The Fed Thinks Higher Prices Are Good For You

The Federal Reserve Board’s quantitative easing program was an unprecedented monetary experiment that dumped trillions of dollars of new money into the economy.

Historically, adding that much money to the economy should have caused hyperinflation, but the economy was so weak, it took the Federal Reserve Board eight years of loose monetary policy to boost the U.S. inflation rate to 2%.

Now, though, some Fed members think that 2% isn’t enough.

Readers old enough to vote during the Carter and Ford years remember when the Fed’s role was to lower inflation, not raise it. In 1974, inflation hit 11.03%, and from 1979 through 1981 inflation reached 11.22%, 13.58% and 10.35%. In the Ford era, Whip Inflation Now (WIN) buttons were created. They did little to control rising prices.

We haven’t seen any Boost Inflation Now buttons, fortunately, but helping the economy by increasing inflation is the dumbest idea since negative interest rates. Given the Fed’s recent history, that may be its appeal.

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Strength Isn’t Always Good

With the dollar strengthening rapidly relative to other currencies, in part as a result of Donald Trump’s election victory, consider this irony: The price of imports will fall, making them more attractive to consumers—just as the incoming president prepares to clamp down on imports.

Hopefully, he’ll put aside his protectionist instincts and be persuaded by his advisors to enable American consumers to enjoy a few bargains. Otherwise, we’ll be experiencing the downside of a strong dollar without enjoying the upside.dollar

The downside is that a strong dollar makes American goods more costly abroad. The weak dollar that prevailed through most of the Obama presidency enabled American companies to compete abroad, even though corporate America is taxed at the highest rate in the industrialized world.

But add on a stronger dollar and American exports will drop, increasing our trade deficit, reducing corporate profits and making it more difficult for the economy to grow. That would cause a drop in employment and American workers would, yet again, have to wait to see their salaries increase.

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The Fed’s Multi-Trillion Dollar Ponzi Scheme

“You loan me ten bucks. I photocopy the bill four times, give you back one of the copies, and announce that we’re square. That’s monetizing the debt.”                                                                                                                                                                         From Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles

In the private sector, it would be called a Ponzi scheme.  When the Federal Reserve Board does it, it’s called “monetizing the debt.”

The Balance explained that, “The Federal Reserve monetizes debt any time it buys U.S. Treasuries. When the Federal Reserve buys these Treasuries, it doesn’t have to print money to buy them. It issues credit and puts the Treasuries on its balance sheet. Everyone treats the credit just like money, even though the Fed doesn’t print cold hard cash.”united-states-money-supply-m1@2x (1)

The process lowers interest rates, because the bonds taken out of circulation reduce supply, driving demand higher. But if reducing the supply of bonds drives prices higher and interest rates lower, shouldn’t more dollars drive the value of the dollar lower and the price of goods higher?

Logically, if you were to double the supply of money tomorrow, a dollar should be worth half of what it is worth today.  Prices would double, so the rate of inflation would be 100%.

And yet even with boatloads of new money, the inflation rate has barely budged.  The M1 money supply, which includes cash, checking accounts and other liquid monetary assets, is about 245% higher than it was eight years ago, when the Federal Reserve Board began its easy money policy.  Meanwhile, the Fed has been reluctant to increase interest rates in part because it has not been able to reach its targeted inflation rate of 2%.

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Theater of the Absurd

Vladimir: “Well? What do we do?”

Estragon: “Don’t let’s do anything. It’s safer.”

From “Waiting for Godot” 

In Waiting for Godot, two men spend more than an hour talking nonsense and it’s called Theater of the Absurd.

After last week’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, Fed Chair Janet Yellen spent an hour talking nonsense and it was called a press conference. But, really, it could be argued that the Fed is at least as absurd as anything in Waiting for Godot. Much of the dialogue in Godot could, in fact, have come from the FOMC.  For example …

Vladimir: “I don’t understand.”

Estragon: “Use your intelligence, can’t you?”

Vladimir uses his intelligence.

Vladimir: (finally) “I remain in the dark.”

Janet Yellen: “Although the unemployment rate has declined, job gains have diminished.”talawa waiting godot

Estragon: “I can’t go on like this.”

Vladimir: “That’s what you think.”

The FOMC has continued ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) for 90 months. Estragon and Valdimir waited for Godot for only a couple of days. 

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Inflation: The Fed’s Red Herring

If you wanted to boost economic growth, which of the following would you focus on?

If you picked low inflation, congratulations. There is a place for you on the Federal Reserve Board.

The Fed’s focus on inflation is a result of its mandate to reduce or stabilize the unemployment rate and the rate of inflation. But its seeming obsession with a 2% rate of inflation is nonsensical. As we’ve pointed out, 2% appears to be an arbitrary number. Will the economy function better if the inflation rate is 2% instead of 2.5%? Why not 1.5%?

