Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

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.

To ensure a smooth landing, Bernanke must be careful to ease his foot off the gas without letting inflation rip. Sound money economists have been issuing jeremiads since QE started, warning of a boom in prices that never came. Though it may be heresy to say so (ever since Paul Volcker, Bernanke’s predecessor at the Fed, deliberately provoked a recession to purge hyper-inflation from the system), a little inflation can be useful. Flat or falling prices are a disincentive to businesses, which need prices to rise — a little, but not too much — to turn a decent profit.

Even the hint of higher interest rates drives the dollar ever higher. As long as the euro zone remains in trouble, money flows into dollars as international traders’ safe haven. This is likely to continue, as the austerity regime imposed by Germany on its Mediterranean neighbors will last a decade or more. But a further increase in the dollar price is not what hard-pressed American exporters need to ensure their products and services look good compared to our trading rivals, who benefit above all from cheaper labor costs. An even stronger dollar also makes imports cheaper, leading to a widening trade deficit, meaning America is not paying its way in the world.

Central bankers have abandoned Milton Friedman

Nicholas Wapshott
Dec 17, 2012 18:38 UTC

It is a cruel irony of fate that 2012, the year that celebrates the centennial of Milton Friedman’s birth, is the year that marks the end of his preeminence as an influence over economic policy. Since the emergence in the early 1970s of stagflation – a corrosive combination of lack of growth matched by inflation in double figures – Friedman’s dictums on the causes and cures of rising prices have been the mood music behind management of many leading economies. Since the Great Recession took hold, however, the priorities of government economists have evolved, and once more growth and employment are emerging as the prime goals of public policy.

In the 33 years since Paul Volcker was made Federal Reserve chairman by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, Friedman’s idea that inflation is the economy’s greatest danger has ruled the roost. So long as inflation is kept at around 2 percent, unemployment has been allowed to find its own level. But times have changed. At the first meeting of the Federal Reserve since Barack Obama’s re-election, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has made the creation of jobs a principal aim alongside keeping inflation in check.

In practice, this means interest rates will not be raised so long as unemployment remains above 6.5 percent and inflation is forecast to remain below 2.5 percent. With this tap on the tiller, Bernanke has quietly dispatched the Age of Friedman, replacing it with a policy that harks back to the Keynesian days when “full employment” was the sole target. (Technical note: In economics, “full employment” does not mean when everyone is employed; to allow for the churn as workers move among employers and other adjustments to the labor force, “full employment” is usually deemed to be when 94 percent to 97 percent of those seeking jobs are employed.)

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