Exploiting Bernanke, Part One of Two

It is unfortunate the media does not make better use of an accessible resource: itself. Newspapers and financial TV are generally content to report what is being said today with no reference to the past. There seems to be no memory. A recent instance is Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s opinion that inflation is not a concern. In a sane world, his opinion would not matter much. We live in a more nonsensical atmosphere in which abstractions substitute for reality.

The Fed chairman’s inflation prediction is thought to reflect whether the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee (FOMC) will raise the fed funds rate from zero. It is not, then, Bernanke’s opinion about inflation that stirs imaginations (very limited imaginations, to be sure), but the train-of-thought that the global yield curve is a consequence of his purported wisdom. If the Fed Chairman’s public view changes, the residence of several trillion dollars will also change: carry trades, institutional asset mixes, and potential reallocations from stocks into money markets are examples of financial securities that are shipped from asset class to asset class according to the Fed chairman’s price-change gazetteer.

The real world today is repeating a pattern of a couple of years back. Prices are rising everywhere. This was also true when Bernanke became chairman of the Fed, in February 2006. Shortages, bottlenecks, black markets and prices were increasing when Bernanke became chairman. They continued to do so into late 2008. These conditions then retreated but are charging upward again.

To cut to the finale, a search through the files shows that Ben Bernanke was neither concerned nor understood the 2006 to 2008 inflation. It is certain, reading the evidence, that once again he will ignore (or remain malignantly ignorant, as the case may be) inflation until long after rice riots outside California supermarkets are a feature on the evening news.

To those unaccustomed to Fed-foolery, there is a motive for the chairman to day-dream through an inflationary swindle. The Federal Reserve wants to print money at will. An admitted problem with inflation would make it difficult to keep pumping money into the market.

Two conclusions can be drawn with near-certainty: the FOMC will not raise its zero-percent fed funds rate as long as Ben Bernanke remains Federal Reserve chairman. (A trivial 0.25% or 0.50% increase is possible.) Prices of things, particularly of commodities, will keep rising. This is an area to make money.

The Prosecutor’s Brief

In 2006, Bernanke had the excuse of being new to the job, without his predecessor’s experience at judging how every comment would be interpreted and analyzed. In the end, his inexperience with the media was not a disadvantage. (Discussed in the past tense, all of this is just as true today.) He talked in circles, made little sense, but criticism of the Federal Reserve Chairman’s remarks was confined to vocabulary. He could have bellowed his discontinuities of thought, of logic, of basic economics through the public address system before a full house at Yankee Stadium and the financial media would have remained deferential. An instance was his inflation commentary. An abbreviated sequence of Bernankeism follows.

Chairman Bernanke discussed inflation before the Joint Economic Committee on April 27, 2006. He sent written responses to the committee following his testimony. In this take-home exam, the new Fed chairman pronounced “inflation is overstated” and expectations are “well contained.” His contentions were controversial, not for the obvious reason that crude oil prices had risen 50% since the beginning of 2005. Such comparisons between what is real and what Bernanke recites do not interest the media. Again, his economics are illogical. This was the real story, but was not discussed.

Instead, the press and financial TV grew aggressively neurotic when the Federal Reserve issued a statement, on May 10, that inflationary expectations are “contained.” The media was consumed with the distinction from “well contained” in Bernanke’s April 27, 2006, statement.

On June 5, Bernanke, speaking at the IMF, admitted inflation, not inflationary expectations, was a problem. Again this distinction in vocabulary was front page news. Barely discussed were announcements in the same week that mergers and acquisitions for the year had already passed the record level of 2000 ($1.4 trillion), private equity in Europe was “loading companies with a record amount of debt,” and home mortgage debt in the U.S. was increasing at a 12.2% pace (when the national income was rising at a 3% rate).

On June 15, 2006, Bernanke spoke about expectations (not inflation, as he had on June 5). He believed expectations remained within historic ranges, which seemed to be consistent with his May 10 statement, but he was chastised for “giving mixed signals,” maybe because he discussed expectations rather than inflation, though this was not clear, and who cared other than the panting, breaking-news media and the trading desks that might unwind billion-dollar arbitrage positions in reaction to the media’s portrayal of the Fed chairman’s word choice?

