The Fed’s Easy Money

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The Federal Reserve has heeded calls for more “quantitative easing.” It will create still more high-powered (bank-reserve) money by buying more government bonds. That is a bad policy.

Perhaps untypically, the current recession is not of a sort that more easy money would remedy. A liquidity shortage is not the problem, and worries about actual deflation are curiously short-sighted. Already the banking system could multiply the stock of ordinary bank-account money on the basis of the stock of reserve money already greatly expanded by the Federal Reserve. That could and would happen if bankers and borrowers had confidence in business and regulatory conditions.

Two words used above need explaining. “Recession” means more here than just the downward phase of the business cycle. Even after the economy has hit bottom and has begun recovering, it is still in recession as long as subpar business conditions drag on. This is the popular use of the word. The word “untypically” draws a contrast between the current recession and most earlier ones. Those apparently did trace to a slowdown or reversal of money-supply growth.

Actually, too loose a Federal Reserve policy seems to have figured in the background of the current recession, along with artificial pro-home-ownership policies that contributed to a speculative housing bubble. The latter was a real factor — “real” in a sense contrasting with “monetary” and more fully explained below.

Now, notoriously, businesses and consumers are hanging onto money and near-moneys (cash and equivalents) instead of spending them at a rate that would restore prosperity. The velocity of money — the income to money-supply ratio — has fallen, whatever one plausibly counts as money. This demand to hold money has strengthened only passively, however. Individuals and companies, by and large, are not deliberately restraining their expenditures to build up cash balances they consider inadequate. Instead, they are postponing expenditures for lack of attractive opportunities. Meanwhile, they are left holding cash and equivalents by default.

These sources of uncertainty are real, not just monetary. Real factors explain why some countries are economically advanced and others economically backward.

But why this postponement? Worry about how long a recession will drag on is an old story.  Now, moreover, uncertainty prevails about how government policies will raise business costs and erode job and profit prospects. Health care, financial regulation, cap and trade, various “green” pressures and subsidies, taxes, deficits and debt, widespread economic ignorance, and a perceived hostility toward big business are causes for concern. One hears about this crippling uncertainty from all sides (as from business executives interviewed by Charles Gasparino).

These sources of uncertainty are real, not just monetary. Real factors explain why some countries are economically advanced and others economically backward. These real factors determining production and growth include more than just material ones such as labor supplies and skills, natural resources, and technology. They also include entrepreneurial alertness, competitiveness, mobility of labor and other resources among employments and places, taxes and regulations, and various other institutions and policies that promote or impair intersectoral and intertemporal economic coordination. Real factors determine the “natural rate of unemployment,” the frictional unemployment that persists even during prosperity.

Now, a sound old tenet of monetarism — the monetarism of Warburton, Friedman and Schwartz, Brunner and Meltzer, and others — is that monetary policy cannot remedy real impediments to prosperity and growth (except perhaps only temporarily and unsatisfactorily, as noted below). Far from celebrating any wondrous potentials of monetary policy, monetarism warns about the damage that bad policy can cause and often has caused. It warns against destructive stop-and-go oscillation between fighting unemployment and (belatedly) fighting inflation. Monetary policy should concentrate steadily on what it can do, on preserving the value of money.

Admittedly, a sufficiently expansive monetary policy could offset a fallen velocity of money, even of the present fear-based passive sort. People’s willingness to accept and just hold money is not unlimited. The Federal Reserve could make the economy so awash with money that people would spend it even though they worried about real conditions and because they feared inflation. Banks would activate their ample idle reserves, so creating more money.

The equivalent of Milton Friedman’s metaphor of helicopters dropping bale upon bale of freshly printed money could reinforce the great potential for money creation and spending expansion that already exists. But how unsatisfactorily! More monetary expansion would threaten severe price inflation, causing distortions and discoordinations of its own. At worst the dollar would collapse as foreign central banks unloaded their great holdings of US bonds.

Finding the proper dosage and timing of aggressive monetary expansion would be a hopeless challenge. Already it is hard to see how the Federal Reserve might find an “exit strategy” from its swollen balance sheet.

In summary, easy money (like fiscal “stimulus,” by the way) is no cure for “real” defects of economic structure and policy. Bewailing the lack of jobs, though amply justified, is no diagnosis and no remedy. Lack of a politically easy way to undo bad policies is no excuse for making things worse.

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