Thursday, October 13, 2011

The 8% Solution

Frederick J. Sheehan is the author of Panderer to Power: The Untold Story of How Alan Greenspan Enriched Wall Street and Left a Legacy of Recession (McGraw-Hill, 2009) and "The Coming Collapse of the Municipal Bond Market" (, 2009)

The terminal stage of Dr. Frankenstein-style central banking is disgorging ridiculous claims of authority motivated by reckless efforts to retain control. One such pincer attack is the Federal Reserve's purported 2% inflation target. Behind our very eyes, this fictional mandate is being raised, all the more reason that savers need to speculate, not a welcome prospect with both inflationary and deflationary influences expanding and bound to burst.

A certainty of this age (post-Western-Civilization) is the ease with which libertine policies escalate to fantastic proportions even as they are failing. The Federal Reserve mumbles its 2% inflation target while the "economic literature" has sown the garden for an 8% inflation rate, in the name of "price stability."

To be more precise, "inflation" to the Federal Reserve is conveniently defined as the consumer price index - without including food and energy. This 2% or 8% target should be understood as a negative interest rate. The Federal Reserve will (through its current policy, although this will boomerang at some point) hold Treasury yields at zero-percent. It will target inflation at 2% to 20%.

In The Beginning, at least in this short narrative, a Harvard economist told a Senate committee the United States must accept a 2% inflation rate as the cost of prosperity. That was in 1957, a very good year to wrap such a career-advancing declaration inside a Cold War mandate. "Growth" would defeat the Soviet Union.

Federal Reserve Chairman William McChesney Martin did not agree. On August 13, 1957, Martin warned that recent inflationary pressures had risen from a period of strong economic growth fostered by "'imbalances in the economy' in which 'rising costs and prices mutually interact upon each other over time with a spiral effect.' . . . The person most likely to be injured in the inflationary cycle was the 'hardworking and thrifty...little man' on fixed income who could protect neither his income nor the value of his savings."

Martin was doomed to lose this battle and the media misunderstood hemorrhaging inflationary tendencies. Inflation was National Worry #1 when the business editor of the New York Times calmed his readers: "Luckily, the Government has the ability and the wisdom not to let inflation break into a gallop as it has happened recently in other countries." That was in 1966.

President Richard Nixon held a farewell gala for Martin in 1970. The soon-to-be ex-Federal Reserve chairman sobered up the tipsy revelers when he removed the punch bowl during his valedictory speech: "I wish I could turn the bank over to Arthur Burns [the next Fed Chairman] as I would have liked. But we are in deep trouble. We are in the wildest inflation since the Civil War."

Moving ahead, Professor Ben S. Bernanke wrote a book that was well received in the right circles: Inflation Targeting: Lessons from the International Experience (2001). One of his co-authors was Frederic Mishkin. Those in the know understand the implications of Mishkin's cooperation. The book propagated the awful euphemisms ("the zero-bound" and "inflation targeting") used to disguise their mandate to inflate. Rather, they could have simply stated: "Let's ruin the dollar."

Some economists took exception. Lee Hoskins, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland from 1987 to 1991, wrote: "Pundits, economists, and some Fed officials often talk about the fight against inflation or the battle against it or the need to contain it as if it is some preternatural event. The Fed does not have to battle or contain inflation, it creates inflation.... So when a Fed official says the goal for inflation should be 2 percent, he is explicitly choosing to create that rate of inflation." ("Zero Inflation: Goal and Target," 2005) Hoskins is not a regular on CNBC's short list. (See "The Education Gap.")

Federal Reserve policy of 2% inflation is a product of failure and verbal repetition. Bernanke's Fed needs room to maneuver ("infinite bound"), and a wide fairway to compound its broadening failure, while not losing credibility. Thus, this fictional authority is repeated over and over. Current Federal Reserve Governor Janet Yellen: "This increase in core inflation was below the 2 percent rate that I and most of my fellow Fed policymakers on the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) consider an appropriate long-term price stability objective."

Note the structure of Yellen's statement. She hides the arbitrary ("consider an appropriate") under legal cover ("price stability"). The Fed and its accomplices in the professorate train the public mind through such repetition.

Even with 2% inflation touted as a mark of price stability, higher figures are working their way into the public conscience. N. Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard economics professor who consistently establishes new lows in personal integrity, wrote a column in the April 19, 2009, New York Times: "It May Be Time to go Negative."

It should be remembered that Mankiw made his proposal because Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke's grand theory was failing. In October 2011, we know it has failed. Bernanke's foolish interpretation of the Great Depression has done nothing to halt the housing bust. It is far worse today than in 2009, and probably about to take another tumble. This was an inevitable consequence of the credit binge, of which Bernanke's Fed has no understanding. We have paid a heavy price for this ignorance. Investment continues its drift towards short-term trading gains and not into industries that need long-term investment to prosper. The result: a country with an inflation-adjusted median income that is 6.7% below that of June 2009.

