Tag: Easy Money

European Central Bank Research Shows that Government Spending Undermines Economic Performance

Europe is in the midst of a fiscal crisis caused by too much government spending, yet many of the continent’s politicians want the European Central Bank to purchase the dodgy debt of reckless welfare states such as Spain, Italy, Greece, and Portugal in order to prop up these big government policies.

So it’s especially noteworthy that economists at the European Central Bank have just produced a study showing that government spending is unambiguously harmful to economic performance. Here is a brief description of the key findings.

…we analyse a wide set of 108 countries composed of both developed and emerging and developing countries, using a long time span running from 1970-2008, and employing different proxies for government size… Our results show a significant negative effect of the size of government on growth. …Interestingly, government consumption is consistently detrimental to output growth irrespective of the country sample considered (OECD, emerging and developing countries).

There are two very interesting takeaways from this new research. First, the evidence shows that the problem is government spending, and that problem exists regardless of whether the budget is financed by taxes or borrowing. Unfortunately, too many supposedly conservative policy makers fail to grasp this key distinction and mistakenly focus on the symptom (deficits) rather than the underlying disease (big government).

The second key takeaway is that Europe’s corrupt political elite is engaging in a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which is when one bad government policy is used to justify another bad government policy. In this case, they undermined prosperity by recklessly increasing the burden of government spending, and they’re now using the resulting fiscal crisis as an excuse to promote inflationary monetary policy by the European Central Bank.

The ECB study, by contrast, shows that the only good answer is to reduce the burden of the public sector. Moreover, the research also has a discussion of the growth-maximizing size of government.

… economic progress is limited when government is zero percent of the economy (absence of rule of law, property rights, etc.), but also when it is closer to 100 percent (the law of diminishing returns operates in addition to, e.g., increased taxation required to finance the government’s growing burden – which has adverse effects on human economic behaviour, namely on consumption decisions).

This may sound familiar, because it’s a description of the Rahn Curve, which is sort of the spending version of the Laffer Curve. This video explains.

The key lesson in the video is that government is far too big in the United States and other industrialized nations, which is precisely what the scholars found in the European Central Bank study.

Another interesting finding in the study is that the quality and structure of government matters.

Growth in government size has negative effects on economic growth, but the negative effects are three times as great in non-democratic systems as in democratic systems. …the negative effect of government size on GDP per capita is stronger at lower levels of institutional quality, and ii) the positive effect of institutional quality on GDP per capita is stronger at smaller levels of government size.

The simple way of thinking about these results is that government spending doesn’t do as much damage in a nation such as Sweden as it does in a failed state such as Mexico.

Last but not least, the ECB study analyzes various budget process reforms. There’s a bit of jargon in this excerpt, but it basically shows that spending limits (presumably policies similar to Senator Corker’s CAP Act or Congressman Brady’s MAP Act) are far better than balanced budget rules.

…we use three indices constructed by the European Commission (overall rule index, expenditure rule index, and budget balance and debt rule index). …The former incorporates each index individually whereas the latter includes interacted terms between fiscal rules and government size proxies. Particularly under the total government expenditure and government spending specifications…we find statistically significant positive coefficients on the overall rule index and the expenditure rule index, meaning that having these fiscal numerical rules improves GDP growth for these set of EU countries.

This research is important because it shows that rules focusing on deficits and debt (such as requirements to balance the budget) are not as effective because politicians can use them as an excuse to raise taxes.

At the risk of citing myself again, the number one message from this new ECB research is that lawmakers - at the very least - need to follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule and make sure government spending grows slower than the private sector. Fortunately, that can happen, as shown in this video.

But my Golden Rule is just a minimum requirement. If politicians really want to do the right thing, they should copy the Baltic nations and implement genuine spending cuts rather than just reductions in the rate of growth in the burden of government.

