How Star Wars tells you everything you need to know about the miserable U.S. recovery and the Federal Reserve that has failed to improve it.
(Reuters/Lucasarts/Kasia Cieplak-von Baldegg)
This may not be our darkest hour, but the disappointing May jobs report showed the U.S. economy once again slowing towards stall speed. It's not just the anemic 69,000 jobs the economy added last month. More disconcerting were the sharp downward revisions to previous months. It looks like we could be in for an unwelcome rerun of the summer doldrums we have gotten to know all too well in 2010 and 2011.
Markets have a bad feeling about this. It isn't just about the deteriorating U.S. outlook. Europe and China are turning to the dark side of growth too. The euro is continuing its game of Schrödinger's currency: At any moment it is both saved and doomed. Right now, it's looking more and more doomed. Then there's the slowdown in China -- along with India and Brazil. These economies powered global growth during the dark days of 2008 and 2009, but seem certifiably wobbly now.
The Fed is our last hope -- and there isn't another. Republicans in Congress continue to block further fiscal stimulus, despite historically low borrowing costs and a clear need for better infrastructure. So that leaves Ben Bernanke & Co. as the last and only line of defense. But with short-term interest rates at zero, how much more can the Fed do? What would more quantitative easing accomplish -- and what does that even mean?
In a galaxy far, far away, there wouldn't be any question about whether the Fed could kickstart more growth. That galaxy is called Israel, or Sweden, or Switzerland. Even with zero interest rates, a central bank can increase growth thanks to three things: expectations, expectations, and expectations. Oh, and expectations. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's step back and first consider why critics say the Fed is "out of ammo". Then, we'll explain why that's wrong -- by referring to the ur-text of monetary policy: the script of Star Wars. Really.
IT'S A (LIQUIDITY) TRAP!
A long time ago -- in 2008, to be exact -- monetary policy seemed simple. Central banks raised short-term interest rates when the economy got too hot, and lowered them when it got too cool. The way they did this was simple too. They sold short-term bonds to banks when they wanted to raise rates, and bought short-term bonds from banks when they wanted to lower rates. Central banks got so good at this that the business cycle seemed tamed. Unemployment was low, inflation was lower, and recessions were rare. Economists gave themselves a pat on the back for this self-proclaimed Great Moderation.
That was before the dark times. Before Lehman. Then this tidy little world came crashing down. The shock from the financial crisis was so big that even a zero percent interest rate wasn't enough to turn the economy around. It still isn't. The Fed looks stuck. It can't push nominal rates below zero. What more can it do?
The Fed has tried a new strategy. It has bought long-term bonds. In other words, bonds that still have nonzero interest rates. The idea behind this unconventional easing is the same as for conventional easing: To push up growth by pushing down interest rates -- just on different bonds. These different bonds have mostly been longer-dated Treasures, as well as mortgage-backed securities and agency debt from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Taken together, this rather misunderstood bond-buying goes by the rather unfortunate name of "quantitative easing".
From a certain point of view, quantitative easing is money-printing. From another, it's just an asset swap. Let's think about what this means. Or rather, let's think about where the money for quantitative easing comes from. The magic of central of banking is that the money comes from nowhere. Or whatever the digital equivalent of nowhere is. Remember: Each bank holds a reserve account with the Fed that must meet a certain minimum balance. When the Fed buys longer-dated Treasuries from a bank, it simply creates money and credits the bank's reserve account with this newly-created money. Banks usually only keep the minimum amount in their reserve accounts -- until now, that is. The chart below shows how so-called excess reserves have grown since 2008.
Lots of people don't like this. They worry that this increasing pile of reserves will mean increasing inflation when banks eventually lend them out. Or that this is really just another backdoor bank bailout. Or that this shows that quantitative easing doesn't work.
Let's consider these in turn. First, the Fed has a number of tools to prevent excess reserves from being lent out too quickly. It's actually using one right now, although it really shouldn't be. It pays interest on these reserves. That's right: It pays banks not to lend. So relax, Zimbabwe is not in our future. Second, the Fed doesn't give banks this money for free. The banks give up bonds in return. It's swapping one asset for another. And third, just because so many reserves aren't lent out doesn't mean that quantitative easing accomplishes nothing. If nothing else, it signals that the Fed will not passively watch inflation fall too low. That message matters.
