The mainstream is beginning to sound a lot like some fringe blog... A week after the world's largest sovereign wealth fund unleashed a tirade against high-frequency trading and monetary policy distortions, The Wall Street Journal has penned an Op-Ed ramping up its war against Bernanke (and The Fed). What next? Cats living with dogs, mass hysteria, the dead rising from the grave?
Bernanke threw the first punch... and it landed. Now The Wall Street Journal counters with a colossal combination...
It’s nice to know we’re being read, and Thursday’s editorial on “The Slow-Growth Fed” sure got a rise out of Ben Bernanke. The former Federal Reserve Chairman turned blogger turned Pimco adviser wrote to defend the central bank and by implication his policies as innocent of responsibility for subpar economic growth.
This is fun, so let’s parse the Revered One’s arguments. First, Mr. Bernanke accuses us of “forecasting a breakout in inflation” at least since 2006. The central banker is getting into the polemical swing, but he’s wild with that one. We’re not always right. But we’ve been careful not to join some of our friends in predicting inflation from the Fed’s post-crisis policies. We’ve written that we are in uncharted monetary territory with risks and outcomes we lack the foresight to predict.
Our view has been that the Fed’s first round of quantitative easing was necessary to stem the financial panic—and that it worked. We were skeptical of the later bouts of QE, and in our view these have been notably less successful in helping the economy return to robust health. Asset prices are up and the wealthy are better off, but the working stiff is still waiting for the economic payoff.
Mr. Bernanke defends the Fed’s over-optimistic economic growth forecasts by saying the central bank has been overly pessimistic about unemployment. “The relatively rapid decline in unemployment in recent years shows that the critical objective of putting people back to work is being met,” Mr. Bernanke writes.
Now, that’s over-optimism. One reason the jobless rate has fallen to 5.5% is because so many people have left the workforce. The labor participation rate has plunged to 1978 levels during this supposedly splendid expansion. Most economists acknowledge that if the participation rate had stayed constant, the jobless rate would still be close to 8%. The failure to attract the long-term unemployed into the job market is one reason the Fed continues to hold interest rates so low.
Mr. Bernanke’s other defense is the counterfactual that it could have been worse: “It seems clear that the Fed’s aggressive actions are an important reason that job creation in the United States has outstripped that of other industrial countries by a wide margin.”
That’s conveniently unprovable, not least because it doesn’t correct for non-monetary variables. The structural policy impediments to growth in Europe and Japan are far worse than in the U.S., yet Mr. Bernanke implies that the main policy difference is that they waited too long to try QE.
We learned in school that something isn’t a theory if it can’t be tested. Mr. Bernanke’s theory of post-crisis monetary policy is that if it’s working, then do more of it. And if it’s not working, then do more of it too. This isn’t data-driven monetary policy.
Mr. Bernanke also says that we “argue (again) for tighter monetary policy.” If lifting the fed-funds rate to 50 or 100 basis points after six years of near-zero policy is tighter money, then we plead guilty.
But perhaps Ben should consult Stanley Fischer, the Fed’s current vice chairman, who recently said on CNBC that “we are going to be changing monetary policy from the most extremely expansionary we’ve been able to do in all of history to an extremely expansionary monetary policy.” That doesn’t sound like a return to tight money. Lifting rates off zero means beginning an inevitable return to monetary normalcy that lets markets set rates and allocate capital.
We can understand that Mr. Bernanke doesn’t like being tagged with any responsibility for poor economic results. He absolved himself for any mistakes before the financial crisis too. But sooner or later he and the Fed have to stop using the financial crisis as the all-purpose excuse for slow growth. Even President Obama has stopped blaming George W. Bush for everything. Maybe Mr. Bernanke should stop blaming everyone else too.
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