Tag: financial markets

Inflation Warning

In the last few days, we have witnessed an almost unprecedented chorus of warnings about inflation prospects by senior Fed officials. Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher said the Fed must be prepared to tighten monetary policy by raising short-term interest rates with “alacrity.” President Charles Plosser of Philadelphia had spoken of the need to raise interest rates before unemployment returns to normal in order “to prevent the Second Great Inflation.” The comments of the two Reserve Bank presidents reinforce those made by Fed Governor Kevin Warsh.

Financial markets are confused because the Fed’s policy-making committee (the Federal Open Market Committee) had just indicated its intention to keep interest rates low for an extended period. The inflation warnings represent an internal debate that has gone public. Formal dissents from the FOMCs policy directive have reportedly been discouraged. So Fed officials are in effect offering up virtual dissents in public speeches. Confidence in Chairman Bernanke’s policy is waning.

Most economic forecasters profess to see little inflation risk. They need to reconsider their forecasts in light of the inflation warnings from within the central bank.

Obama’s Broken Toaster

APTOPIX ObamaRecently on Leno, President Obama compared some financial products to an exploding toaster. His words:

When you buy a toaster, if it explodes in your face there’s a law that says your toasters need to be safe. But when you get a credit card, or you get a mortgage, there’s no law on the books that says if that explodes in your face financially, somehow you’re going to be protected.

So this is – the need for getting back to some common sense regulations – there’s nothing wrong with innovation in the financial markets. We want people to be successful; we want people to be able to make a profit. Banks are critical to our economy and we want credit to flow again. But we just want to make sure that there’s enough regulatory common sense in place that ordinary Americans aren’t taken advantage of, and taxpayers, after the fact, aren’t taken advantage of.

While I think we would all like to get to “common sense” regulation – arriving at such is unlikely if one’s understanding of the very problem is flawed, as seems to be the president’s.

Unlike broken toasters, mortgages and credit cards do not fail to pay themselves – borrowers fail to pay, almost always for a reason that has little to do with the characteristics of the loan itself. There is a wealth of empirical data documenting the causes of bankruptcy, mortgage and credit card default – much of which has been assembled by those on the left (take a look at any of Professor Elizabeth Warren’s work on bankruptcy). The fact is that the number one cause of all of these events is job loss. If the president has a plan for a mortgage that protects you from losing your job, I would love to see how that’s going to work. After job loss, comes unexpected health bills and divorce.

My hope had been that Obama’s talk about broken toasters was just a little pandering and could be safely ignored. However, judging from the structure of his foreclosure relief plan, he appears to believe that if we just lower the borrower’s rate, all would be saved. The sad truth is that his foreclosure plan does nothing for those really in need – who have lost their job for instance – they are simply out of luck. But then helping people who have lost their job would undermine the argument that it is all the fault of the product.

Bank Stress Tests: Full of Sound and Fury…

Even with the stress tests completed, the Obama Administration lacks an exit strategy for its deepening involvement in supporting these banks.

What the administration needs to do is give the American people a road map for getting out of the business of owning banks. However, instead of a roadmap, the Administration keeps digging more potholes. Secretary Geithner’s recent remarks, in which he suggested imposing additional requirements before letting banks repay their TARP obligations, raise serious questions regarding the administration’s desire to actually exit the current situation. Treasury should reconsider its position and not only allow banks to repay, but encourage them to do so. The quicker we get these institutions out from under the government, the quicker our financial markets will get moving again.

As the witching hour of 5 pm on the East Coast approaches, when the Treasury will release both aggregate and individual stress test results, the overwhelming feeling in Washington and on Wall Street is one of closure: finally the circus can come to an end. In terms of the actual results, details of which have been leaking for days, the stress tests come close to telling us absolutely nothing we did not already know.

One purpose of the stress tests was to determine if the 19 bank holding companies could withstand “higher losses than generally expected.” However, what started out as extreme economic projections are beginning to look like the consensus forecast. For instance, the stress tests assume a base case level of unemployment of 8.9 percent for 2010, and an extreme “stress” level case of 10.3 percent for 2010. There’s a good chance that we’ll reach that extreme; what the new extreme is, one can only guess, but what we do know is that the banks have not been tested for it.

