Danielle DiMartino Booth, Central Bankers, Money Strong LLC, Federal Reserve, Debt, Trojan Horse, Fed Up,

Beware of Central Bankers Bearing Gifts

Ulysses’s reputation preceded him.

   ‘O unhappy citizens, what madness?

Do you think the enemy’s sailed away? Or do you think

any Greek gift’s free of treachery? Is that Ulysses’s reputation?

Either there are Greeks in hiding, concealed by the wood,

or it’s been built as a machine to use against our walls,

or spy on our homes, or fall on the city from above,

or it hides some other trick: Trojans, don’t trust this horse.

Whatever it is, I’m afraid of Greeks even those bearing gifts.’

Virgil, The Aeneid Book II

So warned Laocoön to no avail, and that was with Cassandra’s corroboration. As reward for his prescient prudence, the Trojan priest and his twin sons were crushed to death by two sea serpents. It would seem the Greeks had no intention of relinquishing hold of ancient Anatolia, a critical continental crossroad where Europe and Asia’s borders meet, a natural target for conquering civilizations.

Thankfully, history has made history of menacing machinations crafted with the aim of undermining the opposition. If only… History is rife with exceptions starting with most politicians on Planet Earth and more recently, central bankers.

In what can only be characterized as Mission Creep raised to the power of infinity, the Federal Reserve’s last Federal Open Market Committee Minutes warned that “equity prices are quite high relative to standard valuation measures.”

Let’s see. Where does the stock market fit into Congress’ statutory requirements that the Fed’s objectives be: “maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates”? You neither, huh?

The Minutes also indicated that, “equity price indexes increased over the intermeeting period.” Is it the slightest bit alarming that monetary policymakers are nodding to a phenomena that’s been in place since March 2009 as having just occurred to them? Are we pondering pure coincidence or is this exactly what it appears to be — political pandering?

This from CNBC:  FOMC Minutes have unleashed the word “valuation’ as it pertains to equities six times since Alan Greenspan, a self-described obsessive observer of the stock market, first uttered the words, “irrational exuberance.” In every instance, stocks were hit over the next 12 months.

Could it be that Janet Yellen, who in 2008 said the Minutes should be used, “to provide quantitative information on our expectations” knew exactly what she was doing, that she planted the word ‘valuation’ to send the President a pointed message with nothing less than perfect precision?

You may be thinking our new leader has more than enough on his agenda to be worried about a threat to the stock market from the likes of academics he not so long ago publicly derided. If Trump cares about staying in the good graces of those who put him in office, he will fight the temptation to pivot on the Fed. He’s been in office long enough to have made a move to begin filling the three open seats on the Federal Reserve Board.

More to the point, in the event Trump hasn’t been apprised, the Fed has the economy by the short hairs. And, yes, it was, is, and will be about the economy, at least among those who voted him into office, many of whom remain angry and anxious, but not stupid.

They are still waiting for an advocate who sees through the average data right through to the galling truth that absent executive pay, incomes remain in decline. They pine for a leader who can like debt all he wants to get deals done, but doesn’t force it down the economy’s throat to generate economic growth of the most fleeting nature. They may not be able to identify the enemy within by name but they have every right to expect their President does, that he has the gumption to stand up to the Fed and deliver his People from the shackles of indentured servitude.

It might even be a good thing, for working Americans who’ve long sensed the economy has abandoned them, that Trump has a beef with the media and two savvy guys from Goldman Sachs helping steer the economy. Together they should be able to glean the facts from the data the Fed insists are so much “good news.”

Consider, if you will, a fresh report on the state of consumer finance released by the New York Fed. At $12.73 trillion, household debt sits at a record high. We’re told to look the other way, that it’s a nominal figure and more importantly that debt as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) is nowhere near where it was back in the bad old days of 2007.

‘Tis true that household debt is no longer 95 percent of GDP which was the case when it peaked in the fourth quarter of 2007. Before resuming its climb to its current 80-percent level, it got as low as 78 percent of GDP.  But let’s hold off on the austerity bubbly for the moment. Since record keeping began in 1952, when the record low of 23 percent was recorded, debt-to-GDP has averaged 56 percent.

As for the red herring that households have tightened their belts, while that is the case for a minority, the bulk of deleveraging that’s taken place has been the result of the past decade’s 10 million and counting foreclosures. (For those of you still keeping count, some 91,000 individuals had ‘foreclosure’ added to their credit reports in the first three months of this year, an uptick from 2016’s fourth quarter.)

