September 3, 2001
The Fed Cannot Create Prosperity
Last week Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan discussed the state of the US economy during a conference held in Wyoming. He was quite candid in his admission that the economic outlook remains gloomy, especially given the sobering numbers recently released in the media. Economic growth, measured by GDP, has fallen to .2%, the lowest in 8 years- meaning the economy is nearly in a recession. The Dow and Nasdaq averages suffered losses throughout August. Consumer spending, supposedly the one bright spot in the outlook, is also wavering. American families undoubtedly know first-hand that the job market is very shaky, and it was only a matter of time until purchases of new houses, cars, and retail goods declined. A tumble in the real estate markets may be the last straw that sends the economy into a tailspin.
All of these economic problems have developed despite the massive interest rate- cutting measure taken by the Fed over the past two years. Chairman Greenspan has cut interest rates 7 times in 2001 alone, most recently in mid-August. However, the markets have not responded, and Wall Street continues to pressure the Fed to reduce rates even more. This trend developed steadily throughout the 1990's- each time the economy showed signs of a downturn, the Fed cut rates. Yet it is becoming apparent that this practice cannot work forever, and that every short-term fix simply puts off the inevitable painful correction that must follow.
The Japanese economy provides a vivid example of the futility of manipulating interest rates. Japan's central bank began cutting rates more than a decade ago, but the country remains mired in a stagnant economy. Ultimately, interest rates were cut to zero, where they have remained for several years. This rate-cutting has failed to stimulate the economy, however. The Nikkei stock market index remains at 1980s levels, while Japanese unemployment recently reached 5%, the highest rate in decades. The Japanese experience should tell us that prosperity cannot be created out of thin air by a central bank.
Still, while some in America have begun to challenge the wisdom of Alan Greenspan, few seem to question the concept of the Fed bank itself. In fact, the financial and political press never discuss the dangers of a fiat currency system managed by a centralized bank. Remember, every time the Fed cuts interest rates, it expands the amount of money in the economy. Economists have a simple word for this increase in the money supply: inflation. Inflation means your money has less buying power and your retirement savings are worth less. Yet we never hear the Fed criticized for its inflationary measures- on the contrary, Greenspan was widely praised throughout the 1990s as the all-knowing sage responsible for the good times.
The truth is that the good times may be coming to an end. The Fed, far from being our savior, is actually the cause of the current economic troubles. The Fed's easy credit policies flooded the economy with cheap money over the last decade, but the bills are coming due. With lots of artificial investment capital in the marketplace, businesses and individuals spent with less discipline and incurred more debt. The stock market became wildly overvalued, with many companies trading at outrageous prices. We should expect both personal and business bankruptcies to continue to climb as the bubble bursts.
In a truly free society, interest rates should be set by the market. The laws of supply and demand work better than any government bureaucrat in determining the correct cost of money, and without the political favoritism and secrecy that characterize central banks. Americans should not tolerate the manipulation of our economy and the inflation of our currency by an unaccountable institution. The turbulent period we are entering may serve to remind Americans that the Fed cannot suspend the laws of economics. The key to lasting prosperity is a return to true private banking, where interest rates are set by the free market and dollars are backed by gold.