Tag: financial crisis

Johan Norberg on Bubbles Yet to Come

Cato senior fellow Johan Norberg, author of In Defense of Global Capitalism and Financial Fiasco, has the cover story in this week’s issue of The Spectator, the eminent 182-year-old British weekly. Titled “The great debt bubble of 2011,” it warns that governments are repeating their mistakes of the past decade:

There is a broad consensus that the financial crisis of 2007 was at least in part a result of record-low interest rates, huge deficits and large-scale credit-financed consumption. Today, governments across the world are trying to solve the crisis — by means of record-low interest rates, huge deficits and large-scale credit-financed consumption. This time, they are also using more novel means of creating easy money: bank bailouts, stimulus packages and quantitative easing.

After discussing the soaring debt burdens of European countries, Norberg writes:

At this point, it is traditional to say: thank God for those roaring economics in East Asia, India and Brazil. But how real is their remarkable growth? Look closely, and even this may be in part a result of artificial stimulus. India’s and Brazil’s growth is financed by short-term capital from abroad: money that could disappear overnight. Easy money always ends up somewhere. The last time it was in property, this time it is in emerging markets (and often in the property markets of emerging markets)….

Aside from the foreign capital inflows, China had its own stimulus package, as big as America’s. Beijing has printed yuan and pushed banks and local governments to spend like drunken Keynesians. Absurdly, China’s money supply is now larger than America’s, even though its economy is a third of the size. We can see the results of this stimulus in stock market prices and in new roads, bridges and housing complexes all over the country.

Happy New Year! And watch for more on incipient bubbles in the January-February issue of Cato Policy Report.

Advocates Complain Banks Not Putting FHA at Enough Risk

A constant narrative of the financial crisis is that banks out-smarted the government by taking excessive risks, and that if only we had empowered regulators, the whole crisis would have been avoided.  The truth, however, is that government was often the driver of excessive risk-taking, and nowhere is that more true than in the mortgage market.

One of the worst offenders has been the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).  Even today, one can get an FHA backed loan with only a 3.5% downpayment.  After the financing of seller concessions, the borrower can leave the closing table with zero, or even negative, equity.  FHA will even offer these low equity loans to subprime borrowers, those with the worst credit history.  If there’s anything to be learned from the financial crisis, combining high risk borrowers with low downpayment loans is asking for default.

Despite FHA’s loose standards, several lenders have responsibly chosen to impose higher underwriting standards than FHA.  Sadly instead of being praised for being slightly more responsible than FHA, these lenders are being attacked by so-called consumer advocates for not taking enough risk.

The Washington Post reports that a coalition of advocates is planning to file complaints against lenders who have higher standards than FHA, claiming that higher standards discriminate against minorities, since minorities on average have lower credit scores.  It seems some have learned nothing, continuing to push the very same policies that contributed to the crisis.  If anything, FHA should start moving in the direction of the more responsible lenders and improve its woefully weak underwriting standards.  Congress should also move in the direction of requiring meaningful downpayments on FHA loans, as well as shifting some of the credit risk back to the lender.

On Happiness

The financial crisis and global warming have reinforced an age-old criticism of our traditional ways of measuring wealth, and a number of alternative indexes have been proposed that would instead measure people’s well-being and environmental sustainability.

There are problems with using GDP. It involves an incredible amount of guesswork; and even if it were perfect, it would be bizarre to use production of goods and services as the only yardstick to evaluate our societies. But finding problems is one thing; it is something completely different to find an alternative that is better. Any sort of well-being index would require agreement on what well-being is, and there is a risk that governments would be tempted to find a one-size-fits-all standard and try to make us all wear it.

In a new paper I examine some of the proposed alternatives and they all beg the question about well-being by defining it as the result of the particular kinds of policies that they happen to prefer. Bhutan’s famous National Happiness Index, for example, defines it partly as a strong, traditional culture, and has used it to oppress minorities. And the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, created by French president Nicolas Sarkozy and led by economist Joseph Stiglitz, selectively chooses measures to show that France is richer in relation to the United States than it would otherwise be.

