Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

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.”

The End of Jacob Weisberg

In an article for Slate (another version appears in Newsweek) entitled “The End of Libertarianism,” Jacob Weisberg mocks libertarians and other free-market supporters for arguing that interventionist government policies contributed to the financial crisis. In italicized exasperation he cries, “Haven’t you people done enough harm already?” According to Weisberg, it’s already clear that, when it comes to what caused the meltdown, “any competent forensic work has to put the libertarian theory of self-regulating financial markets at the scene of the crime.” Consequently, he argues, libertarians in general have now been utterly discredited. “They are bankrupt,” he concludes, “and this time, there will be no bailout.”

In firing this broadside, Weisberg poses as the pragmatic, empirically minded anti-ideologue. In fact, he is engaging in the lowest and most intellectually trivial form of ideological hack work.

As every good hack does, he bulls ahead with completely unjustified certainty. We’ve just experienced a global disruption of financial markets on a scale not seen in seven decades. And we’re still in the middle of it: the ultimate extent, severity, and consequences of this crisis remain unknown. Yet Weisberg can already sum up the story in a single sentence: the libertarians did it!

But consider the fact that it wasn’t until Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s Monetary History of the United States — published in 1963, three decades after the event — that our contemporary understanding of the causes of the Great Depression began to take shape. That understanding has been further refined by contributions from, among others, Ben Bernanke and Barry Eichengreen during the 1980s and ’90s.

So serious people will be debating what triggered the current crisis for a long time to come. I’ve been reading voraciously in recent weeks, trying to get some handle on what’s going on, and I can tell you that there is nothing like a consensus among scholars yet — and certainly not a consensus in favor of some simple, monocausal explanation.

With regard to government interventionism as a cause of the crisis, Charles Calomiris and Peter Wallison have marshalled strong evidence that Fannie and Freddie played a major role in inflating the real estate bubble. Despite the fact that these two gentlemen have forgotten more about financial markets than Weisberg will ever know, Weisberg dismisses their analysis as not only wrong, but risible.

Here’s what I think, at least at this point. I think the whole system failed. Without a doubt, private actors succumbed to bubble psychology and perverse incentives, and their risk-taking grew increasingly reckless. Yet Weisberg’s simplistic morality tale that good prudent liberals were foiled by go-go free-marketeers doesn’t come close to mapping reality accurately. When exactly did Democrats try to arrest and reverse the steady relaxation of lending standards? When did they try to rein in the GSEs? Meanwhile, European banks are being battered by this crisis as well. Does anybody really think that European financial regulators are closet libertarians?

Far be it from Weisberg, though, to let such inconvenient questions get in the way of his cheap ideological point-scoring. Indeed, he isn’t content just to blame libertarianism for the financial crisis. He goes so far as to claim that libertarianism as a whole has now been decisively repudiated. Wow, talk about contagion! Because of what some people said about financial regulation, we no longer have to pay any attention to what other people say about trade, health care, energy, taxes, federal spending, etc. Here Weisberg further burnishes his hack credentials by demonstrating his facility with the wild, unsubstantiated smear.

To be truly shameless, a hack needs to mix his smears with double standards. And, bless him, Weisberg comes through once again. If one (alleged) error means we never have to listen to someone again, why is anybody still listening to Jacob Weisberg? After all, Weisberg admits that he “blew the biggest foreign-policy decision of the past decade” by supporting the Iraq war. (Full disclosure: I blew it, too, but my colleagues at Cato — whom Weisberg wants to write off for all time — got it right.) By his own standard, then, Weisberg should have had his pundit card permanently revoked.

All too aware of my own fallibility, I’m a more forgiving sort. But with this sloppy, shoddily reasoned attack on me and my colleagues (Cato and Reason, where I’m on the masthead as a contributing editor, are both mentioned by name), Weisberg is definitely testing my limits.

Get Government Out of Housing

My final two installments in my Los Angeles Times debate are available. On Thursday, I explained why Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should be shut down. On Friday, I broadened the argument to explain that eliminating government housing programs is the best way to protect against future bubbles.

