Topic: Cato Publications

Meet the Press, Check the Facts

This Sunday (2 December 2012), David Gregory hosted a lively session of NBC’s Meet the Press. The focus of Sunday’s program was the so-called Fiscal Cliff. Gregory rounded up many of the usual Washington suspects, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and drilled them on their talking points.

Several times, in the course of Gregory’s questioning, he referred to President Bill Clinton’s tough 1993 budget deal. Throughout the broadcast, Gregory kept stressing the fact that the 1993 deal included defense cuts. For Gregory, those cuts were the flavor of the day.

This isn’t surprising. Indeed, most members of Washington’s chattering classes parrot the line that the economy boomed during the Clinton years because Clinton was the beneficiary of the so-called peace dividend, which allowed him to cut defense expenditures.

In fact, if we look carefully at the federal budget numbers, while Clinton did cut defense expenditures, as a percent of GDP, the majority of the Clinton squeeze came from non-defense expenditures. Indeed, as can be seen in the accompanying table, the non-defense squeeze accounted for 2.2 percentage points of President Clinton’s 3.9 total percentage point reduction in the relative size of the federal government.

Clinton squeezed the budget and squeezed hard, from all major angles. This was a case in which a president’s actions actually matched his rhetoric. Recall that, in his 1996 State of the Union address, he declared that “the era of big government is over.”

Clinton’s 1993 deal marked the beginning of the most dramatic decline in the federal government’s share of the U.S. economy since Harry Truman left office. The Clinton administration reduced government expenditures, as a percent of GDP, by 3.9 percentage points. Since 1952, no other president has even come close. At the end of his second term, President Clinton’s big squeeze left the size of government, as a percent of GDP, at 18.2 percent—the lowest level since 1966.

The table contains the facts. President Clinton knew how to squeeze both defense and non-defense federal expenditures. Indeed, he squeezed non-defense a bit harder than defense. Since 1952, the only other president who has been able to reduce the relative share of non-defense expenditures was Ronald Reagan. Forget the “peace dividend”—it’s all about the Clinton “squeeze dividend.”

The UK’s Capital Obsession

Last Thursday, Mervyn King, the outgoing governor of the Bank of England, called for yet another round of recapitalization of the major UK banks. For some time, I have warned that higher bank capital requirements, when imposed in the middle of an economic slump, are wrong-headed because they put a squeeze on the money supply and stifle economic growth. So far, bank recapitalization efforts, such as Basel III, have resulted in financial repression – a credit crunch. It is little wonder we are having trouble waking up from the current economic nightmare.

So why would Mr. King want to saddle the UK banking system  with another round of capital-requirement increases, particularly when the UK economy is teetering on the edge of a triple-dip recession? Is King simply unaware of the devastating unintended consequences this would create?

In reality, there is more to this story than meets the eye. To understand the motivation behind the UK’s capital obsession, we must begin with infamous Northern Rock affair. On August 9, 2007, the European money markets froze up after BNP Paribas announced that it was suspending withdrawals on two of its funds that were heavily invested in the US subprime credit market. Northern Rock, a profitable and solvent bank, relied on these wholesale money markets for liquidity. Unable to secure the short-term funding it needed, Northern Rock turned to the Bank of England for a relatively modest emergency infusion of liquidity (3 billion GBP).

This lending of last resort might have worked, had a leak inside the Bank of England not tipped off the BBC to the story on Thursday, September 13, 2007. The next morning, a bank run ensued, and by Monday morning, Prime Minister Gordon Brown had stepped in to guarantee all of Northern Rock’s deposits.

The damage, however, was already done. The bank run had transformed Northern Rock from a solvent (if illiquid) bank to a bankrupt entity. By the end of 2007, over 25 billion GBP of British taxpayers’ money had been injected into Northern Rock. The company’s stock had crashed, and a number of investors began to announce takeover offers for the failing bank. But, this was not to be – the UK Treasury announced early on that it would have the final say on any proposed sale of Northern Rock. Chancellor of the Exchequer Allistair Darling then proceeded to bungle the sale, and by February 7, 2008, all but one bidder had pulled out. Ten days later, Darling announced that Northern Rock would be nationalized.

Looking to save face in the aftermath of the scandal, Gordon Brown – along with King, Darling and their fellow members of the political chattering classes in the UK – turned their crosshairs on the banks, touting “recapitalization” as the only way to make banks “safer” and prevent future bailouts.

