Mar 09 2008
The news late last week out of Washington was not what the White House was hoping for only a couple of weeks after the passing of a fiscal stimulus package meant to achieve exactly the opposite of what has happened. The US Labor Department released its latest numbers on employment on Friday:
There was a net loss of 63,000 jobs, which is the biggest decline since March 2003 and weaker than the revised 22,000 jobs lost in January. Economists had forecast a gain of 25,000 jobs…
“Based on today’s Employment Report, if we are not in a recession, it is a darned good imitation of one,” said Kevin Giddis, managing director of fixed income at Morgan Keegan.
So with a net loss of jobs, it may seem weird to hear that unemployment has actually fallen from 4.9% to 4.8%. How is this possible? In this case lower unemployment may indicate an even worse reality for the American economy:
The unemployment rate fell because of an increase of 450,000 people whom the government no longer counts as being part of the labor force for a variety of factors, such as that they are not currently looking for work. That drop in the size of the labor force allowed for the modest decline in unemployment, even as the household survey showed 255,000 fewer Americans with jobs than in January.
Discouraged workers point to a deep pessimism underlying households and workers in America, indicating that if we’re not already in a recession, it is only a matter of time. With the apparent failure of fiscal policy at achieving any immediate turnaround in consumer confidence, all eye’s are now on the Fed, America’s central bank, to see how Ben Bernanke will respond to the latest round of bad news.
“Even the silver lining of a falling unemployment rate has a little rust,” said Rich Yamarone, director of economic research at Argus Research. He predicted that the central bank will cut rates by a half percentage point at both its March meeting and again on April 30.
But Yamarone and some other experts questioned whether additional Fed cuts would do much to improve the employment outlook.
“We’re not in a crisis because the cost of borrowing is too high, it’s because people are afraid of lending,” said Dan Alpert, managing director of Westwood Capital, referring to the ongoing credit crunch. “At the end of the day, the Fed cuts don’t really solve the problems. They’ve already cut allot; if jobs continue to decline in face of further interest rate cuts, it’s prima facie evidence cuts aren’t effective.”
But few experts were ready to suggest the Fed would stop cutting rates at this point, given the problems in the economy and financial markets.
“The Fed has to do what it can to provide remedy and not scare the market as well,” said Mike Materasso, a senior portfolio manager at Franklin Templeton.
Central bankers face difficult decisions in times like these. While unemployment and falling growth rates pose significant problems to the American economy, the third macroeconomic evil is certainly in the minds of policymakers when deciding how to deal with the first two: inflation.
In order to lower interest rates, the Fed first has to implement expansionary monetary policy. In other words, the central bank must increase America’s money supply. How does it do this, exactly? Most commonly, the Fed uses open market operations, which is a fancy way of saying the Fed buys and sells government securities (treasury notes, bonds, etc…) on the bond market. When the Fed wishes to lower interest rates, it must inject new money into the economy, which it does by buying government bonds from the holders of those securities; namely, the public.
American banks, households, and firms, as well as foreigners all hold government debt. When the Fed wants to expand the money supply, it simply starts buying these debt securities back from the public. The increase in demand for securities drives up their prices, encouraging holders of the debt to sell their securities to the Fed, for which they receive money in exchange. In effect, the public exchanges illiquid (unspendable) debt certificates for liquid money. Now consumers have more money in their pockets to spend, firms have more to invest, and banks have more to loan out to borrowers who want to spend and invest. How do banks get rid of their new liquidity? Yep, they lower their interest rates.
In a nutshell, that’s how monetary policy works. To combat a recession and rising unemployment, the Fed simply buys bonds on the open market, injecting liquidity into the economy, which should result in more borrowing and more spending, shifting aggregate demand out, leading to growth and rising employment.
But what about that third evil, inflation? Won’t more spending lead to demand pull inflation? Usually this is not a major concern in times of a slowdown, since rising unemployment indicates the economy is producing below its full employment level of output. Expanding aggregate demand should result in increased output and stable prices. Today, however, Americans are facing other inflationary pressures, including a historically weak dollar (meaning imported goods and raw materials are more expensive than ever), and skyrocketing food and energy prices due to rising global demand for such commodities.
This all makes the job of monetary policy exceptionally challenging for Mr. Bernanke and his colleagues at the Fed. Expand the money supply too much (i.e. lower interest rates too much) and you risk accellerating inflation. Keep rates too high, and we can expect even worse employment and output numbers in the next few months.
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