Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Does the Left Know We Had a Housing Bubble?

Over the last week, speaking at a variety of events, I heard three different representatives of the Left; first a Democrat US Senator, then a senior member of the Obama Administration, and finally a “consumer” advocate, all repeat the same narrative:  all was fine in the housing market until predatory lenders forced hard-working honest families into foreclosure, which reduced house prices, bringing the economy to a crash.  That’s correct, apparently the Left believes we all would still be seeing double-digit home price appreciation if it wasn’t for those evil lenders.

Undoubtedly foreclosures, especially those that result in houses that remain vacant for a considerable amount of time, have an adverse impact on surrounding property values.  Many constitute a serious eye-sore and provide a haven for criminal activity.  But did foreclosures really drive down prices, or were foreclosures first driven by price declines resulting from a bursting housing bubble?  While causality is always difficult to establish with certainty, we do know that the rate of house price appreciation peaked and started declining about 18 months before the dramatic up-turn in mortgage delinquencies.  If one prefers a more rigorous test, economists at the Boston Fed have directly tested if prices first drove foreclosures or whether foreclosures drove prices.  Their results conclude that its was declining prices that matter, and that the price effect of foreclosures is minimal.

Why does any of this ultimately matter?  Because if we craft policies to avoid the adverse impacts of the next property bubble based upon a narrative of “consumer protection” – as is being pushed by the Obama Administration, we will do little to avoid the creation of the next housing bubble and its damaging aftermath.  Instead we should be focusing attention on those policies that contributed to the creation of the housing bubble: expansionary monetary policy and the Federal government’s blind pursuit of ever-expanding home-ownership rates at any cost.

What’s A Dollar Worth?

It’s not just Americans worried about the flood of dollars from the Fed.  The Chinese and now the Malaysians also are wondering if they should keep dealing in greenbacks.

Reports the Wall Street Journal:

Malaysia’s prime minister said China and his country are considering conducting their trade in Chinese yuan and Malaysian ringgit, joining a growing number of nations thinking of phasing out the dollar.

“We can consider whether we can use local currencies to facilitate trade financing between our two countries,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak told reporters at a briefing Wednesday after meeting with China’s premier, Wen Jiabao.

“What worries us is that the [U.S.] deficit is being financed by printing more money,” Mr. Najib said. “That is what is happening. The Treasury in the United States is printing more notes.”

The dollar won’t easily be displaced as the world’s principal reserve currency.  But Washington appears to be doing everything possible to hasten that day.

Perhaps Americans should consider keeping their wealth in yuan or even ringgits.  At least they might retain their value even as the Fed and Treasury attempt to inflate and spend the U.S. economy into oblivion.

Our Tax Dollars Are Being Used to Lobby for More Government Handouts

The First Amendment guarantees our freedom to petition the government, which is one of the reasons why the statists who wants to restrict or even ban lobbying hopefully will not succeed. But that does not mean all lobbying is created equal. If a bunch of small business owners get together to lobby against higher taxes, that is a noble endeavor. If the same group of people get together and lobby for special handouts, by contrast, they are being despicable. And if they get a bailout from the government and use that money to mooch for more handouts, they deserve a reserved seat in a very hot place.

This is not just a hypothetical exercise. The Hill reports on the combined $20 million lobbying budget of some of the companies that stuck their snouts in the public trough:

Auto companies and eight of the country’s biggest banks that received tens of billions of dollars in federal bailout money spent more than $20 million on lobbying Washington lawmakers in the first half of this year. General Motors, Chrysler and GMAC, the finance arm of GM, cut back significantly on lobbying expenses in the period, spending about one-third less in total than they had in the first half of 2008. But the eight banks, the earliest recipients of billions of dollars from the federal government, continued to rely heavily on their Washington lobbying arms, spending more than $12.4 million in the first half of 2009. That is slightly more than they spent during the same period a year ago, according to a review of congressional records.

…big banks traditionally are among the most active Washington lobbying interests in the financial industry, and the recession has done little to dent their spending. …Since last fall, companies receiving government funds have argued that none of the taxpayer money they were receiving was being spent on lobbying.

…American International Group, the insurance firm crippled by trades in financial derivatives that received roughly $180 billion in bailout commitments, closed its Washington lobbying shop earlier this year. AIG continues to spend money on counsel to answer requests for information from the federal government, but the firm said it does not lobby on federal legislation.

The most absurd part of the story was the companies claiming that they did not use tax dollar for lobbying. I guess the corporate bureaucrats skipped the classes where their teachers explained that money is fungible.

The best part of the story was learning that AIG closed its lobbying operation, though that does not mean much since AIG basically now exists as a subsidiary of the federal government. The most important message (which is absent from the story, of course) is that the real problem is that government is too big and that it intervenes in private markets. Companies would not need to lobby if government left them alone and/or did not offer them special favors. Indeed, that was the key point of my video entitled, “Want Less Corruption: Shrink the Size of Government.”

