How does the old saying go? “Anything worth doing is worth doing right?”
That’s sage wisdom, but it’s not quite the mentality the world’s financial governors have adopted of late.
In the collective case of Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, China’s Wen Jiabao, our very own Ben Bernanke, and European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, the frame of mind has been “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”
That’s a BIG Number
Have you really stopped to crunch the numbers for all the cash earmarked as stimulus funds over the course of the past month? It’s not chump change. Take a look:
- China has set aside an extra $158 billion for infrastructure spending, focusing heavily on highways, ports and railroad transportation. Separately — or perhaps not separately — Wen has hinted that China could feasibly begin to push the value of the yuan lower, which would help increase the state’s exports by making them cheaper to foreign customers.
- The Bank of Japan is buying up to $127 billion worth of Japanese T-bills and government debt … a move that closely mirrors that of the United States in terms of restarting its economy, and in fact has been deemed by some to be retaliatory toward the U.S. The effort also is largely viewed as a maneuver that would deflate the value of the yen, which, like China, would help beef up its exports. So far, though, the stimulus has had little impact on the yen’s value, as most other major economic regions also are taking measures to devalue their currency.
- The Federal Reserve has unveiled a program allowing up to $40 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities every month until further notice. It’s a stimulus like any other, but the primary target in Bernanke’s sights is the still-lethargic real estate market. By buying mortgage securities, the Fed will keep mortgage rates at near-record lows. The targeted impact that’s been reported (and keep “reported” in your back pocket for a moment) is help for the country’s weak employment situation. The plan is in addition to an existing Federal Reserve program that actually would give Bernanke & Co. the ability to spend up to $85 billion per month in bond buying. And yes, it’s a decision that would normally crimp the value of the U.S. dollar, were the nation’s major trade partners not also doing the same with their currencies.
- European Central Bank recently pledged to, well, pledged to do ‘whatever it takes’ to protect the EU’s currency value. It’s not quite as ambiguous as it might seem, in that the approach would almost certainly be the purchase of bonds. Yet, ECB President Draghi still managed to one-up the open-endedness of the U.S. stimulus plan, by neither explaining how much money would be injected into the EU’s economic system, nor by suggesting when or at what pace.
All told, we know we’re going to at least see $284 billion in stimulus money from eastern Asia, and though we don’t really know how much money the western half of the world will be pouring into the economic engine, we have to think that between the ECB’s and the Fed’s new bond-buying programs, that will at least mean $100 billion per month for a few months; let’s call it $300 billion within the foreseeable future.
That’s plausibly a $600 billion jolt we’re going to be seeing thrown our way in pretty short order. Wow. But will it work?
Probably. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the fiscal floodgates could be that wide open for any length of time and not rev the global economy’s engine. That’s not the issue, though.
What folks are concerned about is the side effects and longevity of the stimulus plans.
Cost Versus Benefit?
Few would argue that some sort of action had to be taken before the world’s businesses ground to a virtual standstill. Yet, the combination of all this stimulus has raised more than a few eyebrows … and not in a good way.
One of the key criticisms of the Federal Reserve’s approach (buying mortgage-backed securities to keep mortgage rates low) is that it won’t necessarily create jobs.
But wait a second — wasn’t the whole point of that stimulus to prod the creation of new payrolls in the United States? Nope. That was a theme/assumption that just happened to get traction at the time plans were unveiled. In fact, Ben Bernanke made no bones about it, saying “it’s not going to solve the problem,” referring to the Fed’s bond-buying program as a solution to painfully high unemployment.
The stumbling block is the limitation of monetary policy to fix economic and fiscal policy problems. In other words, Bernanke can only do so much. At this point, only a tax-friendly and business-friendly environment will create new jobs, and that’s up to your elected officials rather than appointed ones. The only real thing the Federal Reserve’s buying plans will do is keep mortgage rates at ridiculously low levels, but that was likely to happen anyway.
China’s stimulus plans have been equally criticized. The pundits argue that China’s planned infrastructure isn’t entirely new, in that some of the items on the agenda are actually unfinished projects from the last stimulus. And some wonder if that $158 billion is actually available at all. The spending plans might be mandated from the state’s top tier of government, but it’s coming out of local-government coffers.
Problem is, many of China’s local-government coffers are already dried up.
As for Draghi’s plans to lead the ECB’s support for the euro, doing “whatever it takes” might feel stimulative, but the more one thinks about it, the less stimulating it feels. “Whatever it takes” isn’t a plan — it’s a slogan. Worse, it seems like a slogan we’ve heard from Europe before. Spain might be beyond salvaging. Greece is toast.
The one major stimulus package that seems to be the most on-target is Japan’s. The country is aiming to keep its yen cheap so exports firm up again. Period. You can like it or not, but at least there’s no confusion or misguided ideas about it. Japan can’t save the whole world, though.
While all four major stimulus plans — on top of a half-dozen or so smaller stimulus plans — might get the wheels spinning again, will it actually keep the wheels spinning?
Remember, this is the third round of stimulus for the U.S. and the second round for most of the rest of the world. Cyclical economies come and go, but it never really felt like the prior stimulus plans got much traction. How is this one going to be any different? After all, it really only adds liquidity into the machinery at a time when liquidity isn’t what the machinery needs.
Right now, people all across the world just need good jobs and loans, and central governments need tax revenue. Random liquidity doesn’t put people back to work or in new houses. The only thing is does is raise the risk of inflation.