Tag: monetary policy

Five Lessons from Ireland

The news is going from bad to worse for Ireland. The Irish Independent is reporting that the Swiss Central Bank no longer will accept Irish government bonds as collateral. The story also notes that one of the world’s largest bond firms, PIMCO, is no longer purchasing debt issued by the Irish government.

And this is happening even though (or perhaps because?) Ireland received a big bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (and the IMF’s involvement means American taxpayers are picking up part of the tab).

I’ve already commented on Ireland’s woes, and opined about similar problems afflicting the rest of Europe, but the continuing deterioration of the Emerald Isle deserves further analysis so that American policy makers hopefully grasp the right lessons. Here are five things we should learn from the mess in Ireland.

1. Bailouts Don’t Work – When Ireland’s government rescued depositors by bailing out the nation’s three big banks, they made a big mistake by also bailing out creditors such as bondholders. This dramatically increased the cost of the bank bailout and exacerbated moral hazard since investors are more willing to make inefficient and risky choices if they think governments will cover their losses. And because it required the government to incur a lot of additional debt, it also had the effect of destabilizing the nation’s finances, which then resulted in a second mistake – the bailout of Ireland by the European Union and IMF (a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which occurs when one bad government policy leads to another bad government policy).

American policy makers already have implemented one of the two mistakes mentioned above. The TARP bailout went way beyond protecting depositors and instead gave unnecessary handouts to wealthy and sophisticated companies, executives, and investors. But something good may happen if we learn from the second mistake. Greedy politicians from states such as California and Illinois would welcome a bailout from Uncle Sam, but this would be just as misguided as the EU/IMF bailout of Ireland. The Obama Administration already provided an indirect short-run bailout as part of the so-called stimulus legislation, and this encouraged states to dig themselves deeper in a fiscal hole. Uncle Sam shouldn’t be subsidizing bad policy at the state level, and the mess in Europe is a powerful argument that this counter-productive approach should be stopped as soon as possible.

By the way, it’s worth noting that politicians and international bureaucracies behave as if government defaults would have catastrophic consequences, but Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute explains that there have been more than 200 sovereign defaults in the past 200 years and we somehow avoided Armageddon.

2. Excessive Government Spending Is a Path to Fiscal Ruin – The bailout of the banks obviously played a big role in causing Ireland’s fiscal collapse, but the government probably could have weathered that storm if politicians in Dublin hadn’t engaged in a 20-year spending spree.

The red line in the chart shows the explosive growth of government spending. Irish politicians got away with this behavior for a long time. Indeed, government spending as a share of GDP (the blue line) actually fell during the 1990s 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.

Eventually, however, the house of cards collapsed. Revenues dried up and the banks failed, but because the politicians had spent so much during the good times, there was no reserve during the bad times.

American politicians are repeating these mistakes. Spending has skyrocketed during the Bush-Obama year. We also had our version of a financial system bailout, though fortunately not as large as Ireland’s when measured as a share of economic output, so our crisis is likely to occur when the baby boom generation has retired and the time comes to make good on the empty promises to fund Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

3. Low Corporate Tax Rates Are Good, but They Don’t Guarantee Economic Success if other Policies Are Bad – Ireland used to be a success story. They went from being the “Sick Man of Europe” in the early 1980s to being the “Celtic Tiger” earlier this century in large part because policy makers dramatically reformed fiscal policy. Government spending was capped in the late 1980 and tax rates were reduced during the 1990s. The reform of the corporate income tax was especially dramatic. Irish lawmakers reduced the tax rate from 50 percent all the way down to 12.5 percent.

This policy was enormously successful in attracting new investment, and Ireland’s government actually wound up collecting more corporate tax revenue at the lower rate. This was remarkable since it is only in very rare cases that the Laffer Curve means a tax cut generates more revenue for government (in the vast majority of cases, the Laffer Curve simply means that changes in taxable income will have revenue effects that offset only a portion of the revenue effects caused by the change in tax rates).

Unfortunately, good corporate tax policy does not guarantee good economic performance if the government is making a lot of mistakes in other areas. This is an apt description of what happened to Ireland. The silver lining to this sad story is that Irish politicians have resisted pressure from France and Germany and are keeping the corporate tax rate at 12.5 percent. The lesson for American policy makers, of course, is that low corporate tax rates are a very good idea, but don’t assume they protect the economy from other policy mistakes.

