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JG Letter Night of Living Fed 3Q 2010

JG Letter Night of Living Fed 3Q 2010

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Published by Fortune
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Published by: Fortune on Oct 27, 2010
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I would limit its activities to making sure that the economyhad a suitable amount of liquidity to function normally.Further, I would force it to swear off manipulating assetprices through arti
cially low rates and asymmetricpromises of help in tough times – the Greenspan/Bernankeput. It would be a better, simpler, and less dangerousworld, although one much less exciting for us studentsof bubbles. Only by hammering away at its giant pastmistakes as well as its dangerous current policy can wehope to generate enough awareness by 2014: Bernanke’snext scheduled reappointment hearing.
GMO
Q
UARTERLY
L
ETTER
October 2010
The Ruinous Cost of Fed Manipulation of Asset Prices
My diatribe against the Fed’s policies of the last 15 yearsbecame, by degrees, rather long and complicated. So tomake it easier to follow, a summary precedes the longerargument. (For an earlier attack on the Fed, see “Feet of Clay” in my 3Q 2002
Quarterly Letter 
.)
Purpose
If I were a benevolent dictator, I would strip the Fed of itsobligation to worry about the economy and ask it to limitits meddling to attempting to manage in
ation. Better yet,
NIGHT OF THE LIVING FEDNIGHT OF THE LIVING FED
 Something unbelievably terrifying Something unbelievably terrifying
 B
anks come back to life !Banks come back to life !
HomesDestroyed !FamiliesEvicted !HomesDestroyed !FamiliesEvicted !
Currency ars !Currency ars !
RunawayCommodities !RunawayCommodities !
StarringStarringand Introducingand Introducingwith Guest Appearance as Chief Zombiewith Guest Appearance as Chief Zombie
BEN BERNANKE
JANET YELLEN
 
ALAN GREENSPAN
BEN BERNANKE
JANET YELLEN
ALAN GREENSPAN
Jeremy Grantham
 
2
GMO
Quarterly Letter – Night of Living Fed – October 2010
To Summarize
1) Long-term data suggests that higher debt levels arenot correlated with higher GDP growth rates.2) Therefore, lowering rates to encourage more debt isuseless at the second derivative level.3) Lower rates, however, certainly do encouragespeculation in markets and produce higher-pricedand therefore less rewarding investments, which tiltmarkets toward the speculative end. Sustained higherprices mislead consumers and budgets alike.4) Our new Presidential Cycle data also shows nomeasurable economic bene
ts in Year 3, yet point toa striking market and speculative stock effect. Thiseffect goes back to FDR, and is felt all around theworld.5) It seems certain that the Fed is aware that low ratesand moral hazard encourage higher asset prices andincreased speculation, and that higher asset priceshave a bene
cial short-term impact on the economy,mainly through the wealth effect. It is also probablethat the Fed knows that the other direct effects of monetary policy on the economy are negligible.6) It seems certain that the Fed uses this type of stimulusto help the recovery from even mild recessions, whichmight be healthier in the long-term for the economyto accept.7) The Fed, both now and under Greenspan, expressedno concern with the later stages of investment bubbles.This sets up a much-increased probability of bubblesforming and breaking, always dangerous events.Even as much of the rest of the world expressesconcern with asset bubbles, Bernanke expressesnone. (Yellen to the rescue?)8) The economic stimulus of higher asset prices, mild inthe case of stocks and intense in the case of houses,is in any case all given back with interest as bubblesbreak and even overcorrect, causing intense
nancialand economic pain.9) Persistently over-stimulated asset prices seduce states,municipalities, endowments, and pension funds intoassuming unrealistic return assumptions, which canand have caused
nancial crises as asset prices revertback to replacement cost or below.10) Arti
cially high asset prices also encouragemisallocation of resources, as epitomized in thedotcom and
ber optic cable booms of 1999, and theoverbuilding of houses from 2005 through 2007.11) Housing is much more dangerous to mess with thanstocks, as houses are more broadly owned, moreeasily borrowed against, and seen as a more stableasset. Consequently, the wealth effect is greater.12) More importantly, house prices, unlike equities,have a direct effect on the economy by stimulatingoverbuilding. By 2007, overbuilding employed about1 million additional, mostly lightly skilled, people,not counting the associated stimulus from housing-related purchases.13) This increment of employment probably masked astructural increase in unemployment between 2002and 2007, which was likely caused by global tradedevelopments. With the housing bust, constructionfell below normal and revealed this large increment instructural unemployment. Since these particular jobsmay not come back, even in 10 years, this problemmay call for retraining or special incentives.14) Housing busts also help to partly freeze the movementof labor; people are reluctant to move if they havenegative house equity. The lesson here is: Do notmess with housing!15) Lower rates always transfer wealth from retirees(debt owners) to corporations (debt for expansion,theoretically) and the
nancial industry. This time,there are more retirees and the pain is greater, andcorporations are notably avoiding capital spendingand, therefore, the bene
ts are reduced. It is likelythat there is no net bene
t to arti
cially low rates.16) Quantitative easing is likely to turn out to be an evenmore desperate maneuver than the typical low ratepolicy. Importantly, by increasing in
ation fears,this easing has sent the dollar down and commodityprices up.17) Weakening the dollar and being seen as certain to dothat increases the chances of currency friction, whichcould spiral out of control.18) In almost every respect, adhering to a policy of lowrates, employing quantitative easing, deliberatelystimulating asset prices, ignoring the consequencesof bubbles breaking, and displaying a completerefusal to learn from experience has left Fed policyas a large net negative to the production of a healthy,stable economy with strong employment.
 
