Oct 21, 2010

Fed chief Richard Fisher on why QE1 failed to stimulate an economic recovery

The vexing question is: Why isn’t this liquidity being utilized to hire new workers and reduce unemployment? Why is it that, as pointed out in Alan Greenspan’s op-ed in the Oct. 7 edition of the Financial Times, the share of liquid cash flow allocated to long-term fixed asset investment has fallen to its lowest level in the 58 years for which data are available? If current dramatically high levels of liquidity and low interest rates are not being harnessed to add to payrolls or expand capital expenditures, would driving interest rates further down and adding more liquidity to the system through Fed purchases of Treasury securities induce U.S. businesses and consumers to get on with spending it?

The intrepid theoretical economist would argue in the affirmative, the logic being that there is a tipping point at which the market becomes convinced that money held in reserve earning negligible returns is at risk of being debased through some inflation and, thus, should be spent rather than hoarded. Hence, the appeal of the Fed’s showing a little leg of inflationary permissiveness.

There is some valid theory behind this approach. Yet, my soundings among those who actually do the work of creating sustainable jobs and making productive capital investments―private businesses, big and small―indicate that few are willing to commit to expanding U.S. payrolls or to undertaking significant commitments to expand capital expenditures in the U.S. other than in areas that enhance the productivity of the current workforce. Without exception, all the business leaders I interview cite nonmonetary issues―fiscal policy and regulatory constraints or, worse, uncertainty going forward―and better opportunities for earning a return on investment elsewhere as factors inhibiting their willingness to commit to expansion in the U.S. As the CEO of one medium-size business put it to me shortly before the last FOMC, “Part of it is uncertainty: We just don’t know what the new regulations [sic] like health care are going to cost and what the new rules will be. Part of it is certainty: We know that taxes are eventually going to have to increase to get us out of the fiscal hole Republicans and Democrats alike have dug for us, and we know that regulatory intervention will be getting more intense.” Small wonder that most business leaders I survey, including those at small businesses, remain fixated on driving productivity and lowering costs, budgeting to “get fewer people to wear more hats.” Tax and regulatory uncertainty―combined with a now well-inculcated culture of driving all resources, including labor, to their most productive use at least cost―does not bode well for a rapid diminution of unemployment and the concomitant expansion of demand.

So, it is indeed true that some economic theories would lead one to believe we can shake job creation from the trees if we were to further expand our balance sheet, and/or induce greater final demand if people and businesses with money in their pockets believe the central bank will tolerate inflation somewhat “above” levels consistent with our mandate. Yet, to paraphrase the early 20th century progressive Clarence Day―the once-ubiquitous contributor to my favorite magazine, The New Yorker―“Too many (theorists) begin with a dislike of reality.” The reality of fiscal and regulatory policy inhibiting the transmission mechanism of monetary policy is most definitely present and is vexing to monetary policy makers. It is indisputably a significant factor holding back the economic recovery.

~ Richard Fisher, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, "Rangers, Yankees and Federal Open Market Committee: One Game at a Time", Remarks before the New York Association for Business Economics, New York, NY, October 19th, 2010

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