Last week, the Federal Reserve confirmed its intention to engage in a second round of "quantitative easing" - purchasing about $600 billion of U.S. Treasury debt over the coming months, in addition to about $250 billion that it already planned to purchase to replace various Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac securities as they mature.
While the announcement of QE2 itself was met with a rather mixed market reaction on Wednesday, the markets launched into a speculative rampage in response to an Op-Ed piece by Bernanke that was published Thursday morning in the Washington Post. In it, Bernanke suggested that QE2 would help the economy essentially by propping up the stock market, corporate bonds, and other types of risky securities, resulting in a "virtuous circle" of economic activity. Conspicuously absent was any suggestion that the banking system was even an object of the Fed's policy at all. Indeed, Bernanke observed "Our earlier use of this policy approach had little effect on the amount of currency in circulation or on other broad measures of the money supply, such as bank deposits."
Given that interest rates are already quite depressed, Bernanke seems to be grasping at straws in justifying QE2 on the basis further slight reductions in yields. As for Bernanke's case for creating wealth effects via the stock market, one might look at this logic and conclude that while it may or may not be valid, the argument is at least the subject of reasonable debate. But that would not be true. Rather, these are undoubtedly among the most ignorant remarks ever made by a central banker.
To a large extent, the Fed has assumed the role of creating financial bubbles because we have allowed it. The proper role of the Federal Reserve, and where its actions can be clearly effective, is to provide liquidity to the banking system in periods of financial stress or constraint, by replacing Treasury bonds held by the public with currency and bank reserves. But to expect the Fed to somehow bring about full employment is misguided. To believe that changing the mix of government liabilities in the economy (monetary policy) is a more important determinant of inflation than the total quantity of those liabilities (fiscal policy) is equally misguided. Historically, and across the world, the primary driver of inflation has always been expansion in unproductive government spending (think of Germany paying striking workers in the early 1920s, or the massive increase in Federal spending in the 1960s that resulted in large deficits and eventually inflation in the 1970s). But unproductive fiscal policies are long-run inflationary regardless of how they are financed, because they distort the tradeoff between growing government liabilities and scarce goods and services.
We are betting on the wrong horse. When the Fed acts outside of the role of liquidity provision, it does more harm than good. Worse, we have somehow accepted a situation where the Fed's actions are increasingly independent of our democratically elected government. Bernanke's unsound leadership has placed the nation's economic stability on two pillars: inflated asset prices, and actions that - in Bernanke's own words - should be "correctly viewed as an end run around the authority of the legislature" (see below).
The right horse is ourselves, and the ability of our elected representatives to create an economic environment that encourages productive investment, research, development, infrastructure, and education, while avoiding policies that promote speculation, discourage work, or defend reckless lenders from experiencing losses on bad investments.