How Greenspan & Bernanke Invalidated Friedman

Monday, April 14, 2008 | 03:01 PM

Hedge fund manager Scott Frew is a friend and occasional fishing partner. He had a few words to say about this morning's discussion re: Volcker and Bernanke:

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I wanted to flesh out some of what Barry wrote earlier about former and current Fed Chairs Volcker and Bernanke. We must begin with Bernake’s now infamous Deflation speech. It is certainly “The Speech.”  And I think in many ways it’s a terrifying document.

I am, by the way, in total agreement that Greenspan’s the guy who’s responsible for all of this; the particularly insidious quality of bubbles is that once you’re in one, the future is more or less pre-ordained.

An ironic corollary of that thought is that it pretty much invalidates the entire, mainstream (most certainly including Bernanke and Greeenspan), Milton Friedman-inspired critique/view of the Great Depression as having resulted from bad monetary policy on the part of the Fed as the bubble burst. They needed, according to that critique, to be much looser than they were, and all the problems would have been avoided.

So, in a sense, Bernanke’s an acolyte of that same church (recall him saying to Friedman, at some dinner or something honoring him, Never again; i.e., as a result of the lessons learned, taught by Friedman, the central bank would never repeat those Depression errors,), can’t fall back himself on a “It’s Greenspan’s fault” defense, because that’s antithetical to their whole view of history.

I see The Speech itself as a terrifying document, although it’s also an absolute blueprint for what’s going on today -- you’ve got to give Ben credit for foresight; he’s running down the checklist he provided there, item by item, line by line. Too bad none of it’s working, at least to date, but instead is exacerbating the problems.

The other thing to do is to look at the steps along the way, including that represented by this speech, incidentally, by which Ben provided intellectual cover and backdrop for Greenspan’s moves.

The latter task is pretty simple. Let’s first note that Bernanke moved from the Fed, to become Chairman of the Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors, and then back to succeed Greenspan as Fed Chairman. There’s been lots of criticism of the Bush administration, on lots of fronts, for its politicization of many different policy arms. Certainly Greenspan has been criticized, and not just recently, for being an overly political creature, shifting his public statements about fiscal policy and taxation to fit the views of his changing political masters. And there’s been recent criticism that the Fed has come to view itself more as an adjunct member of the Bush cabinet, than in its traditional and prescribed role as an independent policy-making body. Bernanke’s career path exemplifies that sort of politicization, which ought to raise alarms on all sorts of level. Getting to more fundamental issues, he was at all moments a willing and eager accomplice to Greenspan’s rate-cutting efforts and asymmetrical policy responses, all of which engendered moral hazard in the DNA of the markets, and told speculators at every level not to worry, that the Fed had their collective backs. The “global savings glut” answer to Greenspan’s “conundrum” as to the explanation for low long term interest rates is a perfect example of Bernanke playing the geeky intellectual to Greenspan’s smoove political animal, providing an ingenious, and plausible, explanation for a phenomenon that had equally plausible, and far simpler, yet less convenient, explanations. Occam’s razor doesn’t always rule.

Back to the speech, early on Bernanke signals the asymmetrical policy response which characterized the Greenspan Fed from early on, and which has continued under Bernanke. The Congress has given the Fed the responsibility of preserving price stability (among other objectives), which most definitely implies avoiding deflation as well as inflation. I am confident that the Fed would take whatever means necessary to prevent significant deflation in the United States. Do you have any recollection of Ben suggesting, at any point, as the prices of a wide variety of goods and services, that middle class Americans purchase on a day to day basis, has skyrocketed, invoking Malcolm X in his willingness to use any means necessary to keep inflation under control? I sure don’t.

Then in the speech he starts talking about how to prevent deflation. The famous “technology, called a printing press” statement is a not-veiled at all threat to simply drive down the value of the dollar. Certainly one way to get people spending is to let them know in no uncertain terms that tomorrow their savings will be worth half of what they’re worth today. Ask any citizen of Harrar -- it works for them. By increasing the number of U.S. dollars in circulation, or even by credibly threatening to do so, the U.S. government can also reduce the value of a dollar in terms of goods and services, which is equivalent to raising the prices in dollars of those goods and services. Bernanke’s been incredibly successful in this endeavor -- just look at the price of oil, gold, wheat, milk, rice -- the list goes on and on.

The speech runs through all of the other gambits that Bernanke’s been attempting over the last six or so months. At the end, he discusses the case of Japan, and why despite all these theoretical weapons in the Fed’s toolbox, Japan was unable to stave off deflationary forces. He starts that section of the speech by noting significant differences between Japan and the United States -- recall that this was November, 2002:

"As you know, Japan's economy faces some significant barriers to growth besides deflation, including massive financial problems in the banking and corporate sectors and a large overhang of government debt. Plausibly, private-sector financial problems have muted the effects of the monetary policies that have been tried in Japan, even as the heavy overhang of government debt has made Japanese policymakers more reluctant to use aggressive fiscal policies (for evidence see, for example, Posen, 1998). Fortunately, the U.S. economy does not share these problems, at least not to anything like the same degree, suggesting that anti-deflationary monetary and fiscal policies would be more potent here than they have been in Japan."

Uh, Dr. Bernanke, I’m not sure you had that quite right, or that the conditions than applicable pertain today. In fact, it appears that our situation today is worse than Japan’s in those respects. The one factor in our favor is that exorbitant privilege of having the reserve currency, of being able to pay off our debt in a currency which only we can print. As Jim Grant said in a recent essay, there’s only one nation that has that ability, and it’s national pastime is baseball. But the advantage of owning the reserve currency is a blessing easily abused. In terms of what our national balance sheet looks like, it seems easy to describe it as more curse than blessing. Bernanke has often seemed blind to the fact that our monetary policy has far-reaching implications, that riots over inflation in the Gulf Cooperative Countries, over food in Egypt and the Philippines, might be connected to our interest rates and the value of the dollar.

In the end though, I keep coming back to the thought that Bernanke apparently believes that deflation, a decline in the general level of prices—those of milk, of gas at the pump, of home heating oil, and of food and clothes— is such a threat to our society, that printing dollars until the cows come home, in a conscious effort to destroy the dollar’s purchasing power, is a rational response. Interesting stance for the head of the Federal Reserve to take, I must say.

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Good stuff. Thanks, Scott!



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Previously:
Volcker: "Bernanke a One Termer"
http://bigpicture.typepad.com/comments/2008/04/volcker-bernank.html

Sources:
Deflation: Making Sure "It" Doesn't Happen Here
Governor Ben S. Bernanke
November 21, 2002
http://www.federalreserve.gov/boarddocs/speeches/2002/20021121/default.htm

Monday, April 14, 2008 | 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (44) | TrackBack (0)
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[...our banking system remains healthy and well-regulated...] - Ben Bernanke, "The Speech"

Not much foresight there.

Posted by: ideogenetic | Apr 14, 2008 3:29:25 PM

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