Why Federal Reserve ‘really’ wants to go slow on money printing

ben bernankeVivek Kaul 
Over the last few months, there has been talk about the Federal Reserve of United States, the American central bank, wanting to slowdown its money printing and gradually doing away with it altogether.
Every month the Federal Reserve prints $85 billion and puts that money into the American financial system, by buying bonds of different kinds. The idea is that with enough money floating around in the financial system, the interest rates will continue to remain low.
At lower interest rates people are more likely to borrow and spend more. And this in turn will help economic growth, which has been faltering, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, which started in late 2008.
Some economic growth has returned lately. Recently the GDP growth for the period of three months ending June 30, 2013, 
was revised to 2.5% from the earlier 1.7%. But even an economic growth of 2.5% is not enough, primarily because the country needs to make up for the slow economic growth that it has experienced over the past few years.
The fear is that with all the money floating around in the financial system, too much money will start chasing too few goods, and finally lead to high inflation. But that hasn’t happened primarily because even at low interest rates, borrowing has been slow. Hence, what economists call the velocity of money (or how fast money changes hands) has been low. Given this, inflation has been low. Consumer price inflation in the United States, for the period 
of twelve months ending June 2013, stood at 1.3%.
The rate of inflation is well below the inflation target of 2% that the Federal Reserve is comfortable with. So if inflation isn’t really a concern, and the economic growth is still not good enough, why is the Federal Reserve in a hurry to go slow on printing money?
As Gary Dorsch, the 
Editor – Global Money Trends newsletter, writes in his latest column “The fragile US-economy might find itself sinking into a full blown recession by the first quarter of 2014. However, the Fed’s determination to start scaling down QE-3 is essentially in reaction to the demands of the Bank of International Settlements (BIS), – the central bank of the world – which says it is time to rethink US-monetary policy. The BIS argues that blowing even bigger bubbles in the US-stock market can do more harm to the US-economy than the old enemy of high inflation. Thus, going forward, the costs of continuing with QE now exceed the benefits.”
Quantitative easing or QE is the technical term that economists have come up with for money printing that is happening across different parts of the western world.
What Dorsch has written needs some detailed examination. The argument for keeping the money printing going has been that it has not led to any serious inflation till now, so let us keep it going. While inflation may not have cropped up in everyday life, it has turned up somewhere else. A lot of the money printed by the Federal Reserve has found its way into financial markets around the world, including the American stock market. And this has led to investment bubbles where prices have gone up way over what the fundamentals justify.
The Federal Reserve, meanwhile, has continued with the money printing because it hasn’t shown up in inflation. Central banks work with a certain inflation target in mind. If the inflation is expected to cross that level, then they start taking steps to ensure that interest rates go up.
At 1.3%, inflation in the United States
 is well below the Federal Reserve’s target of 2%. Some recent analysis coming out suggests that inflation-targeting might be a risky strategy to pursue. Stephen D King, Group Chief Economist of HSBC makes this point in his new book When the Money Runs Out. As he writes “the pursuit of inflation-targetting…may have contributed to the West’s financial downfall.”
King gives the example of United Kingdom to elaborate on his point. As he writes “Take, for example, inflation targeting in the UK. In the early years of the new millennium, inflation had a tendency to drop too low, thanks to the deflationary effects on manufactured goods prices of low-cost producers in China and elsewhere in the emerging world. To keep inflation close to target, the Bank of England loosened monetary policy with the intention of delivering higher ‘domestically generated’ inflation. In other words, credit conditions domestically became excessive loose…The inflation target was hit only by allowing domestic imbalances to arise: too much consumption, too much consumer indebtedness, too much leverage within the financial system and too little policy-making wisdom.”
Hence, the Bank of England, kept interest rates too low for too long because the inflation was low. With interest rates being low banks were falling over one another to lend money to anyone who was willing to borrow. And this gradually led to a fall in lending standards. People who did not have the ability to repay were also being given loans. As King writes “With the UK financial system now awash with liquidity, lending increased rapidly both within the financial system and to other parts of the economy that, frankly, didn’t need any refreshing. In particular, the property sector boomed thanks to an abundance of credit and a gradual reduction in lending standards.”
So the British central bank managed to create a huge real estate bubble, which finally burst, and the after effects are still being felt. And all this happened while the inflation continued to be at a fairly low level.