The Federal Reserve, the ‘Twist,’ Inflation, QE3, and Pushing on a String

In a move that some are calling QE3, the Federal Reserve announced yesterday that it will engage in a policy called “the twist” – selling short-term bonds and buying long-term bonds in hopes of artificially reducing long-term interest rates. If successful, this policy (we are told) will incentivize more borrowing and stimulate growth.

I’ve freely admitted before that it is difficult to identify the right monetary policy, but it certainly seems like this policy is – at best – an ineffective gesture. This is why the Fed’s various efforts to goose the economy with easy money have been described as “pushing on a string.”

Here are two related questions that need to be answered.

1. Is the economy’s performance being undermined by high long-term rates?

Considering that interest rates are at very low levels already, it seems rather odd to claim that the economy will suddenly rebound if they get pushed down a bit further. Japan has had very low interest rates (both short-run and long-run) for a couple of decades, yet the economy has remained stagnant.

Perhaps the problem is bad policy in other areas. After all, who wants to borrow money, expand business, create jobs, and boost output if Washington is pursuing a toxic combination of excessive spending and regulation, augmented by the threat of higher taxes.

2. Is the economy hampered by lack of credit?

Low interest rates, some argue, may not help the economy if banks don’t have any money to lend. Yet I’ve already pointed out that banks have more than $1 trillion of excess reserves deposited at the Fed.

Perhaps the problem is that banks don’t want to lend money because they don’t see profitable opportunities. After all, it’s better to sit on money than to lend it to people who won’t pay it back because of an economy weakened by too much government.

The Wall Street Journal makes all the relevant points in its editorial.

The Fed announced that through June 2012 it will buy $400 billion in Treasury bonds at the long end of the market—with six- to 30-year maturities—and sell an equal amount of securities of three years’ duration or less. The point, said the FOMC statement, is to put further “downward pressure on longer-term interest rates and help make broader financial conditions more accommodative.” It’s hard to see how this will make much difference to economic growth. Long rates are already at historic lows, and even a move of 10 or 20 basis points isn’t likely to affect many investment decisions at the margin. The Fed isn’t acting in a vacuum, and any move in bond prices could well be swamped by other economic news. Europe’s woes are accelerating, and every CEO in America these days is worried more about what the National Labor Relations Board is doing to Boeing than he is about the 30-year bond rate. The Fed will also reinvest the principal payments it receives on its asset holdings into mortgage-backed securities, rather than in U.S. Treasurys. The goal here is to further reduce mortgage costs and thus help the housing market. But home borrowing costs are also at historic lows, and the housing market suffers far more from the foreclosure overhang and uncertainty encouraged by government policy than it does from the price of money. The Fed’s announcement thus had the feel of an attempt to show it is doing something to help the economy, even if it can’t do much. …the economy’s problems aren’t rooted in the supply and price of money. They result from the damage done to business confidence and investment by fiscal and regulatory policy, and that’s where the solutions must come. Investors on Wall Street and politicians in Washington want to believe that the Fed can make up for years of policy mistakes. The sooner they realize it can’t, the sooner they’ll have no choice but to correct the mistakes.

Let’s also take this issue to the next level. Some people are explicitly arguing in favor of more “quantitative easing” because they want some inflation. They argue that “moderate” inflation will help the economy by indirectly wiping out some existing debt.

This is a very dangerous gambit. Letting the inflation genie out of the bottle could trigger 1970s-style stagflation. Paul Volcker fires a warning shot against this risky approach in a New York Times column. Here are the key passages.

