Monday, January 28, 2008

Trying to do too much

The dramatic falls in global markets over the past couple of weeks have created a rather panicky mind set amongst many of the key players. However, whatever Ben Bernanke may hope, the global financial crisis is not going to come to an end because of emergency rate cuts by the Fed. The fact is that the credit binge now needs to unwind to a still greater degree before stability can be restored. This is not a situation that is likely to respond to the short term moves that policy makers primarily use to influence the markets.

On the other hand, the idea the George Soros puts forward that the current troubles are the end of a "sixty year super cycle" seems to take his theories of "reflexivity" into the sci-fi realms of Hari Seldon's Psychohistory created by Isaac Asimov. Nevertheless, that the credit markets and the housing boom now need some significant structural adjustment, is a given, the question is one of scale.

It is also a question of timing.

A few months ago, I wrote about the coming global storm. The storm has indeed now hit, and major adjustments on asset prices are underway. There are, however, so many moving pieces in the modern market economy that any forecasts we make may have highly unexpected effects. The two careers that Nassim Taleb has the least respect for are politicians and securities analysts, since they are the people most inclined to "epistemological arrogance". To that list I think we could now add central bankers.

The job of a central banker is to control inflation. It is not the job of the central banker to second guess the markets. Arguably the Greenspan years saw a rescuing of the markets as each speculative bubble burst: emerging markets in 1997/8, tech stocks in 2001 and finally (and most damagingly) property now. In each case the effect was that overall consumption grew yet further, to the point where consumers were eating their own seed corn- relying on a speculative property bubble instead of real savings to fund their future.

"Helicopter Ben" has continued his mentor's policies, but with consumption at 72% of US GDP, there is now no where to hide. A significant adjustment is inevitable. The emergency rate cut will not have any substantial effect, indeed arguably, if recession is inevitable, at this early stage some have made the case for a rate increase in order to speed the process of adjustment, one key factor of which is an increase in savings. To be honest, this is not relevant- the only factor that the fed should be measured by is their stewardship of the currency. By any measure this is parlous. essentially the repeated speculative bubbles have debauched the US currency to the point that it is now no longer a universally attractive store of wealth. The price of gold reflects the dramatic way that the Dollar has declined- and underlines the failure of the Fed under both Greenspan and Bernanke to fulfil their mandate.

Both Federal reserve Chairmen must take their share of the blame. Both tried to do more than their pure remit. Both a responsible for the mess that the US credit market, and now the global economy find themselves in.

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