Easy Money vs. Free Money - Choose Your Poison

When I was in high school, one of my political science teachers explained to us that the political spectrum wasn’t so much a straight line – with the liberals on the left and the conservatives on the right – but was really shaped like a horseshoe, with the far left and the far right moving closer together at the outer fringes to the point where they almost meet. That the name-calling and the accusations – and the behavior – are most vehement at the outer edges doesn’t change the fact that the things they say they believe in are virtually indistinguishable from each other, only the labels are different.

President Trump’s plan to nominate Herman Cain and Stephen Moore to the Federal Reserve is a good example. These two men have undisputed conservative credentials and are also in sync with the president’s demand that the Fed adopt an easy money policy so as not to undermine U.S. economic and stock market gains. Not surprisingly, that makes them completely unacceptable to the left.
There’s been the obligatory hand-wringing and phony outrage by their opponents decrying that Trump “means to remake the 105-year-old agency into a partisan tool” (the Washington Post) and “trample over the Fed’s independence” (the Financial Times). We got the same blather when Trump nominated someone to the Supreme Court – which, we’ve been told, is completely independent and never, ever takes politics into consideration when it decides cases, and justices are never, ever chosen because of their perceived political views.

Already, even before they’ve been formally nominated by the White House, Trump’s opponents have started to dredge up all the dirty laundry they can about Cain – alleged sexual harassment eight years ago – and Moore – all the juicy details about his divorce. Whether or not those past sins will be enough to torpedo their nominations remains to be seen. But it’s likely their personal peccadillos – not their actual monetary and economic philosophies – will be the main focus of their nomination hearings, should they even get that far. Continue reading "Easy Money vs. Free Money - Choose Your Poison"

Sweet Surrender

Janet Yellen had a pretty easy job when she was the Federal Reserve chair. By keeping interest rates at or near zero for years on end, she never heard any criticism from the president, government officials or the financial markets. Since he became Fed chair a little over a year ago, Jerome Powell has gotten nothing but flack, from President Trump – who was at it again last week – to a whole swarm of people on Wall Street complaining that the Fed was ruining their returns.

Powell got the message several months ago, and last week he handed in his formal surrender. Not only did the Fed leave interest rates alone at its monetary policy meeting, but it indicated that there would likely be no more rate hikes the rest of this year, and maybe next year, too. “It may be some time before the outlook for jobs and inflation calls clearly for a change in policy,” Powell said.

The Fed also called a halt to the runoff in its still humungous Treasury securities portfolio. Beginning in May, the Fed will slow to $15 billion – from the current $30 billion -- the monthly redemptions of its Treasury holdings, with the runoff to end in October, meaning its balance sheet will start growing again.

So now Powell and his Fed mates can sit back blissfully and listen to the silence, at least for now. Continue reading "Sweet Surrender"

The Bank That Couldn't Shoot Straight

Other than President Donald J. Trump, Wells Fargo CEO Timothy Sloan has to be the most hated man in Washington, or at least he was this week.

On Monday, the New York Times published a story which said employees at the bank “remain under heavy pressure to squeeze extra money out of customers” despite “years [of] publicly apologizing for deceiving customers with fake bank accounts, unwarranted fees and unwanted products” and claims by top executives that they “have eliminated the aggressive sales targets that spurred bad behavior.” That was a reference to the 2016 scandal in which over a period of many years, thousands of bank employees opened millions of accounts without customers’ knowledge or consent.

But that proved to be only the beginning of the bank’s problems. Since then there has been a steady drip of one scandal after another, from forcing auto loan customers to buy insurance they didn’t need to allegedly overcharging military veterans for mortgage refinances.

Indeed, “each time a new scandal breaks, Wells Fargo promises to get to the bottom of it. It promises to make sure it doesn’t happen again, but then a few months later, we hear about another case of dishonest sales practices or gross mismanagement,” Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., told Sloan at a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Tuesday.

At the hearing, members of both parties lambasted Sloan and his bank. Continue reading "The Bank That Couldn't Shoot Straight"

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Deficit

John Maynard Keynes is generally given credit for the economic axiom, “We owe it to ourselves.” That idea has caught fire with the left in our country, who are now trumpeting a world where government deficits and debt – at least at the federal level – simply don’t matter, because, well, see Lord Keynes.

This idea even seems to have gotten sympathy – or at least, seems to be taken more seriously than you would have thought – by formerly level-headed financial publications such as the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Both of them have published lengthy stories recently which have come to the same conclusion, namely that, yeah, this could actually work.

Last week, the Journal’s story was headlined “Worry About Debt? Not So Fast, Some Economists Say,” supported by the subhead, “U.S. deficits may not matter so much after all—and it might not hurt to expand them for the right reasons.” A couple of weeks before that Businessweek’s cover story featured the grande dame of the so-called progressive wing of the Democrat Party, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Continue reading "How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Deficit"

Blowin' In The Wind

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell last week held sacred the Fed’s “precious” independence, but he apparently forgot how quickly and easily it’s been bullied into altering its monetary policy by both politicians and influential financial markets people.

Until just a couple of months ago, the Fed was determined to “normalize” interest rates and its enormous balance sheet. But after a relative – emphasis on that word – weak patch for the economy and howls of pain from investors during last year’s correction, the Powell Fed was lighting quick to reverse course and put a halt to more rate hikes and portfolio runoff until further notice.

Not surprisingly, the financial press hasn’t given President Trump any credit for this (if credit is the right word in this instance), even though he was clearly the first and loudest basher of tightening Fed policy. Wall Street then jumped on the bandwagon, and voila, we have a new “patient” Fed and an easier monetary policy – and the best January for stocks since the 1980s.
Powell and other members of the Fed have tried to justify their abrupt about-face by noting recent weak – again, relatively speaking – economic data. But January’s robust nonfarm payrolls report – nearly double the consensus forecast – calls that into serious question. Continue reading "Blowin' In The Wind"