The advantage of GDP is precisely what it has often been criticized for – that it is a narrow and value-free measure. It does not even try to define well-being, and so fits liberal, pluralistic societies in which people have different interests, preferences and attitudes toward well-being. It tells us what we can do, but not what we should do; and since it measures what we can do, it also correlates with most of the things most people want from life: better health, longer lives, less poverty and even happiness. The latest research shows not only that people in rich countries are happier but also that countries grow happier as they become richer.

Read the paper here. Read Will Wilkinson’s Policy Analysis on happiness research here.

Don’t Blame Ireland’s Mess on Low Corporate Tax Rates

Ireland is in deep fiscal trouble and the Germans and the French apparently want the politicians in Dublin to increase the nation’s 12.5 percent corporate tax rate as the price for being bailed out. This is almost certainly the cause of considerable smugness and joy in Europe’s high-tax nations, many of which have been very resentful of Ireland for enjoying so much prosperity in recent decades in part because of a low corporate tax burden.

But is there any reason to think Ireland’s competitive corporate tax regime is responsible for the nation’s economic crisis? The answer, not surprisingly, is no. Here’s a chart from one of Ireland’s top economists, looking at taxes and spending for past 27 years. You can see that revenues grew rapidly, especially beginning in the 1990s as the lower tax rates were implemented. The problem is that politicians spent every penny of this revenue windfall.

When the financial crisis hit a couple of years ago, tax revenues suddenly plummeted. Unfortunately, politicians continued to spend like drunken sailors. It’s only in the last year that they finally stepped on the brakes and began to rein in the burden of government spending. But that may be a case of too little, too late.

The second chart provides additional detail. Interestingly, the burden of government spending actually fell as a share of GDP between 1983 and 2000. This is not because government spending was falling, but rather 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.

But big government is never a free lunch. Government spending diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy. This is now painfully apparent since there no longer is a revenue windfall to mask the damage.

There are lots of lessons to learn from Ireland’s fiscal/economic/financial crisis. There was too much government spending. Ireland also had a major housing bubble. And some people say that adopting the euro (the common currency of many European nations) helped create the current mess.

The one thing we can definitely say, though, is that lower tax rates did not cause Ireland’s problems. It’s also safe to say that higher tax rates will delay Ireland’s recovery. French and German politicians may think that’s a good idea, but hopefully Irish lawmakers have a better perspective.

What Gets You Most Upset about the TARP Bailout, the Lying, the Corruption, or the Economic Damage?

As an economist, I should probably be most agitated about the economic consequences of TARP, such as moral hazard and capital malinvestment. But when I read stories about how political insiders (both in government and on Wall Street) manipulate the system for personal advantage, I get even more upset.

Yes, TARP was economically misguided. But the bailout also was fundamentally corrupt, featuring special favors for the well-heeled. I don’t like it when lower-income people use the political system to take money from upper-income people, but it is downright nauseating and disgusting when upper-income people use the coercive power of government to steal money from lower-income people.

Now, to add insult to injury, we’re being fed an unsavory gruel of deception as the political class tries to cover its tracks. Here’s a story from Bloomberg about the Treasury Department’s refusal to obey the law and comply with a FOIA request. A Bloomberg reporter wanted to know about an insider deal to put taxpayers on the line to guarantee a bunch of Citigroup-held securities, but the government thinks that people don’t have a right to know how their money is being funneled to politically-powerful and well-connected insiders.

The late Bloomberg News reporter Mark Pittman asked the U.S. Treasury in January 2009 to identify $301 billion of securities owned by Citigroup Inc. that the government had agreed to guarantee. He made the request on the grounds that taxpayers ought to know how their money was being used. More than 20 months later, after saying at least five times that a response was imminent, Treasury officials responded with 560 pages of printed-out e-mails – none of which Pittman requested. They were so heavily redacted that most of what’s left are everyday messages such as “Did you just try to call me?” and “Monday will be a busy day!” None of the documents answers Pittman’s request for “records sufficient to show the names of the relevant securities” or the dates and terms of the guarantees.

