DRI-201 for week of 1-12-14: No Bravos for Bernanke

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

No Bravos for Bernanke

Last weekend’s Wall Street Journal featured an op-ed by the former Chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, Austan Goolsbee. Goolsbee’s tenure obviously familiarized him with the chief requirement for policymaking success in a Democrat regime; namely, the ability to define success down. His op-ed, “Brave for Bernanke and the QE Era,” is a spectacular example of the art.

Goolsbee contrasts the enthusiastic reception given to Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke’s farewell address to the American Economic Association convention with the wide-ranging criticism directed at Bernanke from across the political spectrum. He briefly summarizes the Fed’s policies under Bernanke, confining himself to the last 3 ½ years of the so-called QE (quantitative easing) Era. Bernanke’s imminent departure and the start of the “exit-strategy countdown” signaled by QE tapering mean that “it is time to take stock of the QE Era – and time for the critics to admit they were wrong.”

Partisan divisions being what they are, it is a foregone conclusion that Goolsbee’s call will not resonate with many on both sides of the political spectrum. But it is not necessary to invoke partisan politics to criticize it. Bernanke’s policies – and Goolsbee’s – are anathema to free-market economists. But one need not espouse laissez faire in order to gaze askance at Goolsbee’s case for Bernanke’s actions. Bernanke’s tenure should be viewed as a disaster regardless of one’s political preference or economic philosophy.

Indeed, the propriety of Bernanke’s policy choices is not up for debate at this point. They are what economists would call a sunk cost; their costs have been incurred (or are unavoidable) and can’t be changed or escaped. No doubt Bernanke should have chosen differently and we would be better off if he had done so. But the question before the house is: What were the actual results of his choices? Goolsbee finds those results to be very good and purports to explain why. We can and should quarrel with his verdict and his explanations.

Bernanke and Stimulus

“…Looking back…it is clear that the Fed was right to try to help improve the [economy] and the critics were wrong [about inflation].” Goolsbee assigns Bernanke’s policies a grade of A for activism.  The implication is that it is better for a Federal Reserve Chairman to do something rather than nothing, even if activism requires a program of unprecedented scope and unknown impact.

“Think back to the days before the 2008 crisis or recession. If confronted with the scenario that would follow – five years of GDP growth of only around 2% a year, five years of unemployment rates around or above 7%, core inflation consistently below 2% – the near-universal response of economists would have been for the Fed to cut interest rates.” But would economists have reacted that way knowing that all of these effects accompanied a policy of zero interest rates? It’s one thing to say “we should have cut interest rates and all these bad things wouldn’t have happened,” but quite another to say “all these bad things happened anyway in spite of our interest rate cuts.” An objective observer would have to consider the possibility that the interest rate cuts were the wrong medicine. Of course, Goolsbee pretends that this is unthinkable; that the only possible action in the face of adversity is cutting rates. But if that were really true, his review of Bernanke’s reign is a mere formality; Bernanke’s decisions were right by definition, regardless of result. In reality, of course, the zero-interest-rate policy was not a foregone conclusion but rather an evaluative action subject to serious question. And its results do not constitute a ringing endorsement.

To appreciate the truth of this, ponder the wildly varying conclusions reached by Keynesian economists who are not ideologically hostile to Bernanke and Goolsbee. Larry Summers considers macroeconomic policy under Obama a failure because the U.S. suffers from “secular stagnation.” He prescribes a cure of massive public spending to replace the structural collapse of private investment and private over-saving. While Bernanke cannot take the blame for the failings of fiscal policy, Summers criticizes him for not doing more to provide liquidity and increase (!) inflation. Summers’ colleague Paul Krugman is even more emphatic. Bernanke should crank up the printing press to create bubbles because wasteful spending by government and the private sector is necessary to create employment. Without waste and profligacy, unemployment will persist or even rise. Alan Blinder has the temerity to point out what free-market economists noticed years ago – that the money created by Bernanke was mostly sitting idle in excess bank reserves because the Fed had chosen to pay interest on excess reserves. But Blinder is too gentlemanly to ask the obvious question: If the money creation is supposed to be “economic stimulus,” why has Bernanke prevented the money from actually stimulating?

These Keynesian economists are the farthest thing from free-market, laissez faire doctrinaires. But they are not about to give Ben Bernanke a passing grade merely for showing up, trying hard and looking very busy.

