Tag: the economy

Bernanke Rules?

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has outlined “The Fed’s Exit Strategy.” He tells the reader how the central bank will avoid an inflation of historic proportions resulting from all the money and credit it has injected into the economy. All of the strategies he outlines are technically feasible ways for the Fed to implement monetary restraint.

The op-ed has an air of a classroom exercise, however, rather than a practical central-bank strategy. Much of the article is devoted to explaining how the Fed can now pay interest on reserves, and how it could raise that interest rate so as to dissuade commercial banks from lending the reserves out. It could do that, but what would that rate need to be in order to meet a private bank’s threshold rate of return in normal economic times?

More importantly, the Fed has never lacked the technical tools to combat inflation. What it has so often lacked is the will to make tough decisions. And, quite frankly, it does not possess the information needed to fine-tune the economy in the way Chairman Bernanke imagines (a point made by Milton Friedman many years ago). Lack of will and lack of information combine to keep the Fed behind the curve. Its policy was too easy after 2001, and so it fueled the housing boom. It was late to recognize the turn in housing and the economy, and its policy was then too tight. If past is prologue, it will be late to implement its exit strategy.

The Fed Chairman has presented a laundry list of policy tools. What investors need is some assurance that the right tools will be used at the right moment. The mere promise of a policymaker to do the right thing has little credibility. There is no monetary rule in place, only the rule of a man.

Obama’s New Numbers

A new ABC/Washington Post poll is out.  The trends are not comforting for the White House.  President Obama’s approval rating - probably the most important number for a president these days - continues to drop. Approval by independents has fallen by 9 points over his term.  Support for his handling of the economy now garners the approval of barely half of respondents.  The number of people who see him as an “old-style tax and spend” Democrat has risen by 11 percentage points; the number who see him as a new Democrat “careful with public money” has dropped by about the same number.

A majority of the public now rejects a second spending splurge. Most now give avoiding deficits a higher priority than increasing spending, even to fight the recession.

The number of people in the poll identifying themselves as independents is at a post-1981 high. Most of those people may well vote most of the time for one of the major parties. For now, neither party is attracting much loyalty.

Surely some Democrats in Congress must be starting to wonder how far they should follow the president and his desire for ever greater spending.

Is an Independent Fed Better?

Rep. Ron Paul now has a majority of the House of Representatives supporting his bill for an independent audit of the Federal Reserve System. He presented his case at a Cato Policy Forum recently, with vigorous responses from Bert Ely and Gilbert Schwartz.

Now more than 200 economists have signed a petition calling on Congress to “defend the independence of the Federal Reserve System as a foundation of U.S. economic stability.” The petition seems implicitly a rebuttal to Paul’s bill.

Allan Meltzer, a leading monetary scholar and frequent participant in Cato’s annual monetary conferences, declined to sign the petition and explained why: “I wrote them back and said, ‘the Fed has rarely been independent and it strikes me that being independent is very unlikely’” in the current environment.

Cato senior fellow Gerald O’Driscoll adds:

it is not the critics of the Fed who threaten its independence, but the Fed’s own actions.  Its intervention in the economy is unprecedented in size and scope. It is inevitable that those actions would lead to calls for further Congressional oversight and control. 

One of the lessons here is that once you create powerful government agencies, from tax-funded schools to central banks, there are no perfect libertarian rules for how they should be run. The way to protect freedom is to let people make their own decisions in civil society.  Schools have to decide what to teach, offending the values of some parents and taxpayers. The Fed can be independent and unaccountable and undemocratic, or it can be subject to the political whims of elected officials; neither is a very attractive prospect.

Week in Review: Stimulus, Sarah Palin and a Political Conflict in Honduras

Obama Considering Another Round of Stimulus

With unemployment continuing to climb and the economy struggling along, some lawmakers and pundits are raising the possibility of a second stimulus package at some point in the future. The Cato Institute was strongly opposed to the $787 billion package passed earlier this year, and would oppose additional stimulus packages on the same grounds.

