Fed playing a dangerous game with monetary policy

Fri, Nov 12, 2010, 00:00

SERIOUS MONEY:WILLIAM McCHESNEY Martin, the longest-serving head of the Federal Reserve before Alan Greenspan, declared that a central bank was in “the position of the chaperone that has the punch bowl removed just when the party was warming up”.

Paul Volcker understood the sentiment of a former champion of price stability, but his ultimately successful battle to throttle runaway inflation and the tough monetary policy required, saw him removed from office and replaced by the politically astute and serial bubble-blowing “maestro”.

One would think that the central bank would know better in the post-Greenspan years, but Ben Bernanke, the chief architect of his predecessor’s policy, is now in charge and is hellbent on inflating asset prices in a desperate attempt to thwart the private sector’s rational effort to repair their overstretched balance sheets.

The current Fed chairman’s justification for the latest round of long-term asset purchases, that will take the central bank’s liabilities close to 20 per cent of GDP, rests on deflationary impulses. But the artificial manipulation of security prices is just more of the same thing that caused America’s asset-based economy to malfunction in the first place. Bernanke’s predecessor, Alan Greenspan, stated in public on more than one occasion that bubbles are difficult if not impossible to identify, a convenient excuse for a man who presided over and nurtured two of the most spectacular bubbles in US history.

The evidence suggests otherwise and the stock market and housing bubbles spawned by the Federal Reserve were not only easy to spot, but difficult to miss even to the untrained eye. Even worse, Greenspan, a fan of efficient market theory, though only when prices are rising, stated on prime-time television in the summer that “if the stock market continues higher, it will do more to stimulate the economy than any other measure we have discussed here”.

Greenspan’s words make clear that he was a serial bubble-blower and has no concept of the damage his actions inflicted on the US economy. After all, the stock market euphoria during the latter half of the 1990s saw valuations soar to levels unprecedented in US financial history. At their peak in the spring of 2000, equities offered an inferior long-term real return than that available on risk-free Treasury inflation-protected securities. His predecessor, Volcker, observed the exuberance and declared: “The fate of the world economy is now totally dependent . . . on about 50 stocks, half of which have never reported any earnings.” Needless to say, the technology bubble sowed the seeds of its own demise and imploded as the lower cost of funds reflected in surging stock prices attracted competition like bees to honey.

Greenspan, who bought into this “new era”, claimed the tools available to the Fed could not have prevented the mania. However, the same man observed in 1996 that “if you want to get rid of the bubble”, increasing the requirements on margin debt “will do it”. He never did raise margin requirements and, as the market neared its peak, margin debt relative to GDP soared to the highest level since 1929.

The recession that inevitably followed betrayed Greenspan’s brave new world but he blamed 9/11 for the economy’s continuing malaise in early-2002. He lowered interest rates aggressively and held them almost four percentage points below that prescribed by the respected Taylor rule for almost a year.

Real interest rates were below the rate of inflation for two and a half years but the former Fed chairman demonstrated no concern in the face of rising home prices and explained that real estate “was especially ill-suited to develop into a bubble”.

The potential threat to financial stability was dismissed as Greenspan marvelled at his achievements and observed that “new financial products – including derivatives, asset-backed securities, collateralised loan obligations, and collateralised mortgage obligations . . . have contributed to the development of a more flexible and efficient financial system”.

Greenspan’s asymmetric policy – ease quickly, tighten slowly – precipitated a nation’s love-affair with bricks-and-mortar that saw the ratio of median house prices to median income jump to three standard deviations above the historic norm. His belief that bubbles are undetectable in advance and the notion that housing is not well-suited to irrational exuberance on a national scale, proved to be extraordinarily incompetent and a massive disservice to the American people.

Unfortunately, Ben Bernanke is proving little different than his predecessor.

Artificially inflating stock prices simply won’t work without a proportional increase in long-term cash flows or a commensurate reduction in risk premiums. Hoping that consumers will bring consumption forward via increased borrowing that is premised on illusory gains in wealth is ludicrous.

An increase in security prices arising from the Fed’s asset purchases lowers expected returns and capital losses could ultimately be the result, should fundamentals fail to justify the higher valuations. America’s monetary authority is playing a dangerous game and its credibility is waning fast.