Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

The Good Side of Bad News in Europe

What does the Greco-Euro currency/debt crisis mean for the U.S. economy?

Nearly everyone except the uniquely wise economist John Cochrane assumes very bad “contagion” effects –on U.S. banks, exports and particularly U.S. manufacturing.

This echoes identical anxieties while the world went through a far more dramatic Asian currency crisis after  July 1997,  and a Russian debt crisis the following May.

The most widely ignored effect of that crisis, however, was to depress foreign demand for oil, and thus slash oil prices to U.S. buyers from $25 a barrel in early 1997 to $11 by the end of 1998.

Oil is a major input into the manufacturing process (e.g., chemicals and plastics), and a major cost of distribution (trucks, trains and airplanes).  It is also a major determinant of the cost of all energy sources used in making other goods such as aluminum and paper.   When marginal costs go down, it becomes profitable to expand production.

At the height of the Asian/Russian crises, the table below shows that U.S. manufacturing output  rose by more than 10 percent. It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good.

Looking at the same phenomenon from the other side, every recession but one (1960) was preceded by a big increase in the price of oil. For oil importers like the U.S., cheaper oil is definitely better.

During the last big foreign currency/debt crisis, the real growth of U.S. Gross Domestic Purchases (the home-grown portion of GDP) jumped by 4.7% in 1997 and 5.5% in 1998.  Yet the Fed cut interest rates three times in October and November of 1998 because of what was happening in other countries.

The table  show what happened to the price of oil and to U.S. manufacturing from June 1997 to December 1998. The middle column is the price of a barrel of West Texas crude, and the column to the right is the U.S. industrial production index for the manufacturing sector.

1997-06    19.17    87.80
1997-07    19.63    88.12
1997-08    19.93    89.69
1997-09    19.79    90.45
1997-10    21.26    90.98
1997-11    20.17    92.05
1997-12    18.32    92.52
1998-01    16.71    93.36
1998-02    16.06    93.31
1998-03    15.02    93.13
1998-04    15.44    93.68
1998-05    14.86    94.25
1998-06    13.66    93.53
1998-07    14.08    92.96
1998-08    13.36    95.40
1998-09    14.95    95.11
1998-10    14.39    95.96
1998-11    12.85    96.08
1998-12    11.28    96.63

In recent weeks, as the debt and currency problems in Euroland hit the front page, the price of crude oil fell by about 20 percent.

Once again, as in 1997-98, everyone may be watching the wrong ball in the wrong court.

Senate Rejects Capping Fannie/Freddie Losses

Yesterday the Senate rejected an amendment by Senators McCain, Shelby and Gregg that would have capped the taxpayer losses on Fannie and Freddie at $200 billion each.  The amendment would have also brought Fannie and Freddie onto the Federal budget, forcing the government to admit what most of us already suspect: we’re on the hook for their bad behavior.  All Republicans, with the additions of Democrats Feingold and Bayh, voted for the failed amendment.  As a substitute, which passed along party lines, Senator Dodd proposed that the Treasury Department would “study” the issue and report back to Congress.

While it was not surprising that Dodd lead the opposition to the McCain amendment (it is not the first time he’s protected Fannie and Freddie), what was surprising was his repeated explanation that the National Association of Realtors and National Association of Home Builders opposed the amendment.  With all of Obama’s talk about taking on special interests, I was starting to think the Senate might be serious.  But what’s a few $100 billion of taxpayer dollars to insure that real estate agents can get a few more fat commissions.

Even more bizarre was Dodd’s claim that his substitute amendment was a “tough study”.  What exactly is so tough about requiring Treasury to do a study that they’ve already said they were going to do.  For that matter, what’s so tough about a “study”?  The failings of Fannie and Freddie, and their inherent conflicts, have been studied extensively for years. The rejection of the McCain amendment illustrates why we need GSE reform now, as the special interests are already claiming that another study is all we need.

Senate to Limit ATM Charges?

The great thing about Cato policy papers is that even sometimes obscure topics are timeless, because government never rests when it comes to running our lives and restricting our choices.

