Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Members of Congress Who Voted for the Financial Crisis

In late 2000, with the budgeting and spending process in collapse, Congress hurriedly passed a mammoth spending bill called the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2001. It contained a provision preempting state regulation of financial derivatives under gambling or “bucket shop” laws. The result less than a decade later was the out-of-control market for credit default swaps that has caused so much financial, and perhaps economic, chaos.

One hundred fifty-five members of Congress who voted for the Consolidated Appropriations Act and the preemption of state law are still serving and are up for election next week. Twenty-two senators who stood by as the bill passed by unanimous consent are also up for election Tuesday.

Details are in a WashingtonWatch.com blog post entitled “Did Your Representative Cause the Financial Crisis?

Many gambling laws are nanny-statism, of course, but if they’re going to go away, they should be repealed by the legislatures that wrote them. This federal preemption gave special permission to certain parts of the financial services industry to run a huge gambling operation masquerading as a market in real assets.

All this is a good illustration of why it’s harmful for Congress to let the annual budgeting and spending process go off the rails. Maybe voters will hold some of their representatives accountable.

Alan Reynolds’ Critique of Obama and McCain Tax Plans

Peter Ferrara writes that, “Obama’s tax increases will not produce nearly enough revenue to finance all his lavish spending proposals, as shown by a brilliant new paper from Alan Reynolds of the Cato Institute.” Brilliant or not, it’s serious paper I prepared for a Hillsdale College conference, which is now online (at the link to my name).

The Bailout: Secret Payments?

From the WashingtonWatch.com blog:

Just two weeks after the passage of the bailout bill, and one day after a Treasury Department official declared, “we are committed to transparency and oversight in all aspects of the program,” the Treasury Department began covering up the amount it would pay to New York Mellon Bank to act as a financial agent in the bailout.

Spending $700,000,000,000.00 in taxpayer money is not business as usual. And hiding the terms of government contracts shouldn’t be business as usual anyway.

Non-Myths about the Financial Crisis

A paper by three Minneapolis Fed economists is making the rounds – disputing any funding crisis for non-financial corporate firms. IMHO, this is a very disingenuous paper.  All of these so-called myths are really non-myths. Basically, the paper’s focus on “bank lending” is mistaken.  Focusing on total borrowing by non-financial sectors shows the accurate picture.

Myth 1. Bank lending to nonfinancial corporations and individuals has declined sharply.

The financial market crisis is in the non-bank financial sector, not in the banking sector.  And the authors say (correctly) that the majority (80 percent) non-financial sector borrowing is not from banks.  So why focus on bank lending to the non-financial firms to see if there’s a credit crunch?

Myth 2. Interbank lending is essentially nonexistent.

If that’s not true, so what? (See response to Myth 1.) Banks are more tightly regulated by the Fed (compared to non-bank financial companies by the SEC).  So banks did not hold the riskiest mortgage backed securities (although they originated and sequestered such assets in off-balance sheet entities and “adverse selected” the best ones for their own portfolio, selling the rest to non-bank financial and other firms).  So, again, the banking sector is not where the financial market crisis occurred – it happened in the non-bank financial sector.

Myth 3. Commercial paper issuance by nonfinancial corporations has declined sharply and rates have risen to unprecedented levels.

But Federal Reserve Board data on total commercial paper borrowing by non-financial sectors took a huge hit in the 2nd quarter of 2008  (see Flow of Funds, Table F.2 from release Z.1 September 18, 2008, line 3).  Thus, it’s not surprising that bank credit to non-financial companies may be increasing: Those companies may be drawing more heavily on their lines of credit with banks because non-bank sources of borrowing are constricted. So, where’s the mystery?

Myth 4. Banks play a large role in channeling funds from savers to borrowers.

Again, non-bank financial (and other) companies supply the overwhelming share of non-financial sector borrowing. And the non-bank financial sector is where the financial market crisis is occurring.  So, there IS a funding crisis for non-financial firms. Get with it, Minneapolis Fed!

Preventing Another Great Depression

Pundits are using the financial markets mess to raise fears of another Great Depression in order to justify large-scale federal intervention. But government interventions, not markets, cause great depressions.

