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As Chairman Bernanke’s reign at the Fed comes to an end, the Wall Street Journal provides its assessment of “The Bernanke Legacy.” Overall the Journaldoes a reasonable job on both Greenspan and Bernanke, especially compared to the “effusive praise from the usual suspects; supporters ofmonetary central planning. The Journalargues when accessing Bernanke’s performance it is appropriate to review Bernanke’s performance “before, during, and after the financial panic.”
While most assessments of Bernanke’s performance as a central banker focus on the “during” and “after” financial-crisis phases with much of the praise based on the “during” phase, the Journaljoins the Austrians and John Taylor in unfavorable assessment of the more critical “before” period. It was this period when the Fed generated its second boom-bust cycle in the Greenspan-Bernanke era. In the Journal’s assessment, Bernanke, Greenspan, and the Fed deserve an “F.” While this pre-crisis period mostly fell under the leadership of Alan Greenspan, the Journal highlights that Bernanke was the “leading intellectual force” behind the pre-crisis policies. As a result of these too loose, too long policies, just as the leadership of the Fed passed from Greenspan to Bernanke, the credit boom the Fed “did so much to create turned to mania, which turned to panic, which became a deep recession.” The Journal’s description of Bernanke’s role should be highlighted in any serious analysis of the Bernanke era:
His [Bernanke’s] role goes back to 2002 when as a Fed Governor he gave a famous speech warning about deflation that didn’t exist [and if it did exist should not have been feared]. He and Mr. Greenspan nonetheless followed the advice of Paul Krugman to promote a housing bubble to offset the dot-com crash.
As Fed transcripts show, Mr. Bernanke was the board’s intellectual leader in its decision to cut the fed-funds rate to 1% in June 2003 and keep it there for a year. This was despite a rapidly accelerating economy (3.8% growth in 2004) and soaring commodity and real-estate prices. The Fed’s multiyear policy of negative real interest rates produced a credit mania that led to the housing bubble and bust.
For some of the best analysis of the Fed’s pre-crisis culpability one should turn to Roger Garrison’s excellent analysis. In a 2009 Cato Journal paper, Garrison (2009, p. 187) characterizes Fed policy during the “Great Moderation as a “learning by doing policy” which, based on events post-2003, would be better classified as “so far so good” or “whistling in the dark.” The actual result of this “learning by doing policy” is described by Garrison in “Natural Rates of Interest and Sustainable Growth”:
In the earlier episode [dot.com boom-bust], the Federal Reserve moved to counter the upward pressure of interest rates, causing actual interest rates not to deviate greatly from the historical norm. In the later episode [housingbubble/boom-bust], the Federal Reserve moved to reinforce the downward pressure on interest rates, causing the actual interest rates to be exceedingly low relative to the historical norm. Although the judgment, made retrospectively by economists of virtually all stripes, that the Fed funds target rate was “too low for too long” between mid-2003 and mid-2004, it was almost surely too low for too long relative to the natural rate in both episodes. (p. 433)
Given this and other strong evidence of the Fed’s role in creating the credit driven boom, theJournal faults “Mr. Bernanke’s refusal to acknowledge that the Fed made any mistake in the mania years.”
On the response to the crisis, the Journal refrains from the accolades of many who credit the Fed led by the leading scholar of the Great Depression from acting strongly to prevent another such calamity. According to the Fed worshipers, things might not be good, but without the unprecedented actions and bailouts things would have been catastrophic. The Journal’s more measured assessment:
Once the crisis hit, Mr. Bernanke and the Fed deserve the benefit of the doubt. From the safe distance of hindsight, it’s easy to forget how rapid and widespread the financial panic was. The Fed had to offset the collapse in the velocity of money with an increase in its supply, and it did so with force and dispatch. One can disagree with the Fed’s special guarantee programs, but we weren’t sitting in the financial polar vortex at the time. It’s hard to see how others would have done much better.
But discerning readers of Vern McKinley’s Financing Failure: A Century of Bailouts might disagree. Fed actions, even when not verging on the illegal, were counter-productive, unnecessary, and contributed to action freezing policy uncertainty which contributed to the collapse of the velocity of money. McKinley describes much of what was done as “seat-of-the-pants decision-making” (pp. 305-306):
“Seat of the pants” is not a flattering description of the methods of the regulators, but its use is justified to describe the panic-driven actions during the 2000s crisis. It is only natural that under the deadline of time pressure judgment will be flawed, mistakes will be made and taxpayer exposure will be magnified, and that has clearly been the case. With the possible exception of the Lehman Brothers decision … all of the major bailout decisions during the 2000s crisis were made under duress of panic over a very short period of time with very limited information at hand and with input of a limited number of objective parties involved in the decision making. Not surprisingly, these seat-of–the-pants responses did not instill confidence, and there was no clear evidence collected that the expected negative fallout would truly have occurred.
While a defense of some Fed action could be found in Hayek’s 1970s discussion of “best” policy under bad institutions (a central bank) where he argued that during a crisis a central bank should act to prevent a secondary deflation, the Fed actions went clearly beyond such a recommendation. Better would have been an immediate policy to end the credit expansion in its tracks. The Fed’s special guarantee programs and movement toward a mondustrial policy should be a great worry to anyone concerned about long-term prosperity and liberty. Whether any human running a central bank could have done better is an open question, but other monetary arrangements could clearly have led to better outcomes.
The Journal’s analysis of post-crisis policy, while not as harsh as it should be, is critical. Despite an unprecedented expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet, the “recovery is historically weak.” At some point “a Fed chairman has to take some responsibility for the mediocre growth — and lack of real income growth — on his watch.” Bernanke’s policy is also rightly criticized because “The other great cost of these post-crisis policies is the intrusion of the Fed into politics and fiscal policy.”
