By Michael Hudson and posted with the author’s permission
The Federal Reserve Board’s ostensible policy aim is to manage the money supply and bank credit in a way that maintains price stability. That usually means fighting inflation, which is blamed entirely on “too much employment,” euphemized as “too much money.” In Congress’s more progressive days, the Fed was charged with a second objective: to promote full employment. The problem is that full employment is supposed to be inflationary – and the way to fight inflation is to reduce employment, which is viewed simplistically as being determined by the supply of credit.
So in practice, one of the Fed’s two directives has to give. And hardly by surprise, the “full employment” aim is thrown overboard – if indeed it ever was taken seriously by the Fed’s managers. In the Carter Administration (1777-80) leading up to the great price inflation of 1980, Fed Chairman Paul Volcker expressed his economic philosophy in a note card that he kept in his pocket, to whip out and demonstrate where his priority lay. The card charted the weekly wage of the average U.S. construction worker.
Chairman Volcker wanted wages to go down, blaming the inflation on too much employment – meaning too full. He pushed the U.S. bank rate to an unprecedented 20 percent – the highest normal rate since Babylonian times back in the first millennium BC. This did indeed crash the economy, and with it employment and prosperity. Volcker called this “harsh monetary medicine,” as if the crash of financial markets and economic growth showed that his “cure” for inflation was working.
Apart from employment and wage levels, another victim of Volcker’s interest-rate hike was the Democratic Party’s fortunes in the 1980 presidential election. They lost the White House for twelve years. The party thus is taking great courage – or simply being ignorant – by entering on this autumn’s midterm election by emulating Mr. Volcker’s attempt to drive down wage levels by financial tightening, which already has crashed the stock market by 20 percent.
President Biden has thoroughly backed up Republican-appointed Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell in endorsing a financial crash in hope that it will roll back U.S. wage levels. That is the policy of the Democratic Party’s donor class and hence political constituency.
To Wall Street and its neoliberal policy backers … the solution to any price inflation is to reduce wages and public social spending. The orthodox way to do this is to push the economy into recession in order to reduce hiring. Rising unemployment will oblige labor to compete for jobs that pay less and less as the economy slows.
This class-war doctrine is the prime directive of neoliberal economics. It is a feature of the tunnel vision of corporate managers and the One Percent. The Federal Reserve and IMF are are the operating arms for impoverishing the masses. Along with Janet Yellen at the Treasury, public discussion of today’s U.S. inflation is framed in a way that avoids blaming the 8.2 percent rise in consumer prices on the Biden Administration’s New Cold War sanctions on Russian oil, gas and agriculture, or on oil companies and other sectors using these sanctions as an excuse to charge monopoly prices as if America has not continued to buy Russian diesel oil, as if fracking has not picked up and as if corn is not being turned into biofuel. There has been no disruption in supply. We are simply dealing with monopoly rent by the oil companies using the anti-Russian sanctions as an excuse that an oil shortage will soon develop for the United States and indeed for the entire world economy.
Covid’s shutdown of the U.S. and foreign economies and foreign trade also is not acknowledged as disrupting supply lines and raising shipping costs and hence import prices. The entire blame for inflation is placed on wage earners, and the response is to make them the victims of the coming austerity, as if their wages are responsible for bidding up oil prices, food prices and other prices resulting from the crisis. The reality is that they are too debt-strapped to be spendthrifts.
The Fed’s Junk Economics of What Bank Credit Is Spent On
The pretense behind the Fed’s recent increase in its discount rate by 0.75 percent on June 15 (to a paltry range of 1.50% to 1.75%) is that raising interest rates will cure inflation by deterring borrowing to spend on the basic needs that make up the Consumer Price Index and its related GDP deflator. But banks do not finance much consumption, except for credit card debt, which in the United States is now less than student loans and automobile loans.
Banks lend almost entirely to buy real estate, stocks and bonds, not goods and services. Some 80 percent of bank loans are real estate mortgages, and most of the remainder are loans collateralized by stocks and bonds. So raising interest rates will not lead wage-earners to borrow less to buy consumer goods. The main price effect of less bank credit and higher interest rates is on asset prices – deterring borrowing to buy homes, and arbitragers and corporate raiders from buying stocks and bonds. So the main price effect of less bank credit and higher interest rates is to reduce stock and bond prices and demand for home mortgages.
Rolling Back Middle-Class Home Ownership
The most immediate effect of the Federal Reserve’s credit tightening will be to reduce America’s home-ownership rate. This rate has been falling since 2008, from nearly 68 percent to just 61 percent today. The decline got underway with President Obama’s eviction of nearly ten million victims of junk mortgages, mainly black and Hispanic debtors. That was the Democratic Party’s alternative to writing down fraudulent mortgage loans to realistic market prices, and reducing their carrying charges to bring them in line with market rental values. The indebted victims of this massive bank fraud were made to suffer, so that Obama’s Wall Street sponsors could keep their predatory gains and indeed, receive massive bailouts. The costs of their fraud fell on bank customers, not on the banks and their stockholders and bondholders.
The effect of discouraging new home buyers by raising interest rates is to lower home ownership – the badge of being middle-class. The Fed’s policy of raising interest rates will greatly increase the interest charges that prospective new home buyers will have to pay, pricing the carrying charge out of reach for many families. The United States is turning into a landlord economy.
As the United States has become more debt-ridden, more than 50 percent of the value of U.S. real estate already is held by mortgage bankers. That means that homeowners are left with only a minority share in the value of their homes; most is owed to their banks. The remaining homeowners’ equity – what they own net of their mortgage debt – has fallen even faster than home ownership rates have declined.
