DiBACCO: March Madness of a different sort at the Fed

The Federal Reserve needs a new financial game plan

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March 18 is the first day of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, commonly referred to as “March Madness.”

It’s also the occasion for the first meeting of the Federal Reserve Board in which Janet Yellen holds away as chairwoman. Both benchmarks should herald new strategies for winning — a certainty for the basketball confab, but less so for the Fed, even though the nation’s still dysfunctional economy is far more important than which team comes out on top in the collegiate contest.

Given Ms. Yellen’s testimony before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee on Feb. 27, the Fed appears stuck in the same old, same old.

Her appearance was mostly a feel-good moment, leading CNBC New York Stock Exchange commentator Bob Pisani to call it the perfect soothing medicine for a volatile market. The stick-to-the-same-course testimony set well with traders also, with the Dow Jones industrial average rising 74.2 points for that day.

The problem is that the stock market is about the only positive aspect of the nation’s economy. Interest rates kept low by the Fed under Ben S. Bernanke’s watch have led to massive buying of stocks, propelling them to a bubble stage by any reasonable yardstick.

The S&P 500 is trading at a price-earnings multiple of 17.9, a point higher than when the bull market ended in October 2007. Even worse, debt margin buying has reached new records, meaning that the timid investor, whipped by the year 2000 debacle, is now back in the buying realm — and on borrowed funds.

Listening to CNBC during trading hours leads to the conclusion that no dark stock exchange cloud is without a silver lining. The cable station has it both ways: If the stock indexes rise — hooray — more viewers join the bandwagon. If the excesses lead to scams, no matter. CNBC’s “American Greed” program narrated by Stacy Keach will cover the sordid drama.

To be sure, 2014 isn’t the same as the 2007 situation that led to the Great Recession. For instance, the housing market today isn’t at the excess stage it was in seven years ago. However, in three respects, the scenario is worse.

First, now large Internet companies that specialize in gossip and chitchat have more value than large manufacturing firms with investments in expensive machinery that make consumer goods and hire many thousands. Just think how tenuous these social-networking firms are, especially as users begin to realize they’re not so special anymore and hook on to another play-play fad.

Second, bitcoins or virtual currency, most assuredly will lend volatility to the economy because they are unregulated and amazingly popular in spite of their obvious murkiness as money, to say nothing of security for the investment. To wit, a leading exchange for bitcoins announced last month that $470 million disappeared from its digital records.

Third, seven years ago when a federal entity made an announcement or report, Americans believed what they read or heard. Today, as a result of so many outright lies, calculated misstatements or seemingly illegal and unprosecuted actions, trust in federal agencies is sorely wanting.

What information the White House or departments of Labor, Health and Human Services or Commerce might put forth as data, in other words, is suspect, especially when such data conflict with what the politically neutral Congressional Budget Office reports.

The Fed must be aroused to the need for more normal interest rates, which is the first step to curb stock market speculation. Sadly, during Mr. Bernanke’s watch, millions of Americans who took exception to stock market investment were rewarded with unacceptable savings rates that defied one of the safest financial alternatives for conservative investors.

Lest we forget, long before there was a stock exchange in America (the first was set up in Philadelphia in 1790), there were banks that savers put their money in, which helped fuel economic growth for the colonies in an incremental way. The nation doesn’t exist for a one-path investment scenario, just as March Madness on the basketball court isn’t the only game in town.

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

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