…we are beginning to hear murmurings about the possible invigorating effects of “just a little inflation.” Perhaps 4 or 5 percent a year would be just the thing to deal with the overhang of debt and encourage the “animal spirits” of business, or so the argument goes. The siren song is both alluring and predictable. …After all, if 1 or 2 percent inflation is O.K. and has not raised inflationary expectations — as the Fed and most central banks believe — why not 3 or 4 or even more? …all of our economic history says it won’t work that way. I thought we learned that lesson in the 1970s. That’s when the word stagflation was invented to describe a truly ugly combination of rising inflation and stunted growth. …What we know, or should know, from the past is that once inflation becomes anticipated and ingrained — as it eventually would — then the stimulating effects are lost. Once an independent central bank does not simply tolerate a low level of inflation as consistent with “stability,” but invokes inflation as a policy, it becomes very difficult to eliminate. …At a time when foreign countries own trillions of our dollars, when we are dependent on borrowing still more abroad, and when the whole world counts on the dollar’s maintaining its purchasing power, taking on the risks of deliberately promoting inflation would be simply irresponsible.

Last but not least, here is my video on the origin of central banking, which starts with an explanation of how currency evolved in the private sector, then describes how governments then seized that role by creating monopoly central banks, and closes with a list of options to promote good monetary policy.

And I can’t resist including a link to the famous “Ben Bernank” QE2 video that was a viral smash.

Easy Money from the Federal Reserve Is Not the Solution for America’s Economic Problems

Allen Meltzer, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University, writes today in the Wall Street Journal about the Fed’s worrisome announcement that it will continue the easy-money policy of artificially low interest rates.

Professor Meltzer’s key point (at least to me) is that the economy is weak because of too much government intervention and too much federal spending, and you don’t solve those problems with a loose-money policy – especially since banks already are sitting on $1.6 trillion of excess reserves. (Why lend money when the economy is weak and you may not get repaid?)

Meltzer then outlines some of the reforms that would boost growth, all of which are desirable, albeit a bit tame for my tastes:

[T]he United States does not have the kind of problems that printing more money will cure. Banks currently hold more than $1.6 trillion of idle reserves at the Fed. Banks can use those idle reserves to create enormous amounts of money. Interest rates on federal funds remain near zero. Longer-term interest rates on Treasurys are at record lows. What reason can there be for adding more excess reserves? The main effect would be a further devaluation of the dollar against competing currencies and gold, followed by a rise in the price of oil and other imports. …Money growth (M2) reached 10% for the past six months, presaging more inflation ahead.

…What we need most is confidence in our future. That calls for:

  • Reducing corporate tax rates permanently to encourage investment (paid for by closing loopholes).
  • Agreeing on long-term reductions in entitlement spending.
  • A five-year moratorium on new regulations affecting energy, environment, health and finance.
  • An explicit inflation target between zero and 2% to force the Fed to pay more attention to the medium term and to increase public confidence that we will not experience runaway inflation.

The president is wrong to pose the issue as more taxes for millionaires to pay for more redistribution now. That path leads to future crises because higher taxes support the low productivity growth of the welfare state, delay the transition to export-led growth, and do not reduce future budget liabilities enough.

Meltzer’s final point about the futility of class-warfare taxes is very important. He doesn’t use the term, but he’s making a Laffer Curve argument. Simply stated, if punitive tax rates cause investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners to earn/declare less taxable income, then the government won’t collect as much money as predicted by the Joint Committee on Taxation’s simplistic models.

Of course, Obama said in 2008 than he wanted high tax rates for reasons of “fairness,” even if such policies didn’t lead to more tax revenue. That destructive mentality probably helps explain why not only banks, but also other companies, are sitting on cash and afraid to make significant investments.

But if you really want to understand how Obama’s policies are causing “regime uncertainty,” this cartoon is spot on.

End the Fed: More than Just a Bumper Sticker Slogan?

To put it mildly, the Federal Reserve has a dismal track record. It bears significant responsibility for almost every major economic upheaval of the past 100 years, including the Great Depression, the 1970s stagflation, and the recent financial crisis. Perhaps the most damning statistic is that the dollar has lost 95 percent of its value since the central bank was created.

