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.
Meet the Bernie Sanders supporters who say they won’t switch allegiances, no matter what happens in the general election.
Loyal fans of Bernie Sanders have a difficult decision to make. If Hillary Clinton faces off against Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, legions of Sanders supporters will have to decide whether to switch allegiances or stand by Bernie until the bitter end.
At least some supporters of the Vermont senator insist they won’t vote for Clinton, no matter what. Many view the former secretary of state with her deep ties to the Democratic establishment as the polar opposite of Sanders and his rallying cry of political revolution. Throwing their weight behind her White House bid would feel like a betrayal of everything they believe.
These voters express unwavering dedication to Sanders on social media, deploying hashtags like NeverClinton and NeverHillary, and circulating petitions like www.wontvotehillary.com, which asks visitors to promise “under no circumstances will I vote for Hillary Clinton.” It’s garnered more than 56,500 signatures so far. Many feel alienated by the Democratic Party. They may want unity, but not if it means a stamp of approval for a political status quo they believe is fundamentally flawed and needs to be fixed.
There’s no escaping the pressure that U.S. inequality exerts on parents to make sure their kids succeed.
More than a half-century ago, Betty Friedan set out to call attention to “the problem that has no name,” by which she meant the dissatisfaction of millions of American housewives.
Today, many are suffering from another problem that has no name, and it’s manifested in the bleak financial situations of millions of middle-class—and even upper-middle-class—American households.
Poverty doesn’t describe the situation of middle-class Americans, who by definition earn decent incomes and live in relative material comfort. Yet they are in financial distress. For people earning between $40,000 and $100,000 (i.e. not the very poorest), 44 percent said they could not come up with $400 in an emergency (either with cash or with a credit card whose bill they could pay off within a month). Even more astonishing, 27 percent of those making more than $100,000 also could not. This is not poverty. So what is it?
Heidi Cruz got an elbow to the face—will Melania Trump get much more?
Ted Cruz stood on stage Tuesday evening and announced to the world that he would be suspending his campaign for the presidency of the United States. Just weeks earlier, the soon-to-be-former candidate had nearly convinced the Republican establishment that, contrary to both inclination and history, he might be its savior. His exit would effectively hand the nomination to a man the senator himself had called a “sniveling coward,” a “pathological liar,” “an arrogant buffoon,” and “Biff Tannen” (a Back to the Future reference that no doubt took some serious consideration).
In this particular moment of crisis and reconciliation, Heidi Cruz stood at her husband’s side, ready to meet his embrace as he turned from the lectern and (symbolically, at least) away from a party that had very nearly been his to lead. They embraced for eight seconds—Cruz’s face obscured from the cameras, an intimate moment between two partners.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
David Clarke, the Trump-loving, pro-mass-incarceration, Fox News favorite, is challenging criminal-justice reform—and stereotypes.
Milwaukee Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr.’s podcast, The People’s Sheriff, begins with a slide-guitar and a boot-stomp beat before segueing into the rich baritone of the sheriff himself. Over the next 40 minutes, Clarke holds forth on the topics of the day: Planned Parenthood is “what I call ‘Planned Genocide.’” Public schools are so dangerous “there should be a body camera on every teacher.” Higher education has become “a racketeering ring.” The sheriff is also a big fan of presidential candidate Donald Trump: “He gets us. He understands us.”
Clarke, an African American law-enforcement leader who favors cowboy hats and often appears atop a horse, fights crime in Milwaukee, the U.S. city that has been called “the worst place” for African Americans to live. He has become a fixture of conservative media. Glenn Beck presents the sheriff’s podcast on his multimedia juggernaut, The Blaze, and he is a frequent guest on Fox News. Clarke is also popular on Twitter, where he recently tweeted to his 127,000 followers that the young activists of the Black Lives Matter movement—he calls it “Black Lies Matter”—will eventually “join forces with ISIS.” He made sure to note, “You heard it first here.”
Trump’s only viable road to the White House requires him to improve his standing within a group that has favored the GOP, but been cool to Trump.
It’s entirely possible that for all the talk about the gender gap, Donald Trump could prove more competitive among white women against Hillary Clinton than it appears today.