THESE AREN'T THE RATES YOU'RE LOOKING FOR
"These aren't the droids you're looking for." That's what Obi-Wan Kenobi famously tells a trio of less-than-with-it baddies in Star Wars
when -- spoiler alert! -- they actually were the droids they were
looking for. But thanks to the Force, Kenobi convinces them otherwise.
That's a Jedi mind trick -- and it's a pretty decent model for how
central banks can manipulate expectations. Thanks to the printing press,
the Fed can create a self-fulfilling reality. Even with interest rates
Central banks have a strong influence on market expectations. Actually, they have as strong an influence as they want to have. Sometimes they use quantitative easing to communicate what they want. Sometimes they use their words. And that's where monetary policy basically becomes a Jedi mind trick.
The true nature of central banking isn't about interest rates. It's about making and keeping promises. And that brings me to a confession. I lied earlier. Central banks don't really buy or sell short-term bonds when they lower or raise short-term interest rates. They don't need to. The market takes care of it. If the Fed announces a target and markets believe the Fed is serious about hitting that target, the Fed doesn't need to do much else. Markets don't want to bet against someone who can conjure up an infinite amount of money -- so they go along with the Fed.
Don't underestimate the power of expectations. It might sound a like a hokey religion, but it's not. Consider Switzerland. Thanks to the euro's endless flirtation with financial oblivion, investors have piled into the Swiss franc as a safe haven. That sounds good, but a massively overvalued currency is not good. It pushes inflation down to dangerously low levels, and makes exports uncompetitive. So the Swiss National Bank (SNB) has responded by devaluing its currency -- setting a ceiling on its value at 1.2 Swiss francs to 1 euro. In other words, the SNB has promised to print money until its money is worth what it wants it to be worth. It's quantitative easing with a target. And, as Evan Soltas pointed out, the beauty of this target is that the SNB hasn't even had to print money lately, because markets believe it now. Markets have moved the exchange rate to where the SNB wants it.
I FIND YOUR LACK OF A TARGET DISTURBING
I've seen a lot of strange stuff, but nothing quite as strange as the Fed's reluctance to declare a target recently. Rather than announce a target, the Fed announces how much quantitative easing it will do. This is planning for failure. Quantitative easing without a target is more quantitative and less easing. Without an open-ended commitment that shocks expectations, the Fed has to buy more bonds to get less of a result. It's the opposite of what the SNB has done.
Many economists have labored to bring us this knowledge -- including a professor named Ben Bernanke -- and yet the Fed mostly ignores it. I say mostly, because the Fed has said that it expects to keep short-term interest rates near zero through late 2014. But this sounds more radical than it is in reality. It's not a credible promise because it's not even a promise. It's what the Fed expects will happen. So what would be a good way to shift expectations? Let's start with what isn't a good way.
Interest rates can deceive you. Don't trust them. Because most people think the point of quantitative easing is to push down long-term interest rates, they think that any time long-term interest rates fall that it's a form of "stealth quantitative easing". Not so. Consider the chart below from Bloomberg that shows one-year inflation expectations.
Inflation expectations have jumped whenever the Fed has eased. That's not surprising. That's the point of Fed easing. What might be surprising is that sometimes long-term interest rates have fallen when inflation expectations have fallen. In other words, targeting interest rates alone can be misleading. A far better target would be the variable that the Fed ultimately cares about: the total size of the economy. Unfortunately, that kind of regime change is too radical for the Fed now. A second-best policy would be targeting the second-best variables: inflation and unemployment. Chicago Fed president Charles Evans has proposed such a rule, saying the Fed should commit to keeping rates at zero as long as core inflation is below 3 percent or unemployment is above 7 percent. Even better would be to promise to keep doing quantitative easing until the economy hits one of those targets.
EASE OR EASE NOT: THERE IS NO TRY.