In the prologue to Brown’s book, Beyond the Crash, he glorifies the moment when he underlined twice “Recapitalize NOW.” Indeed, Mr. Brown writes, “I wrote it on a piece of paper, in the thick black felt-tip pens I’ve used since a childhood sporting accident affected my eyesight. I underlined it twice.”

I suspect that moment occurred right around the time his successor-to-be, David Cameron, began taking aim at Brown over the Northern Rock affair.

Clearly, Mr. Brown did not take kindly to being “forced” to use taxpayer money to prop up the British banking system. But, rather than directing his ire at Mervyn King and the leak at the Bank of England that set off the Northern Rock bank run, Brown opted for the more politically expedient move – the tried and true practice of bank-bashing.

It turns out that Mr. Brown attracted many like-minded souls, including the central bankers who endorsed Basel III, which mandates higher capital-asset ratios for banks. In response to Basel III (and Basel III, plus), banks have shrunk their loan books and dramatically increased their cash and government securities positions (both of these “risk free” assets are not covered by the capital requirements imposed by Basel III and related capital mandates).

In England, this government-imposed deleveraging has been particularly disastrous. As the accompanying chart shows, the UK’s money supply has taken a pounding since 2007, with the money supply currently registering a deficiency of 13%.

 

How could this be? After all, hasn’t the Bank of England employed a loose monetary policy scheme under King’s leadership? Well, state money – the component of the money supply produced by the Bank of England – has grown by 22.3% since the Bank of England began its quantitative easing program (QE) in March 2009, yet the total money supply, broadly measured, has been shrinking since January 2011.

The source of England’s money-supply woes is the all-important bank money component of the total money supply. Bank money, which is produced by the private banking system, makes up the vast majority – a whopping 97% – of the UK’s total money supply. It is bank money that would take a further hit if King’s proposed round of bank recapitalization were to be enacted.

As the accompanying chart shows, the rates of growth for bank money and the total money supply have plummeted since the British Financial Services Authority announced its plan to raise capital adequacy ratios for UK Banks.

 

In fact, despite a steady, sizable expansion in state money, the total money supply in the UK is now shrinking, driven by a government-imposed contraction in bank money. So, contrary to popular opinion, monetary policy in the UK has been ultra-tight, thanks to the UK’s capital obsession.

Despite wrong-headed claims to the contrary by King, raising capital requirements on Britain’s banks will not turn around the country’s struggling economy – any more than it will un-bungle the Northern Rock affair. Indeed, this latest round of bank-bashing only serves to distract from what really matters – money.

Fed Toys with Ratcheting Up the Credit Crunch

When the Basel I accords, mandating higher capital-asset ratios for banks, were introduced in 1988, they were embraced by the administration of President George H.W. Bush. With higher capital-asset ratios came a sharp slowdown in the money supply growth rate and—unfortunately for President George H. W. Bush and his re-election campaign—a mild recession from July 1990 through March 1991.

Now, we have Basel III and its higher capital-asset ratio requirements being imposed on banks in the middle of a weak, drawn-out economic recovery. This is one of the major reasons why the recovery is so anemic.

How could this be? Well, banks produce bank money, which accounts for roughly 85% of the total U.S. money supply (M4). Mandated increases in bank capital requirements result in contractions in bank money, and thus in the total money supply.

Here’s how it works:

While the higher capital-asset ratios that are required by Basel III are intended to strengthen banks (and economies), these higher capital requirements destroy money. Under the Basel III regime, banks will have to increase their capital-asset ratios. They can do this by either boosting capital or shrinking assets. If banks shrink their assets, their deposit liabilities will decline. In consequence, money balances will be destroyed.

So, paradoxically, the drive to deleverage banks and shrink their balance sheets, in the name of making banks safer, destroys money balances. This, in turn, dents company liquidity and asset prices. It also reduces spending relative to where it would have been without higher capital-asset ratios.

The other way to increase a bank’s capital-asset ratio is by raising new capital. This, too, destroys money. When an investor purchases newly-issued bank equity, the investor exchanges funds from a bank account for new shares. This reduces deposit liabilities in the banking system and wipes out money.

