The Fed vs. the Recovery

Ben Bernanke explained that the rational for the second round of quantitative easing was to provide "additional monetary accommodation to expand the Federal Reserve's holdings of longer-term securities" and attempted to bring down the cost of borrowing. However, the bond market reacted by raising rates instead of lowering them.

by Alan Reynolds
August 26, 2011

One year ago, on Aug. 27, 2010, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke explained the rationale for a second round of quantitative easing. "A first option for providing additional monetary accommodation is to expand the Federal Reserve's holdings of longer-term securities," he said, thereby supposedly "bringing down term premiums and lowering the costs of borrowing."

Yet the bond market promptly reacted by raising long-term interest rates. The yield on 10-year Treasurys, which was 2.57% at the time of his Jackson Hole, Wyo., address, climbed to 3.68% by February 2011 and did not dip below 3% until late June when QE2 was coming to an end. The price of West Texas crude oil, which was $72.91 a year ago, remained above $100 from March to mid-June and did not come down until QE2 ended and the dollar stopped falling.

When Mr. Bernanke spoke, the price of a euro was less than $1.27. By the week ending June 10, 2011, 15 days before QE2 ended, the dollar was down about 15% (a euro cost $1.46). In that same week, The Economist commodity-price index was up 50.9% from a year earlier in dollars—but only 22.8% in euros. How could paying much more than Europe did for imported oil, industrial commodities, equipment and parts make U.S. industry more competitive?

The chart nearby subtracts the contribution of government purchases (such as hiring and construction) from real GDP growth to gauge the growth of the private economy. The generally negative contribution of government purchases (column two) does not mean government spending has slowed, as some contend. Instead it reflects the fact that federal and state spending has been increasingly dominated by transfer payments (such as Medicaid, food stamps and unemployment benefits) which do not contribute to GDP, and in some cases reduce GDP by discouraging work.

The chart also shows that growth of private GDP was also much faster before QE2 than it has been since, and the increase in producer prices (i.e., U.S. business costs) was much more moderate. And that is no coincidence.

Former Obama adviser Christina Romer, writing in the New York Times in late May, said that "a weaker dollar means that our goods are cheaper relative to foreign goods. That stimulates our exports and reduces our imports. Higher net exports raise domestic production and employment. Foreign goods are more expensive, but more Americans are working."

Well, foreign goods certainly did become more expensive during the second round of quantitative easing, but it is doubtful that "more Americans are working" as a result. Industrial supplies and materials accounted for 34.5% of U.S. imported goods so far this year, according to the Census Bureau, and capital equipment and parts accounted for an additional 23%. As Fed policy pushed the dollar down, higher prices for imported inputs such as oil, metals and cotton meant higher costs (producer prices) for U.S. manufacturing and transportation.

In demand-side theorizing, monetary stimulus means the Fed buys more bonds. The Treasury has certainly been selling a lot of bonds, and the Fed has been buying (monetizing) a huge share of those bonds. That helped push the broad M2 money supply up at a 6.8% rate over the past six months. Yet the only thing we have to show for all that stimulus over the past year has been rapid inflation of producer prices and a simultaneous slowdown in the growth of the private economy. Consumer price inflation also accelerated to 5.2% in the first quarter and 4.1% in the second, from just 1.4% in the third quarter of 2010.

Imported goods did indeed become more expensive while the dollar was falling, rising at a 15.1% annual rate over the past three quarters according to the government's report on GDP. But exported U.S. goods also became more expensive, rising at an 11.4% rate over that same period.

The fourth column in the chart shows that net exports were a subtraction from GDP in early 2010 when the private economy was growing most briskly, thus raising the demand for imported materials and components. The rise of dollar commodity costs and producer prices in the wake of QE2 reduced the growth of real imports because it reduced the growth of real GDP.

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