In his 2009 column, Mankiw wrote: "[T]here is a more prosaic way of obtaining negative interest rates: through inflation. Suppose that, looking ahead, the Fed commits itself to producing significant inflation. In this case, while nominal interest rates could remain at zero, real interest rates - interest rates measured in purchasing power - could become negative. Having the central bank embrace inflation would shock economists and Fed watchers who view price stability as the foremost goal of monetary policy. But there are worse things than inflation. Ben S. Bernanke, the Fed chairman, is the perfect person to make this commitment to higher inflation...." That's enough. Mankiw consistently makes Eddie Haskell's syrupy conversations with Ward Cleaver sound like General Patton's misadventure with the hospitalized soldier.

Note that Mankiw was behind the times. He needed to justifying negative interest rates even though such a course is inconsistent with the Fed's mandated goal of "price stability." No insufferably pliant economist would make that mistake today - note Yellen, above.

It is obvious that Mankiw is vying to head the Fed, with such maneuvers as his recently announced post as Presidential candidate Mitt Romney's economic adviser. Romney has stated he will jettison Bernanke. (Romney's other adviser is Glenn Hubbard - See: Inside Job) The resourceful Bill Black, author (The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One: How Corporate Executives and Politicians Looted the S&L Industry) and currently professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri - Kansas City recently quoted from a paper written by Mankiw in 1993: "[I]t would be irrational for operators of the savings and loans not to loot."

Harvard economics professor Kenneth Rogoff, author of This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, told Bloomberg News on May 19, 2009: "I'm advocating 6 percent inflation for at least a couple of years." Rogoff has not changed course, recently advocating 6% inflation in the Financial Times.

Mankiw was quoted in the same article as declining to "put a number on what inflation rate the Fed should shoot for, saying that the central bank has computer models that would be useful for determining that." The "model" trick is the mental ghetto that permits fourth-rate economists to become Federal Reserve chairmen.

But Mankiw is on to something. Why pin yourself to a rate, when triple-digit inflation may be required to really ruin the country?

The following sequence is a lesson in how bureaucracies insinuate their failures into accepted policy.

Stanley Fischer, current Governor of the Bank of Israel, doctoral Ph.D. thesis adviser to Ben S. Bernanke and to Greg Mankiw (at MIT), with stops at every institution of impeccable prestige among the anointed (chief economist at the World Bank, vice chairman of Citigroup) professed in 1997 that: "The fundamental task of a central bank is to preserve the value of the currency." That is the first sentence in "Maintaining Price Stability," a paper published when Fischer was First Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. Five paragraphs later (wasting no time) Fischer wrote: "Barro (1995) and Sarel (1996) do not find a clear negative relationship below 8 percent inflation..." That is, as long as it remains at 8 percent or below, inflation is not a burden to economic growth.

We can be sure the conclusion rested on the result of some computer model. Barro (1995) and Sarel (1996) cited as their authority Fischer (1993), which is noted later in Fischer (1997).

In 2001, IMF economic researchers Mohsin S. Khan and Abdelhak S. Senhadji wrote a staff paper "Threshold Effects in the Relationship between Inflation and Growth." The authors declare "[F]irst identified by Fischer (1993)" [addressing inflation below an 8 percent rate], "inflation does not have a significant effect on growth, or it may even show a slightly positive effect." Note the change from the (1997) model Fischer from whom they quote: from "do not find clear negative relationship below 8 percent inflation," to "it [8% inflation] may even show a slightly positive effect." This sequence was arranged by Sheehan (2011)

In 1978, Federal Reserve Governor Henry C. Wallich spoke before the graduating seniors at Fordham University. His topic was inflation. Wallich explained the loser is labor. "Inflation becomes a means of exploiting labor's money illusion."

His speech is interesting in a contemporary context. The Wall Street protestors, who are probably building igloos in front of the Nome, Alaska city hall by now, are on to something; or, it seems, some things; but they are diffusing their influence. One of the protestors' tendencies leans towards a government solution. This is a barren tangent. A supersized government uses supersized banks to remain supersized.

Wallich told the Fordham students, that government is one of the winners in an inflation. From this Federal Reserve official: "It [inflation] allows the politician to make promises that cannot be met in real terms, because, as the government overspends trying to keep those promises, the value of those benefits shrinks." This creates a "diminishing ability of households to provide privately for the future.... One may ask whether it is not an essential attribute of a civilized society to be able to make that kind of provision for the future."

Wallich went on to emphasize "the increasing uncertainty in providing privately for the future pushes people who are seeking security toward the government." If alive today, he would not be surprised the protestors are looking to the government for help. Wallich (1914-1988) grew up in Berlin and lived through what he warned against (1978).

Wallich added that inflation "creates a vacuum in the private sector into which the government moves." He worried that the consequences of the inflation would be "a shift into the third dimension, away from democracy and toward authoritarianism."

In Wallich's Germany, Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) spoke at Nuremberg (1934):

"It is no sign of wise leadership to acquaint the nation with hard facts over night. Crises must be prepared for not only politically and economically, but also psychologically. Here propaganda has its place. It must prepare the way actively and educationally. Its task is to prepare the way for practical actions. It must follow these actions step by step, never losing sight of them. In a manner of speaking, it provides the background music. Such propaganda in the end miraculously makes the unpopular popular, enabling even a government's most difficult decisions to secure the resolute support of the people. A government that uses it properly can do what is necessary without running the risk of losing the masses."