Because the ultimate outcome of this monetary cycle hinges on how, when, or if the Fed can unwind its unwieldy balance sheet, without further damage to the economy; most likely continuing stagnation or a return to stagflation, or less likely, but possible hyper-inflation or even a deflationary depression, the Bernanke legacy will ultimately depend on a Bernanke-Yellen legacy. Given, as the Journal points out, “Politicians — and even some conservative pundits — have adopted the Bernanke standard that the Fed’s duty is to reduce unemployment and manage the business cycle,” the prospect that this legacy will be viewed favorably is less and less likely. Perhaps if the editors joined Paul Krugman in reading and fully digesting Joe Salerno’s “A Reformulation of Austrian Business Cycle Theory in Light of the Financial Crisis,” they would correctly fail Bernanke and Fed policy before, during, and after the crisis.
But what should be the main lesson of a Greenspan-Bernanke legacy? Clearly, if there was no pre-crisis credit boom, there would have been no large financial crisis and thus no need for Bernanke or other human to have done better during and after. While Austrian analysis has often been criticized, incorrectly, for not having policy recommendations on what to do during the crisis and recovery, it should be noted that if Austrian recommendations for eliminating central banks and allowing banking freedom had been followed, no such devastating crisis would have occurred and no heroic policy response would have been necessary in the resulting free and prosperous commonwealth.
Note: The views expressed in Daily Articles on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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John P. Cochran is emeritus dean of the Business School and emeritus professor of economics at Metropolitan State University of Denver and coauthor with Fred R. Glahe of The Hayek-Keynes Debate: Lessons for Current Business Cycle Research. He is also a senior scholar for the Mises Institute and serves on the editorial board of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. Send him mail. See John P. Cochran’s article archives.
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 See Joseph T. Salerno, “An Austrian Taxonomy of Deflation — With Applications to the U.S.” Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics 6, no. 4 (2001).
A classicial economist… and Harvard professor… preaching to the world that one’s money is not safe in the US banking system due to Ben Bernanke’s actions? And putting his withdrawal slip where his mouth is and pulling $1 million out of Bank America? Say it isn’t so…
From Terry Burnham, former Harvard economics professor, author of “Mean Genes” and “Mean Markets and Lizard Brains,” provocative poster on this page and long-time critic of the Federal Reserve, argues that the Fed’s efforts to strengthen America’s banks have perversely weakened them. First posted in PBS.
Is your money safe at the bank? An economist says ‘no’ and withdraws his
Last week I had over $1,000,000 in a checking account at Bank of America. Next week, I will have $10,000.
Why am I getting in line to take my money out of Bank of America? Because of Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen, who officially begins her term as chairwoman on Feb. 1.
Before I explain, let me disclose that I have been a stopped clock of criticism of the Federal Reserve for half a decade. That’s because I believe that when the Fed intervenes in markets, it has two effects — both negative. First, it decreases overall wealth by distorting markets and causing bad investment decisions. Second, the members of the Fed become reverse Robin Hoods as they take from the poor (and unsophisticated) investors and give to the rich (and politically connected). These effects have been noticed; a Gallup poll taken in the last few days reports that only the richest Americans support the Fed. (See the table.)
Why do I risk starting a run on Bank of America by withdrawing my money and presuming that many fellow depositors will read this and rush to withdraw too? Because they pay me zero interest. Thus, even an infinitesimal chance Bank of America will not repay me in full, whenever I ask, switches the cost-benefit conclusion from stay to flee.
Let me explain: Currently, I receive zero dollars in interest on my $1,000,000. The reason I had the money in Bank of America was to keep it safe. However, the potential cost to keeping my money in Bank of America is that the bank may be unwilling or unable to return my money.
They will not be able to return my money if:
- Many other depositors like you get in line before me. Banks today promise everyone that they can have their money back instantaneously, but the bank does not actually have enough money to pay everyone at once because they have lent most of it out to other people — 90 percent or more. Thus, banks are always at risk for runs where the depositors at the front of the line get their money back, but the depositors at the back of the line do not. Consider this image from a fully insured U.S. bank, IndyMac in California, just five years ago.
- Some of the investments of Bank of America go bust. Because Bank of America has loaned out the vast majority of depositors’ money, if even a small percentage of its loans go bust, the firm is at risk for bankruptcy. Leverage, combined with some bad investments, caused the failure of Lehman Brothers in 2008 and would have caused the failure of Bank of America, AIG, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns, and many more institutions in 2008 had the government not bailed them out.
In recent days, the chances for trouble at Bank of America have become more salient because of woes in the emerging markets, particularly Argentina, Turkey, Russia and China. The emerging market fears caused the Dow Jones Industrial Average to lose more than 500 points over the last week.
Returning to my money now entrusted to Bank of America, market turmoil reminded me that this particular trustee is simply not safe. Or not safe enough, given the fact that safety is the reason I put the money there at all. The market turmoil could threaten “BofA” with bankruptcy today as it did in 2008, and as banks have experienced again and again over time.
If the chance that Bank of America will not return my money is, say, a mere 1 percent, then the expected cost to me is 1 percent of my million, or $10,000. That far exceeds the interest I receive, which, I hardly need remind depositors out there, is a cool $0. Even a 0.1 percent chance of loss has an expected cost to me of $1,000. Bank of America pays me the zero interest rate because the Federal Reserve has set interest rates to zero. Thus my incentive to leave at the first whiff of instability.
