So Where’s the Inflation?
Now for a series of graphs. First, let’s look at the Adjusted Monetary Base (or M0). This is the one monetary aggregate that the Federal Reserve actually controls. Notice that it exploded in the middle of 2008, as the Fed started quantitative easing and pushed rates to zero. They were desperate to try and thaw out the credit markets that had frozen.
That in turn caused M1 to increase.
But the broader measure on money that is M2 rose into 2009 and has then gone sideways. Normally the stimulus of such raw money growth in M0 would have M2 exploding upward, as you get a money multiplier effect.
We all know that a US bank can lend out about nine times the deposits it has on hand. When the Fed puts money into the system, it can be multiplied rather quickly if banks choose to lend. This is called the money multiplier.
"Restated, increases in central bank money may not result in commercial bank money because the money is not required to be lent out – it may instead result in a growth of unlent reserves (excess reserves). This situation is referred to as ‘pushing on a string’: withdrawal of central bank money compels commercial banks to curtail lending (one can pull money via this mechanism), but input of central bank money does not compel commercial banks to lend (one cannot push via this mechanism)." (Wikipedia)
This described growth in excess reserves has indeed occurred in the financial crisis of 2007–2010, with US bank excess reserves growing over 500-fold, from under $2 billion in August 2008 to over $1,000 billion recently. Look at the chart below. This is what has all the gold bugs salivating. Where else has this happened without hyperinflation?
Now let’s turn to our old friend Paul Samuelson and his textbook that we all read in Econ 101 to learn about the money multiplier:
"By increasing the volume of their government securities and loans and by lowering Member Bank legal reserve requirements, the Reserve Banks can encourage an increase in the supply of money and bank deposits
. They can encourage but, without taking drastic action, they cannot compel. For in the middle of a deep depression just when we want Reserve policy to be most effective, the Member Banks are likely to be timid about buying new investments or making loans. If the Reserve authorities buy government bonds in the open market and thereby swell bank reserves, the banks will not put these funds to work but will simply hold reserves. Result: no 5 for 1, ‘no nothing,’ simply a substitution on the bank’s balance sheet of idle cash for old government bonds."
–(Samuelson 1948, pp. 353–354)
And that is what has happened. And all those mortgage bonds and other assets the Federal Reserve has purchased? They have been put right back into the Fed by the banks. There has been no money multiplier. In fact, the money multiplier, as measured by the ratio of MO to M1 growth is at its lowest level ever. Look at the graph below:
What this graph shows, astonishingly, is that a dollar added to the monetary base now has a NEGATIVE multiplier effect. Without showing yet another chart, bank lending has fallen percentagewise the most in 67 years. The actual amount of bank loans is falling each and every quarter, with no signs of a bottom. Consumers are reducing their debt and leverage. Bank loans are being written off at staggering rates. Over 700 banks (I think that is the figure I saw) are officially on watch by the FDIC, with more banks being closed each week.
There is at least $300-400 billion in losses on commercial real estate waiting to be written down. Housing foreclosures are rising and hundreds of billions have yet to be written off. As more families fall into unemployment or underemployment, there will be more writedowns. Is it any wonder that banks are having to shore up their balance sheets and make fewer loans?