Your financial freedom is at the mercy of a politicized Federal Reserve seemingly more interested in recapitalizing big Wall Street banks than helping you maintain your purchasing power. Near-zero interest rates and a declining dollar turn their lunch into a cheeseburger in paradise while you’re stuck brown-bagging it.
The Fed’s dual mandate of full employment and price stability hasn’t exactly materialized, as unemployment logs in at about 9% (11% in Rhode Island), and searching for lower prices has become the great American pastime. Meanwhile, balanced economic growth, which is part of the mandate language but isn’t considered a congressionally mandated goal for the Fed, stumbles in with first-quarter GDP growing at 1.8%. Don’t you think one goal, price stability, is enough to keep Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke busy? Forget the made-for-TV press conference coffee talk.
As the late Nobel Prize–winning economist and stable dollar advocate Milton Friedman wrote in his timeless Capitalism and Freedom, “Full Employment and economic growth have in the past few decades become primary excuses for widening the extent of government intervention in economic affairs.”
Not exactly “breaking news,” but the largest beneficiary by far of the Fed’s epic near-zero-interest-rate policy is Wall Street—the big bad banks. They borrow for nothing and invest for themselves. Not bad for government work, don’t you think?
The big banks are killing it in the markets. Last year, value at risk, which is the amount that could potentially be lost in a day, for Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Barclays Capital, and J.P. Morgan was $25.7 million. Do you think they’re in on that gold trade, which I hear has been doing pretty well lately? I’m going to take a guess and say yes, since they’re the largest commodities dealers by revenues in the financial sector.
If you’re not a commodities dealer and happen to be a much less flashy depositor at a bank, it’s not pretty. You have been suffering through the lowest interest rates since the 1950s. And most Americans have more gold on their finger than in their portfolio—which explains why a record 75% of the $5.9 trillion in bank deposits is in liquid cash, paying only 0.44%.
Meanwhile, the net interest margins of banks with more than $10 billion in assets, or the difference between what they make on loans and what they pay you to keep your money with them, hit an eight-year high in 2010. So it’s hard to have much sympathy for struggling banks today, wouldn’t you agree?
Let’s keep running in place. Mr. Bernanke honestly believes his easy-money policy has nothing to do with higher gas prices. The dollar is roadkill. Four bucks a gallon? Come on. It’s not like we’re lined up around the corner demanding more gas. It’s quite the opposite, since we’re driving less. For the first time in nearly 20 years, the U.S. was a net exporter of refined petroleum in February, shipping out 54,000 barrels more each day than we purchased on the global market.
Are you tired of running in place yet? A pound of bacon costs $4.54, or 44% more than it did 10 years ago. A pound of ground beef is $2.72, or 56% higher than 10 years ago. Your cheeseburger in paradise isn’t getting cheaper. I know, I know—the Fed likes to keep food out of core inflation. I prefer to keep it in my fridge. So to me it counts. Meanwhile, gold has surged close to 500% over the same 10 years. The dollar isn’t running in place; it tripped on the treadmill and has been thrown back into the wall.
Home prices certainly haven’t been inflationary. Any uptick in home sales seems to be thanks to banks’ cutting losses and selling to vulture investors buying with cash. Don’t waste their time if you’re a first-time buyer with less than 20% down. Banks may get your unsolicited help, though, the next time they need your taxpayer bailout.
Banks get the bailouts and access, so where does that leave you? Probably in the minority once again, because for the first time in the history of this country, the majority of Americans did not pay any Federal income taxes last year. So I don’t blame you for feeling left out. But as long as we have the give and take between Mr. Bernanke and Wall Street, your interests will not be aligned with theirs. After all, they have a job to do.