Surely, you say, the federal government is going to keep its promises, at least on insured deposits. Yes, the Federal Government (via the FDIC) insures deposits in most institutions up to $250,000. But there is a problem with this insurance. The FDIC currently has far less money in its fund than it has insured deposits: as of Sept. 1, about $41 billion in reserve against $6 trillion in insured deposits. (There are over $9 trillion on deposit at U.S. banks, by the way, so more than $3 trillion in deposits is completely uninsured.)
It’s true, of course, that when the FDIC fund risks running dry, as it did in 2009, it can go back to other parts of the federal government for help. I expect those other parts will make the utmost efforts to oblige. But consider the possibility that they may be in crisis at the very same time, for the very same reasons, or that it might take some time to get approval. Remember that Congress voted against the TARP bailout in 2008 before it relented and finally voted for the bailout.
Thus, even insured depositors risk loss and/or delay in recovering their funds. In most time periods, these risks are balanced against the reward of getting interest. Not so long ago, Bank of America would have paid me $1,000 a week in interest on my million dollars. If I were getting $1,000 a week, I might bear the risks of delay and default. However, today I am receiving $0.
So my cash is leaving Bank of America.
But if Bank of America is not safe, you must be wondering, where can you and I put our money? No path is without risk, but here are a few options.
- Keep some cash at home, though admittedly this runs the risk of loss or setting yourself up as a target for criminals.
- Put some cash in a safety box. There is an urban myth that this is illegal; my understanding is that cash in a safety box is legal. However, I can imagine scenarios where capital controls are placed on safety deposit box withdrawals. And suppose the bank is shut down and you can’t get to the box?
- Pay your debts. You don’t need to be Suze Orman to know that you need liquidity, so do not use all your cash to pay debts. However, you can use some surplus, should you have any.
- Prepay your taxes and some other obligations. Subject to the same caveat about liquidity, pay ahead. Make sure you only pay safe entities. Your local government is not going away, even in a depression, so, for example, you can prepay property taxes. (I would check with a tax accountant on the implications, however.)
- Find a safer bank. Some local, smaller banks are much safer than the “too-big-to-fail banks.” After its mistake of letting Lehman fail, the government has learned that it must try to save giant institutions. However, the government may not be able to save all failing institutions immediately and simultaneously in a crisis. Thus, depositors in big banks face delays and defaults in the event of a true crisis. (It is important to find the right small bank; I believe all big banks are fragile, while some small banks are robust.)
Someone should start a bank (or maybe someone has) that charges (rather than pays) interest and does not make loans. Such a bank would be a good example of how Fed actions create unintended outcomes that defeat their goals. The Fed wants to stimulate lending, but an anti-lending bank could be quite successful. I would be a customer.
(Interestingly, there was a famous anti-lending bank and it was also a “BofA” — the Bank of Amsterdam, founded in 1609. The Dutch BofA charged customers for safe-keeping, did not make loans and did not allow depositors to get their money out immediately. Adam Smith discusses this BofA favorably in his “Wealth of Nations,” published in 1776. Unfortunately — and unbeknownst to Smith — the Bank of Amsterdam had starting secretly making risky loans to ventures in the East Indies and other areas, just like any other bank. When these risky ventures failed, so did the BofA.)
My point is that the Federal Reserve’s actions have myriad, unanticipated, negative consequences. Over the last week, we saw the impact on the emerging markets. The Fed had created $3 trillion of new money in the last five-plus years — three times more than in its entire prior history. A big chunk of that $3 trillion found its way, via private investors and institutions, into risky, emerging markets.
Now that the Fed is reducing (“tapering”) its new money creation (now down to $65 billion a month, or $780 billion a year, as of Wednesday’s announcement), investments are flowing out of risky areas. Some of these countries are facing absolute crises, with Argentina’s currency plummeting by more than 20 percent in under one month. That means investments in Argentina are worth 20 percent less in dollar terms than they were a month ago, even if they held their price in Pesos.
The Fed did not plan to impoverish investors by inducing them to buy overpriced Argentinian investments, of course, but that is one of the costly consequences of its actions. If you lost money in emerging markets over the last week, at one level, it is your responsibility. However, it is not crazy for you to blame the Fed for creating volatile prices that made investing more difficult.
Similarly, if you bought gold at the peak of almost $2,000 per ounce, you have lost one-third of your money; you share the blame for your golden losses with Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen. They removed the opportunities for safe investments and forced those with liquid assets to scramble for what safety they thought they could find. Furthermore, the uncertainty caused by the Fed has caused many assets to swing wildly in value, creating winners and losers.
The Fed played a role in the recent emerging markets turmoil. Next week, they will cause another crisis somewhere else. Eventually, the absurd effort to create wealth through monetary policy will unravel in the U.S. as it has every other time it has been tried from Weimar Germany to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
Even after the Fed created the housing problems, we would have been better of with a small 2009 depression rather than the larger depression that lies ahead. See my Making Sen$e posts “The Stockholm Syndrome and Printing Money” and “Ben Bernanke as Easter Bunny: Why the Fed Can’t Prevent the Coming Crash” for the details of my argument.
Ever since Alan Greenspan intervened to save the stock market on Oct. 20, 1987, the Fed has sought to cushion every financial blow by adding liquidity. The trouble with trying to make the world safe for stupidity is that it creates fragility.
Bank of America and other big banks are fragile — and vulnerable to bank runs — because the Fed has set interest rates to zero. If a run gathers momentum, the government will take steps to stem it. But I am convinced they have limited ammunition and unlimited problems.
What is the solution? For you, save yourself and your family. For the system, revamp the Federal Reserve. The simplest first step would be to end the dual mandate of price stability and full employment. Price stability is enough. I favor rules over intervention. We don’t need a maestro conducting monetary policy; we need a system that promotes stability and allows people (not printing presses) to make us richer.
