September 5, 2021 Reading Time: 10 minutes

When the chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank speaks the financial markets listen, and this was no different with Jerome Powell’s virtual address to the annual meeting of central bankers at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. What they got is what Harry Truman complained about when hearing from his economic advisors: “On the one hand, ‘this,’ but on the other hand, ‘that’.” Truman said that he desperately wanted a one-handed economist.

After a decade of general economic calm most of the time, with modest to reasonable growth, relatively low price inflation, and, at the beginning of 2020 before the Coronavirus lockdowns, unemployment at its lowest level in half a century, everyone is now worried about what to expect from the Federal Reserve in terms of monetary and interest rate policy in the months and years ahead in the face of all that has been happening for the last year and a half.

Whipsaw GDP and Huge Government Expenditures

After a staggering decline in real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from $19.2 trillion in the fourth quarter of 2019 to $17.2 trillion in the second quarter of 2020, or a 9 percent decrease of real GDP in a matter of a few months, the latest revised estimate by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) for the second quarter of 2021 is that real GDP reached $19.36 trillion. This was a 12.5 percent increase over its 2020 low, and a level now above its pre-Coronavirus high.

It is worth keeping in mind, however, that all of these numbers are exaggerated in terms of real private sector vibrancy because in 2019, federal government expenditures came to $4.45 trillion, or 23 percent of that $19.2 trillion GDP total. By the end of 2020, due to the relaxing of the federal and state lockdown and shutdown mandates over much of the U.S. economy in the second half of last year, real GDP had recovered to $18.76 trillion, but federal government expenditures came to $6.6 trillion, or 35 percent of that total GDP. And just in the first half of 2021, out of that $19.36 trillion GDP, federal spending has already been $5.86 trillion of that total, or 30.2 percent.

If government spending is even partly discounted from GDP as a false indicator of the economic “health” of the U.S., since Uncle Sam has nothing to spend other than what it either first taxes away from the private sector or has borrowed from the financial markets, the private economy is far from doing as well as the GDP numbers suggest.

Lagging Unemployment and Rising Price Inflation

After unemployment had reached a low of 3.5 percent of the labor force at the start of 2020, it rose to almost 15 percent in April of last year, due to the government-commanded halt of a huge amount of economic activity. In July 2021, unemployment had declined to 5.4 percent of the labor force; but this still left it almost 55 percent above its low at the beginning of 2020. 

After the Consumer Price Index (CPI) mostly fluctuated in a relatively narrow range of between one and two percent, annually, over the last ten years, 2021 has seen the CPI increase to 5.4 percent in July of this year. Certain subgroups, such as energy and used car automotive sectors increased in double digit ranges on an annualized basis.    

With unemployment still considered high, with the CPI increasing noticeably above the decade-long annual average, and question marks concerning how GDP will grow for the remainder of this year, given continuing supply-chain disruptions and uncertainties about the impact of variations and new mutations of the Coronavirus, all eyes and ears turned to Jerome Powell’s pronouncements about the future direction of Federal Reserve monetary and interest rate policy.

Powell’s Maybe This, Maybe That, Policy Pronouncement

And what he said was that the Federal Reserve Board of Governors has not decided what to do! On the one hand, the economy is improving so, perhaps, before the end of the year, the Fed will reduce its current monthly purchase of $120 billion worth of assets – $80 billion of U.S. government securities, and $40 billion of mortgage-backed securities. And it may decide that it is time to no longer use its policy tools to keep key interest rates close to zero.

On the other hand, recent price inflation may only be a transitory spurt due to supply-side problems, so the concern about accelerating price increases may be misplaced. Therefore, it may be premature to reduce asset purchases too quickly and certainly it is necessary to be cautious in any nudging up of interest rates that might cut short the national economic recovery before unemployment has been reduced, once again, to a level closer to standard benchmarks of “full employment.”

On the one hand, the worst of the Coronavirus may have passed, so there may be no new shutdown hurdles in the way of continuing improvement as reflected in the usual macroeconomic measurements. On the other hand, virus variants may prevent a smooth path to a fully restored and growing economy. So, it may be too soon to really specify when and by how much asset purchases will be reduced or by how much those interest rates will be raised from their current near zero levels.

