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.