By George F. Will
Sunday, April 20, 2008
Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice.
-- Robert Frost
And some say it will end because of subprime mortgages. But for those who cultivate fears of catastrophes as excuses for expanding government supervision of other people's lives, the bad news is that the world is not going to end -- not from global warming or economic cooling or anything else. Today's untethered Federal Reserve will, however, make the muddle-through interesting.
The late Sen. William Proxmire, a populist Democrat who represented Wisconsin for 32 years, wanted all members of Congress to write on their bathroom mirrors, so it would be the first thing they read each day, this: "The Fed is a creature of Congress." Congress created the Federal Reserve pursuant to its constitutional power "to coin money" and "regulate the value thereof." Fortunately, Congress has left the Fed free to go about its business.
But suddenly the Fed is undergoing radical "mission creep." The description of the Fed as the "lender of last resort" is accurate without being informative. Lender to whom? For what purposes? Last resort before what? Did the bank "lend" $29 billion to Bear Stearns, or did it, in effect, buy some of the most problematic securities owned by Bear? If so, was this faux "loan" actually to J.P. Morgan Chase? The purpose of the money was to give Morgan an incentive to buy Bear -- at a price so low that an incentive should have been superfluous.
In 1979, when the government undertook to rescue Chrysler, conservatives worried not that the bailout would fail but that it would work, thereby inflaming government's interventionist proclivities and lowering public resistance to future flights of Wall Street socialism. It "worked": Chrysler has survived to endure its current crisis. The fallacious argument in 1979 was that Chrysler was then "too big to be allowed to fail."
Today's argument is that Bear Stearns was so connected to the financial system in opaque ways that no one could guess the radiating consequences of its failure -- the financial consequences or, which sometimes is much the same thing, the psychological.
But what is now the principle by which other distressed firms will elicit Fed interventions in future uncertainties? By what criteria does Washington henceforth determine whether a large entity is "too connected to fail"?
The Fed has no mandate to be the dealmaker for Wall Street socialism. The Fed's mission is to preserve the currency as a store of value by preventing inflation. Its duty is not to avoid a recession at all costs; the way to get a big recession is to engage in frenzied improvisations because a small recession, a.k.a. a correction, is deemed intolerable. The Fed should not try to produce this or that rate of economic growth or unemployment.
After the tech bubble burst in 2000, the Fed opened the money spigot to lower interest rates and keep the economy humming. And since the bursting of the housing bubble, which was partly caused by that opened spigot, the Fed has again lowered interest rates, which for now are negative -- lower than the inflation rate, which the open spigot will aggravate.
A surge of inflation might mean the end of the world as we have known it. Twenty-six percent of the $9.4 trillion of U.S. debt is held by foreigners. Suppose they construe Fed policy as serving an unspoken (and unspeakable) U.S. interest in increasing inflation, which would amount to the slow devaluation -- partial repudiation -- of the nation's debts. If foreign holders of U.S. Treasury notes start to sell them, interest rates will have to spike to attract the foreign money that enables Americans to consume more than they produce.
Having maxed out many of their 1.4 billion credit cards, between 2001 and 2006 Americans tapped $1.2 trillion of their housing equity. Business Week reports that the middle-class debt-to-income ratio is now 141 percent, double that of 1983. Because anxiety is epidemic, bipartisanship has reared its supposedly pretty head.
Republicans and Democrats promise cooperation, compromise and general niceness using other people's money. If Congress cannot suppress its itch to "do something" while markets are correcting the prices of housing and money, Congress could pass a law saying: No company benefiting from a substantial federal subvention (which would now include Morgan) may pay any executive more than the highest pay of a federal civil servant ($124,010). That would dampen Wall Street's enthusiasm for measures that socialize losses while keeping profits private.