Did The Fed "Pull A Homer"?

In an early episode of The Simpsons, “Homer Defined,” Homer saves the nuclear plant from meltdown by randomly pushing a button on the control panel. Soon “to pull a Homer,” meaning to “succeed despite idiocy," becomes a popular catchphrase.

Is that what happened last week? Did Jerome Powell and the Federal Reserve inadvertently “pull a Homer” by helping to create a bank panic that actually might accelerate their desire to slow down the economy? That might not have been their intention, but it sure looks like it.

At least it does to former White House adviser and Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn (although he didn’t reference The Simpsons).

"We're almost getting to a point right now where he's outsourcing monetary policy," Cohn told CNBC, referring to Powell. “I don't believe they [the banks] are going to loan money, or as much money, and therefore we're going to see a natural contraction in the economy.”

Minneapolis Fed president Neel Kashkari said basically the same thing on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday.

"It definitely brings us closer [to recession]," Kashkari said. "What's unclear for us is how much of these banking stresses are leading to a widespread credit crunch. That credit crunch ... would then slow down the economy.”

Now, I sincerely doubt that the Fed deliberately phonied up a banking panic in order to put the brakes on the economy.

Just the same, though, it certainly did play a major role in creating one not just through monetary policy — by raising interest rates so high and so fast — but also through neglect.

Just as it did in the road leading up to the global financial crisis, the Fed allowed problems at several banks it regulated to reach the point that generated an electronic run on deposits and the banks’ eventual failure. Continue reading "Did The Fed "Pull A Homer"?"

What Will The Fed Do In March?

The Federal Open Market Committee meets next week, at which time it is expected to raise its benchmark interest rate another 50 basis points, to a range of 4.75% to 5.00%, if we correctly interpret Fed Chair Jerome Powell’s testimony to Congress last week, when he said “the ultimate level of interest rates is likely to be higher than previously anticipated.”

Before that, the market had expected a 25-basis point increase, equivalent to its most recent hike at the Jan. 31-February 1 meeting. As we know, his comments sent stock and bond prices sharply lower.

Since then, though, we’ve had some serious news coming out of the banking system, namely the failure of SVB Bank and the closure of Silvergate Capital (both regulated by the Fed!) and worries that some of the largest U.S. banks (also regulated by the Fed) are sitting on some huge, unrealized losses in their government bond portfolios.

In this atmosphere, is a larger than expected rate increase next week—i.e., 50 bps rather than 25—justified?

Or should the Fed maybe show a little restraint and raise the fed funds rate only a quarter point?

And if it does, what will be the likely market reaction?

In his Capitol Hill testimony, Powell focused – as you would expect – on the U.S. economy, namely its stronger than expected recent performance, particularly in the jobs market, which in February gained another 311,000 jobs even as the unemployment rate rose slightly to 3.6%.

The Fed seems hellbent on making up for its past errors of overly long, overly loose monetary policy by ramming through rate increases no matter how much harm they might cause.

Ignoring the second component of its Congressional mandate, namely promoting full employment, the Fed is instead totally focused on slaying inflation as fast as possible, even though getting from the current rate of inflation – 6.4% in January — back down to its 2% target will no doubt take some time.

After all, the Fed only started raising interest rates back in March 2022, when the fed funds rate was at or near zero. Continue reading "What Will The Fed Do In March?"

Jerome Powell's Declaration of Independence

Remember back about four or five years ago (was it really that long ago?) we heard a lot about how the Federal Reserve’s sacrosanct independence was being threatened because the incumbent in the White House at that time was trying to influence the Fed’s monetary policy?

We don’t hear that much about it anymore since the Oval Office and Congress switched sides, although the threats against that independence have grown even louder, largely because they don’t get reported on to nearly the same degree.

For example, last fall the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Sherrod Brown, and the then chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Maxine Waters, both sent letters to Fed Chair Jerome Powell decrying his recent policy of raising interest rates by more than 400 basis points since March to combat inflation. “You must not lose sight of your responsibility to ensure that we have full employment,” Brown wrote.

Around the same time Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another Democrat, said Powell “risks pushing our economy off a cliff.” Warren, who loudly voted against Powell’s reappointment as Fed chair, added, “There is a big difference between landing a plane and crashing it.”

I suppose they have a right to criticize Fed policy as much as anyone else, although that right should extend to members of both parties. To his credit, Powell has largely kept silent or muted his comments on these attacks.

But now it appears that Powell believes he is being pushed too far. Criticizing the Fed for the way it conducts monetary policy to maintain stable prices and full employment—its legal mandate from Congress, after all—is one thing.

But to force the Fed to go way beyond its mandate and do something that is the rightful purview of Congress is an entirely different matter. And Powell said he won’t stand for it.

I’m talking about the desire of many progressives and environmentalists to have the Fed impose their views on climate change on the banks the Fed regulates and the customers those banks serve. Continue reading "Jerome Powell's Declaration of Independence"