Can’t see the Fiscal Forest for the Monetary Trees

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 24th, 2011

He won’t Drill but he will Draw from the Strategic Reserve

The Great Recession lingers on.  As high oil prices hit consumers hard.  Gas prices are back to $4/gallon territory.  Leaving consumers with less disposable income.  Home values are declining in a deflationary spiral.  Wages are stagnant.  Unemployment is high.  And there’s inflation in food and consumer goods.  All driven by the high price of oil.  And all that quantitative easing (QE) that has depreciated the U.S. dollar (which we buy and sell oil with in the global market).

The demand for oil is soaring.  And yet President Obama put a moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.  In fact, the U.S. isn’t drilling anywhere.  Which has forced the U.S. to import more foreign oil.  Because of this squeeze on supply.  Economics 101 tells you when demand increases supply should increase to meet that growing demand.  When it doesn’t, prices rise.  Like they are.  And the QE just compounded that problem.  When the dollar is worth less it takes more of them to buy the same amount of oil it used to.  Which means higher prices at the pump.  From demand outpacing supply.  And a weaker dollar.

The president’s solution to the high gas prices?  Blame the oil companies.  Because their profits were too high.  It had nothing to do with his policies that restricted the supply of oil on the market.  Of course, with an election coming up and gasoline prices too close to $4/gallon, he’s changed his position on that (see Loss of Libya oil bigger disruption than Katrina: IEA by Simon Falush and Zaida Espana posted 6/24/2011 on Reuters).

On Thursday, the International Energy Agency which represents the major oil consumers agreed to release 60 million barrels from emergency stockpiles, sending crude prices tumbling.

Imagine that.  Increase supply.  And prices fall.  For awhile, at least.  Because once these 60 million barrels are gone, the prices will just go back up where they were.  Unless there is a real increase in supply.  Like more drilling in the Gulf.  The Atlantic.  The Pacific.  In Alaska.  We know it works.  Increase supply.  And prices fall.  So why not just increase supply with more drilling?  Instead of drawing down our strategic reserves (America’s share being 30 million of the 60 million barrels).  Which, incidentally, we’ll have to replace.

Energy Policy Driven by the 2012 Election

Even the White House is all but admitting this move is purely political (see The wrong reason for depleting the strategic oil reserve posted 6/23/2011 on The Washington Post).

So on Thursday Obama administration spokesman Jay Carney argued that oil demand is likely to rise over the summer. In other words: It’s vacation season, and the White House is worried about high prices through the summer driving months.

Therein, perhaps, is a political emergency, at least in the White House view: President Obama’s reelection prospects will be harmed if national discontent over high gasoline prices continues. The oil release could be seen as a way for the president to take credit for gas prices that are falling anyway, or as an indirect, pre-election stimulus.

Personally, the president doesn’t have a problem with the high cost of gasoline.  His administration wants it high.  The higher the better.  They’d like to see it European high (see Times Tough for Energy Overhaul by Neil King Jr. and Stephen Power posted 12/12/2008 on The Wall Street Journal).

In a sign of one major internal difference, Mr. Chu [who became Obama’s Energy Secretary] has called for gradually ramping up gasoline taxes over 15 years to coax consumers into buying more-efficient cars and living in neighborhoods closer to work.

“Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe,” Mr. Chu, who directs the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in September.

To make the more expensive green energy less expensive in comparison.  And an easier sell to the American people.  Pleasing his liberal base.  But there’s an election coming.  And high gas prices don’t help you win elections.  Especially during record long-term unemployment.  Even though it goes against every fiber in his body to act to bring down the cost of gasoline, he will.  If it’ll help his reelection chances.  It’s not like he’s going to lose his liberal base.  Who else are they going to vote for?  The conservative?  Not likely.  They’re always going to vote for the most liberal candidate in the race.  And that will still be him.  Despite encouraging more oil consumption.

The Fed doesn’t know why the Economy is in the Toilet

The president needs to get the price down at the pump.  Where people really feel the full weight of his economic policies.  Because the economy isn’t going to get better anytime soon (see Serial disappointment posted 6/23/2011 on The Economist).

