Will the US Fed help the economy?

Aug 30, 2010

Paris, France,

Well, the vacation is over.

We came back to the city on Saturday. On Sunday, cars rolled in all day long - piled with bicycles, beach towels, and all the paraphernalia of summer.

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Walking to work, we saw a mother on a bicycle with her daughter behind her. The little girl was probably about 3 years old, still sucking her thumb. The mother had come to a stop in front of a nursery.

We read the whole story in the little girl's face. She looked as though she was about to cry. Big eyes rolled up towards her mother...still sucking her thumb. Her mother reassuring it.

She had spent the vacation with her family. But now it was time for her mother to go back to work...and the little girl to go back to the nursery. Poor little thing... More below...

And so, here we are, too, back at our own nursery... with its computer screens, desks and telephones....

Let's see, what happened this summer? Easy question. The recovery went missing.

Ben Bernanke said so last week...or almost. He noted that the economy wasn't quite as spiffy as he had hoped and that the Fed stands ready, willing, and able to provide more help.

The stock market liked the news. After falling for many days, it rallied 164 points on Friday. Gold was flat.

The New York Times reports:

THE American economy is once again tilting toward danger. Despite an aggressive regimen of treatments from the conventional to the exotic - more than $800 billion in federal spending, and trillions of dollars worth of credit from the Federal Reserve - fears of a second recession are growing, along with worries that the country may face several more years of lean prospects.

On Friday, Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Fed, speaking in the measured tones of a man whose word choices can cause billions of dollars to move, acknowledged that the economy was weaker than hoped, while promising to consider new policies to invigorate it, should conditions worsen.

Yet even as vital signs weaken - plunging home sales, a bleak job market and, on Friday, confirmation that the quarterly rate of economic growth had slowed, to 1.6 percent - a sense has taken hold that government policy makers cannot deliver meaningful intervention. That is because nearly any proposed curative could risk adding to the national debt - a political nonstarter. The situation has left American fortunes pinned to an uncertain remedy: hoping that things somehow get better.

This is where the Great Recession has taken the world's largest economy, to a Great Ambiguity over what lies ahead, and what can be done now. Economists debate the benefits of previous policy prescriptions, but in the political realm a rare consensus has emerged: The future is now so colored in red ink that running up the debt seems politically risky in the months before the Congressional elections, even in the name of creating jobs and generating economic growth. The result is that Democrats and Republicans have foresworn virtually any course that involves spending serious money.

"There are many ways in which you can see us almost surely being in a Japan-style malaise," said the Nobel-laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz, who has accused the Obama administration of underestimating the dangers weighing on the economy. "It's just really hard to see what will bring us out."

Japan's years of pain were made worse by deflation - falling prices - an affliction that assailed the United States during the Great Depression and may be gathering force again. While falling prices can be good news for people in need of cars, housing and other wares, a sustained, broad drop discourages businesses from investing and hiring. Less work and lower wages translates into less spending power, which reinforces a predilection against hiring and investing - a downward spiral."

What kind of help can the Fed give?

Well, the only kind it has left. Team Bernanke has already given the economy as much conventional, monetary medicine as he could. Rates are at zero. They've been at zero for two years. What more can you do?

The Fed has also used its unconventional tool - quantitative easing- to add $1.4 trillion to the Fed's own balance sheet . It buys bonds with money it creates - out of thin air - especially for that purpose.

We wish we could do that. When the Fed wants to buy something it just snaps its fingers. Presto! New money. Money that didn't exist before. How neat is that? You want a new car? You don't draw on savings. You don't wait until you've got enough money. You don't sit down meekly in front of the credit desk to see if you qualify for financing. You just write a check and tell the bank to cover it.

The Fed has already done quite a bit of quantitative easing. Normally, when it buys a bond with money it invented, the new money goes away automatically when the bond matures. So, the Fed has already said it would turn over its bond holdings, rather than let them mature and expire. And now Bernanke says he is ready to go further - by buying more bonds.

But the Fed is hesitating. It knows it can increase the potential money supply by buying more bonds. But it doesn't know how much good it will do. So far, the banking system is not lending...and not converting this monetary base into the kind of consumer and business loans that boost consumer prices.

The Fed knows, too, that investors may begin to worry about inflation. Bond buyers may begin to worry about a crash. At some point, these nagging worries could turn into a raging panic. But the Fed doesn't know where that point is. Neither does anyone else.

And nobody knows whether or not it is possible to transmit just a little bit of inflation - enough to avoid deflation and persuade consumers to shop - by means of quantitative easing. It might be like a runaway train. Once you've lost control...it's too late. Markets now seem to anticipate lower inflation rates. The threat of higher levels could incite investors, consumers and business to get rid of dollars. This would nudge inflation rates up...and build momentum towards even higher price hikes. Every little increase in inflation rates could intensify the desire to exit dollars and US bonds... Who knows where the train would stop?

Meanwhile, President Obama says he's not happy with the level of growth in the US economy. Which just goes to show how preposterous and absurd the whole discussion has become. Economic growth is a function of what people choose to do with their money. Sometimes they pursue growth. Sometimes they want safety. At present, they seem to prefer to play it safe. Households save. Banks stockpile cash. Businesses put expansion plans on hold and refuse to hire.

What sense does it make for an elected president to take issue with the express, legitimate and sensible desires of the people he is supposed to represent?

*** We watched "la rentree" from a sidewalk café, where we sat down to compose our thoughts. Families came back to town, pulled up in front of their apartment houses and unloaded children, bags, bikes, baskets, grandmothers, dogs, and surfboards. Young men came up out of the subway, still wearing shorts, flip flops and t-shirts - unwilling to give up their summer garb until they absolutely had to. Couples began gathering at bars and restaurants to tell each other where they had gone and what they done.

"That's part of what I like about France," said Elizabeth. "It's the structure. Everybody goes on vacation. Then everybody comes back. You know what you're supposed to do and when you're supposed to do it."

"Well, you certainly don't want to do it at the same time everyone else does," we protested. "There are traffic jams 50 miles long outside Paris."

"Yes, but even that gives people a sense of shared adventure and hardship... I guess I should say, also, that I like the structure itself. Taking a month off. Spending the time reconnecting with friends and family. And you all know that that's what the time is for."

A young man came into our apartment Saturday afternoon - taller, tanner, more mature, confident and fashionable than we had ever seen him. His collar turned up...his hair brushed back...we scarcely recognized him. It was our youngest son, Edward, 16, who had been with a friend at the beach.

"Wow...what happened to you..." his father wanted to know.

"I've been sailing. Hanging out at clubs. And I met some girls..."

And then a young woman came to the door. She too was tanned...but she looked tired.

"I haven't slept in 4 days," said daughter Maria, after returning from a trip to Mykonos.

"It's completely wild there. It's not a place you would like, Dad...partly because it's all clubs, bars, and nightlife...and its 80% gays. Not that you have anything against gays...but you wouldn't fit in at all.

"I loved it...but then, I was in 'work mode.' I mean, I was surrounded by fashion photographers, designers.... The beautiful people. But these are the people I work with. Agents. Actors. Producers. We went out to bars and danced all night.

"I feel sorry for some of them... Who was it who said, 'parties are a waste of time?' A lot of it seemed pointless to me. But I still had a good time. And now I need to go to sleep. I'll see you tomorrow..."

Bill Bonner is the President & Founder of Agora Inc, an international publisher of financial and special interest books and newsletters.

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