Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

Yellen shows her hand

Nicholas Wapshott
Apr 19, 2014 05:19 UTC

The difference between the Federal Reserve Board of Chairwoman Janet Yellen and that of her immediate predecessor Ben Bernanke is becoming clear. No more so than in their approach to the problem of joblessness.

Bernanke made clear that in the post-2008 economy, his principal goal was the creation of jobs, not curbing inflation. He settled on a figure, 6.5 percent unemployment, as the threshold that would guide his actions.

While remaining true to the spirit of Bernanke’s principal goal, Yellen and the rest of her board refined the target in their meeting on March 18 and 19, a change in approach that at first sent the wrong signal to the stock and bond markets. At the press conference following the meeting, Yellen said she would not be raising interest rates “for a considerable time,” which could mean “something on the order of around six months.”

The Fed decided it would no longer be tied to the “quantitative” 6.5 percent jobless figure, which is fast being approached. The February unemployment numbers, for example, are 6.7 percent. After listening to Yellen, the markets assumed — wrongly — that the Fed was about to abandon the jobless target, end quantitative easing and start raising interest rates.

That misreading by the markets was evidence of what might be called the “Thumper Rule” for Fed chairmen, named after the rabbit in Walt Disney’s Bambi, whose father told him, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” To avoid saying anything, Yellen’s wily predecessor at the Fed, Alan Greenspan, only spoke in gobbledegook.

On jobs: Be bold, Obama

Nicholas Wapshott
Feb 3, 2014 18:42 UTC

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union was all about jobs. He said the word 23 times, often congratulating himself on having helped create 4 million. He urged a “year of action” to make more jobs, raise wages and create opportunities for social mobility. Then he set out on a jobs tour to persuade large companies to start hiring and pay more.

But if we assume the Tea Party-dominated House of Representatives is not going to help him here and will block any new public borrowing for infrastructure projects, what is the president to do?

Perhaps he needs to do little. The economy is slowly growing, with the number of new jobs increasing at roughly 200,000 a month, and the number of out of work Americans has been falling. The unemployment rate — using the latest figures, from December 2013 — shows unemployment at 6.7 percent, lower than at any time since October 2008. At its most severe, in October 2009, one in 10 Americans was out of a job.

The strange convergence of Bernanke, Hayek and Bitcoin

Nicholas Wapshott
Nov 21, 2013 16:05 UTC

Every time Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke opens his mouth, the markets move. But few could have guessed that in an offhand remark he would  add legitimacy to the Bitcoin, the virtual currency that competes with the American dollar as a reserve currency and an international trading medium.

Yet that is what he did when he held out a friendly hand to the notion of fantasy currencies in a letter to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs. Understandably, this improbable endorsement from the guardian of the mighty dollar sent the value of the Bitcoin soaring.

Until recently, the Bitcoin was seen as a novel, experimental, somewhat piratical cyberspace Monopoly money that has proved useful in moving money around the world without the hampering and costly help of banks, which slow things down, waste days while the cash lingers in limbo, and take a hefty slice of every transaction. Bitcoin’s headiest moment was as the currency of choice of the Deepnet black market website Silk Road, which sold everything from crack cocaine to child porn, and was closed down by the FBI last month.

Hooray for inflation

Nicholas Wapshott
Nov 13, 2013 20:25 UTC

There have been some extraordinary headlines in recent days. Here’s the Economist: “The perils of falling inflation.” Here’s the Financial Times: “The eurozone needs to get inflation up again.”

For those with memories of hyper-inflation and “stagflation” in the 1970s, these cogent pleas for higher prices is heresy, an irresponsible clamor for the return of an ever-changing fiscal landscape that led to widespread misery and economic turmoil.

A little history. By the mid-’70s the Western world was engulfed in an inflation typhoon — with prices rising rapidly and out of control. As companies increased prices to keep up with the higher costs of basic raw materials — such as oil, deliberately hiked way beyond the norm by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries — trade unions demanded higher wages to protect their members’ standard of living. This led to higher costs, and higher prices, and so on.

Can Tea Party afford the shutdown cost?

Nicholas Wapshott
Oct 23, 2013 20:35 UTC

Victories come in many sizes. The Battle of the Little Bighorn, for example, at first seemed an overwhelming win for the Sioux. But it soon became clear their success would not last. Who really won the Alamo? The Mexicans? Try telling that to a Texan. So, who won the Battle of the Shutdown 2013? The conventional view is that the Tea Party Republicans were seen off by the congressional leadership in both parties. Having made their protest, disrupted the nation and cost Americans a great deal in anxiety, time and treasure, they lost the battle — but promise to resume the war another day. Perhaps as early as January.

