In Troubled Times, the Federal Reserve Must Work for Everyone

Richard Eskow

It’s been a chaotic few days for the world’s markets. Recent events do not paint the picture of a stable economy guided by rational minds. Instead, the world of global finance looks more like a playground in need of adult supervision.

Like other nations, we have a central bank. What should the Federal Reserve do in troubled times? For that matter, what is the Fed’s role in preventing troubled times from occurring in the first place?

Global Shock

It’s true that many of the causes of the recent stock market turmoil are global, rather than domestic. But those distinctions are becoming less important in a world of unfettered capital flow. Regional markets, like regional ecosystems, are interconnected.

Europe is struggling because of a misguided attachment to growth-killing austerity policies. Like Republicans in this country, Europe’s leaders are focused on unwise government cost-cutting measures that hurt the overall economy.

China’s superheated markets have experienced a sharp downturn, and its devaluing of the yuan is likely to affect American monetary policy. Many of the so-called “emerging markets” are in grave trouble, their problems exacerbated by an anticipated interest rate hike from the U.S. Fed.

Plunging crude oil prices are a major factor in the events of the last few days. But questions remain about the underlying forces affecting those prices. Demand is somewhat weaker, and Saudi officials are refusing to cut production. But there is still some debate about whether these and other well-reported factors are enough to explain the fact that the price of a barrel of oil is roughly half what it was just over a year ago, in June 2014.

American Turmoil

Talk of recovery here in the U.S. has been significantly dampened by events of the last several days. The now-interrupted stock market boom had been Exhibit A in the case for recovery.

Exhibit B was the ongoing drop in the official unemployment rate. There, too, signs of underlying weakness can be found. The labor force participation rate remains very low for people in their peak working years, as economist Elise Gould notes, and has only come back about halfway from pre-2008 levels. Jared Bernstein notes that pressure to raise wages, which one would also expect in a recovering job market, also remains weak.

All this argues for a rational and coordinated policy, one in which the Federal Reserve and the U.S. government act together to restore a wounded economy. What would that look like?

It would not include raised interest rates – something that nevertheless continues to be a topic of serious discussion. As Dean Baker points out, China’s currency devaluation alone should have been enough to take that idea off the table. What’s more, as Baker rightly notes, such a move would only make sense if the Fed “is worried that the U.S. economy was growing too quickly and creating too many jobs.” That’s a notion most Americans would probably reject as absurd. Most are not seeing their paychecks grow or their job opportunities multiply.

Anxiety about inflation, while all but omnipresent in some circles, is not a rational fear. A slow rise in prices (0.2 percent in the 12 months ending in July, as opposed to the Fed’s recommended 2 percent per year) tells us that inflation is not exactly looming on the horizon.

Now what?

“Everything is going to be dictated by government policy,” the chief investment officer of a well-known investment firm said this week. In that case, isn’t it time for a national conversation about that policy?

Another investment strategist told the Wall Street Journal that today’s challenges come at a time when “global central banks have exhausted almost all their tools … It’s difficult to see how central banks come in to support markets.”

If they’ve exhausted all their commonly used tools, it may be time to develop new ones – not to support “markets,” but to promote jobs and growth for everyone.

First, do no harm. The Fed needs to hold off on any move to raise interest rates. But inaction is not enough. It was given a dual mandate by Congress: to stabilize prices and keep employment at reasonable levels.

Activist groups like the “Fed Up” coalition, led by the Center for Popular Democracy (and including the Campaign for America’s Future), are working to move the Fed toward that second objective. They’ve been pushing to change its governing boards, which are heavily dominated by big banks and other major financial interests, and have called for policies that focus on improving the economic lives of most Americans.

Those policies could take a number of forms. One idea comes from Jeremy Corbyn, the populist politician who’s on track to become the next leader of Great Britain’s Labour Party. Corbyn’s economic plan includes “quantitative easing for people instead of banks.” Corbyn proposes to grow the financial sector in a targeted way, by giving the Bank of England (the UK’s version of the Fed) a mandate to “invest in new large scale housing, energy, transport and digital projects.”

A headline on the website of the Financial Times says (with apparent surprise) that “Corbyn’s “People’s QE” could actually be a decent idea.”

Corbyn also proposes to “strip out some of the huge tax reliefs and subsidies on offer to the corporate sector.” The added revenue would go to “direct public investment,” including the creation of a ‘National Investment Bank’ to “invest in the new infrastructure we need and in the hi-tech and innovative industries of the future.”

Qualitative Easing

Call it “qualitative,” rather than “quantitative,” easing. It would increase the money supply, but for money that is to be invested in the real-world economy – the one that creates jobs, lifts wages, and creates broad economic growth.

Could something like Corbyn’s plan ever happen here? There’s no reason why not. The Federal Reserve wasn’t created by bankers, nor is it there to serve bankers – although a lot of people inside and outside the Fed act as if it were. (The choice of a former Goldman Sachs executive for its latest major appointment won’t help change that.)

The Federal Reserve was created by the American people, through an act of Congress. Its governors and its policies are there to protect and serve the public. The Fed should use its oversight capabilities to ensure that banks don’t behave in a reckless manner or help private funds and other unsupervised institutions to behave recklessly.

We are still paying the price for allowing big-money interests to dominate both lawmaking on Capitol Hill and monetary policy at the Federal Reserve. That must change. Congress and the Fed, acting together, should ensure that our nation’s policies benefit the many who are in need of help, not the few who already have more than they need.

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