Zero Percent Uber Alles

We are getting a sense of what life is like with the new Fed policy of openness. It means that the chairman tries to beat the world record for the longest, most-boring press conference in modern history. Ben Bernanke is getting even better at that crucial skill of repeatedly saying nothing at great length. The better he gets at this, the longer he is willing to entertain questions from reporters.

They all ask some version of the same question, in any case. It’s the cocktail-hour question asked of every economist: What does the future hold and what should be done about it? The problem is that Bernanke doesn’t know more about the future than the markets know. Actually, looking at the transcripts of the 2006 FOMC meetings, the Fed knows much less than the markets know.

But at least we now know what Bernanke thinks he knows. A short summary of the flurry of news from the Fed yesterday: The economy is still in the tank, it will stay that way for years, interest rates will be held at zero and savers can go to hell.

That last part we can glean from the most-interesting question posed to Bernanke yesterday. Greg Robb of MarketWatch pointed out to him that he has some severe Republican critics. The Fed has been a major issue in the debates and on the campaign trail. Mr. Robb had a theory about why: Many Republican voters lived on fixed incomes that depend on some return on their money. For this crowd, zero interest rates are a disaster. Robbery, really.

Bernanke’s first response was to say that he was not going to involve himself in politics because he “has a job to do.” It is a credit to the press corp that they did not double over in laughter at the ridiculous claim that the Fed’s job has nothing whatever to do with politics! After 100 years of Fed service, it is pretty obvious that the Fed serves two clients: the big banks and the government. The Fed certainly doesn’t serve the class of people who save and invest.

So how did Bernanke deal with the second part of the question? This was interesting. He said that he was very sorry for savers and those who depend on interest income, but they need to understand that they too have a long-term interest in a healthy economy. If investment and productivity are rising, they create the conditions for growth down the line, and surely this is good for everyone.

That’s some crazy kind of circuitous reasoning going on there. It’s a bit like the thief who steals the silverware and then explains to the former owners that a wider distribution of beautiful tableware is surely good for everyone in the long run. Even if you buy the argument, it would be nicer if the owner had some choice in the matter.

And there’s another problem that is so incredibly obvious that no one at the press conference even dared point it out. The problem is that the zero-interest-rate policy has not worked to boost economic growth. What possible basis is there for thinking that two more years of this extermination of the saving class is going to do what the last three years have not done?

Of course, it depends on what you mean by “worked.”

Let’s say that the Fed wants to drive all investors away from government bonds and into riskier instruments in an attempt to artificially boost financial markets. Check.

Let’s say that the Fed wants to punish anyone who wants to sock away money for a rainy day and, instead, prod them into buying more plasma TVs, digital gizmos and summer homes. Check.

And let’s say that the Fed wants to artificially suppress the government’s own costs of borrowing in order to reduce pressure on the political class. Check.

In all these ways, abolishing interest rates works for the Fed and the political elites. But there are at least three downsides.

First, banks depend on interest payments for profitability, and low interest removes the financial incentive for banks to lend money in a normal way. This is why commercial bank loans remain low, with the latest data showing the volume at mid-2007 levels. One might suppose that this is contrary to the Fed’s aims, but it is a price that it is willing to pay.

Second, a low interest rate agenda requires that the Fed try to control not just the short-term rates over which it has the most influence, but also rates across the entire yield curve. This means removing risk premiums on longer-term loans by implicitly guaranteeing bailouts, just like those of 2008-10. This entrenches more moral hazard and drives a wedge between risk and result.

Third, this policy of low rates is similar to — but even worse than — the very policies that created the bubble of the 2000s that burst in 2008 and prompted the worst financial and economic calamity of many generations. The Fed has learned absolutely nothing from even its own most-recent history. If people can’t earn money through interest, financiers will find some other way to market risk, leading to crazy investments schemes and misallocated capital.

As David Malpass writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Near-zero interest rates penalize savers and channel artificially cheap capital to government, big corporations and foreign countries. One of the most fundamental principles of economics is that holding prices artificially low causes shortages. When something of value is free, it runs out fast and only the well-connected get any. Interest rates are the price for credit and shouldn’t be controlled at zero. It causes cheap credit for those with special access but shortages for those without — primarily new and small businesses and those seeking private-sector mortgages.

The big take-away from the Fed’s day in the news is its new policy benchmark of keeping inflation at 2%. This is sheer silliness. There is no such thing as a price level, as even recent CPI releases illustrate. Some prices went up (food, education, health), and some prices went down (oil, software, services). Mash them together and you get a single number that applies to absolutely nothing in particular.

In any case, the Fed can’t control prices in this way. It is always driving while looking in the rearview mirror. When the crash comes, there is nothing the Fed can do about it, despite Bernanke’s repeated promises to rescue the world from any bad effects of his policies.

As Bloomberg’s Caroline Baum says, it’s almost as if the Fed itself has completely forgotten the existence of the “long and variable lag” that separates its policies from their effects. She recalls Milton Friedman’s own analogy of the “fool in the shower” who keeps turning the water from all hot to all cold and wonders why he is either scalded or frozen.

Baum concludes that under Bernanke’s own plan, we would have “eight years of 0% interest rates. There will be a revolution in this country before then if the economy is lousy enough to warrant 0% interest rates for that long.”

Really? One would hope.


Jeffrey Tucker