The Fed Doubles Monetary Base in One Year

America has the largest economy in the world. For the Federal Reserve to double the economy’s money supply in one year, especially in tandem with decreasing industrial productivity, spells disastrous inflation unless real GDP growth takes off soon.  If a depression comes, The Fed cannot escape having its fingerprints all over it.

From CATO’s How to Turn a Recession into a Depression:

The monetary policy that led to the current recession was similar to the policy that led to the first phase of the Great Depression. The Federal Reserve maintained an expansionary monetary policy from 2001 into 2004, with a federal funds rate lower than the general inflation rate, contributing to both the housing boom and the increase in stock prices. Then from mid-2004 through mid-2007, the federal funds rate was increased by 4.25 percentage points, leading to a decline in residential investment beginning in the spring of 2006 and a decline in the stock market and national output beginning in the fall of 2007.

As in the 1930s, the decline in stock prices and the subsequent deflation greatly increased the demand for money and other financial instruments such as Treasury bills. The major difference from the earlier period is that the Federal Reserve has maintained a very aggressive monetary policy since mid-2007, reducing the federal funds rate by 5 percentage points. Moreover, beginning last fall, the Federal Reserve has purchased a wide range of private and public financial instruments, doubling the monetary base since last August. This dramatic change in monetary policy is primarily attributable to the lessons from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s studies of the monetary policy mistakes during the 1930s.

The very rapid increase in the monetary base since last August was, I believe, the correct response to the huge increase in the demand for money and is likely to be much more effective than any fiscal stimulus plan. But it presents a potentially large future danger. At such time as there is a revival of some general inflation and increased confidence in the security of nonmonetary assets, the demand for money will decline to a more normal level relative to total money income.

At that time, the Federal Reserve and the Obama administration will be faced with a very difficult choice—allow a high rate of inflation or raise interest rates fast enough to avoid that outcome. The first option would be the policy of inaction; the second option would require selling most of the financial assets that the Federal Reserve has accumulated in the past few months. My guess is that the time for this difficult choice is not too far off, probably in the next year or two, a guess based on observing that there has already been some increase in stock prices and commodity prices since November. And that will be a difficult time to make this difficult choice. Bernanke’s term as Fed Chairman expires in January 2010 and, of course, there will also be a congressional election that fall, reducing the incentives and support for a rapid increase in interest rates. The second option would also present the potential for a W-shaped recession and recovery, extending the period of weak economic growth to avoid a high rate of inflation. In either case, the only way to avoid being faced with such a difficult choice in the more distant future is to correct the conditions that led this recession to be a financial crisis. This would require restructuring the mortgage market such that mortgages and mortgagebacked securities are more liquid and their risks are more transparent.

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