Monday, October 24, 2005

Bernanke's Rhyme

So cronyism took a day off. Ben Bernanke, President Bush's nominee to replace Alan Greenspan as head of the Federal Reserve, is no Harriet Miers. And he was probably the best choice Bush could have made. But does that mean smooth sailing ahead for the economy and the asset markets?

The pundits spent today downplaying these high-profile comments Bernanke made on November 21, 2002:
Like gold, U.S. dollars have value only to the extent that they are strictly limited in supply. But the U.S. government has a technology, called a printing press (or, today, its electronic equivalent), that allows it to produce as many U.S. dollars as it wishes at essentially no cost. 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. We conclude that, under a paper-money system, a determined government can always generate higher spending and hence positive inflation.

Of course, the U.S. government is not going to print money and distribute it willy-nilly (although as we will see later, there are practical policies that approximate this behavior). Normally, money is injected into the economy through asset purchases by the Federal Reserve. To stimulate aggregate spending when short-term interest rates have reached zero, the Fed must expand the scale of its asset purchases or, possibly, expand the menu of assets that it buys. Alternatively, the Fed could find other ways of injecting money into the system--for example, by making low-interest-rate loans to banks or cooperating with the fiscal authorities. Each method of adding money to the economy has advantages and drawbacks, both technical and economic. One important concern in practice is that calibrating the economic effects of nonstandard means of injecting money may be difficult, given our relative lack of experience with such policies. Thus, as I have stressed already, prevention of deflation remains preferable to having to cure it. If we do fall into deflation, however, we can take comfort that the logic of the printing press example must assert itself, and sufficient injections of money will ultimately always reverse a deflation.
This was part of a longer speech Bernanke made titled "Deflation: Making Sure It Doesn't Happen Here", the text of which appears here. We can argue endlessly about deflation, what it means, and the importance of fighting it via monetary policy. Briefly, I believe that "deflation" has acquired far too broad a definition over the past few years. It's come to mean "falling prices." Guess what? Falling prices are good. They occur---or at least used to occur---after periods of malinvestment and speculative frenzy. They also occur because of competition or disruptive technologies like the internet. Falling prices are a manifestation of efficiency, both in production and allocation of capital. They are an integral part of capitalism. But due in large measure to the policies the Fed has followed under Alan Greenspan, capitalism doesn't work as it used to. Monetary policy has become a tool of the "nanny state"; at the first sign of trouble during the past ten years, the Fed has hurled liquidity at the financial system. This is extremely dangerous on many levels, which I explain in this recent post.

Today I heard some pundits proclaim Bernanke to be a hawk on inflation, meaning he'll favor specific inflation targets and make fighting inflation a priority. Don't believe the hype. The market's perception of Ben Bernanke was cast in stone with his "printing press" comments above. That's one reason why this morning---when it became clear that Bernanke would be the nominee---gold rose $8 from its low on Friday and now sits close to an eighteen-year high. It's one reason treasury yields increased today. And it's the main reason the stock market shot up today. In the nanny state, falling prices--whether for stocks, houses, food, health care, tuition, energy---aren't allowed.

Bernanke, of course, it well aware of how his "printing press" comments affected his reputation. So when he takes over for Greenspan, his initial priority will be to establish credibility on inflation, particularly with the bond market. That means higher interest rates. Similarly, when Greenspan became Fed head in 1987, his immediate goal was to establish credibility in the wake of Paul Volcker, a renowned inflation fighter and the most respected Fed chief in history. Greenspan became Fed chairman on August 11, 1987. The price of gold had risen that year from $400 to $465 on Friday, October 16, 1987. On October 19---just two months after Greenspan's first day on the job---the stock market crashed, with the Dow losing 22% on the day now known as Black Monday.

Prediction (not advice): Ben Bernanke will be easily confirmed. And sometime between now and Bernanke's three-month mark as Fed chairman, the stock market will crash. If I'm wrong, fantastic. We'll see.

By the way, this year gold has risen from a low of $411 to---you guessed it---$465 today. History doesn't always repeat, but it sometimes rhymes.

145 Comments:

Anonymous JWC said...

Interesting post. I was feeling pretty good about this choice for Fed Chief. I guess I still feel pretty good, since I know it could have been much much worse. But I will print your prediction and save it. And I would not be surprised at all if it turns out to be true. I keep telling my hubby that the people that I read and respect (not the buffons on CNBC) are predicting next year will be rough.