Here’s another reprehensible example. The Treasury Department, for all intents and purposes, prevaricated when it recently claimed that the AIG bailout would cost “only” $5 billion. This has triggered some pushback from Capitol Hill GOPers, as reported by the New York Times, but it is highly unlikely that anyone will suffer any consequences for this deception. To paraphrase Glenn Reynolds, “laws, honesty, and integrity, like taxes, are for the little people.”

The United States Treasury concealed $40 billion in likely taxpayer losses on the bailout of the American International Group earlier this month, when it abandoned its usual method for valuing investments, according to a report by the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. …“The American people have a right for full and complete disclosure about their investment in A.I.G.,” Mr. Barofsky said, “and the U.S. government has an obligation, when they’re describing potential losses, to give complete information.” …“If a private company filed information with the government that was just as misleading and disingenuous as what Treasury has done here, you’d better believe there would be calls for an investigation from the S.E.C. and others,” said Representative Darrell Issa, the senior Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He called the Treasury’s October report on A.I.G. “blatant manipulation.” Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said he thought “administration officials are trying so hard to put a positive spin on program losses that they played fast and loose with the numbers.” He said it reminded him of “misleading” claims that General Motors had paid back its rescue loans with interest ahead of schedule.

P.S. Allow me to preempt some emails from people who will argue that TARP was a necessary evil. Even for those who think the financial system had to be recapitalized, there was no need to bail out specific companies. The government could have taken the approach used during the S&L bailout about 20 years ago, which was to shut down the insolvent institutions. Depositors were bailed out, often by using taxpayer money to bribe a solvent institution to take over the failed savings & loan, but management and shareholders were wiped out, thus  preventing at least one form of moral hazard.

President Klaus: The IMF Is a ‘Barbaric Relic’

President Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic has just given an important speech in Prague on Central and Eastern Europe and on the IMF. Among other lessons of the global financial crisis he points to the growing menace of the IMF:

I consider the IMF a barbaric relic from the Keynesian and fixed-exchange rate era. I know it is a harsh verdict but Keynes himself repeatedly used similar strong statements about his colleagues which justifies my using such a terminology.  

I am convinced the IMF should be dismantled or radically restructured as soon as possible. To do the opposite, to increase its role as it happened as a result of the last year’s G20 decision in the middle of the panic connected with the then looming crisis or to speculate about creating similar institutions on individual continents (especially in Europe) is a wrong way to go. It is yet another manifestation of a mistaken and dangerous global governance mindset which – to my great regret – has been getting more and more support in the intellectual and political circles these days. To whom and how at all can the IMF be held responsible for its activities? And if its proposals or measures turn out to be mistaken (and this can happen very easily), who will face the consequences? Certainly not the IMF. (emphasis in original)

The Fraud From Basel

Despite every major US bank being declared by regulators as “well capitalized” prior to the financial crisis, we still found ourselves watching the government plow hundreds of billions of capital into said banks.  How can this be?  The answer is quite simple:  we were lied to.  Maybe that’s a little harsh, after all these banks did meet the regulatory definition of “well capitalized”.  But when push came to shove, market participants rightly ignored regulatory capital.  After all you cannot use things like “deferred tax losses” to pay your bills with.

It is hard to improve upon Martin Wolf’s observation in today’s Financial Times:  “This amount of equity is far below levels markets would impose if investors did not continue to expect governments to bail out creditors in a crisis.”  This point is best illustrated by the trend in bank capital over the last 100 years.  Back when banks were actually subject to market forces and were not explicitly subjected to government capital standards, they held significantly more capital.   In 1900 the average US bank capital ratio was close to 25%, now it’s closer to 5%.  The trend is unmistakable:  the more government has regulated bank capital, the less capital banks have ended up holding.

Despite the claims of the banking industry, what the bank regulators have just delivered with “Basel III” is simply another fraud upon the public and investors.  Any framework that continues to treat say Greek or Fannie Mae debt as largely risk-free is a sham.

The real solution is to first end the various government bailouts, guarantees and subsidies behind the banking system, subjecting bank creditors to actual losses, while also abandoning the charade that is capital regulation.   Sadly politicians (see the Dodd-Frank Act) and regulators continue to simply tweak a flawed and morally bankrupt system.