Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

What Caused Atlas Shrugged Sales to Soar?

Sales of Atlas Shrugged have risen sharply this year, and various observers from the Ayn Rand Institute to the Economist have attributed the jump to “uncanny similarities between the plot-line of the book and the events of our day,” in the words of ARI’s Yaron Brook. The Economist writes,

Whenever governments intervene in the market, in short, readers rush to buy Rand’s book. Why? The reason is explained by the name of a recently formed group on Facebook, the world’s biggest social-networking site: “Read the news today? It’s like ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is happening in real life”.

Brook told CNN:

“So many people see the parallels with actually what’s going on, with the government taking over the banks, with the government kind of taking over the automobile industry, a president who fires the CEO of a major American corporation. These are the kind of things that come out of ‘Atlas Shrugged.’ “

But is this story right? Do news headlines generate book sales? How did people who read about TARP or bank nationalizations know that those events were reminiscent of a novel published in 1957? Maybe their friends told them “It’s just like Atlas Shrugged,” and they ran out and bought the book.

Or maybe something more direct is required. One Atlas Shrugged fan suggested to me that the real boost came in January, with a Wall Street Journal article by my former colleague Stephen Moore. So I decided to investigate, using the sales figures in Nielsen’s Bookscan. And indeed those figures seem to point in a different direction. The boom in sales of Atlas Shrugged really took off in mid-January, after Steve Moore’s essay ”‘Atlas Shrugged’: From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years” appeared in the Journal on January 9. Steve wrote:

Many of us who know Rand’s work have noticed that with each passing week, and with each successive bailout plan and economic-stimulus scheme out of Washington, our current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that “Atlas Shrugged” parodied in 1957….

For the uninitiated, the moral of the story is simply this: Politicians invariably respond to crises – that in most cases they themselves created – by spawning new government programs, laws and regulations. These, in turn, generate more havoc and poverty, which inspires the politicians to create more programs … and the downward spiral repeats itself until the productive sectors of the economy collapse under the collective weight of taxes and other burdens imposed in the name of fairness, equality and do-goodism….

David Kelley, the president of the Atlas Society, which is dedicated to promoting Rand’s ideas, explains that “the older the book gets, the more timely its message.” He tells me that there are plans to make “Atlas Shrugged” into a major motion picture – it is the only classic novel of recent decades that was never made into a movie. “We don’t need to make a movie out of the book,” Mr. Kelley jokes. “We are living it right now.”

Here’s a chart taken from Bookscan’s data on weekly sales of the mass-market paperback edition of Atlas Shrugged:

The sales in late 2008 are very similar to those in 2007, with a Christmas bump that was higher in 2008. But sales started to diverge after January 9, suggesting that it was in fact the Wall Street Journal essay that kicked them into high gear. Then they slowly fell, and then there was an even bigger peak in early March. Why? That’s not so clear. Perhaps it’s a case of self-fulfilling prophecy and the accumulating effects of media buzz. ARI put out its press release about soaring sales on February 23, and the Economist picked up the idea five days later, as did many bloggers. Then on March 2 and 5 the popular blogger Michelle Malkin talked about the idea of “Going Galt” – pulling back on work and investment in response to projected tax increases and regulations – in her blog and syndicated column, and the New York Times picked that up. Both Malkin and the Times’s Opinionator blog linked to the original ARI story about soaring sales, giving the idea further legs, and the Freakonomics blog picked up the Economist’s story. On March 14 the Wall Street Journal ran another op-ed on the contemporary relevance of Atlas Shrugged, this one by Yaron Brook. There’s a reason that publishers put “bestseller” on their book covers – people like to read what other people are reading. And there’s no question that once this media buzz got started, the sales have remained much higher than last year.

It seems that Greenspan, Bernanke, Fannie, Freddie, Barney Frank, Bush, Paulson, Geithner, and Obama all created the objective conditions for an Atlas Shrugged sales bump, but it took Steve Moore and subsequent commentators to create the “subjective conditions” – actually talking about the relationship of Atlas Shrugged to political and economic events – to set off the actual boom.

