Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

The Bridge to Your Wallet

The Bridge to Your WalletThe airwaves and Intertubes are filled with images of this bridge in Missouri – the first transportation project in the nation to be funded through the stimulus bill signed by president Obama last month. In their coverage of this project, the media uniformly point to the jobs it has created for local workers, and neglect to reflect on its economic costs.

As Doug Bandow pointed out in his earlier post, even Congress’s own Budget Office expects the stimulus to shrink our economy in the long term. And the CBO’s analysis is arguably too rosy, neglecting the crucial psychological effect of Washington’s unprecedented spending spree on American consumers.

An NBC/WSJ public opinion poll found in January that “60 percent say they’re concerned that the government will spend too much money in trying to stimulate the economy, ultimately increasing the size of the debt.” That’s up from 57 percent who were already terrified by Bailout Mania back in November of 2008. What do people do when they’re scared about the state of the economy? They. Stop. Spending.

Supporters of bailouts and “stimuli” imagine that they can overcome consumers’ tight-fistedness in the short term, but they fail to realize that each new lavish increase in federal spending makes taxpayers more nervous about their ability to repay the ballooning federal debt and about the future of the U.S. economy. So while the Bridge to Your Wallet may have created a handful of local construction jobs in Missouri, it is almost certainly costing many others around the nation.

Cautious taxpayers look at that bridge project, at the mind-boggling accumulation of federal bailouts and stimuli and the biggest federal budget in history, and they cancel major purchases and family vacations. They eat at home instead of supporting their local restaurants. They do exactly the opposite of what the president and Congress are expecting.

If the media insist on doing more stories about the Bridge to Your Wallet, they should look at the polling and spending data showing how Washington’s spending spree is scaring the public into spending less – defeating the very purpose of the stimulus. They should interview restaurant and hotel owners and ask them just how economically stimulated they feel at the moment.

A ‘Stimulus’ Bill that Makes Us Worse Off

Even after being in Washington for nearly three decades, I still occasionally marvel at the stupidity and foolishness of the denizens of Capitol Hill.  Like the recent “stimulus” bill.  There’s no doubt that it is waste and abuse personified, much of it derived from the standard big-spending liberal wish list.  But we were told that wouldn’t matter, since spending, any spending, is what was necessary to get the economy moving.

But it turns out that even the Congressional Budget Office–the legislative branch’s own analytical agency–figures the legislation will make us worse in the long-term.  On Monday CBO reaffirmed its earlier conclusion:

In contrast to its positive near-term macroeconomic effects, the legislation will reduce output slightly in the long run, CBO estimates. The principal channel for that effect, which would also arise from other proposals to provide short-term economic stimulus by increasing government spending or reducing revenues, is that the law will result in an increase in government debt. To the extent that people hold their wealth as government bonds rather than in a form that can be used to finance private investment, the increased debt will tend to reduce the stock of productive private capital. In economic parlance, the debt will “crowd out” private investment. (Crowding out is unlikely to occur in the short run under current conditions, because most firms are lowering investment in response to reduced demand, which stimulus can offset in part.) CBO’s basic assumption is that, in the long run, each dollar of additional debt crowds out about a third of a dollar’s worth of private domestic capital (with the remainder of the rise in debt offset by increases in private saving and inflows of foreign capital). Because of uncertainty about the degree of crowding out, however, CBO has incorporated both more and less crowding out into its range of estimates of the long-run effects of the stimulus legislation.

Since CBO expects the U.S. to return to full employment, the impact of the lower GDP will be lower wages:

The reduction in GDP is therefore estimated to be reflected in lower wages rather than lower employment, as workers will be slightly less productive because the capital stock is slightly smaller.

So, we are going massively into debt and mortgaging the future of the young for the purpose of … shrinking the economy!  Workers will find themselves paying higher taxes to fund wasteful spending while … earning less!  No wonder Washington is such an alien place to most Americans.  Even after spending most of my adult life here, I still don’t get it.

‘Real Regulators’ Redux

Sunday’s episode of 60 Minutes featured a man named Harry Markopolos who repeatedly reported Bernie Madoff’s scam to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC did not investigate.

Steve Croft: How many times did you send material to the SEC?

Markopolos: May 2000. October 2001. October, November, and December of 2005. Then again, June 2007. And finally, April 2008. So, five separate SEC submissions.

Croft: And in spite of all of the things that you did, it still ended up in disaster.

This is a reminder of what I observed in a recent post here called “A Real Regulator.” CNBC’s Erin Burnett had called for a “real” regulator in the wake of Madoff, to which I replied:

When regulators fail to address a problem ahead of time, when they regulate inefficiently, when they hand their rulemaking organs to the industries they are supposed to oversee, those are all the actions of real regulators. That’s what you get with real regulation.