Martin Feldstein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Ronald Reagan, wrote in The Wall Street Journal this week that it’s nearly impossible to measure the true rate of inflation, given that the rapid pace of technological change makes today’s products much different than the products of even a year or two ago. How do you compare today’s smartphone with your previous cellphone? And if you can’t compare the two products, how can you determine how much prices have changed?

“The problem that consumers care about and that should be the subject of Fed policy is avoiding a return to the rapidly rising inflation that took measured inflation from less than 2% in 1965 to 5% in 1970 and to more than 12% in 1980,

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Set. Down. No Hike.

The economic outlook can be summed up in five words: Everything’s great, except what isn’t.

We’ll lead with the “everything’s great” part, as seen through the filter of the Federal Reserve Board.  As Fed Chair Janet Yellen reminds us after every meeting, the Fed has two goals—lowering the unemployment rate and stabilizing prices.

The Fed’s target unemployment rate is 4.7% to 5.8% and, if you believe the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (see below re: why you shouldn’t), the Fed has accomplished that goal, as the current rate is at an eight-year low of 4.9%.  The Fed’s target inflation rate is 2% and, depending on how you measure inflation, it’s close to that number.Stock Prices

“The Fed’s preferred measure, the personal consumption expenditures price index, rose 1.3% in January from the previous year, and so-called core inflation—which excludes volatile food and energy prices—was 1.7%,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “The consumer-price index rose 1% in February from a year earlier, but core CPI was up 2.3% for the year, the largest 12-month increase since May 2012.”

So the Fed could have logically declared its mission accomplished and begun to gradually increase interest rates, as was expected after December’s initial miniscule rate increase.  So why was the vote at last wek’s meeting 10-1 against a rate hike?

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Hard Landing

The Federal Reserve Board’s Open Market Committee met last week for the first time since raising interest rates in December and then published its usual policy statement full of mush.

It could have been written by Russia’s politburo.  It’s loaded with statements like this one: “The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run.”

In other words, if we’re not already in a recession, we’re pretty close to one, so the Fed is not going to raise rates to normal levels anytime soon. 20160128_policyerror_0

We’ll spare you the rest of the policy statement, which can be summed up as follows: “Blah, blah, blah.”  If the Fed were being honest, here’s what the latest policy statement would have said:

Well, that was a disaster.

We’ve been hearing for years that it was time to raise interest rates.  Virtually every economist on the planet, not to mention all of the journalists who think they understand the economy, had been predicting that the Fed would raise interest rates in December. 

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The Big Disconnect

Imagine being stuck in a blizzard.  You look out your window and can see the snow piling up outside, yet the meteorologist on your TV is forecasting continuing sunshine and near tropical weather.

That level of disconnect is similar to that shown by some members of the Federal Reserve Board, who are preparing for liftoff, even as the economy implodes like a SpaceX rocket. The difference, though, is that the SpaceX failure was an unmanned flight; when the Fed acts, we’re all on board, like it or not.Fed Meteorologist

We recently reported that a couple of members of the Federal Open Market Committee had spoken publicly in favor of a rate hike. But this past week, they were no longer the outliers, as even Fed Chair Janet Yellen joined in during a speech before the Economic Club of Washington.

USA Today reported, “Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen signaled Wednesday that the Fed is all but certain to raise interest rates this month for the first time in nearly a decade, saying that gains in the economy and labor market have met the central bank’s goals.”

If you read on, though, that’s not quite what she said.  Given that inflation is nowhere near the Fed’s 2% goal, she couldn’t say that the central bank’s goals have been met.

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Brady Plot Puts U.S. Economy on Verge of Deflation

The Federal Reserve Board – which may be the smartest deliberative body on the face of this earth – bought more than $3.5 trillion in bonds in an effort to raise the inflation rate to 2%.

It failed.  In fact, the inflation rate is lower now than it was before the bond buying began.RED CARPET AT THE MET COSTUME INSTITUTE GALA 2011

Why that is so now seems pretty obvious.  It’s Tom Brady’s fault.  We don’t know that for a fact, of course.  How can we prove it?  But, as attorney Tom Wells might put it, it’s “more probable than not.”

The hunky quarterback of The New England Patriots likely involved his wife, former supermodel Gisele Bündchen, since she’s retired now and has nothing better to do.

To again borrow the words of Wells, Brady was “at least generally aware” of the Federal Reserve Board’s attempts to increase the rate of inflation to 2% … and so he set out to thwart that attempt.  (We’re not sure how being “generally aware” differs from being “aware,” or why it needs to be modified by “at least,” but it sounds pretty ominous.)

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Bazooka or Blunderbuss?

Any day now, it seems that European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s full head of hair will migrate to his chin and turn gray, as the central banker morphs into former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke.Bazooka 2

Last week, the ECB began its purchase of €60 billion ($64.2 billion) a month in Eurozone government bonds, with total purchases expected to eventually exceed €1 trillion.

He’s called the purchase his “big bazooka,” but it could turn out to be a blunderbuss, an antiquated weapon that’s prone to misfiring.

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