Two other minor points: The weekly sales in late 2007 were somewhat higher than in late 2006. So if you think, as the Economist suggests, that sales of Atlas Shrugged in the United States were pushed up by the British bailout of Northern Rock and the U.S. Treasury’s pressure on banks to assist subprime borrowers, then maybe the 2007 sales figures were already reflecting the impact of economic policy events. But the total sales in 2007 were barely ahead of 2006, and obviously the real jump has come this year.

Second, the bestselling edition of Atlas Shrugged is the mass-market paperback, which is of course the cheapest. That’s the edition whose sales are tracked in the chart. But the bestselling edition on Amazon is the more expensive trade paperback, which is the one whose sales the Economist analyzes. Why? Are Amazon customers older and more affluent, so that they prefer the larger book even at a higher cost? Do many local bookstores carry only the mass-market edition?

Thanks to C. Alexander Evans and Tom Firey for help in compiling and presenting these data.

Old Enough to Die for Your Country, Too Young for a Credit Card

While much of the debate around the so-called “Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights” has been on ending various card policies aimed at disguising different credit risks, one group of cardholders is certain to lose their right to credit under this bill: adults between the ages of 18 and 21.

Under the current Senate bill, the only way for someone under the age of 21 to get a credit card would be either:

1) they have a co-signer, such as their parent, sign for it, or

2) they maintain a job with sufficient income to cover any obligations arising from the credit card.

By contrast, neither of these requirements is put in place for student loans; there is the clear expectation that you pay those loans back in the future from your increased future income that results from going to college. While the purpose of a student loan is to offer one the means to get a higher education, the purpose of any form of credit is to borrow against your future earnings in order to enjoy some consumption today. Whether that consumption is in the form of textbooks or beer and pizza should be left up to the individual—we are talking about adults here—and not the state.

As with any legislation, there are likely to be substantial unintended consequences. Of the approximately 18 million students enrolled in U.S. colleges, some number of those will not want to give up their credit cards (maybe they value their beer and pizza) and will accordingly take what may be their only option to maintain that consumption: a job in addition to their studies. As with any choice in lift, this one comes with a trade-off. One of the primary factors related to whether one graduates from college is if one is holding a job while in college—the relationship being that the more hours a student works unrelated to classes, the less likely they are to finish college. Some students are going to take that trade-off. That means one impact of this bill will be that slightly fewer students will finish college. If we are ever to expect college students to start behaving as adults, we should start treating them as such, including allowing them to make their own credit decisions.

Of Course, It Is the Banks’ Fault!

Congress is off on another crusade, to save Americans from credit cards.  People get into debt, run up big fees, generally feel abused, and complain to their elected officials.  Never mind the obvious convenience, which is why credit cards have become an indispensable part of American commerce.  Legislators plan on micro-managing the credit terms which may be offered across America.

Reports the New York Times:

“We like credit cards — they are valuable vehicles for many people,” said Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, the chairman of the Senate banking committee and author of the measure now being considered by the Senate. “It’s when these vehicles are being abused by the card issuers at the expense of the consumers that we must step in and change the rules.”

“Abused by the card issuers.”  Of course.  The very same card issuers who kidnapped people, forced consumers to apply for cards at gunpoint, and convinced merchants to refuse to accept checks or cash in order to force everyone to pull out “plastic.”  The poor helpless consumers who had nothing to do with the fact that they wandered amidst America’s cathedrals of consumption buying wiz-bang electronic goods, furniture, CDs, clothes, and more.  The stuff just magically showed up in their homes, with a charge being entered against them against their will.  It’s all the card issuers’ fault!

But then, Sen. Dodd’s assumption that consumers are not responsible for their actions fits his legislative style: no one is ever responsible for anything.  Least of all the residents of Capitol Hill.

National ID Mission Creep

It’s a given that, once in place, a national ID would be used for additional purposes.

In case you needed proof, on Wednesday, Senator David Vitter (R-LA) offered an amendment to H.R. 627, the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights Act of 2009, requiring the Federal Reserve to impose federal identification standards on the opening of new credit accounts. Among the limited forms of ID credit issuers could accept are REAL ID cards, produced under the moribund national ID law. (Vitter may not realize that REAL ID is in collapse.)

