Richard “Easy Money” Nixon Shames Barack “Know Nothing” Obama! Tapes Reveal Nixon Wanted Easy Money, and to Pack the Federal Reserve with Monetary Expansionists

A guest post by Benjamin Cole

The astounding and revelatory conversation between President Richard Nixon and Fed Chairman Arthur Burns was caught on tape on March 19, 1971, in the famed White House Oval Office.

Nixon: Arthur, the main thing is next year [1972, election year]…let’s don’t let it [unemployment] get any higher. I hope we can—

Burns: That’s what I have my eye on.

Nixon: Yeah. But I think we really got to think of goosing it.

Burns: Yes.

Nixon: Shall we say late summer and fall this year in order to affect next year?”

Burns: Exactly.

The conversation above is captured in a fun, new book, Chasing Shadows, by Ken Hughes. BTW, inflation then was just under 5 percent, on the CPI.

But that’s not all—Nixon reveals himself a shrewd monetarist of the populist stripe, far more aware of the role of the Federal Reserve in the nation’s prosperity than President Obama.

The following Nixonian monologue refers to finding someone to sit on the Fed board, to fill an empty seat.

“I’ve told [Treasury Secretary John B] Connally to find the easiest money man he can find in the country and one that will do exactly what Connally wants and one that will speak up to Burns…Connally is searching the goddamned hills of Texas, California, Ohio,” Nixon said to his aides. “We’ll get a populist spender on the board one way or another.”

There is another small, and forgotten part of the Nixon Legacy: He flirted with an idea to radically expand the Federal Reserve Board, so as to “pack” it with easier money types—Nixon felt even the compliant Burns was not expansionist enough.

The UPI reported on July 28, 1971 that, “President Nixon is considering a proposal to double the size of the Federal Reserve Board, it was learned today. The suggestion, if put before Congress, could touch off a controversy rivaling President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt to ‘pack’ the Supreme Court.”

Tapes show Nixon even dickered with a pay raise for Burns, in seeking Burns’ obedience on easy money.

Melancholy Money and Obama The Milquetoast

Of course, these insights into Nixon remind one of the Ronald Reagan Presidency, in which the Reagnauts were so furious with then-Fed Chairman Paul Volcker’s tightness that they floated a proposal to move the Fed into the Treasury Department, where it would answer to Treasury Secretary Don Regan.

Next to Nixon and Reagan, Obama looks like a Milquetoast-y effete, meekly tolerating the Fed in its inflation-phobic policies, even as the central bank asphyxiates the economy.

Did Obama ever demand of the Fed, “Why are we consistently below the “average” 2 percent inflation target, when the economy is sputtering?” Nor did Obama ever float proposals to pack the Fed or shift control over monetary policy to the Treasury Department.

The other melancholy part of these Nixonian revelations is the reminder that the right-wing was not always insensately addicted to tight-money rhetoric.

Today, it is impossible to imagine a GOP President strong-arming to the Fed to ease up, or for any right-wing economist with “street cred” to call for easier money. (A reader here recently opined that some right-wing economists call for Market Monetarism, but everyone knows they are not “real” right-wingers. To be for monetary tightness, or even deflation and the gold standard, are the current defining attributes of true right-wing economist).

Excellent writer Ken Hughes’ Chasing Shadows book is, properly enough, more devoted to Nixon’s skullduggery and evasions than his monetary policy.

But the book and its brief addresses of monetary policy are wonderful reminders that Nixon ever escapes easy definition, and that a peevish fixation with tight money and inflation was not always a right-wing predilection—nor the default position of the Federal Reserve.

Snippet of a conversation at Houston Airport

I really couldn´t believe my ears when I heard these two African American airport employees having the following conversation in the train linking terminals at Houston Airport:

“…the problem is that money is slow, it is not circulating as much as it should and so blocking spending…”

Pity I had to leave at the next terminal while they continued on. I would have suggested the speaker started reading MM blogs. But maybe he already does!

They should have been invited to JH!

The Great Conundrum faced by “Righty-Tighties”

A guest post by Benjamin Cole

That tight money is sacred is an axiom of right-wing politics today.

The second and related axiom is that monetary policy is currently, and always, too loose.

The third derivative axiom is that low interest rates turn otherwise gimlet-eyed private-sector investors and corporate chieftains into wanton bubble-chasers.

There is a confounding problem with this trifecta of potential central bank sins: As Milton Friedman said, low interest rates are the result of tight money. You can’t get down into the low single digits by printing a lot of money. And you can’t get to zero lower bound and zero inflation without some monetary asphyxiation.

So, if a central bank runs tight money long enough, it will get to…yes, the evil of low interest rates, those low single-digit vigorish IOUs that drive business decision-makers bananas.

Thus, the great good of tight money begets the great evil of low interest rates.