We now learn that the Fed, using the cover of the Dodd-Frank legislation, is toying with the idea of forcing foreign banks that operate in the United States to hold billions of dollars of additional capital  (read: increase their capital-asset ratios).

This will make the credit crunch “crunchier” and throw the U.S. economy into an even more vulnerable position.  The last thing the Fed should be doing is squeezing the banks and tightening the screws on the production of bank money.

Where’s Iran’s Money?

Since I first estimated Iran’s hyperinflation last month , I have received inquiries as to why I have never so much as mentioned Iran’s money supply. That’s a good question, which comes as no surprise. After all, inflations of significant degree and duration always involve a monetary expansion.

But when it comes to Iran, there is not too much one can say about its money supply, as it relates to Iran’s recent bout of hyperinflation. Iran’s money supply data are inconsistent and dated. In short, the available money supply data don’t shed much light on the current state of Iran’s inflation.

Iran mysteriously stopped publishing any sort of data on its money supply after March 2011. Additionally, Iranian officials decided to change their definition of broad money in March 2010. This resulted in a sudden drop in the reported all-important bank money  portion of the total money supply, and, as a result, in the total. In consequence, a quick glance at the total money supply chart would have given off a false signal, suggesting a slump and significant deflationary pressures, as early as 2010

While very dated, at least Iran’s state money, or money produced by the central bank (monetary base, M0), is a uniform time series. The state money picture, though dated, is consistent with a “high” inflation story. Indeed, the monetary base was growing at an exponential rate in the years leading up to the end of the reported annual series.  No annual data are available after 2010 (see the chart below).

Iran is following in Zimbabwe’s well-worn footsteps, trying to throw a shroud of secrecy over the country’s monetary statistics, and ultimately its inflation problems. Fortunately for us, the availability of black-market exchange-rate data has allowed for a reliable estimate  of Iran’s inflation—casting light on its death spiral .

A No-Brainer: Bad for Privacy and Liberty

CNET journalist Declan McCullagh has lit up the Internets today with his reporting on a revamped Senate online privacy bill that would give an alphabet soup of federal agencies unprecedented access to email and other online communications.

Leahy’s rewritten bill would allow more than 22 agencies – including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission – to access Americans’ e-mail, Google Docs files, Facebook wall posts, and Twitter direct messages without a search warrant. It also would give the FBI and Homeland Security more authority, in some circumstances, to gain full access to Internet accounts without notifying either the owner or a judge.

This would be an astounding expansion of government authority to snoop. And it comes at a time when the public is getting wind through the Petraeus scandal of just how easy it already is to access our private communications.

Assuming McCullagh’s reading of the draft he obtained is remotely plausible, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) should reconsider his current course–if he wants to maintain the mantle of a privacy leader, at least.

The Washington, D.C., meta-story is almost as interesting. Who is where on the bill? And when? The ACLU’s Christopher Calabrese told McCullagh last night, “We believe a warrant is the appropriate standard for any contents.” Freedom Works came out of the gate this morning with a petition asking for oppositions to Senator Leahy’s revised bill.

The Center for Democracy did not have a comment when McCullagh asked, though spokesman Brock Meeks suggests via Twitter today that McCullagh didn’t try hard enough to reach him. The reason that’s important? CDT has a history of equivocation and compromise in the face of privacy-invasive legislation and policies. At this point, the group has said via Twitter that they “wouldn’t support the rewrite described in CNET.” That’s good news, and it’s consistent with people’s expectations for CDT both on the outside and within.

There will undoubtedly be more to this story. Emails should not only be statutorily protected, but Fourth Amendment protected, based on the framework for communications privacy I laid out for the Supreme Court in Cato’s Florida v. Jardines brief.

This Month’s Cato Unbound: The Online Education Revolution

As Joseph Schumpeter famously wrote, markets are agents of “creative destruction”: when market forces are free to operate, and when entrepreneurs are free to act on their ideas, the old must often give way to the new.

Innovation and cultural dynamism are the hallmarks of a free economy. This state of constant flux is to our way of thinking a welcome and valued thing. Only an economy that is constantly in transition can hope to approximate the changing needs and wants of a robust and flourishing society.

Our love of dynamism is one reason why libertarians aren’t really conservatives, and why we might even wish that we could claim the label “progressive” for ourselves—if it hadn’t been taken, long ago, by individuals whose beliefs differ sharply from our own.