While the aggregate results have yet to be released, it is a good bet that they will fall somewhere within the range of exactly just how much TARP funds Treasury has left. We can expect Treasury to announce capital shortfalls of just over $100 billion, while the real shortfalls are likely to be in excess of $200 billion. Treasury is understandably reluctant to go back to Congress for additional TARP funds, so it will likely do its best to stretch its existing resources.

One way of stretching those resources is converting preferred equity holdings into common stock. How this is to be done, and what kind of voting rights Treasury will have is yet to be seen. As Treasury has repeatedly said it will not let any of these banks fail, shifting the government’s holding from preferred to common equity is little more than an accounting game that fails to address the underlying economic realities at many of these institutions.

All-Star Lineup in New York

Cato is planning a seminar in New York on April 30 with an all-star lineup of speakers: Nat Hentoff, our new senior fellow and perhaps the leading First Amendment advocate of the past generation. Top climate scientist Pat Michaels. Peter Schiff, the financial guru who spent 2006 and 2007 failing to persuade people that the U.S. housing and financial markets were on the verge of collapse. And Freeman Dyson, one of the world’s top scientists and the subject of a recent New York Times Magazine profile for his “heretical” views on global warming. Check out the program:

  • 11:05–11:35 a.m. Nat Hentoff —Keynote Address: An Endangered Native Species: The First Amendment
  • 11:35–11:55 a.m. Pat MichaelsClimate of Extremes: Global Warming Science They Don’t Want You to Know
  • 11:55 a.m.–12:15 p.m. Peter SchiffEconomic Crisis: A Government Failure
  • 12:30–2:00 p.m. Freeman Dyson —Luncheon Address: Climate Disaster, Safe Nukes, and Other Myths

Register for the event here ($100 per person).

Topics:

The Chinese Currency Issue Is No Longer

In its first statutory, semi-annual report on foreign currency practices, the Obama Treasury Department refrained from designating China a “currency manipulator,” further affirming the view that an aggressive, sticks-only approach to the bilateral trade relationship advocated (mostly) by campaigning politicians is simply untenable. After serving more than 5 years as a great source of bilateral trade tension, the Chinese currency issue is dead.

Senator Obama and presidential candidate Obama both talked tough about Chinese currency practices, identifying an undervalued yuan as a source of unfairness to U.S. producers and an important cause of the bilateral trade imbalance. Treasury Secretary-designate Geithner, during his confirmation hearing in January, reiterated President Obama’s commitment to dealing with the issue before the Senate Finance Committee:

President Obama - backed by the conclusions of a broad range of economists – believes that China is manipulating its currency. President Obama has pledged as President to use aggressively all the diplomatic avenues open to him to seek change in China’s currency practices. While in the U.S. Senate he cosponsored tough legislation to overhaul the U.S. process for determining currency manipulation and authorizing new enforcement measures so countries like China cannot continue to get a free pass for undermining fair trade principles.

Those who relied on hyped-up media accounts of Geithner’s testimony, which generally homed in on the terms “aggressively,” “tough,” and “enforcement” in the above passage to imply that Obama would take action against China on this matter, are probably utterly surprised that Treasury balked yesterday. But those who read the rest of Geithner’s response to the question may have noticed this broad canvas for inaction:

The question is how and when to broach the subject in order to do more good than harm. The new economic team will forge an integrated strategy on how best to achieve currency realignment in the current economic environment.

Those last two sentences of Geithner’s response contained the answer—nearly three months beforehand—to the question of whether Treasury would label China a manipulator. And, taken in its entirety, the response is a perfect summation of the distinctions between criticizing policy as a challenger and being responsible for policy as the guy in charge. You can talk tough as a challenger because you don’t have to account for the consequences of your actions. But when you are responsible for the consequences of potentially incendiary policy changes, circumspection is a rediscovered virtue.

