Saturday, August 18, 2007

Helicopter Ben

"Helicopter Ben" is the nickname Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke reportedly got for a comment he once made regarding how the government should aggressively use monetary policy to prevent a recession. Emphasizing that the key point is to inflate quickly to avert a crisis, he said the government could simply drop money from a helicopter to stimulate the economy.

Federal Reserve chairmen like to fly around in helicopters. Maybe that's their problem. By attempting to manage the money supply from their helicopter vantage, the Federal Reserve fails to see the real action of the economy on the ground. As a result, they make bad decisions. They add too much money or too little. They act too early or too late. The result is an exacerbation of booms and busts in the economy. The booms become unreal, and the busts too severe.

In 2003, the Federal Reserve lowered the interest rate at which it facilitates bank loans to an unprecedented low of 1%. In those years, we saw tremendous investment in real estate and a boom in real estate prices. The excess investment was stoked by cheap credit for mortgages available from banks. Variable interest and interest-only loans keyed to the artificially low federal funds rate enabled homebuyers to bid ever more for larger houses. Easy 100% or more financing enabled those who hadn't saved for a down payment to buy houses on the bank's credit.

Artificially cheap money had led to a flood of financial capital becoming available for mortgage lending by the banks. Lend they did, at terms that did not reflect the true financial risk they were undertaking. Such artificially supplied cheap money is inflation. When the Fed realized that its inflation of the money supply led to inflated asset prices, it tried to limit the damage by tightening credit, eventually raising the bank interest rate to a recent high of 5 1/4%. Now, the reverse process is happening. Over-extended borrowers are defaulting, credit is tightening, and the economy is poised for a slow-down.

All of this is the result of managing monetary policy from way up high in helicopters. How do we bring monetary policy down to earth? The only way to do this is to privatize money. Instead of the Federal Reserve, a sole, legal monopoly issuer of money and credit, all money should be issued by private banks. Private banks do not operate in helicopters. They operate on the ground. They understand the specific financing needs of particular borrowers. They assess their ability to extend credit based on the creditworthiness of the borrower, and on their own availability of funds.

The supply and demand conditions of money and credit that the banks respond to
are the real economy. If a new technology creates promising new business opportunities, the banks lend to those businesses. If a regional downturn reduces creditworthiness, they extend less credit. All the time, the banks lend with a view to protecting their own balance sheets and maximizing their own profit. This grounded action by private banks will result in the most efficient deployment of financial capital possible.

Does it mean the end of booms and busts? That is a question I am not sure of, but I think it may not. Nevertheless, the booms and busts that will occur will be shorter in duration and less severe. More importantly, they will reflect real economic events, not artificial changes of the money supply by the helicopter money monopolists.

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