Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Chavez: The Death of A Populist … and His Currency?

Although Hugo Chávez, the socialist presidente of Venezuela, has finally met his maker, the grim reaper is still lingering in Caracas. As it turns out, Chávez was not the only important Venezuelan whose health began to fail in recent weeks: the country’s currency, the Venezuelan bolivar fuerte (VEF) may soon need to be put on life support.

In the past month the bolivar has lost 21.72% percent of its value against the greenback on the black market (read: free market). As the accompanying chart shows, the bolivar has entered what could be a death spiral, which has only accelerated with news of Chávez’s death.

 

Shortly before his death, Chávez’s administration acknowledged that the bolivar was in trouble and devalued the currency by 32%, bringing the official VEF/USD rate to 6.29 (up from 4.29). But, at the official exchange rate, the bolivar is still “overvalued” by 74% versus the free-market exchange rate.

Gabelli v. SEC: Fairness Wins, 9-0

Congress has provided that most federal agencies filing civil enforcement actions for penalties, fines or forfeitures must act within five years of the accrual of the government’s “claim,” which generally means within five years of the challenged conduct. In Gabelli et al. v. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Supreme Court considered the issue of whether the SEC could file claims of fraud against an investment adviser after this deadline had passed on the argument that it had not discovered the violation until more recently. Courts sometimes apply a “discovery rule” of this sort to keep alive otherwise-lapsed securities claims by investors and other private parties alleging fraud.  

The Cato Institute weighed in with a November amicus brief in support of the petitioner-defendants. As we noted then: 

Statutes of limitations exist for good reason: Over time, evidence can be corrupted or disappear, memories fade, and companies dispose of records. Moreover, people want to get on with their lives and not have legal battles from their past come up unexpectedly. Plaintiffs thus have a responsibility to bring charges within a reasonable time of injury so that the justice system can operate efficiently and effectively — and that is doubly so when the would-be plaintiff is the government, with all its tools for investigation and enforcement. …

[After noting strong historical reasons to read the statute as excluding a discovery rule] …even if courts could alter rather than merely interpret the meaning of statutes, there’s no basis for creating a discovery rule for government enforcement actions. Government agencies with broad investigatory powers — indeed, whose purpose is to monitor regulatory compliance — don’t face the same difficulty as private plaintiffs in identifying causes of action which give rise to the discovery rule. Adding a discovery rule to § 2462 would create an indefinite threat of government lawsuits and invite agencies to review decades of past conduct of selectively disfavored companies and individuals — inevitably chilling innocent and valuable economic activity. To preserve individual liberty in the face of an ever-burgeoning regulatory state and ensure constitutional separation of powers, we urge the Court to reverse the Second Circuit’s decision and hold that no discovery rule applies in Gabelli v. SEC.

I’m happy to report that yesterday by a unanimous 9-0 vote the Supreme Court agreed with this view. Chief Justice John Roberts’s reasoning, as summarized by Robert Anello at Forbes, takes note that the rationale for the “discovery rule” exception is to aid private fraud victims who are often unsophisticated, without means of investigating fraud, and seek simply to be made whole as opposed to punishing an opponent.  

This is not true of government agencies like the SEC, however.  Indeed, the agency’s “central ‘mission’” is to investigate and root out violations of the securities laws and it “has many legal tools at hand to aid in that pursuit.”  Because it is always on the lookout for fraud, the agency does not need the benefit of the doubt afforded by the discovery rule.

Further, unlike a private party who is seeking money to compensate them for injuries sustained as a result of the fraud, the SEC seeks to inflict penalties on a defendant.  As stated by the Court, the outcome of an SEC action is “intended to punish, and label defendants wrongdoers.”  Allowing the SEC to rely on the discovery rule would “leave defendants exposed” to such punishment “not only for five years after their misdeeds, but for an additional uncertain period in the future.”  The Court concluded by noting that the types of changes proposed by the SEC could only be made with congressional approval.

Because the five year limitation period also applies to other government agencies in other contexts, the Court’s decision is tremendously important. 

A federal agency armed with the power to seek quasi-criminal penalties over stale claims – perhaps even claims from decades earlier – is an agency with too much discretionary power.

Defending Cato from Paul Krugman’s Inaccurate Assertions

Writing for the New York Times, Paul Krugman has a new column promoting more government spending and additional government regulation. That’s a dog-bites-man revelation and hardly noteworthy, of course, but in this case he takes a swipe at the Cato Institute.