The Fed Chairman also said that, on the one hand, the Fed leadership has plenty of experience and policy tools to keep the economy on a sound and even path. On the other hand, such things as the impact of the Coronavirus and the threats facing the world from global warming are unique, making charting the Fed policy course a distinct challenge.

Powell’s Reticence and the Political Business Cycle

In other words, Jerome Powell evaded any straightforward policy program, and therefore offered something for almost everyone, in terms of easing fears and concerns that either the policy foot will stay too long where it is on the accelerator or will start putting on the brakes too quickly. Either he is being reticent due to honest doubts about what he thinks is ahead for the economy, or he knows how to play to the audience in the White House and in Congress who will decide whether or not he is appointed for a second term as chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. After all, you don’t want to seem to be planning any clear policy moves that might threaten the reelection of Senators or Congressmen in the 2022 elections, or antagonize a president who does not want to lose his thin majority in the national legislature.

That politicians and central bankers are sensitive to the phases of the business cycle as they may impact the political electoral cycle in thinking about their policy decisions and directions has been understood by some economists at least since Johan Akerman’s (1896-1982) analysis of the “Political Economic Cycle” (Kyklos, May 1947), in which he traced out observed changes in those running governments in democratic societies resulting from the phases in the business cycle, and how those in government attempt to manage public policy to maintain their political positions.

Historically, Akerman said, looking over the period from the mid-19th century to 1945 in countries like Great Britain, the United States, Germany, and Sweden, the result of the analysis could be summarized in the following way: “All general economic depressions in England . . . lead to cabinet crises and a change of the party in power . . . In the United States the presidential elections as a rule involve a change in party control when votes are cast during a depression and a maintenance of the party in office when the votes are cast during periods of prosperity,” in sixteen of the twenty elections between 1865 and 1945.

Governments, Akerman also pointed out, try “to stabilize financial and economic conditions, and for a brief period may succeed in doing so.” While not pursuing it in his article, the fact is that the underlying circumstances that create “booms” that result in “busts” are usually of the government’s own policy. making. The “good times” monetary and fiscal policies finally create the economic crises that threaten the political policy-makers’ positions in authority. Hence, a government’s frequent demise in the next election when a recession or depression finally occurs. (p. 107)

Interest Rates Should Coordinate Savings and Investment

But this gets to the real essence of the dilemma in Jerome Powell’s statement of Federal Reserve policy and its possible future direction. The underlying presumption is that a central bank can and should be attempting to manage the monetary system and the level of interest rates in the financial markets and, therefore, trying to macro-manage the society as a whole.

Let us start with interest rates. The role of market prices is to bring into coordinated balance the two sides of demand and supply. Prices do so by effectively informing those needing to know on the supply side what is it that demanders want and the value they place upon it in terms of what they are willing to pay to get it; prices, at the same time, inform demanders what suppliers can and are willing to produce and offer for sale, and at what price reflecting the producer’s opportunity costs of bringing a particular good or service to market. The competitive interaction of those two sides of the market brings about the balance between them.

The role of interest rates is to do the same for borrowers and lenders. It is the trading of the use of resources across time between those who are interested and willing to defer the more immediate use of resources (expressed in money) in their possession or under their control, in return for a premium in the future from those interested in more immediate uses of those resources beyond their own capacity in exchange for paying such a premium in the future. That premium is the rate of interest, which may vary with the duration of the loan and risk elements in extending it.

The role of the rate of interest is to coordinate the willingness of savers with the desires of borrowers. Any rate of interest above or below this results in, respectively, an excess of savings over investment demand or an excess of investment demand over available savings.

Manipulating Interests Rates Distorts Markets

The crucial difference between a price, say, for hats that is set below the market-clearing, or coordinating, level is that a shortage results with some willing buyers leaving the market empty-handed; but when the Federal Reserve, or any central bank, wishes to manipulate interest rates below the market coordinating level, it fills the gap with newly created money with which loans may be extended in excess of actual savings in the economy.

