The Fed's New Tricks Are Creating Disaster
The Federal Reserve is trying a range of new tricks to push new forms of lending as a means of preventing what they fear may otherwise be a major collapse in financial markets. What all these strategies have in common is an unwillingness to come to terms with the reality that the crisis is based on real factors and can't be merely papered over without grave consequence to economic health.
Thus, last Tuesday (March 11), in response to the looming troubles with the Bear Stearns investment bank, the US central bank said that it would offer primary dealers up to $200 billion in Treasury securities for 28 days in exchange for triple A rated mortgage backed securities (MBS) as collateral. As the problems with Bear Stearns intensified and clients started to pull out cash the Fed announced that it was ready to do much more.
Last Sunday, March 16, the Fed announced it would provide direct loans to investment banks through the discount window for the first time since the Great Depression. The Fed has agreed to lend investment banks against a large variety of paper securities including a big chunk of difficult-to-trade securities.
This move by the Fed came in response to Bear Stearns's cash holdings dropping from $17 billion on March 11 to $2 billion on March 14.
The fact that Bear Stearns was rapidly losing cash posed a serious threat to the repo market. In this market, banks and securities firms extend and receive short-term loans that are backed by securities. Fed officials feared that Bear Stearns's dwindled cash situation posed a risk that it would not be able to honor its indebtedness. This in turn could undermine the confidence in the large $4.5 trillion repo market and further damage the credit market.
In the end, Fed officials orchestrated the selling of the Bear Stearns to JP Morgan Chase Co for $2 a share, or $236 million. Note that on December 20, 2007, Bear shares closed at $91.42. The main reason given for this deal was to prevent further uncertainty that was poised to destabilize financial markets.
Most commentators have endlessly praised the innovative methods that Bernanke and his colleagues are introducing to counter the financial crisis. Bernanke, who has written a lot about the causes of the Great Depression, is regarded as the ultimate expert on how to counter the current economic crisis. In short, most commentators are of the view that the man knows what he is doing and he will be able to fix the current financial problems.
Bernanke is of the view that by means of aggressive monetary policy the credit markets can be normalized. Once credit markets are brought back to normalcy, this will play an important role in preventing serious economic crisis. Remember Bernanke's financial accelerator model: a minor shock in the financial sector could result in large damage to the real economy.
In short, Bernanke, by means of his so-called "innovative" policy of fixing the symptoms of the disease, believes he can cure the disease.
What is the source of the disease and why are investment banks so heavily infected by it? The root of the problem is the Fed's very loose interest rate policy and strong monetary pumping from January 2001 to June 2004. The federal funds rate target was lowered from 6.5% to 1%. It is this that has given rise to various malinvestments, which we label here as bubble activities.
We define a bubble as the outcome of activities that have emerged on the back of loose monetary policy of the central bank. In the absence of monetary pumping, these activities would not have emerged. Since bubble activities are not self-funded, their emergence must come at the expense of various self-funded or productive activities. This means that less real saving is left for real wealth-generators, which in turn undermines real wealth formation. (Monetary pumping gives rise to misallocation of resources, which as a rule manifests itself through a relative increase in nonproductive activities against productive activities.)
When new money is created out of thin air, its effect is not felt instantaneously across all the market sectors. The effect moves from one individual to another individual and thus from one market to another market. Monetary pumping then generates bubble activities across all markets as time goes by.
As with any other business, participants in financial markets like investment banks are trying to "make money." It is this that gives rise to the creation of various products like collateralized debt obligations (CDO) and mortgage-backed securities (MBS) in order to secure as big a slice as possible of the pool of newly created money. (Financial entrepreneurs are basically trying to exploit opportunities created by the Fed's loose monetary stance and get as much as possible out of the expanded pool of money.)
As long as the Fed kept pushing money into the system to support the low interest rate target, various activities that sprang up on the back of the loose stance appeared to be for real. When money is plentiful and interest rates are extremely low, investment in various relatively high-yielding assets like CDO's and MBS's that masquerade as top-notch grade investment becomes very attractive. The prompt payment of interest and a very low rate of defaults further reinforce the attractiveness of financially engineered investment products. However, once the central bank tightens its monetary stance — i.e., reduces monetary pumping — this undermines various bubble activities.