The deleveraging, by the way, ended years ago. Aggregate household debt is 14 percent above the low it hit in the second quarter of 2013. And we’re not talking about mortgages here.

Drawing hard conclusions is a bit of a stretch as it really depends on your perspective. You make the call. How secured by anything of value is the type of debt households have taken on since mortgage lending standards tightened like a vise on would-be homebuyers? Credit card debt is an easy enough call. But what about that car loan? Checked your trade-in value lately? (Not recommended if you’ve had a bad day.) As for that festering $1.3 trillion mountain of student debt? Did someone say ‘perspective’?

The bottom line is we still have too much debt and precious little to show for it.

In return, we get this from the NY Fed’s President Bill Dudley: “Homeownership represents an important means of wealth accumulation, with housing equity being the principal form of wealth for most households.” (Isn’t that a good thing?)

He goes on to observe that, “Changes in the way we finance higher education, with an increased reliance on student debt, may have important implications for the housing market and the distribution of wealth.” (You think?)

And finally, out of the other side of his mouth, he has this gem of a recommendation to kick start the economy: “Whatever the timing, a return to a reasonable pattern of home equity extraction would be a positive development for retailers and would provide a boost to economic growth.” (Wait, wasn’t all that home equity borrowing what pushed debt up to its record highs and drove the economy into the Great Financial Crisis?)

It’s critical to note that Corporate America is also drowning in record levels of debt – nonfinancial corporate debt within a hair of $6 trillion. And though it was nary mentioned in the campaign by either party, at $20 trillion, Uncle Sam himself is up to his eyeballs in hock.

Hopefully you can see Trump’s once in a century chance to reshape the warped thinking inside the Fed. He has the tremendous power to redirect the meme by draining the debt swamp that makes our government beholden to foreign lenders, our corporations less competitive on the global stage and our households seething at their inhibited upward mobility. Talk about Making America Great Again, for ALL Americans.

Without a doubt, this will be one of Trump’s toughest tests, and yes, the Fed can easily take down the stock market in retaliation; they could even follow through on threats to shrink the balance sheet. It would be as if someone flipped a switch and we veered from Quantitative Pleasing to Quantitative Plaguing.

And what politician in their right mind wants plague visited upon their economy on their watch? Ask any of Trump’s predecessors and they’ll shoot you straight. Passing legislation with ultra-easy monetary policy and fluffy stock prices on your side sure as heck beats the alternative.

But in the end, it just buys time, not Greatness.

Artificially low interest rates might be as alluring as that Trojan Horse was to the people of Troy. But let’s put their experience to better use and not dismiss Laocoön’s words as the tragic Trojans did. Let us all Beware of Central Bankers Bearing Gifts.

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The Vanity of Central Bankers and the Common Sense Rule

The Vanity of Central Bankers and the Common Sense Rule

Some wedding gifts just keep on giving, even after the celebrated union upon which they were bestowed has failed. That would certainly be true in the case of Carly Simon and James Taylor, whose notoriously rocky marriage ended in 1983. The timing of her November 1972 wedding marked more than a vow to Taylor, it coincided with Simon’s gift to pop music and the release of “You’re So Vain,” which ripped to the No. 1 spot on the charts and still retains the ranking of 82nd highest on Billboard’s Greatest Songs of All-Time. What a generous gift!

But, was it for the duo? Might it just be possible this lasting gift bred some not so blissful turbulence in the marriage? At the time, speculation swirled around the obviously vainglorious but mystery male subject. Was it Warren Beatty, David Geffen, Mick Jagger, Kris Kristofferson, Cat Stephens or James Taylor himself? The list went on and on. As of November 2015, Simon has only divulged that Beatty was one of three the lyrics reference. Taylor is not among the remaining two mystery men.

It’s a safe bet that a Taylor of a completely different stripe is far from being a mystery man in Janet Yellen’s appreciably less torrid past. In fact, the roles might even be reversed in Yellen’s world, with a slew of economists lamenting her vanity in rejecting them. The eminent John Taylor would be first in line, given that no less than his namesake rule used for devising monetary policy has been so explicitly and publically snubbed by the Chair.

The Taylor rule debuted in 1993 and continues to grow in its appeal thanks to the simplicity with which it can be executed. Though Taylor engaged the mandatory calculus to build his model, the inputs are elegant in their straightforward real world ease of application. At the risk of being overly simplistic, the Fed should set interest rates based on targeted vs actual employment and inflation levels; an ideal interest rate is consistent with full employment which is theoretically in sync with potential economic output.

