FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Oil Trap

Rising oil prices threaten to derail the recovery. Oil at $106 per barrel (Monday’s price) is not a problem, but oil at $160 is. With fighting increasing in Libya and social unrest spreading across the Middle East, no one knows where prices will settle. That leaves Fed chairman Ben Bernanke with a tough decision. Should he call off QE2 prematurely and let the stock market drift sideways or go-til-June and hope for the best? If the Fed tightens too early, deflationary pressures will reemerge further straining bank balance sheets and consumer spending. Housing prices will fall sharply and foreclosures will mushroom. But if Bernanke holds-firm with his zero rates and bond buying program–especially when the ECB is raising rates–he could trigger a bond market rout and send the dollar into freefall.

Bernanke has shrugged off the inflationistas saying that core inflation is still hovering at a safe 1 percent. But if oil keeps climbing, consumers will have to cut back on spending just when Obama’s fiscal stimulus is winding down and just as the states are trimming their budgets. That will be a drag on economic activity and slow growth. Business investment will shrink, hiring will sputter, stocks will retreat, and the economy will head back into negative territory. It all depends on the price of oil. Here’s Gluskin Sheff’s David Rosenberg providing a little context to the fact that oil has “doubled” in just two years:

“There have been only five times in the past 70 years when this has happened within a two-year time frame: January 1974, November 1979, September 1990, June 2000, and August 2005. And now, December 2010. . . .

Of the five instances cited above, all but one involved a recession for the U.S. economy and that was in 2005 during the height of the credit and housing boom, which acted as a huge offset. But oil prices did keep rising and managed to outlast the euphoria in credit and residential real estate, so the recession may have been delayed at the peak of the ‘growth rate’ in the oil price, but it was not derailed as history shows.” (The Big Picture)

So spiking oil prices and recessions go hand-in-hand. Accordingly, bond yields have been trending lower anticipating deflation while the shriveling dollar has been steadily slipping for more than a month. All of this is adding to investor anxiety. Wall Street is on tenterhooks waiting to see whether Obama will tap the National Oil Reserve to stop the bleeding or just cross his fingers and hope that the violence subsides before the economy nosedives. And then there’s Bernanke. What will Bernanke do?

Most likely, the Fed chair will stay-the-course as long as possible convinced that deflation is still enemy Number One. But he’s bound to take a lot of heat from critics who point to the tumbling dollar and higher prices at the pump. If the troubles in Libya spread to Saudi Arabia, as now seems likely, all bets are off. Bernanke will have to pull out all the stops to keep the economy from tanking.

Bernanke does have alternatives, although none that assure that the smooth transfer of wealth from worker to banker. (like QE2) He could, for example, appeal to congress for a second round of fiscal stimulus to increase employment, reduce the output gap, and show trading partners that the US is eager to generate more demand for global exports. That would increase goodwill among US allies while building a stronger foundation for growth. To hell with the deficits. When the economy is firing on all 8 pistons and revenues are poring in, the deficits will vanish by themselves.

And there are other options, too, even if Bernanke chooses to stick with monetary policy alone. Here’s a clip form a recent report by Richard Wood titled “Deflation, Debt and Economic Stimulus”:

“The US, Japan, and Ireland are suffering from deficient private demand, rising debt, and a tendency to deflation…..The alternative approach (to quantitative easing) involves the central bank printing new money to directly finance fiscal stimulus. This neglected policy option – apparently largely overlooked by officials during the global economic crisis – is likely to be appropriate for countries where prices are falling (or inflation drops toward zero), private demand is deficient, interest rates are already too low and where public debt is excessive.

If monetary policy is considered on its own then there could be a case for terminating current quantitative easing programmes. This would steer Japan and the US away from the shoals of triple jeopardy (Leijonhufvud 2011).

Quantitative easing could be replaced with a policy of printing new money with an explicit objective to assist in the financing of future budget deficits (see suggested money-financed tax cut: Bernanke 2002 and analysis by Corden 2010). The deployment of new money creation in this manner would take some pressure off the need for severe fiscal austerity measures (at a time when continued stimulus is still required); minimize further increases in public debt; provide clear signals of policy intent (in relation to interest rate objectives, the method of financing deficits and the approach to delivering economic stimulus); and be more effective, have fewer adverse side-effects, and deliver stronger economic stimulus than further quantitative easing.” (“Deflation, Debt and Economic Stimulus”, Richard Wood, VOX)

Ahh, the dreaded monetization of the debt. It’s a bad choice compared to fiscal stimulus, but vastly superior to QE2.

Ask yourself this question: Who benefits from QE2? Bernanke even admitted in an op-ed in the Washington Post that the program was aimed at boosting stock market prices. And former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan was even more explicit in an article that will be published in an upcoming issue of International Finance. Here’s what Maestro has to say:

“I still embrace the view I held a couple of years ago, that ‘[w]e tend to think of fluctuations in stock prices in terms of “paper” profits and losses somehow not connected to the real world. But, the evaporation of the value of those “paper claims” can have a profoundly deflationary impact on global economic activity. … [such] that much of the recent decline in global economic activity can be associated directly and indirectly with declining equity values….

‘When we look back on this period, I very much suspect that the force that will be seen to have been most instrumental to global economic recovery will be a partial reversal of the $35 trillion global loss in corporate equity values that has so devastated financial intermediation. A recovery of the equity market driven largely by a receding of fear may well be a seminal turning point of the current crisis.’…

Equity values, in my experience, have been an underappreciated force driving market economies. Only in recent years has their impact been recognized in terms of ‘wealth effects’. This is one form of stimulus that does not require increased debt to fund it….

