The Fed signals that it intends to hitch our national wagon to Europe just as Europe is going over the edge, and the Dow jumps 4 percent. Maybe I’m missing something.
All that Bernanke & Co. did yesterday was to lower the dollar-financing cost for banks in Europe, where inter-bank lending is locking up — for good reason. But Europe’s problem is not its banks and their access to dollars. Europe’s banks are in trouble because European government bonds are in trouble, and European government bonds are in trouble because European governments are in trouble. European governments are in trouble because they spend too much money. The Fed can’t change that, and hasn’t tried.
The question is: What is the Fed thinking? Is it looking out for the United States, or is it looking out for the banks?
The generous interpretation of the Fed’s action goes like this: The Fed hasn’t really risked anything — it’s just making it easier for them to borrow from one another, because a European banking crisis would cause a 2008-style credit crisis worldwide. With U.S. economic indicators improving modestly, the main worry of U.S. policymakers right now is economic events outside our own borders. The Fed can’t work out the Europeans’ finances for them, but it can soften the blow to international credit markets, and thereby do a service to the American economy.
The ungenerous interpretation of the Fed’s action goes like this: Everybody knows the jig is up, but lo these many years after the 2008 crisis, trillions in bailouts later, the banks are still in weak shape, we haven’t really reformed our financial rules, there’s insufficient transparency to really know what kind of shape everybody is in, and the world’s biggest banks just got downgraded on Tuesday. We’re buying time and hoping for the best, and giving all our favorite bankers an extra little margin of error to get their acts together before the big kaboom gets heard ’round the world.
I’m open to either interpretation, and to other interpretations.
But here is what is beyond debate: Europe has not solved its fiscal problems. Europe shows no sign of being on the verge of solving its fiscal problems. Europe shows no sign that it wants to solve its fiscal problems. If Ben Bernanke is having “in for a penny, in for a pound” thoughts, he needs to think again: We do not have the resources to bail out Europe, and nobody has the resources to bail out the United States.
Congress should make it clear — today — that the Fed’s mandate does not extend to bailing out Europe’s banks and Europe’s governments. This is especially true after the secrecy and unaccountability with which it conducted the $7.7 trillion shadow bailout on top of TARP.
Market indicators suggest that investors are expecting interest rates to go lower and money to remain easy — even the ChiComs loosened up a little bit yesterday. And why had Beijing been so tight up until now? Inflation. In a poor country such as China, a little inflation can cause civil unrest. But rich countries aren’t any different, just richer. Years of low interest rates and loose money haven’t solved our fundamental economic problems, but they have created the potential for seriously disruptive inflation, and you’ll notice that gold prices and oil futures have been going up, too. That isn’t a sign of confidence in the dollar or the euro.
One of the big problems at MF Global (as at Lehman Bros.) was off-balance-sheet accounting, using various bookkeeping shenanigans to hide the fact that liabilities were dwarfing assets. The United States government does that both in the obvious sense — pretending that future entitlement liabilities don’t really exist — but in a more subtle sense, too: Wealth isn’t abstract numbers. Wealth is real stuff: food, oil, steel, houses, people performing useful services, etc. You can flood the world’s financial systems with liquidity and create the impression of economic activity, but that does not create one automobile, pair of shoes, or bag of coconuts. You can finesse the economic metrics, but that doesn’t make you any richer.
Government spending in the United States (at the federal, state, and local level) is about 40 percent of GDP, and we’re borrowing 40 cents of every dollar we spend. We’re spending the money now, with promises of future benefits that amount to (literally) more than all the money in the world, and promising to pay off today’s spending out of future taxes, as though the future is not going to want to spend the money on itself. That is not a program for stability. Not in Europe. Not here.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, published by Regnery. You can buy an autographed copy through National Review Online here.