The distinction between housing assets and equity assets is absolutely critical, but it's completely lost on the Fed. We can see Bernanke's game plan in action in the most recent Fed Flow of Funds.
Housing equity has plummeted roughly $6 trillion from the bubble peak to Q3 2010 (and it has slipped further since): $22.6 trillion to $16.5 trillion.
Stocks and bonds, meanwhile, have gained $6 trillion--a nice symmetry. In Q1 2009, corporate equities ($5 T), mutual funds ($3.1 T) and pension fund reserves ($10.4 T) added up to $18.5 trillion. By Q3 2010, these had risen smartly to $24.4 trillion (corporate equities $7.8 T, mutual funds $4.4 T and pension fund reserves $12.2 T)
Housing is the primary household asset for roughly 2/3 of U.S. households, while stocks and bonds are the primary asset for only the top 5%. So what Bernanke has effectively overseen is a massive transfer of private wealth.
He's also accomplished a stupendous transfer of national income to the financial Elites in the banking sector by lowering interest rates to zero (ZIRP). Back in the low inflation 1960s, banks and savings and loans were required to pay 5.25% on all savings. Cash, in other words, generated substantial income for ordinary savers.
The idea with ZIRP is to loan the banks essentially free money, which they can lend out at between 5% and 12% (or higher), generating "free" profits. The Fed's plan is to sluice these gigantic profits to banks so they can recapitalize their insolvent balance sheets without any direct handouts. But ZIRP is nothing but an indirect transfer of wealth from the private sector (now completely deprived of any interest income) to the banks.
The Fed's policies allow for only two ways to access this newly created "increase in real wealth" for the top 10%: sell the assets or borrow money from the banks. If people cash out their stock gains, then that would automatically push stocks lower, bollixing the game plan. The Fed's intention is to "nudge" the populace into borrowing more money from the banks at nominally high rates of interest (anythijng above 0% is pure profit for the banks).
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