This not only results in an increase in the number of units of the medium of exchange through which buyers can express their greater demand for desired goods and services, tending, in general, to place upward pressure on overall market prices. It also influences the structure of relative prices and wages, since increases in the supply of money can only enter the economy through the increased demand for the particular goods, resources, and services those borrowers of that new money wish to purchase and use. But the money is then passed to another group of hands; that is, those who have sold those goods, resources and services to the borrowers. This second group, in turn, spends the new money that they have received from sales on other goods, resources and services for which they wish to increase their demand.

Step-by-step, in a patterned sequence through time, the newly created money increases the demands and the prices of one set of goods and services, and then another, and then another, until, finally, in principle, all prices for finished goods and the factors of production will have been impacted to one degree or another, at different times in the sequence, with changes in relative profit margins and employment opportunities for as long as the monetary inflationary process continues.

This also means that whenever the monetary expansion stops or slows down, or even, perhaps, fails to accelerate, the resulting patterned use of labor, resources, and capital equipment brought into existence due to the way the money has entered into the economy and is being spent, period-after-period, begins to fall apart. This precipitates a readjustment process during which it is discovered that labor, capital and resources have been directed into allocated and applied for uses that are unsustainable once the inflationary process comes to an end.

The Fed’s Monetary Expansion and Bank Reserve Tricks

For over ten years, since the financial and housing crisis of 2008-2009, the Federal Reserve has been dramatically expanding the money supply. In January 2008, the Monetary Base (loanable reserves in the banking system plus currency in general circulation) equaled $837 billion; by August 2014, the Monetary Base had been expanded to over $4 trillion. In February 2020, just before the Coronavirus crisis impacted the U.S. in terms of the government mandated lockdowns and shutdowns, it still was historically high at $3.45 trillion; but by July 2021, the Monetary Base stood at $6.13 trillion, or a nearly 78 percent increase just in the last year and a half.

Why has there not been the expected general price inflation from such a huge increase in the money supply through the banking system? Because the Federal Reserve has been paying banks not to fully lend the loanable reserves at their disposal. As a result, as of July 2021, banks were holding “excess reserves,” (that is, reserves above the minimum Federal Reserve rules require banks to hold against possible cash withdrawals by their depositors), of around $3.9 trillion, upon which the Federal Reserve pays those banks an interest rate of 0.15 percent. In other words, 63 percent of the Monetary Base is being held off the active loan market.

Given that real GDP in the United States has increased by over 25 percent since 2010, and the velocity of circulation of money (number of times money turns over in transactions per period of time), has decreased by almost 40 percent over the last ten years or so, it is not too surprising that prices in general have not been rising more, or more rapidly, given these countervailing factors, plus the Federal Reserve’s “trick” of paying banks to not lend all the huge amount of bank reserves their open market operations have created during the past decade.

Markets Still Distorted, Even with Low Price Inflation

It is nonetheless the case, that through its continuing large purchases of U.S. treasuries and mortgage-backed securities, market interest rates have been artificially pushed significantly below any rates of interest that would prevail on financial markets not manipulated in this manner.

It is not unreasonable to ask what informational role market interest rates have been even playing about the real underlying savings and investment borrowing relationship in the economy in such a setting. Federal Reserve monetary and interest rate policy has undermined any reasonably accurate intertemporal price to coordinate saving with borrowing.

Another way of saying this is that the Federal Reserve’s monetary central planning has virtually abolished a market-based pricing system for the allocation and use of resources across time. How can anyone easily know what real savings is available to fund investment and other loan uses in a way that is not throwing the economy out of serious balance?

In the name of trying to steer the economic “ship” to assure growing GDP, moderate price inflation, and “full employment” of the labor force, Jerome Powell and his fellow Fed Board members are, in fact, setting the stage for an eventual economic downturn by distorting a series of interconnected “microeconomic” relationships in the name of “macroeconomic” stability.

When the Fed chairman cautiously suggests that the American central bankers are not sure what they are going to do, it is because they cannot do what they say they want to do. By trying to pursue their declared goals through the monetary and interest rate policy tools at their disposal, they are, in fact, continuing to imbalance and wrongly “twist” the real economy in ways that will result in the instability, and the eventual recession and likely price inflation they say they wish to prevent.

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Ebeling lived on AIER’s campus from 2008 to 2009.

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