The economy is cratering, so the Fed is printing money. When the Fed prints money, this eventually produces inflation (more dollars, same amount of goods). Ben Bernanke assured us yesterday that, this time, the Fed's money-printing won't eventually lead to inflation because the moment the economy begins to recover, the Fed will stop printing money and start burning it. Specifically, the Fed will start selling assets instead of buying them and thus shrink the money supply.
Unfortunately, Ben is unlikely to keep this promise.
In the latest issue of the Institutional Risk Analyst, Chris Whalen hammers this last point home. Chris thinks we're now officially addicted to low interest rates and that Bernanke will be both unwilling and unable to raise them significantly when the time comes. And the failure to raise, them, of course, will lead to hyper-inflation.
- First, it will be hard to confidently assert that the economy in full recovery. Remember, in 2007, Ben (and most other people) thought the economy was in great shape as far as the eye could see. He and most other observers missed that disastrous turning point. So why do we think he'll correctly spot the next one? Especially because, if he blows it by jacking up rates too early, he'll kill the recovery.
- Second, there will be intense political pressure to MAKE SURE that the economy is in rip-roaring health before hammering consumers and businesses by raising interest rates. Everyone loves low interest rates. And they'll only stop screaming about your taking them away when they're fat and happy (which will be long after inflation really gets going).
- Third, the US government desperately needs low interest rates to fund its soon-to-be-monstrous debt load, so there will be another source of pressure on Ben to keep rates low. When we finish with all this stimulus, we're going to owe a boatload of money. We're really going to allow our Fed chief to send interest rates to the moon and jack up our refinancing costs?
- Fourth, many of the assets that Bernanke has been buying to print money won't be easy to sell. This time around, the Fed isn't just buying easy-to-sell Treasuries. It's buying trash mortgage assets, et al. To reduce the money supply, it will need to sell them to someone. But who?
The better answer? Stop denying reality and force the country to take its losses. Restructure existing debts, instead of encouraging people to borrow more. That, after all, is what got us into this mess in the first place.
[T]he Chairman of the Federal Reserve has deluded himself into thinking that when the time comes, he will be able to shrink the size of the Fed's balance sheet and reduce the monetary base with both ease and impunity. He also has deluded himself into thinking inflation will be easily contained.
It is very important that he does not fool you as well. The Fed believes low interest rates should not be the result of a high savings rate, but instead can exist by decree, a conviction which has directly led consumers to believe their spending can outstrip disposable income.
The result of such thinking has been a rise in household debt from 47% of GDP in 1980 to 97% of total output in Q4 2008. As a result of this ever increasing burden, the Fed has been forced into a series of lower lows and lower highs on its benchmark lending rate.
Keeping rates low is an attempt to make debt service levels manageable and keep the consumer afloat. Problem is, this endless pursuit of unnaturally low rates has so altered the Fed's balance sheet that Mr. Bernanke will be hard-pressed to substantially raise rates to combat inflation once consumer and wholesale prices begin to significantly increase.
Banana Ben Bernanke has grown the monetary base from just $842 billion in August 2008 to a record high of $1,723 billion as of April 2009. But it's not only the size of the balance sheet that is so daunting; it's the makeup that's becoming truly scary.
Historically speaking, the composition of the Fed's balance sheet has been mostly Treasuries. And the Federal Open Market Committee would typically raise rates by selling Treasuries from its balance sheet into the market to soak up excess liquidity. However, because of the Fed's decision to purchase up to $1 trillion in Mortgage Backed Securities (and other unorthodox holdings), it will not be selling highly-liquid US debt to drain reserves from banks. Rather, it will be unwinding highly distressed MBS and packaged loans to AIG.... That means when it finally decides it's time to fight inflation, the Fed will find it much more difficult to reverse course.
Because of the extraordinary and unprecedented (some would say illegal) measures Mr. Bernanke has implemented, only $505 billion of the $2 trillion balance sheet is composed of U.S. Treasury debt. Today, most Fed assets are derived from the alphabet soup of lending programs including $250 billion in commercial paper, $312 billion of Central Bank liquidity swaps and $236 billion in mortgage-backed securities. Thus, our economy has become more addicted than ever to low interest rates...
[W]hen and if the Fed tries to raise rates it will only be able to do so on the margin. If Bernanke raises rates substantially to fight inflation, banks will be paying out more on deposits than they collect on their income streams. Couple that with their already distressed balances sheets and look out! Additionally, not only do the consumers need low rates to keep their Financial Obligation Ratio low, but the Federal government also needs low rates to ensure interest rates on the skyrocketing national debt can be serviced.
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