4. Artificially Low Interest Rates Encourage Bubbles – No discussion of Ireland’s economic problems would be complete without looking at the decision to join the common European currency. Adopting the euro had some advantages, such as not having to worry about changing money when traveling to many other European nations. But being part of Europe’s monetary union also meant that Ireland did not have flexible interest rates.

Normally, an economic boom drives up interest rates because the plethora of profitable opportunities leads investors demand more credit. But Ireland’s interest rates, for all intents and purposes, were governed by what was happening elsewhere in Europe, where growth was generally anemic. The resulting artificially low interest rates in Ireland helped cause a bubble, much as artificially low interest rates in America last decade led to a bubble.

But if America already had a bubble, what lesson can we learn from Ireland? The simple answer is that we should learn to avoid making the same mistake over and over again. Easy money is a recipe for inflation and/or bubbles. Simply stated, excess money has to go someplace and the long-run results are never pleasant. Yet Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve have launched QE2, a policy explicitly designed to lower interest rates in hopes of artificially juicing the economy.

5. Housing Subsidies Reduce Prosperity – Last but not least, Ireland’s bubble was worsened in part because politicians created an extensive system of preferences that tilted the playing field in the direction of real estate. The combination of these subsidies and the artificially low interest rates caused widespread malinvestment and Ireland is paying the price today.

Since we just endured a financial crisis caused in large part by a corrupt system of housing subsidies for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, American policy makers should have learned this lesson already. But as Thomas Sowell sagely observes, politicians are still fixated on somehow re-inflating the housing bubble. The lesson they should have learned is that markets should determine value, not politics.

Is the Federal Reserve Heading Towards Insolvency?

A recent statement from the Shadow Financial Regulatory Committee, points out that both rounds of quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve have dramatically altered the maturity structure of the Fed’s balance sheet.  Normally the Fed conducts monetary policy using short-term Treasury bills, which allows the Fed to avoid most interest rate risk.  In loading up its balance sheet with long-dated Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities, the Fed has exposed itself to significant interest rate risk.

Recall that the yield, or interest rate, on a long term asset is inversely related to its price.  So if you’re holding a mortgage that yields 5% and rates go up to 6%, then the value of that mortgage falls below par.  The same holds for Treasury securities.  I think  it is a safe assumption that rates will be higher at some point in the future.  When they finally do rise, and if the Fed still maintains a large balance sheet of long-dated assets, those assets will suffer losses.

Of course the Fed is not subject to mark-to-market rules and can avoid admitting losses by holding these assets to maturity.  But if the Fed, at some point in the future, wants to fight inflation, the most obvious way of doing so would be to sell off assets from its balance sheet.  It is hard to see the Fed engaging in substantial open-market operations without using its long-dated assets.  But if it is to sell these assets, it will have to do so at a loss (once again, because of higher rates).

Now the Fed claims to have other avenues by which to tighten, besides open-market operations.  For instance, it can raise the interest rate on excess reserves.  But then this would further erode the value of assets on its balance sheet.  Not to mention that they have to find the money somewhere to pay these higher rates on reserves.

Ultimately the Fed can continue to pay its bills, not out of earnings from its balance sheet, but by electronically crediting the accounts of its vendors and employees, but that would also be inflationary.  The real danger, again pointed out by the Shadow Committee, is that the Fed may avoid raising rates in order to minimize the losses embedded in its balance sheet.  One of the very real dangers from QE1 and QE2 is that the Fed has exposed itself to potential losses that are correlated with any efforts to fight inflation, raising serious questions as to its willingness to fight inflation.

Bernanke’s Twist on Price Stability

While it’s been obvious for years, Bernanke showed his rationale for more easing in today’s Washington Post.  He believes we are in danger of too little inflation.  While common sense might imply that price stability means neither inflation nor deflation, in Bernanke’s book, anything below the Fed’s target of 2 percent is bad.

