As anybody who lived through the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 knows, banking can be hazardous. Failures can hit millions hard, wiping out life savings, tossing the economy into chaos, and messing with investments, spending, and overall growth. Capital requirements are supposed to be crucial buffers shielding banks from catastrophes, rooted in centuries of financial evolution from Alexander Hamilton up through the New Deal regulatory regime and modern international agreements like the Basel Accords. But current regulators’ efforts to raise the capital ratios of big banks to safe levels are strongly opposed by most financiers, sparking debates on finding a balance between stability and financial risk, all amid intense political pressures.
A day after tens of thousands of climate activists marched through Manhattan's Upper East Side demanding an end to oil, gas, and coal production, thousands more demonstrators hit the streets of Lower Manhattan Monday, where more than 100 people were arrested while surrounding the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to protest fossil fuel financing. Protesters chanted slogans like "No oil, no gas, fossil fuels can kiss my ass" and "We need clean air, not another billionaire" as they marched from Zuccotti Park—ground zero of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement—to pre-selected sites in the Financial District.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City hosted its 45th annual Economic Policy Symposium titled “Structural Shifts in the Global Economy” in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, starting on Thursday, August 24, 2023. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell addressed the symposium on Friday and over 100 other central bankers, federal reserve officials, academics, media, financial organizations, international counterparts, and government regulators were also in attendance. One notable major topic has been omitted from the materials released so far: addressing systemic climate financial risk. Compared to global peers, Chair Powell and the Federal Reserve have been laggards in addressing systemic climate financial risks, putting workers, businesses, and the economy at risk.
Inflation was slow throughout the second half of 2022. Yet you wouldn’t know this from newspaper headlines, statements from “experts,” or the statements and actions of the Federal Reserve. It was only in January of 2023, when the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for December 2022 was released showing an actual (very small) decline in prices for the month, that there began to be a general recognition that the relatively high rate of inflation of late 2021 and the first half of 2022 had abated. The December 2022 decline of one-tenth of 1% was later revised upward to an increase of one-tenth of 1%, but this tiny increase still brought attention to the easing of inflation.
Future historians will likely look back at the debt ceiling rituals being reenacted these days with a frustrated shaking of their heads. That otherwise reasonable people would be so readily deceived raises the question that will provoke those historians: How could this happen? The U.S. Congress has imposed successive ceilings on the national debt, each one higher than the last. Ceilings were intended to limit the amount of federal borrowing. But the same U.S. Congress so managed its taxing and spending that it created ever more excesses of spending over tax revenues (deficits). Those excesses required borrowing to cover them. The borrowings accumulated to hit successive ceilings.
Today’s discussion is focused on inflation and its much-debated return after many many decades. We thought we would structure our discussion around certain key questions. What is inflation? What is the textbook definition? How has it been understood in the past? What causes inflation? What are the supply and demand-side factors? Given that capitalism is considered such a powerful productive machine, why are the most powerful capitalist countries suffering from inflation today? What does it say about their productive system? What is, in fact, causing the current inflation? What is the Federal Reserve in the United States particularly — the most powerful central bank in the world — doing about it, and what’s wrong with what the Federal Reserve, and many other central banks, are doing? So Michael, why don’t you just start with your thoughts on the first question.
In an attempt to grossly exaggerate China’s defense spending, and simultaneously downplay the US military budget, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis published a jaw-droppingly deceptive graph. If a student presented this in a statistics 101 class, the teacher would likely give them an F. But because it involves Washington’s public enemy number one, Beijing, the US regional reserve bank was awarded a Golden Star for exemplary service in the New Cold War. The St. Louis Fed listed the world’s top six countries by military expenditures, but used two separate axes: the spending of China, Russia, Britain, India, and Saudi Arabia was depicted on the left axis, which went from $0 to $300 billion; but a separate right axis was created just for the United States, which went from $400 billion to $1 trillion.
“There is no sense that inflation is coming down,” said Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell at a November 2 press conference, — this despite eight months of aggressive interest rate hikes and “quantitative tightening.” On November 30, the stock market rallied when he said smaller interest rate increases are likely ahead and could start in December. But rates will still be increased, not cut. “By any standard, inflation remains much too high,” Powell said. “We will stay the course until the job is done.” The Fed is doubling down on what appears to be a failed policy, driving the economy to the brink of recession without bringing prices down appreciably. Inflation results from “too much money chasing too few goods,” and the Fed has control over only the money – the “demand” side of the equation.
