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Dangerous Defeatism is taking hold among America's economic elites

Goldilocks has played a trick on America. Growth is not warm enough to prevent hard-core unemployment climbing to post-war highs and sticking at levels that corrode the body politic, but not yet cold enough to overcome the fierce resistance of the Fed's regional hawks for a fresh blast of stimulus.

 
September 11, 2010

Dangerous Defeatism is taking hold among America's economic elites

Goldilocks has played a trick on America. Growth is not warm enough to prevent hard-core unemployment climbing to post-war highs and sticking at levels that corrode the body politic, but not yet cold enough to overcome the fierce resistance of the Fed's regional hawks for a fresh blast of stimulus.

 
Soft bears say the US economy wil limp along just shy of a double dip
Soft bears say the US economy wil limp along just shy of a double dip

The US economy has slowed to stall speed: successive quarters of 5pc growth, 2.7pc, and 1.6pc (to be revised down), the worst recovery of the post-war era. Such is the crush of debt.

While last week's data was less bad than feared, it was still awful. Manufacturing orders fell to the lowest in 15 months. Some 54,000 jobs were lost in August and the broad U6 gauge of unemployment rose from 16.5pc to 16.7pc. The US needs to create 150,000 a month just to stay even. The social depression is getting worse, not better.

Hardline bears think growth will drop below to 1pc in the second half as the inventory boost wears off and the tail winds of stimulus turn to headwinds, leaving no margin for error.

Soft bears such as Bank of America's Ethan Harris said the economy will limp along just shy of a double-dip. "Our sense is that the 'growth recession' is already here and it is likely to linger through the first half of next year," he said. His reason for concluding that it will not be worse is telling: the Fed will step in with $500bn to $750bn of fresh QE every six months if necessary.

Perhaps, but perhaps not. The luminaries are lining up to say there is very little that the Fed can do after already cutting rates to zero and purchasing $1.7 trillion of bonds. "The heavy artillery has already been fired," said former Fed vice-chair Alan Blinder.

"I really don't think there is a lot the Fed can do," said Harvard's Martin Feldstein.

"The benefits of additional QE are quite small," said Stanford's John Taylor, of the Taylor rule.

"The US has run out of bullets. More QE is not going to make any difference," said Nouriel Roubini, our Dr Gloom.

Get a grip, the lot of you. While there is no easy way out for the US after stealing so much prosperity from the future through debt, there is no excuse for this dead-end defeatism. Clearly, the 'canonical New Keynesian' model that holds such sway on America's elites is intellectually exhausted.

The Fed has an arsenal of neutron bombs if it wants to use them, and uses them correctly. It can engage in "monetary policy a l'outrance" as Maynard Keynes propsed in his Treatise on Money in 1930, before he lost his way with the General Theory.

Blitz the market with bond purchases, but do so outside the banking system by buying from insurers, pension funds, and the public. This would gain traction on the broad M3 money instead of letting it collapse (yes, the "monetary base" has exploded, but that is a red herring), working through the classic Fisher/Friedman mechanisms of the quantity of money theory.

This is quite different from the Fed's QE which buys bonds from the banks and works by trying to drive down borrowing costs. While Bernanke's 'creditism' is certainly better than nothing, it is not gaining full traction.

"Bernanke continues to babble on about futile credit easing: neither he nor his staff seems to appreciate the difference between purchases of assets from non-banks and from banks," said Tim Congdon from International Monetary Research. Crudely, banks sit on the money. Others use it.

Mr Congdon said a $750bn blitz of QE done the right way would lead to 5pc rise in M3 over three months. "This would indeed transform the US economic outlook". Instead, America drifts. It is already closer to a Japanese trap than Washington wants to admit, and may not escape from it for similar reasons of ideological paralysis.

Dr Bernanke said in November 2002 that Japan had the economic instruments to pull itself out of malaise but failed to do so. "Political deadlock" and a cacophony of views over the right policy had prevented action. He insisted that a central bank had "most definitely" not run out of ammo once rates were zero, and retained "considerable power to expand economic activity".

Yet eight years later, the US is in such "deadlock". Worse, Fed officials now say "the ball is in the fiscal court", arguing that budget policy should do more to "complement" the Fed's existing stimulus. Oh no!

This is the worst possible prescription. What is needed is fiscal austerity (slowly) before debt spirals out of control, offset by easy money or real QE for as long as it takes. This formula rescued Britain from disaster in 1931-1933 and 1992-1994.

Damn the rest of the world if they object. They have been free-loading off US demand for too long. A weaker dollar will force the mercantilists to face some hard truths. So keep those helicopters well-oiled and on standby.


 
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