To be sure, Goolsbee does make a case that Bernanke actually succeeded in stimulating the U.S. economy. He names two of his colleagues, fellow attendees at the AEA convention, whose “research indicates that [Bernanke’s] Fed policies have helped the economy, albeit modestly… they lowered long-term Treasury rates by about 30 basis points and a bit more for mortgage spreads and corporate bond yields…Americans were able to refinance their homes at more affordable rates, and the drop led to an increase in consumer spending on automobiles and other durables.” Fifty years ago, John Maynard Keynes’ picture appeared on the cover of Time Magazine as an avatar of the end of the business cycle. Now, our Fed prosecutes a policy characterized by a leading English central banker as “the greatest government-bond bubble in history,” and economists have to do research in order to dig up “modest benefits” of the policy that would otherwise go unnoticed. And Goolsbee offers them up with a straight face as the blessings that justify our gratitude to Ben Bernanke.

Bernanke and Inflation

“The QE Era did not create inflation. Not even close. The people who said it would were looking only at the growth in the monetary base… the people arguing that QE means simply printing money (it doesn’t, really) didn’t recognize that the policy was simply offsetting the reverse printing of money resulting from the tight credit channels in the damaged financial system.” Milton Friedman devoted the bulk of his career to refuting the claims of this type of thinking; it would require a lengthy article to review his insights and a book-length analysis to review the economics issues raised by Goolsbee’s nonchalant assertions. But one sentiment popularized by Friedman suffices to convey the concern of “the people” Goolsbee dismisses so condescendingly: “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.”

At no point in human history has a monetary expansion like Bernanke’s occurred without leading to hyperinflation. So Bernanke’s critics are not a gaggle of tinfoil-hat-sporting, tennis-shoe-wearing conspiracy theorists. They have history on their side. Goolsbee’s confident assurance that Bernanke leaves office with inflation under control is based on a planted axiom the size of an iceberg; namely, that Bernanke’s successor(s) can somehow corral the several trillion dollars of excess reserves still loitering around the financial system before they emerge into circulation in the form of expenditures chasing a limited stock of goods and services. But that’s only the beginning; the Fed must also conduct this money wrangling in such a way as to keep interest rates from rising too greatly and thereby dealing the economy a one-two death blow of overwhelming government debt service and private-sector constriction of economic activity. It is not immediately obvious how this might be accomplished.

Friedman made a case that the Great Depression began in the early 1930s with bank failures that had a multiple contractionary effect on the U.S. money supply. Like generals always fighting the last war, the Fed has since been grimly determined not to be hung for monetary tightness. As F.A. Hayek pointed out, a central bank that always errs on the side of loose money and inflation and never on the side of tight money or deflation will inevitably bias its policy toward inflation. That is the status quo today. Japan’s longtime low inflation is miscalled “deflation,” thereby providing a rhetorical justification for revving up the inflationary printing press. A similar boomlet is building here in the U.S.

Presumably, this explains Goolsbee’s reference to QE credit creation as an offset to credit destruction. But whether you accept Friedman’s analysis or not, Goolsbee’s rationale doesn’t hold water. The bank bailouts of 2008-09 – which were forced on sound banks and shaky ones alike by the Fed and the Treasury – were explicitly sold as a means of guaranteeing financial liquidity. QE did not come along until mid-2010. By then, banks had already repaid or were repaying TARP loans. Thus, Goolsbee cannot sell the QE Era as the solution to a problem that had already been solved. Instead, the evidence favors QE as the palliative for the financial problems of the U.S. Treasury and the spending addiction of the U.S. Congress – matters that Goolsbee delicately overlooks.

Bernanke and Greenspan: The Perils of Premature Congratulation

When Alan Greenspan left office, he had presided over nearly two decades of economic prosperity. The news media had dubbed him “The Maestro.” It is not hard to understand why he was showered with accolades upon retirement. Yet within a few short years his reputation was in tatters. Bernanke gave us an industrial-strength version of Greenspan loose-money policies. But the economy spent most of Bernanke’s tenure in the tank. And Bernanke leaves office having bequeathed us a monetary sword of Damocles whose swing leaves our hair blowing in its breeze.

With the example of Greenspan still fresh in mind, we can justifiably withhold judgment on Bernanke without being accused of rank political prejudice.

