Learning from the 1980s: The Power and Irony of “MDuh

Forget about big hair, Ray-Bans, and Donkey Kong. Don’t even think about Live-Aid, Thriller, and E.T. Above all else, the 1980s were the gravy days of the money supply aggregates.

Beginning in late 1979, the Fed built its policy approach around the aggregates—primarily M1 but occasionally M2, and policy makers also monitored M3 while experimenting with M1B and, later, MZM. But those were just the “official” figures. Economists and pundits debated the Fed’s preferred measures while concocting their own home-brewed variations.

Notably, the Fed allowed interest rates to fluctuate as much as necessary to achieve its money growth targets. Fluctuate they did—rates soared and dipped wildly as a direct result of the Fed’s policy. The world, meanwhile, watched the action as attentively as a Yorkie watches breakfast, studying every wiggle in every M. Missing one wiggle could have meant the difference between exploiting the volatility that the Fed unleashed or being sunk by that same volatility.

And to make sense of it all, the world looked to the most famous economist of his day, Milton Friedman. By converting a large swath of his profession to his strict brand of Monetarism, Friedman more than anyone else had triggered the monetary frenzy.

But then, almost as quickly as the frenzy blew in, it blew right back out. With none of the Ms living up to their billings as economic indicators, the Monetarists drifted from view. Not in five minutes but in five years, give or take a couple, their period of fame was over. Friedman’s reputation as an economics savant fell particularly hard—his highly publicized forecasts proved inaccurate in each year from 1983 to 1986. And the Fed once again redesigned its approach, first deemphasizing and eventually dropping its money growth targets.

But maybe the Monetarists came closer to explaining the economy than their critics allowed?

Maybe the best indicator—I’ll call it “MDuh”—was somehow hidden in plain sight?

QE’s Untold Story: A Chart That Fed Correspondents Need To Investigate

We’ve produced some research over the years that we’d love to see the powers-that-be react to, but none more so than our look at financial flows during the QE programs.

By netting all lending by banks and broker-dealers and then comparing it to the Fed’s lending, we stumbled upon a chart that seemed to show exactly what QE does or doesn’t do. But “doesn’t” was the story, and it couldn’t have been clearer or shown a more stimulating pattern. Our Excel click on “Insert, Line” was like stepping from a shady trail to a sunny vista.

Here’s the updated chart, which we dubbed the “argyle effect” and looks even sharper than it did when we first produced it in 2014:

Kevin Warsh May Be the Next Fed Head—Let’s See What He Really Thinks

As reported earlier this morning by the Wall Street Journal, President Trump and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin met with Kevin Warsh yesterday to discuss the potential vacancy at the Fed next February.

Warsh already has central banking experience, having sat on the Federal Open Market Committee as a Fed governor from February 2006 until March 2011.

Two and a half years after he resigned from the Fed, he emerged as a vocal critic of FOMC policies, including policies he helped craft. He published an op-ed in the WSJ on November 12, 2013, and it was quite the editorial. As that happened to be the first week of hunting season, we suggested that Warsh had declared open season on his ex-colleagues, and we came up a gimmicky picture to go along with our reporting:

warsh hunting

But we also thought his op-ed needed translation. It was written with the polite wording and between-the-lines meanings that you might expect from such an establishment figure. He seemed to be holding back, so we offered our guesses on what he was really trying to say. And with today’s breaking news, we thought we would reprint our translation.

So, if you’re wondering what the current frontrunner as Trump’s choice for the Fed chairmanship really thinks, here are Warsh’s comments on nine topics, followed by our translations.

Riding the ‘Slide’: Is This What the Next Bear Market Looks Like?

Even as the Fed’s decision makers are beginning to worry less about recession and more about bubbly stock prices, we’re not yet moved by their attempts to curb the market’s enthusiasm. After all, the fed funds rate sits barely above 1%, which not too long ago qualified as a five-decade low. And other indicators, besides interest rates, aren’t exactly predicting the next bear, either. Inflation is subdued, credit spreads are tight, banks are mostly lending freely and the economy is growing, albeit slowly. It just doesn’t feel as though we’re close to a major market peak.

Yet Another Theory of the Fed? Uggh!

The world hardly needs another theory of the Fed, especially so soon after its Jackson Hole symposium. But we have a theory, too, and who knows, ours could be as close to the bulls-eye as any of the others. Plus, our theory is easy to explain—it rests on the simple premise that decision makers worry mostly about their reputations. We’ll propose that reputational risks are the primary drivers of central bank policies, and then we’ll use that belief to predict a major policy shift.

What Financial Conditions Tell Us (Two Charts and a Prediction)

It seems every bank, including central banks, publishes a financial conditions index these days. And because financial conditions typically lead the economy, it makes sense to track them. In fact, they might contain even more information than they get credit for. They might offer the elusive “crystal ball” that foretells our economic fortunes.

Sound far-fetched? Spend a few minutes with this week’s pictures and talk, and you’ll be well equipped to judge for yourself. We start with seven of our favorite indicators, shown in the table below:

Mapping the foreign trade debate: Where do you belong?

Worried that recent U.S.–China trade dialog sounds like a Mayweather–McGregor promotional tour? Concerned that we might be headed for a repeat of the Great Depression era’s race-to-the-bottom tariff wars? Or, maybe you’re relieved that diplomats are no longer being diplomatic? Maybe you think it’s about time Washington stood up for American jobs?

However you feel, we suggest stepping back to review your armchair-policymaker options. In particular, we recommend answering two questions, as in the table below:

Why Slumping Auto Sales May Not Say What You Think They Say

July auto sales (released today and charted below) remained weak and should trigger a few recession forecasts. In fact, over the past few months we’ve read about half a dozen commentaries linking the recent plunge in auto sales to an imminent recession. And we understand the reasoning, but we’ve yet to buy into it.

We agree that car sellers face a degree of demand saturation while potential buyers suffer from credit saturation, or at least that’s what the data seem to show. We also agree that the saturation twins tend to be late-cycle indicators. But we’d like to add another possible explanation for slowing auto sales, one that yields a different conclusion about recession risks.

health spending aug 2017 chart 0