Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Coronavirus and the Federal Reserve's Political Policy

It's when times are tough that you see what's really going on.  Last week, the stock market fell 11% because of fears over the economic impact of the coronavirus epidemic, dropping into a correction in a matter of days.  President Trump called loudly for a Fed interest rate cut.  Always ready for another government handout, Wall Streeters also chimed in for a rate cut.  Yesterday, rumors that the Fed and other central banks would act together pushed the Dow Jones Industrial Average up over 1200 points.

Early this morning, the Fed indicated it was considering accommodative action, but signaled that nothing was imminent.  https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/03/economy/federal-reserve-rate-cut/index.html.  However, a few hours later, the Fed announced a surprise 0.5% cut in short term interest rates.  The Dow, instead of responding positively, promptly fell almost 800 points.

What gives?  It's hard not to think the Fed gave in to political pressure.  A rate cut won't cure coronavirus.  Nor will it vaccinate humans against the disease.  It won't quarantine the virus or establish barriers to its spread.  People who are avoiding traveling, large gatherings, restaurants, concerts, sporting events, and other potential infection venues won't start spending and exposing themselves to the illness just because of a rate cut.  Even if stocks had risen, people wouldn't have started to engage in risky behavior.  Of course, things were only made worse because the market fell after the rate cut.  The market wanted a bigger welfare check.  The President, perhaps too lazy to do the work needed for a fiscal stimulus, promptly called for another immediate Fed rate cut.

But another immediate cut would only tell us that the epidemic is far worse than we thought, and that we'd best hunker down and isolate ourselves for a long time.  No travel, no restaurant meals, no public gatherings, no socializing, no contact with anyone we don't know and trust.  Romance would halt abruptly, as who'd want to meet new people in a time of epidemic?  Dating websites would collapse and singles bars would shutter. The President would be much better off committing billions of federal dollars to emergency medical research.  But he seems to have a problem with science, like he doesn't believe in it because it sometimes contradicts his political views.  So maybe the Fed will be bullied into another rate cut that will only instill even more alarm and panic.

There are powerful reasons for the historic independence of the Federal Reserve.  Most important among them is that an independent Fed can serve the public interest, not the short term scheming of politicians.  This means, among other things, that the long term vigor of the stock market is served by a rigorously independent Fed (see the story of Paul Volcker's career for further information).  Today's surprise rate cut gave the market and us discouraging news:  that the coronavirus crisis is much worse than we thought, that the Fed is becoming the sous chef of monetary policy, and that instead of focusing on medicine, the White House is focused on the political aspects of the coronavirus epidemic.  Now that the Fed is politicized, expect more poor policy and national distress.

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