At Cato Unbound this month we are discussing what may prove to be a remarkable example of creative destruction. Within the last few years, Massive Online Open Courses—MOOCs, for short—have become one of the most important trends in higher education. As our lead essayist Alex Tabarrok argues, traditional higher education hasn’t changed substantially for centuries. Yet there is no good reason why this should be, not with all of the new information technology that the market has put at our disposal.

Together with his colleague Tyler Cowen, Tabarrok has founded Marginal Revolution University, which is planned as a growing series of free, online courses that anyone can take. The lectures are brief, watchable on your own schedule, viewable on mobile devices, and replayable. You can ask questions of the professors and receive detailed, personalized feedback. You can study in a group or entirely on your own, and students are invited to create supplemental videos that might be included in future class sessions.

MR University, as it’s called for short, hopes to deliver flexible, inexpensive higher education to the masses, in a way that Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard—for all their tradition—never could. And it’s just one small player in a burgeoning new educational sector. So how should educators and policymakers think about these developments?

To answer that question, we have recruited a panel of distinguished commentators: Siva Vaidhyanathan is the Robertson Professor in Media Studies and Chair of the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia; Alan Ryan is the former Warden of New College, Oxford, and a frequent commentator on developments in liberal education; and Kevin Carey is director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation.

As always, Cato Unbound readers are encouraged to take up our themes, and enter into the conversation on their own websites and blogs, or on other venues. We also welcome your letters. Send them to jkuznicki at cato dot org. Selections may be published at the editors’ option.

Zimbabwe’s Four-Year Anniversary—From Hyperinflation to Growth

In mid-November 2008, Zimbabwe recorded the world’s second-highest hyperinflation. Today, it can boast strong growth and single-digit inflation rates. In 2008, Zimbabwe’s annual real GDP growth rate was a miserable -17.6 percent and its annual inflation rate was 89.7 sextillion percent—that’s roughly 9 followed by 22 zeros.

So how did Zimbabwe go from economic ruin to an annual GDP growth rate of 9.32 percent in 2011, with estimates of relatively strong growth rates through 2013?  As I predicted in early 2008, the answer is simple: spontaneous dollarization brought an end to the horrors of hyperinflation.

In late 2008, the people of Zimbabwe spontaneously dollarized the economy. Thiers’ Law prevailed: good money drove out bad, and the government’s hands were tied. Indeed, the government was forced to officially dollarize in 2009. Since then, Zimbabwe has enjoyed positive GDP growth rates, a feat not accomplished since 2001 (see accompanying chart).

 

While these achievements are cause for celebration, there are still problems in paradise: Robert Mugabe continues to hold the reins of power; Zimbabwe’s “Ease of Doing Business” ranking is a dismal 172nd out of 185; and “change” is, in short, hard to come by. In addition, the government’s external debt is now close to $12.5 billion and lending rates between Zimbabwe’s embattled banks are as high as 25 percent. To top it off, the Zimbabwean government is attempting to force banks to buy its treasury bills at significantly discounted rates, after its debt auction flopped in early October. Talk about ruling with an iron fist.

If this isn’t bad enough, Zimbabwe’s official statistics have produced a very low signal-to-noise ratio—one that, quite frankly, leaves one listening to static. Both the quantity and quality of official data, ranging from migration statistics to trade figures, are in short supply, particularly data from the period of Zimbabwe’s 2007-08 hyperinflation.

None of this comes to a surprise to me. After all, as far as Zimbabwean officials are concerned, the country’s hyperinflation peaked in July 2008, with a monthly inflation rate of 2,600 percent. After this point, Zimbabwe stopped collecting and reporting data on price changes, throwing a shroud of secrecy over the country’s hyperinflation disaster. In reality, hyperinflation continued after July 2008, growing at an exponential rate until mid-November 2008.

Alex Kwok and I lifted the shroud on this hyperinflation in our 2009 Cato Journal article. We determined that Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation actually peaked in mid-November 2008, with a monthly rate over 30 million times higher than the final inflation rate reported by the government. In an attempt to correct the government’s lying statistics, I have contacted high officials in Zimbabwe via telephone and email. But, I have been stonewalled, given a bureaucratic runaround.

The last thing the Mugabe government seems to be interested in is an accurate account of the world’s second-highest hyperinflation. Lying statistics remain the order of the day.