The Business Unit
Don Pittis has been a Fuller Brush man, a forest fire fighter and an Arctic ranger before discovering journalism. He was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China and has produced and reported for CBC and BBC News. He is currently senior producer at CBC’s business unit.
Janet Yellen, soon to be the new head of the world’s most powerful central bank, sure seems like a nice person. In some circles, being nice is an insult. Some Americans say Canadians are too nice – we even thank our bank machines, goes the joke. But despite all that, JanetYellen does seem nice.
Not that the outgoing chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, is a bad man. And surely the one before that, Alan Greenspan, meant well when he kept cutting interest rates to keep the stock and property boom alive – long past the moment when, most now agree, they should have been allowed to take a rest.
But Janet Yellen – soft-spoken, seemingly concerned about America’s disenfranchised as much as she is about stock market growth – exudes character. With Yellen assuming the role of Fed chair on Feb. 1, the question is, what does the character of a central banker mean for the economic future of the U.S., the world… and Canada?
- 5 key facts about incoming U.S. fed chair Janet Yellen
- Janet Yellen cleared to become next chair of U.S. Federal Reserve
For all the supposed clout of the U.S. central bank, the chair of the Fed does not have the power of a dictator. In a rare foray into central bank humour, comedian Rick Mercer reminds us that the levers of that power are subtle.
There is no question that Yellen is smart. That will count in her job of swinging the 19 members of the committee that makes interest rate decisions toward consensus. But it will also be helped by the feeling that she is motivated by the best intentions for the entire U.S.
Central bankers a product of their time
It may be that each of the recent central bankers was perfectly suited to their times. Greenspan, who trained at the knee of Ayn Rand, presided during the era of Greed Is Good, when everyone in the world was supposed to be fighting to get to the top of the heap.
When the house of cards suddenly collapsed, it was the turn of Ben Bernanke, a man who has made a career studying the economic mistakes that turned a 1929 market collapse into the Great Depression. He wanted to prevent the same thing from happening again, at all costs.
Now, we are in a different era. It appears that Bernanke’s strategy managed to avert a disruptive economic collapse. But one of the results of the Fed’s emergency measures was to give a giant handout to the people who Greenspan had allowed to climb to the top of the heap, creating a class divide not seen since before the Great Depression.
Like almost everyone else in the upper echelons of U.S. government, Yellen is elite, with elite friends. As she said in a revealing interview in the early 2000s with fellow University of California, Berkeley economist Kenneth Train, when she voted in favour of interest rate hikes in the 1990s, she says she felt pressure in social circles.
“Higher interest rates are things that people really don’t like,” she told Train. “I would go to parties and meet people [and people would say,] ‘I’m losing money because you’re raising interest rates and what you’re doing is harming me.'”
She goes on to say that while it drove home her personal responsibility for making rate decisions, she had to put the interests of the wider economy before those of her friends.
An easing of quantitative easing?
Yellen’s job now could have even more of an impact on her well-off friends. As I have said before, the distorting effect of Bernanke’s quantitative easing (or QE) – buying bonds to stimulate the economy when interest rates could go no lower – has been great for the stock market. But there are growing doubts that the extra injection of cash is making it into the hands of the poorer Americans who need it most.
Yellen knows she will have to cut QE eventually. But it is a scary process. You may argue whether or not QE really worked. But if buying bonds stimulated the economy, then ending the buying of bonds will definitely de-stimulate it. As with plans to halt fiscal spending in 2010,stopping a strong stimulant is effectively indistinguishable from taking a strong depressant.
As the Fed said in recently released minutes, even if reducing QE does not have a huge, direct impact on Main Street, it might cause an “unintended tightening of financial conditions if a reduction in the pace of asset purchases was misinterpreted as signaling that the Committee was likely to withdraw policy accommodation more quickly than had been anticipated.”
That’s Fed-speak for bond and mortgage markets taking fright, sending interest rates shooting up. It’s not just hypothetical. It happened once last year, just because people thought policy would change. And that wouldn’t just be bad for Americans. World bond and mortgage rates are set in the U.S., and the Canadian housing market might be severely hurt by such a shock.
If you believe, as I do, that QE is hurting a majority of Americans and Canadians, and maybe doing long-term damage to the entire society by increasing the disparity of rich and poor, Yellen has a balancing act ahead of her. Her feat must be to reduce QE as quickly as possible without scaring the markets into thinking she is doing it too quickly.
Thankfully, Yellen is appropriately humble.
“Macroeconomics, I think it’s a very useful set of tools for thinking about the economy,” she said in her interview with Train. “But in terms of our ability to know the future and forecast where things are going, that’s a very difficult thing to do. There are a lot of imponderables.”
If Yellen succeeds, it will not be a feat of strength. It will be a feat of wisdom. It will be a feat of experience. And it will depend on being nice. Nice as a Canadian. With luck, Yellen, like Greenspan and Bernanke, will be the right person for her time. The world needs a little nice.
Paul Craig Roberts and Dave Kranzler
The deregulation of the financial system during the Clinton and George W. Bush regimes had the predictable result: financial concentration and reckless behavior. A handful of banks grew so large that financial authorities declared them “too big to fail.” Removed from market discipline, the banks became wards of the government requiring massive creation of new money by the Federal Reserve in order to support through the policy of Quantitative Easing the prices of financial instruments on the banks’ balance sheets and in order to finance at low interest rates trillion dollar federal budget deficits associated with the long recession caused by the financial crisis.