But this focus on ‘low inflation’ or ‘monetary stability’ as economists like to call it, turned out to be a very narrow policy objective. As Felix Martin writes in his brilliant book 
Money- The Unauthorised Biography “The single minded pursuit of low and stable inflation not only drew attention away from the other monetary and financial factors that were to bring the global economy to its knees in 2008 – it exacerbated them…Disconcerting signs of impending disaster in the pre-crisis economy – booming housing prices, a drastic underpricing of liquidity in asset markets, the emergence of shadow banking system, the declines in lending standards, bank capital, and the liquidity ratios – were not given the priority they merited, because, unlike low and stable inflation, they were simply not identified as being relevant.”
The US Federal Reserve wants to avoid making the same mistake that led to the dotcom and the real estate bubble and finally a crash. As Dorsch writes “A BIS working paper that traces booming stock markets over the past 110-years, finds that they nearly always sink under their own weight, – and causing lasting damage to the local economy. Asset bubbles often arise when consumer prices are low, which is a problem for central banks who solely target inflation and thereby overlook the risks of bubbles, while appearing to be doing a good job.”
Over the last 25 years, the US Federal Reserve has been known to cut interest rates at the slightest sign of trouble. But only on rare occasions has it raised interest rates to puncture bubbles. Alan Greenspan let the dotcom bubble run full steam. Then he, along with Ben Bernanke, let the real estate bubble run. By the time the Federal Reserve started to raise interest rates it was a case of too little too late.
A similar thing seems to have happened with the current stock market bubble, where the Federal Reserve has printed and pumped money into the market, and managed to keep interest rates low. But this money instead of being borrowed by American consumers has been borrowed by investors and found its way into the stock market.
As Claudio Borio and Philip Lowe wrote in 
the BIS working paper titled Asset prices, financial and monetary stability: exploring the nexus (the same paper that Dorsch talks about) “lowering rates or providing ample liquidity when problems materialise but not raising rates as imbalances build up, can be rather insidious in the longer run. They promote a form of moral hazard that can sow the seeds of instability and of costly fluctuations in the real economy.”
Guess, the Federal Reserve is finally learning this obvious lesson.

 The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on September 6, 2013 
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

Raghuram Rajan’s advice isn’t what UPA may want to hear

Vivek Kaul

Every year the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, one of the twelve Federal Reserve Banks in the United States, organizes a symposium at Jackson Hole in the state of Wyoming. The conference of 2005 was to be the last conference attended by Alan Greenspan, the then Chairman of the Federal Reserve of United States, the American central bank.
Hence, the theme for the conference was the legacy of the Greenspan era. One of the economists who had been invited to present a paper at the symposium was the 40 year old Raghuram Govind Rajan, the man who is likely to be the government’s next Chief Economic Advisor.
Rajan is an alumnus of IIT Delhi, IIM Ahmedabad and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After doing his PhD at MIT, he had joined the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago (now known as the Booth School of Business). At that point of time Rajan was on leave from the business school and was working as the Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund.
The United States had seen an era of unmatched economic prosperity under Greenspan. Even, the dotcom bust in 2000-2001 hadn’t held America back. Greenspan had managed to get the economy back on track by cutting the Federal Funds Rate to as low as 1% by mid 2003. The low interest rate scenario along with a lot of financial innovation had created a financial system which was slush with money. American banks were falling over one another to lend money. And borrowers were borrowing as much as they could to buy homes, property and real estate. The dotcom bubble of the late 1990s had given away to the real estate bubble.
In a survey of home buyers carried out in Los Angeles in 2005, the prevailing belief was that prices will keep growing at the rate of 22% every year over the next 10 years. This meant that a house which cost a million dollars in 2005 would cost around $7.3million by 2015. Such was the belief in the bubble.
And the belief was not limited to only the people of United States. Banks were equally optimistic that real estate prices will continue to go up. Between 2004 and 2006, banks and other financial institutions playing in the subprime home loan space gave out loans worth $1.7trillion in total. Of this a massive $625billion was lent in 2005, the year Rajan was invited to speak at Jackson Hole.
In its strictest sense a subprime loan was defined as a loan given to an individual with a credit score below 620, who had no assets and was thus unlikely to qualify for a traditional home loan. A credit score is a number calculated on the basis of the borrower’s past record at paying bills and loans of all kinds, the length of his credit history, the kind of loans taken etc. On the basis of the number the lender can get some sort of an idea of what sort of a risk he is taking on by lending to the borrower.
