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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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.