The Fed’s policy of monetizing one trillion dollars of bonds annually put pressure on the US dollar, the value of which declined in terms of gold. When gold hit $1,900 per ounce in 2011, the Federal Reserve realized that $2,000 per ounce could have a psychological impact that would spread into the dollar’s exchange rate with other currencies, resulting in a run on the dollar as both foreign and domestic holders sold dollars to avoid the fall in value. Once this realization hit, the manipulation of the gold price moved beyond central bank leasing of gold to bullion dealers in order to create an artificial market supply to absorb demand that otherwise would have pushed gold prices higher.
The evidence of gold price manipulation is clear. In this article we present evidence and describe the process. We conclude that ability to manipulate the gold price is disappearing as physical gold moves from New York and London to Asia, leaving the West with paper claims to gold that greatly exceed the available supply.
The primary venue of the Fed’s manipulation activity is the New York Comex exchange, where the world trades gold futures. Each gold futures contract represents one gold 100 ounce bar. The Comex is referred to as a paper gold exchange because of the use of these futures contracts. Although several large global banks are trading members of the Comex, JP Morgan, HSBC and Bank Nova Scotia conduct the majority of the trading volume. Trading of gold (and silver) futures occurs in an auction-style market on the floor of the Comex daily from 8:20 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. New York time. Comex futures trading also occurs on what is known as Globex. Globex is a computerized trading system used for derivatives, currency and futures contracts. It operates continuously except on weekends. Anyone anywhere in the world with access to a computer-based futures trading platform has access to the Globex system.
In addition to the Comex, the Fed also engages in manipulating the price of gold on the far bigger–in terms of total dollar value of trading–London gold market. This market is called the LBMA (London Bullion Marketing Association) market. It is comprised of several large banks who are LMBA market makers known as “bullion banks” (Barclays, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, JPMorganChase, Merrill Lynch/Bank of America, Mitsui, Societe Generale, Bank of Nova Scotia and UBS). Whereas the Comex is a “paper gold” exchange, the LBMA is the nexus of global physical gold trading and has been for centuries. When large buyers like Central Banks, big investment funds or wealthy private investors want to buy or sell a large amount of physical gold, they do this on the LBMA market.
The Fed’s gold manipulation operation involves exerting forceful downward pressure on the price of gold by selling a massive amount of Comex gold futures, which are dropped like bombs either on the Comex floor during NY trading hours or via the Globex system. A recent example of this occurred on Monday, January 6, 2014. After rallying over $15 in the Asian and European markets, the price of gold suddenly plunged $35 at 10:14 a.m. In a space of less than 60 seconds, more than 12,000 contracts traded – equal to more than 10% of the day’s entire volume during the 23 hour trading period in which which gold futures trade. There was no apparent news or market event that would have triggered the sudden massive increase in Comex futures selling which caused the sudden steep drop in the price of gold. At the same time, no other securities market (other than silver) experienced any unusual price or volume movement. 12,000 contracts represents 1.2 million ounces of gold, an amount that exceeds by a factor of three the total amount of gold in Comex vaults that could be delivered to the buyers of these contracts.
This manipulation by the Fed involves the short-selling of uncovered Comex gold futures. “Uncovered” means that these are contracts that are sold without any underlying physical gold to deliver if the buyer on the other side decides to ask for delivery. This is also known as “naked short selling.” The execution of the manipulative trading is conducted through one of the major gold futures trading banks, such as JPMorganChase, HSBC, and Bank of Nova Scotia. These banks do the actual selling on behalf of the Fed. The manner in which the Fed dumps a large quantity of futures contracts into the market differs from the way in which a bona fide trader looking to sell a big position would operate. The latter would try to work off his position carefully over an extended period of time with the goal of trying to disguise his selling and to disturb the price as little as possible in order to maximize profits or minimize losses. In contrast, the Fed‘s sales telegraph the intent to drive the price lower with no regard for preserving profits or fear or incurring losses, because the goal is to inflict as much damage as possible on the price and intimidate potential buyers.
The Fed also actively manipulates gold via the Globex system. The Globex market is punctuated with periods of “quiet” time in which the trade volume is very low. It is during these periods that the Fed has its agent banks bombard the market with massive quantities of gold futures over a very brief period of time for the purpose of driving the price lower. The banks know that there are very few buyers around during these time periods to absorb the selling. This drives the price lower than if the selling operation occurred when the market is more active.
A primary example of this type of intervention occurred on December 18, 2013, immediately after the FOMC announced its decision to reduce bond purchases by $10 billion monthly beginning in January 2014. With the rest of the trading world closed, including the actual Comex floor trading, a massive amount of Comex gold futures were sold on the Globex computer trading system during one of its least active periods. This selling pushed the price of gold down $23 dollars in the space of two hours. The next wave of futures selling occurred in the overnight period starting at 2:30 a.m. NY time on December 19th. This time of day is one of the least active trading periods during any 23 hour trading day (there’s one hour when gold futures stop trading altogether). Over 4900 gold contracts representing 14.5 tonnes of gold were dumped into the Globex system in a 2-minute period from 2:40-2:41 a.m, resulting in a $24 decline in the price of gold. This wasn’t the end of the selling. Shortly after the Comex floor opened later that morning, another 1,654 contracts were sold followed shortly after by another 2,295 contracts. This represented another 12.2 tonnes of gold. Then at 10:00 a.m. EST, another 2,530 contracts were unloaded on the market followed by an additional 3,482 contracts just six minutes later. These sales represented another 18.7 tonnes of gold.
All together, in 6 minutes during an eight hour period, a total amount of 37.6 tonnes (a “tonne” is a metric ton–about 10% more weight than a US ”ton”) of gold future contracts were sold. The contracts sold during these 6 minutes accounted for 10% of the total volume during that 23 hours period of time. Four-tenths of one percent of the trading day accounted for 10% of the total volume. The gold represented by the futures contracts that were sold during these 6 minutes was a multiple of the amount of physical gold available to Comex for delivery.
