Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

There Are Worse Things than Libertarian Fantasies

So says I, in commenting on Amar Bhidé’s ill-informed opinion piece in yesterday’s FT.

Here, with some minor edits (which I failed to fix on time in the original), is what I wrote:

Were Mr. Bhidé’s own suggestions for monetary policy reforms sound, his swipe at fundamental criticisms of central banking as “libertarian fantasies” would be perfectly gratuitous, but no worse than that. In fact, the idea that we’d be better off starting with a clean slate than trying to fix central banks seems to me considerably less fantastic than Mr. Bhidé’s suggestion that the Fed might manage money responsibly simply by checking commercial banks’ imprudent lending. That the Fed has a miserable track record when it comes to detecting, much less discouraging, imprudent lending, is the least of it: Bhidé’s more fundamental error consists of not imagining that merely by keeping an eye on imprudent lending the Fed would also avoid gross mismanagement of the money supply, and the macroeconomic disturbances consequences thereof. If there’s a theory that supports this view, I’d like to see it!

Nor is it true, despite what Mr. Bhidé claims, that the Fed managed the money supply in its early years merely by discouraging imprudent bank lending. It isn’t true, first, because the Fed’s management of the U.S. money stock was in fact notoriously irresponsible in its first decades (consider the rampant post-WWI inflation, the depression of 1920-21, the boom of the late 1920s, and the Great Monetary Contraction of the early 1930s); second, because “checking imprudent lending” wasn’t the Fed’s mandate then (it was “providing an elastic currency” — an entirely different matter); and third, because the long-run behavior of the money stock was constrained by the working of the gold standard.

Mr. Bhidé is right in one respect: he is right to regard the Fed’s dual mandate as supplying an insufficient check against imprudent Fed actions. The fix, though, isn’t Mr. Bhidé’s even more unsound prescription. It consists of replacing the dual mandate with a single stable spending growth mandate. Unlike Mr. Bhidé’s proposal, such a mandate would place definite limits on inflation, though ones that would vary with the economy’s productivity. It would, to be sure, not suffice to rule out imprudent actions by commercial bankers. But then, no monetary policy mandate should be expected to serve that purpose.

On a separate note, I do wish that Mr. Bhidé and other persons inclined to dismiss arguments to the effect that we’d be better off without central banks as “libertarian fantasies,” or the equivalent (besides Mr. Bhidé, Paul Tucker comes to mind), would grapple with the actual arguments of central bank critics, instead of merely labeling them. As for economists calling things “fantasies” because they seem far from politically possible, it seems to me that by making such pronouncements they shirk their proper duty, which consists of altering the boundaries of the politically possible through their influence upon people’s beliefs. Where would we be today had Adam Smith chosen, not to elaborate upon the potential benefits of free trade, but to dismiss the idea as a “libertarian fantasy?”

[Cross-posted from]

New College Regs: Accusation = Sentence

It’s no secret that war has been declared on for-profit colleges. The question is whether the war is justifiable. I don’t think it is—the evidence strongly suggests that all of higher ed is broken—but I also think it is very hard for the public, in any individual case, to know whether a college accused of wrongdoing is really awful, or the target of politicians trying to make names for themselves. But just accusing a school of predatory behavior hurts it, generating lots of bad press, encouraging more suits and investigations, and usually resulting in schools settling with government accusers without admitting guilt, maybe to stop the PR and financial bleeding, maybe because they think they’re guilty and that’s the best they can get. Regardless, there is clearly an imbalance of power between taxpayer-funded accusers and the accused.

New federal regulations look like they’ll make the problem of accusation-equals-sentence worse. The Wall Street Journal has a lengthy piece looking at the broad potential ramifications of the regs, but one part of the US Department of Education regulation summary caught my eye: Schools would have to automatically “put up funds, in the form of letters of credit (LOCs), that total at least 10 percent of the amount of Title IV funds received by the school over the previous year” if “a state or federal government entity such as an attorney general, the CFPB, or the FTC brings a major suit against the school.” In other words, the moment any government entity, including the unchained Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, accuses a school of wrongdoing, the punishment begins.

This punishment could easily trigger a cascade of trouble, with the need for a letter of credit scaring off investors, bad publicity scaring off students, and a school suffering financially as a result. That school could then be targeted by the Department of Education for being even more of a financial risk, and the death spiral would become inescapable. This is not too far off from what seems to have happened to Corinthian College. Corinthian was, importantly, ultimately found guilty of fraud, but that rare guilty verdict was rendered after Corinthian was no more and had no one to defend it in court.

It is, to be sure, hard to feel too sorry for the for-profit sector. It does have poor outcomes, and is heavily dependent on students paying with government dough. That said, there is also a good bit of evidence that it is no worse, controlling for student challenges, than other higher ed sectors. And it is very easy to imagine politicians—human beings likely as self-interested as the average for-profit school owner or employee—going after for-profit schools because it is politically easy.

These proposed regulations look like they will stack the deck even more against for-profit colleges.

CBO Projections Are No Basis for Claiming Tax Reform “Loses Trillions”

I recently wrote in The Hill on Donald Trump’s fiscal plan. The graph below clarifies some of my comments.


Estimates purporting to show the new, evolving Trump/Ryan Tax Reform must “lose trillions” over 10-20 years are usually static – meaning they assume lower marginal tax rates on labor and capital have zero effect on economic growth or tax avoidance.  Yet that is a relatively small part of the problem.