What markets do naturally when left alone is grow. Sure, people in markets make mistakes and markets sometimes experience panics, but if prices are allowed to adjust, recessions are short-lived and stability and growth returns.

Why do markets naturally grow when left alone? Because of people’s “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another,” as Adam Smith noted. Since voluntary exchange is mutually beneficial, that propensity gives rise to what can be called a surplus, profits, or economic growth. Growth results from simply allowing individuals to seek their economic advantage within the rule of law.

As I note in this summary of the causes of the Great Depression, the U.S. economy experienced a sharp contraction in 1921 with the unemployment rate rising to 12 percent and output falling 9 percent. But the economy bounced back quickly as the government stood aside and let prices adjust and profits recover.

A decade later, the government adopted vastly different policies, which prevented the economy from adjusting and recovering from the monetary contraction that precipated the Great Depression. As I discuss, there were six key reasons for the severity and duration of the Great Depression:

1) Monetary contraction and bank regulations.

2) Tax increases.

3) International trade restrictions.

4) Mandated high prices.

5) Mandated high wages.

6) Harassment and demonizing of businesses.

This 2004 study by UCLA economists provides recent academic support for a number of these points. The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes also provides interesting insights into the depression.

Today, policymakers are starting to make some of these same mistakes again. Will they stop before they turn today’s recession into a full-blown depression?

Is Capitalism Dead?

That seems to be the question on the cover of every magazine this week. It’s also the headline of the lead editorial in today’s Washington Post. But the subhead might surprise you.

Is Capitalism Dead?
The market that failed was not exactly free.

The editors begin:

As financial panic spread across the globe and governments scrambled to contain the damage, reality seemed to announce the doom of U.S.-style free markets and President Bush’s ideology. But this is wrong in two ways. The deregulation of U.S. financial markets did not reflect only the narrow ideology of a particular party or administration. And the problem with the U.S. economy, more than lack of regulation, has been government’s failure to control systemic risks that government itself helped to create. We are not witnessing a crisis of the free market but a crisis of distorted markets.

And they go on to note:

We’ll never know how this newly liberated financial sector might have performed on a playing field designed by Adam Smith. That’s because government interventions of all kinds, from the defense budget to farm supports, shaped the business environment. No subsidy would prove more fateful than the massive federal commitment to residential real estate — from the mortgage interest tax deduction to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to the Federal Reserve’s low interest rates under Mr. Greenspan. Unregulated derivatives known as credit-default swaps did accentuate the boom in mortgage-based investments, by allowing investors to transfer risk rather than setting aside cash reserves. But government helped make mortgages a purportedly sure thing in the first place. Home prices seemed to stand on a solid floor built by Washington.

Government support for housing was well-intentioned: Homeownership is a worthy goal. But when government favors a particular economic activity, however validly, it must seek countervailing control to ensure the sustainable use of public resources. This is why banks must meet capital requirements in return for federal deposit insurance. Congress did not apply this sound principle to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; they were allowed to engage in profitable but increasingly risky activities with an implicit government guarantee. The result was that taxpayers had to assume more than $5 trillion of their obligations. Contrast U.S. experience with that of Canada, where there is no mortgage interest deduction and the law requires insurance on any mortgage over 80 percent of a home’s purchase price. Delinquency rates at Canada’s seven largest banks are near historic lows.

The new capitalist model that emerges from this crisis must operate according to more consistent principles. The Fed should set interest rates with the long-run value of the dollar in mind. Government must be more selective about manipulating markets; over the long term, business works best when it is subject to market discipline alone. In those cases — and there will and should be some — in which government intervenes on behalf of social goals, its support must be counterbalanced with taxpayer protections and regulation. Government-sponsored, upside-only capitalism is the kind that’s in crisis today, and we say: Good riddance.

That’s not quite what I’d have written. But the ending does remind me of the conclusion of my blog post a week ago:

…if this crisis leads us to question “American-style capitalism” — the kind in which a central monetary authority manipulates money and credit, the central government taxes and redistributes $3 trillion a year, huge government-sponsored enterprises create a taxpayer-backed duopoly in the mortgage business, tax laws encourage excessive use of debt financing, and government pressures banks to make bad loans — well, it might be a good thing to reconsider that “American-style capitalism.”