The Paradoxical Oddity

Paradoxically enough, if the U.S. Federal Reserve really wants higher nominal and real interest rates, they will have to loosen, and for a long time. Fed Chief Janet Yellen would have to run an aggressive QE program for a few more years, over the increasingly hysterical objections of the monomaniacal inflation-phobiacs on the FOMC board.

Not likely, eh?

If lenders and bond-buyers came to fear erratic or higher rates of inflation, they would charge an inflation-fear premium. Then the righty-tighties could embrace  higher nominal and real interest rates. And if demand for capital was strong enough—thanks to robust economic growth—there might actually be the rationing of credit by price, meaning higher interest rates.

But the preceding scenario is, I am sad to say, mostly fantasy. As it stands now, interest rates might actually go lower. How?

Long-term inflationary expectations—as in 10 years out—are under 2 percent, according to the Cleveland Fed. Not only that, there is a global glut of capital—see the recent Bain & Co. report, A World Awash in Money. The International Monetary Fund’s 2014 report is the obverse of the Bain study; the IMF says we will see weak demand for capital and thus low interest rates for a long time.

So, add a savings glut to dead inflation fears and weak demand for capital and you get…low nominal and real interest rates. Going lower? Maybe. That is the reality in Europe and the risk in the United States.

Musing About Unresolved Problems

Still, I am not sure even an aggressive, expansionist Fed could bring higher nominal and real rates, or even much inflation, although we might have live through years of prosperity to find out.

The unresolved problem is 50-percent savings rates in China; high savings rates in Japan; gigantic and growing sovereign wealth funds; private and public pension plans the world over obligated to build assets; insurance companies under requirements to build balances to match liabilities and a new global upper class able to save. Russian klepto-crats, Chinese cronyists and Mideast oil moguls assemble towers of capital, regardless of interest rates.

The amount of demand for capital it would take to raise interest rates may not be possible. The market may be sending a signal that capital is abundant, and get used to it. This is the new normal.

And inflation? Well, the supply-side in the United States has gone global. In the old days we thought boosting demand through monetary expansion would first bring on new supply, then higher prices, as sellers rationed supply by price. Now, when there is a boost in demand in the United States, global suppliers of goods, services and capital are at the ready and pour in.

How does price allocate a glut of goods, services and capital?

To get to higher interest rates and inflation, we may have to endure years and years of prosperity. And even that may not work. I think we should try anyway.

PS: Just so my right-wing friends know—the left-wing solutions of higher taxes, bigger deficits and more social welfare are awful also…

Barry Eichengreen & Secular Stagnation

VoxEu has an e-book discussing Larry Summer´s “invention”: “Secular Stagnation”. In his essay, BE concludes:

So is there a secular stagnation problem? Yes, there are reasons to worry that the US’s growth rate over the next 10 or 20 years will disappoint by the standards of the 20th century. But this is not inevitable. It will not be because all the great inventions have been made or because there is a dearth of attractive investment projects and an overabundance of savings.

If the US experiences secular stagnation, the condition will be self-inflicted. It will reflect the country’s failure to address its infrastructure, education and training needs. It will reflect its failure to take steps to repair the damage caused by the Great Recession and support aggregate demand in an effort to bring the long-term unemployed back into the labour market. These are concrete policy problems with concrete policy solutions. It is important not to accept secular stagnation, but instead to take steps to avoid it.

David Beckworth, Ryan Avent and I mostly agree with Eichengreen.

Inspector Clouseau & Hrundi V. Bakshi

Two mischievous and confusion-wrecking Peter Sellers characters. The first in the Pink Panter series and the second the party-crasher in the movie “The Party”.

Benjamin Cole has codenamed Dallas Fed president Fisher “Inspector Clouseau”. It turns out St. Louis Fed president Bullard wants to try to beat him to the “silly prize”. So let´s cast him as Hrundi!

Falling unemployment and rising inflation are bringing the Federal Reserve closer to its goals more rapidly than policy makers had foreseen, and may justify raising interest rates as early as the end of the first quarter of 2015, St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said Thursday.

A rebound in U.S. economic growth in the second quarter following a drop in output in the first three months of the year confirmed the dismal first quarter was an anomaly in an otherwise improving trend, Mr. Bullard told The Wall Street Journal in a telephone interview. Hiring has also shown consistent strength, he said.

Basically we’re way ahead of schedule for labor-market improvement,” Mr. Bullard said. He noted that former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said last summer the unemployment rate would likely be around 7% when the Fed wrapped up its bond-buying program. Instead, it was 6.2% in July, and “could go below 6% by the time we end bond buys,” Mr. Bullard said.

The idea that the Fed might get behind the curve is a powerful one, and that’s certainly been the history of the institution. People are right to worry about that,” Mr. Bullard said.

He just cannot entertain the idea that the Fed has missed the “curve” altogether, and has been operating in a different “galaxy”.