“Once government expands beyond the level of providing core public goods such as the rule of law, there tends to be an inverse relationship between the size of government and economic growth,” argues Cato scholar Daniel J. Mitchell. “Doing more of a bad thing is not a recipe for growth.”

Mitchell narrated a video in January that punctures the myth that bigger government “stimulates” the economy. In short, the stimulus, and all big-spending programs are good for government, but will have negative effects on the economy.

Writing in Forbes, Cato scholar Alan Reynolds weighs in on the failures of stimulus packages at home and abroad:

In reality, the so-called stimulus package was actually just a deferred tax increase of $787 billion plus interest.

Whether we are talking about India, Japan or the U.S., all such unaffordable spending packages have repeatedly been shown to be effective only in severely depressing the value of stocks and bonds (private wealth). To call that result a “stimulus” is semantic double talk, and would be merely silly were it not so dangerous.

In case you’re keeping score, Cato scholars have opposed government spending to boost the economy without regard to the party in power.

For more of Cato’s research on government spending, visit Cato.org/FiscalReality.

Sarah Palin Resigns as Governor of Alaska

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin resigned from office last week with 18 months left in her term, setting off weeklong speculation by pundits.

Cato Vice President Gene Healy comments:

Palin’s future remains uncertain, but it’s hard to see how her cryptic and poorly drafted resignation speech positions her for a presidential run. Nonetheless, her departure presents a good opportunity to reflect on the Right’s affinity for presidential contenders who - how to put this? - don’t exactly overwhelm you with their intellectual depth.

It’s one thing to reject liberal elitism. It’s another thing to become so consumed with annoying liberals that you cleave to anyone they mock, and make presidential virtues out of shallow policy knowledge and lack of intellectual curiosity.

Writing at Politico, Cato scholars David Boaz and Roger Pilon weigh in on what her resignation means for the former Vice-Presidential candidate’s political future:

Boaz:

Will we one day say that her presidency was ‘born on the Fourth of July’? I doubt it. This appears to be just the latest evidence that Sarah Palin is not ready for prime time. The day McCain chose her, I compared her unfavorably to Mark Sanford. Despite everything, I’d still stand by that analysis. At the time I noted that devout conservative Ramesh Ponnuru said ‘Palin has been governor for about two minutes.’ Now it’s three minutes.

Running for president after a single term as governor is a gamble. Running after quitting in the middle of your first term is something else again. If this is indeed a political move to clear the decks for a national campaign, then she needs adult supervision soon. But I can’t really believe that’s what’s going on here. I suspect we’re going to hear soon about a yet-unknown scandal that was about to make continuing in office untenable.

Pilon:

It seems that since her return to the state following the campaign, activist opponents and bloggers have bombarded the governor’s office with endless document requests. And she’s faced 16 ethics inquiries, with no end in sight. All but one have since been resolved, but the politics of personal destruction has cost the state millions, as Palin noted. Add to that the unrelenting, often vicious and gratuitous attacks on her and even on her family, and it’s no wonder that she would say ‘Enough.’ It has nothing to do with ‘quitting’ or with being ‘unable to take the heat.’ It has everything to do with stepping back and saying you’re not willing to put your family and your state through any more. She seems confident that history will judge her more thoughtless critics for what they are. I hope she’s right.

Honduras’ President Is Removed from Office

In reaction to Honduran President Manuel Zelaya’s attempt to stay in power despite term limits set by the nation’s Constitution, armed forces removed him, sending the Latin American nation into political turmoil.

Juan Carlos Hidalgo, an expert on Latin American affairs, comments:

The removal from office of Zelaya on Sunday by the armed forces is the result of his continuous attempts to promote a referendum that would allow for his reelection, a move that had been declared illegal by the Supreme Court and the Electoral Tribunal and condemned by the Honduran Congress and the attorney general. Unfortunately, the Honduran constitution does not provide an effective civilian mechanism for removing a president from office after repeated violations of the law, such as impeachment in the U.S. Constitution. Nonetheless, the armed forces acted under the order of the country’s Supreme Court, and the presidency has been promptly bestowed on the civilian figure — the president of Congress — specified by the constitution.

