I’ve made a living out of exposing economic fallacies, but there’s one whale that I can’t seem to harpoon. Even top-flight Wall Street analysts seem to believe that the Fed’s doubling of the monetary base after the credit crunch has not had an inflationary impact on our economy. Their logic can be summed up like so: “The money the Fed created and dropped from helicopters has all been caught in the trees.” In other words, the Fed is creating money, but it is just being held as excess reserves by the banking system instead of being loaned to the public. Therefore, the money supply hasn’t truly increased, there is no money multiplier effect, and aggregate price levels are behaving themselves.
But this is only a half-truth. Yes, most of the money created by the Fed has been kept by commercial banks as excess reserves. However, the Fed doesn’t conjure reserves by magic. It first creates an electronic credit by fiat, then purchases an asset held by a financial institution. Those primary dealers then deposit that Federal Reserve check into a bank, thus creating excess reserves for the banking system. The act of creating money from nothing and buying an asset — be it a Treasury bond or Mortgage Backed Security (MBS) — drives up the price of that asset in the open market. Those price distortions send erroneous signals to private buyers and sellers, eventually creating gross economic imbalances.
Therefore, the inflation created by the Fed first gets concentrated in whatever asset it has chosen to purchase – before spreading throughout the economy.
In the latest example of the Fed’s monetary manipulations, Bernanke & Co. purchased $1.25 trillion in MBS. The prices of MBS were therefore driven up (and yields down). Before that, the Fed forced the entire yield curve lower by purchasing not only Treasury bills but also $300 billion in notes and bonds. The Fed has also recently indicated that it will be swapping maturing MBS for longer-dated Treasury securities in an effort to keep its balance sheet from shrinking.
While it is true that — for now at least — we have been spared from the imminent curse of skyrocketing consumer prices, thanks to the falling money multiplier, it is blatantly untrue that the trillion-plus dollars the Fed created have been rendered inconsequential.
Not only has the huge buildup in the monetary base put pressure on the US dollar and caused gold to soar, but it has also broadcast an egregious and distortive price signal for US debt securities. The 10-year note is now trading just above 2.5%. That yield is near its all time record low, nearly 5 percentage points below its 40-year average, and 13 percentage points below its record high of September 1981.
US sovereign debt should only enjoy such historically low yields due to an overabundance of savings, low inflation, and low debt. None of those preferable conditions currently exist. Hence, US Treasuries are the most over-supplied, over-owned, and over-priced asset in the history of the planet! Once the debt dam breaks, it will send the dollar and bond prices cascading lower, and consumer prices and bond yields through the roof.
While Wall Street and Washington are petrified of the deflation boogieman, the real menace lurking in the shadows is the Fed’s bond bubble – and it’s going to eat small investors alive.