But Trump faces at least as much risk that white women could seal his doom in the general election match-up against Clinton that now appears certain.
How could both things be true? The answer is that the electorate’s changing composition makes it virtually impossible for Trump to prevail in November unless he not only wins most white women, but also carries that group by a convincing margin. Even a narrow lead for Trump over Clinton among white women would likely ensure his defeat.
The good news for Trump is that the Republican edge among white women has widened substantially since 2000, providing him a foundation on which to build. The bad news is he faces enormous, possibly unprecedented headwinds in defending that advantage. “There is something really basic, elemental, going on here with women reacting to [Trump],” said the Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, who has polled extensively for the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund, a liberal voter mobilization group. “Every signal he’s sent that has built up his support with men and Republicans has had the opposite effect with women.”
With Donald Trump its presumptive nominee after his win in the Indiana primary, the GOP will never be the same.
NEW YORK—Where were you the night Donald Trump killed the Republican Party as we knew it? Trump was right where he belonged: in the gilt-draped skyscraper with his name on it, Trump Tower in Manhattan, basking in the glory of his final, definitive victory.
“I have to tell you, I’ve competed all my life,” Trump said, his golden face somber, his gravity-defying pouf of hair seeming to hover above his brow. “All my life I’ve been in different competitions—in sports, or in business, or now, for 10 months, in politics. I have met some of the most incredible competitors that I’ve ever competed against right here in the Republican Party.”
The combined might of the Republican Party’s best and brightest—16 of them at the outset—proved, in the end, helpless against Trump’s unorthodox, muscular appeal to the party’s voting base. With his sweeping, 16-point victory in Tuesday’s Indiana primary, and the surrender of his major remaining rival, Ted Cruz, Trump was pronounced the presumptive nominee by the chair of the Republican National Committee. The primary was over—but for the GOP, the reckoning was only beginning.
Donald Trump’s nomination could be a death knell for policies that Republicans in Congress have championed for years.
Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell didn’t have a whole lot to say on Wednesday, a day after Donald Trump became the presumptive standard-bearer of their party.
You’ll have to forgive them if they needed some time to cope; their dream of enacting the conservative agenda that has been a bedrock of Republican policy for a generation might well die with Trump’s nomination.
Trump is undoubtedly a short-term political threat to Ryan, the House speaker, and McConnell, the Senate majority leader. His unpopularity with the general public could drag down Republican congressional candidates across the country, hand control of the Senate and maybe even the House to Democrats, and cost both men their august job titles. But the bigger and potentially more durable threat that Trump poses to Ryan and McConnell is what his nomination means for the conservative vision of government that they have been pitching to Republican voters, activists, and donors for the last eight years. Just wait until 2017, they’ve pleaded: With a conservative partner in the White House, Republicans would be able to enact the deep spending cuts, entitlement reforms, tax overhaul, and repeal of Obamacare they’ve long dreamed of.
The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world.
Friday, August 30, 2013, the day the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower—or, alternatively, the day the sagacious Barack Obama peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void—began with a thundering speech given on Obama’s behalf by his secretary of state, John Kerry, in Washington, D.C. The subject of Kerry’s uncharacteristically Churchillian remarks, delivered in the Treaty Room at the State Department, was the gassing of civilians by the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
Terms such as “racial conflict” fail to describe the challenge Obama faced, or the resentment that has powered Trump’s rise.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Barack Obama’s election as the first black president was supposed to usher in a golden “post-racial” age but instead was met with racial conflict, a battle Obama failed, in his role as conciliator-in-chief, to either predict or control. The conflict has blossomed into a war, producing Donald Trump’s racial-angst-fueled campaign and the anger of Black Lives Matter protesters. At the heart of this racial conflict is Obama’s divisive presidency.
If that storyline sounds familiar, it’s the tack that many analyses have taken as they try to tease apart the interconnected issues of race and politics. It’s an exercise––an important one––that writers attempt every few months. Two years ago, commentators chronicled “unrest over race” in Obama’s legacy, and even before that speculated at racial tensions or unrest that might ensue should he ever lose an election. One recent column by Peniel Joseph in the Washington Post chronicles Obama’s failure to stop the “open warfare” of racial conflict during his term in office.