If inflation is above target or if the economy is running too hot, as in above potential, the Fed should raise rates. If inflation is too low or economic growth too slow, well then the Fed should lower rates to encourage growth. In a perfect world, inflation and economic output are neither too hot nor too cold. That just right Goldilocks place in the ether calls for a ‘neutral’ interest rate of two percent, where the fed funds rate has historically hovered.

Here, the situation becomes perplexing in that it is the very simplicity of the rule which renders it an abomination to the reigning elite. Their preference since the crisis broke has been to embrace overly complicated models and deploy obfuscation to drive interest rates to the zero bound and beyond with blind abandon.

To add insult to injury, Yellen herself has conceded that the Taylor rule has long since signaled rates were too low. This is what she had to say in a March 2015 speech:

“Even with core inflation running below the Committee’s 2 percent objective, Taylor’s rule now calls for the federal funds rate to be well above zero if the unemployment rate is currently judged to be close to its normal longer-run level and the “normal” level of the real federal funds rate is currently close to its historical average.”

How do you fix that if you’re a labor economist who just knows, knows in her bones, that zero interest rates will ultimately lure back permanently displaced workers? Why you change the assumptions, of course! And that’s just what she did.

In that same speech, Yellen went on to explain that if you substituted in her new and improved assumptions, the rule miraculously produced different results. She began with the supposition that despite how low the unemployment rate was, ‘significant slack still remained in the labor market.” She furthermore posited that it would be more reasonable to assume the historic equilibrium rate of two percent be replaced by zero based on the suggestion of “some statistical models.”

Shortly after the speech, Taylor criticized Yellen’s modifications, writing that “little or no rationale” was given to explain cutting the equilibrium rate to zero. “This is a huge controversial issue deserving a lot of explanation and research,” Taylor warned.

Taylor summed up Yellen’s approach of massaging the model as such: “This gives the appearance that one is changing the rule or the inputs to the rule to get an answer. I do not think that reason would go over well in Congressional testimony.”

And yet, so many of Taylor’s peers in the economic community continue to feed policymakers’ penchant for contorting the world into a fantastical one that only exists in those leaders’ dreams. Is it any wonder so many of today’s leaders in central banking sport God complexes?

Sadly, as has been the case so many times since the financial crisis broke, an opportunity has been squandered. A more aggressive path to normalization would have been appropriate as per Taylor’s rule and even Yellen’s own rule for gauging the fortitude of the labor market…then. Today it appears as if the current cycle has set sail for the history books. With interest rates grounded close to zero, the real question is what miracle can the Fed contrive for the attack on what’s to come?

Given anxieties are ratcheting up fast, it will be hard to comply with this next request. But try. Try to set aside those worries for a moment and look as far out into the future as you can see. Picture the following: the economy has weathered the next recession and hopefully lived to fight another day. Now ask yourself this: What lessons might we apply from today to the post-recession world of tomorrow?

As yours truly marks the one-year anniversary of her departure from the Fed this week, a new kind of rule comes to mind. Call it the Common Sense Rule. Its input is experiential in nature drawn from economies across the globe. Its deployment is simple to the extreme:

Raise the floor on interest rates to two percent and vow to never again breach that raised floor.

Will such a radical commitment ever come to pass? It’s impossible to say. But it would be a refreshing change from the norm that’s prevailed for near on 30 years. And wouldn’t it be a relief to return to a rules-based discipline instead of the smoke and mirrors of today’s undisciplined approach where contrived language, convoluted math and the always popular throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks are employed with disastrous results?

Acknowledge that there is no single certainty in this world other than that of uncertainty. Or as Taylor himself wisely observed, “Uncertainty exists in the real world; you can’t ignore it whether you use rules or discretion.”

Waiting for the Godot of central banking has caused this nation undue harm by anesthetizing U.S. politicians and households to the inherent dangers of over-indebtedness. Period. End.

That said, with all deference to Ron Paul and his acolytes, the Fed does not need to be ended. We are not, nor ever shall be, a third world banana republic. Therefore, a central bank in some form is a given.

That is not to deny that the Fed is sorely in need of reform. In fact, a total re-engineering would seem to be in order, applying the same methods many of us learned in business school. Who said that in order to exact meaningful change, one must first create chaos? Let’s do just that.

Vanity has no place in central banking, nor should it. But that very weak and vainglorious predilection seems to have nevertheless crept into a group of leaders tasked with staying above the fray. We can hope that public outrage tempers the hubris driving our current monetary policymakers to such extremes. We can hold out for Common Sense ruling the day. Let there not be those among us “So Vain” that they believe it is all about them and not “We The People.”