Monday, January 18, 2010

If Bernanke Were a Biologist...

 This article was also featured on The Reformed Broker's reading list.

If Bernanke were a biologist, he would understand that the financial eco-system needs a process to excrete waste. That waste then becomes feeding stock for the real green shoots (some are affectionately known as "turd blossoms"). By keeping rates low and buying securities at mark-to-fantasy prices, the Fed is trying to recapitalize the entities that should be dead and thus stifling the true green shoots (in this case, able banking operators that can take over).

If Bernanke were a biologist, he would embrace natural selection. Generally defined, natural selection ensures the survival of the fittest and the smartest. By rewarding failure, the Fed does just the opposite as the fittest cannot take on the assets from the less fit. In addition, by punishing savers (the animals that stock up for the winter) via low rates, the Fed discourages what is prudent behavior for the participants in the system.

If Bernanke were a biologist, he would understand experimental learning. The frog that gets stung when it tries to eat a wasp, does not try to eat insects that look like wasps every again, not even ones that do not sting. We got in the current mess in a large part because of easy money over the last 10 years. How are we trying to fix the problem? More easy money.

If Bernanke were a biologist, he would understand that animals respond to incentives. Much like you should not feed birds and other wildlife as it creates incentives for them not to migrate in the winter, and to multiply beyond the area's "carrying capacity," ZIRP encourages malinvesment and the proliferation of various products that should not exist, and, more dangerously, it incetivizes people to gamble with reckless abandon as the chips are on the house (and "The Put" will be there.)

If Bernanke were a biologist, he would understand that systems are cyclical. Some years there are more wolves, some years there are more rabbits. By focusing on "full employment" and "price stability", both cyclical in nature, the Fed is interfering with the signals both markets would send to participants much to the long-term detriment of all parties involved.

If Bernanke were a biologist, he would understand that animals need food, warmth and shelter. By basing rate decisions in part on "core CPI", which excludes food and energy, and did not capture housing inflation in the 00's via owners' equivalent rent, the Fed's rate decisions are the old GIGO ("garbage in, garbage out"). Barry Ritholtz, quite accurately, calls core CPI "inflation ex-inflation."

If Bernanke were a biologist, he would understand that plants and animals need to adapt to survive and prosper. Contrary to that view, we have seen the Chairman do one thing, and one thing only, and that one thing is based heavily on his views of the Great Depression. These views have given him the academic acclaim and the resulting image to get the job, but what if the job requires some qualitatively different thinking?

For the record, I have never been a biologist and I do not aspire to be one.

(PLUG: the author of Barbarian Capital blog is available for the right consumer- or inflation-focused analyst opportunity within the US)

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