Monday, January 25, 2010

The Case Against Reappointing Ben Bernanke

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.

Economics is one of the few professions where incompetence is regularly rewarded. The attempt to keep Ben Bernanke as head of the Federal Reserve for a second term is one of the most glaring examples of this practice - and one that will have serious negative repercussions for the United States going forward.

When president Obama announced that he was reappointing Bernanke last August, the reason he gave was that 'Bernanke prevented another depression'. This sound bite has been mindlessly repeated by politicians - senate leader Harry Reid most recently - and economically challenged media commentators ever since. Until the U.S. economy returns to its pre-Credit Crisis state, we will not know whether or not that we have been saved from another depression. There is more than enough evidence to indicate that we haven't been - double digit unemployment, bank loan portfolios that continue to deteriorate, rising bankruptcies and bank failures, lack of lending by the banks, and a housing market that only functions because of numerous government programs that prop it up are just a few reasons why this claim is wrong. Obama would not be the first U.S. president to prematurely call the end to a depression, Herbert Hoover did so in June 1930 when he told the press that the Great Depression was over - it was almost three years before the bottom and at least another decade before that was indeed the case.

One thing that will be pointed to as evidence of recovery will be good GDP numbers later this week - estimates are as high as 6% annualized growth for the fourth quarter of 2009.  If GDP numbers were calculated in a way that measured actual economic growth this would indeed be encouraging. Unfortunately, they are not. U.S. GDP figures for 2008 were positive even though it is universally recognized that the U.S. was in a severe recession the entire year - this is a theoretical impossibility, yet no one talks about it. The lesson of Japan in the 1990s and 2000s warns against using GDP figures as evidence that an economic crisis is over. Japan had quarters of over 10% annualized GDP growth. They were 'saved' from a depression as many as seven times (depends on how you count) in the last two decades. Their economy has nevertheless continued a long, slow leak since 1990 and bigger problems are likely in the next decade, which will be the third one after their crisis began. In reality, Japan extended its depression over a very long period of time; none of its government's actions prevented it.

The defect in the 'saving from depression' argument is an implicit assumption that the economy has two states like a light switch, on and off, instead of an infinite number of possible outcomes. Many of those outcomes involve inflation and hyperinflation. There is no discussion of the negative consequences of Bernanke's actions among his supporters - and all economic policy actions have side effects, many of which can be extremely undesirable. Bernanke himself wrote his PhD thesis on Fed policy errors during the 1930s and demonstrated that restrictive Fed monetary policy led to the debacle. He also came to the conclusion that doing the opposite would fix the problem. If the economy was as simple as a light switch it would. In a complex system, this is not the case. Doing the opposite may simply lead to a different disastrous outcome.

Bernanke also didn't show understanding of the impending problems within the financial system, nor did he react quickly. As late as June 2007, Bernanke was assuring people that there would be no problem with subprime loans. In July the problem blew up. As late as the spring of 2008, the Fed was releasing statements that they were hopeful they would still be able to prevent a recession. The recession had already begun in December 2007, but the Fed was unaware of it. In September 2008, Lehman was allowed to fail with the subsequent excuse being given that no one was interested in buying it. Only days later AIG was nationalized when no one would buy it. The Lehman failure set off a general global financial collapse. Bernanke is now claiming credit from 'saving' the system from this collapse with his quick action. As one commentator astutely observed, this is like an arsonist wanting credit for putting out a fire that he had started.

Bernanke was originally appointed by George Bush and is one of the key economic actors along with the current Treasury secretary Tim Geithner from the Bush administration. While on one hand president Obama constantly criticizes Bush economic policies and how much damage they have caused, on the other he has gone out of his way to keep the Bush economic team mostly in place. This is reminiscent of Obama's newfound criticism of irresponsible giveaways to the big banks. For those who don't recall, the TARP bill originally failed in its first congressional vote. Presidential candidate Obama was instrumental in rounding up enough Democratic votes to get it passed on a second try. Now, Bush deserves the blame.

Bernanke's appointment runs out on January 31st. The slow-moving senate has yet to get around to voting on it. While Bernanke has had his detractors in congress, they became energized after the surprise upset in the Massachusetts special senate election last week that indicated quite clearly that American voters are angry about how the economy has been handled. Senators up for reelection in November (only one-third of the total) particularly began to have second thoughts, as indeed they should. Support for Bernanke may come back to haunt them in the future even more than support for the ill-fated health care bill. Bernanke is almost guaranteed to win the vote to reappoint him however. The White House is leaning heavily on Democratic senators to support him and hoping that the public isn't paying too much attention. Voters tend to notice though when they don't have a job.

Disclosure: None

NEXT: Consumers Lack Confidence, They Also Lack Credit

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

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