Notwithstanding its poor performance, the Federal Reserve seems to get more power over time. But rather than rewarding the central bank for debasing the currency and causing instability, perhaps it’s time to contemplate alternatives. This new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity dives into that issue, exposing the Fed’s poor track record, explaining how central banking evolved, and mentioning possible alternatives.

This video is the first installment of a multi-part series on monetary policy. Subsequent videos will examine possible alternatives to monopoly central banks, including a gold standard, free banking, and monetary rules to limit the Fed’s discretion.

As they say, stay tuned.

Five Lessons from Ireland

The news is going from bad to worse for Ireland. The Irish Independent is reporting that the Swiss Central Bank no longer will accept Irish government bonds as collateral. The story also notes that one of the world’s largest bond firms, PIMCO, is no longer purchasing debt issued by the Irish government.

And this is happening even though (or perhaps because?) Ireland received a big bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (and the IMF’s involvement means American taxpayers are picking up part of the tab).

I’ve already commented on Ireland’s woes, and opined about similar problems afflicting the rest of Europe, but the continuing deterioration of the Emerald Isle deserves further analysis so that American policy makers hopefully grasp the right lessons. Here are five things we should learn from the mess in Ireland.

1. Bailouts Don’t Work – When Ireland’s government rescued depositors by bailing out the nation’s three big banks, they made a big mistake by also bailing out creditors such as bondholders. This dramatically increased the cost of the bank bailout and exacerbated moral hazard since investors are more willing to make inefficient and risky choices if they think governments will cover their losses. And because it required the government to incur a lot of additional debt, it also had the effect of destabilizing the nation’s finances, which then resulted in a second mistake – the bailout of Ireland by the European Union and IMF (a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which occurs when one bad government policy leads to another bad government policy).

American policy makers already have implemented one of the two mistakes mentioned above. The TARP bailout went way beyond protecting depositors and instead gave unnecessary handouts to wealthy and sophisticated companies, executives, and investors. But something good may happen if we learn from the second mistake. Greedy politicians from states such as California and Illinois would welcome a bailout from Uncle Sam, but this would be just as misguided as the EU/IMF bailout of Ireland. The Obama Administration already provided an indirect short-run bailout as part of the so-called stimulus legislation, and this encouraged states to dig themselves deeper in a fiscal hole. Uncle Sam shouldn’t be subsidizing bad policy at the state level, and the mess in Europe is a powerful argument that this counter-productive approach should be stopped as soon as possible.

By the way, it’s worth noting that politicians and international bureaucracies behave as if government defaults would have catastrophic consequences, but Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute explains that there have been more than 200 sovereign defaults in the past 200 years and we somehow avoided Armageddon.

2. Excessive Government Spending Is a Path to Fiscal Ruin – The bailout of the banks obviously played a big role in causing Ireland’s fiscal collapse, but the government probably could have weathered that storm if politicians in Dublin hadn’t engaged in a 20-year spending spree.

The red line in the chart shows the explosive growth of government spending. Irish politicians got away with this behavior for a long time. Indeed, government spending as a share of GDP (the blue line) actually fell during the 1990s because the private sector was growing even faster than the public sector. This bit of good news (at least relatively speaking) stopped about 10 years ago. Politicians began to increase government spending at roughly the same rate as the private sector was expanding. While this was misguided, tax revenues were booming (in part because of genuine growth and in part because of the bubble) and it seemed like bigger government was a free lunch.

Eventually, however, the house of cards collapsed. Revenues dried up and the banks failed, but because the politicians had spent so much during the good times, there was no reserve during the bad times.

American politicians are repeating these mistakes. Spending has skyrocketed during the Bush-Obama year. We also had our version of a financial system bailout, though fortunately not as large as Ireland’s when measured as a share of economic output, so our crisis is likely to occur when the baby boom generation has retired and the time comes to make good on the empty promises to fund Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

3. Low Corporate Tax Rates Are Good, but They Don’t Guarantee Economic Success if other Policies Are Bad – Ireland used to be a success story. They went from being the “Sick Man of Europe” in the early 1980s to being the “Celtic Tiger” earlier this century in large part because policy makers dramatically reformed fiscal policy. Government spending was capped in the late 1980 and tax rates were reduced during the 1990s. The reform of the corporate income tax was especially dramatic. Irish lawmakers reduced the tax rate from 50 percent all the way down to 12.5 percent.

