Of the Federal Reserve and Taking from Savers

Ben Bernanke has a blog. You can find it here, courtesy of the Brookings Institution. Of course, what would the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board write about, other than decisions he made as Chairman, and why people who take issue with them are wrong? One would expect no less, and reading the light he sheds on previous decisions—offered in Fedspspeak at the time that they were made—is surely the chief lure of Ben Bernanke’s blog. Allowed to communicate in regular English, not worried about how Fed Watchers might construe or misconstrue everything he says and does not say, Ben is more able to speak his mind clearly.

The former Fed Head chose for his first blog post a vigorous defense of price controls on interest rates. In the process Bernanke demonstrates the assumption that we are safe letting government economists control the economy—an assumption continually disproven by real-world experience.

In fact, as a result of entrusting much of our economic freedom in the United States to government economists, we do not have a free market for interest rates, at least not short term rates, and we pay for that every day. The Federal Reserve sets short term rates in this country, and so far the market has had zero success in moving rates from the near zero interest rate range that the Federal Reserve has decreed and maintained for some years. Keep that in mind the next time you wonder why you earned $1.73 in interest on your savings account last year.

If you borrow money—when you can get a loan—then you might consider yourself lucky. The biggest borrower of all, in the whole world, is the United States Government. Uncle Sam must be feeling very lucky, because he is paying comparatively little on the $18 trillion of U.S. Government debt, increased by another half trillion dollars last year.

If you save money, though, especially for your retirement—and if you have to live off of those savings in retirement—you might not feel so fortunate. By keeping interest rates lower than the market would set them, the Federal Reserve is daily transferring many billions of dollars from savers to the Federal Government. And you thought that only the IRS takes your money.

Let me illustrate with an example. For the last three months of 2014, all of the banks in the United States, all of them together, paid no more than $11 billion to people who had their money in banks. Is that a lot of money? It depends. When that is the interest paid on nearly $12 trillion in deposits, the answer is, no, that is not very much money at all.

Do not blame the banks, though. They are in the saving and lending business, too. Try as they might, with the Federal Reserve controlling interest rates, banks could not pay any more interest to depositors. If a bank did, it would have more money than it could lend as people shifted their deposits where they could get a better return. To pay interest on deposits, banks cannot get much more interest from the loans they make than the Federal Reserve price controls allow, and many relatively good loans present more repayment risk (banks do need to be paid back) than those low interest rates would cover. Low interest earned means low interest paid.

All the banks in the nation have a little over $15 trillion in loans and other assets, on which they earned last year about the same amount as they did five years ago, when they had $2 trillion less in loans and other assets. In an environment of low interest rates, banks have to concentrate their lending on the safest borrowers.

That is how the low interest rates controlled by the Federal Reserve are oppressing the economy. When savers and lenders can only get a few cents on a hundred dollars lent, they place their money with the very safest of borrowers, since they cannot afford to take any losses. Someone who has a really good idea—which like all good ideas may or may not succeed the first time—has trouble getting the money to give his idea a go and hire people to help him try.

Ben Bernanke claims that the Federal Reserve’s near zero interest rate policy—called ZIRP—has been stimulating the economy. If so, where is the stimulation? Why has the recovery been so weak? There has been stimulus, but it has gone primarily to support Federal Government spending and to pay down the debt of the largest and healthiest businesses that can trade in their higher cost loans for the Federal Reserve’s lending bargains. The biggest increases in bank loans have been in Treasury debt and deposits at the Federal Reserve.

Ben Bernanke, in his blog, reminds me of the story of the lawyer representing a client charged with stealing a car and returning it damaged. The lawyer says, first, that his client never had the car; second, that he returned it in perfect condition; and, third, that it was already irreparably damaged when his client took it.

Bernanke begins by explaining that the Federal Reserve does not set interest rates, or that at most its ability to do so is only “transitory and limited.” He pleads that the Fed can only affect short term rates “in the short run.” He does not explain how seven years of ZIRP can be considered the short run. Then he progresses in his blog to describe how the Federal Reserve “influences” interest rates and then how the “Fed’s actions determine” interest rates. His argument, after denying that the Fed can set rates, is that the economy has been so weak that the Fed has had to lower interest rates for the nation’s own good. Bernanke next argues that the economy has remained so troubled (he does not say, despite ZIRP) that the Federal Reserve has had no choice but to continue with ZIRP, concluding that it is the economy after all the forces the Fed to do what it does. Do not blame the Fed Governors, they had no choice but to continue doing what they cannot do because it has not done any good so far. I think you need to have a Ph.D. in economics to make such an argument.

