Turning off the QE tap is going to be impossible

And it's no laughing matter. Try asking the record 20.2 per cent of US households stuck on food stamps.

Ben Bernanke pulled back in horror from a 1937-style repeat of Marriner Eccles’ premature emasculation of the economy, in Helicopter Ben’s case from his very own flagship QE policy: the FOMC decided not to taper its $85 billion monthly dose of QE steroids, as previously notified. These steroids were meant to be a shot-in-the-arm for the US economy, whose recovery is stuck very alarmingly in neutral: only 169,000 new jobs in August does not recovery make.

QE is now linked to unemployment – still stuck at 7.3 per cent, despite a record number of job no-hopers conveniently falling off the other end of the escalator. The US has actually lost 347,000 jobs in the past two months. House sales and mortgages, which are linked to 10-year Treasuries whose yield has doubled, have also stalled. The US economy, like the Fed, is backfiring badly and is nowhere near escape velocity.

QE tapering is now to begin when unemployment reaches 7 per cent – but it’s only at 6.5 per cent that the QE tap will be finally turned off and interest rates rise, depending on the reality on the ground, and not these meaningless spin-driven, manipulated, distorted, half-truth figures for unemployment. What has also become clear, however, is that these US steroids went global and are creating lax monetary conditions and consequent asset bubbles from Timbuktu to Chongqing and back again.

Isn’t this where the Global Crunch started? When Ben Bernanke announced in June that tapering would begin in September, he under-estimated the global reaction: horror! Money rushed back to the dollar, and the promise of higher US rates to come, as the yield on two-year Treasuries doubled since May. This bit wasn’t in the Bernanke script.

The Fed watched this global reaction with trepidation, as though they only now realised the global impact of their own printing presses and the consequent need for low interest rates.

Public debt everywhere is still far too high – the UK is having to borrow £115.7 billion this year and cannot afford higher interest payments; nor are the markets ready to fund public debt which is out of control in most of the G20; bank balance sheets are stuffed with bonds, and rising rates would trigger losses, and another banking crisis; that would have led to withdrawals of their special deposits earning just 0.25 per cent, and rocked the Fed itself; and there lurks the threat to emerging markets and another Asian currency crisis. Luckily for the Fed, inflation remains subdued – if you believe government figures.

The real error is that the Bernanke thought QE would rescue the real economy, but buying existing bonds and mortgages does not add a bean to aggregate demand, and it is consumer demand, buried under old debts and slowing real wages, which is the missing spark to re-ignite the US economy. And the obvious cure is tax reductions, but that means more debt, or actual or mandated cuts.

Unfortunately, it’s still stalemate-time again on Democrat tax increases versus Republican expenditure cuts on Capitol Hill. And worse still, it’s time this month to settle the acrimonious issue of the budget and the US Total Debt Ceiling ... Obama is the man stuck inside the shrinking Economic White House, and the Republicans are loving every minute of it – sweet revenge for having lost the White House twice running.

The central bankers are, once again, in danger of losing control of interest rates and monetary policy, and somewhat bizarrely QE seems to be the new 600-lbs gorilla in the bankers’ parlour, which is now threatening to control them. As I said last week, printing QE largesse is easy, but stopping it is unchartered territory, for which there is no arithmetic.

Is this the new Big Black Hole in Professor Bernanke’s post-retirement thesis - "How I Single-handedly Saved the Global Economy with My Printing-press"? Ending QE is no laughing matter... Just try asking the record 20.2 per cent of US households stuck on food stamps.

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This piece first appeared on Spear's Magazine

Ben Bernanke. Photograph: Getty Images

This is a story from the team at Spears magazine.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.