Years ago, it was our captains of industry who commanded the world’s attention. More recently, the spotlight of power was centered on Wall Street’s banks and brokers until 2008. Today, however, the heads of government and central banks are the market movers.
The financial crisis of 2008-2009 turned the economy and the private sector on its head. Hobbled by the largest crisis in generations, Wall Street was drowning. With the banking sector about to implode, the Street had no choice but to ask the U.S. Treasury for an unprecedented bailout. As one corporation after another (think the auto industry) faced the threat of bankruptcy, the center of financial decision making shifted to Washington, D.C. It remains there today.
Government’s role in the economy is nothing new. For many years it has guided the overall pace of economic activity, attempting to maintain steady growth, high levels of employment and price stability. For decades after the Depression of the 1930s, it relied a great deal on fiscal policy to combat the recurring recessions the nation faced.
During the 1960s, the heyday of fiscal policy, the President and Congress played a leading role in directing the economy. However, ideas about the best tools for stabilizing the economy changed after that as a period of high inflation, high unemployment and huge government deficits undermined the country’s faith in fiscal policy. Enter monetary policy (the control of the nation’s money supply) administered by the Federal Reserve Bank and its tools of interest rate manipulation.
In the midst of the panic of 2008-2009, as giant banks went broke and insurance companies teetered on the edge, the government was firing both monetary and fiscal barrels at the problem. The combined policies worked in the sense of staving off a worldwide financial meltdown and another Great Depression. Since 2008, however, because of partisan politics fiscal policy has fallen by the wayside. Today only the monetary policy option remains to prevent another recession.
In this election year opposing forces are criticizing the Fed for doing too much or too little to grow the economy. Conservatives say the Fed is creating inflation down the road by its stimulus policies while driving down the value of the dollar. Some have actually accused the Fed of treason in even considering further quantitative easing. Liberals have argued the opposite: criticizing the Fed for being overly worried about inflation and not doing enough to lower the unemployment rate.
Since 2007, the Fed has been engaged in a historical and largely uncharted area of economic manipulation that transcends anything attempted in our country’s past. They have been at the center of propping up or selling huge institutions, making loans to banks and others in entirely new and radical ways and buying upward of $2 trillion in government debt and mortgage-backed securities. There is no question that the Federal Reserve Bank, in my opinion, has assumed the throne of financial power in this country by default.
Its power, unlike the private sector, is concentrated in a handful of individuals with considerable independence from the President and the Congress. Both the President and the Congress have all but abdicated their own power to control the economy if not in words, certainly by their actions. The polarization of both parties since the 2008 elections has made fiscal policy initiatives impossible.
The Federal Reserve Bank, through its chairman Ben Bernanke, has on numerous occasions begged the president and both parties to at least share the power via new fiscal policy initiatives. To date that call has been rejected in the name of politics. In my next column I will examine just how big the government has grown as a percentage of GDP and how power could become even more concentrated within our nation’s capital in the months and years to come.