THE Fed attracted attention this week for downgrading its forecast not just for this year, but for 2012, as well. More striking is how often it does this. As my nearby chart shows [follow the above link to see chart], the Federal Open Market Committee has repeatedly ratcheted down its forecasts of out-year growth. The latest downward revision is particularly large, and in keeping with the pattern: when the current year disappoints, they take a bit out of the next, as well.

There’s been a steady downward progression of economic projections.  Despite the stimulus.  And the quantitative easing.  Nothing has worked.  When the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, was asked why the economy was not responding to the government’s actions his reply was rather Jeff Spicoli: I don’t know.  And he’s supposed to be an expert in this field.

Mr Bernanke does not need lessons about the painful deleveraging that follows crises. His pioneering work with Mark Gertler on the Great Depression introduced the “financial accelerator”, the mechanism by which collapsing net worth crushes the real economy. This concept has been rechristened the “balance sheet recession” by Richard Koo. Stephen Gordon admits he is new to the term and notes (with some nice charts contrasting America with Canada) “it’s not pretty”. (HT to Mark Thoma). Yet until now Mr Bernanke seemed to think America had learned enough from both the 1930s and Japan to avoid either experience. Reminded by a reporter for Yomiuri Shimbun that he used to castigate Japan for its lost decade, Mr Bernanke ruefully replied, “I’m a little bit more sympathetic to central bankers now than I was 10 years ago”…

Mr Koo has argued that quantitative easing cannot help in a balance sheet recession; only fiscal policy can. Does Mr Bernanke secretly agree? He may believe as strongly as he did a decade ago that sufficiently aggressive monetary policy can prevent deflation, but not that it can create enough demand to restore full employment. This does not rule out QE3; it only means it will be pursued with less hope about the results than a year ago.

The Great Depression (during the 1930s) is a complex topic.  And monetary policy played a big role in making a bad situation worse.  In particular, the numerous bank runs and failures can be blamed on the Federal Reserve.  Starving the banks for capital when they most needed it.  But there was a whole lot more going on.  And it wasn’t the stock market crash that caused it.  World War I (1914-1918) is probably more to blame.  That war was so devastating that it took the combatants a decade to recover from it.  And during that time America exploded in economic activity and fed the world with manufactured goods and food.  We call it the Roaring Twenties.  But eventually European manufacturing and farming came back.  Those lucrative export markets went away.  And America had excess capacity.  Which had to go away.  (A similar boom and bust happened in the U.S. following World War II.)  Then all the other stuff started happening.  Including the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Kicking off a trade war.  It was all too much.

Japan’s lost decade (the 1990s) followed their roaring Eighties.  When the government partnered with business.  And interest rates were low.  The economy boomed.  Into a great big bubble.  That popped.  Because they stimulated the economy beyond market demand. 

The lesson one needs to take away from both of these deflationary spirals is that large government interventions into the private market caused most of their woes.  So the best way to fix these problems is by reducing the government’s intervention into the private market.  Because only the private market knows how to match supply to demand.  And when they do, we have business cycles.  That give us only recessions.  Not depressions.

Like a Dog having Puppies

The market is demanding more oil.  But the U.S. is not meeting that demand.  So gasoline prices are up.  To lower those prices we need to bring more oil onto the market.  And you don’t do that by shutting down the oil business.

We have high unemployment.  And excess capacity.  That’s not a monetary policy problem (interest rates).  It’s a fiscal policy problem (tax and regulation).  No one is going to borrow money to add jobs to build more stuff when no one is buying.  But if you cut taxes and reduce regulations to make running a business highly profitable, people will build businesses here.  Create jobs.  And hire people.  Even if they have to ship everything they make halfway around the world to find someone who is buying. 

Running the economy is not rocket science.  Because it runs itself.  Like a dog having puppies.  Everything will be fine.  If greedy politicians just keep their hands out of it.  But they don’t.  And they love printing money.  Because they love to spend.  But the problem is that they can’t see the fiscal forest for the monetary trees.

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