'Helicopter Ben' Bernanke's shot of money into the economy will rescue Obama, not you, here's why

Any idiot can make a mess; it takes a genius to make a disaster. Bernanke and Obama are two of the brightest guys in the room.

Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, September 15, 2012 — Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s decision to engage in a third round of “quantitative easing” (QE3) drew immediate celebration from Wall Street, but it was also met by a reduction in America’s credit rating. Ratings firm Egan-Jones reduced its rating of U.S. government debt from “AA” to “AA-,” claiming that the $40 billion-per-month money infusion announced by the Fed will badly hurt the economy.

Bernanke got his nickname, “Helicopter Ben,” for comments like this: “The U.S. government has a technology, called a printing press (or today, its electronic equivalent), that allows it to produce as many U.S. dollars as it wishes at no cost.”

He goes on to argue, in the words of Milton Friedman before him, that a “helicopter drop” of money might be made into the economy to avoid deflation.

That is, during a recession when there’s a threat of deflation, the government should just drop bales of money on the population to help prevent a depression. 

The primary threat facing the economy right now isn’t deflation, and quantitative easing isn’t exactly a helicopter drop, but it is, in the words of critics, a sugar rush. 

If the problem with our economy were simply insufficient aggregate demand, sugar would be nutritious food, but it’s not. Short term interest rates are already low, and the Fed risks pushing long-term rates low enough that people will simply start keeping their money under the mattress. Not only is the Fed’s monetization likely to be ineffective, it’s likely to result in economic stagnation. 

The Fed is not producing “as many U.S. dollars as it wishes at no cost.” There is a very real cost. Our fiscal situation is a disaster, inflation is pressing onto the economy, and business costs are set to rise. This will have a negative impact on jobs, and real wages will decline. This open-ended quantitative easing will make the situation worse and worse.

If the Fed were to drop millions of carats of diamonds from helicopters, diamond rings would be found in cereal boxes, not jewelry stores. If the streets were paved with gold, gold would be as cheap as asphalt. If we continue to dump massive amounts of money into the economy, money will be worth less than the paper (or electrons) it’s printed on. 

The stock market responded to QE3 with enthusiasm. A big reason for that is that this signals Bernanke’s determination to keep interest rates low (close to zero). With bond returns in the basement, investors have no place to go but stocks. 

Sugar rushes always end in a crash. Everyone knows that QE3 is a stop-gap measure. Bernanke considers it necessary because President Obama’s economic policies aren’t working to break us out of a sluggish jobs market and the slowest recovery in memory.

But neither did QE1 and QE2.  QE3 will fail.

Its purpose is to put money into the hands of lenders, then small businesses, but business owners realize that the bill on our current economic policies will be coming due sooner rather than later, and they’re not likely to run out and borrow money with the uncertainties of the Affordable Care Act, the debt ceiling, and tax hikes (only for the wealthy, but that, oddly enough, includes a lot of small businesses) looming ahead.

Eventually Bernanke or his successor will have to change course. The money supply will have to be reduced, interest rates will rise, and investors will flee from stocks into bonds. As the stock market declines, the fizzy, buoyant feeling from the wealth effect created by the rising market will go as flat as last week’s champagne. As you and other Americans see your wealth decline, you’ll cut back on major purchases, and the economy will take another body blow.

Bernanke is a very, very smart man, and he knows better than most of us what’s at stake here. Why, then, this economic bandaid? Cynics argue that he’s caved to pressure from Democrats like Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) to give Obama enough breathing room for reelection.

Stagnation is fine in six months, but not before November. 

That explanation is too dismissive of Bernanke, whose history gives plenty of evidence that he’s both honest and is reacting in a way he sees as correct. More likely, he sees economic disaster ahead, and he’s simply run out of tools he can use to stop it. Like anyone else in serious trouble and without options, he’s kicking the can down the road, hoping against hope that a miracle will come along before disaster strikes.

That this might help Obama and the Democrats is just a side effect, not the goal of the policy. Anyway, given the lack of success of QE1 and QE2, the policy may not give the Democrats as large a boost as they expect.

The truth is that both Obama and Bernanke are running out of options. A $16 trillion debt has left the federal government with no fiscal flexibility at all, and the Fed’s usual tools to manipulate money through interest rates are useless with those rates close to zero. QE3 isn’t a new hope for the economy; it’s a clear sign of desperation. 

After the sugar rush wears off, then what? Bernanke will be left with nothing. That thought should give everyone in Washington pause. If they were rational, it might even prompt some serious thinking outside the current stimulus-QE-bailout box before that box turns into a prison, but the odds on that look worse by the day. 

Bernanke and Obama are both smart men, and so is most of Congress. Any idiot can make a mistake. It takes uncommon genius to create an utter disaster.

It’s clear that we have too many geniuses in Washington for our own good. That situation is unlikely to change.


James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He’s taught out of Ben Bernanke’s text books a few times and likes them a whole lot more than he likes QE3. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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