3
GMO
Quarterly Letter – Night of Living Fed – October 2010
The Effect of Debt on Long-term Growth
My heretical view is that debt doesn’t matter all thatmuch to long-term growth rates. What I owe you, andyou owe Fred, and Fred owes me is not very important;on the positive side, all it can do is move demand forwarda few weeks and then give it back later. This is the paperworld. It is, in an important sense, not the real world.In the real world, growth depends on real factors: thequality and quantity of education, work ethic, populationpro
le, the quality and quantity of existing plant andequipment, business organization, the quality of publicleadership (especially from the Fed in the U.S.), andthe quality (not quantity) of existing regulations and thedegree of enforcement. If you really want to worry aboutgrowth, you should be concerned about sliding educationstandards and an aging population. All of the real powerof debt is negative: it can gum up the works in a liquidity/ solvency crisis and freeze the economy for quite a while.On this topic, take another look at Exhibit 1, my personalfavorite. What a powerful and noble experiment! Wetripled debt to GDP ratio over 28 years, and yet GDPgrowth slowed! And it slowed increasingly, especiallyafter 2000. The 3.4% trend line had been intact for over100 years, from 1880 to 1982. From this data it is possibleto hope that the decline in GDP would have been evenworse if we had not been wallowing in debt. But I believeit probably suggests that there is no long-term connectionbetween debt and GDP growth. After all, the last 10 to 15years have revealed some great reasons for GDP growthto be stronger than average, not weaker: the growth rateof emerging countries helped along by the collapse of communism and the moderate de-bureaucratization of India, the ensuing explosion of world trade, and a claimedsurge in productivity from the rapid developments of theinternet and cell phone technology in particular. Giventhe above, there is little or no room for higher debt levelsto provide a net bene
t to economic growth. Therefore,arti
cially low interest rates must also be of insigni
canthelp to long-term growth, for its main role in stimulatinggrowth is to encourage more debt. After all, a lower ratehurts the lenders exactly as much as it helps the borrowers.The debt expansion, though, was great for
nancialindustry pro
ts: more debt instruments to put together, tosell, and to maintain. Not to mention all of those debtof 
cers to pay for and charge for, and all of that increaseddebt for investment managers to manage. Thus, the roleof 
nance grew far beyond its point of usefulness. (See“Finance Goes Rogue” in last quarter’s
 Letter 
.)
The Effect of Subsidized Rates and the Economy onFinancial Markets
But subsidized debt – debt at manipulated rates – incontrast to normal debt at market clearing prices, has alarge, profound, and dangerously distorting effect onmarket prices. The Presidential Cycle, which I have often
Exhibit 1Debt Does Not Create Growth!
Source: Federal Reserve Flow of Funds, Global Financial Data As of 6/30/08 
100%150%200%250%300%350%400%52 57 62 67 72 77 82 87 92 97 02 07
   T  o   t  a   l   D  e   b   t  a  s  a   P  e  r  c  e  n   t  a  g  e  o   f   G   D   P
13.013.514.014.515.015.516.0
 o g of   e al   G
Dec-
Total Debt
 G D P  + 3. 4 % p e r  Y e a r
Stable Debt EraRising Debt Era
 G D P+ 2. 4 %p e rY e a r

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Well done, @fortune ... NIGHT OF THE LIVING FED: SOMETHING UNBELIEVABLY TERRIFYING :)
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