On November 28, 2006, he told the National Italian American Foundation that inflation expectations were “contained.” He repeated this assessment on many other occasions. The chairman may have thought his personal contentment would sooth the masses. Whatever the case, Simple Ben applied the formula to any topic that popped into his head. On March 28th, 2007: “At this juncture . . . the impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the subprime markets seems likely to be contained.”

In his November 2006, address to the National Italian American Foundation, Bernanke talked in clichés that had lost all meaning. He would “continue to monitor the incoming data closely.” The FOMC is “prepared to take action to address inflation if developments warrant.” The chairman, at best, made glancing references to what he was monitoring, when the FOMC would take action, and what form the action might take.

Seven months later, in July 2007, Bernanke finally gave a speech devoted to the Federal Reserve’s measurement of inflation: “First, how should the central bank best monitor the public’s inflation expectations?”  Bernanke’s description of the Fed’s methods could not be refuted, since there was nothing to refute: “The Board staff employs a variety of formal models, both structural and purely statistical, in its forecasting efforts. However, the forecasts of inflation (and of other key macroeconomic variables) that are provided to the Federal Open Market Committee are developed through an eclectic process that combines model-based projections, anecdotal and other ‘extra-model’ information, and professional judgment. In short, for all the advances that have been made in modeling and statistical analysis, practical forecasting continues to involve art as well as science.” This means nothing. Dan Quayle was ransacked for misspelling “potato,” yet the media adored Bernanke for sounding like an idiot savant.

He went on to ask critical questions (e.g.: “Do we need new measures of expectations or new surveys?”). There were no answers. Bernanke described some of the inputs to the Fed’s models, but then crushed hopes of those who were trying to understand how the Fed measures expectations: “[T]he model specifications employed differ considerably in their details, including how lagged inflation enters the equation, how resource utilization is measured, and whether a survey-based measure of inflation expectations is included. In principle, formal econometric tests could determine how much weight should be put on the forecast of each model, but in practice the data do not permit sharp inferences….” In the end, he confirmed what Fed skeptics already believed – the Federal Reserve is a Works Project Administration for failed statisticians: “Because of these considerations, as I have already noted, the staff’s inflation forecasts inevitably reflect a substantial degree of expert judgment and the use of information not captured by the models.”

Others disagreed. In April 2007, Harry Landis, 107 years old, a World War I veteran, was interviewed by the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times: Landis had “lived through the invention of airplanes, televisions, interstate highways and cell phones. But the biggest change? ‘Money has decreased in value,’ he said. ‘There is so much more of it.'”

Not according to Simple Ben. On July 10, 2007, Bernanke addressed current inflation, then dismissed it: “The steep run-up in oil prices in recent years has not triggered either high inflation or recession, in large part because consumers and businesses expect price increases to remain tame.” Three days before Bernanke spoke, Lehman Brothers (R.I.P.) released its food ingredients cost index for the first 6 months of 2007. It had risen 14.9%.
The value of stuff was rising against dollars and against paper assets in general. Detachment of prices from previous levels leads to poverty, desperation, and crime.

California suffered a copper crime wave. Irrigation systems were stripped from farms; their replacement had cost $2 billion in 2006, a 400% increase from 2005. Value investors “pulled plaques off cemetery plots, raided air-conditioning systems in schools, yanked catalytic converters from cars.” The copper in a penny was worth more than one cent; the Treasury Department decided melting pennies for the copper was a crime with a sentence of up to five years in jail. In Britain, Monopoly, the board game, cut costs by replacing paper money with a calculator. In the United States, those who lacked formal education knew best: Twenty-two percent with a high school education or less named the economy as the country’s worst problem, compared to eight percent with college degrees. Through history, inflation first attacked the lower classes and not stopped until it consumed the upper classes. This time looks no different.


Frederick Sheehan,
for The Daily Reckoning

[For more of Frederick Sheehan’s perspective you can visit his blogs here and at www.AuContrarian.com. You can also purchase his book, Panderer to Power: The Untold Story of How Alan Greenspan Enriched Wall Street and Left a Legacy of Recession (McGraw-Hill, 2009), here.]