Popular Economics Weekly

Now that the Fed has begun to reduce its QE3 securities’ purchases $10B per month in January, what will that do for growth? My answer is it’s too soon to say. Firstly, beware of the ‘Taperians’, those who would end QE3 too soon. As outgoing Fed Chairman Bernanke explained in his most recent speech, without QE3 we might have regressed back into a recession.

“"Skeptics have pointed out that the pace of recovery has been disappointingly slow, with inflation-adjusted GDP growth averaging only slightly higher than a 2 percent annual rate over the past few years and inflation below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-term target," Bernanke said at the American Economic Association annual meeting in Philadelphia. "However, as I will discuss, the recovery has faced powerful headwinds, suggesting that economic growth might well have been considerably weaker, or even negative, without substantial monetary policy support. For the most part, research supports the conclusion that the combination of forward guidance and large-scale asset purchases has helped promote the recovery."

Then there are the political ‘headwinds’. Will the next 2 years’ budget agreement mean no more budget fights for a while, or will opponents to Obamacare continue to throw up roadblocks to its implementation in the 35 states that wouldn’t set up their own health care exchanges? This would make it more expensive and wasteful of government resources, needless to say.

Yet it seems at least one Fed Governors has been sounding the need to end QE3 before its time—Richmond Fed Governor Jeff Lacker. Lacker has been most vocal in wanting to rein in QE3 almost from its start last fall, and one who most consistently voted against continuing it at subsequent FOMC meetings. The reason? He’s an inflation hawk, or ‘inflationista’ (P Krugman’s term), as well as deficit hawk that fears all those bonds bought by the Fed will create runaway inflation (and deficits), once they are sold back into the economy.

In other words, he belongs to the ‘confidence fairy’ camp (another Krugman term) that believes business confidence is the key to growth, instead of consumer demand for their products, and businesses will lose confidence when interest rates and debt servicing costs rise, increasing budget deficits. But what about consumer confidence, when consumers are currently spending at a 4 percent annual rate, which is the largest component of overall demand?

“Businesses also appear to be quite reticent to hire and invest,” said Lacker in his most recent report. “A widely followed index of small business optimism fell sharply during the recession and has only partially recovered since then. Interestingly, when small business owners were asked about the single most important problem they face, the most frequent answer in the latest survey was "government regulations and red tape." This observation accords with reports we’ve been hearing from many business contacts for several years now. They’ve seen a substantial increase in the pace of regulatory change and a substantial increase in uncertainty about the shape of new regulations. Both are said to discourage new hiring and investment commitments.”

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Graph: DShort

However that is not all survey results show in the December 10 NFIB report reported. “The net percent of all owners (seasonally adjusted) reporting higher nominal sales in the past 3 months compared to the prior 3 months was unchanged at a negative 8 percent. Fifteen percent still cite weak sales as their top business problem, but it is the lowest reading since June 2008. The net percent of owners expecting higher real sales volumes rose 1 point to 3 percent of all owners after falling 6 points in October (seasonally adjusted), a weak showing.”

In fact, the lack of consumer demand for their products is still the chief problem, not federal regulations or high taxes, as shown by their lack of need for more credit. “…only 2 percent of NFIB members cite credit and interest rates as their top business problem, and a record 66 percent expressed no interest in a loan, obviously due to their dismal view of the future of the economy. It’s not a problem of credit supply; it’s a lack of credit demand due primarily to poor economic prospects.”

What does Lacker say about consumer demand, the largest driver of economic growth, as we said? That consumer sentiment is still depressed because of economic ‘uncertainty’. “Although consumption grew rapidly at the end of last year, we have seen similar surges since the last recession, only to see spending return to a more moderate trend. Consumer spending trends are likely to depend on whether the dramatic events of the last few years are only a temporary disturbance to household sentiment or if they instead represent a more persistent shift in attitudes about borrowing and saving. At this point, I am inclined toward the latter view (i.e., that household sentiment remains depressed).

Once again he talks about sentiments, rather than real income and wealth, which are the main determinants of consumer spending. It is their actual wealth that determines consumers’ spending habits, much more than what they feel about future prospects, research has shown.

So it’s true consumers are still being cautious, but several factors are improving consumer confidence. For example, said Bernanke, “notwithstanding the effects of somewhat higher mortgage rates, house prices have rebounded, with one consequence being that the number of homeowners with "underwater" mortgages has dropped significantly, as have foreclosures and mortgage delinquencies. Household balance sheets have strengthened considerably, with wealth and income rising and the household debt-service burden at its lowest level in decades.

If in fact Fed Governor Lackey believes consumer and business uncertainty is still too high, he should not be supporting an early end to the QE3 taper. Consumers and businesses are still facing an uncertain future. Is this the time to be taking away the credit ‘punch bowl’, with the private sector holding back?

So beware of those Taperians which cite the shortcomings of governments, rather than their own policies that hamper future prosperity.

Harlan Green © 2013

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