Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Tough Words

In the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O’Grady got Dallas Fed president Richard Fisher to go on the record about current Fed policy. He talks tough about inflation. “Throughout history, what the political class has done is they have turned to the central bank to print their way out of an unfunded liability. We can’t let that happen.”

What is lacking is a plan to match the tough words with tough actions. Only when a tough and resolute U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, was matched with a tough and resolute Fed Chairman, Paul Volcker, did the Fed turn into an effective inflation fighter. There is no such match up now in the face of trillion dollar deficits forecast with no end in sight.

Ms. O’Grady describes Fisher as “the lead inflation worrywart” on the Federal Open Market Committee of the Fed. But Fed officials do not act in a political vacuum, and regional Fed presidents cannot on their own stop the Fed’s printing money in the face of the deficits. That requires leadership at the top from both the Fed chairman and the U.S president.

The Administration’s plan appears to be “to print their way out of an unfunded liability.” Thus far, despite tough words from some quarters, the Fed seems ready to accommodate “the political class.”

“They Don’t Have the Money to Pay Us Back”

When they let their guard down, politians can say the most revealing things.  In today’s Wall Street Journal, representatives of local governments in California attacked Governor Schwarnenegger’s plan to borrow $2 billion from local property tax revenues to cover some of the state’s budget shortfalls.  In response, Don Knabe, chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisiors said, “They’re hijacking our dollars.  They don’t have the money to pay us back.  It’s a joke.” 

Given that California doesn’t have the money to pay back borrowing from its local government, it’s likely they might not be able to pay back borrowing from private investors either.  To solve this problem, we have the Municipal Bond Insurance Enhancement Act, on which the House Financial Services Committee held a hearing this week.  To encourage investors to buy California’s risky debt, the federal government would cover any losses to the investor.  We’re told that the federal government would charge bond-issuing governments insurance premiums to cover any losses, but the federal government’s history of setting rates based on politics rather than risk (have you looked at the health of the National Flood Insurance Program lately?) guarantees that the taxpayer would likely have to cover billions in losses on any guarantee of California’s debt.

Who’s Going to Buy Your Debt, Mr. President?

The administration’s presumption that America can borrow its way to prosperity has taken a couple of big hits over the last couple days.

First, just as the Third World debt crisis destroyed the belief among international bankers that countries don’t go bankrupt, so is the West’s borrowing binge ending the belief among international investors that the U.S. and other Western nations are safe economic bets.

Reports the Wall Street Journal:

Britain was warned by Standard & Poor’s Ratings Service that it may lose its coveted triple-A credit rating, triggering a drop in U.K. bonds and sparking global fears about the consequences of massive debts being incurred by the U.S. and other major nations as they try to dig out from the economic crisis.

The announcement quickly sent waves across the Atlantic. Investors initially dumped U.K. bonds and the pound, heading for the relative safety of U.S. Treasurys. But within hours, worries about an onslaught of new U.S. bond sales and the security of America’s own triple-A rating drove down the prices of U.S. Treasurys.

The yield of the benchmark U.S. 10-year bond, which moves in the opposite direction to the price, rose by 0.15 percentage point from Wednesday to 3.355%, its highest level in six months.

The relative gloom about the U.K. and the U.S. was apparent Thursday in the market for credit-default swaps, where investors can buy and sell insurance against sovereign defaults. Five years of insurance on $10 million in U.K. debt jumped to around $81,000 a year, from $72,000 earlier in the day. U.S. debt insurance cost the equivalent of $37,500 — in the same range as France at $38,000, and Germany at $35,000.

A shot across the bow of the American ship of state, some analysts have called it.

But shots also were being fired from another direction:  East Asia.  The Chinese are starting to have doubts about Uncle Sam’s creditworthiness.  Reports the New York Times:

Leaders in both Washington and Beijing have been fretting openly about the mutual dependence — some would say codependence — created by China’s vast holdings of United States bonds. But beyond the talk, the relationship is already changing with surprising speed.

China is growing more picky about which American debt it is willing to finance, and is changing laws to make it easier for Chinese companies to invest abroad the billions of dollars they take in each year by exporting to America. For its part, the United States is becoming relatively less dependent on Chinese financing.

Financial statistics released by both countries in recent days show that China paradoxically stepped up its lending to the American government over the winter even as it virtually stopped putting fresh money into dollars.

This combination is possible because China has been exchanging one dollar-denominated asset for another — selling the debt of government-sponsored enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in a hurry to buy Treasuries. While this has been clear for months, new data shows that China is also trading long-term Treasuries for short-term notes, highlighting Beijing’s concerns that inflation will erode the dollar’s value in the long run as America amasses record debt.

The national debt is over $11 trillion.  This year’s deficit will run nearly $2 trillion.  Next year the deficit is projected to be $1.2 trillion, but it undoubtedly will run more.  The administration projects an extra $10 trillion in red ink over the coming decade.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac need more money.  The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation is in trouble.  The FDIC will need more cash to clean up failed banks.  The effectively nationalized auto companies will soak up more funds.  Then there’s the more than $70 trillion in unfunded Social Security and Medicare liabilities.

But don’t worry, be happy!

