Opinion

The Great Debate

Fed can’t fix broken economy, politics

The Federal Reserve’s decision to move to a kind of quantitative neutrality is a tacit admission that it, or rather that the United States, is in a political bind that makes a bold response to a deteriorating economy difficult.

Despite reams of evidence that conditions are worsening — much of it cited in the statement the Fed made as it left rates on hold — the U.S. central bank made only a token gesture; announcing that as mortgage-related debt it holds on its balance sheet comes to term and is repaid it will replace it  with new, mostly long-term, Treasuries.

That keeps its quantitative easing policy essentially static, a strategy dubbed “quantitative neutrality” by Northern Trust economist Asha Bangalore.

So, given that key measures of inflation are trending towards zero, that businesses are reluctant to hire, that corporations and banks alike are sitting on cash and that the outlook for the recovery, if indeed we want to call it that, is dimming, why such a feeble response?

In the end monetary policy has to have a political consensus behind it, and there is arguably less of that now than at any time in my 20 years of following markets.

Communities of color need financial protections

- Jose Garcia is associate director for research and policy at Demos. He is responsible for providing statistical and policy analysis for Demos’ Economic Opportunity Program on issues such as household debt and assets. -

As the days heat up, so too has the debate in Congress over what type of consumer protection to include in financial reform legislation. Detractors have moved to take the bite out efforts to crack down on abusive lending practices while advocates try to hold the line. Should there be an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency? Or should it be housed in the Federal Reserve? And what authority should it have?

The debate has taken place at a time when debt continues to undermine the economic mobility of many American families and how Congress resolves the issue in the next couple of weeks will be critical to the future of those families, particularly consumers of color. It’s no exaggeration to say the creation of an independent agency may be the only means for addressing generations of abusive lending that has saddled communities of color with unmanageable debt.

Bank lending and profits; a costly divergence

Don’t count on the profitability of the financial services sector as a leading indicator of anything. Well, anything other than financial services compensation.

A stupendous recovery in profits is underway at U.S. banks, brokerages and insurance companies, but the big picture shows that for the rest of us that rebound may prove sterile.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis shows the sector had an absolutely cracking 2009, with profits rising in the fourth quarter by 240 percent against the same period a year before.

from The Great Debate UK:

Greenspan and the curse of counterfactual

Laurence_Copeland-150x150- Laurence Copeland is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School and a co-author of “Verdict on the Crash” published by the Institute of Economic Affairs. The opinions expressed are his own. -

Suppose that, instead of appeasing Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938, Neville Chamberlain had taken Britain to war, what would today’s history books say about the episode?

It is of course impossible to know. Perhaps something along the lines: “the British prime minister’s stubborn refusal to compromise resulted in a war which dragged on for 6 months at a cost of over 300,000 lives.....” Make up your own scenario.

Tightening underway, Fed a passenger

A tightening in financial conditions is under way but its principal architect won’t be the Federal Reserve.

Far from it, the Fed will be pinned down by powerful disinflationary, perhaps even deflationary, forces, making it very unlikely to be willing to raise interest rates any time soon.

Instead the tightening is coming from Asia, where China is fighting a local battle against rampant lending, and from investors all over the world, as one by one they realize that lending to governments isn’t always so risk-free.

Fed redux: Making policy behind the curve

– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

With clear signs the U.S. and world economies have returned to growth, investors are trying to guess when the Federal Reserve will begin to raise interest rates again.

Voting to maintain the federal funds target at 0.00-0.25 percent at this week’s meeting, the rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) reiterated that low rates of capacity utilisation, subdued inflation trends and stable inflation expectations were “likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rates for an extended period”.

Housing’s Humpty Dumpty moment

(James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

All the King’s horses and all the King’s men have been busy propping up the housing market but sometime this year, perhaps soon, it will face a Humpty Dumpty moment.

While it gets a lot less attention than the banking bailout, the official forces targeted at supporting house prices are truly vast; a generous tax break for buyers and a mortgage market that has essentially been nationalized.

That’s bought a recovery of sorts — Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller home-price index released on Tuesday showed that in 20 major cities home prices rose 0.2 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis between October and November, despite a national unemployment rate of 10 percent and a slow-motion cascade of foreclosures.

from Rolfe Winkler:

Geithner’s faulty apologia

Tim Geithner's appearance in front of Congress today was another embarrassment, perhaps more for the people's representatives than the Treasury Secretary. Still, Geithner offered a clumsy defense for paying out 100¢ on the dollar to AIG's counterparties, which included more than Goldman Sachs.

What they lacked in knowledge and nuance, Congress made up for in volume and OUTRAGE. The worst moment I saw was the utterly bogus comparison by Rep. Stephen Lynch between AIG's payout to Goldman (100¢ on the dollar!) and the bailout offer for Bear Stearns shareholders (only $2 per share). 100 is a bigger number than 2, you see.

Geithner was lucky to be doing battle with such an unprepared, unimpressive group.

Obama disappoints on bank reform

— Peter Morici is a professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, and former Chief Economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission. The views expressed are his own. —

President Obama announced he wants to prohibit banks from forming hedge funds, private equity funds and trading securities on their own accounts, and he wants to limit the size of banks and financial institutions generally.

Hedge funds, private equity funds and proprietary securities trading did not cause the banks to get into trouble, and the size of banks did not cause the credit crisis.

Bernanke’s fearful asymmetry

saft2.jpg – James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own —

Ben Bernanke may minimize the role of monetary policy in the housing debacle, but he minimizes two key factors: the effect of low rates and the Fed’s policy of cleaning up after but not popping bubbles had on risk-taking.

In what amounts to a defense of his own and Alan Greenspan’s legacy, Bernanke maintains that low interest rates didn’t cause the bubble, which he says required a regulatory rather than monetary solution.

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