Posts Tagged ‘bernanke’

Bummer in the summer (updated)

22 June 2011

In today’s press conference Bernanke acknowledges the obvious: the economy is worse than we thought and likely to stay that way into 2012.  The Fed lowered its official economic growth forecasts and raised its unemployment rate forecasts for 2011-2012. After almost two years of slow but steady recovery and myriad positive straws that one could grasp, the last couple of months have brought mostly lousy news, notably the latest jobs report, which showed a gain of just 54,000 jobs last month, only about a quarter or a sixth as many as we’d need to get unemployment down to normal levels in five years or so.

It’s notable that the imminent end of the Fed’s quantitative easing, all $600 billion of which will be over by the end of the month, brings few calls for another round — everyone seems to agree that we’re in a liquidity trap, in which further monetary stimulus fails to stimulate, because interest rates are already practically 0%, banks are not eager to lend, and companies are not eager to invest in new capital.*

Our best hope, it seems to me, is an almost nihilistic one: the economy somehow recovers on its own, through black-box mechanisms that we still don’t really understand. Business confidence returns, hiring finally picks up, and the economy roars forth. This may be a vain hope, but the “animal spirits” of investors (and consumers) that Keynes wrote about in The General Theory are not really visible, despite the several monthly surveys of business sentiment that are out there.

Our next best hope is another fiscal stimulus. It won’t be like the first one, which is about to run out and was too small anyway, not with a Republican majority in the House that believes spending = death and doesn’t even want to avert a financial crisis by raising the debt ceiling unless the Democrats agree to massive long-term spending cuts. But I could see the two parties agreeing on a big set of tax cuts, which is the usual form that a fiscal stimulus takes anyway (e.g., 1964, 1981, 2001).  That has a couple of disadvantages: (1) the “multiplier” effect of a tax cut on GDP is typically empirically estimated to be smaller than that of a spending increase of equal size, because not all of a tax cut gets spent; (2) tax cuts are hard to reverse, as everyone hates seeing their taxes go up, so they could make the long-term debt problem much worse. Still, it’s probably the only politically viable option for a fiscal stimulus.

* The last part of that statement (companies are not eager to invest in new capital) is less true than I had thought. As the Wall Street Journal article linked to below notes, a survey of banks indicated that small businesses were demanding more loans, at least in the first quarter of the year.

UPDATE: This Associated Press article from the next day’s newspapers adds some helpful detail. The headline from the Syracuse Post-Standard’s version of that article says it all: “Slow Economy a Puzzle: Fed chief flummoxed, says troubles could last a while.” My quick take:

(1) The economy has long been in a liquidity trap (Krugman’s definition, i.e., a slump in which monetary policy is no longer effective).

(2) Bernanke has long suspected this himself, but as Fed Chairman he feels obligated to try to stimulate the economy through monetary policy, via unusual, unprecedented channels “that just might work” like QE2.

(3) QE2 has failed to measurably stimulate the economy, because the economy was in a liquidity trap.

(4) Liquidity trap or not, it’s not easy for the Fed to just throw in the towel, so a QE3 might well happen. But I doubt the Street will get all that excited about it, considering what a dud QE2 seems to have been.

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Should Bernanke stay or should he go?

1 August 2009

His term ends in early 2010.  Obama’s decision on his fate will probably come much sooner. I tend to think he should be reappointed, not least because the apparent alternative is Larry Summers.  I’d like to see some other macro/policy economists get consideration — Brad DeLong, for example — but I’ve heard basically no other names mentioned besides Bernanke and Summers.

I think many if not most economists would give Bernanke about a D for his handling of the housing bubble and the expansion of 2005-2007 but at least a B for his handling of the financial crisis and macroeconomic fallout.   (It would be an A if not for the mixed signals in bailing out “little” Bear Stearns and not “big” Lehman Brothers.)  It seems like he’s learned that bubbles are not a benign phenomenon and that the Fed can act to stop them.

Last Sunday’s NYT had an excellent point-counterpoint on the question of Bernanke’s reappointment, a true heavyweight matchup between Nouriel (“Dr. Doom”) Roubini, arguing for, and Monetary History of the United States co-author (with Milton Friedman) Anna Jacobson Schwartz arguing against.  Both columns are well worth reading and re-reading over the next few months.

(This time you’ll have to find the Clash video yourself.  Sorry.)

What, me worry about deflation?

16 December 2008

OK, so we should worry about deflation.  Deflation is economically destabilizing and particularly destructive in a recession, as it raises the real burden of debt and the real interest rate, as well as inducing consumers to postpone purchases in the hope of future price decreases.  And in the current slowdown there’s already been considerable deflation here and abroad of housing, asset, and commodity prices.  But  . . .

The news that U.S. consumer prices just had their largest one-month drop in at least 61 years (the records only go back to 1947) does not look like a big deal to me.  Ditto the previous month’s near-identical news about a then-record drop in U.S. consumer prices in Oct. 2008.  The media seem to be trumpeting it as the latest sign of the apocalypse, but all of that 1.7% drop in the consumer price index (CPI) was due to a big drop in energy prices, and as a child of the 1970s I’m still inclined to think of any energy-price drop as a good thing, whatever the cause.  The “core” CPI (which excludes food and energy prices) was unchanged, and the CPI for food prices rose by 0.2%.

(The story was about the same in Oct. 2008:  the overall CPI fell by 1%, the food CPI rose by 0.3%, and the core CPI fell by only 0.1%.  Although the news reports noted that this was the first drop in the core CPI since the devastating recession of 1982, 0.1% is hardly a decline at all.  Considering the band of error that inevitably surrounds these figures, and considering the slight rise in food prices (the other excluded category from the core CPI) , I think it would be a lot more informative to say that Oct. 2008 was a month of falling energy prices and price stability otherwise.)

  • Also, Fed Chairman Bernanke is strongly anti-deflation, as this 2002 speech makes clear. The Fed’s current response to the crisis, whatever its defects, seem to reflect that stance.
  • Side note:  Experts are saying that the falling energy prices are directly due to the recession.  It does appear that the demand for gasoline (and by extension, the amount of driving we do) is a lot more cyclically sensitive than I ever would have guessed.  Especially considering how the demand for gas seems to be very price inelastic in the short run.  Maybe we simply cut back on a range of expenditures (travel, shopping, downtown entertainment) that entail driving, causing the demand for gas to drop?

(modified only slightly from a post on my old blog circa mid-Nov. 2008 )