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Bernanke rolls the dice

By       Message Mike Whitney     Permalink
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Ben Bernanke's speech on Friday in Boston could turn out to be a real barnburner. In fact, there's a good chance the Fed chairman will announce changes in policy that will stun Wall Street and send tremors through Capital Hill. Along with another trillion or so in quantitative easing (QE), Bernanke is likely to appeal to congress for a second round of fiscal stimulus, this time in the form of a two-year suspension of the payroll tax. That's what he figures it will take to jump-start spending and rev-up the flagging economy. It could be the most radical intervention in history; Bernanke's version of "shock and awe".

Bernanke laid out the details in a speech he gave in May 2003 to the Japan Society of Monetary Economics, in which he outlined the policies Japan should enact to beat deflation. Here's what he said:

"Rather than proposing the more familiar inflation target, I suggest that the BOJ consider adopting a price-level target, which would imply a period of reflation to offset the effects on prices of the recent period of deflation. Second, I would like to consider an important institutional issue, which is the relationship between the condition of the Bank of Japan's balance sheet and its ability to undertake more aggressive monetary policies.... Finally, and most important, I will consider one possible strategy for ending the deflation in Japan: explicit, though temporary, cooperation between the monetary and the fiscal authorities."

There it is. Bernanke is planning to reflate asset prices, purchase more government bonds, and enlist congress's support to pump liquidity into the broader economy. It's an ambitious strategy that could push the dollar over the edge, but the alternatives are equally bleak. Bernanke knows that "at best" GDP will hover around 1 to 2% through 2011 while the public grows increasingly restless about soaring unemployment. He also knows that--when interest rates are stuck at zero--the only way the central bank can zap the economy back to life is by increasing inflation expectations. That means, the Fed has to persuade people they've "lost it" and are planning to destroy the currency via the printing presses. It's all baloney. The Fed won't destroy the dollar. They just want to use the element of surprise to give the economy a good jolt. Gold bugs think the Fed is steering the country towards hyperinflation, but they're mistaken. It's all part of a larger calculation.

Bernanke may be a died-in-the-wool class warrior, but he's no moron. His policies are designed to overshoot in order to change expectations and get consumers out of their funk. He even says so in the speech. Here's a clip:

"A concern that one might have about price-level targeting, as opposed to more conventional inflation targeting, is that it requires a short-term inflation rate that is higher than the long-term inflation objective."

The only way to stimulate economic activity is to convince people that the dollar they presently have in their pockets will be worth less tomorrow. That's what puts the Jones' back into the minivan scuttling off to the mall. But what seems like profligate spending on the Fed's part, (QE) is really just a way of restoring the precrisis price level. Call it asset inflation if you want, but the bottom line is, Bernanke is not going to sit back while disinflation turns to deflation, the real value of personal debts rise, and the bankruptcies, defaults and foreclosures continue to mount. He's going to pull out all the stops and carpetbomb the economy with monetary and fiscal stimulus. Here's how Bernanke lays out his thesis:

"One possible approach to ending deflation in Japan would be greater cooperation, for a limited time, between the monetary and the fiscal authorities. Specifically, the Bank of Japan should consider increasing still further its purchases of government debt, preferably in explicit conjunction with a program of tax cuts or other fiscal stimulus."

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Good. So Bernanke realizes that he can't go it alone. He has to get congress on board if he wants to succeed. (which is probably why the Fed's meeting was scheduled after the midterms)

Bernanke again: ... "Consider for example a tax cut for households and businesses that is explicitly coupled with incremental BOJ purchases of government debt--so that the tax cut is in effect financed by money creation. Moreover, assume that the Bank of Japan has made a commitment, by announcing a price-level target, to reflate the economy, so that much or all of the increase in the money stock is viewed as permanent.

Under this plan, the BOJ's balance sheet is protected by the bond conversion program, and the government's concerns about its outstanding stock of debt are mitigated because increases in its debt are purchased by the BOJ rather than sold to the private sector. Moreover, consumers and businesses should be willing to spend rather than save the bulk of their tax cut: They have extra cash on hand, but--because the BOJ purchased government debt in the amount of the tax cut--no current or future debt service burden has been created to imply increased future taxes. Essentially, monetary and fiscal policies together have increased the nominal wealth of the household sector, which will increase nominal spending and hence prices."

This is truly radical, but it could work. And, the quickest way to engage the policy would be by slashing the payroll tax which would, in effect, give every working man and woman in the country a raise in pay.

Bernanke's comments are also a tacit admission that the banking system is still dysfunctional and cannot provide the credit needed for the next expansion, so he is bypassing the privately-owned system altogether and transferring money to consumers directly. Naturally, this will have a positive effect on spending and on any prospects for a recovery.

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The cagey Bernanke has even concocted the public relations rationale for fending off the deficit hawks who will undoubtedly point to his plan as an example of wasteful government spending.

Bernanke: "Isn't it irresponsible to recommend a tax cut, given the poor state of Japanese public finances? To the contrary, from a fiscal perspective, the policy would almost certainly be stabilizing, in the sense of reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio. The BOJ's purchases would leave the nominal quantity of debt in the hands of the public unchanged, while nominal GDP would rise owing to increased nominal spending. Indeed, nothing would help reduce Japan's fiscal woes more than healthy growth in nominal GDP and hence in tax revenues.....More generally, by replacing interest-bearing debt with money, BOJ purchases of government debt lower current deficits and interest burdens and thus the public's expectations of future tax obligations."

The Bernanke plan seems to do everything except whiten teeth. But wouldn't it make more sense to restructure the banking system so the toxic assets can be removed and the banks can lend freely again? And wouldn't it be better to strengthen labor unions (so that wages keep pace with productivity) so workers can generate sufficient demand to keep the economy running smoothly without panicky injections of emergency stimulus? Of course, that would mean a truce in the ongoing class war which wouldn't fly with uppercrust plutocrats who take joy in seeing the unemployment lines wind from one side of the country to the other.

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Mike is a freelance writer living in Washington state.

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