The Housing Chronicles Blog: The real price of printing money for bailouts

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The real price of printing money for bailouts

I've been reading a lot lately about the impact of these bailouts to the economy, with many pundits predicting future inflation once the current round of deflation eases as inventories of homes, cars and other goods are absorbed and financial deleveraging continues. Eventually, a much higher level of dollars sloshing around the global economy will be chasing fewer goods and places in which to invest. From a New York Times story: may seem perverse that in this new era of reckoning — with consumers finally tapped out, government coffers lean and banks paralyzed by fear — many economists have concluded that the appropriate medicine is a fresh dose of the very course that delivered the disarray: Spend without limit. Print money today, fret about the consequences tomorrow. Otherwise, invite a loss of jobs and business failures that could cripple the nation for years...

But where does all this money come from? And how can a country that got itself in peril by borrowing and spending without limit now borrow and spend its way back to safety?

In the case of the Fed, the money comes from its authority to print dollars from thin air. Since late August, the Fed has expanded its balance sheet from about $900 billion to more than $2.2 trillion, creating $1.3 trillion that did not exist to replace some of the trillions wiped out by falling house prices and vengeful stock markets. The Fed has taken troublesome assets off the hands of banks and simply credited them with having reserves they previously lacked.

In the case of the Treasury, the money comes from the same wellspring that has been financing American debt for decades: Investors in the United States and around the world — not least, the central banks of China, Japan and Saudi Arabia, which have parked national savings in the safety of American government bonds.

Americans have gotten accustomed to treating this well as bottomless, even as anxiety grows that it could one day run dry with potentially devastating consequences...

Since the Great Depression, the conventional prescription for such times is to have the government step in and create demand by cycling its dollars through the economy, generating jobs and business opportunities. That such dollars must be borrowed is hardly ideal, adding to the long-term strains on the nation. But the immediate risks of not spending them could be grave...

The most frequently voiced worry about the bailouts is that the Fed, by sending so much money sloshing through the system, risks generating a bad case of rising prices later on. That puts the onus on the Fed to reverse course and crimp economic activity by lifting interest rates and selling assets back to banks once growth resumes. But finding the appropriate point to act tends to be more art than science. The Fed might move too early and send the economy
back into a tailspin. It might wait too long and let too much money generate inflation...

But that, as most economists see it, is a worry for another day. Some policy makers are focused on staving off the opposite problem — deflation, or falling prices, as demand weakens to the point that goods pile up without buyers, sending prices down and reducing the incentive for businesses to invest. That could shrink demand further and perhaps even deliver the sort of downward spiral that pinned Japan in the weeds of stagnant growth during the 1990s.

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1 comment:

Christopher Hain said...

Right on. Who cares about inflation in this economy?

Bring on the Bailouts!