Take the issue of bank ATM surcharges, those fees you can sometimes be charged for using another bank’s ATM.  Back in 1998, then Senator Al D’Amato proposed capping those fees.  Thankfully that effort failed.  I would like to believe one of the reasons for its failure is a 1998 Cato Briefing Paper by John Charles Bradbury, describing how ATM surcharge fees actually increase consumer choice by funding ever increasing ATM locations.

Well the Senate is at it again.  Senator Harkin has proposed an amendment to Dodd’s financial regulation bill that would cap ATM surcharge fees at 50 cents (it is not clear where Harkin came up with that number, perhaps his love of music).  The same flaws in D’Amato’s scheme twelve years ago hold true today.

The other great thing about existing Cato briefing papers is that it saves me the work of writing on the topic.  Just as well since I don’t believe I could improve upon Bradbury’s conclusions:

Consumers have the ability to obtain money from their bank accounts without paying a surcharge. ATM surcharges allow banks and other ATM operators to deploy machines in more convenient locations than might otherwise be possible. Customers who are unwilling to pay a surcharge incur the cost of inconvenience, while those who value the convenience more than the cost of the fee have the option of paying for it. Senator D’Amato, Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)–Congress’s self-proclaimed socialist–and numerous consumer groups have formed an unlikely coalition to put an end to ATM surcharges. If successful, that campaign would limit the options of consumers, since there would be no means to support the more convenient ATM machines. Prohibiting ATM surcharges would only harm consumers by slowing the expansion of ATMs and reducing the number of ATMs currently deployed without making anyone better off.

Not Too Late to “Audit the Fed”

Last week I wrote about Senator Sanders’ “compromise” with Senator Dodd and the White House on auditing the Federal Reserve.  To re-cap, the compromise would drop any auditing of monetary policy and simply focus on the Fed’s emergency lending facilities.  See my previous post for why I believe that compromise is a big win for the Fed and a loss for the American public.

The good news is that Senator Sanders’ compromise does not end the debate.  Senator Vitter has filed an amendment (#3760) that mirrors the original Sanders’ amendment, including an audit of monetary policy.  With any luck, other Senators will be able to decide for themselves whether the Sanders-Dodd compromise offers sufficient transparency of the Fed’s actions.

I also highly suggest reading Arnold Kling’s recent Cato briefing paper on the issue, “The Case for Auditing the Fed Is Obvious.”

Europe’s Über Bailout

I’m semi-impressed with the Europeans for choosing the hog-wild approach to bailouts. Not because it is good policy, but rather because it will be a useful demonstration of the old rule that bad policy begets more bad policy (which begets God knows what, but it won’t be pretty). The background is that many European nations have been over-spending, over-taxing, and over-regulating. This has created a poisonous combination of weak economies, pervasive dependency, and political corruption, with Greece being the nation farthest down the path to Krugman-topia. Europe’s political elite at first thought they could paper over the problems with a $140 billion Greek bailout. The ostensible motives were to stop contagion and to demonstrate “solidarity,” but behind-the-scenes lobbying by big European banks (which foolishly own a lot of government debt from profligate nations such as Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Italy) may have been the most important factor. Regardless of the real motive, the original bailout was a flop, so the political class has decided to go with the in-for-a-dime-in-for-a-dollar approach and commit nearly $1 trillion of other people’s money to prop up the continent’s welfare states. The Wall Street Journal reports on the issue, noting that American taxpayers will be involuntary participants thanks to the financial world’s keystone cops at the International Monetary Fund:

The European Union agreed on an audacious €750 billion ($955 billion) bailout plan in an effort to stanch a burgeoning sovereign debt crisis that began in Greece but now threatens the stability of financial markets world-wide. The money would be available to rescue euro-zone economies that get into financial troubles. The plan would consist of €440 billion of loans from euro-zone governments, €60 billion from an EU emergency fund and €250 billion from the International Monetary Fund. Immediately after the announcement, the European Central Bank said it is ready to buy euro-zone government and private bonds “to ensure depth and liquidity” in markets, and the U.S. Federal Reserve announced it would reopen swap lines with other central banks to make sure they had ample access to dollars.

Back when Greece first began to collapse, I argued that bankruptcy was the best option. And I noted more recently that my colleague Jeff Miron reached the same conclusion. Everything that has since happened reinforces this viewpoint. Here are a few additional observations on this latest chapter in the collapse of the welfare state.

