Monday, January 28, 2008

What about Inflation and the Dollar?

Bernanke's rate cut, expected to be followed soon by additional rate cuts at the next Fed meeting, helped the stock markets and the rich investors avoid a deep drop last week, but what effect will it have on inflation in the US and the value of the dollar? It's likely to be negative on both counts. The usual monetary tool to stop inflation is higher interest rates, which also depresses business. Unfortunately, cutting interest rates tends to encourage inflation, and it is likely to do so in this case. Furthermore, currency traders tend to invest in currencies that give a good rate of return, interest, on their holdings. Lowering interest rates discourages people from investing in that currency, the dollar. Therefore the rate cut will likely have the effect of lowering the value of the dollar. The effect may not be immediate, because the dollar is currently at almost historic lows against most major currencies, the yen, euro and pound. It may take a while for people to get used to even lower values for the dollar.

The US has a great incentive to allow inflation and devaluation of the dollar because of our huge debt. It's a common practice for third rate developing countries to run up huge debts with foreign lenders and then devalue their currencies so that they pay off the debt with cheaper money. Thus, if the dollar eventually is worth many less Chinese yuans, the US will have to sell a lot fewer goods overseas to pay off the billions we owe China. That's not going to happen immediately because the Chinese persist in pegging the yuan to the dollar, but if the dollar really starts to tank, they may change their mind. But it's a complicated case, like the one where if you owe the bank $1,000 and can't pay, you are at the bank's mercy, but if you owe the bank $10 billion and can't pay, the bank is at your mercy. Thus we and the Chinese each have leverage on each other.

The Economist magazine takes Bernanke to task for his precipitous cut in interest rates, mainly because it smacks of panic. But it's also likely to have some harmful long-term effects.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Bernanke Put

It will be interesting to see how Fed Chairman Bernanke's rescue of the stock market works out. It may be easy to compare his approach with a less activist approach, since all the other central bank governors appear to be resisting the temptation to rescue their stock markets. The Bernanke put seems to have replace the Greenspan put, allowing big investors to maintain an option to sell their stocks at a higher price if the market goes down too much. In essence this administration has said that it will rescue the rich investors immediately, and maybe later it will do something for the small fry.

The Europeans so far seem to think that the stock markets and the rich investors can take care of themselves. If they make some bad investments, they should have to live with them. This runs the risk of being a drag on the economy in the short term, but it gets the trash out of the financial system and creates a foundation for future growth. Bernanke and Greenspan are acting in the present, but are they mortgaging the future? Greenspan had twenty good years, which argues that his approach may work out. But the turmoil we have today is at least in part due to Greenspan's decision to keep credit cheap and let the good times roll.