The purpose of driving the price of gold down was to prevent the announced reduction in bond purchases (the so-called tapering) from sending the dollar, stock and bond markets down. The markets understand that the liquidity that Quantitative Easing provides is the reason for the high bond and stock prices and understand also that the gains from the rising stock market discourage gold purchases. Previously when the Fed had mentioned that it might reduce bond purchases, the stock market fell and bonds sold off. To neutralize the market scare, the Fed manipulated both gold and stock markets. (See Pam Martens for explanation of the manipulation of the stock market:http://wallstreetonparade.com/2013/12/why-didn’t-the-stock-market-sell-off-on-the-fed’s-taper-announcement/ )
While the manipulation of the gold market has been occurring since the start of the bull market in gold in late 2000, this pattern of rampant manipulative short-selling of futures contracts has been occurring on a more intense basis over the last 2 years, during gold’s price decline from a high of $1900 in September 2011. The attack on gold’s price typically will occur during one of several key points in time during the 23 hour Globex trading period. The most common is right at the open of Comex gold futures trading, which is 8:20 a.m. New York time. To set the tone of trading, the price of gold is usually knocked down when the Comex opens. Here are the other most common times when gold futures are sold during illiquid Globex system time periods:
– 6:00 p.m NY time weekdays, when the Globex system re-opens after closing for an hour;
– 6:00 p.m. Sunday evening NY time when Globex opens for the week;
– 2:30 a.m. NY time, when Shanghai Gold Exchange closes
– 4:00 a.m. NY time, just after the morning gold “fix” on the London gold market (LBMA);
– 2:00 p.m. NY time any day but especially on Friday, after the Comex floor trading has closed – it’s an illiquid Globex-only session and the rest of the world is still closed.
In addition to selling futures contracts on the Comex exchange in order to drive the price of gold lower, the Fed and its agent bullion banks also intermittently sell large quantities of physical gold in London’s LBMA gold market. The process of buying and selling actual physical gold is more cumbersome and complicated than trading futures contracts. When a large supply of physical gold hits the London market all at once, it forces the market a lot lower than an equivalent amount of futures contracts would. As the availability of large amounts of physical gold is limited, these “physical gold drops” are used carefully and selectively and at times when the intended effect on the market will be most effective.
The primary purpose for short-selling futures contracts on Comex is to protect the dollar’s value from the growing supply of dollars created by the Fed’s policy of Quantitative Easing. The Fed’s use of gold leasing to supply gold to the market in order to reduce the rate of rise in the gold price has drained the Fed’s gold holdings and is creating a shortage in physical gold. Historically most big buyers would leave their gold for safe-keeping in the vaults of the Fed, Bank of England or private bullion banks rather than incur the cost of moving gold to local depositories. However, large purchasers of gold, such as China, now require actual delivery of the gold they buy.
Demands for gold delivery have forced the use of extraordinary and apparently illegal tactics in order to obtain physical gold to settle futures contracts that demand delivery and to be able to deliver bullion purchased on the London market (LBMA). Gold for delivery is obtained from opaque Central Bank gold leasing transactions, from “borrowing” client gold held by the bullion banks like JP Morgan in their LBMA custodial vaults, and by looting the gold trusts, such as GLD, of their gold holdings by purchasing large blocks of shares and redeeming the shares for gold.
Central Bank gold leasing occurs when Central Banks take physical gold they hold in custody and lease it to bullion banks. The banks sell the gold on the London physical gold market. The gold leasing transaction makes available physical gold that can be delivered to buyers in quantities that would not be available at existing prices. The use of gold leasing to manipulate the price of gold became a prevalent practice in the 1990s. While Central Banks admit to engaging in gold lease transactions, they do not admit to its purpose, which is to moderate rises in the price of gold, although Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan did admit during Congressional testimony on derivatives in 1998 that “Central banks stand ready to lease gold in increasing quantities should the price rise.”
Another method of obtaining bullion for sale or delivery is known as “rehypothecation.” Rehypothecation occurs when a bank or brokerage firm “borrows” client assets being held in custody by banks. Technically, bank/brokerage firm clients sign an agreement when they open an account in which the assets in the account might be pledged for loans, like margin loans. But the banks then take pledged assets and use them for their own purpose rather than the client’s. This is rehypothecation. Although Central Banks fully disclose the practice of leasing gold, banks/brokers do not publicly disclose the details of their rehypothecation activities.
Over the course of the 13-year gold bull market, gold leasing and rehypothecation operations have largely depleted most of the gold in the vaults of the Federal Reserve, Bank of England, European Central Bank and private bullion banks such as JPMorganChase. The depletion of vault gold became a problem when Venezuela was the first country to repatriate all of its gold being held by foreign Central Banks, primarily the Fed and the BOE. Venezuela’s request was provoked by rumors circulating the market that gold was being leased and hypothecated in increasing quantities. About a year later, Germany made a similar request. The Fed refused to honor Germany’s request and, instead, negotiated a seven year timeline in which it would ship back 300 of Germany’s 1500 tonnes. This made it apparent that the Fed did not have the gold it was supposed to be holding for Germany.
Why does the Fed need seven years in which to return 20 percent of Germany’s gold? The answer is that the Fed does not have the gold in its vault to deliver. In 2011 it took four months to return Venezuela’s 160 tonnes of gold. Obviously, the gold was not readily at hand and had to be borrowed, perhaps from unsuspecting private owners who mistakenly believe that their gold is held in trust.