Even if static estimates made any sense, the alleged revenue losses would still be wildly exaggerated because they compare estimated revenues from reform plans with “baseline” revenues projections from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).  

As the graph shows, CBO projections pretend that revenues from the existing individual income tax will somehow rise as a share of GDP every year –forever– reaching levels never before seen in U.S. history, even in World War II. 

Real wages in the CBO forecast supposedly rise so rapidly that more and more middle-income taxpayers are pushed into higher and higher tax brackets.  Since tax reform eliminates the highest tax brackets, it thwarts these sneaky tax increases and thus appears to “lose money.” But the CBO’s phantom projections are sheer fantasy and no basis for rejecting sensible tax reforms to encourage more business investment and greater labor force participation.


Can the Fed Raise Interest Rates?

I chose my title carefully. I will focus on what is possible for the U.S. central bank to achieve rather than what they might want to accomplish or may attempt to effect.  I examine three possible senses in which the Federal Reserve could not raise interest rates, or would not be able to raise them to the extent they wish.

First, the Fed might face financial headwinds working against attempts to raise short-term, domestic interest rates. Second, there might be undesirable consequences to raising these interest rates that render it practically impossible to pursue higher rates. Third, it might be technically impossible to raise rates.

The major financial headwinds are the actions of other central banks. There are now more than 20 central banks in the world that have instituted negative short-term interest rates (including all of the Eurozone). The trend has been for more central banks to go negative, and for those already in negative rate territory to go deeper. In some of these countries, yields are negative out to 10 years and even beyond.

Were the Fed to attempt to hike short-term interest rates another 25 basis points, it would be moving against the tide of global central bank policies. The European Central Bank’s overnight deposit rate is -40 basis points. The Fed is paying 50 basis points on reserves, so that is a positive spread of 90 basis points. Were the Fed to raise the rate to 75 basis points, there would be a positive spread of 115 basis points.

In the near term, a Fed rate hike would attract capital flows into dollar assets. That would put upward pressure on the value of the U.S. dollar and off-setting downward pressure on short-term U.S. interest rates. It is difficult to go up when the world is headed down.

A Victory for Bitcoin Users

On July 25, Miami-Dade Florida circuit judge Teresa Pooler dismissed money-laundering charges against Michell Espinoza, a local bitcoin seller. The decision is a welcome pause on the road to financial serfdom. It is a small setback for authorities who want to fight crime (victimless or otherwise) by criminalizing and tracking the “laundering” of the proceeds, and who unreasonably want to do the tracking by eliminating citizens’ financial privacy, that is, by unrestricted tracking of their subjects’ financial accounts and activities. The US Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) is today the headquarters of such efforts.

As an Atlanta Fed primer reminds us, the authorities’ efforts are built upon the Banking Secrecy Act (BSA) of 1970. (A franker label would be the Banking Anti-Secrecy Act). The Act has been supplemented and amended many times by Congress, particularly by Title III of the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, and expanded by diktats of the Federal Reserve and FinCEN. The laws and regulations on the books today have “established requirements for recordkeeping and reporting of specific transactions, including the identity of an individual engaged in the transaction by banks and other FIs [financial institutions].”  These requirements are collectively known as Anti-Money-Laundering (AML) rules.

In particular, banks and other financial institutions are required to obey “Customer Identification Program” (CIP) protocols (aka “know your customer”), which require them to verify and record identity documents for all customers, and to “flag suspicious customers’ accounts.” Banks and financial institutions must submit “Currency Transaction Reports” (CTRs) on any customers’ deposits, withdrawals, or transfers of $10,000 or more. To foreclose the possibility of people using unmonitored non-banks to make transfers, FinCEN today requires non-depository “money service businesses” (MSBs) – which FinCEN defines to include “money transmitters” like Western Union and issuers of prepaid cards like Visa – also to know their customers. Banks and MSBs must file “Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs)” on transactions above $5000 that may be associated with money-laundering or other criminal activity. Individuals must also file reports. Carrying $10,000 or more into or out of the US triggers a “Currency or Monetary Instrument Report” (CMIR).” Any US citizen who has $10,000 or more in foreign financial accounts, even if it never moves, must annually file “Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts Reports (FBARs).”

Basel’s Liquidity Coverage Ratio: Redux

Last summer I contributed a post about the Liquidity Coverage Ratio (LCR), a new regulation that is part of the latest international Basel Accords (Basel III) and that is being imposed on U.S. banks and other financial institutions. As I explained in that post, the LCR requires banks to hold “high quality liquid assets” (HQLA) sufficient to cover potential net cash outflows over 30 days. Both George Selgin and I have pointed out that the LCR probably contributes to the continuing desire of banks to maintain such a high level of reserves.

Two economists who have severely criticized the LCR are Gary Gorton, noted for his work on bank panics, and his co-author, Tyler Muir. Earlier this year they published online a short version of a much longer unpublished paper that scrutinizes the potential impact of the LCR. Whereas my post, appropriately entitled “Reserve Requirements Basel Style,” compared the LCR to the traditional but now largely abandoned reserve requirements imposed on banks, Gorton and Muir compare it to the bond-collateral (or bond-deposit) requirement of the national banking era, prevailing from the Civil War until creation of the Federal Reserve. They conclude that the LCR will cause the same sorts of problems that, ironically, the Fed was supposed to solve.