John Hussman is always worth reading, and his current missive is a hum-dinger. I’m extracting some key bits below, and urge you to read it in full.
Note that Hussman is far from alone in chiding the Fed for encroaching on Constitutionally-mandated budget processes, including former central bankers. From Willem Buiter:
As regards democratic accountability for the use of public funds, even if the central bank has sufficient capital to weather the capital losses it suffers on its holdings of private securities, the central bank should never put itself into the position of becoming an active quasi-fiscal player, nor a debt collector. The ex-post transfers or subsidies involved in writing down or writing off private assets are (quasi-) fiscal actions that ought to be decided by and accounted for by the fiscal authorities. The central bank can act as a fiscal agent for the government. It should not act as a fiscal principal, outside the normal accountability framework.
The Fed can deny and has denied information to the Congress and to the public that US government departments like the Treasury cannot withold . The Fed has been stonewalling requests for information about the terms and conditions on which it makes its myriad facilities available to banks and other financial institutions. It even at first refused to reveal which counterparties of AIG had benefited from the rescue packages (now around$170 bn with more to come) granted this rogue investment bank masquerading as an insurance company. The toxic waste from Bear Stearns balance sheet has been hidden in some SPV in Delaware.
The opaqueness of the financial operations of the Fed in support of the financial sector (which are expanding in scale and scope at an unprecedented rate) and the lack of accountability for the use of tax payers’ resources that it entails, threaten democratic accountability. Even if it enhances financial stability, which I doubt, democratic legitimacy and accountability are damaged by it, and that is too high a price to pay.
From Hussman (hat tip reader Scott):
Given that interest rates are already quite depressed, Bernanke seems to be grasping at straws in justifying QE2 on the basis further slight reductions in yields. As for Bernanke’s case for creating wealth effects via the stock market, one might look at this logic and conclude that while it may or may not be valid, the argument is at least the subject of reasonable debate. But that would not be true. Rather, these are undoubtedly among the most ignorant remarks ever made by a central banker.
Let’s do the math.
Historically, a 1% increase in the S&P 500 has been associated with a corresponding change in GDP of 0.042% in the same year, 0.035% the next year, and has negative correlations with GDP growth thereafter (sufficient to eliminate any effect on the long-run level of GDP). Now, even if one assumes – counter to reasonable analysis – that the GDP changes are caused by the stock market changes (rather than stocks responding to the economy), the potential benefit to the economy of even a 10% market advance would be to increment GDP growth by less than half of one percent for a two year period.
Now, as of last week, the total capitalization of the U.S. stock market was at about the same as the level as nominal GDP ($14.7 trillion). So a market advance of say, 10% – again, even assuming that stock prices cause GDP – would result in $1.47 trillion of market value, and a cumulative but temporary increment to GDP that works out to $11.3 billion dollars divided over two years. Moreover, even if profits as a share of GDP were to hold at a record high of 8%, and these profits were entirely deliverable to shareholders, the resulting one-time benefit to corporate shareholders would amount to a lump sum of $904 million dollars. In effect, Ben Bernanke is arguing that investors should value a one-time payout of $904 million dollars at $1.47 trillion. Virtuous circle indeed.
One of the main reasons that stock market fluctuations have such a limited impact on real output is because investors correctly perceive these fluctuations as impermanent – particularly when they are detached from proportional changes in long-term fundamentals. Recall that the primary source of the recent financial crisis was excessive debt expansion, consumption, and speculative housing investment. Consumers observed persistently rising home prices, and inferred that they were “wealthy” enough to shift their consumption forward by borrowing against that perceived “wealth.” A key to this dynamic was the fact that U.S. home prices had never experienced a sustained decline during the post-war period, so the increases in housing wealth were indeed viewed as permanent. As Milton Friedman and Franco Modigliani demonstrated decades ago, consumers consider their “permanent income” – not transitory year-to-year fluctuations – when they make their consumption decisions.
Rising home prices were further promoted by a combination of lax credit standards, perverse incentives for loan origination, a weak regulatory environment, and a Federal Reserve that sat so firmly on short-term interest rates that investors felt forced to reach for yield by purchasing whatever form of slice-and-dice mortgage obligation the financial engineers could dream up. Rising home values provoked more debt origination, and even higher prices. What seemed like a “virtuous circle” was ultimately nothing but an overpriced speculative bubble with devastating consequences….
It is difficult to interpret Bernanke’s defense of QE2 as anything else but an attempt to replace the recent bubble with yet another – to drive already overvalued risky assets to further overvaluation in hopes that consumers will view the “wealth” as permanent. The problem here is that unlike housing, which consumers had viewed as immune from major price declines, investors have observed two separate stock market plunges of over 50% each, within the past decade alone. While investors have obviously demonstrated an aptitude for ignoring risk over short periods of time, it is a simple fact that raising the price of a risky asset comes at the sacrifice of lower long-term returns, except when there is a proportional increase in the long-term stream cash flows that can be expected from the security.
As a result of Bernanke’s actions, investors now own higher priced securities that can be expected to deliver commensurately lower long-term returns, leaving their lifetime “wealth” unaffected, but exposing them to enormous risk of price declines over the intermediate (2-5 year) horizon. This is not a basis on which consumers are likely to shift their spending patterns….
To a large extent, the Fed has assumed the role of creating financial bubbles because we have allowed it. The proper role of the Federal Reserve, and where its actions can be clearly effective, is to provide liquidity to the banking system in periods of financial stress or constraint, by replacing Treasury bonds held by the public with currency and bank reserves. But to expect the Fed to somehow bring about full employment is misguided. To believe that changing the mix of government liabilities in the economy (monetary policy) is a more important determinant of inflation than the total quantity of those liabilities (fiscal policy) is equally misguided…
We are betting on the wrong horse. When the Fed acts outside of the role of liquidity provision, it does more harm than good. Worse, we have somehow accepted a situation where the Fed’s actions are increasingly independent of our democratically elected government. Bernanke’s unsound leadership has placed the nation’s economic stability on two pillars: inflated asset prices, and actions that – in Bernanke’s own words – should be “correctly viewed as an end run around the authority of the legislature” (see below).
The right horse is ourselves, and the ability of our elected representatives to create an economic environment that encourages productive investment, research, development, infrastructure, and education, while avoiding policies that promote speculation, discourage work, or defend reckless lenders from experiencing losses on bad investments.
There is a great deal more thoughtful material in Hussman’s newsletter, which you can read here.