That was the purported idea behind the credit score. In the normal scheme of things, a borrower categorized as “sub-prime” should not have been touched with a bargepole. But those were days when everybody and anybody got a loan.
It was an era of optimism which had been fueled by easy money that was going around in the financial system. The conventional wisdom of the day was that the bull run in property prices would continue forever. The American economy would continue to prosper.
In this environment Raghuram Rajan presented a paper titled “Has Financial Development Made the World Riskier?” In his speech Rajan harped on the fact that the era of easy money would get over soon and would not last forever as the conventional wisdom expected it to.
He said:
The bottom line is that banks are certainly not any less risky than the past despite their better capitalization, and may well be riskier. Moreover, banks now bear only the tip of the iceberg of financial sector risks…the interbank market could freeze up, and one could well have a full-blown financial crisis
He also suggested in his speech that the incentives of the financial sector were skewed and employees were reaping in rich rewards for making money but were only penalized lightly for losses. In the last paragraph of his speech Rajan said it is at such times that “excesses typically build up. One source of concern is housing prices that are at elevated levels around the globe.
Rajan’s speech did not go down well with people at the conference. This is not what they wanted to hear. Also in a way Rajan was questioning the credentials of Alan Greenspan who would soon retire spending nearly 18 years as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve of United States. He was essentially saying that the Greenspan era was hardly what it was being made out to be.
Given this, Rajan came in for heavy criticism. As he recounts in his book Fault Lines – How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy:
Forecasting at that time did not require tremendous prescience: all I did was connect the dots… I did not, however, foresee the reaction from the normally polite conference audience. I exaggerate only a bit when I say I felt like an early Christian who had wandered into a convention of half-starved lions. As I walked away from the podium after being roundly criticized by a number of luminaries (with a few notable exceptions), I felt some unease. It was not caused by the criticism itself…Rather it was because the critics seemed to be ignoring what going on before their eyes.
The criticism notwithstanding Rajan turned out right in the end. And what was interesting that he called it as he saw it. He called spade a spade despite the aura of Alan Greenspan that prevailed.
What this story clearly tells us is that Rajan is not an “on-the-other-hand” economist. There are too many “on-the-other-hand” economists going around, who do not like to take a stand on an issue. As Harry Truman, an American President once famously said “All my economists say, ‘on the one hand… and on the other hand…Someone give me a one-handed economist!
If news-reports in the media are to be believed the government is in the process of appointing Rajan as the Chief Economic Advisor to replace Kaushik Basu. As far as academic credentials and experience go they don’t come much better than Rajan. Other than having been the Chief Economist of the IMF between September 2003 and January 2007, he is also currently an honorary economic adviser to the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The question though is will the plain-speaking Rajan who seems to like to call a spade a space, fit into a government which believes in the idea of a welfare state? In an interview I did for the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) after the release of his book Fault Lines I had asked him “whether India can afford a welfare state?” “Not at the level that politicians want it to. For example, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), if appropriately done it is a short term insurance fix and reduces some of the pressure on the system, which is not a bad thing. But if it comes in the way of the creation of long term capabilities, and if we think NREGS is the answer to the problem of rural stagnation, we have a problem. It’s a short term necessity in some areas. But the longer term fix has to be to open up the rural areas, connect them, education, capacity building, that is the key,” Rajan had replied.
This is a view that is not held by many in the present United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. They politicians who run this country have great faith in the NREGS.
Rajan had also written in Fault Lines that “the license permit raj has given away to the raj of the land mafia.” I had asked him to explain this in detail and he had said:
Earlier…you had to navigate the government for permissions and this was license permit. You needed permission to produce. Now you have to navigate the government for land because in many situations land titles are murky, acquiring the land is difficult, and even after you acquire protecting that land is difficult. So there are entrepreneurs who have access to the power of the government, who basically can do it. And then there are others who can’t. So you have made it a test of who can acquire the land in certain kind of functions than who is the best developer than who is the best manufacturer. Put differently what used to surround the license permit has moved to corruption surrounding land. The central source of wealth today in the whole economy is land and we need to make the land acquisition process transparent.
In answer to another question Rajan had said:
The predominant of the sources of mega wealth in India today are not the software billionaires who have made money the hard way by being competitive in a global economy. It is the guys who have access to natural resources or to land or to particular infrastructure permits or licenses. In other words proximity to the government seems to be a big source of wealth. And that is worrisome because it means that those who can access the government who can manage it are in a sense far more powerful than ordinary businessmen. In the long run this leads to decay in the image of businessmen and the whole free enterprise system. It doesn’t show us in good light if we become a country of oligopolies and oligarchs and eventually this could even impinge on democratic right.”