Real estate is being transferred from “poor” hands to those of wealthy landlord corporations. Private capital companies – the funds of the One Percent – are going to pick up the pieces from the coming wave of foreclosures to turn homes into rental properties. Higher interest rates will not affect their cost of buying this housing, because they buy for all cash to make profits (actually, real estate rents) as landlords. Within another decade the nation’s home ownership rate may fall toward 50 percent (and homeowners’ equity even lower), turning the United States into a landlord economy instead of the promised middle-class home ownership economy.
The Coming Economic Austerity (Indeed, Debt-Burdened Depression)
While home ownership rates have plunged for the population at large, the Fed’s “Quantitative Easing” has increased its subsidy of Wall Street’s financial securities from $800 billion to $9 trillion – of which the largest gain has been in packaged home mortgages. This has kept housing prices from falling and becoming more affordable for home buyers. But the Fed’s support of asset prices has saved many insolvent banks – the very largest ones – from going under. Sheila Bair of the FDIC singled out Citigroup, along with Countrywide, Bank of America and the other usual suspects. The working population is not considered to be too big to fail. Its political weight is small by comparison to that of Wall Street banks and other FIRE-sector beneficiaries.
Lowering the discount rate to only about 0.1 percent enabled the banking system to make a bonanza of gains by making mortgage loans at around 3.50 percent. The banks kept credit-card rates high – and made even more money on penalty fees for late payment than they “earned” on interest charges (in the range of 18 percent). And despite the stock market’s plunge of over 20 percent from nearly 36,000 to under 30,000 on June 17, America’s wealthiest One Percent, and indeed the top 10 Percent, have vastly increased their wealth in stocks, while the bond market has had the largest boom in history. But most Americans have not benefitted from this runup in asset prices, because most stocks and bonds are owned by only the wealthiest layer of the population. The Fed is all in favor of asset-price inflation. But For most American families, corporations and government at all levels, the financial boom since 2008 has entailed a growing debt burden. Many families face insolvency as Federal Reserve policy aims to create unemployment. Now that the Covid moratorium on the evictions of renters behind in their payments is expiring, the ranks of the homeless are rising.
The Biden Administration is trying to blame today’s inflation and related distortions on Putin, even using the term “Putin inflation.” The mainstream media follow suit in not explaining to their audience that Western sanctions blocking Russian energy and food exports will cause a food and energy crisis for many countries this summer and autumn. And indeed, beyond: Biden’s military and State Department officers warn that the fight against Russia is just the first step in their war against China’s non-neoliberal economy, and may last twenty years.
That portends a long depression. But as Madeline Albright would say, they think that the price is “worth it.” As seen by the Biden regime, the New Cold War is a fight between the “democratic” United States, with its privatized economic planning in the hands of the financial class, and “autocratic” China and Russia, where banking and money creation are treated as a public utility to finance tangible economic growth instead of serving the financialization of the economy.
There is no evidence that America’s neoliberal-neoconservative New Cold War can restore the nation’s former industrial and related economic power. The economy cannot recover as long as today’s debt overhead is left in place. Debt service, housing costs, privatized medical care, student debt and a decaying infrastructure have made the U.S. economy uncompetitive. There is no way to restore its economic viability without fundamental changes in economic policy. But there is little “reality economics” at hand to provide an alternative to the class war inherent in neoliberalism’s belief that the economy and living standards can prosper by purely financial means, by debt leveraging and corporate monopoly rent extraction while the United States has made its domestic manufacturing uncompetitive – seemingly irreversibly. To reduce their labor costs, U.S. corporations moved manufacturing offshore, thereby depriving the American work force of high value-added, high productivity jobs.
The Rentier Class Has Sought to Make America’s Neoliberal Privatization and Financialization Irreversible
It has succeeded to such a degree that there is no party or economic constituency promoting the policies needed for an industrial recovery. Yet the Democratic Party leadership, subjecting the economy to an IMF-style austerity plan, will make this November’s midterm elections unique. For the past half century, the Fed’s role has been to provide easy money for the economy, to give the ruling party at least the illusion of trickle-down prosperity to deter voters from electing the opposition party. But this time the Biden Administration is running on a program of financial austerity.
The Party’s identity politics address almost every identity except that of wage-earners and debtors. Advocating lower wages, more expensive financial charges for home mortgages and credit-card loans, and broken promises for student-debt writedowns does not look like a platform that can attract many voters, especially as the administration pours money into Ukraine. Republicans such as Tucker Carlson are appealing to the “deplorables” majority that the Democrats have left behind.
Addendum: Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism reminds me that: “Paul Volcker made it explicit that the Fed is in the business of crushing labor. As reported by William Greider in Secrets of the Temple, when Volcker was driving interest rates to the moon, he kept a note card in his pocket. It was a record of weekly average construction wages. Volcker wanted them to go down as proof his harsh medicine was working.”
M.K. Bhadrakumar, “West at inflection point in Ukraine war,” Indian Punchline, June 19, 2022
“Fundamentally, the Western economies are facing a systemic crisis. The complacency that the reserve-currency-based US economy is impervious to ballooning debt; that the petrodollar system compels the entire world to purchase dollars to finance their needs; that the flood of cheap Chinese consumer goods and cheap energy from Russia and Gulf States would keep inflation at bay; that interest rate hikes will cure structural inflation; and, above all, that the consequences of taking a trade-war hammer to a complex network system in the world economy can be managed — these notions stand exposed.”