In this excellent interview, The Mises Institute talks with David Stockman about the core problem of today’s financial system. Unsurprisingly, a major focus is on the policies of the central banks, in particular the US Fed. David Stockman has been Director of the Office of Management and Budget under Reagan and former Congressman. He is the author of the new bestseller The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America.
In your book you oppose Bernanke’s view of the Great Depression?
David Stockman: Bernanke has cultivated this idea that he is a brilliant scholar of The Great Depression, but that’s not true at all. What Bernanke did was basically copy Milton Friedman’s misguided and very damaging theory that the Federal Reserve didn’t expand its balance sheet fast enough by massive open market purchases of government debt during the Great Depression. Bernanke therefore claimed that monetary stringency deepened and lengthened the depression, but in fact interest rates plummeted during the crucial 1930-1933 period: credit contracted due to genuine and widespread insolvencies in the agricultural districts and industrial boom towns, causing bank deposits to shrink as a passive consequence. So Bernanke had cause and effect upside down — a historical error that he replicated with reckless abandon in response to the bursting of the housing and credit bubble in 2008.
Friedman’s error about the great depression led him, albeit inadvertently, into the deep waters of statism. He claimed to be the tribune of free markets, but in urging Nixon to scrap the Bretton Woods gold standard he inaugurated the present era of fiat central banking. He held that the central banking branch of the state could improve upon the performance of the free market by targeting the correct level of M1 (money supply) and thereby ensure optimum performance of aggregate demand, real GDP, and inflation. That’s Keynesianism through the monetary control dials, and has led to outright monetary central planning under Greenspan, Bernanke, and most of the other central banks of the world today.
Why did it take so long to see the troubling effect of the lacks of monetary and fiscal discipline?
David Stockman: Although central banking does cause moral hazards and lends itself to abuses, there have been periods in which monetary and fiscal discipline have been employed. Fed Chairman William McChesney Martin, for example, really did take the punch bowl away when the party got started because he took monetary discipline seriously. Fiscal discipline under Eisenhower and the gold standard behind Bretton Woods helped put off the day of reckoning for quite a long time. But fiscal discipline went out the window with Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and the elimination of the weak gold standard behind Bretton Woods certainly didn’t help. The deficit spending of the Reagan years made things even worse.
The Greenspan and Bernanke years then opened the door the massive abuse of the system we see today. Greenspan took the Federal Reserve, which for years had been run by far more cautious and conservative men, and turned it into a machine for fine-tuning every aspect of the economy. Bernanke has continued this, and taken it even further.
The Fed today tries to manage everything (growth, employment, mortgage rates). Has this always been the case?
David Stockman: The Greenspan-Bernanke Fed has become a tool for central planning and manipulation of the economy, but it hasn’t always been that way. One way to reverse this dangerous and unstable deformation of policy would be to return to the vision of Carter Glass, and employ the Fed as a “banker’s bank.” In such a situation, the Fed takes its cues from the market. The market sets prices (i.e., interest rates on money and debt), and the Fed only provides additional liquidity, in exchange for sound collateral, at a penalty rate, when the banks needed liquidity.
The system we have now is one in which the Fed decides, through a Politburo of planners sitting in Washington, how much liquidity is necessary, what the interest rate should be, what the unemployment rate should be, and what economic growth should be.
There is no honest pricing left at all anywhere in the world because central banks everywhere manipulate and rig the price of all financial assets. We can’t even analyze the economy in the traditional sense anymore because so much of it depends not on market forces, but on the whims of people at the Fed.
Is it true that financial sector deregulation caused the 2008 crisis allowing the 1% to prosper and the 99% to suffer?
David Stockman: Fundamentally, the financial crisis was a product of the Fed’s repeated blowing up of bubbles, and not of deregulation. Moreover, any suffering inflicted on the 99 Percent by our system doesn’t come from the free market, it comes from the crony capitalism that is now our economic system. The Blackberry Panic of September 2008, in which Washington policy makers led by former Goldman Sachs CEO Hank Paulson, panicked as they saw Wall Street stock prices plummet on their mobile devices, had very little to do with the Main Street economy in the United States. The panic and bailouts that followed were really about protecting the bonuses and incomes of very wealthy and politically well-connected managers at banks and other heavily leveraged businesses that were eventually deemed too big to fail. What followed was a massive transfer of wealth from the taxpayers and middle-class savers, in the form of bailouts and zero interest rates on bank deposits imposed by the Fed, to the so-called One Percent.
As I show in my book, none of this was necessary to save the larger economy, since the losses that would have taken place as a result of the collapse would have been largely limited to Wall Street. What the bailouts did was preserve the wealth of wealthy and powerful Wall Street players. Meanwhile, we’ve seen no real economic recovery in the rest of the economy.
This transfer of wealth continues, by the way, in the form of relentlessly low interest rates, and an ongoing war by the Fed on safe and stable investment tools such as savings accounts and low-risk bonds. Indeed, this is a deliberate policy to get people away from these safer investments, and to get them investing in more volatile and higher yield investments. The idea is that the Fed can somehow force bigger returns on these riskier investments, and this will lead to a wealth effect. People will then think they’re richer, and we can then spend ourselves into a recovery. This is a terrible doctrine, but that’s what rules Washington right now. It actively works against middle-class people who want to work and save and invest their money responsibly and conservatively.
Is there any way to fix things before a major crisis comes?
David Stockman: You’re not going to have legislation to change the mandate of the Fed, and I don’t see how you’ll get new people on the Fed who think differently from the current group. Even if you get rid of Bernanke, then you just get Janet Yellen. I just don’t see the political will right now to make any great reforms or cut spending significantly.
I think the political realities of the situation make the most likely scenario one in which there will be some kind of real financial collapse and disorder that will require a total reconstruction of the system. It’s impossible to say how that will be done, and this may be the chance to go back to a gold standard or to a very sharply circumscribed remit for central banks.
(original source: The Mises Institute)