The financial crisis of 2008 and its painful aftermath…were a huge slap in the face for free-market fundamentalists. …analysts at right-wing think tanks like…the Cato Institute…insisted that deregulated financial markets were doing just fine, and dismissed warnings about a housing bubble as liberal whining. Then the nonexistent bubble burst, and the financial system proved dangerously fragile; only huge government bailouts prevented a total collapse.

Upon reading this, my first reaction was a perverse form of admiration. After all, Krugman explicitly advocated for a housing bubble back in 2002, so it takes a lot of chutzpah to attack other people for the consequences of that bubble.

But let’s set that aside and examine the accusation that folks at Cato had a Pollyanna view of monetary and regulatory policy. In other words, did Cato think that “deregulated markets were doing just fine”?

Hardly. If Krugman had bothered to spend even five minutes perusing the Cato website, he would have found hundreds of items by scholars such as Steve Hanke, Gerald O’Driscoll, Bert Ely, and others about misguided government regulatory and monetary policy. He could have perused the remarks of speakers at Cato’s annual monetary conferences. He could have looked at issues of the Cato Journal. Or our biennial Handbooks on Policy.

The tiniest bit of due diligence would have revealed that Cato was not a fan of Federal Reserve policy and we did not think that financial markets were deregulated. Indeed, Cato scholars last decade were relentlessly critical of monetary policy, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Community Reinvestment Act, and other forms of government intervention.

Heck, I imagine that Krugman would have accused Cato of relentless and foolish pessimism had he reviewed our work  in 2006 or 2007.

I will confess that Cato people didn’t predict when the bubble would peak and when it would burst. If we had that type of knowledge, we’d all be billionaires. But since Krugman is still generating income by writing columns and doing appearances, I think it’s safe to assume that he didn’t have any special ability to time the market either.

Krugman also implies that Cato is guilty of historical revisionism.

…many on the right have chosen to rewrite history. Back then, they thought things were great, and their only complaint was that the government was getting in the way of even more mortgage lending; now they claim that government policies, somehow dictated by liberals even though the G.O.P. controlled both Congress and the White House, were promoting excessive borrowing and causing all the problems.

I’ve already pointed out that Cato was critical of government intervention before and during the bubble, so we obviously did not want government tilting the playing field in favor of home mortgages.

It’s also worth nothing that Cato has been dogmatically in favor of tax reform that would eliminate preferences for owner-occupied housing. That was our position 20 years ago. That was our position 10 years ago. And it’s our position today.

I also can’t help but comment on Krugman’s assertion that GOP control of government last decade somehow was inconsistent with statist government policy. One obvious example would be the 2004 Bush Administration regulations that dramatically boosted the affordable lending requirements for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which surely played a role in driving the orgy of subprime lending.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The burden of government spending almost doubled during the Bush years, the federal government accumulated more power, and the regulatory state expanded. No wonder economic freedom contracted under Bush after expanding under Clinton.

But I’m digressing. Let’s return to Krugman’s screed. He doesn’t single out Cato, but presumably he has us in mind when he criticizes those who reject Keynesian stimulus theory.

…right-wing economic analysts insisted that deficit spending would destroy jobs, because government borrowing would divert funds that would otherwise have gone into business investment, and also insisted that this borrowing would send interest rates soaring. The right thing, they claimed, was to balance the budget, even in a depressed economy.

Actually, I hope he’s not thinking about us. We argue for a smaller burden of government spending, not a balanced budget. And we haven’t made any assertions about higher interest rates. We instead point out that excessive government spending undermines growth by undermining incentives for productive behavior and misallocating labor and capital.

But we are critics of Keynesianism for reasons I explain in this video. And if you look at current economic performance, it’s certainly difficult to make the argument that Obama’s so-called stimulus was a success.

But Krugman will argue that the government should have squandered even more money. Heck, he even asserted that the 9-11 attacks were a form of stimulus and has argued that it would be pro-growth if we faced the threat of an alien invasion.

In closing, I will agree with Krugman that there’s too much “zombie” economics in Washington. But I’ll let readers decide who’s guilty of mindlessly staggering in the wrong direction.

