Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Bernanke Putt

Helicopter Ben is now turning to golf, according to an article by Jon Hilsenrath and Jonathan Cheng in today's Wall Street Journal.


I can't decide whether that feeling in my gut was pain, wrath, or an ironic chuckle, when I read the following:

"The Federal Reserve is close to embarking on another round of monetary stimulus next week ... despite doubts about the wisdom and efficacy of the policy among economists and some of the Fed's own decision makers.... Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's push to restart the bond-buying program--a form of monetary stumulus known as quantitative easing [QE]--has been greeted with deep skepticism among some of his colleagues.... Mr. Bernanke has used the analogy of a golfer with a new putter: Unsure how it will work, he finds [the] best strategy is to tap lightly at first and keep tapping until the golfer figures out how best to use the putter."

All this is fine and good, Dr. Bernanke, but shouldn't you have gotten your golf practice in well before now, at some prior time when the whole world wasn't watching your every twitch? Do you have any idea of the potential consequences of a misjudgment on your part? According to the WSJ, one of the fellows on your own team, Thomas Hoenig, calls the Fed's up-coming actions a "bargain with the devil."

My previous posts have referred to a slow-motion movie that we are all watching. I have mentioned that at the climax the Fed will find itself between a rock and a hard place: the choice whether to act or not to act.

This is happening right about now, and the Fed has decided to buy bonds. Yet Bernanke has just blown the Fed's reputation as a team of expert economic monetarists capable of curing the second worst economic crisis the world has ever seen, by comparing it to a novice putter trying out a new golf club. Frankly, I'm not sure which is more disquieting.

So now we're pretty sure the Fed will perform QE. Everyone is now asking, will we get inflation or not? First, I'll have to refer you to my previous posts about the definition of "inflation," to remind you that when the media refers to "inflation" they are (incorrectly) referring most often to "price increases," and not the increasing of money supply.

QE is inflating (increasing of the money supply), under the true definition of the word. Whether or not it translates into general price increases is a separate issue that depends on other factors above and beyond the simple act of increasing money supply.

It depends, for example, on the business community's reaction to the results of the November elections, and on the future Congress's subsequent successes or failures. QE might translate into higher general prices, or it might just become higher stock prices, independent of the CPI. It might translate into higher bank bonuses, independent of the CPI. It will certainly translate into a much lower dollar, quite independent of the CPI.

Some recommend TIPS as protection against "inflation" (price increases), but already the TIPS are selling at a premium, so the protection they offer is eroded. And TIPS don't protect us against the effects of a weaker dollar as buyers of our regular bonds reduce their appetite for same. What is the consequence of this? We may soon find out.

What's certain is that Bernanke doesn't seem to care: he's out playing golf.

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