By Laurence Kotlikoff
In his parting act, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has decided to continue printing some $85 billion per month (6 percent of GDP per year) and spend those dollars on government bonds and, in the process, keep interest rates low, stimulate investment, and reduce unemployment.
Trouble is, interest rates have generally been rising, investment remains very low, and unemployment remains very high.
Bernanke’s dangerous policy hasn’t worked and should be ended. Since 2007 the Fed has increased the economy's basic supply of money (the monetary base) by a factor of four! That's enough to sustain, over a relatively short period of time, a four-fold increase in prices. Having prices rise that much over even three years would spell hyperinflation.
The Treasury dance
And while Bernanke says this is all to keep down interest rates, there is a darker subtext here. When the Treasury prints bonds and sells them to the public for cash and the Fed prints cash and uses it to buy the newly printed bonds back from the public, the Treasury ends up with the extra cash, the public ends up with the same cash it had initially, and the Fed ends up with the new bonds.
Yes, the Treasury pays interest and principal to the Fed on the bonds, but the Fed hands that interest and principal back to the Treasury as profits earned by a government corporation, namely the Fed. So, the outcome of this shell game is no different from having the Treasury simply print money and spend it as it likes.
The fact that the Fed and Treasury dance this financial pas de deux shows how much they want to keep the public in the dark about what they are doing. And what they are doing, these days, is printing, out of thin air, 29 cents of every $1 being spent by the federal government.
QE an unsustainable practice
I have heard one financial guru after another discuss Quantitative Easing and its impact on interest rates and the stock market, but I’ve heard no one make clear that close to 30 percent of federal spending is now being financed via the printing press.
That’s an unsustainable practice. It will come to an end once Wall Street starts to understand exactly how much money is being printed and that it's not being printed simply to stimulate the economy, but rather to pay for the spending of a government that is completely broke -- with long-term expenditures obligations that exceed its long-term tax revenues by $205 trillion!
This present value fiscal gap is based on the Congressional Budget Office's just-released long-term Alternative Fiscal Scenario projection. Closing this fiscal gap would require a 57 percent immediate and permanent hike in all federal taxes -- starting today!
Prices will rise
When Wall Street wises up to our true fiscal condition (and some, like Bill Gross, already have), it will dump long-term bonds like hot potatoes. This will lead interest rates to jump and make people and banks very reluctant to hold money earning no return. In trying to swap their money for goods and services, the public will drive up prices.
As prices start to rise and fingers start pointing at the Fed for fueling the inflation, QE will be brought to an abrupt halt. At that point, Congress will have to come up with an extra 6 percent of GDP on a permanent basis either via huge tax hikes or huge spending cuts. Another option is simply to borrow the 6 percent. But this would raise the deficit, defined as the increase in Treasury bonds held by the public, from 4 to 10 percent of annual GDP if we take 2013 as the example. A 10 percent of GDP deficit would raise even more eyebrows on Wall Street and put further upward pressure on interest rates.
What are we waiting for?
But why haven't prices started rising already if there is so much money floating around? This year’s inflation rate is running at just 1.5 percent. There are three answers.
First, three quarters of the newly created money hasn’t made its way into the blood stream of the economy – into M1 – the money supply held by the public. Instead, the Fed is paying the banks interest not to lend out the money, but to hold it within the Fed in what are called excess reserves.
Since 2007, the Monetary Base – the amount of money the Fed’s printed – has risen by $2.7 trillion and excess reserves have risen by $2.1 trillion. Normally excess reserves would be close to zero. Hence, the banks are sitting on $2.1 trillion they can lend to the private sector at a moment’s notice. I.e., we’re looking at a gi-normous reservoir filling up with trillions of dollars whose dam can break at any time. Once interest rates rise, these excess reserves will be lent out.
The fed says they can keep the excess reserves from getting lose by paying higher interest on reserves. But this entails poring yet more money into the reservoir. And if interest rates go sufficiently high, the Fed will call this practice quits.
As excess reserves are released to the economic wild, we’ll see M1, which was $1.4 trillion in 2007, rise from its current value of $2.6 trillion to $5.7 trillion. Since prices, other things being equal, are supposed to be proportional to M1, having M1 rise by 219 percent means that prices will rise by 219 percent.
But, and this is point two, other things aren’t equal. As interest rates and prices take off, money will become a hot potato. I.e., its velocity will rise. Having money move more rapidly through the economy – having faster money – is like having more money. Today, money has the slows; its velocity – the ratio GDP to M1 -- is 6.6. Everybody’s happy to hold it because they aren’t losing much or any interest. But back in 2007, M1 was a warm potato with a velocity of 10.4.
If banks fully lend out their reserves and the velocity of money returns to 10.4, we’ll have enough M1, measured in effective units (adjusted for speed of circulation), to support a nominal GDP that’s 3.5 times larger than is now the case. I.e., we’ll have the wherewithal for almost a quadrupling of prices. But were prices to start moving rapidly higher, M1 would switch from being a warm to a hot potato. I.e., velocity would rise above 10.4, leading to yet faster money and higher inflation.
No easy exit
I hope you’re getting the point. Having addicted Congress and the Administration to the printing press, there is no easy exit strategy. Continuing on the current QE path spells even great risk of hyperinflation. But calling it quits requires much higher taxes, much lower spending, or much more net borrowing (with requisite future repayment) from the public. Yet weaning Uncle Sam from the printing press now is critical before his real need for a fix – paying for the Baby Boomers’ retirement benefits – kicks in.
The one caveat to this doom and gloom scenario is point three – increased domestic and global demand for dollars. The Great Recession put the fear of God into savers worldwide. And the fact that U.S. price level has risen since 2007 by only 15 percent whereas M1 has risen by 88 percent reflects a massive expansion of domestic and foreign demand for "safe" dollars. This is evidenced by the velocity of money falling from 10.4 to 6.6. People are now much more eager to hold and hold onto dollars than they were six years ago.
If this increased demand for dollars persists, let alone grows, inflation may remain low for quite a while. But our ability to get Americans and foreigners to hand over real goods and services in exchange for very few green pieces of paper is hardly guaranteed once everyone starts to understand the incredible rate at which Uncle Sam is printing and spending this paper. Once everyone gets it into their heads that prices are taking off, individual beliefs will become collective reality. This brings me to my bottom line: The more money the Fed prints, the more it risks everyone starting to expect and, consequently produce, hyperinflation.
Laurence Kotlikoff is Professor of Economics at Boston University and co-author of The Clash of Generation and author of Jimmy Stewart Is Dead.