What these answers tell us is that Rajan has clear views on issues that plague India and he is not afraid of putting them forward. But these are things that the current government would not like to hear. Given this, it remains to be seen how effective Rajan’s tenure in the government will turn out to be. The trouble is if he calls a spade a spade, it won’t take much time for the government to marginalize him. If he does not, he won’t be effective anyway.
(The interview originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on August 8,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/economy/raghuram-rajans-advice-isnt-what-upa-may-want-to-hear-410694.html/)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected] )

No, Subbarao won’t be able to clean UPA’s garbage dump

Vivek Kaul

Duvvuri Subbarao, the current governor of the Reserve Bank of India must be a troubled man these days, professionally that is. The gross domestic product (GDP) growth has fallen to 5.3% for the period of January to March 2012. And now he is expected to come to the rescue of the Indian economy by cutting interest rates, so that people and businesses can easily borrow more, and we all can live happily ever after.
Cows would fly, only if it was as simple as that!
The mid quarter review of the monetary policy is scheduled for June 18,2012. On that day the Subbarao led Reserve Bank of India(RBI) is expected to cut the repo rate by at least 50 basis points (one basis point is one hundredth of a percentage). The repo rate is the rate at which banks borrow from the RBI.
Repo rate is a short term interest rate and by cutting this interest rate the RBI tries to manage the other interest rates in the economy, including long term interest rates like the rate at which the bond market lends to the government, the interest offered by banks on their fixed deposits, and the interest charged by banks on long term loans like home loans, and loans to businesses.
But the fact of the matter is it really has no control on these interest rates in the current state of things. To understand why, let us deviate a little.
Greenspan and Clinton
Alan Greenspan and Bill Clinton came from the opposite ends of the political spectrum. Greenspan had been a lifelong Republican whereas Clinton was a Democrat. Unlike India where there are a large number of political parties, America has basically two parties, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Greenspan was the Chairman of the Federal Reserve of United States, the American central bank, from 1987 to 2006.
But despite coming from the opposite ends of the political spectrum they got along fabulously well. In fact, when Clinton became the President of America in early 1993, Greenspan approached him with what Americans call a “proposition”.
Greenspan told Clinton that since 1980 the rate of inflation had fallen from a high of around 15% to the current 4%. But during the same period the interest rate on home loans had fallen only by 400 basis points from 13% to 9%. Despite the fact that the Federal Funds Rate (the American equivalent of the Indian repo rate) stood at a low 3%.
Why was the difference between the Federal Funds rate which was a short term interest rate and the home loan interest rate, which was a long term interest rate, so huge?
High fiscal deficit
The difference in interest rates was primarily because of the high fiscal deficit that the government of United States was incurring. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what the government earns and what it spends in a particular year.
When Clinton took over as President on January 20, 1993, the American government had just run a record fiscal deficit amounting to $290.3billion or 4.7% of the GDP for 1992. And this had led to high long term interest rates even though the Federal Reserve had set the short term Federal Funds rate at 3%.
The government was borrowing long term to fund its fiscal deficit. And since its borrowing needs were high because of the large fiscal deficit it needed to offer a higher rate of interest to attract lenders. When the government borrowed more it crowded private borrowing, meaning, there was lesser pool of “savings” for the private borrowers to borrow from.
Hence, banks and other financial institutions which needed to borrow in order to give out home loans had to offer an even higher rate of interest than the government to attract lenders. Even otherwise, the private sector has to offer a higher rate of interest than the government, because lending to the government is deemed to be the safest form of lending. Due to these reasons the difference in short term interest rates and long term interest rates in the US was high. So the repo rate was at 3% and the home loan rate was at 9%.
The proposition
Greenspan was rightly of the opinion that a high fiscal deficit was holding economic growth back. This was the argument he made to President Clinton when he first met him. As Greenspan writes in his autobiography The Age of Turbulence – Adventures in a New World “Long term interest rates were still stubbornly high. They were acting as a brake on economic activity by driving up costs of home mortgages (the American term for home loans) and bond issuance.”
Other than the government which issues bonds to finance its fiscal deficit, companies also issue bonds to raise debt to meet the needs of their business. If interest rates are high companies normally tend to put expansion plans on hold because high interest rates may not make the plan financially viable.
