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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

Category: Federal Reserve
February 27, 2014 at 10:20 AM

What’s on Janet Yellen’s mind

Here are five key points from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen’s testimony before the Senate Banking Committee today: 1. The economy has softened. Up until now, Fed officials have been highly optimistic about the recovery picking up momentum this year. Now, faced with reports of weakness in retail sales, housing and industrial production, Yellen is hedging. Compared…

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October 30, 2013 at 11:33 AM

Staying the course: Your Fed cheat sheet

The Federal Reserve’s policy setting Open Market Committee just concluded its two-day meeting. Existing policy will continue. But reading between the lines is instructive. Here are the key sentences from its statement:

“Indicators of labor market conditions have shown some further improvement, but the unemployment rate remains elevated.” Translation: It will be years before we recover the jobs and job growth lost from the recession. We’re doing all we can. Smile.

“Available data suggest that household spending and business fixed investment advanced, while the recovery in the housing sector slowed somewhat in recent months.” Translation: Not all these critters carry equal weight. Household spending is partly being sustained by a continued unhealthy rise in consumer credit. Fixed investment isn’t causing much hiring when we compare this stage of the recovery to others. And housing has become so vital that slowing is a big deal.

“Fiscal policy is restraining economic growth.” The obsession with both the administration and Congress with austerity is one of the biggest factors holding back job creation. Worse, the tea-party shutdown and game of default chicken proved both costly and dangerous.

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October 9, 2013 at 1:52 PM

The five biggest challenges facing Yellen

President Obama intends to nominate Janet Yellen as the next chairman of the Federal Reserve. Yellen, an economist and professor emerita at the University of California at Berkeley, is now the vice chairman of the Fed’s board of governors and will become the most important central banker in the world. She said all the right things today in a prepared statement, including:

While we have made progress, we have farther to go. The mandate of the Federal Reserve is to serve all the American people, and too many Americans still can’t find a job and worry how they will pay their bills and provide for their families. The Federal Reserve can help, if it does its job effectively. We can help ensure that everyone has the opportunity to work hard and build a better life. We can ensure that inflation remains in check and doesn’t undermine the benefits of a growing economy. We can and must safeguard the financial system.

Here are the most pressing issues she will face if confirmed by the Senate, when she takes office in 2014:

1. Politics. The Federal Reserve was established as a central bank that would be largely insulated from political pressure and for most of its history that’s the way it operated. To be sure, the Fed in the 1970s allowed inflation to get out of control because of subtle pressure from the White House and Congress to emphasize job creation. Now the pressure is out in the open. Members of Congress on the right and the left have criticized the Fed and demanded more accountability, including an audit. Yellen will have to defend the Fed’s independence.

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September 13, 2013 at 10:27 AM

Vote: Is the financial system fixed?

Five years ago this weekend, the giant investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, ushering in a financial crisis and economic contraction the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Great Depression. Less than two weeks later, but before regulators decided to back every big financial institution, Seattle’s Washington Mutual was allowed to become the biggest bank failure in American history. Some would say it was pushed, but that’s another story.

Most of the causes of the catastrophe are well-known: Deregulation, “innovations” such as exotic derivatives, shadow banking, securitization of massive numbers of subprime loans, high executive compensation rewarding excessive risk-taking, too much leverage, regulators captured by the industry and a massive bubble enabled by the Federal Reserve. The costs went well beyond those to the financial system. A Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas report estimates that the Panic of 2008 and resulting downturn cost each household between $50,000 and $120,000. Unemployment remains high. Inequality is worse. Beyond the money, trust in institutions and the equal application of the rule of law has been shredded.

In its typical inviting way, Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog offers 13 charts showing what’s fixed and what isn’t five years later. On the Atlantic’s site, James Kwak argues that policymakers have learned little if nothing from the crash. So it’s time for your say:

Read on for some of the best business and economic stories of the week and the haiku…

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September 11, 2013 at 10:37 AM

The great unknown of Fed ‘tapering’

Over lunch this week, a Seattle financial executive told me he believed the market has already priced in the “tapering off” of the Federal Reserve’s massive bond-buying program. Maybe so. It’s an open question as to whether the central bank should change course with the economy growing so slowly and unemployment still high. But Chairman Ben Bernanke seems committed to the move. Overseas, things might not go so well. Stephen Roach, the former chief economist for Morgan Stanley, wrote on Project Syndicate recently that “the global economy could be in the early stages of another crisis” partly because of the Fed.

As I wrote last week, the problem is centered in emerging economies. “Hot money,” short term investments, rushed into nations such as India, Indonesia, Brazil and Turkey because of the artificially low interest rates of the Fed’s QE programs. This allowed for large current account deficits to be cloaked by seeming prosperity. Now, investment is flowing back out with damaging results. Roach writes:

Under the leadership of Ben Bernanke and his predecessor, Alan Greenspan, the Fed condoned asset and credit bubbles, treating them as new sources of economic growth. Bernanke has gone even further, arguing that the growth windfall from QE would be more than sufficient to compensate for any destabilizing hot-money flows in and out of emerging economies. Yet the absence of any such growth windfall in a still-sluggish US economy has unmasked QE as little more than a yield-seeking liquidity foil.

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July 26, 2013 at 10:24 AM

Vote: Who should lead the Fed?

Rarely has the speculation about the next Federal Reserve chairman received so much early handicapping — or provoked such acrimony. The White House has floated the trial balloon of Larry Summers, the former Clinton Treasury Secretary and president of Harvard. The other favorite is Janet Yellen, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and current vice chairman of the Fed’s Board of Governors.

“No more second chances for Larry Summers,” thunders Fed watcher William Greider in the Nation. In addition to being a boorish and failed president of Harvard, Summers as Treasury Secretary helped tee up the financial crisis by backing deregulation. Then he made millions working on Wall Street. An insightful piece in the New York Times looks at the “battle between the California girls and the Rubin boys.” Rubin being Robert, the former Treasury Secretary, head of Goldman Sachs and tier of exquisite tie knots. Yellen, meanwhile, is supported by economists Laura D’Andrea Tyson, chief of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers and Christina Romer, who held the same position early in President Obama’s first term.

Whomever replaces Ben Bernanke will be left to wind down the Fed’s record expansion of the monetary base and more than $3 trillion in assets, while contending with a tepid recovery, high unemployment and a question over whether the Fed will use its new Dodd-Frank powers to rein in the big banks and prevent another panic. Care to make an early vote?

Read on for some of the most interesting econ and business stories you might have missed this week…and the haiku.

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June 28, 2013 at 10:49 AM

Vote: Interest rates and you

Worries that the Federal Reserve may end its bond-buying program or even raise its benchmark interest rate helped push the yield of 10-year Treasury notes as high as 2.61 percent this week. In May, it was 1.63 percent. Mortgage rates have followed, with the average 30-year loan rate rising to 4.46 percent from 3.93 percent….

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