Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

The Fed and Policy Uncertainty

How and when should the Fed unwind the enormous monetary expansion it undertook in response to the financial crisis and recession? The WSJ reports [$]:

As the Federal Reserve’s next meeting approaches in early November, an internal debate is brewing about how and when to signal the possibility of interest-rate increases.

The Fed has said since March that it will keep rates very low for an “extended period.” Long before it raises rates, however, it will need to change that public signal to financial markets.

Because the recovery is so young and is expected to be so weak, many central bank officials are comfortable, for now, keeping rates very low. But they are beginning to strategize about how to walk away from the “extended period” language.

My suggestion is that the Fed announce a path of gradual increases in the federal funds rate, say beginning next year and lasting for two years, until the rate is at some “normal level.”

This approach is different than what the Fed is likely to undertake; it will probably want to maximize “discretion,” the ability to adjust on the fly as conditions unfold.

My approach maximizes predictability and reassurance: it commits the Fed to shrinking the money supply and heading off future inflation. This reassures markets and takes substantial uncertainty out of the picture.

The problem with my approach is the pre-commitment: everyone knows the Fed could abandon a pre-announced path.

But such an announcement might still give markets useful guidance, and the Fed would know that any deviation would itself upset markets, and this might encourage adherence to the pre-commitment.

C/P Libertarianism, from A to Z

Crist and Cato

Florida’s airwaves are alive with the sound of Governor Charlie Crist’s radio advertisement trumpeting his grade of “A” on Cato’s “Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors.”

I am pleased that Gov. Crist values Cato’s ratings because we work hard to make them accurate and nonpartisan. But the radio ad is making many fiscally conservative Floridians scratch their heads because of the governor’s recent policy actions.

The governor earned his Cato grade in last year’s report mainly because of his large property tax cuts and moderate spending approach. The grade was based purely on quantitative data on revenues, general fund spending, and tax rate changes.

However, since I wrote the report in mid-2008, the governor seems to have fallen off the fiscal responsibility horse.

In particular, Crist approved a huge $2.2 billion tax increase for the fiscal 2010 budget, even though he had promised that $12 billion in federal “stimulus” money showered on Florida over three years would obviate the need for tax increases.

About $1 billion of the tax increases are on cigarette consumers, which will particularly harm moderate-income families. The rest of the increases are in the form of higher costs for often mandatory services, such as automobile registration, which is really just a sneaky form of tax increases.

These tax increases will be particularly painful to Floridians in the short-term because of the recession. But Crist has also jeopardized the state’s long-term finances with his expanded subsidies for hurricane insurance. Hurricanes are a major challenge in Florida, but giving big subsidies to coastal property owners, driving private insurers out of the state, and guaranteeing a massive state bailout when the next hurricane hits strikes me as the height of fiscally irresponsibility.

More on the Crist campaign here.

Executive Comp Restrictions Could End Up Costing the Taxpayer

The Obama administration’s announcement this week on cash compensation for those seven institutions receiving “extraordinary assistance” has generated the all-too-predictable responses. Either you think executives at the entities are bad and greedy and should be punished, or you believe this is just the first step in an all-out class war.  Sadly the real victim in all these efforts has been, and continues to be, the taxpayer.

Now that the taxpayer is the most significant shareholder in these companies, the top priority for Washington, as representative of the taxpayer, should be to see these companies return to profitability.  Quite simply, if these companies are not profitable, that loss will fall on the taxpayer, as shareholder.

And of course, without the ability to retain talent, it is all the more likely that these companies will not maintain profitability.  I suspect the competitors of these seven are already eyeing their best talent.  And let’s not kid ourselves, leaving these companies stocked with mediocre employees will not help taxpayers get their money back. 

In trying to punish the bailed-out  companies, we are also punishing ourselves.  This is one of the very reasons we should never have bailed them out in the first place:  once we are the owners, there fate and ours are linked.

Nothing Good about The Higher Ed Pricing Game

On Tuesday I noted that the College Board had released its annual reports on college prices and student aid. At the time I wrote the post I hadn’t yet been able to download the reports, but was planning to provide a rundown of their major findings once I’d read them. I’ve now done the latter, but it turns out that Ben Miller over at the Quick and the ED has already posted a pretty good summary of the most important findings. Go there if you want the highlights. Don’t go there, though, if you want to know what the highlights mean, at least for anyone other than students. For that, you’ll have to read on here….

The big news is that net college prices – what students pay after aid– have actually decreased over the last 15 years. While sticker prices were rising much faster than incomes and inflation, what students were actually paying dropped. The implication of this is so obvious that Mr. Magoo couldn’t mistake it: Student aid, much of which comes through taxpayers, enables schools to charge ever-higher prices with near impunity.

Back to the Quick and the ED. To some degree, Miller sees declining net price as a triumph for federal aid, making college more affordable even as prices explode:

This story should be encouraging for legislators that fought hard to win Pell Grant increases over the last few years. The steepest decreases in net price occur beginning in the 2007-2008 academic year, the same time Congress began passing legislation that boosted the maximum Pell Grant award several times. This at least suggests that the money spent on the program did play some role in lessening the financial burden for students and was not completely eaten up by sticker price increases.

On the flip side, Miller at least acknowledges that:

The net price figure also lessens the pressure on schools to actually take proactive steps to lower their costs. If the price you list isn’t actually what you charge, then why should anyone care what the listed price is and how high it gets? Net price thus serves as a kind of smokescreen that gets colleges at least partially off fo[r] charging an arm and a leg.