Osborne Risks a Triple-Dip for the UK

U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has resumed his saber-rattling over raising capital requirements for British banks. Most recently, Osborne has fixated on alleged problems with banks’ risk-weighting metrics that, according to him, have left banks undercapitalized. Regardless of Osborne’s rationale, this is just the latest wave in a five-year assault on the U.K. banking system – one which has had disastrous effects on the country’s money supply. The initial rounds of capital hikes took their toll on the British economy – in the form of a double-dip recession. Now, Osborne appears poised to light the fuse on a triple-dip recession.

Even before the Conservative, Osborne, took the reins of Her Majesty’s Treasury, hiking capital requirements on banks was in vogue among British regulators. Indeed, it was under Gordon Brown’s Labour government, in late 2007, that this wrong-headed idea took off.

In the aftermath of his government’s bungling of the Northern Rock crisis, Gordon Brown – along with his fellow members of the political chattering classes in the U.K. – turned his crosshairs on the banks, touting “recapitalization” as the only way to make banks “safer” and prevent future bailouts.

It turns out that Mr. Brown attracted many like-minded souls, including the central bankers who endorsed Basel III, which mandates higher capital-asset ratios for banks. In response to Basel III, banks have shrunk their loan books and dramatically increased their cash and government securities positions, which are viewed under Basel as “risk-free,” requiring no capital backing. By contrast, loans, mortgages, etc. are “risk-weighted” – meaning banks are required by law to back them with capital. This makes risk-weighted assets more “expensive” for a bank to hold on its balance sheet, giving banks an incentive to lend less as capital requirements are increased. 

Five years later, Osborne is attempting to ratchet up the weights on these assets. Indeed, he is taking another whack at banks’ balance sheets – and the result will be the same as when the U.K. Financial Services Authority first took aim at the banking system (under Gordon Brown). As the accompanying chart shows, the first round of capital requirement hikes (in 2008) dealt a devastating blow to the U.K. money supply. Indeed, it tightened the noose on the supply of bank money – the portion of the total money supply produced by the banking system, through deposit creation.

Not surprisingly, this sent the British economy spiraling into its first recessionary dip. The second hit to the money supply came shortly after the Bank for International Settlements announced the imposition of capital hikes under the Basel III accords, in October 2010. Despite numerous infusions of state money (reserve money) via the Bank of England’s quantitative easing schemes, these first two squeezes on bank money have put the squeeze on the U.K.’s total money supply.

This is the case because state money makes up only 16.3% of the U.K.’s total money supply. The remaining 83.7% of the money supply is made up of bank money. In consequence, the Bank of England would have to undertake a massive expansion of state money, via quantitative easing, to offset the U.K.’s bank money squeeze.

It is doubtful, however, that the British pound sterling would be able to withstand such a move. Indeed, there are more storm clouds brewing over Threadneedle Street. The sterling recently touched a 15-month low against the euro, and it has fallen 8% against the euro since late July. For the time being, at least, the pound’s tenuous position will likely put a constraint on any further significant expansion of state money, through quantitative easing. It appears markets simply wouldn’t tolerate it.

Accordingly, the only viable option to jumpstart the faltering U.K. economy is to release the banking system from the grips of the government-imposed bank-money squeeze. Alas, Osborne’s most recent initiative on bank recapitalization goes in exactly the wrong direction.

Live Blog of the 2013 State of the Union Address and the GOP Response

Please join us at 9:00PM ET on Tuesday, February 12, for live commentary during President Obama’s State of the Union address, the GOP response by Sen. Marco Rubio, and the Tea Party response by Sen. Rand Paul. Here is our panel of policy experts by research area:

General Comment and the Presidency:

Banking and Financial Regulation:

  • Mark Calabria, Director of Financial Regulation Studies (@MarkCalabria)

Infrastructure and Fiscal Policy:

Law and Civil Liberties:

Telecom and Information Policy:

  • Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies (@Jim_Harper)

Health Care:

Immigration:

Education:

  • Andrew Coulson, Director - Center for Educational Freedom (@Andrew_Coulson)
  • Neal McCluskey, Associate Director - Center for Educational Freedom (@NealMcCluskey)

Energy and Environment:

  • Patrick J. Michaels, Director - Center for the Study of Science (@CatoMichaels)
  • Chip Knappenberger, Assistant Director - Center for the Study of Science (@PCKnappenberger)

Foreign Policy and National Security:

Follow their comments directly on Twitter, or come back to this page at 9:00 PM ET on Tuesday, February 12, to join us. We look forward to having you, and sharing our insights with you.

You can also follow the conversation on Twitter by following @CatoInstitute and the hashtag #SOTU.

