Central Bank Power And Its Limit

But companies are not hiring, consumers are not spending, governments are sinking deeper into debt, and American workers are abandoning fruitless job searches in droves, despite years of effort by those same central bankers to make things better. That’s where central bank power meets its limit.

The European Central Bank and its U.S. counterpart, the Federal Reserve, can create money and put it into circulation by lending it out. This, combined with their ability to set target levels of interest rates – in effect controlling the price of money they create – is how central banks affect our daily lives. When money is too scarce and expensive, economic activity is choked off. When money is cheap and plentiful, consumers and businesses are supposed to be able to borrow and spend freely, stimulating demand and creating jobs. But too much money circulating too rapidly breeds inflation. Central bankers try to achieve a balance.

The system is not working very well right now.

On both sides of the Atlantic, governments have developed enormous appetites for low-cost money, which only the central banks, using their ability to create funds out of thin air and lend at whatever price they choose, can satisfy.

In normal times, governments that run budget deficits simply issue bonds that pay a fair rate of interest, and investors – ranging from private citizens to foreign central banks – buy the bonds, because they believe that a well-run government presiding over a healthy economy will be able to repay the money. When confidence in government creditworthiness falters, investors demand higher interest rates, or they take their money elsewhere.

This is what happened in Greece, Ireland and Portugal before they sought bailouts from their eurozone partners. It is what is still happening in Spain, which has so far asked for limited assistance for its banking sector, and in Italy, which has thus far not asked for assistance. Italy and Spain are the third- and fourth-largest euro economies, after Germany and France. Providing major assistance to them is beyond the resources of every existing institution except the ECB.

So it was big news when ECB President Mario Draghi declared last week that his bank is prepared to buy unlimited quantities of Spanish, Italian and other government bonds in order to keep government borrowing costs low. Draghi promised that the central bank would “sterilize” this massive intervention by withdrawing similar amounts of cash elsewhere in the financial system in order to prevent inflation. He also said that, in order to benefit from the artificially low rates the bank will produce, countries will have to request assistance from Europe’s financial rescue fund. The fund will have the power to impose budget austerity and demand economic reforms that national parliaments have been reluctant to produce on their own.

“We say that the euro is irreversible,” Draghi said. “So unfounded fears of reversibility are just that – unfounded fears.”

But, as Bloomberg reported, Draghi also offered a realistic assessment of the central bank’s power in insisting that governments will have to undertake reforms to make the effort to save the euro work. “There is no intervention by the central bank, by any central bank, that is actually effective without concurrent policy actions by the government,” he said.

It is not clear that Ben Bernanke and his colleagues at the Federal Reserve agree. In the wake of a dispiriting August jobs report, the bank’s policy-making Federal Open Market Committee is expected to announce, after the committee meets this week, additional steps to try to stimulate hiring. My guess is that these steps will involve the Fed purchasing longer-term Treasury bonds and possibly other instruments, such as mortgage-backed securities, in what would be the third round of major financial stimulus since the financial crash four years ago. Financial analysts have expected these steps, which they have already dubbed “QE3” (for “quantitative easing”) for months, and Bernanke signaled at a recent financial conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo., that he was preparing to act on further signs of hiring weakness. Friday’s jobs report was probably all he needed to pull the trigger.

Bernanke and his allies on the Fed seem to believe that they have to take action, despite the obvious signs that already ultra-low interest rates are not having the desired effect. Unfortunately, our problem is not that interest rates are too high, so the solution does not lie in reducing interest rates further.

Granted, record-low mortgage rates are helping the housing market find a bottom and even begin to recover in some cities. But the effect has been small, because so few people can actually get mortgages. Banks have heard the “no more bailouts” message loud and clear from politicians of both parties. Almost any loan officer in America will tell you that, public statements to the contrary, most financial institutions want to lend in only the most bulletproof situations, to borrowers who are the least likely to ever default. The banks probably have good reason to fear second-guessing by regulators if they loosen their standards, and they also have a lot of unhappy experience trying to foreclose on defaulted borrowers with imperfect paperwork.

The same is true for commercial loans to small businesses. Despite very low stated interest rates, many borrowers cannot get money. Businesses that need capital to expand can’t get it. Businesses that have capital in the form of big cash reserves don’t put it to use, because they have no confidence about future demand.

So most of the cheap credit the Federal Reserve is providing goes to the Treasury, where it funds our $16 trillion in accumulated debt at the lowest possible cost. Like the ECB, the Federal Reserve can use its power of money creation to ensure that our government never defaults on its debt, but it does not have the power – short of allowing a default – to force politicians to make good policy choices.

The situation reminds me of a leaky ship, with the central banks acting as pumps that get the water out of the bilges. The pumps buy time that can be used to make needed repairs. But if you don’t fix the leaks, they just get bigger. Eventually the ship goes down. No pump in the world has the power to prevent it.

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About Larry M. Elkin 564 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

Visit: Palisades Hudson

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