So what’s wrong with this analysis? 

Most important is that Miller softpedals the aid effect, suggesting that the main negative consequence of  ever-increasing assistance is that it bleeds off a bit of the pressure for schools to lower costs. But it likely has a much more destructive effect than that, not just curbing efficiency pressures, but enabling schools to constantly charge and spend more.  It’s a likelihood that student-aid defenders try to dispel by citing studies that cover very short periods of time, or that simply pronounce that we don’t know that it happens. That it probably happens, however, has been borne out empirically, and it’s readily ackowledged by prominent higher educators including former Harvard president Derek Bok, former Stanford vice president William F. Massy, and former University of Iowa president Howard Bowen. Indeed, the latter’s “law” couldn’t be more blunt: “Universities will raise all the money they can and spend all the money they raise.”

Miller’s other major failing is that he completely ignores that all this aid has to come from somwhere, and that “somewhere” is largely taxpayers. (OK, first it’s China.) Just to give you a sense of the impact on taxpayers, College Board data show that between the 1998-99 and 2008-09 academic years, total federal aid – including grant money recipients don’t have to pay back, and loans they (sometimes) do – rose from $61.1 billion to $116.8 billion. Add state aid to that, and the total goes from $66.6 billion to $126.2 billion.

And what are some of the major downsides of these forced third-party payments? Miller mentions a few pricing difficulties for students, but makes no mention of the potentially huge negative consequences for the nation: Encouraging lots of people to attend college who simply aren’t prepared for it; cranking out many more degrees than the job market demands; and potentially slowing economic growth by taking funds from productive uses and giving it to efficiency-averse colleges and students. 

The big finding in the latest College Board data, which the Quick and the ED nails, is that net college prices have been going down. The important story, however, is that this is bad news for the country. Unfortunately, the Quick and the Ed misses that almost completely.

U.S. Cutting Pay for Bailed Out Company Executives

According to reports, executives from bailed out companies Citigroup, Bank of America, GM, Chrysler, GMAC, Chrysler Financial and AIG are going to see major pay cuts this year, which will be enforced by the president’s “pay czar,” Kenneth R. Feinberg. WaPo:

NEW YORK – The Obama administration plans to order companies that have received exceptionally large amounts of bailout money from the government to slash compensation for their highest-paid executives by about half on average, according to people familiar with the long-awaited decision.

The administration will also curtail many corporate perks, including the use of corporate jets for personal travel, chauffeured drivers and country club fee reimbursement, people familiar with the matter have said. Individual perks worth more than $25,000 have received particular scrutiny.

The American people have every right to be upset about generous compensation packages for executives at financial firms that are being kept alive by subsidies and bailouts.

But their ire should be directed at the bailouts, because that is the policy that redistributes money from the average taxpayer and puts it in the pockets of incompetent executives. Unfortunately, rather than deal with the underlying problems of bailouts and intervention, some politicians want to impose controls on salaries. This might be a tolerable second-best (or probably fifth-best) outcome if the compensation limits only applied to companies mooching off the taxpayers, but some politicians want to use the financial crisis as an excuse to regulate compensation at firms that do not have their snouts in the public trough.

This would be a big mistake. So long as rich people make money using non-coercive means, politicians should butt out. It should not matter whether we are talking about Tiger Woods, Brad Pitt, or a corporate CEO. The market should determine compensation, not political deal making. Markets don’t produce perfect outcomes, to be sure, but political intervention invariably produces terrible outcomes.

I debate this further on CNBC:

C/P The Hill

What Caused the Crisis?

Last night National Government Radio promoted a documentary on National Government TV about the financial crisis of 2008, which concludes that the problem was … not enough government.

If the “Frontline” episode mentioned any of the ways that government created the crisis – cheap money from the central bank, tax laws that encourage debt over equity, government regulation that pressured lenders to issue mortgages to borrowers who wouldn’t be able to pay them back – NPR didn’t mention it.

For information on those causes, take a look at this paper by Lawrence H. White or get the new book Financial Fiasco by Johan Norberg, which Amity Shlaes called “a masterwork in miniature.” Available in hardcover or immediately as an e-book. Or on Kindle!

And for a warning about the dangers lurking in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, see this 2004 paper by Lawrence J. White.

Regulation and Competition among Mortgage Brokers

With the House Financial Services Committee moving forward with a bill to increase the regulation of our consumer credit markets, particularly our mortgage market, it is worth asking the question:  what’s the best protection for consumers, regulation or competition?

Let’s take the example of mortgage brokers.  They’ve often been targeted as one  of the causes of the crisis.  The story goes that they just made the loans and passed it along to the lenders and/or Wall Street and so, didn’t care about the quality of the loan.

The response of government, first at the state then the federal level, has been to subject mortgage brokers to increased oversight and licensing, with the intent to keep the “bad actors” out of the marketplace.  How well did this all work out?

According to Professor Morris Kleiner and Minn Fed Economist Richard Todd, not exactly the way you’d want.  What the economists found was that tighter regulation on who can become a mortgage broker is actually associated ”with higher broker earnings, fewer brokers, fewer subprime mortgages, higher foreclosure rates, and a greater percentage of high-interest-rate mortgages.”

It seems the barrier to entry created by these licensing requirements reduced competition in a manner that caused far more harm to consumer than any protections provided by increasing the “quality” of mortgage brokers.