To compound things, his amendment would require credit issuers to run new credit card applicants past terrorist watch-lists. The sense of normalcy, efficiency, and common sense that makes airports so pleasurable to visit today would infect our financial services system. Oh joy.

“Gangster Government” at Work

With the Obama administration preferring to rely on politics rather than the law to “fix” the auto industry, bondholders have discovered that the new politics of this administration is quite a bit more brutal than the old politics practiced by the Bush administration.

Henry Payne and Richard Burr write of “gangster government” using not just demagogic public attacks on greedy bondholders but apparent threats of regulatory sanction to get its way in bankruptcy court.  They explain:

The holdout debtholders sought the refuge of the courts, where decades of bankruptcy law promised that secured lenders would receive just compensation for their investment. But then Obama called in his fixers.

In his April 30 news conference, Obama singled out Chrysler’s self-described “non TARP lenders” as “speculators” who sought to imperil Chrysler’s future for their own benefit. “I do not stand with them,” Obama thundered. “I stand with Chrysler’s employees and their families and communities… . (not) those who held out when everybody else is making sacrifices.” Michigan Democratic allies like Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Rep. John Dingell piled on, calling the lenders “vultures.”

Then, on Detroit radio host Frank Beckmann’s show May 1, a lawyer for the lenders, Tom Lauria, chillingly revealed how “one of my clients was directly threatened by the White House and in essence compelled to withdraw its opposition to the deal under threat that the full force of the White House press corps would destroy its reputation if it continued to fight.”

Lauria later confirmed the threats came from Rattner and that the target was Perella Weinberg, which had suddenly withdrawn its opposition after the president’s April 30 press conference.

The White House denied the threats, but Business Insider subsequently reported that “sources familiar with the matter say that other firms felt they were threatened as well. None of the sources would agree to speak except on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of political repercussions.”

“The sources, who represent creditors to Chrysler,” continued the Insider story, “say they were taken aback by the hardball tactics that the Obama administration employed to cajole them into acquiescing to plans to restructure Chrysler. One person described the administration as the most shocking ‘end justifies the means’ group they have ever encountered… . Both were voters for Obama in the last election.”

The idea of the White House–with the IRS and SEC at its disposal–threatening investment firms should have sent off alarm bells in America’s newsrooms. Inexcusably, the media establishment largely ignored the hardball tactics. This is the same media that has doggedly reported on President Bush’s U.S. attorney firings and the post-9/11 interrogations of terrorist suspects.

I have no opinion on who should get what as part of Chrysler’s bankruptcy – other than that the taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for America’s version of lemon socialism so common around the world.  But crude political interference by the political authorities in Washington in a bankruptcy case erode the rule of law and administration of justice.  If Obama and company believe that the end justifies the end when it comes to handing the auto companies over to favored interests, who among us is safe from similar action by this or another administration in the future?

Obama’s Broken Toaster

APTOPIX ObamaRecently on Leno, President Obama compared some financial products to an exploding toaster. His words:

When you buy a toaster, if it explodes in your face there’s a law that says your toasters need to be safe. But when you get a credit card, or you get a mortgage, there’s no law on the books that says if that explodes in your face financially, somehow you’re going to be protected.

So this is – the need for getting back to some common sense regulations – there’s nothing wrong with innovation in the financial markets. We want people to be successful; we want people to be able to make a profit. Banks are critical to our economy and we want credit to flow again. But we just want to make sure that there’s enough regulatory common sense in place that ordinary Americans aren’t taken advantage of, and taxpayers, after the fact, aren’t taken advantage of.

While I think we would all like to get to “common sense” regulation – arriving at such is unlikely if one’s understanding of the very problem is flawed, as seems to be the president’s.

Unlike broken toasters, mortgages and credit cards do not fail to pay themselves – borrowers fail to pay, almost always for a reason that has little to do with the characteristics of the loan itself. There is a wealth of empirical data documenting the causes of bankruptcy, mortgage and credit card default – much of which has been assembled by those on the left (take a look at any of Professor Elizabeth Warren’s work on bankruptcy). The fact is that the number one cause of all of these events is job loss. If the president has a plan for a mortgage that protects you from losing your job, I would love to see how that’s going to work. After job loss, comes unexpected health bills and divorce.

