DIBACCO: Addicted to financial props

Quantitative easing is the latest example of U.S. economic dependency

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The best analogy that comes to mind regarding the Federal Reserve’s propping up the American economy by buying large amounts of securities, or quantitative easing, is that of a baby’s history. Since 2008, when the baby and quantitative easing were born, no attempt has been made to get the baby toilet-trained or the economy unleashed. So the parents and nation, rather than facing reality and disciplining themselves, now have a five-year-old child on diapers or an economy that has no relish for ending the dependency.

Case in point: On June 19, Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke announced a “tapering” of the artificial policies — that is, a scaling back of bond purchases from $85 billion to $65 billion during the next month’s policy meeting. He also noted the bond-buying program might be completely finished by mid-2014. The stock market, in reaction, dropped like a rock — 4.3 percent during the subsequent three days. Then, Mr. Bernanke changed his tune. The market rebounded, setting new highs in recent days.

It is questionable whether the economy has benefited from the quantitative easing, except for the stock market. The growth rate of the economy is tepid, unemployment is shameful, no matter that the actual percentage of 7.6 unemployed doesn’t reflect the prevailing nature of recent job growth or the enormous number of Americans who have simply opted out of the job market. The lower interest rates that the Fed’s policy induced have benefited corporations; the average Joe and Joanna still pay double-digit interest on their credit cards.

Mr. Bernanke’s additional reason for the easing has been to ensure that deflation doesn’t develop, as it did in Japan pursuing similar policies more than a decade ago. But the United States doesn’t have a deflation issue. Rather, it’s inflation. Because the federal government excludes from the cost-of-living index what most Americans purchase each day — food and energy — the inflation rate looks manageable However, a trip to the grocery store and gas station reveals that many of these prices have skyrocketed, taking their toll on average Americans. Add to that the coming “train wreck” of Obamacare, for which quantitative easing has no relevance, and the situation is dire.

To be sure, the stock market is doing well, but that’s only because there’s no competition for investor money. There are earnings as the usual yardstick, but then there are “yearnings” as well; that is, the silent hope that the Fed will always pursue quantitative easing to give the market a continued leg up on other investor choices. So long as the business media, for the most part, sing the market’s praises, in spite of disappointing news, the market will climb.

One thing is clear: Mr. Bernanke is not going to leave office in January with the Fed in retreat on quantitative easing. A tumbling market, as illustrated by his words on June 19, would smear his legacy. Another thing is also self-evident: The new Fed chairman appointed by President Obama will be indebted to keep quantitative-easing stimulus alive for the foreseeable future and certainly past the midterm 2014 elections.

The tragedy of our recent economic history is that it is so dependent on artificial techniques from the Fed to sustain it. No doubt, in the old days, the nation used protective tariffs to nurture its economic growth. By insulating American manufacturers from competition from foreign firms in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States built a “buy America” mentality that coincided with its burgeoning nationalism.

Once the nation became a creditor nation after World War I, and the financial center of the world moved from London to New York, protective tariffs negated the wherewithal of foreign nations to trade readily and pay back their debts. The Great Depression of the 1930s exacerbated the situation, with economic nationalism among nations thriving. Still, a lone leader emerged to bite the economic bullet. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, over the initial opposition of his boss, Franklin D. Roosevelt, urged the passage of legislation empowering the president to raise or lower tariff rates up to 50 percent for nations that would reciprocate with similar concessions for American products. This reciprocal trade legislation of 1934 flew in the face of business interests who, like today, cherish artificial stimuli. Only two Republicans in the House voted for the legislation, in the Senate only three, but it became law. Within four years, Hull would negotiate 18 treaties. The die for American policy was cast.

Hull, who served longer than any other secretary of state — nearly 12 years — was courageous in arguing that the artificial stimulus of tariffs was “at the very heart of the country’s economic dilemma.”

Thomas V. DiBacco, professor emeritus at American University, is author of “Made in the U.S.A.: The History of American Business” (Beard Books, 2003).

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