The ability to manipulate interest rates is insignificant next to the power of expectations. The latter is never out of ammo, because the Fed can always promise to turn on the printing press and buy stuff until people get the message. It's not magic, but it's the closet thing we have to it. The only reason the Fed has failed so far is that it hasn't been determined to succeed. It's tentatively tried things instead. Switzerland shows that there is another path.
Use the force, Ben. Use the force of inflation expectations.
In the early 19th century, a series of massive quakes rocked Missouri. Some experts predict that the state could be in for another round of violent shaking, while others warn that a big quake could strike elsewhere in the center of the continent.
As I drove across the I-40 bridge into Memphis, I was reassured: chances were slim that a massive earthquake would wrest the road from its supports, and plunge me more than a hundred feet into the murky Mississippi. Thanks to a recently completed $260 million seismic retrofit, the bridge—a chokepoint for traffic in the central U.S.—is now fortified. It’s also decked out with strong-motion accelerometers and bookended by borehole seismometers to record convulsions in the earth.
The bridge passes a glass colossus, the Memphis Pyramid. Originally built as a nod to the city’s Old Kingdom namesake, the pyramid now enshrines a Bass Pro Shops megastore. The city recently spent $25 million to prevent the pyramid from being swallowed, perhaps by Geb, the ancient Egyptian god of earthquakes. Further downtown, AutoZone’s corporate headquarters also stands ready for a tectonic throttling, propped up as it is on top of giant shock absorbers, while, the nearby Memphis VA is similarly inured to temblors after the city spent $64 million dollars removing nine floors of the hospital to reduce the risk of collapse in a catastrophic earthquake.
The June 23 vote represents a huge popular rebellion against a future in which British people feel increasingly crowded within—and even crowded out of—their own country.
I said goodnight to a gloomy party of Leave-minded Londoners a few minutes after midnight. The paper ballots were still being counted by hand. Only the British overseas territory of Gibraltar had reported final results. Yet the assumption of a Remain victory filled the room—and depressed my hosts. One important journalist had received a detailed briefing earlier that evening of the results of the government’s exit polling: 57 percent for Remain.
The polling industry will be one victim of the Brexit vote. A few days before the vote, I met with a pollster who had departed from the cheap and dirty methods of his peers to perform a much more costly survey for a major financial firm. His results showed a comfortable margin for Remain. Ten days later, anyone who heeded his expensive advice suffered the biggest percentage losses since the 2008 financial crisis.
It happened gradually—and until the U.S. figures out how to treat the problem, it will only get worse.
It’s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than ever—at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorial—not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.
On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
The U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union betrays a failure of empathy and imagination among its leaders. Will America’s political establishment fare any better?
If there is a regnant consensus among the men and women who steer the Western world, it is this: The globe is flattening. Borders are crumbling. Identities are fluid. Commerce and communications form the warp and woof, weaving nations into the tight fabric of a global economy. People are free to pursue opportunity, enriching their new homes culturally and economically. There may be painful dislocations along the way, but the benefits of globalization heavily outweigh its costs. And those who cannot see this, those who would resist it, those who would undo it—they are ignorant of their own interests, bigoted, xenophobic, and backward.
So entrenched is this consensus that, for decades, in most Western democracies, few mainstream political parties have thought to challenge it. They have left it to the politicians on the margins of the left and the right to give voice to such sentiments—and voicing such sentiments relegated politicians to the margins of political life.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s popular book series championed emotional restraint—an approach I’ve come to both question and appreciate in adulthood.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s semi-autobiographical series Little House on the Prairie tells the simple but sprawling story of a young pioneer girl and her family as they journey across the American frontier in the 1880s. First published during the Great Depression, the novels have since been fairly criticized for their depiction of Native Americans, but this troubling aspect hasn’t diminished their popularity (they’re beloved by the feminist writer Roxane Gay and the former Alaska governor Sarah Palin alike). Today, the books disturb me as much as they move me—but as a kid, I longed for someone to develop the technology to print Little House on the backs of my eyelids, so that no matter what I was doing I could always be with Laura, racing ponies across the prairie or making maple sugar candy in the Big Woods.
For the first time, the Republican nominee’s operation shows real signs of changing course. But can changing the campaign change the candidate?