This policy was enormously successful in attracting new investment, and Ireland’s government actually wound up collecting more corporate tax revenue at the lower rate. This was remarkable since it is only in very rare cases that the Laffer Curve means a tax cut generates more revenue for government (in the vast majority of cases, the Laffer Curve simply means that changes in taxable income will have revenue effects that offset only a portion of the revenue effects caused by the change in tax rates).

Unfortunately, good corporate tax policy does not guarantee good economic performance if the government is making a lot of mistakes in other areas. This is an apt description of what happened to Ireland. The silver lining to this sad story is that Irish politicians have resisted pressure from France and Germany and are keeping the corporate tax rate at 12.5 percent. The lesson for American policy makers, of course, is that low corporate tax rates are a very good idea, but don’t assume they protect the economy from other policy mistakes.

4. Artificially Low Interest Rates Encourage Bubbles – No discussion of Ireland’s economic problems would be complete without looking at the decision to join the common European currency. Adopting the euro had some advantages, such as not having to worry about changing money when traveling to many other European nations. But being part of Europe’s monetary union also meant that Ireland did not have flexible interest rates.

Normally, an economic boom drives up interest rates because the plethora of profitable opportunities leads investors demand more credit. But Ireland’s interest rates, for all intents and purposes, were governed by what was happening elsewhere in Europe, where growth was generally anemic. The resulting artificially low interest rates in Ireland helped cause a bubble, much as artificially low interest rates in America last decade led to a bubble.

But if America already had a bubble, what lesson can we learn from Ireland? The simple answer is that we should learn to avoid making the same mistake over and over again. Easy money is a recipe for inflation and/or bubbles. Simply stated, excess money has to go someplace and the long-run results are never pleasant. Yet Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve have launched QE2, a policy explicitly designed to lower interest rates in hopes of artificially juicing the economy.

5. Housing Subsidies Reduce Prosperity – Last but not least, Ireland’s bubble was worsened in part because politicians created an extensive system of preferences that tilted the playing field in the direction of real estate. The combination of these subsidies and the artificially low interest rates caused widespread malinvestment and Ireland is paying the price today.

Since we just endured a financial crisis caused in large part by a corrupt system of housing subsidies for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, American policy makers should have learned this lesson already. But as Thomas Sowell sagely observes, politicians are still fixated on somehow re-inflating the housing bubble. The lesson they should have learned is that markets should determine value, not politics.

Will the Federal Reserve’s Easy-Money Policy Turn the United States into a Global Laughingstock?

Early in the Obama Administration, there was an amusing/embarrassing incident when Chinese students laughed at Treasury Secretary Geithner when he claimed the United States had a strong-dollar policy.

I suspect that even Geithner would be smart enough to avoid such a claim today, not after the Fed’s announcement (with the full support of the White House and Treasury) that it would flood the economy with $600 billion of hot money. Here’s what my colleague Alan Reynolds wrote in the Wall Street Journal about Bernanke’s policy.

Mr. Bernanke…believes (contrary to our past experience with stagflation) that inflation is no danger thanks to economic slack (high unemployment). He reasons that if people can nonetheless be persuaded to expect higher inflation, regardless of the slack, that means interest rates will appear even lower in real terms. If that worked as planned, lower real interest rates would supposedly fix our hangover from the last Fed-financed borrowing binge by encouraging more borrowing. This whole scheme raises nagging questions. Why would domestic investors accept a lower yield on bonds if they expect higher inflation? And why would foreign investors accept a lower yield on U.S. bonds if they expect exchange rate losses on dollar-denominated securities? Why wouldn’t intelligent people shift their investments toward commodities or related stocks (such as mining and related machinery) and either shun, or sell short, long-term Treasurys? And if they did that, how could it possibly help the economy?