Bailout Nation

The four top business headlines in the Washington Post the other day were:

More Homeowners Getting Aid, but Demand Keeps Rising

AIG Could Repay U.S. in 3 to 5 Years, Chief Tells Congress

Treasury Clarifying Rules for Bailed-Out Firms

Small Auto Suppliers Seek Help in Wake of Giants’ Woes

It’s certainly true, as BBC and other journalists have noted, that the center of American business and finance is now Washington, not New York.  The headlines above (in the paper edition, but some of them can be found here) indicate that all sorts of businesses and individuals are looking to the Obama administration for bailouts and loans and “capital injections.” And one could find similar stories about federal money for states, cities, big insurance companies, and more. Money and credit were once allocated by owners of capital, who stood to gain or lose on the strength of their decisions. Now capital is being allocated by politicians and bureaucrats, who have none of their own money at risk and who may well see their own power enhanced by an economy that remains slow.

Back in September, as the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac ushered in a new era of federal help for failing companies, I wrote a blog post titled “Bailout Nation.” I didn’t know the half of it; still to come were the AIG bailout, TARP, federal subsidies to banks and automobile companies, and more. But I warned then:

Capitalism is a system of profit and loss. It works because each person and each company, in seeking its own interest, is led “as if by an invisible hand” to supply goods and services that others want. Companies that satisfy consumers prosper. Companies that can’t produce goods that consumers want–like Chrysler, repeatedly–suffer and sometimes go out of business. The failures are often painful. But as Dwight Lee and Richard McKenzie wrote in their book Failure and Progress (or at least in this column based on the book), “Economic failure is to the economy what physical pain is to the body. No one enjoys pain, but without it the body would lack the information needed to maintain its health.” Government subsidies to prevent business failure simply keep pouring money into businesses that are relatively unsuccessful at satisfying consumer desires. They are, among other things, censorship of vitally needed information. Employees, entrepreneurs, and investors need to know where their money and talent are most valuable. Profits and losses are key indicators of that.

Turns out that David Ignatius had warned of a “Bailout Nation” in a column a few months before that:

As every parent knows, the danger of cutting a special break for one child is that all the other children will demand the same thing. “It’s not fair,” goes the inevitable refrain. “You said Susie could eat ice cream and watch TV until midnight, so why can’t I?” The parents start caving, and family discipline is shot.

We’re now in a comparable cycle of bestowing special economic favors on members of the national family who have been hurt by the credit market crisis. “It’s not fair,” argue the housing interests and consumer advocacy groups. “Bear Stearns got a financial bailout, so why shouldn’t we?” And they’re right, by the simplest schoolyard definition of fairness.

So the line grows of people demanding breaks on financial obligations they can’t afford.

Neither of us is very happy about being so prescient. And what no one seems to discuss is, Where is all this bailout money coming from? Much of it is just being created on the balance sheets of the Federal Reserve, which portends rising inflation. Certainly it’s too much to be paid for in taxes, even in the fondest dreams of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi.  Is Bernie Madoff advising the Treasury these days?

How much money is it? CNNMoney estimates that the federal government has now committed $10.5 trillion. Christopher Barker at the Motley Fool concludes that ”the combined total of existing, announced, and potential outlays from the Federal Reserve and U.S. government agencies that are directly attributable to the financial crisis will breach $13 trillion!”

This is nuts. Would Paulson and Bernanke have acted differently last April if they’d known where we would be in a year? They’d have known if they’d read David Ignatius’s column. Or if they’d read some history; when governments start handing out money to troubled institutions, there will be no limit to the number of troubled institutions. And in barely a year, you get small auto parts companies coming to Washington saying that if automakers and large suppliers are getting government help, they should too. President Bush and his Treasury secretary started this process, but Obama and the Democrats own it now. Do they have a plan that doesn’t end in inflation and bankruptcy?

Congress “Helps” Credit Card Customers

One of the best laugh lines always has been “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”  Certainly that’s true when it comes to consumer protection.

In the name of saving customers from the evil, rapacious credit card companies Congress plans on limiting access to credit.  It also is working to hike costs for people with good credit.

Reports the New York Times:

Now Congress is moving to limit the penalties on riskier borrowers, who have become a prime source of billions of dollars in fee revenue for the industry. And to make up for lost income, the card companies are going after those people with sterling credit.

Banks are expected to look at reviving annual fees, curtailing cash-back and other rewards programs and charging interest immediately on a purchase instead of allowing a grace period of weeks, according to bank officials and trade groups.

“It will be a different business,” said Edward L. Yingling, the chief executive of the American Bankers Association, which has been lobbying Congress for more lenient legislation on behalf of the nation’s biggest banks. “Those that manage their credit well will in some degree subsidize those that have credit problems.”

This makes a lot of sense.  We’re worried about bad debt, bad mortgages, and bad loans.  So Congress is going to penalize people with good credit who carefully manage their financial affairs.  Of course!

It has long been evident that Congress has the reverse Midas touch.  Everything congressmen touch turns to, well, this is a family-oriented blog.  You can fill in the blank.

If Congress wants to help consumers, the best thing it could do is take an extended recess.

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.