Tag: Great Depression

Ben Bernanke: Central Planner

There’s a great piece in the spring issue of The Independent Review on Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke by San Jose State Professor Jeffrey Rogers Hummel.  Although a bit long, its well worth the read for anyone wanting to understand both Bernanke’s thinking and his actions during and since the financial crisis.

First, Prof. Hummel discusses the differences between Bernanke’s and Milton Friedman’s explanations for the Great Depression.  Those that debate whether Bernanke’s actions, especially the quantitative easings, would be approved of by Friedman will get a lot out of this discussion.  From this comparison, you get the point that Friedman was concerned about overall credit conditions and liquidity, whereas Bernanke is less focused on the monetary factors than on the impairment of credit intermediation, which explains his support of selective bailouts.

Hummel’s comparison of Greenspan and Bernanke is also insightful, particularly since many (myself included) often lump the two’s policies together.  From the analysis, it is clear that Greenspan falls into the Friedman camp, his “rescues” were of the financial system in general, and not of specific firms.

One might say a bailout is a bailout, so what’s the difference between rescuing the system and rescuing individual firms within the system?  Certainly that’s a view I have some sympathy for.  The “Greenspan put” was as much a contributor to reckless risk-taking as anything else.  Hummel, however, discuses why this difference ultimately matters, and why it shows Bernanke to fit the role of economic central planner.  In short, the facts are presented that during the financial crisis, Bernanke did not actually increase overall liquidity by much, he re-directed it to those firms he deemed most important.  This process of reducing liquidity to some sectors while re-directing it to others, arguably less efficient sectors, goes a considerable distance in explaining some of the decline in both aggregate demand and consumption in 2008.

Again, the piece is one of the more accessible and insightful I’ve read on Bernanke in quite a while.

Celebrating ‘World Trade Week’ by Remembering Smoot-Hawley

Carrying on an annual tradition dating back to President Franklin Roosevelt, President Obama issued a proclamation on Friday declaring this third week in May “World Trade Week.”

Of course, every week is world trade week at the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies, but in order to do our part as good citizens, we’ve organized a book forum this Tuesday, May 17, at 4 p.m. on a new book by Dartmouth College economist Douglas Irwin, titled, Peddling Protectionism: Smoot-Hawley and the Great Depression.

The Smoot-Hawley tariff bill is a fitting subject for any World Trade Week. As we note in the invitation:

More than 80 years after its passage, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 still resonates in today’s debate over trade policy. Advocates of trade blame the law for deepening the Great Depression and warn of the economic damage from a reversion to protectionism. Skeptics of trade say its impact has been exaggerated. Economist and historian Douglas Irwin tells the messy and, at times, amusing story of how Congress dramatically raised tariffs in 1930 just as the world was plunging into depression, and analyzes the economic consequences of the most infamous trade bill ever enacted by Congress. Irwin then draws important lessons that can help today’s trade policymakers avoid the costly mistakes of the past.

Professor Irwin will talk about his book and answer questions about this turning point in U.S. trade history. There is still time to sign up here to attend the event in person at Cato’s F.A. Hayek Auditorium, or you can watch the live video feed online here.

Banks Are Lending, but to Whom?

A recurring concern we have heard since the financial crisis erupted is that banks are simply not lending, and that this is holding back economic activity.  If only banks would lend, the economy would grow.  As usual, the truth is a little more complex. 

Unlike in the Great Depression, and despite about 300 bank failures, the balance sheets and deposits of insured commercial banks and thrifts has been steady, if slowly, expanding throughout the financial crisis and recess.  Banks have continued lending during this time; however, they have changed who they are lending to.  Over the last two years we have witnessed a massive shift from lending to the private sector to lending to the public.

The chart below shows banking business lending and bank holdings of U.S. government securities.   The chart suggests that the approximately $500 billion increase in bank lending to Uncle Sam came at the expense of a $400 billion decline in lending to private business.  If one assumes that bank balance sheets have either been stable or increased slightly, then a loan to the government must off-set a loan otherwise made somewhere else.

While its hard to exactly measure the job impact of this reduced business lending, some estimates have been made on the impact of SBA lending.  According to one study, every $41,600 in new small business loans is associated with 1 new job created.   While this number should be taken with a grain of salt, it implies that the $400 billion reduction in business lending has cost over 9 million jobs.  Of course, one might argue that the half-trillion in lending to the govt has created or “saved” some jobs.  Accepting the difficulty of coming up with a reliable estimate, I think its fair to say that on net a few million jobs have been lost due to this shift of lending from the private to the public sector.

Also of interest is that since the financial crisis, and despite the failures of Fannie and Freddie, commercial banks and thrifts have increased their holdings of Fannie/Freddie/Ginnie securities by over $300 billion.

