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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Bernanke on the U.S. Economy “Going Over the Cliff”

As the U.S. Government faced down its own deadline before the Bush tax cuts would expire and across-the-board budget cuts would commence, the Federal Reserve, which had been struggling to prop up the economy by buying bonds and keeping interest rates low, would, according to the Chairman, Ben Bernanke, be largely powerless to do more in the face of a recessionary policy on taxes and spending. "We cannot offset the full impact of the fiscal cliff," he said of the Fed. "It's just too big." That he had written a doctoral dissertation on the Great Depression and had specialized on it as a professor at Princeton lends a lot of weight to his judgment on the matter. However, he had also managed to be re-appointed to the Fed and thus knew how to play the game. In the case of the automatic budget cuts, major power-brokers, specifically in the military industrial complex, had a lot riding on Congress and the White House making a deal that would obviate the cuts in defense spending. The chairman of the Fed could have been carrying their water.
Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, in front of the lights.   Reuters
In September 2012, Bernanke had announced an open-ended mortgage-backed-security purchasing program that would put $40 billion a month into the economy. At the time, he said, “If we do not see substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market, we will continue the MBS purchase program, undertake additional asset purchases, and employ our policy tools as appropriate until we do. We will be looking for the sort of broad-based growth in jobs and economic activity that generally signal sustained improvement in labor market conditions and declining unemployment.” Presumably the Fed would continue the mortgage-bond purchases were the automatic budget cuts and end of the Bush tax breaks to forestall a “broad-based growth in jobs and economic activity.”
In terms of economic impact, a stimulus of $40 billion a month, or $480 billion annually, would just about match the anticipated $500 billion hit from the “cliff.” How is it then, that the latter is “just too big”? Were the $480 billion insufficient, the Fed would be free to increase its purchases.  Time magazine describes the stimulus mechanism as follows: “Open-ended purchases of mortgages will have the effect of lowering interest rates, helping more people qualify for mortgages or refinance. But more importantly it will — in theory — have the effect of creating an expectation of generally higher asset prices in the future, which will motivate people to get off their duffs and spend money now. If companies and individuals are indeed convinced that prices will rise in the future, that would encourage them to spend, hire, and jump-start the economy out of its chronic underperformance.” Whereas monetary policy was contracted in response to the Great Depression, the scholar of that mistake could presumably do the opposite should we—in his words, “go over the cliff.” His $480 billion mountain of money could turn his $500 billion cliff into a mere bump.
To be sure, purchasing mortgage-bonds can only do so much. As David Dayen of Firedoglake argues, there’s only so much the lifting of asset prices can do without appropriate fiscal policy to accompany it: “(Y)ou have to question the role of monetary actions by themselves to generate an economic boost, especially at this time. Lower mortgage rates may or may not prove helpful . . . without fiscal stimulus and a reversal of the current trajectory of deficit reduction, we will never get to the desired trend for growth.” However, the Fed could presumably buy up more than mortgage-bonds, freeing banks up to lend more in the process.
Most telling is Bernanke’s claim that the Fed could not increase its stimulus enough to counter the anticipated $500 billion hit from sequestration and the end of the Bush tax breaks—and yet the Fed was already on record that it would spend $480 billion in 2013 unless the economy improved in the meantime. His inflexibility seems arbitrary, or dogmatic, in other words, given what the Fed can do, and this leads me to the alternative explanation that the chairman was actually doing someone else’s bidding rather than proffering a judgment steeped in decades of study. The real task would be one of locating the real power-brokers whose financial interests were so threatened.
Whereas the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and cutting entitlement programs had been perennially on the block for years, the sacred-cow of defense spending was all of a sudden susceptible as well. Hence, I believe, all the dire doomsday warnings coming out of Washington to the contrary, the pressure on a political deal was oriented to protecting the status quo of the military-industrial complex rather than obviating certain economic collapse. That is, even more fundamental than the interest of politicians and the media to over-dramatize “going over the cliff” in order to gain attention, the subterranean financial interest of the American military-industrial complex may have been pulling many strings—many puppets—to veer the debate toward a deal. Even as the major players on stage were posturing, a two-step could have been going on behind the scenes—dancing around the sacred cows. Perhaps the real news behind the Bernanke’s warning is that even the “non-politicized” central bank was “doing the dance.”

Sources:
John Cushman, “To Bernanke, ‘Cliff’ Says It AllThe New York Times, December 12, 2012.