Greenspan’s proposition to Clinton was that if the Wall Street got enough of a hint that the government was serious about bringing down the fiscal deficit, long term interest rates would start to fall . This would be good for the overall economy because at lower interest rates people would borrow more to buy houses and as well as everything else that needs to be bought to make a house a “home”.
As Greenspan writes “Improve investors’ expectations, I told Clinton, and long-term rates could fall, galvanizing the demand for new homes and the appliances, furnishings, and the gamut of consumer items associated with home ownership. Stock values too, would rise, as bonds became less attractive and investors shifted into equities.”
The US Congressional and Budget Office(CBO), a US government agency which provides economic data to the US Congress (the American parliament) to help better decision making, upped its projection of the fiscal deficit at that point of time. It said that the fiscal deficit is likely to reach $360billion a year by 1997. This data point put out by the US CBO helped buttress Greenspan’s point further and Clinton decided to do something about the fiscal deficit.
The Clinton plan
Clinton put out a plan which would cut the deficit by $500billion over a period of four years through a combination of higher tax rates as well as lower spending by the government. The fiscal deficit of the United States of America which had been growing steadily for years, started to fall from 1993. In 1993, it was down by 12% to $255billion. By 1997, the fiscal deficit was down to $21billion. In Clinton’s second term as President, the deficit turned into a surplus, something that had not happened since 1971. Between 1998 and 2001, the US government earned a surplus of $559.4billiondollars.
A lower fiscal deficit led to lower long term interest rates and good economic growth. The United States of America grew at an average rate of 3.9% between 1993 and 2000. In the eight years prior to that the country had grown at an average rate of 2.9% per year. So the US grew at a much faster rate on a higher base because the fiscal deficit was turned into a fiscal surplus.
This was also the period of the dotcom bubble but the fiscal surplus was clearly not the reason for it.
The moral of the story
As we clearly see from the above example, at times there is not much that a central bank can do on the interest rate front, especially when the government is running a high fiscal deficit. As I have often said over the past one month the fiscal deficit of the government of India has increased by 312% between 2007 and 2012. During the same period its income has increased by only 36%. The fiscal deficit target for the current financial year is at Rs Rs 5,13,590 crore, a little lower from the last year’s target. But as we have seen in the past this government has a tendency to miss its fiscal deficit targets regularly. So the government will have to borrow to finance its fiscal deficit and that means an environment in which long term interest rates will remain high.
In fact, some banks have quietly raised the interest rates they charge to their existing home loan borrowers, after the Subbarao led RBI last cut the repo rate by 50 basis points on April 17, 2012.
The interest being charged to some of the existing home loan borrowers has even crossed 14.5%, a difference of more than 6% between a long term interest rate and the repo rate, as was the case in America.
India has another problem which America did not in the early 1990s, high inflation. The consumer price inflation was at 10.36% for the month of April 2012. Urban inflation was at 11.1% whereas rural inflation was just below 10% at 9.86%. If Subbarao goes about cutting the repo rate in a rapid manner, he runs the danger of inciting further inflation.
So the only way out of this mess is to cut subsidies. Cut fuel subsidies. Cut fertilizer subsidies. This of course would mean higher prices in the short term, particularly if diesel prices are raised. An increase in the price of diesel will immediately lead to higher inflation, given that diesel is the major transport fuel, and any increase in its price is passed onto the consumers. The government thus has to make a choice whether it wants high interest rates for the long term or high inflation for the short term. It need not be said it will be a politically difficult decision to make.
Over the longer term it also needs to figure out how to bring more Indians under the tax ambit and lower the portion of the “black” economy in the overall economy. (You can read this in detail here: It’s not Greece: Cong policies responsible for rupee crashhttp://www.firstpost.com/economy/dont-blame-greece-cong-policies-responsible-for-rupees-crash-318280.html)
And there is nothing that RBI can do on any of these fronts. The predicament of the RBI was best explained in a recent column titled Seeking Divine Intervention, written by Rajeev Malik, an economist at CLSA. He said: “There are three institutions that keep India running: the Supreme Court, the Election Commission and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). To be sure, most of the economic mess in India has the government behind it. And often the RBI is called in as a vacuum cleaner. But even the world’s best vacuum cleaner cannot be successfully used to clean up a garbage dump.”
(The article originally appeared at www.firstpost.com on June 4,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/economy/no-subbarao-wont-be-able-to-clean-upas-garbage-dump-331114.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])