My hope had been that Obama’s talk about broken toasters was just a little pandering and could be safely ignored. However, judging from the structure of his foreclosure relief plan, he appears to believe that if we just lower the borrower’s rate, all would be saved. The sad truth is that his foreclosure plan does nothing for those really in need – who have lost their job for instance – they are simply out of luck. But then helping people who have lost their job would undermine the argument that it is all the fault of the product.

Shocking News: Fannie Mae Is Losing More Money

Yes, I know.  It’s hard to believe.  Fannie Mae continues to lose money and, even more surprisingly, isn’t likely to ever pay taxpayers back for all of the billions that it already has squandered.  Rather, it says it will need more bail-out funds – probably another $110 billion this year alone.

Reports the Washington Post:

Fannie Mae reported yesterday that it lost $23.2 billion in the first three months of the year as mortgage defaults increasingly spread from risky loans to the far-larger portfolio of loans to borrowers who have been considered safe.

The massive loss prompts a $19 billion investment from the government to keep the firm solvent, on top of a $15 billion investment of taxpayer money earlier this year.

The sobering earnings report was a reminder of the far-reaching implications of the government’s takeover in September of Fannie Mae and the smaller Freddie Mac. Losses have proved unrelenting; the firms’ appetite for tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer aid hasn’t subsided; and taxpayer money invested in the companies, analysts said, is probably lost forever because the prospects for repayment are slim.

But the government remains committed to keeping the companies afloat, because it is relying on them to help reverse the continuing slide in the housing market and keep mortgage rates low.

Even as the government bailout of banks appears to be leveling off, the federal rescue of Fannie and Freddie is rapidly growing more expensive. Fannie Mae said that the losses will continue through at least much of the year and that it “therefore will be required to obtain additional funding from the Treasury.” Analysts are estimating that the company could need at least $110 billion.

Freddie Mac, which has been in worse financial shape than Fannie Mae and has obtained $45 billion in taxpayer funding, will report earnings in coming days.

The response of policymakers in the administration and Congress to this fiscal debacle?  Silence.  No surprise there, since many of them helped create the very programs that continue to bleed taxpayers dry.

Alas, this isn’t the first time that the federal government has promoted a housing boom and bust.  Instead, writes Steven Malanga in Investor’s Business Daily:

This cycle goes back nearly 100 years. In 1922, Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover launched the “Own Your Own Home” campaign, hailed as unique in the nation’s history.

Responding to a small dip in homeownership rates, Hoover urged “the great lending institutions, the construction industry, the great real estate men … to counteract the growing menace” of tenancy.

He pressed builders to turn to residential construction. He called for new rules that would let nationally chartered banks devote a greater share of their lending to residential properties.

Congress responded in 1927, and the freed-up banks dived into the market, despite signs that it was overheating.

The great national effort seemed to pay off. From mid-1927 to mid-1929, national banks’ mortgage lending increased 45%. The country was becoming “a nation of homeowners,” the Times exulted.

But as homeownership grew, so did the rate of foreclosures, from just 2% of commercial bank mortgages in 1922 to 11% in 1927.

This happened just as the stock market bubble of the late ’20s was inflating dangerously. Soon after the October 1929 Wall Street crash, the housing market began to collapse. Defaults exploded; by 1933, some 1,000 homes were foreclosing every day.

The “Own Your Own Home” campaign had trapped many Americans in mortgages beyond their reach.

Financial institutions were exposed as well. Their mortgage loans outstanding more than doubled from the early 1920s to 1930 — $9.2 billion to $22.6 billion — one reason that about 750 financial institutions failed in 1930 alone.

The only serious option is to close down all of the money-wasting federal programs  and laws designed to subsidize home ownership.  A stake through the hearts of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Federal Housing Administration, and Community Reinvestment Act, to start.  Otherwise the cycle is bound to be repeated, again to great cost for the ever-suffering  taxpayers.