As President Obama knows by now, the consequences of simply labeling China a “currency manipulator” (let alone attempting to do something remedial about it) would undermine broader U.S.-China relations, invite recriminations, inspire potentially adverse policy changes in China, and would inject heaps of uncertainty into global currency and financial markets. Besides, as yesterday’s Treasury report concludes, the yuan continues to appreciate against the dollar, the government’s accumulation of foreign reserves has decelerated, and policies are in place to encourage greater domestic consumption in China and to reduce the economy’s reliance on exports.

I remain hopeful that this distinction between Obama the president and Obama the candidate will become and remain evident in U.S. trade policy more broadly.

The Joys of Global Gridlock

The G-20 Summit in London on April 2 will feature politicians from around the world jockeying to promote bad ideas. Thankfully, there is a silver lining to this dark cloud since the United States and Europe do not agree on which bad idea deserves the most prominence. As the Wall Street Journal explains, the United States wants more nations to squander money of Keynesian-style schemes (see here to understand why bigger government is not stimulus). The Europeans, meanwhile, want to persecute tax havens and give the Keystone Cops at the IMF more money:

The U.S. will press world leaders to boost emergency government spending to lift the global economy, risking a rift with European nations more concerned with revamping financial regulation. In President Barack Obama’s first foray into economic diplomacy, Washington will urge the shift at a summit next month in London, U.S. officials say, as markets look for a unified plan of action from the world’s most economically powerful nations. Washington’s focus is at odds with France, Germany and other European nations that want the Group of 20 summit on April 2 to focus on rewriting rules governing financial markets. … U.S. officials, who could receive support from China and other countries with big stimulus programs, contend additional government spending is needed to reduce the depth and length of the downturn. Britain also may have an easier time seeing eye-to-eye with the U.S. than other European countries because both London and Washington are concerned that tighter financial regulation could harm their financial centers. Administration officials also say the G-20 isn’t ready to put new regulations in place, so focusing in that area would be counterproductive. … Even if the U.S. gets its way, the G-20 won’t ignore financial regulation. The G-20 has approved the concept of regulating the world’s largest financial institutions through international “colleges” of regulators.

The International Herald Tribune has more details on the misguided European proposals. At no point, though, is there any explanation of why the global economy would benefit from a bigger and more powerful IMF. The IMF certainly did not correctly predict the current financial turmoil. Nor has the IMF either correctly identified the government policy mistakes that caused the crisis or proposed policies that would help resuscitate the global economy. So why reward the bureaucrats with more money and power? The attack against tax havens is even more dubious. Desperate politicians like Gordon Brown are seeking scapegoats to distract voters, but it is unclear why tax havens should be blamed for asset bubbles caused by weak monetary policy and housing subsidies in “onshore” nations:

European finance ministers intend to push for a doubling of resources for the International Monetary fund to $500 billion, and to back the use of sweeping new sanctions against tax havens, according to a draft document. Confronted by a deepening global economic crisis, the top financial officials in the 27 European Union member countries are expected to agree in principle Tuesday to provide additional temporary funding for the IMF if necessary, and to support significant tightening of financial regulation. At a meeting in Brussels, the EU finance ministers are due to endorse a draft document, already approved by senior officials from national capitals, that will align the positions of European governments before the meeting of the heads of the Group of 20 developing and emerging economies in London next month. “It is essential,” the document says, “that the IMF has the appropriate financial means to assist countries particularly affected by the current crisis. EU member states support a doubling of IMF resources and are ready to contribute to a temporary increase if needed.” … The draft document…calls for the definition of a set of criteria by which to judge those that do not comply with international standards. “A tool box of sanctions” would be used to deal with such tax havens, the draft adds. These would include “the capacity to prohibit sales of financial products generated in these jurisdictions and the capacity to restrict companies’ operations into and from these jurisdictions.”

Gridlock generally is a good thing in Washington. If Republicans and Democrats are fighting, it slows the pace of legislation – which almost always protects liberty and prosperity. On the international level, where politicians scheme to set up cartels for the benefit of governments, gridlock is even more desirable.