To: Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: What you are doing to Wall Street
As the stock market continues to sink while corporations find earnings disintegrating, I’m again sending you my March 14 column, “No Time to Hold Equities.”
It’s not entirely your fault, Alan, as I’ve warned everyone I can think of about the malady afflicting us, a pure monetary deflation. But it is chiefly your responsibility, as you are the chairman of our nation’s central bank, which makes it the central bank of the world.
To stop the pain of the deflation adjustment, you only need admit error and suggest to
President George W. Bush and Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill that you switch from your interest-rate target to a commodity target – $325 gold would do it – and add sufficient liquidity to get there. Actually, I think all you have to do is announce that you would like that to happen, and the market would take us there. Wall Street would soar and the economy would be out of danger. If you don’t, things will get worse.
As hard as I’ve tried since 1997 to warn you and President Bill Clinton and the Bush administration of what was coming – a monetary deflation that is eating away at our economy – there has been no response. Worse, our mutual friend Bob Bartley, editor of the
Wall Street Journal, continues to believe you are right and I am wrong, and that lower interest rates and the Bush tax cut will fix us up. You have to go for the gold. Nothing else will do.
At our client conference last weekend in Palm Beach, I made this statement
to emphasize as clearly as I could the severe nature of the economic forces
bearing down on the equity markets.
Unless and until the Federal Reserve changes its operating mechanisms in a way that will cause the price of gold to rise at least above $300, I said we cannot expect a meaningful
turnaround on Wall Street. The fact that we have had a three-day rally on
Wall Street is of little consequence, except to remind us that there are
positive forces trying to lift the markets, and that we will have a
succession of mini-rallies as the secular bear market moves forward.
Look at the graph showing the Dow Jones Industrial average and the Nasdaq during
the last monetary deflation: In September 1980, gold was at $620, but began
to slide as the demand for liquidity rose in anticipation of a Reagan win
and the Reagan tax cuts. The market slid to August 1982 when Mexico’s
insolvency forced Fed Chairman Paul Volcker to flood the banking system
Over that two-year stretch, the graph shows mini-rallies that peter
out, as the phased-in Reagan tax cuts are overwhelmed by the need for
prices and wages to adjust to the smaller money stock:
For several months now, we have been suggesting a rough rule of thumb that
the Dow Jones would eventually head toward a new equilibrium of 7500, but as
gold continues to slide in the face of interest-rate cuts and prospective
tax rate reductions, the new equilibrium must fall further. We easily could
be too low on that round number because of the positive side effects
associated with the end of the Cold War, the end of the inflation and
bracket creep and the decline in national debt. But we agree on the
general direction and would not make such dramatic statements if there were
disagreement among us at Polyconomics.
One of the major reasons we can come to terms with the multiple forces hitting the economy at the same time is that we are careful to distinguish between deflation and contraction. At our conference, I drew two large ovals on a display sheet, each one labeled
with one term or the other. These are the two separate maladies that are
now afflicting the U.S. economy. The contraction theoretically can be fixed
with the Bush tax cuts and by the Fed’s interest rate cuts, but the
deflation can only be fixed by having the government indicate it wishes to
end it and also decide to rebalance the interests of dollar debtors and
dollar creditors by adding liquidity until the gold price signals an
Robert Mundell, the supply-side Nobel laureate, spoke at the conference,
but did not agree with our conclusions. He said he thought if the Fed
slashed interest rates enough, the increase in liquidity that would be
required would send the gold price shooting up on its own. Our staff
rejected that idea on the grounds that Japan has been caught in a similar
deflation and has cut its interest rates on overnight lending to almost
zero and the yen/gold signal has not responded.
Wayne Angell, chief economist at Bear Stearns, had a similar view, but now has come around to seeing that the Fed must expand its balance sheet sufficiently to drive
gold higher, which means putting aside the funds target. I spoke to Angell
this morning and told him that I believed he sparked the huge one-day rally
on Wall Street a few weeks ago when he noted that the 100 bps cut in the
funds rate in January had not budged the gold price. Indeed, gold is now
$10 lower and the equity indices have been hammered accordingly.
A real sign that nominal prices are being forced down came with the WalMart
announcement of storewide “sales,” for the first time in its history. It
will not reorder stock at previous prices if it cannot see a turn coming
that will allow it the prospect of selling at a profit instead of a loss.
This is why monetary deflation is such a slow grinding process.
In the next stage, the suppliers to the WalMarts and Home Depots will be forced to cut
wages if they are to hold their margins. Employers who have been holding
surplus workers because the labor market has been so tight will have to
give up on the idea that this is a routine inventory slowdown. Labor will
be dumped despite any corrections to the contraction, with workers
scrambling to get into new jobs with lower wages and fringes.
This is why Japan has been able to hold its society together as it adjusts to the
mammoth deflation that brought the yen gold price down by 60 percent since 1990. If this were instead a 60 percent contraction, there would be blood on the streets of Tokyo.
We remain absolutely alone in our analysis, which led me to tell our
conference-call participants that I felt like the fellow who broke the
Japanese code and is having no luck getting the admirals off the golf
course at Pearl Harbor. The admirals would rather listen to Abby Joseph
Cohen of Goldman, Sachs, who is a great technical analyst and probably
believes the “froth” has finally been skimmed from the Nasdaq so it is OK
to buy, as the Dow will end the year at 13,000. Of course it might, but only if the Fed changes its operating mechanism.
I suggested to Mundell at the conference that perhaps we could start by having Greenspan take note of the deflation and say he will direct Fed policy to keeping gold above $250
and below $325. Yes, this is a wide, wide band, but it would allow the
markets to drive up the gold price to an appropriate level without being
hammered back by the Open Market desk and its funds target. Mundell
suggested that Angell might be the man to push the idea with Greenspan.
If you run into Greenspan, you can give him a push as well.