“This morning came home my fine Camlett cloak, with gold buttons, and a silk suit, which cost me much money, and I pray God to make me able to pay for it.”
— Samuel Pepys, “Diary,” March 22, 1660
Late last month, the most dangerous man in America, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, told the Senate Banking Committee he would not back away from the Fed’s easy money policy, a policy that has kept short-term interest rates near zero since December 2008, and now pumps $85 billion into U.S. Treasury securities and mortgage debt every month.
Coincidentally, $85 billion is the sum total of a year’s worth of sequestration the Republican House forced into place March 1, despite Obama administration warnings that cuts of such magnitude presage a fiscal “Armageddon.” Actually, sequestration, a scheme the administration itself came up with in 2011, does not cut federal spending one dime, as President Obama might put it. It merely lowers, a bit, spending increases in projected federal budgets. Next year, as in every year of the Obama presidency, many hundreds of billions will be added to our current $17 trillion public debt.
But back to Bernanke. “To this point,” he said in prepared remarks, “we do not see the potential costs of the increased risk-taking in some financial markets as outweighing the benefits of promoting a stronger economic recovery and more rapid job creation.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but what benefits have been or are likely to be soon realized?
And what are the potential risks of flooding the economy with cheap dollars?
The economic recovery during Bernanke’s watch is the weakest since the Great Depression. Unemployment is higher now than when his innovative measures to combat it were put in place.
Participation of working-age Americans in the workforce is falling. Too many are giving up hope of ever finding a job, and if their number were added to the official unemployment rate, it would soar to near Depression era levels.
Direct and massive government investment in the ostensibly private sector (e.g., the automotive industry, banks, “green” start-ups, etc.), investment in no small way facilitated by the Fed’s easy money policy, have squandered many billions of dollars.
The business sector, unable to float loans in an understandably risk adverse banking industry, is issuing junk bonds at a rate more than double that preceding the 2008 financial meltdown. The housing industry is recovering, but the recovery is spotty and the threat of another bubble in the making cannot be discounted. Gold has had a good run, both before and after the cheap dollar crowd arrived on the scene, but who knows when an Obama or Obama-like administration in the future might take a page from FDR’s book and make it illegal for Americans to own gold coins and bullion?
Think it couldn’t happen again?
And then there is the stock market. It’s on a roll, to be sure, but adjusted for inflation its current level is far from what it was the last time a “record” was set. In real terms, over the last decade, the market has spun its wheels and returned near zero growth. When the current Wall Street party ends, and it will, the hangover investors are apt to suffer from may well be as monumental as the one they woke up to in 2008.
What’s driving the stock market now? One thing, certainly, is the Fed’s near-zero interest rates. The thrifty, seeing no other place to earn a return on their savings, are putting their money in stocks whose rise has little to do with what once were called market fundamentals, and quite a lot to do with negative real returns on savings in a bank, certificates of deposit (CDs), money market accounts, IRAs, gilt-edged bonds, etc.
These are real people, the thrifty, and what they put aside over a lifetime of saving were real dollars with real purchasing power to pay for retirement, college tuition for their children and grandchildren, money to leave to survivors when their time on earth comes to an end.
These are the forgotten people the administration’s policy to “spread the wealth around,” and the Federal Reserve’s to flood the economy with cheap dollars are hurting.
Whoever dreamed that “spreading the wealth around,” taxing the “rich” and spending as if there were no tomorrow would impact the great American middle class in such a way?
The rich and the poor, we will always have with us.
The thrifty, maybe not.
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.