Notes on Fed Chair Jerome Powell’s 60 Minutes Non-Interview – Jeff Deist (03/14/2019)

Jerome Powell, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, appeared on the TV magazine 60 Minutes last night. If you’re craving empty calories, watch it here. The whole interview was an exercise in banal pleasantries, not to mention deadly dull. It’s what we’ve come to expect from Fed Chairs, nothing to see here, move along…

But financial twitter, including our friend Danielle DiMartino Booth, was not impressed:

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Granted, this was 60 Minutes and not Bloomberg or the Wall Street Journal. It was a puffball interview. But is it too much to ask the man who holds tremendous sway over our financial well-being to give the American people a substantive primetime interview? Go back and listen to presidential debates thirty years ago, or old Firing Line shows. We weren’t always subjected to dumbed down cartoon versions of policy issues. If Americans can’t—or won’t—understand the basics of central banking, we really do have bigger problems than unaccountable technocrats at the central bank.

A few notes:

First, it’s apparent Mr. Powell has developed his own brand of non-speak. For all his talk of a more transparent Fed, he’s still a lawyer who uses language carefully to the point of obfuscation. He’s not as opaque and wordy as Alan Greenspan, who could issue forth for several minutes without saying anything comprehensible. He’s not as stiff or suspicious as the always-guarded Ben Bernanke. No, Powell sounds more like Chance the Gardener in Being There: monotone assurances that “growth will be healthy,” the U.S. economy is “in a good place,” and the Fed must be “patient” when assessing interest rates. 

Second, reporters do a uniquely bad job covering the Fed. We don’t know much about Scott Pelley at 60 Minutes, but his idea of a tough question was whether Trump had the power to fire a Fed Chair (he finally got Powell to squeak “No” after a bit of dissembling about legal consensus). Where were the questions about quantitative easing, the most radical monetary policy in human history? How about the Fed’s enormous balance sheet, and whether in fact it will be unwound? Can money and credit simply be created without harm to the economy? Can the U.S. federal government continue to service its debt if interest rates rise into the historically average 5-10% range? Is inflation really as low as Chairman Powell claims, or do grocery shoppers know better? How about the moral hazards involved with reinflating equity and housing markets? Or why not just a homespun question about how elderly savers are expected to manage when money market and CD rates are below 3%? 

These are all simple, essential questions which would help Americans gain a sense of Mr. Powell’s confidence in the big picture. 60 Minutes could have enjoyed a rare scoop, bringing the vital but critically under-examined topic of monetary policy to a big audience. But instead we got to hear Powell’s views on the opioid crisis and immigration, and his soft murmurs about muted inflation. What a wasted opportunity.  

Finally, we’ve heard versions of the “cautiously optimistic” mantra so many times it begins to sound like a sedative. Alan Greenspan said it in the late 90’s and then stocks blew up. Ben Bernanke saw nothing particularly untoward in U.S. housing markets in 2007. Janet Yellen believes we won’t have another financial crisis “in our lifetimes” (she’s in her 70s…). And now Jay Powell “sees no reason” the economy can’t keep chugging along (even though he recently backpedaled on rate hikes and aggressively tapering the Fed’s swollen balance sheet). And of course that’s true until it isn’t.

The lesson here is plain for all who will see it: booms and busts are engineered and created by central banks, not by some mysterious manifestations of markets themselves. They can be traced back to expansionary monetary policies in the past. in 2019 we’re going on ten years of boom, one of the longest in American history. If things go south, as they did in 2008, the Fed has far fewer tools at its disposal—and the world has far more debt. As Professor Per Bylund reminds us, central bankers ought to spend more time learning what causes bubbles instead of scrambling to figure out what burst them after the fact.

THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY POSTED HERE.



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