Paul Krugman is Very, Very Wrong

by Mike Kimel

Update …Since this post has gotten a lot of attention, jump here for my
final word
on this topic.

I’m sure I’m missing something here, because Paul Krugman is so often extremely perceptive, but I think here he is very, very wrong. He writes:

The naive (or deliberately misleading) version of Fed policy is the claim that Ben Bernanke is “giving money” to the banks. What it actually does, of course, is buy stuff, usually short-term government debt but nowadays sometimes other stuff. It’s not a gift.

To claim that it’s effectively a gift you have to claim that the prices the Fed is paying are artificially high, or equivalently that interest rates are being pushed artificially low. And you do in fact see assertions to that effect all the time. But if you think about it for even a minute, that claim is truly bizarre.

Um, I dunno. Perhaps on specific day to day operations Ben B. is not giving money to the banks, but things look very different with a 30,000 foot view. (I suspect “the banks” most people mean if they say there are giveaways going on are not all banks but rather a small subset of basket cases.) Remember the toxic asset purchase? When the Fed spends over a trillion bucks paying the face value for securities whose real worth has declined to a fraction of that face value, to me that is both an expansion of the money supply and a give-away to those from whom one “purchases” those assets. There have been any number of similar, er, programs the Fed has run in the last few years which have had the same purpose: injecting money into a small number of entities that made extremely bad lending decisions in ways that specifically avoid making those entities pay any sort of market or reasonable price for that money.

That isn’t the only error in Krugman’s post. He also tells us this:

Furthermore, Fed efforts to do this probably tend on average to hurt, not help, bankers. Banks are largely in the business of borrowing short and lending long; anything that compresses the spread between short rates and long rates is likely to be bad for their profits. And the things the Fed is trying to do are in fact largely about compressing that spread, either by persuading investors that it will keep short rates at zero for a longer time or by going out and buying long-term assets. These are actions you would expect to make bankers angry, not happy — and that’s what has actually happened.

Yes, the Fed is sending a message that it well keep short rates at zero for a while longer. But which short rates and which long rates is Krugman talking about? Because banks can borrow at one rate – the effective federal funds rate, and they loan money to the public at a number of other rates.

I wandered over to FRED, the economic database of the St. Louis Fed and downloaded the Effective Federal Funds rate and the Average 30-Year Mortgage rate, which should be a good representation of a long rate used in loans by banks to the public.

The thirty-year mortgage is first reported on 5/7/1976 and is reported weekly thereafter. The FF tends to be reported a day or two earlier or later depending on the week, holiday schedules, and the like. Here’s what the 30-year Mortgage less the Fed Funds rate looks going back that far:

As is evident from the graph, whatever the Fed has been doing since the recession began in December of 2007, it isn’t compressing the spread between the 30-year mortgage rate and the Fed Funds rate.

Perhaps things might look different if the Fed followed more of a Banco do Brasil model, where the public could borrow directly from the Central Bank. But as things stand, pace Krugman, the Fed’s interventions since the recession began have only increased the spread between the rate at which banks can borrow and the rate at which they can loan out money.

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