Don’t Bail Out Bernanke

Here is the message members of Congress should send to Ben Bernanke during the Fed chief’s annual Capitol Hill testimony this week: He is fighting for his job. With his term up in January of next year, Bernanke needs to be called to account for the Fed’s many questionable actions during the financial turmoil of the past year.

Even while correctly identifying the “global savings glut,” Bernanke sat by and did nothing about the unsustainable build-up of leverage in the housing market—the “bubble” which famously burst in late 2008. Bernanke also used Fed financing to bail out Bear Stearns and AIG—hotly political moves which should rightfully have been left to Congress—and oversaw the massive expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet from about $900 billion to over $2 trillion. Under Bernanke, the Fed has transcended monetary policy and bank supervision into the world of fiscal policy.

While thus politicizing the Fed on one hand, Bernanke has sought to insulate the bank from congressional pressures by appeasing majority Democrats with various new credit regulations. Both the recently proposed credit card and mortgage rules unnecessarily restrict credit and increase the litigation risk facing banks, while doing nothing to roll back some of the irresponsible lending policies that exacerbated the housing bubble.

Bernanke’s pandering to the Left on misguided “consumer protections,” and the absence of any debate over the Fed’s role in the housing bubble, raise serious questions as to whether Bernanke understands the causes of the current financial crisis. We cannot hope to avoid the next financial crisis without a Fed chairman who understands the current one.

Bernanke Rules?

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has outlined “The Fed’s Exit Strategy.” He tells the reader how the central bank will avoid an inflation of historic proportions resulting from all the money and credit it has injected into the economy. All of the strategies he outlines are technically feasible ways for the Fed to implement monetary restraint.

The op-ed has an air of a classroom exercise, however, rather than a practical central-bank strategy. Much of the article is devoted to explaining how the Fed can now pay interest on reserves, and how it could raise that interest rate so as to dissuade commercial banks from lending the reserves out. It could do that, but what would that rate need to be in order to meet a private bank’s threshold rate of return in normal economic times?

More importantly, the Fed has never lacked the technical tools to combat inflation. What it has so often lacked is the will to make tough decisions. And, quite frankly, it does not possess the information needed to fine-tune the economy in the way Chairman Bernanke imagines (a point made by Milton Friedman many years ago). Lack of will and lack of information combine to keep the Fed behind the curve. Its policy was too easy after 2001, and so it fueled the housing boom. It was late to recognize the turn in housing and the economy, and its policy was then too tight. If past is prologue, it will be late to implement its exit strategy.

The Fed Chairman has presented a laundry list of policy tools. What investors need is some assurance that the right tools will be used at the right moment. The mere promise of a policymaker to do the right thing has little credibility. There is no monetary rule in place, only the rule of a man.

Bailouts Could Hit $24 Trillion?

ABC News reports:

“The total potential federal government support could reach up to $23.7 trillion,” says Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, in a new report obtained Monday by ABC News on the government’s efforts to fix the financial system.

Yes, $23.7 trillion.

“The potential financial commitment the American taxpayers could be responsible for is of a size and scope that isn’t even imaginable,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “If you spent a million dollars a day going back to the birth of Christ, that wouldn’t even come close to just $1 trillion – $23.7 trillion is a staggering figure.”

Granted, Barofsky is not saying that the government will definitely spend that much money. He is saying that potentially, it could.

At present, the government has about 50 different programs to fight the current recession, including programs to bail out ailing banks and automakers, boost lending and beat back the housing crisis.

We used to complain that George W. Bush had increased spending by ONE TRILLION DOLLARS in seven years. Who could have even imagined new government commitments of $24 trillion in mere months? These promises could make the implosion of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac look like a lemonade stand closing.

Is an Independent Fed Better?

Rep. Ron Paul now has a majority of the House of Representatives supporting his bill for an independent audit of the Federal Reserve System. He presented his case at a Cato Policy Forum recently, with vigorous responses from Bert Ely and Gilbert Schwartz.

Now more than 200 economists have signed a petition calling on Congress to “defend the independence of the Federal Reserve System as a foundation of U.S. economic stability.” The petition seems implicitly a rebuttal to Paul’s bill.

Allan Meltzer, a leading monetary scholar and frequent participant in Cato’s annual monetary conferences, declined to sign the petition and explained why: “I wrote them back and said, ‘the Fed has rarely been independent and it strikes me that being independent is very unlikely’” in the current environment.

Cato senior fellow Gerald O’Driscoll adds:

it is not the critics of the Fed who threaten its independence, but the Fed’s own actions.  Its intervention in the economy is unprecedented in size and scope. It is inevitable that those actions would lead to calls for further Congressional oversight and control. 

One of the lessons here is that once you create powerful government agencies, from tax-funded schools to central banks, there are no perfect libertarian rules for how they should be run. The way to protect freedom is to let people make their own decisions in civil society.  Schools have to decide what to teach, offending the values of some parents and taxpayers. The Fed can be independent and unaccountable and undemocratic, or it can be subject to the political whims of elected officials; neither is a very attractive prospect.