Most economic observers are predicting that 2014 will be the year in which the United States finally shrugs off the persistent malaise of the Great Recession. As we embark on this sunny new chapter, we may ask what wisdom the five-year trauma has delivered. Some big thinkers have declared that the episode has forever tarnished freewheeling American capitalism and the myth of Wall Street invincibility. In contrast, I believe that the episode has, for the moment, established supreme confidence in the powers of monetary policy to keep the economy afloat and to keep a floor under asset prices, even in the worst of circumstances. This represents a dramatic change from where we were in the beginning of 2008, and unfortunately gives us the false confidence needed to sail blindly into the next crisis.
Although the media likes to forget, there was indeed a strong minority of bearish investors who did not drink the Goldilocks Kool-Aid of the pre-crisis era. As the Dow moved up in 2006 and 2007 so did gold, even though a rising gold price was supposed to be a sign of economic uncertainty. The counter intuitive gold surge in those years resulted from growing concern among a committed minority that an economic crisis was looming. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis in 2009 and 2010, gold shifted into an even higher gear when those investors became doubly convinced that the extraordinary monetary measures devised by the Fed to combat the recession would fail to stop the economic free fall and would instead kick off a new era of inflation and dollar weakness. This caused many who had been gold naysayers and economic cheerleaders to reluctantly jump on the gold band wagon as well.
But three years later, after a period of monetary activism that went far beyond what most bears had predicted, the economy has apparently turned the corner. The Dow has surged to record levels, inflation (at least the way it is currently being measured) and interest rates have stayed relatively low, and the dollar has largely maintained its value. Ironically, many of those former Nervous Nellies, who correctly identified the problems in advance, have thrown in the towel and concluded that their fears of out of control monetary policy were misplaced. While many of those who had always placed their faith in the Fed (but who had failed - as did Fed leadership - from seeing the crisis in advance) are more confident than ever that the Central Bank can save us from the worst.
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