We cannot do it, we did what we had to do, and since it has not helped we cannot stop. I wonder how he reacted to those kind of explanations from his teenagers. Any responsible parent would reply, no, you cannot have the car, give me back the keys.

Of the Rule of Law and the Separation of Powers

In the 1990s I was part of a congressional delegation to Argentina. At that time the Argentine economy was growing strongly and steadily, inflation was low, the currency was pegged to the dollar, convertible 1-for-1. Trade barriers were being lowered, commerce was booming. I recall asking Argentines what could possibly darken what seemed to be a very bright future. They were quick to reply: “Here in Argentina we have no rule of law. You can have no confidence in getting justice from the courts.”

That reminded me of Washington Irving’s observation on a European judge, from his famous work, The Alhambra:

It could not be denied, however, that he set a high value upon justice, for he sold it at its weight in gold.

Not long after that visit, the politics of income redistribution and confiscation threw the Argentine economy into turmoil, where it has remained.

I recently spoke with an economist friend of mine, who was waxing eloquent about the attractive monetary and tax policies in Bulgaria. I remarked that this would probably invite foreign investment. He replied, “No, there is no rule of law there.”

The point is that good economic policy cannot long survive inadequate legal safeguards. Many businesses that made major investments in China, attracted by a market of a billion people, have learned that the lack of a reliable legal and justice system in China has undermined much of the business value they thought to find. A similar story has been holding back investment and economic development in Russia.

Bringing that home, I would venture that concern for changing rules (or even lack of rules)—the substitution of arbitrary bureaucratic powers in Washington over objective rule of law—has been inhibiting more robust investment in the United States, a major cause for our current anemic economic recovery.

An ancient king in the Western Hemisphere, named Mosiah, warned, “because all men are not just it is not expedient that ye should have a king or kings to rule over you.” (Mosiah 29:16) Because men are not consistently just, freedom has historically rested upon rule by law rather than rule by men.

Fundamentally, that was the very reason for the American Revolution. Our revolution was based on the rule of law, an assertion of the rule of law, a response to violations of the rule of law by the English king and parliament. Most of the Declaration of Independence is a lengthy litany of violations of law by the English rulers. The Revolution was designed to take power away from man and men and rest it upon laws and rights, soon to be secured by a written supreme law embodied in the Constitution. Any erosion in the force and effect of the Constitution is an erosion of the rule of law and of the freedoms that rely upon law for their defense.

The Progressive Movement that thrived about a century ago, and found a major advocate in the federal government in President Woodrow Wilson, aggressively proposed an alternative to the rule of law. This program was the Rule of Experts. Their new view—and it really was a very old view though they dressed it up in modern-sounding rhetoric—was that there are Benign People, Experts, who know the process of modern government better than most people do, to whom we can safely yield governing authorities.

It sounds akin to the ancient theory of Divine Right of Kings, that the monarchs of the world are chosen by God and endowed with greater wisdom and perspective than the average man and woman. To their benign expertise and fatherly care was to be entrusted the governance of the rest of us.

The modern Rule of Experts people have much the same view, that these experts were endowed by their universities and other sources of expertise with ability far above that of most, and it would be wise to trust ourselves to their benign care. Not very democratic, and in fact these Benign Experts make no secret of their impatience with the Congress and other constitutional brakes on arbitrary authority.

As King Mosiah wisely pointed out that men are not always just, it is also appropriate to recognize that putting men in government does not make them any more reliably wise than the rest of us. The American Founders thought to address this problem by dividing political power among not only three branches in the Federal Government but also by embracing the federal system of dividing government with the States.

The current regulatory structure and program of the United States rest heavily on the idea that Benign Experts should be entrusted with authority for many of the big questions facing Americans and for many of the much smaller questions, too. That is certainly the structure of the Dodd-Frank Act, to offer one recent, prominent example among many.

Charles Calomiris, of the Columbia University business school, described the theory of the Dodd-Frank Act and related regulations this way:

The implicit theory behind these sorts of initiatives, to the extent that there is a theory, is that the recent crisis happened because regulatory standards were not quite complex enough, because the extensive discretionary authority of bank supervisors was not great enough, and because rules and regulations prohibiting or discouraging specific practices were not sufficiently extensive.
(Charles W. Calomiris, “Meaningful Banking Reform and Why it Is so Unlikely,” VoxEU, January 8, 2013)

This program of federal regulation has been imposed increasingly in contravention of the basic constitutional principle of separation of powers, by merging legislative, executive, and judicial authority in “independent” regulatory agencies. The unelected federal regulator today decides the details and specifics of binding mandates, identifies violators of those regulations, assesses guilt, and applies penalties.