First of all, there really needs to be a public debate over the Fed’s 2% target.  After all, a 2% rate of inflation over, say, 30 years erodes almost half of one’s wealth.  How that can seriously be viewed as “price stability” is beyond me.  While a 2% rate of inflation is not going to bring the economy to a halt, it is still a massive theft of wealth over the long haul.

Bernanke has also expressed the fear that “low and falling” inflation could lead to deflation, which would raise the real value of debt, which could lead to additional defaults.  But what Bernanke doesn’t seem to get is that inflation isn’t falling. Let’s go to the data.

The graph below is simply the consumer price index (CPI) over the last year.  Does it appear to be falling?  Of course not.  In fact, the trend is one that is rising.

Now CPI includes lots of things, some of which are temporary trends.  The Fed has a nasty habit of excluding those items it doesn’t like.  But let’s take a look at something that matter to the typical family:  food.

In the next chart, we can see that the trend in food costs over the last year has been upward, not down.  Contrary to Mr. Bernanke’s worries, most families worry about putting food on the table, which has been getting more expensive, not less.

Another trend worth examining is the cost to producers, best measured via the producer price index (PPI).  As one can see from the next chart, that has been heading up as well.

The point to all of this is that we aren’t seeing this deflation that Bernanke constantly worries about and we aren’t headed in that direction either.  And the worse part is that we’ve been here before.  In the earlier part of the decade, then–Fed Governor Bernanke urged Greenspan to fight any chance of deflation by cutting rates to what were then all-time lows.  The result was a housing bubble.  Thanks again Ben. 

Now this might all be worth the cost if it reduced unemployment.  But it won’t.  The traditional way Fed policy brings down unemployment is by increasing bank lending, but banks are already sitting on a trillion in reserves.  Inflation, in and of itself, does not create jobs.

Bernanke on Monetary Policy

Every August, the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City sponsors a conference on monetary policy. It is the most valued invitation of the year for central bankers and Fed watchers. The Fed Chairman typically presents his views on monetary policy and the economy, and his talk inevitably makes headlines. (A select few reporters are invited.)

This year, Ben Bernanke promised the Fed will do whatever it takes to aid the faltering U.S. recovery, and most of all to prevent deflation. The problem for the Fed Chairman is that the central bank is plainly running out of options, as some had the cheek to observe. He suggested the Fed could do more of the same (purchase long-term securities), or try something new and untested (tweak the interest rate it pays on bank reserves).

Bernanke also suggested a third option, plus offered some professorial speculation on another. Taken together, these suggest the Fed may be prepared to chart a dangerous course.

In its policy statement, the Federal Open Market Committee has promised to keep interest rates low “for an extended period.” Bernanke suggested (as the third option) that the FOMC might make it clear that rates will remain low for an even longer period than markets are currently expecting. Within the Committee, there have been calls for caution and to remove the “extended period” language from the statement. These have been led by Thomas Hoenig, president of the KC Fed and host of the conference. By suggesting the only option was lengthening the period of low interest rates, Bernanke delivered the back of his hand to his host and the other inflation hawks on the FOMC.

Bernanke then mused about suggestions by some economists that perhaps the Fed should set an inflation target – that is, promise to deliver higher inflation rates to stimulate the economy. Fed chairmen do not engage in abstract speculation about policy, and to raise the inflationary option gave it place above all other possibilities. Bernanke hastened to add that there was at present no support for such a policy within the FOMC, and it “is inappropriate for the United States in current circumstances.”

In other words, the Fed chairman is thinking about an inflationary policy and, if circumstances change and he can build support within the FOMC, he is willing to implement it. When central bankers speculate in public about the possibility of an inflationary monetary policy, the currency is in jeopardy and the country in peril.

Does High Unemployment Make Inflation Impossible?

Benn Steil and Paul Swartz wrote a technically brilliant yet readable Wall Street Journal tutorial explaining why “the Fed’s exit strategy is not credible, and that means a serious risk of high inflation down the road.” 

They are sure to be ignored by those of the Keynesian faith who have repeatedly assured us that inflation cannot possibly be a problem for many, many years.  Why not?  Because there is so much “slack” in the economy—a euphemism for high unemployment.
If this “slack theory” of inflation makes you too sanguine about future inflation, recall that it is the same theory that predicted stagflation would be impossible in 1973–75 and 1979–81.