To be sure, Hidalgo writes, the military action in Honduras was not a coup:

What happened in Honduras on June 28 was not a military coup. It was the constitutional removal of a president who abused his powers and tried to subvert the country’s democratic institutions in order to stay in office.

The extent to which this episode has been misreported is truly remarkable.

The Failure of Do-Nothing Policies

A news story from today in a slightly alternate universe:

Jobless Rate at 26-Year High

Employers kept slashing jobs at a furious pace in June as the unemployment rate edged ever closer to double-digit levels, undermining signs of progress in the economy, and making clear that the job market remains in terrible shape.

The number of jobs on employers’ payrolls fell by 467,000, the Labor Department said. That is many more jobs than were shed in May and far worse than the 350,000 job losses that economists were forecasting.

Job losses peaked in January and had declined every month until June. The steep losses show that even as there are signs that total economic activity may level off or begin growing later this year, the nation’s employers are still pulling back.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, “President Obama proposed a $787 billion stimulus program to get this country moving again. He tried to save the jobs at GM and Chrysler. But the do-nothing Republicans filibustered and blocked that progressive legislation, and these are the results.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a press conference, “We begged President Bush to save Fannie Mae, Merrill Lynch, Bank of America, AIG, the rest of Wall Street, the banks, and the automobile industry. We begged him to spend $700 billion of taxpayers’ money to bail out America’s great companies. We begged him to ignore the deficit and spend more money we don’t have. But did he listen? No, he just sat there wearing his Adam Smith tie and refused to spend even a single trillion to save jobs. And now unemployment is at 9.5 percent. I hope he’s happy.”

Democrats on Capitol Hill agreed that the “do-nothing” response to the financial crisis had led to rising unemployment and a sluggish economy. If the Bush and Obama administrations had been willing to invest in American companies, run the deficit up to $1.8 trillion, and talk about all sorts of new taxes, regulations, and spending programs, then certainly the economy would be recovering by now, they said.

An Overdue Reckoning in the Auto Sector

Bloomberg reports:

General Motors Corp., facing a probable bankruptcy filing by June 1, is telling 1,100 “underperforming” U.S. dealers they will be terminated as the automaker starts shrinking its retail network.

Most of the closings will occur by October 2010, and none are happening now, Detroit-based GM said today. The targeted outlets will have until the end of the month to appeal the decisions, GM said, without specifying the stores on the list.

The shutdowns are the biggest U.S. automaker’s first step toward paring domestic dealers to a range of 3,600 to 4,000 from 5,969 by the end of 2010.

To be sure, it is a very sad day for thousands of workers and businesses around the country.  But we’re in the midst of a deep recession, which may be nowhere deeper than in the auto sector.  Demand for cars and light trucks has absolutely tanked, which means the economy has an excess supply of inventory, productive capacity, and retail capacity.

Dealerships are closing, as they should be. Chrysler’s in bankruptcy, as it should be. GM is headed for bankruptcy, as it should be.

But this all should have happened long ago…

…long before President George W. Bush had the chance to circumvent the wishes of Congress to give Chrysler and GM more than $19 billion (not including GMAC) from the TARP allotment,

…long before President Obama had the chance to promise billions more and assume a large operational role for the U.S. government in Chrysler’s and GM’s future operations,

…long before President Obama had the chance to create a huge moral hazard by strong-arming Chrysler’s preferred lenders into taking pennies on their loan dollars, while giving preference to claimants of lesser priority,

…long before Ford, Toyota, Honda, BMW, Kia, and the rest of America’s automobile industry were implicitly taxed by the government’s insistence on preventing two firms from exiting the market or substantially reducing their presence in accordance with established bankruptcy provisions.