The rest of the world seems to share these concerns. The Germans are not big fans of America’s binge of borrowing and easy money. Here’s what Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble had to say in a recent interview.

The American growth model, on the other hand, is in a deep crisis. The United States lived on borrowed money for too long, inflating its financial sector unnecessarily and neglecting its small and mid-sized industrial companies. …I seriously doubt that it makes sense to pump unlimited amounts of money into the markets. There is no lack of liquidity in the US economy, which is why I don’t recognize the economic argument behind this measure. …The Fed’s decisions bring more uncertainty to the global economy. …It’s inconsistent for the Americans to accuse the Chinese of manipulating exchange rates and then to artificially depress the dollar exchange rate by printing money.

The comment about borrowed money has a bit of hypocrisy since German government debt is not much lower than it is in the United States, but the Finance Minister surely is correct about monetary policy. And speaking of China, we now have the odd situation of a Chinese rating agency downgrading U.S. government debt.

The United States has lost its double-A credit rating with Dagong Global Credit Rating Co., Ltd., the first domestic rating agency in China, due to its new round of quantitative easing policy. Dagong Global on Tuesday downgraded the local and foreign currency long-term sovereign credit rating of the US by one level to A+ from previous AA with “negative” outlook.

This development shold be taken with a giant grain of salt, as explained by a Wall Street Journal blogger. Nonetheless, the fact that the China-based agency thought this was a smart tactic must say something about how the rest of the world is beginning to perceive America.

Simply stated, Obama is following Jimmy Carter-style economic policy, so nobody should be surprised if the result is 1970s-style stagflation.

Show Me the Money

A number of economists have been warning about the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policy, but defenders of the central bank often ask, “if there’s an easy money policy, why isn’t that showing up in the form of higher prices?” Thomas Sowell has an answer to this question, explaining that people and businesses are sitting on cash because anti-business policies have dampened economic activity.

Not only has all the runaway spending and rapid escalation of the deficit to record levels failed to make any real headway in reducing unemployment, all this money pumped into the economy has also failed to produce inflation. The latter is a good thing in itself but its implications are sobering. How can you pour trillions of dollars into the economy and not even see the price level go up significantly? Economists have long known that it is not just the amount of money, but also the speed with which it circulates, that affects the price level. Last year the Wall Street Journal reported that the velocity of circulation of money in the American economy has plummeted to its lowest level in half a century. Money that people don’t spend does not cause inflation. It also does not stimulate the economy. …Banks have cut back on lending, despite all the billions of dollars that were dumped into them in the name of “stimulus.” Consumers have also cut back on spending. For the first time, more gold is being bought as an investment to be held as a hedge against a currently non-existent inflation than is being bought by the makers of jewelry. There may not be any inflation now, but eventually that money is going to start moving, and so will the price level.

I do my best to avoid monetary policy issues and certainly am not an expert on the subject, so I asked a few people for their thoughts and was told that perhaps the strongest evidence for Sowell’s hypothesis comes from the Federal Reserve’s data on “Aggregate Reserves of Depository Institutions” - specifically the figures on excess reserves. This is the money that banks keep at the Federal Reserve voluntarily because they don’t have any better options. As you can see from the chart, excess reserves shot up during the financial crisis. But what’s important is that they did not come back down afterwards. Some people refer to this as “money on the sidelines” and Sowell clearly is worried that it will have an impact on the price level if banks start circulating it. That doesn’t sound like good news. On the other hand, it’s not exactly good news that banks are holding money at the Fed because there are not enough profitable opportunities.

What this really tells us is that the combination of easy money and big government isn’t working any better today than it did in the 1970s.