1. A bailout does not solve the problem. It just means that taxpayers bear the cost rather than the banks that foolishly lent money to corrupt and incompetent governments.

2. A bailout rewards profligate politicians and creates a moral hazard problem by letting other politicians think that it is possible to dodge consequences for reckless choices.

3. A bailout undermines growth by misallocating capital, both directly via bailouts and indirectly by signaling to financial markets and investors that governments are a “safe” investment.

4. A bailout will cause a short-term rise in the market by directly or indirectly replenishing the balance sheets of financial institutions, but this will be completely offset by the long-run damage caused by moral hazard and capital misallocation.

The last point deserves a bit of elaboration. Assuming markets continue to rise, the politicians will interpret this to mean their policies are effective. But that is akin to me robbing my neighbor and then boasting about how my net wealth has increased. In the long run (which is probably not too long from now), though, this system will not work. At best, Europe’s political elite have postponed the day of reckoning and almost certainly created the conditions for an even more severe set of consequences. No wonder, when I was in Europe a couple of weeks ago, I kept running in to people who were planning on how to protect their families and their money when the welfare state scam unravels. Their biggest challenge, though, is finding someplace to go. People use to think the United States was a safe option, but the Bush-Obama policies of bigger government have pushed America much closer to European levels of fiscal instability.

Uncle Sam: Payday Lender

One of the puzzles of Congressional efforts to “reform” our financial system to avoid future crises is the amount of attention to lenders who had nothing to do with the crisis (almost as puzzling as the inattention to many who did).

Today’s Washington Post, for instance, details the efforts of payday lenders to fight back against both Senator Dodd’s new consumer agency and Senator Hagan’s amendment, that would essentially eliminate the consumer option of payday loans.

In general, any efforts to restrict consumer choice is rarely likely to improve consumer welfare.  This has been repeatedly demonstrated in research on payday lending.  Senator Hagan played a key role in banning such products in North Carolina.  What was the result of that ban?  Don Morgan, at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, decided to test whether such a ban helped or hurt consumers.  He compares how households in North Carolina fared after payday loan bans.  The results: since the loans were banned in 2005 in North Carolina, compared to states where payday lending is permitted, households in NC have bounced more checks and complained more to FTC about lenders and debt collectors. “The increased credit problems contradicts the debt trap critique of payday lending, but is consistent with the hypothesis that payday credit is preferable to substitutes such as the bounced check protection sold by credit unions and banks or loans from pawnshops” states Morgan.

Where Hagan proposes to ban payday, Dodd proposes to have banks and non-profits directly compete with payday lenders, but with one big, important difference: taxpayers would cover a substantial portion of the credit losses.  Buried at the end of Dodd’s massive bill in Title XII is a grant program that would cover credit losses on “payday” loans made by non-profit community lenders as an “alternative to more costly payday loans.”  Of course the private sector loans will be more costly, as the lender will have to charge a rate that covers its losses.  The difference between Dodd’s proposal and the private sector is that while private sector payday loans may be expense, they are entered into voluntarily, whereas Dodd make the taxpayer an unwilling participant in subsidizing high risk borrowing.  Perhaps Dodd should examine previous efforts to subsidize high cost mortgage lending, before we repeat the same mistakes in payday.

Friedman and Moynihan Agree with Sanders and Paul

Reportage in today’s New York Times (“Consensus For Limits to Secrecy At the Fed” by Sewell Chan) indicates that more auditing of the Fed is probably in the cards.

Prof. Milton Friedman and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan would have most certainly agreed with the thrust of the Senate (S. 604) and House (H.R. 1207) bills sponsored by Senator Bernard Sanders and Representative Ron Paul, respectively.  These bills would partially lift the shroud of secrecy draped over the Fed.

Prof. Milton Friedman weighed in on central bank independence in a 1962 essay, “Should There Be an Independent Monetary Authority?”  Prof. Friedman’s conclusion: “The case against a fully independent central bank is strong indeed.”  As for letting in some sunshine, Senator Moynihan had this to say: “Secrecy is for losers.”