The Misinterpretation of the Keynesian “Liquidity Trap”

Economists and pundits, who contend that the Federal Reserve System has little room to maneuver in using monetary policy to jump-start our anemic economy, often have claimed that America is mired in a Keynesian liquidity trap, a situation in which the demand for money is unresponsive to changes in market interest rates. After all, those commentators emphasize, the Fed has adopted a target for the federal funds rate (the interest rate charged on overnight interbank loans) of between zero and 0.25 percent. The implication is that further reductions in that rate will have little or no effect on the incentives of businesses to invest in new plant and equipment or of consumers to borrow in order to finance the additional spending necessary to raise GDP growth above the (recently downwardly revised) estimate of 1.6 percent during the second quarter of 2010.

But those commentators overlook or ignore the easily verified reasoning of John Maynard Keynes, who defined a liquidity trap in terms of long-term rather than short–term interest rates. The long-term (ten- or 30-year) rate on Treasury securities now runs at about three percent, meaning that the Fed still has arrows in its quiver. Unfortunately, however, those arrows, the use of which would demand the central bank engage in further “quantitative easing”, requires it to purchase more under-performing, “toxic” assets from banks and other financial institutions that lent money to homeowners who could not repay their mortgages. Engaging in such transactions places more bad debts on the Fed’s balance sheet, constrains its ability to conduct monetary policy in the future and raises the specter of higher rates of future price inflation.

In his recent speech at Wood’s Hole, Wyoming, Fed Chairman Bernanke was right to say that economic recovery cannot depend solely on the policies of the central bank over which he presides. But the fiscal discipline (spending and tax cuts) required to achieve that goal is incompatible with the vote motives of incumbent politicians or their challengers for political office.

In consequence, the United States will not return to genuine economic prosperity for years to come. Americans ought to be grateful if a “double-dip” recession is the only price they are forced to pay as the result of recent monetary and fiscal policy choices. It would be far better to make the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 permanent, to reduce the tax rate on corporate income and estates to zero, and to limit government at the federal level to the powers granted to it by the people and the Founders of our compound republic.

America will be able to reclaim the path to prosperity only if the federal government and its central bank get out of the way.

William F. Shughart II is Research Fellow and Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University, past President of the Southern Economic Association, and editor of the Independent book, Taxing Choice: The Predatory Politics of Fiscal Discrimination.
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