May

3

JasonI've been re-reading parts of two terrifically enlightening books on the Federal Reserve this week, "The Creature from Jekyll Island" and "Secrets of the Temple".

In the course of my review, I was reminded of a gentleman who once was the head of the Federal Reserve System who believed in sound money and hard banking, William McChesney Martin. Appointed by Truman in 1951, Martin would last through 5 Presidents, finally retiring in 1970 during the Nixon administration. A Yalie that had concentrated in English and Latin, McChesney Martin had deep family ties to the Federal Reserve. His father, William McChesney Martin Sr., had been both the Governor then President of the St. Louis branch of the Fed as well as helping to craft the original Federal Reserve Act of 1913. Junior himself was instrumental in the 1951 Accord, the agreement that is seen as re-establishing the Fed's independence.

Harry S. Truman thought that by appointing Martin Jr. to head the Fed, he could over-ride the agreement. Despite being a Democrat and growing up in the bosom of the private-public power duopoly of NYC and Washington D.C. elites, William Jr. did not play ball. Instead he ran monetary policy in a strong, counter-cyclical manner and was very mindful of inflation - refusing to return to the practice of debt monetizing as Fed Chairman Eccles had been apt to do.

He was a hard-nosed real money man who lectured Congress sternly on what he saw as excesses in spending and a growing lack of appreciation of the two-sided nature of capitalism. In August of 1957 he told the Senate "We are dealing with waste and extravagance, incompetence and inefficiency; the only way we have in a free society is to take losses from time to time. This is the loss economy as well as the profit economy."

50 years hence the man that occupies the seat at the head of the Fed's table is completely devoid of such character. Instead of warning Congress that inflation causes mal-invest, encourages excess speculation (NASDAQ, real estate), and particularly afflicts "hardworking and thrifty… little man on the fixed income who could protect neither his income nor the value of his savings. Often, he was also the unemployed victim of the collapse", B.S. Bernanke recommends easy money and opening the spigots of government largess.

The history of the Fed is intriguing and insightful, giving generous lessons to those that would heed such knowledge. The obvious message today is that the current Fed is much like that of Arthur Burns or George Miller, men who would quickly acquiesce to the whims of politicians. In stark contrast to William McChesney Martin, Benjamin Bernanke wants to be loved and accepted and is willing to commit grave errors in monetary policy to achieve that aim. Speculators and pensioners beware!

Edward Talisse adds:

The most recent offering of Grant's Interest Rate Observer includes a witty cartoon. A local motorist pulls up to his nearest filling station and exclaims to the station attendant that "the recent price increase in gasoline is outrageous." The Greenspan-Bernanke schooled attendant coyly replies "yeah, but is not a core increase!" Correctly assessing the medium to longer term inflation outlook has always been a key to investment success and preservation of wealth in real terms. The problem is that inflation forecasting is a tall order and even the pros cannot agree on an appropriate methodology. Today's CPI readings are met with much cynicism and skepticism. The bond trader's lament "that of course when you take out everything that went up, it goes down! Anyway, here is a PDF that explains the difference between the CPI and the PCE. CPI typically runs higher than PCE. Chose your poison carefully.


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