Despite the surge in corporate cash flow over the last two years and expectations of security analysts of continued gains in profitability, equity premiums remain near a half-century high. This indicates an exceptionally large and presumably unsustainably high discount rate applied to expected future earnings. If the latter holds up, and activism recedes, stock values, of course, would move higher and carry with them a significant wealth effect that should enhance economic activity.

Short of a full-blown Middle East crisis affecting oil prices, a euro crisis and/or a bond market (budget) crisis reminiscent of 1979, the ‘wealth effect’ could effectively substitute private ‘stimulus’ for public.” (“The costs of government activism”, Alan Greenspan, EurekAlert)

There you have it; Fed policy in a nutshell. If you want to reverse deflation and ignite a “global economic recovery”; pump up stock prices. In other words, if we just make the rich even richer, our problems will be solved. What could be simpler?

How is this any different from “trickle down” economics? It’s the same thing, which is to say that QE2 is the same thing. The goal is to increase the “wealth effect” for the investor class to such an extent that the spillover lifts the rest of the economy back to prosperity and growth. It’s baloney. QE2 has done nothing to increase demand or help consumers patch their battered balance sheets. The economy is more vulnerable than ever and skyrocketing oil prices could be the shock that sends the economy skittering back into recession.

Bernanke has other options. It’s just a matter of whose interests he chooses to serve.

MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He can be reached at: fergiewhitney@msn.com.

 

 

 

More articles by:

MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com.

November 20, 2018
John Davis
Geographies of Violence in Southern California
Anthony Pahnke
Abolishing ICE Means Defunding it
Maximilian Werner
Why (Mostly) Men Trophy Hunt: a Biocultural Explanation
Masturah Alatas
Undercutting Female Circumcision
Jack Rasmus
Global Oil Price Deflation 2018 and Beyond
Geoff Dutton
Why High Technology’s Double-Edged Sword is So Hard to Swallow
Binoy Kampmark
Charges Under Seal: US Prosecutors Get Busy With Julian Assange
Rev. William Alberts
America Fiddles While California Burns
Forrest Hylton, Aaron Tauss and Juan Felipe Duque Agudelo
Remaking the Common Good: the Crisis of Public Higher Education in Colombia
Patrick Cockburn
What Can We Learn From a Headmaster Who Refused to Allow His Students to Celebrate Armistice Day?
Clark T. Scott
Our Most Stalwart Company
Tom H. Hastings
Look to the Right for Corruption
Edward Hunt
With Nearly 400,000 Dead in South Sudan, Will the US Finally Change Its Policy?
Thomas Knapp
Hypocrisy Alert: Republicans Agreed with Ocasio-Cortez Until About One Minute Ago
November 19, 2018
David Rosen
Amazon Deal: New York Taxpayers Fund World Biggest Sex-Toy Retailer
Sheldon Richman
Art of the Smear: the Israel Lobby Busted
Chad Hanson
Why Trump is Wrong About the California Wildfires
Dean Baker
Will Progressives Ever Think About How We Structure Markets, Instead of Accepting them as Given?
Robert Fisk
We Remember the Great War, While Palestinians Live It
Dave Lindorff
Pelosi’s Deceptive Plan: Blocking any Tax Rise Could Rule Out Medicare-for-All and Bolstering Social Security
Rick Baum
What Can We Expect From the Democrat “Alternative” Given Their Record in California?
Thomas Scott Tucker
Trump, World War I and the Lessons of Poetry
John W. Whitehead
Red Flag Gun Laws
Newton Finn
On Earth, as in Heaven: the Utopianism of Edward Bellamy
Robert Fantina
Shithole Countries: Made in the USA
René Voss
Have Your Say about Ranching in Our Point Reyes National Seashore
Weekend Edition
November 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jonah Raskin
A California Jew in a Time of Anti-Semitism
Andrew Levine
Whither the Melting Pot?
Joshua Frank
Climate Change and Wildfires: The New Western Travesty
Nick Pemberton
The Revolution’s Here, Please Excuse Me While I Laugh
T.J. Coles
Israel Cannot Use Violent Self-Defense While Occupying Gaza
Rob Urie
Nuclear Weapons are a Nightmare Made in America
Paul Street
Barack von Obamenburg, Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fire is Sweeping Our Very Streets Today
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s New President, Other European Fools and the Abyss 
Pete Dolack
“Winners” in Amazon Sweepstakes Sure to be the Losers
Richard Eskow
Amazon, Go Home! Billions for Working People, But Not One Cent For Tribute
Ramzy Baroud
In Breach of Human Rights, Netanyahu Supports the Death Penalty against Palestinians
Brian Terrell
Ending the War in Yemen- Congressional Resolution is Not Enough!
John Laforge
Woolsey Fire Burns Toxic Santa Susana Reactor Site
Ralph Nader
The War Over Words: Republicans Easily Defeat the Democrats
M. G. Piety
Reading Plato in the Time of the Oligarchs
Rafael Correa
Ecuador’s Soft Coup and Political Persecution
Brian Cloughley
Aid Projects Can Work, But Not “Head-Smacking Stupid Ones”
David Swanson
A Tale of Two Marines
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail