Bernanke Faces His Biggest Test: Will He Pass or Fail?

by: James Picerno

The Federal Reserve is virtually certain to cut the Fed funds rate in the wake of Friday's news that the economy is shedding jobs for the first time in four years. But the anticipated easing still comes with risks.

It's not obvious that more liquidity is the solution for what ails the economy. The return of job losses after four years of gains may simply be the natural ebb and flow of the business cycle. There's a general sense that such cycles have been banished to the dustbin of economic history, but that's a premature conclusion. Yes, the Fed has learned how to smooth the business cycle with tactical injections of liquidity. But there's no free lunch, and it's possible that keeping deep recessions at bay all these years has been a temporary triumph that's had the unintended effect of letting excesses build up to the point that they're now set to burst forth.

If the cycle is poised to reassert itself on the downside, the Fed will no doubt intervene in an effort to keep the economy bubbling. The past 20 years have shown that the central bank is inclined to do just that. But at what cost? Has the smoothing of the business cycle in past years dispatched the fallout or simply rolled it into the future?

The economy may be weakening but the cause doesn't fit neatly into the classic boom-bust story. In the old days, the Fed would choke off rising economic growth by raising interest rates, sometimes by too much. The tightening brought recession, which in turn spurred the Fed to ease to induce growth once more.

This time, however, it's debatable if the economic slowdown that appears to be in progress is directly caused by excessive monetary tightening in the traditional sense. The Fed funds rate has been at 5.25% since June 2006, but the charge that the price of money's been too high is exaggerated. Only in recent weeks has the cry for lower rates gained critical mass.

Judging by the 10-year Treasury yield, for instance, interest rates have been fairly low by historical standards. One reason that the 10-year yield's been relatively low is the surge of liquidity in the global economy, a large chunk of which has been routinely flowing into the U.S. The Fed controls the domestic money supply in theory, but in practice, central banks around the world have a growing sway on U.S. liquidity levels. As you may recall, it was Fed Chairman Bernanke who promoted the notion a few years back that a savings glut was evident in foreign economies, notably in Asia. Last we checked, the glut's still intact overseas.

Nonetheless, the Fed will probably lower interest rates. But for an economy that's been swimming in liquidity for several years, arguably to excess, it remains to be seen if more of the same will induce the old magic one more time.

Simply put, there are risks to doing nothing, and there are risks to cutting. The conventional wisdom now is that the risks of the holding rates steady outweigh cutting, and so lowering Fed funds is now a forgone conclusion when the FOMC meets on September 18. In fact, the futures market expects that Fed funds will fall to 4.50% by the end of this year, 75 basis points below the current 5.25%.

The cause, at least will be clear: the economy seems to be weakening, or so the August employment report advised. But that doesn't automatically mean that the excess liquidity that's built up in recent years has evaporated. Indeed, the inherent conflict between the central bank's dual mandate of containing inflation and maximizing employment is especially perilous at this juncture.

That, at least, is one interpretation after witnessing the renewed rise in the price of gold. An ounce of the precious metal changes hands at a spot price of $700, the highest in more than a year, and up 7% from a month ago. Some of the surge is directly tied to worries over future inflation, which may rise if the Fed overshoots on its new adventures in liquidity injections. M2 money supply is already rising at a healthy clip - up by 6.3% at an annual rate for the 13 weeks through August 28. That's up sharply from a 3.7% pace in M2 growth from a year earlier.

In a related concern, the gold market notices that the dollar's getting weaker, a trend that will accelerate if the Fed drops interest rates. Historically, gold and the buck have shared an inverse relationship, with each moving in the opposite direction relative to the other.

On Friday, the U.S. Dollar Index slipped below 80. Save for a brief time in 1992, the U.S. Dollar Index has never traded that low in 35 years. The dollar, in short, is probing new and uncharted depths in the modern era of free-floating currencies. The Fed can't ignore the fact that lowering rates will almost surely hasten accelerate the pace of the dollar's descent, which in turn will embolden the gold bulls. At the same time, the Fed's under enormous pressure to lower rates to head off what may be a recession.

This, dear readers, is the monetary rock and the hard place. It's been a long time coming. Mr. Bernanke, as a result, is facing what seems likely to be the test that defines him, for good or ill, as a central banker.