Markopolos isn’t grinding this same ax against goverment regulation. He says, “… [S]elf-regulation on Wall Street doesn’t work.”

So the question is posed: What allowed this to happen?

I don’t think this huge fraud occured in a “self-regulatory” environment. It occured in a regulated environment. Regulators failed to do their jobs, but investors had abandoned their responsibility to look into the people and firms with which they placed their money. They believed that the SEC was taking care of that.

It wasn’t, so nobody was minding the store. Ultimately, the SEC served as a partner to the crime, providing the “confidence” that made a success of Bernie Madoff’s confidence game.

Back to Markopolos:

That’s typically how the SEC does it. They come in after the crime has been committed, they toe-tag the victims, count the bodies, and try to figure out who the crooks were, after the fact, which does none of us any good.

Is “self-regulation” the alternative to government regulation? No. And neither is deregulation. The alternative is market regualtion, where individuals, responsible for the soundness of their purchases and investments, investigate and study who they do business with. Scams like Madoff’s would have shorter duration and do less damage if investors were not under the impression that they were protected by government regulators. Of course, our policymakers are likely to double-down on the bet on governmental regulation, even though we all just witnessed its failure.

Defense of Bank Secrecy by Austria and Luxembourg Is Good News for Tax Competition

It is no exaggeration to say that destroying tax havens is probably the number one goal of the world’s statist politicians and international bureaucrats. The European Commission has a new assault against low-tax jurisdictions. The Paris-based OECD is preparing to renew its ant-tax competition project. And American politicians such as Barack Obama want to persecute tax havens as part of his assault on private capital. Switzerland is the top target of the statists, but other jurisdictions such as Singapore, Austria, and Luxembourg also are being persecuted. Switzerland is doing a good job defending its human rights policy of strong privacy, but it’s good news to read in the European Voice that Austria and Luxembourg just announced that bank secrecy is not a negotiable matter:

Austria and Luxembourg have declared that they will resist attempts to crack down on banking secrecy, despite calls from other EU states and the European Commission for stricter rules to tackle tax evasion. Germany is pushing for tougher action against tax havens, partly motivated by discontent that German citizens are putting their savings in bank accounts in Switzerland and Lichtenstein. … A statement issued by…Josef Pröll, Austria’s finance minister, and Luc Frieden, Luxembourg’s budget minister, said… “banking secrecy is not up for negotiation”. …The European Commission on 2 February proposed that member states should abolish banking secrecy in relations between national tax authorities.

Tax competion, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy limit the power of governments to act like monopolists. Tax havens play an especially important role since politicians know that these jurisdictions give taxpayers some ability to protect themselves from predation. To learn more about the economic benefits of tax havens, click here. To learn more about the moral case for tax havens, click here. And to see why anti-tax haven demagoguery is misguided, click here.

Obama’s Lobbying Bonanza

The Bush administration was good to lobbyists, especially in its final year, when lobbyists earned $3.2 billion, the most ever. But the Obama administration promises to be even better, according to those who follow the field. Marketplace Radio reports:

Washington lobbyists earned a whopping $3.2 billion last year. That’s the highest amount in the decade tracked by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Executive Director Sheila Krumholz says interest groups spent $17.4 million on lobbying every day Congress was in session last year. And with Washington on a spending spree, companies are boosting their influence on Capitol Hill.

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: There was this unique opportunity that government was handing out money and anytime that happens, companies will spend what they must to get in line to get a piece of the pie.

And that’s expected to continue. Craig Holman is a governmental affairs lobbyist with the non-profit group Public Citizen.

CRAIG HOLMAN: The amount spent on lobbying is not related to the disclosure or the regulation of the lobbying profession. It is related entirely to how much the federal government intervenes in the private economy.

That’s right. Even the Naderite Public Citizen understands that “the amount spent on lobbying … is related entirely to how much the federal government intervenes in the private economy.”

Marketplace’s Ronni Radbill goes on, “In other words, the more active the government, the more the private sector will spend to have its say…. With the White House injecting billions of dollars into the economy, lobbyists say interest groups are paying a lot more attention to Washington than they have in a very long time.”

Or, as F. A. Hayek explained the process 65 years ago in his prophetic book The Road to Serfdom: “As the coercive power of the state will alone decide who is to have what, the only power worth having will be a share in the exercise of this directing power.”

