Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Why Can't Federal Reserve Bank Stop Deflation ?

It's no surprise that this opinion is so popular. Well-written articles by qualified experts appear all the time, arguing that the Federal Reserve Bank has already "stopped the bleeding" and "saved the day."

First of all, between October 2007 and March 2009, the DJIA lost 58%, high to low. If 58% of your house burned to the ground, would the same experts be saying that the fire crews "saved the day"?

More importantly, in our opinion everyone who says that the Fed is in control overlooks one key point: social mood.

Conventional economists look at deflation in a very cause-and-effect way: stocks fall, the economy follows, investors and consumers lose confidence, and so on. Now that the Fed has "restored the confidence," the process gets reversed. I have long argued that this is not how it works.

Bob Prechter, EWI's founder, takes five chapters in his prescient Conquer the Crash -- which predicted deflation long before it became mainstream news -- to explain social mood's primacy. Here's an excerpt from Chapter 13, "Can the Fed Stop Deflation?":

In contrast to the assumptions of conventional macroeconomic models, people are not machines. They get emotional. People become depressed, fearful, cautious and angry during depressions; that’s essentially what causes them. A change in the population’s mental state from a desire to expand to a desire to conserve is key to understanding why central bank machinations cannot avert deflation.

When ebullience makes people expansive, they often act on impulse, without full regard to reason. That’s why, for example, consumers, corporations and governments can allow themselves to take on huge masses of debt, which they later regret. It is why creditors can be comfortable lending to weak borrowers, which they later regret. It is also why stocks can reach unprecedented valuations.

Conversely, when fear makes people defensive, they again often act on impulse, without full regard to reason. When lending officers become afraid, they call in loans and slow or stop their lending no matter how good their clients’ credit may be in actuality. Instead of seeing opportunity, they see only danger. Ironically, much of the actual danger appears as a consequence of the reckless, impulsive decisions that they made in the preceding uptrend. ...Corporations likewise reduce borrowing for expansion and acquisition, fearing the burden more than they believe in the opportunity. Consumers adopt a defensive strategy at such times by opting to save and conserve rather than to borrow, invest and spend.

Anything the Fed does in such a climate will be seen through the lens of cynicism and fear. In such a mental state, people will interpret Fed actions differently from the way that they did when they were inclined toward confidence and hope.

If people and corporations are unwilling to borrow or unable to finance debt, and if banks and investors are disinclined to lend, central banks cannot force them to do so. During deflation, they cannot even induce them to do so with a zero interest rate. That’s what has been happening in Japan for over a decade, where rates have fallen effectively to zero but the volume of credit is still contracting.

Thus, regardless of assertions to the contrary, the Fed’s purported “control” of borrowing, lending and interest rates ultimately depends upon an accommodating market psychology and cannot be set by decree.

In other words, you can lead the horse to water, but you can't make him…err, borrow. Which is the exact environment we've been in for the past two years: Banks won't lend and consumers won't spend. This will not change until social mood really improves.