Thanks as always for your blog. I'm looking forward to your comments if/when there are indictments in the Plame case.

10/24/2005 9:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I heard that Bush would be nominating a new Fed chair I thought it was almost the worst thing that could happen to this country. I'm feeling a little better to hear that this guy is not the usual incompetent fool Bush appointee.

I have no expertise in economics so I hope someone can answer this. In your post you said the Black Monday happened two months after Greenspan started. But when Black Monday happened wasn't the market way overvalued? Do you think it is still way overvalued now, even after the last 5 years? What i'm wondering is, do you think maybe this time the market crash will be the housing bubble rather than the Dow? Will this be what finally pops the housing bubble?

10/25/2005 8:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Conventional "wisedom" says that this nomination (originally reported to be happening in November) was moved up the calendar to create a diversion from the scandals.
I don't think it's working ... the MSM seems now to be able to cover 2 - 3 stories at once.
Choose your poison!

10/25/2005 10:43 AM  
Blogger Spider said...

How much of a loss denotes a "crash"? On Black Monday you say the Dow lost 22%. Ok, but does a 15% loss count as a crash as well?

Just curious. My background is not in economics.

10/25/2005 11:21 AM  
Blogger Spider said...

How much of a loss denotes a "crash"? On Black Monday you say the Dow lost 22%. Ok, but does a 15% loss count as a crash as well?

Just curious. My background is not in economics.

10/25/2005 11:21 AM  
Anonymous Lord said...

Anything less than 20% is considered a correction rather than a crash. This can occur over a matter of time. Only once has it ever occurred in a single day.

10/25/2005 1:07 PM  
Anonymous marteen said...

Briefly, I believe that "deflation" has acquired far too broad a definition over the past few years. It's come to mean "falling prices." Guess what? Falling prices are good.

There is a bit of a problem with your analysis. You are mixing the issue of deflation among certain goods (e.g., computers) and the fall of the average prices level. These are two very different things. The latter is always a bad thing for the market participants. Prices represent income (after all, nearly everyone's income is derived from the sale of some good or service). If the average price level is falling, then incomes are falling. And the causes (at least in the most recent historical examples) are not due to a break through in technology. The falling price level is usually due to fear. People, banks, and businesses save and don't spend during times of hyper-uneasiness.


There are a host of problems that accompany a deflationary state. Japan is imperfect but decent example of what happens to an economy when it gets caught in a deflationary trap.

10/25/2005 1:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The stock market rose and the bond market fell on the Bernake announcement. Just call him "easy money".....

10/25/2005 2:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Daniel Gross had an interesting view on current economics: "If You Don't Eat or Drive, Inflation's No Problem"
I really respect Steven Roach, chief economist at Morgan Stanley.

We live in strange times. I often wonder about the them with so many individual people, without the needed financial and economic knowledge (verses professional educated groups like pension groups that could diversify risk more broadly, had the long-term in mind, managed risk/return - the whole defined benfits pension to the defined contribution - these are retirement guinea pigs), depending on the stock market or houses for income in the future, that certain assets classes now, just by sheer number of humans at a certain point, is causing an anomaly. Will we need a wheelbarrow of money to buy a loaf of whole grain bread in 10 years?

10/25/2005 6:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting, "Before Mr. Bernanke came to Washington -- and long before President Bush nominated him to run the Federal Reserve -- he proposed creating a machine to crank out the central bank's interest-rate decisions."

I would hope such a machine works better than Long-term Capital Management automation did ;-)

His investments: CNN Fed Focus

Interesting stats:
"In eight years of Greenspan-Clinton, the economy produced 22.7 million jobs; in 10 years of Greenspan-Bush (1 and 2), it produced 8.9 million. The average monthly rate was 237,000 jobs under Greenspan-Clinton, 73,000 during Greenspan-Bush. Real average hourly earnings rose at an annual average of .8 percent during Greenspan-Clinton; they dropped an average of .4 percent during the 10 years of Greenspan-Bush."

Is Greenspan or Clinton the genius ;-)

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6/10/2007 5:22 PM  
Anonymous Simon said...

when Black Monday happened wasn't the market way overvalued? Do you think it is still way overvalued now, even after the last 5 years? What I'm wondering is, do you think maybe this time the market crash will be the housing bubble rather than the Dow? Will this be what finally pops the housing bubble?

10/25/2010 7:25 AM  
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6/19/2011 10:07 PM  

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