Also watch Cato’s Libertarian State of the Union.

A Threadneedle Street Kerfuffle

On January 10, 2013, I penned a letter to the Financial Times, pointing out an error in its characterization of lending-of-last-resort operations. As the letter below describes, these central bank operations often do not go according to plan:

Sir, Your leader “Basel bends on liquidity rules” (January 8) asserts that: “Central banks can always provide liquidity, and while their facilities should not be a first resort for banks, the Basel Committee is right to signal it will incorporate access to them in its rules.”

You might have added: “But, central banks have a propensity to make a muddle out of what should be routine operations – like those associated with the provision of lender-of-last-resort liquidity.” The Bank of England provides the most recent evidence of this in what turned out to be a catastrophic government failure and arguably the start of the current financial crisis.

On August 9 2007 European money markets dried up after BNP Paribas announced that it was suspending withdrawals from two of its money market funds. This put Northern Rock – a profitable, solvent bank – in a liquidity squeeze. Northern Rock turned to the BoE for a relatively small infusion of liquidity.

This routine lender-of-last resort operation would have worked, according to the textbooks, but for a BoE leak to Robert Peston at the BBC. The BBC story broke on September 13 2007 and the next morning a devastating bank run ensued.

In a flash, Northern Rock went from being solvent (if temporarily illiquid) to bust. Indeed, it was government failure – the BoE’s bungled attempt to provide emergency liquidity – that transformed the Northern Rock affair from a minor, temporary liquidity problem to a major solvency crisis.

So, when it comes to central banks, there is often a wide gulf between the textbooks and reality. It’s time to close the book on Basel III and its liquidity coverage ratio, and to focus on fixing central banks, so that they can properly deliver liquidity, when needed, at a price.

Steve H. Hanke, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, US

To my surprise, what I thought was a simple factual clarification of a Financial Times editorial quickly drew the ire of none other than The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street. Indeed, Nils Blythe, the Bank of England’s communication director was quick to reply in the next morning’s FT:

Sir, In a recent letter (January 11) Professor Steve Hanke made the unsubstantiated claim that the Bank of England leaked information about a lender-of-last-resort operation at Northern Rock to the BBC. This claim is wholly untrue. As the governor made clear in evidence to the Treasury Committee of the House of Commons, the Bank wanted to provide support to Northern Rock covertly, precisely because of the risk of a run by retail depositors.

Prof Hanke also argues that Northern Rock was suffering “a minor, temporary liquidity crisis”. It is worth noting that even when it was supplied with abundant liquidity Northern Rock could not find a buyer and had to be nationalised. With hindsight it is clear that Northern Rock was an early example of the solvency crisis which gripped much of the banking sector in the following years.

Nils Blythe, Communications Director, Bank of England

To put it plainly, I am quite underwhelmed by Mr. Blythe’s argument and evidence. Although it would appear that his response is in line with standard central banking protocol, I found his letter quite concerning for two reasons.

The Long Run Decline in Actual Homeownership

It would be far more accurate to label U.S. federal homeownership policy, U.S. mortgage policy.  For the primary means of “extending” homeownership, via federal policy, has been the massive increase in mortgage debt.  Sadly the actual trend increase in homeownership has been close to nothing since 1960. 

If the ultimate intent of housing policy is to help build wealth and enable families to have something to pass along to future generations, then the right measure should be home equity.  Even better measure would be the percent of homeowners who own their homes free and clear, that is without any mortgage.  As long as there is any mortgage, even a small one, the bank has some ability to foreclose if you are in default.  Setting aside the fact that the government can come take your home, with or without a mortgage, it’s hard to say you really “own” it unless it’s all yours.

Homes Owned Free and Clear

Currently the percentage of homeowners that own without any mortgage is just under 30 percent.  Prior to 1960, an actual majority of owners held their homes with no mortgage at all.  For most of American history, the typical homeowner did not have any mortgage, not having to answer to a bank and also having some wealth to pass along to future generations.  The primary impact of US homeownership policy has not been to increase homeownership, but to increase debt along with driving up house prices.  Not a bad outcome if you’re a mortgage banker or a real estate agent.  But not exactly a good deal for home buyers.  Yes this has also helped increase the average size of homes, but helping everyone live in a McMansion hardly seems like a compelling public policy goal.  And yes, reducing our reliance on debt for purchasing a home would result in lower prices, a huge win for renters.