Western central banks have pushed fractional gold reserve banking to the point that they haven’t enough reserves to cover withdrawals. Fractional reserve banking originated when medieval goldsmiths learned that owners of gold stored in their vault seldom withdrew the gold. Instead, those who had gold on deposit circulated paper claims to gold. This allowed goldsmiths to lend gold that they did not have by issuing paper receipts. This is what the Fed has done. The Fed has created paper claims to gold that does not exist in physical form and sold these claims in mass quantities in order to drive down the gold price. The paper claims to gold are a large multiple of the amount of actual gold available for delivery. The Royal Bank of India reports that the ratio of paper claims to gold exceed the amount of gold available for delivery by 93:1.
Fractional reserve systems break down when too many depositors or holders of paper claims present them for delivery. Breakdown is occurring in the Fed’s fractional bullion operation. In the last few years the Asian markets–specifically and especially the Chinese–are demanding actual physical delivery of the bullion they buy. This has created a sense of urgency among the Fed, Treasury and the bullion banks to utilize any means possible to flush out as many weak holders of gold as possible with orchestrated price declines in order to acquire physical gold that can be delivered to Asian buyers.
The $650 decline in the price of gold since it hit $1900 in September 2011 is the result of a manipulative effort designed both to protect the dollar from Quantitative Easing and to free up enough gold to satisfy Asian demands for delivery of gold purchases.
Around the time of the substantial drop in gold’s price in April, 2013, the Bank of England’s public records showed a 1300 tonne decline in the amount of gold being held in the BOE bullion vaults. This is a fact that has not been denied or reasonably explained by BOE officials despite several published inquiries. This is gold that was being held in custody but not owned by the Bank of England. The truth is that the 1300 tonnes is gold that was required to satisfy delivery demands from the large Asian buyers. It is one thing for the Fed or BOE to sell, lease or rehypothecate gold out of their vault that is being safe-kept knowing the entitled owner likely won’t ask for it anytime soon, but it is another thing altogether to default on a gold delivery to Asians demanding delivery.
Default on delivery of purchased gold would terminate the Federal Reserve’s ability to manipulate the gold price. The entire world would realize that the demand for gold greatly exceeds the supply, and the price of gold would explode upwards. The Federal Reserve would lose control and would have to abandon Quantitative Easing. Otherwise, the exchange value of the US dollar would collapse, bringing to an end US financial hegemony over the world.
Last April, the major takedown in the gold price began with Goldman Sachs issuing a “technical analysis” report with an $850 price target (gold was around $1650 at that time). Goldman Sachs also broadcast to every major brokerage firm and hedge fund in New York that gold was going to drop hard in price and urged brokers to get their clients out of all physical gold holdings and/or shares in physical gold trusts like GLD or CEF. GLD and CEF are trusts that purchase physical gold/silver bullion and issue shares that represent claims on the bullion holdings. The shares are marketed as investments in gold, but represent claims that can only be redeemed in very large blocks of shares, such as 100,000, and perhaps only by bullion banks. GLD is the largest gold ETF (exchange traded firm), but not the only one. The purpose of Goldman Sachs’ announcement was to spur gold sales that would magnify the price effect of the short-selling of futures contracts. Heavy selling of futures contracts drove down the gold price and forced sales of GLD and other ETF shares, which were bought up by the bullion banks and redeemed for gold.
At the beginning of 2013, GLD held 1350 tonnes of gold. By April 12th, when the heavy intervention operation began, GLD held 1,154 tonnes. After the series of successive raids in April, the removal of gold from GLD accelerated and currently there are 793 tonnes left in the trust. In a little more than one year, more than 41% of the gold bars held by GLD were removed – most of that after the mid-April intervention operation.
In addition, the Bank of England made its gold available for purchase by the bullion banks in order to add to the ability to deliver gold to Asian purchasers.
The financial media, which is used to discredit gold as a safe haven from the printing of fiat currencies, claims that the decline in GLD’s physical gold is an indication that the public is rejecting gold as an investment. In fact, the manipulation of the gold price downward is being done systematically in order to coerce holders of GLD to unload their shares. This enables the bullion banks to accumulate the amount of shares required to redeem gold from the GLD Trust and ship that gold to Asia in order to meet the enormous delivery demands. For example, in the event described above on January 6th, 14% of GLD’s total volume for the day traded in a 1-minute period starting at 10:14 a.m. The total volume on the day for GLD was almost 35% higher than the average trading volume in GLD over the previous ten trading days.
Before 2013, the amount of gold in the GLD vault was one of the largest stockpiles of gold in the world. The swift decline in GLD’s gold inventory is the most glaring indicator of the growing shortage of physical gold supply that can be delivered to the Asian market and other large physical gold buyers. The more the price of gold is driven down in the Western paper gold market, the higher the demand for physical bullion in Asian markets. In addition, several smaller physical gold ETFs have experienced substantial gold withdrawals. Including the more than 100 tonnes of gold that has disappeared from the Comex vaults in the last year, well over 1,000 tonnes of gold has been removed from the various ETFs and bank custodial vaults in the last year. Furthermore, there is no telling how much gold that is kept in bullion bank private vaults on behalf of wealthy investors has been rehypothecated. All of this gold was removed in order to avoid defaulting on delivery demands being imposed by Asian commercial, investment and sovereign gold buyers.
The Federal Reserve seems to be trapped. The Fed is creating approximately 1,000 billion new US dollars annually in order to support the prices of debt related derivatives on the books of the few banks that have been declared to be “to big to fail” and in order to finance the large federal budget deficit that is now too large to be financed by the recycling of Chinese and OPEC trade surpluses into US Treasury debt. The problem with Quantitative Easing is that the annual creation of an enormous supply of new dollars is raising questions among American and foreign holders of vast amounts of US dollar-denominated financial instruments. They see their dollar holdings being diluted by the creation of new dollars that are not the result of an increase in wealth or GDP and for which there is no demand.