The damage from the loose monetary policies of the Fed from January 2001 to June 2004 cannot be undone by trying to fix symptoms. Various activities or financial bubbles that sprang up on the back of loose monetary policies have weakened the bottom line of the economy. This fact cannot be undone by another dosage of policies that attempt to suppress the symptoms. If anything, such policies are likely only to weaken the bottom line further.
Remember that nonproductive activities are not self funded. Their existence is made possible by the diversion of real funding from wealth-generating activities. The diversion of real funding in turn was made possible by loose monetary policy. Hence the tightening in monetary stance from June 2004 to September 2007 is what is currently undermining various false activities.
Monetary policy manifests itself through the prices of various goods and assets. A price of a good is the number of dollars per unit of a good. When the growth momentum of money supply strengthens, this lifts the number of dollars paid per unit of a good generated by a particular activity — i.e., prices go up. Conversely a tighter monetary stance that slows the flow of money puts downward pressure on the prices of assets, or the prices of the goods of various activities.
A tighter monetary stance generates two things. It weakens the supply of real savings to nonproductive activities and weakens the flow of money to these activities. (Remember that real savings are diverted to bubble activities from wealth-generating activities by means of loose monetary policy.)
A diminished flow of real savings starts to undermine the existence of false activities and their solvency becomes questionable. A fall in the flow of money in turn puts downward pressure on the prices of goods of these activities. In fact, prices of goods that emanate from false activities have a tendency to fall sharply during the economic bust. This in turn reduces the flow of investors' money to these activities. As a result the prices of the stocks of bubble activities also tends to fall sharply, which puts more pressure on these activities. (With the value of their assets falling, misdirected investments can now only secure less funding from lenders.)
In contrast, wealth-generating activities that do not need an expansion of money for their existence actually start to gain strength. A fall in the prices of their goods is likely to be less severe than that seen in the prices of the goods of bubble activities. In fact their prices may not fall at all. Remember that wealth generators are engaged in the production of goods and services that are on the highest priority list of consumers. In contrast, bubble investments are engaged in the production of goods and services that are on the low priority list of consumers.
As consumers' real incomes fall because of the damaging effect from loose monetary policy, goods and services produced by various bubble investments may not feature at all on consumers' priority list.
We suspect that at the moment a tighter stance from June 2004 to September 2007 is dominating the current economic scene. So-called economic growth is always assessed in terms of GDP, which is the amount of money spent on final goods and services. The pace of monetary pumping sets the rate of growth of GDP. A stronger money rate of growth tends to be followed by a stronger GDP rate of growth, while a weakening in the money rate of growth is followed by a weakening in the growth momentum of GDP.
The engine of economic growth is not money, however, but real savings. If the pool of real saving is declining or stagnating, then the economy — also in terms of GDP — will follow suit, irrespective of what the Fed is doing.
How a particular sector responds to a tighter monetary stance depends on the extent to which that sector has been infected by bubble investments. The larger the percentage of bubble activities vis-à-vis all activities in a particular sector, the more severe the effect of a tighter stance.
If the pool of real savings is still expanding, then it means that bubble investments in general do not dominate the economic scene. (They can still be dominant in a particular sector or sectors.) This means that commercial bank expansion of credit is not going to collapse and the growth momentum of money is likely to hold its ground.
However, if the pool of real savings is falling or stagnating, this could mean that bubble activities are dominating the scene, which in turn raises the likelihood that the commercial banks' expansion of credit will come to a halt. Obviously one can always argue that the Fed could open the money spigots in a big way and flood the economy with money. There is no doubt that the Fed could do it. This does not mean, however, that banks will embark on an expansion of credit if the pool of real savings is falling.
Obviously, then, if the pool of real saving is still healthy, Bernanke's policies might "work." In short, after a time lag, financial markets might start zooming ahead and the real economy will follow suit. We suggest that if this were to happen, the recovery shouldn't be attributed to Bernanke's policies but, rather, understood to have happened despite his policies.
In the alternative scenario, to which we assign a fairly high likelihood, the pool of real savings is actually falling or stagnating. In the framework of the alternative scenario, Bernanke's policies will only do further damage to the stock of savings and sound capital investment, and plunge the economy into a severe and prolonged crisis.
Frank Shostak is an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute and a frequent contributor to Mises.org. He is chief economist of M.F. Global. Send him mail and see his outstanding Mises.org Daily Articles Archive. Comment on the blog.