And just who is doing all this lobbying? The Center for Responsive Politics says that health and pharmaceutical companies were the biggest spenders, which wouldn’t surprise lobby-watcher Tim Carney, followed by the finance, insurance, and real estate industry (even though many of those companies cut back their lobbying late in the year, after getting the moolah they came for). But, Marketplace also reports, “There’s a report out today from the Center for Public Integrity that says the number of green lobbyists has tripled in the last five years. There are nearly 2,500 people now employed trying to get their clients views heard on climate policy. Wall Street in particular sank a lot money into green.” With the economy slowing, banks were pulling back from investments in so-called renewable energy. “That is, until the stimulus package tossed it a lifeline.”

So the $3.2 billion bonanza for lobbyists in 2008 was just a precursor of the lollapalooza to come. Within three weeks of Obama’s inauguration, the Washington Post reported that more than 90 organizations had hired lobbyists specifically to influence the stimulus bill. Since President Obama has made clear that in his “blueprint for America,” the $800 billion stimulus bill is just the start of his money flow to and from Washington, we can expect lobbying expenditures to keep on rising. Federal spending will be directed by politicians to politically favored recipients. That’s just reality. If you want money flowing to the companies with good lobbyists and powerful congressmen, then all this spending may accomplish something. But we should all recognize that we’re taking money out of the competitive, individually directed part of society and turning it over to the politically controlled sector. Politicians rather than consumers will pick winners and losers. That’s not a recipe for recovery.

I’ll give the last word again to Craig Holman of Public Citizen: “the amount spent on lobbying … is related entirely to how much the federal government intervenes in the private economy.”

The Foreclosure Five Dominate Case-Shiller Price Indexes

A CNNMoney.com report, “Home prices in record drop,” posted a scary map labeled “Falling Homes Sales.” But it actually shows falling home prices. Within the S&P Case-Shiller sample of 20 metropolitan areas, the steepest drop in prices (not sales) were in Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Tampa and Detroit.

All 7 of those metropolitan areas (7 out of 20 in that index) lie within 5 states with by far the worst mortgage problems, as shown in my February 21 article, “The Foreclosure Five.” Yet I also showed that states with the steepest price declines also have had huge increases in home sales, which makes the label on the CNNMoney map doubly misleading.

My article used third quarter house prices because fourth quarter figures were not yet available. That turns out to make even less difference than I expected.

The fourth quarter Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) figures show home prices down 21.8% for the year in Nevada, 20.5% in California, 15.2% in Arizona, 19.5% in Florida, and 11.8% in Michigan. Prices were down 3.7% in the median state, North Carolina, but up 21.6% over five years. That means prices fell by less than 3.7% last year in 24 states— including a half dozen states with home prices up a bit, and New York with only a 3.3% decline.

CNNMoney says, “The decline does not seem to be slowing - just the opposite. The average home price dropped 2.5% between November and December in the 20 top metro areas.” The FHFA data for all 50 states, by contrast, show a small 0.1% increase in home prices between November and December.

The article goes on say, “The S&P Case-Shiller National Home Price Index reported that prices sank a record 18.2% during the last three months of 2008, compared with the same period in 2007. Case-Shiller’s index of 20 major metropolitan areas fell 18.5%, also a record.” The FHFA, by contrast, shows that prices fell just 8.2% during the last three months of 2008, or 3.7% if using a median average. Ten percentage points is quite a wide gap.

What accounts for such huge differences between Case-Shiller and federal price indexes? CNNMoney imagines it’s because “Homes purchased without financing or ones too expensive to qualify for a Fannie-Freddie loan are not counted in the FFHA (sic) statistics.” That’s more than unlikely. The inclusion of cash sales and jumbo loans (larger than $729,750 in pricey area) can’t possibly explain why price declines in the Case-Shiller index look so much more dramatic those in the OFHEO/FHFA index.

The real reason is simple: Case-Shiller indexes are hugely dominated by the Foreclosure Five. In the Case-Shiller index of only 20 “top” metro areas, the Foreclosure Five account for 41.2% of that value-weighted index with California alone accounting for 27.4%.

The “national” Case-Shiller index totally excludes 13 states, such as Indiana and South Carolina, and samples only a fraction of many others. The Foreclosure Five account for 28.3% of that “national” index, with California amounting to 17.1%.

As is true of nearly all reprorting about foreclosures, underwater mortgages and falling house prices, what the Case-Shiller price index really shows is that many people are confusing what has been happening in the Foreclosure Five with what has been happening in the nation as a whole.

New Podcast: ‘Most Banks Are Fine’

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, says Cato Senior Fellow Gerald P. O’Driscoll Jr. of the country’s banking system. Since more than 90 percent of U.S. banks are doing fine, why all the talk about nationalizing them?

In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, O’Driscoll explains:

If you think the bank is insolvent, certainly it should be resolved. But do we really want to see the government running very large financial institutions? In effect, we already have seen that movie, it’s Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and they’re not doing such a good job of it.