Archive for February, 2019

There They Go Again (And Now They’re Back!)

Note: On August 5, 2011, one month after I started blogging, I wrote the following post responding to an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by David Malpass, an op-ed remarkable for its garbled syntax, analytical incoherence, and factual misrepresentations. All in all, quite a performance. Today, exactly seven and a half years later, we learn that the estimable Mr. Malpass, currently serving as Undersecretary for International Affairs in the U.S. Treasury Department, is about to be nominated to become the next President of the World Bank.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, David Malpass, who, according to the bio, used to be a deputy assistant undersecretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration, and is now President of something called Encima Global LLC (his position as Chief Economist at Bear Stearns was somehow omitted) carries on about the terrible damage inflicted by the Fed on the American economy.

The U.S. is practically alone in the world in pursuing a near-zero interest rate and letting its central bank leverage to the hilt to buy up the national debt. By choosing to pay savers nearly nothing, the Fed’s policy discourages thrift and is directly connected to the weakness in personal income.

Where Mr. Malpass gets his information, I haven’t a clue, but looking at the table of financial and trade statistics on the back page of the July 16 edition of the Economist, I see that in addition to the United States, Japan, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Singapore, had 3-month rates less than 0.5%.  Britain, Canada, and Saudi Arabia had rates between 0.5 and 1%.  The official rate of the Swedish Riksbank is now 2.5%, but it held the rate at 0.5% until economic conditions improved.

As for Malpass’s next sentence, where to begin?  I won’t dwell on the garbled syntax, but, even if that were its intention, the Fed is obviously not succeeding in discouraging thrift, as private indebtedness has been falling consistently over the past three years.  The question is whether it would be good for the economy if people were saving even more than they are now, and the answer to that, clearly, is:  not unless there was a great deal more demand by private business to invest than there is now.  Why is business not investing?  Despite repeated declamations about the regulatory overkill and anti-business rhetoric of the Obama administration, no serious observer doubts that the main obstacle to increased business investment is that expected demand does not warrant investments aimed at increasing capacity when existing capacity is not being fully utilized.  And for the life of me I cannot tell what it is that Mr. Malpass thinks is connected to the weakness in personal income.  Nor am I am so sure that I know what “weakness in personal income” even means.

From here Malpass meanders into the main theme of his tirade which is how terrible it is that we have a weak dollar.

One of the fastest, most decisive ways to restart U.S. private-sector job growth would be to end the Fed’s near-zero interest rate and the Bush-Obama weak-dollar policy. As Presidents Reagan and Clinton showed, sound money is a core growth strategy—the fastest and most effective way to tell world capital that the U.S. is back in business.

Mr. Malpass served in the Reagan administration, so I would have expected him to know something about what happened in that administration.  Obviously, my expectations were too high.  According to the Federal Reserve’s index of trade weighted dollar exchange rate, the dollar exchange rate stood at 95.66 when Reagan took office in January 1981 and at 90.82 when Reagan left office 8 years later.  Now it is true that the dollar rose rapidly in Reagan’s first term reaching about 141 in May 1985, but it fell even faster for the remainder of Reagan’s second term.  So what exactly is the lesson that Mr. Malpass thinks that the Reagan administration taught us?  Certainly the reduction in dollar exchange rate in Reagan’s second term was much greater than the reduction in the exchange rate so far under Mr. Obama, from about 83 to 68.

Then going in for the kill, Mr. Malpass warns us not to repeat Japan’s mistakes.

Only Japan, after the bursting of its real-estate bubble in 1990, has tried anything similar to U.S. policy. For close to a decade, Tokyo pursued a policy of amped-up government spending, high tax rates, zero-interest rates and mega-trillion yen central-bank buying of government debt. The weak recovery became a deep malaise, with Japan’s own monetary officials warning the U.S. not to follow their lead.

Funny, Mr. Malpass seems to forget that Japan also pursued the sound money policy that he extols.  Consider the foreign exchange value of the yen.   In April 1990, the yen stood at 159 to the dollar.  Last week it was at 77 to the dollar.  Sounds like a strong yen policy to me.  Is that the example Mr. Malpass wants us to follow?

Actually the Wall Street Journal in its editorial today summed up its approach to economic policy making rather well.

The Keynesians have fired all their ammo, and here we are, going south.  Maybe now President Obama should consider everything he’s done to revive the American economy — and do the opposite.

That’s what it comes down to for the Journal.  If Obama is for it, we’re against it.  Simple as that.  Leave your brain at the door.

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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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