Ben Bernanke eagerly mounted the market bull in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Using monetary expansion as a device for refueling the market economy, Bernanke and his colleagues at the Federal Reserve have massively increased the magnitude of base money. By purchasing long-term Treasuries and mortgage securities, the Fed has driven long-term interest rates well below their underlying market equilibrium, imposing significant costs on seniors relying on fixed interest receipts to fund their golden years.
Mounting that bull was easy, cheered on as Bernanke was by almost everyone who had suffered capital losses during the financial meltdown. There is, however, no such thing as a free lunch. Sooner or later, those who mount and ride the bull must figure a way how to dismount without imposing a significant setback to a sluggish economy.Bernanke now confronts exactly that quandary in determining when and how to taper the current QE4 monetary expansion.
The eternal problems confronting the bull dismount are timing and political will. The timing to some extent is under his control. The political will lies elsewhere at higher levels in the political system. Bernanke is already learning the import of the second factor. Earlier this week, President Obama strongly hinted that 2014 is the end of the line for this would-be rodeo star. Wall Street has it that Janet Yellen will be Obama’s chosen successor. And she will ride the bull into hyper-inflation if that is what it takes to keep all the bubbles from bursting.
If Bernanke wishes to dismount the bull before he is ejected by the Big Man, he has little wiggle-room available. After all, he has all but promised near-zero rates into mid-2015 and he oversees a Fed balance sheet that has all but quadrupled in five and a half years to some $3.4 trillion.
Interest groups in Washington and on Wall Street are already urging him that it is too soon to dismount, and dangerous to signal any reduction in Fed bond buying in the near to less-near term. The housing recovery may be on its way, they say, but it is fragile indeed. The jobless rate may be falling, but at the pace of a snail. Deflation, they say hovers on the immediate horizon, and would make its dangerous presence felt should QE4 taper out.
My advice to Ben Bernanke is simple. Dismount now, while you still have some control over the bull. Recovery has been fragile over four years of monetary expansion. Much harm has been done to the economy by the manipulation of interest rates and the socialization of risk. Move monetary policy back to neutral and allow the real economy to breathe and adjust to market forces. I know that this asks a lot for a hard-bitten Keynesian such as you. But surely, by now, you understand that we do not live in a Keynesian world.
Hat Tip: ‘Bernanke Rides the Bull’, The Wall Street Journal, June 19, 2013