Figures from The Economist, August 21, raise some doubts.  The latest unemployment rate in Argentina is 8.3%, but CPI inflation over the past year was 12.2%. Unemployment in Venezuela is 8.2%, but inflation is 13.3%. Unemployment in Egypt is 9.1%, but inflation is 10.7%.  Unemployment in India is 10.7%, but inflation is 13.7%.  Unemployment in Turkey is 11%, but inflation is 7.6%.   Wasn’t high unemployment supposed to make high inflation impossible

Perhaps Slack Theorists might take comfort from the fact that inflation is “only” 4.2% in South Africa, where unemployment is 25.3%.  But that is not exactly solid proof.

Whenever Keynesian dogma proves so completely at odds with the facts, there is a powerful inclination among true believers and their herd of media apostles to cling to the theory and diregard the facts. 

Some volatile economists who previously worried about near-term U.S. inflation have switched to assuming (as they did in 2003) that high unemployment will produce deflation.  Yet that is obviously not happening in the countries listed above.  The only country with falling prices is Japan, with an unemployment rate of 5.3% (and foolishly high tax rates and decades of wasteful ”fiscal stimulus”).

File the Steil-Swartz article away for future reference. 

And remember Reynolds’ Second Law: “Inflation is always lower before it moves higher.”

Senate Bill Sows Seeds of Next Financial Crisis

With Majority Leader Harry Reid’s announcement that Democrats have the 60 votes needed for final passage of the Dodd-Frank financial bill, we can take a moment and remember this as the moment Congress planted the seeds of the next financial crisis.

In choosing to ignore the actual causes of the financial crisis – loose monetary policy, Fannie/Freddie, and never-ending efforts to expand homeownership – and instead further expanding government guarantees behind financial risk-taking, Congress is eliminating whatever market discipline might have been left in the banking industry.  But we shouldn’t be surprised, since this administration and Congress have consistently chosen to ignore the real problems facing our country – unemployment, perverse government incentives for risk-taking, massive fiscal imbalances – and instead pursued an agenda of rewarding special interests and expanding government.

At least we’ll know what to call the next crisis: the Dodd-Frank Crash.

Show Me the Money

A number of economists have been warning about the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policy, but defenders of the central bank often ask, “if there’s an easy money policy, why isn’t that showing up in the form of higher prices?” Thomas Sowell has an answer to this question, explaining that people and businesses are sitting on cash because anti-business policies have dampened economic activity.

Not only has all the runaway spending and rapid escalation of the deficit to record levels failed to make any real headway in reducing unemployment, all this money pumped into the economy has also failed to produce inflation. The latter is a good thing in itself but its implications are sobering. How can you pour trillions of dollars into the economy and not even see the price level go up significantly? Economists have long known that it is not just the amount of money, but also the speed with which it circulates, that affects the price level. Last year the Wall Street Journal reported that the velocity of circulation of money in the American economy has plummeted to its lowest level in half a century. Money that people don’t spend does not cause inflation. It also does not stimulate the economy. …Banks have cut back on lending, despite all the billions of dollars that were dumped into them in the name of “stimulus.” Consumers have also cut back on spending. For the first time, more gold is being bought as an investment to be held as a hedge against a currently non-existent inflation than is being bought by the makers of jewelry. There may not be any inflation now, but eventually that money is going to start moving, and so will the price level.

I do my best to avoid monetary policy issues and certainly am not an expert on the subject, so I asked a few people for their thoughts and was told that perhaps the strongest evidence for Sowell’s hypothesis comes from the Federal Reserve’s data on “Aggregate Reserves of Depository Institutions” - specifically the figures on excess reserves. This is the money that banks keep at the Federal Reserve voluntarily because they don’t have any better options. As you can see from the chart, excess reserves shot up during the financial crisis. But what’s important is that they did not come back down afterwards. Some people refer to this as “money on the sidelines” and Sowell clearly is worried that it will have an impact on the price level if banks start circulating it. That doesn’t sound like good news. On the other hand, it’s not exactly good news that banks are holding money at the Fed because there are not enough profitable opportunities.

What this really tells us is that the combination of easy money and big government isn’t working any better today than it did in the 1970s.