And most certainly, long before other businesses in other industries started to get the idea that failure is the new success.

So Much for the Obama Administration’s Fiscal Free Lunch

So far the Obama administration has been enjoying the ultimate fiscal free lunch.  Massive borrowing, massive spending, lower taxes, and low interest rates.

Alas, all good things must come to an end.

Reports the New York Times:

The nation’s debt clock is ticking faster than ever — and Wall Street is getting worried.

As the Obama administration racks up an unprecedented spending bill for bank bailouts, Detroit rescues, health care overhauls and stimulus plans, the bond market is starting to push up the cost of trillions of dollars in borrowing for the government.

Last week, the yield on 10-year Treasury notes rose to its highest level since November, briefly touching 3.17 percent, a sign that investors are demanding larger returns on the masses of United States debt being issued to finance an economic recovery.

While that is still low by historical standards — it averaged about 5.7 percent in the late 1990s, as deficits turned to surpluses under President Bill Clinton — investors are starting to wonder whether the United States is headed for a new era of rising market interest rates as the government borrows, borrows and borrows some more.

Already, in the first six months of this fiscal year, the federal deficit is running at $956.8 billion, or nearly one seventh of gross domestic product — levels not seen since World War II, according to Wrightson ICAP, a research firm.

Debt held by the public is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to rise from 41 percent of gross domestic product in 2008 to 51 percent in 2009 and to a peak of around 54 percent in 2011 before declining again in the following years. For all of 2009, the administration probably needs to borrow about $2 trillion.

The rising tab has prompted warnings from the Treasury that the Congressionally mandated debt ceiling of $12.1 trillion will most likely be breached in the second half of this year.

Last week, the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee, a group of industry officials that advises the Treasury on its financing needs, warned about the consequences of higher deficits at a time when tax revenues were “collapsing” by 14 percent in the first half of the fiscal year.

“Given the outlook for the economy, the cost of restoring a smoothly functioning financial system and the pending entitlement obligations to retiring baby boomers,” a report from the committee said, “the fiscal outlook is one of rapidly increasing debt in the years ahead.”

While the real long-term interest rate will not rise immediately, the committee concluded, “such a fiscal path could force real rates notably higher at some point in the future.”

Alas, this is just the beginning.  Three quarters of the spending in the misnamed stimulus bill (it would more accurately be called the “Pork and Social Spending We’ve Been Waiting Years to Foist on the Unsuspecting Public Bill”) occurs next year and beyond, when most economists expect the economy to be growing again.  Moreover, much of the so-called stimulus outlays do nothing to actually stimulate the economy, being used for income transfers and the usual social programs.

However, we will be paying for these outlays for years.  Even as, the Congressional Budget Office warns, the GDP ultimately shrinks as federal expenditures and borrowing “crowd out” private investment.  Indeed, the CBO figures that incomes will suffer a permanent decline–even as taxes are climbing dramatically to pay off all of the debt accumulated by Uncle Sam.

And you don’t want to think about the total bill as Washington bails out (almost $13 trillion worth so far) everyone within reach, “stimulates” (the bill passed earlier this year ran $787 billion) everything within reach, and spends money (Congress approved a budget of $3.5 trillion for next year) within reach.  Indeed, according to CBO, the president’s budget envisions increasing the additional collective federal deficit between 2010 and 2019 from $4.4 trillion to $9.3 trillion.)  Then there will be more federal spending for wastral government entities, such as the Federal Housing Administration; failing banks, which are being closed at a record rate by the FDIC; pension pay-offs for bankrupt companies, administered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation; and covering the big tab being up run up by Social Security and Medicare, which currently sport unfunded liabilities of around $100 trillion.

Oh, to be an American taxpayer – and especially a young American taxpayer – who will be paying Uncle Sam’s endless bills for the rest of his or her life!