, the fundamentalist preacher Paul Krugman shouts at the top of his lungs about “The Feckless Fed” who is “dithering on the road to deflation.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/12/opinion/12krugman.html?ref=paulkrugman)

Krugman and his whole fundamentalist crowd not only believe that additional spending and more debt on the part of the government is needed at this time but that we need the forgiveness of consumer debt so that consumers can start borrowing and spending again, and we need the Fed to force commercial banks to support more borrowing on the part of businesses so that they can invest in inventories and plant and equipment. Then we inflate the real value of the debt away so that issuing debt is not so painful.

Isn’t this just the attitude that got us into the situation we are now in?

Unfortunately, this attitude seems to have prevailed in history as arrogant governments over time have lived off of issuing more and more debt and then inflating their way out of their responsibility to pay it off. On this issue see the books by Rogoff and Reinhart, “This Time is Different,” (http://seekingalpha.com/article/171610-crisis-in-context-this-time-is-different-eight-centuries-of-financial-folly-by-carmen-m-reinhart-and-kenneth-s-rogoff) and Niall Ferguson, “The Ascent of Money,” (http://seekingalpha.com/article/120595-a-financial-history-of-the-world).

There was another time, in the spring and summer of 2008, when Mr. Bernanke and the Federal Reserve didn’t seem to know what was going on. The consequence of this ignorance has been pretty severe.

To think that people can say that Mr. Bernanke and the Federal Reserve don’t know what is currently going on in the banking system they oversee and regulate is downright scary. The American people deserve better!

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