Will the cure be worse than the disease?
Politicians are scrambling to offer a stimulus package, and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is slashing interest rates. But they may be paving the way for a bigger calamity down the road.
(Fortune Magazine) -- The wobbly economy is overtaking Iraq as the issue weighing most heavily on the minds of America's voters. And Washington has noticed. The White House and Congress are almost certain to enact some kind of stimulus package. But like all such temporary, feel-good measures, it will generate a quick blip in growth that will quickly evaporate. In reality only one player has the power to do anything swift and decisive: the Federal Reserve. And its chairman, Ben Bernanke, has already made his intentions abundantly clear, with a stunning three-quarters of a percentage point rate cut announced Tuesday following an unscheduled meeting. Unfortunately, the cure he's prescribing may be worse than the disease.
Just how low will the economy go? There are conflicting signals. It's clear that the economy is losing steam. The plummeting value of America's houses is chilling consumer spending, layoffs are mounting, and banks and other creditors burned by the subprime crisis are far more reluctant to lend to everyone from small-business owners to private equity firms. But GDP increased by 4.9% in the third quarter, and economists estimate that GDP was still growing in the fourth quarter. Exports are strong, thanks to the weak dollar. The Fed did a brilliant job last summer by flooding the banks with money to prevent a full-scale credit crunch. Credit is far more expensive today, but it's also becoming more plentiful, as demonstrated by the falling rates on everything from LIBOR - the rate at which international banks lend to each other - to junk bonds. So while a recession is a real possibility, it's not inevitable - even the Fed is not forecasting one this year. And if we do get one, it may be brief and shallow, like the one we had in 2001 - with economic growth falling by perhaps half a percentage point for a couple of quarters, and unemployment rising from its current 5% to 5.5% or 6%.
By cutting rates early and often, Bernanke is acting as though a recession - even a mild one - would be a calamity that must be avoided at all costs. He has already reduced the Fed funds rate (which banks pay when they borrow from each other) by one point, to 4.25%, and promises to "take substantive additional action as needed to support growth," a pledge that Wall Street interpreted as meaning at least another half-point cut at the Fed's meeting on Jan. 29, if not sooner - and how right they were.
Many on Wall Street back Bernanke. "I'll defend the Fed," says Bear Stearns chief economist David Malpass. "Part of the slowdown is the result of banks' tightening credit, and you help that by lowering the Fed funds rate." Mickey Levy of Bank of America agrees: "You need to lower rates to offset the drag on housing."
But Bernanke is setting the stage for an even bigger recession down the road. Just as the ultra-low rates of the early 2000s created many of the problems we're experiencing today, pumping money into the system would probably stoke inflation, forcing the Fed to hike rates sharply in the near future. "It's better to take a small recession and kill inflation immediately instead of facing high inflation and a really big recession later," says Carnegie Mellon economist Allan Meltzer.
Meltzer, who is finishing the second volume of his history of the Federal Reserve, warns that Bernanke is risking a disastrous replay of the 1970s, when high oil prices fueled double-digit inflation. Every time the Fed started to tighten and unemployment jumped, chairmen G. William Miller and Arthur Burns lost their nerve. They lowered rates to boost job growth, and inflation inevitably revived, causing a vicious price spiral. The Fed let the disease rage for so long that it took draconian action by chairman Paul Volcker in the early 1980s to finally defeat inflation. The price was a deep recession, with unemployment hitting 11% in 1982. "The mentality is the same as in the 1970s," says Meltzer. "'As soon as we get rid of the risk of recession, we'll do something about inflation.' But that comes too late."
Indeed, while the economy is sending mixed messages about growth, the signs of increasing inflation are flashing bright red. For 2007 the consumer price index rose 4.1%, the biggest annual increase in 17 years. Gold, historically a reliable harbinger of inflation, set an all-time high of more than $900 an ounce. The dollar is languishing at a record low against the euro and a weighted basket of international currencies. "Flooding the market with liquidity is a disaster for the purchasing power of the dollar," says David Gitlitz, chief economist for Trend Macrolytics.
The Fed's supporters tend to downplay those dangers. They contend that the inflation surge is being driven largely by energy costs. Since oil isn't likely to rise from its near-$100 level, inflation is likely to tail off in 2008. "That argument is wrong," says Brian Wesbury, chief economist with First Trust Portfolios, an asset-management firm. "As people spend less to drive to the golf course, they will spend the extra money on golf clubs or other products. The Fed wants to reflate the economy, so the money that went into higher oil prices will drive up the prices of other goods."
Fed supporters also point out that the yield on ten-year Treasury bonds stands at just 3.8%, a figure that implies that investors expect inflation to be around 2% in future years. So if inflation is really expected to rage, why aren't interest rates far higher? The explanation is twofold. First, government bonds are hardly a foolproof forecaster. For example, five years ago Treasury yields were predicting 2% inflation over the next five years, and the actual figure was 3%, or 50% higher. Second, investors are so skittish about most stocks and corporate bonds that they're paying a huge premium for safe investments, chiefly U.S. Treasuries. "It's all about a flight to safety," says Meltzer. Stand by for a major rise in yields as the reality of looming inflation sinks in.
So what is the right course for the Fed? Bernanke should have held the Fed funds rate at 4.25%. Standing pat might well push the economy into a recession. But the Fed's newfound vigilance on inflation would boost the dollar, effectively lowering the prices of oil and other imports. America would suffer a short downturn and restore price stability, paving the way to a strong recovery in 2010 or 2011.
Sadly, the Fed has already chosen sides. It's likely to lower rates every time growth slows or joblessness rises. As a result, it will never tame inflation until it becomes a clawing, bellowing threat. Then we'll have to suffer a real recession, the kind we suffered in the aftermath of a time we should study and shouldn't forget - the 1970s.