Needed: “Truth” in textbook writing

I have received the second edition of Mishkin´s Macroeconomics – Policy and Practice textbook. Some time ago I did a couple of posts commenting on the first edition (here, here).

In this second edition there are several additions, most notably Mishkin´s introduction of what he calls “A Dynamic Approach to Macroeconomics”. According to Mishkin (page XXXIV):

Analyzing today´s hot-button policy issues requires approaching macroeconomic theory using the models that researchers and policy makers employ. The central modelling element in Macroeconomics: Policy and Practice, Second Edition, is a powerful, dynamic aggregate demand and supply (AD/AS) model that highlights the interaction of inflation and economic activity. In this model, inflation (as opposed to the price level) is plotted on the vertical axis.

In justifying the use of the Dynamic AS/AD (DASAD) model Mishkin says, inter alia, that:

  1. The DASAD framework focuses on the interaction between inflation and output, which is exactly what the media and policy makers focus on. In contrast, traditional AS/AD analysis focuses on the interaction between the price level and output.
  2. The DASAD framework characterizes monetary policy easing or tightening as a change in the interest rate, which is exactly the way central banks conduct monetary policy…

What put me off?

His DASAD is only “partly” dynamic because in the horizontal axis you won´t find the rate of real output growth but the deviation of output from ‘potential’ (a ‘mystery’). In that sense the AD curve is not a rectangular hyperbola (see here).

If he had presented the DASAD model that way he could easily characterize monetary policy as providing nominal stability (keep AD growing along a level growth path).

And I really don´t know why he eschewed that route because in his “valedictory remarks” in his last FOMC meeting six years ago (August 5 2008) he was very clear:

What I’d like to spend some time on—because I feel this is sort of my swan song, but maybe because I’m a classy guy, I’ll call this my “valedictory remarks”—are three concerns that I have for this Committee going forward. I’m not going to be able to participate, but I have a chance now to lay them out.

The first is the real danger of focusing too much on the federal funds rate as reflecting the stance of monetary policyThis is very dangerous. I want to talk about that.

My question: Why can´t textbook writers write down what they really believe?

If only it were just China 7 Brazil 1!

Scott Sumner does a post on Brazil! Nothing wrong with it, but it only scratches the surface. This is a crucial comment:

And to return to the opening—there’s the deeper mystery of why more people don’t talk about Brazil as a failed state. Why this continual hyping of Brazil as the country of the future? Recall it’s one of the original BRICS.

Because it isn´t and has never been either a failed state or “country of the future”, although the last has been an enduring “selling point”. But the country has the dubious characteristic of eluding any precise “autopsy”. And this will likely “go on forever”! So Scott, you´re not the only one “puzzled”.

In some “games” China scores 10 (or more) to 1!

Brazil Puzzle_1

Brazil Puzzle_2

Draghi is “Waiting (in vain as known from the play) for Godot”

Desmond Lachman has a pessimistic take:

Following strong economic growth of 0.8% in the first quarter of the year, the Germany economy is widely estimated to have stagnated in the second quarter. More troubling yet are indications from high frequency data that this slowing might not be a transitory phenomenon. Since those indicators suggest that German industrial production is now contracting and that German investor confidence has now slumped to end-2012 levels.

In his recent press conference following the ECB’s last policy meeting, Mario Draghi did recognize that geopolitical uncertainty was weighing heavily on the European economy and that such uncertainty constituted an important risk to the European economic recovery. However, he stopped short of considering that those geopolitical risks were all too likely to persist over the next several months. This is to be regretted considering that all the clues seem to be pointing in the direction of a deepening and a prolongation of the Ukraine-Russia crisis as well as of a continued deterioration in the Middle-East situation. Sadly, those crises are all too likely to weigh heavily on German investor confidence in the months immediately ahead. And they will do see at the very time that a highly export dependent German economy will be confronted with an economic slowdown in a number of its key Asian and emerging market export markets.


The other countries, in the doldrums, don´t count for much. Germany still has to do a bit worse for the ECB to act! It will and it will, soon, but nevertheless late!


How to be politically correct (and, therefore, bland)

From two heavyweights: M. Feldstein and R. Rubin:

In the short run, markets tend to be psychological and in the longer run tend to reflect fundamentals. Whether and how much markets are mispriced relative to fundamentals is always uncertain. But when markets have moved across the board as much as they now have, that should be a warning of the possibility of excesses.

Our conclusion is not that the Fed should respond to those risks by raising interest rates now. Weak labor markets are and should be a deep concern and a pressing issue. But the Fed should also take into consideration the possibility of excesses brought on by low interest rates that could create financial crises. In making interest-rate decisions, the Fed should have a realistic view of the broad range of the existing systemic risks and of the limits of the government’s currently extant macroprudential tools.

The stress in these interest-rate decisions is heightened by the political system’s failure to act on our nation’s broader policy challenges, increasing the pressure on monetary policy, despite the limits on what it can do and the risks its expanded use can pose.