March 19, 2001
Economic Woes and the Federal Reserve
Last week was tumultuous for worldwide stock markets, some of which ended the week at their lowest levels in years. Our own Dow-Jones and NASDAQ market indices both suffered heavy losses, while the Japanese Nikkei index fell to its lowest level since 1985! Nervous investors scrambled to sell even blue-chip holdings, especially after news that projected 2001 earnings would be lower than expected for many companies.
The market downturn is not surprising. An economic slowdown began in 2000, accelerating in the last quarter of the year. All indications suggest the U.S. economy is headed for a further slowdown in economic growth, if not an outright recession. Already we have seen thousands of job cuts, and not only in the market-sensitive high tech sector. Economic output, as measured by the gross domestic product, dropped every quarter in 2000.
Amazingly, some in Washington and the popular media want to blame President Bush and his administration for our current economic predicament. Never mind that growth began slowing fully one year before he took office. Apparently, certain politicians believe that the President is causing a recession merely by talking about the economic data. One prominent Congressman fretted that "we've been talking ourselves into this. Now it's happening." In other words, Mr. Bush is "talking down the economy," making a recession more likely simply by discussing reality.
Such thinking should be dismissed as absurd. Economic recessions are not the result of a gloomy national state of mind; if so, we could create economic prosperity simply by positive thinking. Yet basic education in economics is so badly lacking in America that many will accept this preposterous idea. The same ignorance of economic principles is behind the fallacy that capitalism is to blame for recessions, that a free market system causes an inevitable cycle of booms and busts. In reality, it is government intervention in the economy, particularly in the areas of money supply and interest rates, which creates the precarious financial bubbles that cause economic recessions.
The Federal Reserve did two things to artificially expand the economy over the last decade. First, it relentlessly lowered interest rates whenever growth slowed. Interest rates should be set by the free market, with the availability of capital (i.e. savings) determining the cost of borrowing money. In a healthy market economy, more saving equals lower interest rates. When savings rates are low, capital dries up and the cost of borrowing increases. When interest rates are set by the market, individuals and businesses make good spending decisions, because they pay an accurate interest rate for their debts. However, when the Fed set rates artificially low, the cost of borrowing becomes cheap. Individuals incur greater amounts of debt (evidenced by the record number of personal bankruptcies), while businesses overextend themselves and grow without real gains in productivity. The bubble bursts quickly once the credit dries up and the bills cannot be paid.
Second, the Fed also steadily increased the monetary supply throughout the 1990s by printing money. Recent Fed numbers show yearly increases of nearly 15% in the M2 money supply. Since 1996, the Fed has poured more than $100 billion in new dollars into the U.S. economy. These new dollars may make Americans feel richer, but the net result of monetary inflation has to be the devaluation of savings and purchasing power. Prices seemed stable over the last decade, but many types of inflation were not reported as such. An obvious example is stock prices, where companies making little or no profit often sold shares at ridiculous price/earnings ratios. Housing and energy prices also rose dramatically, and wholesale price inflation is an increasing threat. So while monetary inflation creates a sense of prosperity in the short run, long-term it simply makes your dollars worth less.
Only six months ago, market pundits were still proclaiming a new era of unending prosperity. They claimed that the fundamentals no longer mattered, that technology would save us from any more bear markets. Technology is wonderful, but it cannot save us from our own misguided monetary policies. Until we stop permitting the Fed to manipulate the economy, real prosperity will elude us. The Fed received credit for the boom times of the 1990s, yet its policies are responsible for the market correction and economic recession we are experiencing today.