The Federal Reserve has responded to runaway inflation by hiking up interest rates at the same time that Americans are drowning in historic levels of personal debt. With interest rates up, prices will only rise faster than wages, hitting the vast majority of people with stagnant or declining wages in real terms. The result is yet another upward transfer of wealth to the minority of capitalists responsible for the crisis in the first place. Economist Richard Wolff joins The Chris Hedges Report to discuss the origins of the inflation crisis, the Fed’s response, and what this all means for working people. Richard D. Wolff is Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a Visiting Professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs at the New School. He is the host of the weekly program Economic Update, and the author of several books, including his most recent title, The Sickness in the System: When Capitalism Fails To Save Us From Pandemics or Itself.
We’re still getting over a pandemic. Healthcare costs are totally out of control. Everyone’s in debt and hates their job. The insects are disappearing, which feels like a bad sign. I have to watch a Jeff Bezos interview just to see bug eyes anymore. On top of all that, the bankers at the Federal Reserve have decided they’re going to make things way worse. As reported in Common Dreams, “Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said… that the U.S. central bank is ready to inflict ‘pain’ on households as it continues to fight inflation, remarks that drew widespread backlash from experts who warned the Fed appears poised to spark a devastating recession and mass layoffs.” The Federal Reserve – the privately owned central bank of the U.S. – wants to screw us all some more. So the Fed claims it’s raising interest rates to fight inflation, but that isn’t why they’re doing it.
In prescribing cures for inflation, economists rely on the diagnosis of Nobel laureate Milton Friedman: inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon—too much money chasing too few goods. But that equation has three variables: too much money (“demand”) chasing (the “velocity” of spending) too few goods (“supply”). And “orthodox” economists, from Lawrence Summers to the Federal Reserve, seem to be focusing only on the “demand” variable. The Fed’s prescription is to suppress demand (borrowing and spending) by raising interest rates. Summers, a former U.S. Treasury Secretary who presided over the massive post-2008 bank bailouts, is proposing to reduce demand by raising taxes or raising unemployment rates, reducing disposable income and thus people’s ability to spend.
The chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell, said his goal is “to get wages down.” In a press conference on May 4, Powell announced that the Fed would be raising interest rates by half a percentage and implementing policies aimed at reducing inflation in the United States, which is at its highest level in 40 years. According to a transcript of the presser published by the Wall Street Journal, Powell blamed this inflation crisis, which is global, not on the proxy war in Ukraine and Western sanctions on Russia, but rather on US workers supposedly making too much money. “Employers are having difficulties filling job openings, and wages are rising at the fastest pace in many years,” Powell complained. The Fed’s proposed solution: bring down wages.
Not only will raising interest rates not fix the supply crisis, but according to Alasdair Macleod, head of research at GoldMoney in London, U.K., that wrong medicine is likely to trigger the next financial crisis. He thinks it is imminent and will start in Europe, where negative interest rates brought the cost of doing repo trades to zero. As a result, the European repo market is now over €10 trillion ($11.4 trillion), far more than the capital available to unwind it (to reverse or close the trades). Rising interest rates will trigger that unwinding, says MacLeod, and the ECB lacks the tools to avoid the resulting crisis. Meanwhile, oil prices have risen over 50% and natural gas over 60% in Europe in the past year, “due to a supply crisis of its governments’ own making,” writes Macleod.
The Federal Reserve is caught between a rock and a hard place. Inflation grew by 6.8% in November, the fastest in 40 years, a trend the Fed has now acknowledged is not “transitory.” The conventional theory is that inflation is due to too much money chasing too few goods, so the Fed is under heavy pressure to “tighten” or shrink the money supply. Its conventional tools for this purpose are to reduce asset purchases and raise interest rates. But corporate debt has risen by $1.3 trillion just since early 2020; so if the Fed raises rates, a massive wave of defaults is likely to result. According to financial advisor Graham Summers in an article titled “The Fed Is About to Start Playing with Matches Next to a $30 Trillion Debt Bomb,” the stock market could collapse by as much as 50%.
Millions of Americans have joined the ranks of the unemployed, and government relief checks and savings are running out; meanwhile, the country still needs trillions of dollars in infrastructure. Putting the unemployed to work on those infrastructure projects seems an obvious solution, especially given that the $600 or $700 stimulus checks Congress is planning on issuing will do little to address the growing crisis. Various plans for solving the infrastructure crisis involving public-private partnerships have been proposed, but they’ll invariably result in private investors reaping the profits while the public bears the costs and liabilities.