Thursday, September 9, 2010

What Should the Fed (and the Federal Government) Do Next?

This morning there is a series of articles in the opinion section of the Wall Street Journal titled “What Should the Federal Reserve Do Next?”. It consists of several short pieces written by well known economists. I recommend that you read them.

I would especially recommend the opinion piece written by Allan Meltzer, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University and the author of “A History of the Federal Reserve”. The following quote is, I believe, especially important for the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve…and for the fiscal policy of the federal government.

“In ‘A History of the Federal Reserve,’ I concluded that the principal mistakes the Fed has made have resulted from giving excessive attention to current events and forecasts of highly uncertain near-term developments. By focusing on the short-term, the Fed neglects the longer-term consequences of its actions. The transcripts of FOMC show that the members are paying little attention to medium- and longer-term consequences.” (

Unfortunately, we are in a short-term world. Everyone focuses on “current events and forecasts of highly uncertain near-term developments.” As a consequence, there is a tendency to over-react to situations and, in doing so, set the stage for further difficulties down-the-road.

The policy-cycle has gotten shorter and shorter. Richard Nixon believed that he lost the 1960 election to John Kennedy because the economy was not performing well. Thus, when Nixon became president he focused on making sure the economy would be expanding during the 1972 election. He froze wages and prices and took the United States off of gold in August 1971 because he believed it was necessary to contain the inflation begun in the Kennedy-Johnson years so that he, Nixon, could re-stimulate the economy so that he would be re-elected.

This four year cycle became the “thing” for Presidents. Slow down the economy immediately after getting elected so that the economy could be re-started in time to get re-elected.

In the 1992 election, “It’s the economy, stupid!” became the mantra of the Clinton campaign. And this approach appeared to be was in Clinton’s election.

But, then a funny thing happened: the cycle shortened. The mid-term elections became the thing. Whereas the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress when Clinton took office, the 1994 congressional elections turned the tide and resulted in the President facing a hostile legislature for the rest of his tenure. Focus was placed on mid-term elections as well as presidential elections.

Bush (43) experienced a similar turn-around in the 2006 election where the Democrats once-again established their control in Congress.

Now presidents must get re-elected, but also get “their” Congress re-elected.

Current economic policy making in the United States is on a very short string…not that it hasn’t been for a long time.

The problem this creates is that the economy is never allowed to fully adjust to the economic dislocations that appear over time. The efforts to re-stimulate the economy are over-whelmingly aimed at putting people back to work in the jobs and industries that existed before the previous recession. As a consequence, the economy never fully adjusts as it needs to.

Several things can happen. Human capital does not evolve as it should to meet the changes in technology taking place. The result is that unemployment rises, but even more important under employment rises. America now faces the problem that about one out of every four individuals of working age is either unemployed or underemployed. Income inequality is highest in sixty years.

The capacity utilization in the United States has dropped continuously since the 1960s and still rests substantially below the previous levels attained. It is expected that the near-term peak in this measure will be well below the previous peak. This, I contend, is a result of the government’s efforts to force resources back into “legacy” physical capital. (See my post

Another area of major concern is the debt burden taken on by individuals, businesses, and governments. In the past fifty years, the federal government has created deficits and excessive monetary growth to combat unemployment and income inequality and sustain as much economic growth as it could. This has been the perfect environment for people to take on more and more debt…and that is exactly what they have done.

However, history shows over and over again that debt levels can eventually reach heights that are unsustainable. And, when this happens, the debt loads have to be worked off. The relevant question is, have we reached that stage where people must de-leverage and work with lower debt levels? If this is the case, working off current debt loads will not be easy.

It takes time for economies to re-adjust and re-structure. Debt loads have to be worked down. Labor must be re-trained. Legacy capital must be replaced with physical capital more attuned to the age. And, continued monetary and fiscal pressure only delays such adjustment and makes American commerce less competitive. (See “U. S. Falls in Ranks of World Economy,”

Furthermore, the existing panic in United States policy making, both monetary and fiscal, is creating a world exactly the opposite of what policy makers seem to be attempting to achieve. For example, the Fed’s low interest rate policy is subsidizing the largest financial institutions and creating a world where more and more of the banking assets in America will be controlled by the largest banks. Currently, the largest 25 domestic commercial banks control 67% of the assets of the banking system. Analysts believe that this will go to 75% or 80% in the next five years.

In addition, the ranks of the middle class are dwindling. The low interest rate policy of the Fed has encouraged big companies, big banks, and the wealthy to borrow but these borrowers are just sitting on the cash waiting to engage in an acquisition binge once the economy starts to pick up steam. The middle class? Well, the middle class, those that have paid their bills, who have stay married and worked hard throughout their lives and have saved: this middle class is facing the fact that they will earn next to nothing on their savings. (See “Falling Rates Aid Debtors, but Hurt Savers,”

United States policy makers, in an attempt to stay in office, have advocated monetary and fiscal policies aimed at putting people back to work and making it easy for these people to buy “things”, especially houses. They continue to follow such “populist” policies in order to get re-elected and maintain their power. Both parties are guilty. (See my “Wall Street Greed vs. Washington Greed,”
The speech given recently by President Obama offering $350 billion in new economic stimulus, even though some of this is aimed at “longer term” projects, appears to be an example of just another politician experiencing the panic that comes with an upcoming election.

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