We can argue forever about how the Fed should do its job. And we can also argue forever about whether governments should control the money supply: If Not Ben, Who? If Not the Fed, What?
I find the latter most tedious because—debate it however much you like—that system ain’t changing anytime soon.
How about, instead, we stop thinking that the Fed has much or any ability to control the economy at all? Particularly in a globally interconnected system like now, why on earth do folks believe an institution like the Fed—ostensibly created to oversee and control commercial banking—would have the tools or ability to direct the larger economy? Because, if you do think that, then you have to ask yourself what kinds of tools the Fed actually has at its disposal to make the economy do what it wants. QE? Low short-term interest rates? Paying for deposits on reserve? These are great tools to control the fractional banking system, which admittedly plays a large role in the economy. But such things at best only obliquely address the wider economy.
We constantly read “is the Fed out of bullets?” It’s the wrong question—the Fed doesn’t even have the right kind of ammo in the first place and never has.
I’ve long argued in this space, on MarketMinder, and in my books, that markets and economies are CEAS (complex emergent adaptive systems). The recognition of this fact over and above the reductive mathematics of modern economics means also realizing the best way over time to create a stable, prosperous system is to allow it to form of its own volition. The Fed and its very small set of tools, and it’s very narrow mandate (stable prices and employment) are a poor place to look for savior or oracle. Certainly, metrics like the yield curve—its steepness and overall level—matter greatly to the economy. But I’ve always considered those things a function of whether the Fed was making a mistake in monetary policy rather than “making the economy grow”. The Fed can’t make the economy do anything, it can only set a few fairly narrow conditions (same is more or less true for the government). The rest is up to the economy itself (read: individuals acting of their own self interest).
But it’s also true that, though folks think of the Fed as an “institution”, and therefore generally unchanging and stodgy, it’s been one of the most dynamic and evolutionary financial entities of the last century. Particularly in the last 30 years, the Fed went from barely noted to holding press conferences on the economy and having its chairman show up on 60 Minutes (as noted here: Bernanke: Ready for His Close Up on 4/27.)
So, the public at large will keep looking to the Fed for messianic solutions, and the Fed will continue to evolve, particularly as a political entity. But don’t let that hype confuse you about what the Fed truly can and can’t do.
I’m away from my desk this week, but check out the latest from my Fisher Investments cohort and MarketMinder editor, Lara Hoffmans: The Great Non-Recession.
One of the things I’ve always found interesting is that, when folks attempt to describe investing history, they describe the “this time it’s different” investors as a priori, dyed in the wool optimists. That is, so much speculative folly resides in convincing oneself asset prices can’t go down for some newfangled reason.
That’s true! Investors do this in cycles pretty often. But few figure to ever contemplate the other side: pessimists constantly proclaim “this time is different” too—figuring out ways to convince themselves that valuations can’t go higher, it’s a new world of flat and falling prices, forever and ever, amen.
Right now, the pessimist “this timers” are prevalent: This Time, Our Economy Really Is Different
Well, you have to give The Economist some credit—at least they come right out and say it:
Nothing really speaks better to today’s sentiment, particularly across the pond, than this, does it? And, with all due respect to The Economist (which I read each and every week), this is precisely the kind of attitude that caused current global turbulence, not the other way around. It would be a fantastic thing to see the governments of the world simply get out of their own way and allow economies to wash out inefficiency and be prosperous.
For all the bluster in recent years about how “the era of deregulation” and free markets failed, this is in the end a breathtaking display about how attitudes of “government as messiah” toward private enterprise are prevalent and have been for some decades now.
Capitalism booms and busts—when you materially distort those cycles, it’s tougher to emerge from the bust and get back to booming, not easier.