Will New Fed 'Tools' Avert Hyperinflation?

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People often accuse me of making “irresponsible” forecasts of massive price inflation. Even though they know that history is replete with examples of central banks ruining their currencies, these critics are sure that “it can’t happen here.” So in the present article I’d like to make the brief case for why we should all be very alarmed about the prospects for the U.S. dollar.

First, let’s look at what those penny pinchers in the federal government are up to. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently released its analysis of the Obama Administration’s ten-year budget proposal. The projected deficit for (fiscal year) 2009 is a whopping $1.8 trillion. Now the president has said, in effect, that you need to spend money to save money, but the CBO projects deficits once again exceeding $1 trillion by 2018. In fact, over the whole CBO forecast from 2009—2019, the lowest the deficit ever goes is $658 billion.

This should be rather surprising to anyone who actually took Obama at his word when he promised to restore fiscal discipline to Washington. In fact, the CBO projects that the outstanding federal debt held by the public will increase from 40.8% of GDP in 2008 to 82.4% in 2019. In other words, the CBO predicts a doubling of the national debt in a mere decade.

One last thing to give you chills (and not the good kind): The CBO is not exactly a doom-and-gloom forecasting service. They’re run by the government, for crying out loud. This is the same CBO that projected at the start of the Bush Administration ten years of an accumulated $5.6 trillion in budget surpluses.

I would caution readers not to dismiss all CBO numbers as obviously meaningless. On the contrary, I think we will see the same pattern play out under Obama as under Bush: Because the CBO in both cases is grossly overstating future tax receipts, its projections for the Obama proposal are going to turn out just as rosy as they did back in 2001. Besides anemic tax receipts, if mortgage defaults continue to increase, the CBO projections on losses from the Treasury’s numerous “rescue” measures will also be far too optimistic.

In short, I think we should view the doubling of the national debt (as a share of the overall economy) over the next decade as a naïve best-case scenario.

If fiscal policy is a disaster, monetary policy is even worse. Unfortunately, the issues here get very complicated, and so it’s difficult for the layman to know whom to trust. Not only do left-wingers like Paul Krugman say that we need more inflation, but even (alleged) right-wingers like Greg Mankiw are saying the exact same thing. With all due respect, those guys are crazy.

Normally, I do my best unshaved-guy-wearing-a-sandwich-board routine by showing the scary Fed chart of the monetary base. But every time I do that, some wise guy argues that I don’t understand how our banking system works, and that because of “deleveraging” we are actually experiencing a shrinking money supply.

No, we aren’t. It’s true that there are forces tending to shrink the money supply, but Bernanke has more than overwhelmed them. All of the standard measures of the money stock went way up during 2008, even though prices (as measured by the CPI) fell in some months. For example, the monetary aggregate M1 consists of very liquid items such as actual currency held by the public, and checking account deposits. It does not include the monetary base (which we know has exploded through the roof). Even so, look at the annual percentage graph of M1 recently; it’s grown at almost a record rate:

Now the reason prices haven’t exploded is that the demand to hold U.S. dollars has also increased dramatically. (That’s also what happened in the 1980s: the Reagan tax cuts and Volcker’s squelching of severe price inflation made it much more attractive to hold dollars, and so the Fed got away with printing a bunch even though the CPI didn’t increase wildly.)

Once people get over the shock of the financial crisis, the new money Bernanke has pumped into the system will begin pushing up prices. Others have used this analogy before me, but it’s still apt: The U.S. economy right now is like Wile E. Coyote right after he runs off a cliff but hasn’t yet looked down. Once the spell of a “deflationary spiral” is broken by a full quarter of significant price hikes, there will be an avalanche as people come to their senses.

Some analysts concede that the traditional Fed policies have indeed left the dollar vulnerable to serious devaluation, but they think the central bank wizards can save the day by acquiring new “tools.” For example, San Francisco Fed president Janet Yellen has been arguing that the Fed should be able to issue its own debt, to give the Fed more flexibility. The idea is that when the time comes for the Fed to sop up the excess reserves it has pumped into the banking system, it would be devastating to the incipient economic recovery if the Fed has to dump a bunch of mortgage-backed securities, or Treasury bonds, back onto the market. This would ruin the banks with MBS on their balance sheets, and/or it would push up interest rates for the government. Thus, the Fed would have painted itself into a corner, and it would have to choose between massive CPI hikes or a renewed recession. To avoid that nasty tradeoff, Yellen argues that if the Fed could sell its own debt, then it could drain reserves out of the banking system without unloading its own balance sheet.

For a different idea, economists Woodward and Hall think the Fed just needs the ability to charge banks for holding reserves. The Fed already (recently) obtained the right to pay interest on reserves, and so Woodward and Hall think the Fed should also have the ability to do the opposite, i.e. to be able to pay a negative interest rate on reserves that banks hold on deposit with the Fed.

How does this avert the threat of hyperinflation? Simple, according to Woodward and Hall. If banks ever start loaning out too much of their (now massive) excess reserves, and thereby start causing large price inflation, then the Fed can simply raise the interest rate it pays on reserves. Banks would then find it more profitable to lend to the Fed, as it were, rather than lending reserves out to homebuyers and other borrowers in the private sector. Voil! Problem solved.

Obviously these tricks can’t avoid the consequences of Bernanke’s mad money printing spree. At best, they would merely push back the day of reckoning, while ensuring that it grows exponentially (quite literally).

A quick numerical example: Let’s say the Fed wants to drain $100 billion in reserves out of the banking system, in order to cool off rising prices. But it doesn’t want to sell off some of its assets on its balance sheet (like “toxic” mortgage-backed securities), so instead the Fed sells $100 billion worth of the brand new “Fed bonds,” as Yellen hopes.

In the beginning, this will indeed solve the problem. When people in the private sector buy the Fed-issued bonds, they write checks on their banks and ultimately those banks see their reserves go down at the Fed. There is less money held by the public, and so prices don’t rise as quickly.

But what happens when the Fed bonds mature? For example, if the Fed sold a 12-month bond paying 1% interest, then after the year has passed our private sector buyers will hand over the securities and now their checking accounts will be credited with $101 billion. At that point, the economy would be in the same position as before, only worse: there would be an extra billion in newly created reserves (because of interest on the Fed debt).

The financial gurus running our financial system and advising our political leaders aren’t even thinking two steps ahead when making their cockamamie recommendations. For those readers who share my skepticism, the solution seems clear: You need to transfer your wealth out of assets denominated in fixed streams of U.S. dollars, and switch to something that responds to large price inflation. In short, sell your corporate and government bonds, and start stocking up on precious metals.

Bob Murphy [send him mail], adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism, The Human Action Study Guide, and The Man, Economy, and State Study Guide. His latest book is The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal.

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