While moderation appears to have triumphed and dogmatic extremism held at bay, the 800,000 federal workers and those who need their services were the obvious losers of the budget and debt ceiling battle. But so were those who hoped to derail the Affordable Care Act, freeze federal government spending and balance the budget.

A complete audit of the shutdown, however, shows the Tea Partiers suffered a more profound setback than they would like to admit — or perhaps even know. The exact philosophy of the Tea Party is hardly clear, but in as much as there is a manifesto it states: the government is too big and should shrink; government borrowing is out of control and the nation should live within its means; big business executives are unfairly propped up by government even when they make sizable mistakes; the government should stop manipulating the dollar through quantitative easing, and taxes should be reduced but never be raised.

Fed the wrong line

Nicholas Wapshott
Jun 28, 2013 18:09 UTC

In his baccalaureate address at Princeton this year, the Fed chairman Ben Bernanke defined economics as “a highly sophisticated field of thought that is superb at explaining to policymakers precisely why the choices they made in the past were wrong.” He added, “About the future, not so much.” Put another way, economics is a science that can mean what economists want it to mean. As W.C. Fields replied when asked whether poker was a game of chance: “Not the way I play it.”

Within two weeks of proffering advice to new Princeton graduates trying to find a job in a hesitant economy, Bernanke may have wished he had taken his own counsel. After issuing a cautiously worded statement about the Fed members’ current thinking on quantitative easing, the chairman gave a press conference and, contrary to his predecessor Alan Greenspan, made the mistake of speaking in plain English.

“The committee currently anticipates that it would be appropriate to moderate the pace of purchases later this year,” he said. “We would continue to reduce the pace of purchases in measured steps through the first half of next year ending purchases around midyear.” Like most financial reporters, and almost every analyst, I have omitted the many conditions Bernanke carefully placed on such an eventuality. Bernanke’s loose tongue tripped mayhem in stock markets, interest rates, bond yields, and currency prices around the world.

Bernanke sets major challenges for his successor

Nicholas Wapshott
Jun 20, 2013 16:40 UTC

Now comes the hard part. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s announcement that if the conditions are right he will wean the U.S. economy off quantitative easing within a year has already caused consternation in the stock market. Pumping money into the system by buying back government bonds at the rate of $85 billion a month has lately done little good, which is a persuasive reason to wind it down. But getting from here to there without incident is not going to be easy. It was simpler for Howard Hughes to land his gargantuan super-plane, the Spruce Goose.

Flooding the economy with easy money was meant to encourage businesses to borrow and invest. Instead, banks and businesses have ended up hoarding cash, waiting for a recovery to start before they take the plunge. Or the surplus money has been parked in stocks, lifting the market to an unprecedented, unsustainable high. That is what happens when you have a one-trick economic policy, dickering with the money supply and little else. As Keynes liked to say, you can’t get fat by buying a bigger belt. But stopping the flow of cheap money and hinting at an eventual increase in interest rates has consequences and they may be uncomfortable.

The first to get the jitters is the stock market. Even before Bernanke’s announcement, his previous hint that QE would be “tapered” sent a shiver through Wall Street. Now that he is turning off the juice for good, there is general trepidation. The eventual rise in interest rates is making the real estate market nervous, too, which is troublesome as home purchases are driving the still fragile recovery. On the other hand, there is no better time to buy a home. Mortgages will never be as cheap again, unless there is another slump-inducing financial meltdown, so now is the time to buy, or to refinance while interest rates are on the floor. And as the Fed withdraws from the government bonds market, yields are going to soar.

The case for keeping Bernanke

Nicholas Wapshott
May 31, 2013 23:25 UTC

Whisper it abroad: The U.S. economy is on the mend. Most recent indicators suggest that, five years after the start of the Great Recession, the “L-shaped” recovery is finally heading north. The stock market is booming, and home prices are on the upswing. The rising price of houses makes people feel richer, and consumer confidence is on the mend. Private borrowing is up, and consumers are starting to spend again.

Growth is not great, about 2.5 percent to the end of the year, when the postwar average is 3.2 percent, but it is steady and appears to be self-sustaining. And this despite the 1.5 percent reduction on what growth would be were it not for the clumsy sequester’s fiscal drag. The general outlook is bright, if not sunny. As Winston Churchill said after the Battle of Alamein, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Why whisper this good news? Because the idea that we have achieved recovery suggests to some it is time for the Federal Reserve to change tack. Monetary policy is the only instrument the administration has left. Hampered by a hostile House of Representatives, President Barack Obama’s “jobs bill” to stimulate the economy is long forgotten. Even he doesn’t mention it anymore.

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