Quantitative Easing is a threat to the dollar’s exchange value. The Federal Reserve, fearful that the falling value of the dollar in terms of gold would spread into the currency markets and depreciate the dollar, decided to employ more extreme methods of gold price manipulation.
When gold hit $1,900, the Federal Reserve panicked. The manipulation of the gold price became more intense. It became more imperative to drive down the price, but the lower price resulted in higher Asian demand for which scant supplies of gold were available to meet.
Having created more paper gold claims than there is gold to satisfy, the Fed has used its dependent bullion banks to loot the gold exchange traded funds (ETFs) of gold in order to avoid default on Asian deliveries. Default would collapse the fractional bullion system that allows the Fed to drive down the gold price and protect the dollar from QE.
What we are witnessing is our central bank pulling out all stops on integrity and lawfulness in order to serve a small handful of banks that financial deregulation allowed to become “too big to fail” at the expense of our economy and our currency. When the Fed runs out of gold to borrow, to rehypothecate, and to loot from ETFs, the Fed will have to abandon QE or the US dollar will collapse and with it Washington’s power to exercise hegemony over the world.
Dave Kranzler traded high yield bonds for Bankers Trust for a decade. As a co-founder and principal of Golden Returns Capital LLC, he manages the Precious Metals Opportunity Fund.
This article first appeared at Paul Craig Roberts’ new website Institute For Political Economy. Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy and associate editor of the Wall Street Journal. He was columnist for Business Week, Scripps Howard News Service, and Creators Syndicate. He has had many university appointments. His Internet columns have attracted a worldwide following.
As an economist, it is getting more difficult to understand the logic underlying current monetary policy in the U.S. There are two main channels by which economists think monetary policy can influence growth and employment. The first is to lower interest rates to spur investment and consumption spending. The second is to induce inflation so real wages drop, spurring output and employment.
Since 2008, the central bank has reduced interest rates to almost zero with little to show for it. You can bring a horse to water in a trough, pond, or lake, but you cannot make him drink. Most of the added liquidity has found its way into excess reserves. Banks are not lending because they have few creditworthy customers who want to borrow. The household sector is still deleveraging and has less appetite for more debt, and the business sector is careful about making future investments in a financial and economic environment on unstable footing. Businesses are keenly aware of the malinvestments never cleaned up after the last bubble and of the price distortions of current monetary policy. Why would businesses stick their necks out if they suspect a painful adjustment is around the corner?
Since the first channel has failed, only the second channel remains. Economists are generally in agreement, however, that there is no long-run trade-off between inflation and unemployment. The Keynesians and monetarists believe that there may be a short-run trade-off. If people have adaptive expectations, (based on the recent past) then monetary policy that creates inflation will reduce unemployment by lowering a worker’s real wages. Of course, once a worker realizes he has been fooled, he will demand an increase in nominal wages to bring his real wages back up to previous levels. The gain in employment is only temporary. If, instead, people base their expectations rationally and are not fooled, the neo-classical position, there is no short- or long-run trade-offs between inflation and unemployment.
In a capitalist economy, relative prices play a crucial role in sending information to producers about what society wants. When one price goes up and another goes down, these are signals that tell producers to make more of the first good and less of the second. It is a complex system of signals with price changes reflecting the urgency of the needs within the reality of the law of scarcity. The most important aspect of a price system is the information it conveys to guide production.
Inflation causes an “information extraction” problem. When all prices are going up by different degrees, it is very difficult for an entrepreneur to distinguish between a relative and an absolute price change. Is a rising price a reflection of greater demand or inflationary pressure? That is, does it reflect a society’s changing needs or simply reflects a changed measuring stick (i.e., the value of money)? The same information extraction problem holds true with the prices of resources and labor. We have different labor markets with a wage gradient established along the production process. The printing of money interferes with this wage gradient and the information it conveys about the right proportion of capital and consumption goods to produce. Overall employment may initially improve but the gain is not worth the cost from the adjustment that must occur once the printing stops.
Looking at historical evidence, inflation leads to higher, not lower, unemployment. This should not be surprising. Inflation is like a wrench thrown into the workings of a capitalist system.
If economists agree that there is no long-term trade-off between inflation and unemployment, and the current Fed strategy to lower interest rates has failed miserably to boost growth, then we must ask, why is the Fed, even after this week’s taper, in effect printing $75 billion a month? It’s likely the goal is to induce inflation for a short-term gain in employment. Things are no better if the Fed’s strategy is to raise asset prices to induce an imaginary wealth effect. Yet multiple bubbles may pop before any wealth effect takes place. The Fed should not be playing the economy as a stake in a poker game.
Through multiple bubbles, Alan Greenspan’s monetary policy was responsible for massive human suffering worldwide. Yet Greenspan is living high on the hog with a comfy government pension, spending his spare time penning op-ed articles and dispensing his expert advice on the lecture circuit. He informs us that he was only human and that no one saw the bubble coming. This is less than ingenuous. If you play with fire, and you burn down the forest, it is criminal to say “I did not realize that playing with matches was dangerous.” The sad situation is that we recently replaced him with even bigger arsonists!
One can be certain that interest rates will shoot up once inflation picks up. Since most of the U.S. debt is short term, it is going to be very difficult to inflate prices to reduce the real value of the debt. How will the U.S. government react if it has to refinance at interest rates of 12 percent or more, like in 1981? Yellen is no Volker; will she be able to tame the inflation beast as Volcker did? The independent German central bank was powerless to stop the German government from using the printing presses during 1921-23.
Napoleon and Hitler, both responsible for millions of deaths, rode to power on a wave of discontent that followed periods of excessive monetary printing. Why are we taking such risks?