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Tuesday, September 04, 2012 2:05 AM

Central Bankers Fail to Understand Forces Holding Back the Economy; Ten Major Economic Headwinds

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Central bankers Debating the Limits of Power in Jackson Hole are wondering what's holding back the economy.

"What is holding the economy back? Why is it that we've had such incredibly accommodative monetary policy for so long (but) we've had so little growth? I think it remains a puzzle," said Donald Kohn, who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.

Adam Posen, who finished his final day as a member of the Bank of England's monetary policy on Friday and is a powerful advocate for more forceful central bank action, asked the same question as Kohn: "Why has all this lower short-term interest rates failed to make the economy go go go?" He argued that policymakers in Europe and the United States should waste no time in extending asset purchase programs to spur growth.

Alan Blinder, another former Fed vice chair who now teaches economics at Princeton, ticked off the two most blatant culprits for why the U.S. economy continued to struggle: government spending cuts and the drag from the depressed housing market.
Binder, Posen are Delusional

Adam Posen and Alan Blinder are clearly delusional.

Posen fails to understand the problems caused by going deeper in debt, even though Japan did just that for decades to no avail and has nothing to show for it but a mountain of debt.

As for Blinder, might I ask: precisely what spending cuts is he referring to?

Please note the Fiscal Year Budget for 2011 was $3.603 trillion. Also note the budget for 2012 was $3.796 trillion, and the 2013 budget is projected to be higher still, at $3.883 trillion.

Indeed, the projected budget rises every year through 2022. It is ludicrous to talk of spending cuts, when spending is projected to increase every year for a decade.

Failure to Understand the Obvious

Central bankers and economists are so wrapped up in warped mathematical formulas they fail to understand the obvious. The answer, which they refuse to accept, or even consider as a possibility, is that central bankers and the monetary system itself are the problem.

Belief that a bunch of central planners can sit in a room and divine interest rates and the proper amount of money in circulation is as ridiculous as belief that Russian central planners could properly set the price and quantity of steel or orange juice.

The boom-bust cycles of ever-increasing amplitude benefiting the 1% while hollowing out the middle class should be poof enough central bankers do not know what they are doing.

That they met in Jackson Hole wondering why their policies are not working is also sufficient proof they do not know what they are doing.

What's holding back the economy is three-fold.

Three Root Causes

  1. Fractional Reserve Lending
  2. No enforcement mechanism on governmental spending (i.e. lack of a gold standard)
  3. Central bank and governmental meddling

For a discussion of point number 2 above, please see Hugo Salinas Price and Michael Pettis on the Trade Imbalance Dilemma; Gold's Honest Discipline Revisited

Since the end of the great depression until the year 2000 the Fed had tailwinds at its back and that made it appear Fed policy was successful.

Four Major Tailwinds

  1. US productive capacity not destroyed in WWII
  2. Baby boomer demographics
  3. Women entering the workforce en masse
  4. Internet revolution

Those major tailwinds, in order, are what made it appear Fed policy was working. It is easy to inflate when powerful forces are at your back.


Following the 2001 recession, the Greenspan Fed held interest rates too low too long, allowing one last party. And it was the party-of-a-lifetime, culminating in the biggest housing and credit bubbles the world has ever seen.

In the wake of that party, all that is left is a big hangover and ten major headwinds.

Ten Major Headwinds

  1. Boomers heading into retirement have insufficient savings
  2. Student debt holds back home-buying, marriage, and family formation
  3. Ability and willingness of individuals and businesses to take on more debt has shrunk dramatically. Attitudes towards lending, borrowing, and home ownership have changed.
  4. Bank bailouts at taxpayer expense left banks intact but did nothing for households deep in debt
  5. Tax policy encourages flight of jobs and capital
  6. Technology now serves to destroy more jobs than it creates. Please see Robots to Rule the World? Taking All Jobs? Replace Women? for a discussion.
  7. Untenable pension problems at the city, state, and federal level can no longer be put off. 
  8. Public unions and collective bargaining are structural problems at the heart of the pension mess as well as the heart of numerous city bankruptcies.
  9. Artificially low interest rates weakens those on fixed income
  10. Commercial real estate bust on top of housing bust limits further job expansion. How many more Walmart, Pizza Huts, McDonalds, nail salons, Kohl's stores, Office Depots, Home Depots do we need? Where?

Inflate to Grow Model Never Worked

It is disconcerting yet entirely predictable that central planners and government bureaucrats cannot see what the root problems are. After all, no one wants to blame themselves.

However, one might expect central bankers to at least understand headwinds and tailwinds. Sadly, you can forget about that as well.

The simple truth of the matter is the central planners model of "lowering interest rates to spur growth" never worked in the first place. Rather, four major tailwinds coupled with consumer attitudes (willingness to take on more debt) only made it appear so.

Central planners still fail to understand 10 obvious reasons why their policies are futile. And they are supposed to be guiding the economy!

Since central bankers cannot and will not admit the truth, they are left scratching their heads asking easily explainable questions like "What is holding the economy back?"

I would have loved to present my views in a speech at Jackson Hole, but even if I was allowed, the participants would not have taken too kindly to the obvious truth: Central bankers and planners are a huge part of the problem, and no part of the solution.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock
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