Taken together our current regulatory system, by merging rather than maintaining the separation of powers of the Constitution, is eroding the rule of law. It is returning us to the age old practice of rule by men, with all of the potential for abuse of rights and freedoms, abuses that fill up most of the sadder pages of human history.

During the debate over the creation of the new financial consumer Bureau, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Dodd boasted that with this new agency people would no longer have to come to Congress for the enactment of new consumer laws. The Bureau would take care of all that.

There are serious operational flaws—too often overlooked—in the program of governance by Benign Experts. First, the regulators are not dispassionate umpires, limited to calling the balls and strikes. These umpires are also players in the game, the federal agencies each having their own set of particular interests and incentives that they take care of first.

Second, reliance on Benign Experts assumes an unproven, undemonstrated level of knowledge, insight, and forecasting skills. AEI President Arthur Brooks, in his book, The Battle, provides one of many examples of this flaw:

Federal Reserve economists were still forecasting significant positive growth and moderate unemployment in May and June 2008. They believed that economic growth in 2009 would be 2.4 percent, and unemployment would be 5.5 percent. What we experienced instead was negative growth, double-digit unemployment, and the destruction of at least $50 trillion in worldwide wealth. No one can get the numbers exactly right, to be sure. But getting them this much wrong certainly lends a whole new meaning to the expression ‘margin of error.’
(Arthur C. Brooks, The Battle, p.46)

It is not that regulators are dumber than the rest of the population, but they are no smarter either. The regulatory problems are increasingly too great for any designated group of humans to solve.

Third flaw, mission creep: power attracts power. Even if the tasks are too great, require too much knowledge, insight, foresight, and other skills in unachievable degree, the regulators still take them on, especially if the task increases the reach and influence of the agency.

I offer two examples from an example-rich environment.

Basel III capital rules started from a simple idea, that banks all around the world should be subject to the same capital standards. Capital (the financial cushion a bank carries against losses) is one of the three key elements of sound banking, the other two being liquidity and earnings. These international rules did not remain simple. Developed by an international team of experts from around the world, who labored on them for years, the rules number hundreds of pages, affecting the entire financial structure and business model of a bank, any bank. Congress was not involved and has no particular role in approving the rules. When exposed to public review they attracted thousands of comment letters expressing dismay that they are a bad fit for the U.S. economy. In the end, though, the regulators can go ahead with what they alone think is best.

A second example would be the Federal Reserve. One hundred years ago this year the Fed was created with a specific, identifiable, and rather narrow purpose, to provide liquidity for the banking system in times of financial stress. Before long, the Federal Reserve gained control of monetary policy and built up the practice of controlling interest rates. Later, it was given the task of promoting maximum employment. Under Dodd-Frank the Federal Reserve’s role in supervising banks and bank holding companies was expanded to supervising any financial business considered to be significant for financial stability. Each of these powers has drawn the Federal Reserve away from its narrow, objective task, to broad fields of subjective authority.

Perversely, this expansion of authority into more judgmental areas is eroding the independence of the Federal Reserve, making it yet one more political player in Washington, with responsibilities that far exceed human ability to fulfill, but which reach to every business and every home. The Fed’s prolonged policy of keeping short-term interest rates at or about zero has penalized all who save and live off of their savings, transferring trillions of dollars from savers to borrowers, the biggest borrower being the Federal Government, a policy decided by a small group of Washington experts.

I offer a partial but simple solution to point us back toward strengthening the rule of law and reducing our exposure to the rule of man and men, however expert they might be. Return the lawmaking and the policy decisions to the elected representatives. It is a messy process, but exactly the messy process that the Founders intended to preserve freedom from the encroachment of arbitrary and oppressive government. The regulators, which are theoretically part of the executive branch, should be left with the duty of implementing the laws and policy decisions that the elected and accountable representatives make.

If Congress were required to write the rules and mandates and delegate to the executive agencies only the execution, the mandates of government would be circumscribed by the limitations of a legislative body forced to be directly accountable for what it has wrought. It is easy for legislators to complain about bad regulatory decisions, when all too often these are decisions that Congress never should have delegated to regulators in the first place.

We would still have laws and regulations, but the laws might be more direct and specific, and perhaps fewer and surely smaller. We would probably not have Dodd-Frank Acts that number thousands of pages read by no congressman or Senator, containing a cacophony of half-baked ideas and multiple solutions to the same problem, all left for the regulators to sort out.

And legislators might recall this caution, from Thomas Paine:

Laws difficult to be executed cannot be generally good.
(Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man)

(First published February 17, 2013)