“As for the rest of America, good luck”

Still processing Andrew Huszar’s remarkable Confessions of a Quantitative Easer, which appeared on the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page on Monday.

A former Morgan Stanley managing director,  Huszar managed the Federal Reserve’s $1.25 trillion agency mortgage-backed security purchase program from 2009 to  2010. Since the crash of 2008, he writes,  the Fed has, by one estimate, spent over $4 trillion for a total return of as little as a $40 billion bump in output, which is minuscule (it’s sometimes tough to visualize a trillion dollars. Here is a handy reference.)

This, while BOTH parties insist “we’re broke” (Obama’s very words).

We’re broke, but the Fed can create $4 trillion to loan to the banks. Oh, I see. In return the nation got very little, but for the banks it was a  windfall.

 Despite the Fed’s rhetoric, my program wasn’t helping to make credit any more accessible for the average American. The banks were only issuing fewer and fewer loans. More insidiously, whatever credit they were extending wasn’t getting much cheaper. QE may have been driving down the wholesale cost for banks to make loans, but Wall Street was pocketing most of the extra cash.

Here is a naive question: If the government can print $4 trillion to give to banks, to very little positive effect for the  country, why can’t it print even a fraction of that amount to finance massive public works to make need infrastructure repairs, make education more affordable (or better yet, free), and convert our energy economy to one that is sustainable?

Hell,giving every American a few thousand bucks would be a much more effective stimulus than what the Fed has done.

And don’t forget that the QE program rewards the very entities that created the crisis.

Having racked up hundreds of billions of dollars in opaque Fed subsidies, U.S. banks have seen their collective stock price triple since March 2009. The biggest ones have only become more of a cartel: 0.2% of them now control more than 70% of the U.S. bank assets.

As for the rest of America, good luck. Because QE was relentlessly pumping money into the financial markets during the past five years, it killed the urgency for Washington to confront a real crisis: that of a structurally unsound U.S. economy. Yes, those financial markets have rallied spectacularly, breathing much-needed life back into 401(k)s, but for how long? Experts like Larry Fink at the BlackRock investment firm are suggesting that conditions are again “bubble-like.” Meanwhile, the country remains overly dependent on Wall Street to drive economic growth.

Even when acknowledging QE’s shortcomings, Chairman Bernanke argues that some action by the Fed is better than none (a position that his likely successor, Fed Vice Chairwoman Janet Yellen, also embraces). The implication is that the Fed is dutifully compensating for the rest of Washington’s dysfunction. But the Fed is at the center of that dysfunction. Case in point: It has allowed QE to become Wall Street’s new “too big to fail” policy.

Your money’s no good here

On Pulau Kecil

Hard as it may be to believe, I was not always a land-locked farmer who seizes up at the mere thought of an airport. In fact, I was once something of a globe-trotter. It seems so like another life. And indeed it was.

One  of my most off-the-beaten-track escapades took me (and Heather) in a big circular trip around Malaysia in the mid-nineties. We have very fond memories of a week spent on Pulau Kecil, the smaller of the Perhentian Islands, where we stayed in a tiny little shack (they were called chalets, but see photo…), got that kinky salt-water hair, snorkled, trekked through the rain forest, napped, drank smoothies, played backgammon and volleyball,  read other people’s musty old paperbacks (Moby Dick!) , and generally had an idyllic time of it.

The commerce of the island, at least in those days, was conducted in a decidedly utopian manner.  You never had need to use money. You wrote whatever you ate or drank in a book, and settled up with the hostel-keeper at the end of your stay. (The sole exception to this arrangement was the Chinese guys who came ashore to sell beer on the beach under cover of night. That was cash-only, understandably.)

The industrious Chinese merchants had to keep it on the down low because the Perhentian Islands are off the coast of Kelantan province, known then and now as the most conservatively Islamic part of Malyasia. (In our current Islamophobic state, living more or less under sharia sounds like something awful and oppressive, but at the time it simply required a slight adjustment in behavior and dress.  And a little sneakiness with the beer.)

This morning, I came upon the  fascinating news that the authorities of Kelantan have taken the first step to turning their backs on the West’s money. From Friday’s Financial Times:

In a move applauded by some local Muslims, the state government of Kelantan said it was introducing a new monetary system featuring standardised gold and silver coins based on the traditional dinar and dirham coins once used by the Ottoman Empire.

Nik Abdul Aziz, the state’s chief minister, spoke in visionary terms of an economy in which state civil servants would be paid in the new sharia currency, and the poor would be protected against inflation by the intrinsic value of the precious metals used to produce it.

This in itself is not earth-shaking news.  “The chief minister … admitted that there were ‘many technicalities’ to be overcome before the scheme could be significantly extended.” But it’s enough to raise an eyebrow or two at the Financial Times, and especially with the Zero Hedge crowd. Here is “Tyler Durden’s” take:

Whether the transition from paper to a hard-backed currency will be the first spark in social upheavals as government slowly realize all their printer-induced leverage is slipping away, is still unknown. What is, however, is that many more will soon follow Kelantan’s lead to abolish an endlessly dilutable thought experiment, which has no intrinsic value, and whose purchasing power is decimated by the minute, as hundreds of billions in new money are printed every month by the world’s central banks.

Really, those folks tend to see many small news items as harbingers of the total collapse of the world economic system (the “endlessly dilutable thought experiment” or more simply, “the ponzi”).

But with enough kooks pounding the table, and pounding it hard, for attacking Iran, against all reason (and against all evidence for the pretext), this scenario is not totally out of the question:

if the Islamic world, in retaliation for a possible Iran invasion or otherwise, decides to issue a fatwa against the usage of non-Sharia compliant forms of monetary exchange, watch what happens as the developed world wilts overnight. With the bulk of world commodity extraction arising from the Muslim crescent, and wholesale ban on using USD and EUR, a move already underway in Iran, would make for the second coming of von Havenstein very, very difficult.

I have no frigging idea if this is any kind of big deal (and I had to look up von Havenstein, “The Central Banker Responsible For Germany’s Hyperinflationary Collapse (And Ostensibly WWII)”). And that last sentence doesn’t really make sense….

But whatever. For me this news is personally fascinating, allowing me to take a mental journey back to a magical world without money. At least in a pretend sense. Wouldn’t it be a laugh if Kelantan becomes famous for something other than pretty rain forest islands and a glorious ayam percik (butterflied grilled chicken with a spicy coconut sauce)? If our little island utopia turned out to be the place where the interconnected global world of finance starts to crumble?

Wouldn’t that be a laugh? Wouldn’t it? Not a huge guffaw, but a nervous little chortle, anyway, maybe?

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