Tag: great recession

End, Don’t Cap, the Mortgage Interest Deduction

The housing market is soft, so this is the worst possible time to get rid of the mortgage interest deduction, right? Well, it’s not that simple.

1.) The deduction is not a subsidy to homeowners. It’s a subsidy to people who have mortgages, and then only if they itemize their taxes. Those claiming the standard deduction can’t take advantage. Paying cash for a home won’t qualify you for the deduction, either. Following a great recession fueled by would-be homeowners borrowing more than they could afford, it’s well past time for the feds to get out of the business of subsidizing home debt.

2.) Borrowing to own a home now costs homebuyers less in interest than it has historically, which means that the cash value of the mortgage interest deduction is lower than it will be under higher (future) interest rates. In other words, this particular tax-code goodie is at a historically low value to taxpayers, so why not get rid of it now?

Mitt Romney has nibbled around the edges of this idea. He would cap the mortgage interest deduction. In delivering a bit of a backhanded compliment, Yonah Freemark and Lawrence J. Vale write in the New York Times that “while Mr. Romney’s tax proposal overall may not be fair or sensible—or even mathematically logical—Democrats shouldn’t be so quick to attack any change to the mortgage interest deduction.”

Freemark and Vale would use the boost in federal revenue from ending the deduction to fund new housing programs. However, ending the mortgage interest deduction could also be used to lower overall tax rates. Mark Calabria and I chatted about the mortgage interest deduction this week for the Cato Daily Podcast.

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.

Tina Brown and the Economics of Recession

Talking about royal weddings on NPR, Tina Brown says that there’s high unemployment in Britain, as there was in 1981, because of Conservative governments’ budget cuts (transcript edited to match broadcast):

Of course, the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana occurred three decades ago, but Brown points out that there are plenty of similarities between the two eras. “2.5 million are out of work right now with the budget slashes and all the economic austerity that’s happening in England,” Brown says. “There were actually the same amount of people exactly out of work at the time of Charles and Diana, when Mrs. Thatcher came in and began her draconian moves.”

I know that Tina Brown is a journalist, not an economist, but surely she’s heard of the recessions of 1979 and 2009, both of which may have helped to usher in a new government pledged to economic reform. It isn’t budget cuts that have increased British unemployment, it’s the recession. The unemployment rate started rising in early 2008 and kept right on rising during the world financial crisis, which featured not budget cuts but massive spending by governments around the world.

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.

Deirdre McCloskey at Cato Unbound

This month’s Cato Unbound features a lead essay by economist and polymath Deirdre McCloskey. Though she’s been professionally associated with the Chicago School, her ideas are anything but predictable, and she’s been one of the strongest critics of the mainstream of her discipline.

Economic activity, she argues, is driven primarily by forces outside of conventional economic theory. Sure, there’s supply and demand, and we all know the story, and there’s nothing terribly wrong with it, at least as far as it goes. Elaborations on the model aren’t wrong either – externalities, transaction costs, asymmetrical information, problems of coordination and public goods – these too are fine, as far as they go.

Where she disagrees is in her claim that a whole lot of things have to happen inside people’s minds before these things become terribly interesting to talk about. The decision to enter a marketplace, or to behave in ways that we might call “a market,” or even just the decision to look for economic incentives, all depend on some fairly deep value judgments. The creation of a highly market-driven society implies a commitment to a set of values.

What values are we talking about? Here’s a sample:

The Big Economic Story of our times has not been the Great Recession of 2007–2009, unpleasant though it was. And the important moral is not the one that was drawn in the journals of opinion during 2009 — about how very rotten the Great Recession shows economics to be, and especially an economics of free markets. Failure to predict recessions is not what is wrong with economics, whether free-market economics or not. Such prediction is anyway impossible: if economists were so smart as to be able to predict recessions they would be rich. They’re not. No science can predict its own future, which is what predicting business cycles entails. Economists are among the molecules their theory of cycles is supposed to predict. No can do — not in a society in which the molecules are watching and arbitraging.

The important flaw in economics, I argue here, is not its mathematical and necessarily mistaken theory of future business cycles, but its materialist and unnecessarily mistaken theory of past growth. The Big Economic Story of our own times is that the Chinese in 1978 and then the Indians in 1991 adopted liberal ideas in the economy, and came to attribute a dignity and a liberty to the bourgeoisie formerly denied. And then China and India exploded in economic growth. The important moral, therefore, is that in achieving a pretty good life for the mass of humankind, and a chance at a fully human existence, ideas have mattered more than the usual material causes.

A society that denigrates small businesses, small landowners, entrepreneurship, thrift, and innovation will see less of each. It will have different laws, customs, and institutions. Its resources will be used differently. Even its class structure will be different.

Societies that make a place for the artisan, the entrepreneur, the innovator – societies that see these people as valuable – will prosper. That’s the essence of the argument, anyway, and I’m only disappointed that we can’t present it in more detail (McCloskey is in the middle of a four-book series on this one very big idea).

Through the rest of the week, we have a lineup of notable response essayists, including U.C. Davis’s Gregory Clark, science journalist Matt Ridley, and Yale University’s Jonathan Feinstein. Be sure to stop by often, or just subscribe to our RSS feed.