Bernanke as Savior

“…We should all be able to agree that fashion standards during a polar vortex shouldn’t be the same as in normal times.” Goolsbee is suggesting that Bernanke has adopted the stern measures called for by the hard times thrust upon him. This is indeed the leitmotiv for economic policy throughout the Obama Administration, not merely monetary policy – hey, just imagine how much worse things could have been, would have been, had we not done what we did. In order for this alibi to stand up, there must be general agreement about the nature and size of the problem(s) and the remedy(ies). Without that agreement, we cannot be sure that Bernanke hasn’t worsened the situation rather than helping it – by addressing non-existent problems and/or applying inappropriate solutions.

In this case, we have had only the word of Chairman Bernanke and Treasury Secretary O’Neill (under President Bush) that economic collapse was threatened in 2008. Despite the wild talk of imminent “meltdown,” none occurred. Indeed, there is no theoretical event or sequence that would meet that description in economics. General economic activity worsened markedly – after the bailout measures were authorized by Congress. The emergency stimulus program did not affect this worsening, nor did it effect the official recovery in June 2009; stimulus funds were so slow to reach the economy that the recovery was well underway by the time they arrived.

The QE program itself has been advertised as “economic stimulus” but is notable for not living up to this billing. (To be sure, this is misleading advertising for the reasons cited above.) If anybody feels grateful to Bernanke for launching it, it is presumably officials of the Treasury and Congress – the former because QE prevented interest rates from rising to normal levels that would have swamped the federal budget in a debt-service tsunami, the latter because the precious spending programs beloved of both parties were spared. But Goolsbee comes nowhere within sight or shouting distance of these financial truths.

It makes sense to hail a savior only when you have reached safety. We haven’t even crossed the icy waters yet, because we’ve had the benefits – tenuous though they’ve been – of QE without having to bear the costs. In other words, the worst is yet to come. Bernanke has made all of us protagonists in an old joke. A man jumps out of a skyscraper. As he falls toward earth, the inhabitants of the building on each successive lower floor hear him mutter, “Well – so far, so good.”

The Politicization of Economics

Why make so much of Austan Goolsbee’s valedictory salute to Ben Bernanke? If the quality of Bernanke’s economic policy is a sunk cost at this point, doesn’t that also moot our assessment of his job performance? If Austan Goolsbee has badly misjudged that performance, that doesn’t say much for Goolsbee, but why should we care? After all, Goolsbee is no longer employed by the Obama Administration; he is now safety ensconced back in academia.

Goolsbee’s judgments matter because they are clearly motivated by politics. They are part of a disturbing pattern in which liberal economists provide a thin veneer of economics – or sometimes no economics at all – to cover their espousal of left-wing causes. Goolsbee pooh-poohs the claim that QE was both dangerous and unnecessary, claiming that the rise in the stock market is not a bubble because it has “tracked increases in corporate earnings.” But earlier in the same article, Goolsbee claimed that QE lowered long-term interest rates on Treasuries and corporate bonds (thus reducing costs of corporate finance) and increased spending on consumer durables. So QE induced increases in corporate earnings that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred, causing increased stock prices – but is absolved from charges of creating a stock bubble because the stock prices were caused by autonomous increases in corporate earnings? Goolsbee claims credit for QE on Bernanke’s behalf at one stage, and then disclaims QE’s influence on exactly the same point at another. This is the type of circular contradiction masquerading as economics that Goolsbee and other Keynesians use to sell their politics.

“Forgoing the Fed’s unconventional monetary policies – inviting real and quantifiable damage to the economy – just to prevent the possibility of a potentially dangerous bubble forming somewhere in the economy would have been cruel and unnecessary,” Goolsbee concludes. Foregoing the “modest benefits” that Goolsbee’s pals managed to dig up merely because the Fed had to create “the greatest government-bond bubble in history” in order to generate them would have been “cruel and unnecessary.” Oh, wait – what about the loss of interest income suffered by hundreds of millions of Americans – many of them retirees, the disabled and other fixed-income investors – thanks to the zero-interest-rate policy ushered in by the QE Era? Was this cruel and/or unnecessary? Goolsbee delicately avoids the subject.

But Goolsbee’s fellow Keynesian, Paul Krugman, is not so circumspect. Krugman comes right out and says that nobody has the right to expect a positive interest return on safe assets while the economy was in a depression; they can either make do with an infinitesimal interest return or lose the value of their money to inflation. (In the same blog post, Krugman had previously accused his critics of callous indifference to the pain caused by business liquidations in a depression.)

This is not economics. It is half-baked value judgment hiding behind the mask of social science. Similarly, Austan Goolsbee’s evaluation of Ben Bernanke’s term as Federal Reserve Chairman may have the imprimatur of economics, but it lacks any of the substance.