NEW YORK—On Wednesday, Donald Trump gave, by his standards, a restrained and subtle speech.
True, the Republican candidate referred to his opponent, Hillary Clinton, as “a world-class liar,” “maybe the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency,” and someone whose “decisions spread death, destruction, and terrorism everywhere.” And yes, the speech was full of lies and half-truths. Yet Wednesday’s speech, delivered at an upscale hotel the candidate owns in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, was nonetheless the most focused and cohesive address he has yet given, one that laid out a cogent populist argument without resorting to overt racism or long insult-comedy riffs.
Such is the bar for Trump that this represents progress. But if the Great Trump Pivot is finally happening—his makeover into a normal and presentable general-election candidate, much anticipated but never delivered in the seven weeks since he became the Republican nominee—well, the political establishment will believe it when they see it.
In the book, Leonard took issue with the notion that China or India could soon eclipse America as a world power. “Those countries suffer from the same problems as the United States: they are large, nationalistic nation states in an era of globalisation,” he wrote. “The European Union is leading a revolutionary transformation of the nature of power that in just 50 years has transformed a continent from total war to perpetual peace. By building a network of power—that binds states together with a market, common institutions, and international law—rather than a hierarchical nation-state, it is increasingly writing the rules for the 21st Century.”
American society increasingly mistakes intelligence for human worth.
As recently as the 1950s, possessing only middling intelligence was not likely to severely limit your life’s trajectory. IQ wasn’t a big factor in whom you married, where you lived, or what others thought of you. The qualifications for a good job, whether on an assembly line or behind a desk, mostly revolved around integrity, work ethic, and a knack for getting along—bosses didn’t routinely expect college degrees, much less ask to see SAT scores. As one account of the era put it, hiring decisions were “based on a candidate having a critical skill or two and on soft factors such as eagerness, appearance, family background, and physical characteristics.”
The 2010s, in contrast, are a terrible time to not be brainy. Those who consider themselves bright openly mock others for being less so. Even in this age of rampant concern over microaggressions and victimization, we maintain open season on the nonsmart. People who’d swerve off a cliff rather than use a pejorative for race, religion, physical appearance, or disability are all too happy to drop the s‑bomb: Indeed, degrading others for being “stupid” has become nearly automatic in all forms of disagreement.
Are the referendum results binding? How long will it take Britain to get out? What happens to the rest of Europe?
First, are the results really binding?
For the pro-“remain” side, this may be more wishful thinking than anything—given the scale of the “leave” victory—but, in theory at least, the referendum’s results are not binding. That’s because, in the U.K., it is Parliament that is sovereign. Referenda themselves are rare in the country—and Thursday’s was only the third in U.K. history.
The relevant legislation did not provide for the referendum result to have any formal trigger effect. The referendum is advisory rather than mandatory. The 2011 referendum on electoral reform did have an obligation on the government to legislate in the event of a “yes” vote (the vote was “no” so this did not matter). But no such provision was included in the EU referendum legislation.
What happens next in the event of a vote to leave is therefore a matter of politics not law. It will come down to what is politically expedient and practicable. The UK government could seek to ignore such a vote; to explain it away and characterise it in terms that it has no credibility or binding effect (low turnout may be such an excuse). Or they could say it is now a matter for parliament, and then endeavour to win the parliamentary vote. Or ministers could try to re-negotiate another deal and put that to another referendum. There is, after all, a tradition of EU member states repeating referendums on EU-related matters until voters eventually vote the “right” way.
The Brexit vote highlights some of the forces pulling the United Kingdom apart.
Among the uncertainties unleashed by the Brexit referendum, which early Friday morning heralded the United Kingdom’s coming breakup with the European Union, was what happens to the “union” of the United Kingdom itself. Ahead of the vote, marquee campaign themes included, on the “leave” side, the question of the U.K.’s sovereignty within the European Union—specifically its ability to control migration—and, on the “remain” side, the economic benefits of belonging to the world’s largest trading bloc, as well as the potentially catastrophic consequences of withdrawing from it. Many of the key arguments on either side concerned the contours of the U.K.-EU relationship, and quite sensibly so. “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” was, after all, the precise question people were voting on.