The QE Debate
September 4, 2012
There is an ongoing three way debate between those who believe the Fed should do more to strengthen the recovery, those who believe that the recovery is strong enough to continue on its own, and those who believe that the economy has been so fundamentally altered by the recession that no amount of stimulus can succeed in pushing unemployment down to pre-crash levels. As usual, they all have it wrong (although some are more wrong than others).
The false conclusions are being made by the likes of bond king Bill Gross, who has suggested that the economic fundamentals have changed. They argue that a "new normal" is now in place that sets an 8% unemployment rate as a floor below which we will never fall.
This is absurd. America can once again prosper if we put our trust in first principles and let the free markets work. Unfortunately, that is not happening. Government is taking an ever greater role in our economy where its efforts will continue to stifle economic growth. A close second in cluelessness comes from those who believe that we are currently on the road to a real recovery. I'm not sure what economy they are looking at, but in just about every important metric, we continue to be essentially comatose.
More accurate are the opinions of those who believe that without a more serious intervention from the Fed, which can only mean another round of quantitative easing (QE III), the current quasi-recovery will soon fade and the tides of recession will overtake us once again. They are correct. And even though this time the water will be rougher and deeper than it was four years ago, it does not mean that the Fed will do the economy any good by breaking out its heavy artillery once again.
In his widely anticipated speech at Jackson Hole last week, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke sounded a supremely optimistic note: "It seems clear, based on this experience, that such (easing) policies can be effective, and that, in their absence, the 2007-09 recession would have been deeper and the current recovery would have been slower than has actually occurred."
The simple truth however, is that our economy has a disease that all the quantitative easing in the world can't cure. And while the wrong medicine may make us appear healthier in the short term, we will continue to deteriorate beneath the surface. Not only should the Fed not provide additional QE, but it should remove the accommodation currently in place. Although these moves would most certainly send us back into recession, it would simultaneously provide a needed course correction that would put us finally on the road to a sustainable recovery.
The recession the Fed is trying so desperately to prevent must be allowed to run its course so that the economy that we have developed over the last decade, the one that is overly reliant on low interest rates, borrowing and consumer spending, can finally restructure itself into something healthier.
By enabling this diseased economy to overstay its welcome, QE does more harm than good. To recover for the long haul, the market must be allowed to correct the misallocations of resources that resulted from prior stimulus. Additional stimulus inhibits this process, and exacerbates the size of the misallocations the markets must eventually correct.
In the interim, any GDP growth or employment gains that result from stimulus actually compounds the difficulty in restructuring the economy. Any jobs created as a result of cheap monetary stimulus are jobs that won't be able to survive absent that support. They will require a continual misallocation of resources in order to survive. Unfortunately, these jobs must ultimately be lost before a real recovery can actually begin.
Holding rates of interest far below market levels (which is the goal of stimulus) alters patterns of consumption, savings, and investment. Fed intervention short-circuits the market driven process that resolves misallocations. The more stimulus that is provided, the harder market forces must work to try to restore equilibrium. As the misallocations grow over time, the efficacy of monetary measures diminishes. In the end, the market will overwhelm the Fed. The only question is how long it will take.
The Fed is trying to build skyscrapers on a bad foundation. Each subsequent structure it builds not only collapses, but also weakens the foundation that much more. The result is that subsequent structures collapse at increasingly lower heights and require more effort to build.
Instead of trying to build, the Fed could concentrate on repairing the underlying foundation. That might delay construction, but in the end the buildings will be much sturdier.
Because the Fed has kept interest rates too low for too long, Americans have saved too little and borrowed too much; consumed too much and produced too little; and imported too much and exported too little. Too much of our labor is devoted to the service sectors and not enough to goods production. Too much capital goes to Wall Street speculators and not enough to Main Street entrepreneurs. We built too many homes but not enough factories. We have developed too many shopping centers, and not enough natural resources. The list of Fed induced misallocations goes on.
By trying to preserve the jobs associated with this old economy, the Fed prevents the market from creating the ones we actually need. Unfortunately no one seems to understand that, and we continue to chase blindly after failed economic models. Look for such misunderstanding to be on high display this week in Charlotte as Democrats gather to call for even greater intervention to perpetuate a failed economic model.