Tag: market

Perpetuating Bad Housing Policy

Perhaps the worst feature of the bailouts and the stimulus has been that, whatever their merits as short terms fixes, they have done nothing to improve economic policy over the long haul; indeed, they compound past mistakes.

Here is a good example:

For months, troubled homeowners seeking to lower their mortgage payments under a federal plan have complained about bureaucratic bungling, ceaseless frustration and confusion. On Thursday, the Obama administration declared that the $75 billion program is finally providing broad relief after it pressured mortgage companies to move faster to modify more loans.

Five hundred thousand troubled homeowners have had their loan payments lowered on a trial basis under the Making Home Affordable Program.

The crucial words in the story are “$75 billion” and “pressured.”

No one should object if a lender, without subsidy and without pressure, renegotiates a mortgage loan. That can make sense for both lender and borrower because the foreclosure process is costly.

But Treasury’s attempt to subsidize and coerce loan modifications is fundamentally misguided. It means many homeowners will stay in homes, for now, that they cannot really afford, merely postponing the day of reckoning.

Treasury’s policy is also misguided because it presumes that everyone who owned a house before the meltdown should remain a homeowner. Likewise, Treasury’s view assumes that all the housing construction over the past decade made good economic sense.

Both presumptions are wrong. U.S. policy exerted enormous pressure for increased mortgage lending in the years leading up to the crisis, thereby generating too much housing construction, too much home ownership and inflated housing prices.

The right policy for the U.S. economy is to stop preventing foreclosures, to stop subsidizing mortgages, and to let the housing market adjust on its own. Otherwise, we will soon see a repeat of the fall of 2008.

Wednesday Links - Health Care Costs

The Congressional Budget Office released a report this week that revealed that the proposed health care bill would not increase the deficit.  But is it that simple? Cato health care policy experts have examined the bill and added up the costs. Here are a few things they have found:

Sixty Years On, China Has Prosperity, Still Needs Freedom

China’s rise from an isolated state-controlled economy in 1949 to the world’s third largest economy with a vibrant nonstate sector is something to celebrate on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Under Deng Xiaoping, China’s transition from plan to market began in earnest in December 1978. For more than 30 years now, China has gradually removed barriers to a market system and increased opportunities for voluntary exchanges. Special economic zones, the end of communal farming, the rise of township and village enterprises, and the massive increase in foreign trade have enabled millions of people to lift themselves out of abject poverty.

Economic freedom has increased personal freedom, but the Chinese Communist Party has no intention of giving up its monopoly on power. China’s future will depend to a large extent on the path of political reform. Further strengthening of private property rights, including land rights, would create new wealth and a growing voice for limiting the power of government. It is doubtful that in another 60 years there will be single-party rule in China.

Reflections on China’s 1949 “Liberation”

During a speaking trip to China three years ago, the young tour guide in Beijing kept referring to “the liberation.” I soon realized that she meant the October Revolution of 1949, in which Mao Tse Tung and the communists seized power and began their rule 60 years ago today.

Far from liberating China, the reign of Mao represents one of the worst tyrannies in the history of mankind. Opposition parties, free speech and freedom of religion were quickly eliminated. The Great Leap Forward of 1958-61 forced the collectivization of agriculture, resulting in a famine that killed tens of millions. The Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, while not as deadly, unleashed chaos that crippled the economy and scarred a generation. As Gordon Chang writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this morning, the celebration by the Chinese people will be understandably muted.

China’s real liberation began not 60 years ago, but 30 years ago, with the reforms of Deng Xiaoping. While China remains an oppressive, one-party state politically, its economy has taken a true great leap forward in the past three decades because of market reforms in agriculture, industry, and trade. China’s liberation has far to go, but the Chinese people today are much more free of government interference in their personal, daily lives than they were in the time of Mao.

When I point to China’s economic progress as an example of what trade liberalization can deliver, my debate opponents will sometimes counter that China is a communist country. But China’s dramatic growth has not occurred because of its residual communism. For 30 years now, its government has been in the process of abandoning the communist economic policies of Mao and his fellow “liberators,” much to the benefit of the Chinese people and the world.

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.

Curbing Free Trade to Save It

In the latest example of “We had to burn the village to save it” logic, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) argues in a letter in the Washington Post this morning that the way to “support more trade” in the future is to raise barriers to trade today.

Brown criticizes Post columnist George Will for criticizing President Obama for imposing new tariffs on imported tires from China. Like President Obama himself, Brown claims that by invoking the Section 421 safeguard, the president was merely “enforcing” the trade laws that China agreed to but has failed to follow. He scolds advocates of trade for talking about the “rule of law” but failing to enforce it when it comes to trade agreements. Brown concludes, “If America is ever to support more trade, its people need to know that the rules will be enforced. And Mr. Obama did exactly that.”

Nothing in U.S. trade law required President Obama to impose tariffs on imported Chinese tires. As my colleague Dan Ikenson explained in a recent Free Trade Bulletin, Section 421 allows private parties to petition the U.S. government for protection if rising imports from China have caused or just threaten to cause “market disruption” to domestic producers. If the U.S. International Trade Commission recommends tariff relief, the president can decide to impose tariffs, or not.

The law allows the president to refrain from imposing tariffs if he finds they are “not in the national economic interest of the United States or … would cause serious harm to the national security of the United States.”

As I argue at length in my new Cato book Mad about Trade, trade barriers invariably damage our national economic interests and weaken our national security, and the tire tariffs are no exception. If the president had followed the letter and spirit of the law, he would have rejected the tariff.

And since when is causing “market disruption” something to be punished by law? Isn’t that what capitalism and market competition are all about? New competitors and new products are constantly disrupting markets, to the discomfort of entrenched producers but to the great benefit of the general public and the economy as a whole.

Human beings once widely practiced an economic system that minimized market disruption. It was called feudalism.

C/P Mad About Trade

Geithner Ignores Bailout History

Perhaps the biggest problem with the Obama plan to “reform” our financial system is the impact it would have on the market perception surrounding “too big to fail” institutions.  In identifying some companies as “too big to fail” holders of debt in those companies would assume that they would be made whole if those companies failed.  After all, that is what we did for the debt-holders in Fannie, Freddie, AIG, and Bear.  Both former Secretary Paulson and Geithner appear under the impression that moral hazard only applies to equity, despite debt constituting more than 90% of the capital structure of the typical financial firm.

Geithner believes he’s found a way to solve this problem - he’ll just tell everyone that there isn’t an implicit subsidy, and there won’t be a list of “too big to fail” companies.  Great, why didn’t I think of that.  After all, the constant refrain in Washington over the years that Fannie and Freddie weren’t getting an implicit subsidy really prepared the markets for their demise.

Even more bizarre is Geithner’s assertion that the government can force these institutions to hold higher capital, maintain more liquidity and be subjected to greater supervision, all without anyone knowing who exactly these companies are.  Does the Secretary truly believe that these companies’ securities disclosures won’t include the amount of capital they are holding?  Whether there is an official list or not is besides the question, market participants will be able to infer that list from publicly available information and the actions of regulators. 

One has to wonder whether Geithner spent any of his time at the NY Fed actually watching how markets work.  Before we continue down the path of financial reform, maybe it would be useful for our Treasury Secretary to take a few weeks off to study what got us into this mess.  We’ve already been down this road of denying implicit subsidies and then providing them after the fact. Maybe it’s time to try something different.