Textbook economics usually teaches that government crowding out of private investment only really occurs when we are near full-employment.  Yet looking at the balance sheets of our commercial banks and thrifts, would suggest that U.S. Treasuries and Agency securities have crowded out significant lending that would otherwise go to the private sector.   But this should come as no surprise, since banks can borrow for close to zero and invest risk-free in government debt, earning a nice spread of 3 to 4 percentage points.

Cutting Government Spending in a Recession

One of the topics Chris Edwards will be discussing with Glenn Beck this evening (5:00 EST, Fox) is the “Not-So-Great Depression” of 1920-21.

Cato Senior Fellow Jim Powell notes that President Warren G. Harding inherited from his predecessor Woodrow Wilson “a post–World War I depression that was almost as severe, from peak to trough, as the Great Contraction from 1929 to 1933 that FDR would later inherit.”

However, instead of calling for bigger government to right the economy, as President Obama did upon inheriting George Bush’s mess, Harding pushed for spending and tax cuts.

The result?

With Harding’s tax and spending cuts and relatively non-interventionist economic policy, GNP rebounded to $74.1 billion in 1922. The number of unemployed fell to 2.8 million— a reported 6.7 percent of the labor force— in 1922. So, just a year and a half after Harding became president, the Roaring Twenties were underway. The unemployment rate continued to decline, reaching an extraordinary low of 1.8 percent in 1926. Since then, the unemployment rate has been lower only once in wartime (1944), and never in peacetime.

The following chart shows federal spending from 1920 to 1940:

Fed Opposed by Left and Right

On its front page today, the Washington Times reports that expanded powers for the Federal Reserve are being opposed by “odd allies.”  The Fed’s imperial over-reach for additional regulatory powers is being opposed by Democrats and Republicans, and liberals and conservatives alike.  As well it should be.  As Senator Shelby observed, “Anointing the Fed as the systemic-risk regulator will make what has proven to be a bad bank regulator even worse.”

The regulation of financial services failed conspicuously to prevent the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.  The Fed failed most conspicuously as it was charged with oversight of all the major banks, including notably Citigroup and Bank of America. Bank regulation now functions to insulate banks from the consequences of their own bad acts.  The regulatory system enables banks to engage in excessive risk taking.

The Obama Administration and Chairman Barney Frank of the House Financial Services Committee propose that an expanded role for the Fed and generally more of the same will improve matters. Instead, the proposed legislation will worsen the situation by codifying the status of the major financial institutions as “too-big-to-fail.”  It would thereby provide them with special legal status.  We have all seen this movie and how it ends.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had such a status and collapsed.  Do we need 20 more such disasters?

Three cheers for all those opposing this destructive piece of legislation. End “too-big-to-fail” instead.

Wednesday Links


Bernanke’s Part in the Housing Bubble

bernankeRecent weeks have seen a swirl of speculation over whether President Obama will or will not re-appoint Ben Bernanke to the Chairmanship of the Federal Reserve Board, when his current term as Chair expires in January 2010. Almost all of the debate has centered on his actions as Chairman. This narrow focus misses an important piece: his actions, and words, as a Fed governor during the build-up of the housing bubble.

What should have been Bernanke’s greatest strength as a Fed governor and later chair, his understanding of monetary theory and his knowledge of the Great Depression, has ended up being a weakness. While correct in his analysis of the role of “debt deflation” – where the deflation increases the real burden of debts and correspondingly weakens the balance sheet of both households and businesses – in the deepening of the Great Depression; his obsession with slaying the Great White Whale of Deflation provided intellectual cover for the Fed’s ignoring and contributing to the housing bubble. Like the proverbial general, he was fighting yesterday’s battle, rather than today’s.

While core inflation was moderate and increasing at a decreasing rate between 2001 and 2005, this measure ignores the dramatic up-tick in house prices during those years. First, housing makes up the single largest expense for most households, ignoring housing, especially after one subtracts out energy and food from the definition of inflation, gives a narrow and distorted picture of inflation. Even if one were to focus solely on rents, the 2000s were an era of increasing housing costs.

Separate from the impact of housing prices on inflation is the role which housing plays as the collateral for the primary piece of household debt: a mortgage. Even were the US to suffer a bout of mild deflation and the real burden of their mortgages increased, this would likely have little impact on household balance sheets in an environment of increasing home prices.

Admittedly Bernanke was then only a “governor” and not yet Chair of the Fed, but he was the Fed’s loudest voice when it came to combating deflation and arguing for lower rates. Additionally there have been zero public acknowledgements by either Bernanke or the Fed that its policy earlier this decade contributed to the housing bubble and financial crisis. Without admitting to the occasional mistake, we have no way of judging whether Bernanke has learned from any of his mistakes, and hence less likely to repeat them.

In weighing Bernanke’s record at the Fed, judgement should not solely consider his actions as Chair, but also consider his words and deeds while the housing bubble was inflating. How one responds to a impending disaster is as important as to how one helps to clean up after the disaster has struck.