World News: The Wall Street Journal
In the past 12 months alone, the world's top five central banks have conjured up $1.4 trillion. They called it into existence as a sorcerer might summon the spirits. No wand, no printing press was required; taps on a keyboard did the heavy lifting.
"War and Gold" is a chronicle of fiscal ruination and redemption, with the emphasis on the former. In ages past, observes the historian and politician Kwasi Kwarteng, governments printed currency and levied taxes to fight wars. Now they materialize the money on computer screens to jolt their underachieving and overindebted economies back to life (so far without notable success). Customarily, sound finance resumed with the peace. What's new is that, starting about 1919, the taxing and inflating has kept right on going even after the shooting stopped.
Money is as old a story as the historian cares to make it. Mr. Kwarteng begins his chronicle with the 16th-century Spaniards, who ripped gold and silver from the hands of the Incas and Aztecs and hauled it back to Seville, making that inland port "one of the great financial centers of the world." "It is no accident," the author relates, "that four of the most widely performed operas of the modern era— Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, Rossini's Barber of Seville and Bizet's Carmen—are set in this city."
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker called last month in Washington for a new Bretton Woods, the 1944 conference of World War II Allies that set up an international gold-exchange regime. His remarks received little media attention.
This strikes me as an underplayed story, especially as Congress considers taking a serious look at the Federal Reserve. Some legislators in particular are concerned that the value of the dollar, while stronger than last year, is still worth less than a 1200th of an ounce of gold.
Mr. Volcker made his remarks at the annual meeting of the Bretton Woods Committee, a nonpartisan organization that has been getting together since 1983. He did not call for a return to the Bretton Woods gold-exchange regime per se and only mentioned "gold" twice. But the title of the speech was "A New Bretton Woods???" Let's take those three question marks to mean that Mr. Volcker wants to put this question out there emphatically.
Mr. Volcker reprised the history of the Bretton Woods system, which allowed foreign governments to redeem dollars in gold and established the dollar as the world's leading currency. The system collapsed under the weight of the Lyndon Johnson-Richard Nixon "guns and butter" strategy—paying for both the Vietnam War and expanded welfare benefits and doing so by deficit spending.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts that food prices will rise as much as 3.5% this year, the biggest annual increase in three years. Over the past 12 months from March, the consumer-price index increased 1.5% before seasonal adjustment. These are warnings. Never in history has a country that financed big budget deficits with large amounts of central-bank money avoided inflation. Yet the U.S. has been printing money—and in a reckless fashion—for years.
The Obama administration has run huge budget deficits every year, which, together with the Bush administration, has amounted to $6.7 trillion from 2006 to 2013. The Federal Reserve financed almost $3 trillion of these deficits by purchasing Treasury bonds and notes. The Fed has also purchased massive amounts of mortgage-backed securities. Today, with more than $2.5 trillion of idle reserves on bank balance sheets, there is enormous fuel for greater inflation once lending and money growth rises.
Nearly five years since the recession ended in June 2009, economic policy discussions continue to focus on dubious short-term countercyclical measures to "stimulate demand." The Economic Report of the President for 2014 wastes an entire chapter rehashing the jobs supposedly "saved or created" by the 2009 fiscal stimulus and Federal Reserve easing. That analysis relies on notoriously inaccurate forecasting models to take credit for the entirely prosaic facts that (1) the last recession eventually ended just as all previous recessions did, and that (2) employment subsequently rose a bit.
This evades the key issue: Did fiscal or monetary stimulus actually "stimulate demand"?
In recent years the U.S. has experimented with demand-side stimulants on an unprecedented scale. Monetary stimulus involves pushing interest rates down to subsidize big borrowers (mainly governments and banks) at the expense of small savers (seniors). That was the reason the Fed shoved the federal-funds rate down to near zero. Even quadrupling the Fed's assets had no clear and significant impact on the sluggish growth of nominal GDP.
Stock and bond traders spent most of last year in a state of high anxiety over what would happen when the Federal Reserve began "tapering" its monthly $85 billion purchases of Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities. But when the tapering was actually announced in December, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose sharply, apparently out of relief from all the suspense. Today, after various fluctuations including last week's swoon, the Dow is pretty much where it was back then.
The taper this month will take the purchases down to $55 billion, $30 billion in Treasurys and $25 billion in the tainted mortgage-backed securities that were the product of Uncle Sam's "affordable housing" fiasco of the 2000s. So far, the worst fears of the markets haven't happened.
Why not? One reason may be that the Fed isn't tapering as much as the numbers might indicate.