I also provided some commentary to NPR on the issue of moral hazard. If you like the article, feel free to click “recommended” at the top of the screen so the bureaucrats at the government-financed radio network have an incentive to allow more free market analysis. Perhaps one day they’ll allow someone from Cato to explain why taxpayers subsidizing radio is not a legitimate function of the federal government.

McCain’s Misguided Mortgage Bailout

As promised in an earlier post, here is the latest iteration of my Los Angeles Times debate on financial markets, housing policy, and the role of government. Wednesday’s debate featured a discussion of Senator McCain’s $300 billion scheme to buy bad mortgages. Not surprisingly, I explain why taxpayers should not be responsible for rewarding borrowers and lenders who were imprudent. Next installment will be up tomorrow.

Nice Little Bank You Got There; Shame If Anything Happened to It

Some years ago I wrote an article titled “The Gun behind the Law.” (Not online, but it appears in The Politics of Freedom.) It began with a photograph of 50 or so helmeted policemen storming the doors of a large and institutional building. As it turned out, the photograph depicted a bank nationalization in Peru during the first and disastrously leftist presidency of Alan Garcia. I noted that the Peruvians were helping us understand the real import of the term “bank nationalization”: “What really occurred there is that some people forced other people to give up their property at the point of a gun….As the bankers of Peru have learned, every law is en­forced at the point of a gun.”

And I noted that things are very different here: “When we Americans hear the words ‘bank nationalization,’ we are apt to imagine a piece of paper being signed by a bank president and a deputy assistant treasury secretary.”

Well, I was a little off. It was actually nine bank presidents and the secretary himself. But the general scene was right:

The chief executives of the nine largest banks in the United States trooped into a gilded conference room at the Treasury Department at 3 p.m. Monday. To their astonishment, they were each handed a one-page document that said they agreed to sell shares to the government, then Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. said they must sign it before they left.

They weren’t allowed to negotiate. Mr. Paulson requested that each of them sign. It was for their own good and the good of the country, he said, according to a person in the room.”

At least one banker objected. “But by 6:30, all nine chief executives had signed — setting in motion the largest government intervention in the American banking system since the Depression.”

And all without any need for armed police takeovers of the banks. Nice and peaceful like. And no doubt some of the bankers were just delighted to get billions of dollars from the taxpayers. For those who didn’t want to be working for the government, the points I made in that long-ago article are still valid:

The gun is evident in the picture [from Peru], but it is no less real when an American is forced to give up his property by a law or regulation. Such commonly used terms as “national economic policy,” “social regulation,” “revenue enhancement,” “profamily legislation,” and “minimum-wage law” all obscure the simple fact that some people are forcing others to do as they’re told.

But Peru is not the United States, it will be said; our government would never send riot troops to take over a bank. That is largely because it wouldn’t have to—Americans don’t resist the demands of government. What would happen if they did?…

If more Americans decided to ignore absurd, special-interest, and counterproductive laws, it would soon be apparent that physical force lies behind the Federal Register. Does anyone believe that Americans would pay a large percentage of their income to the federal government if not for the ultimate threat of imprisonment and violence?

As the bankers of Peru have learned, every law is enforced at the point of a gun—a fact we should carefully consider when we are tempted to conclude that some perceived problem should be solved by enacting a law.

Do Aussies Really Think Fannie, Freddie, the Fed, and the Community Reinvestment Act Are Part of “Extreme Capitalism?”

The turmoil in financial markets is not good news, but one silver lining to the dark cloud is the rather amusing contest for the most inane reaction by a political figure. Australia’s Prime Minister is proudly demonstrating his economic illiteracy by blaming “extreme capitalism” even though the financial services are heavily regulated and a wide range of policy mistakes created the housing bubble. Agence France Presse (how appropriate) reports:

The global economic crisis is a result of the “comprehensive failure of extreme capitalism,” Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Wednesday as he took aim at bulging executive pay packets. The centre-left Labor Party leader named greed and fear as the “twin evils” at the root of the financial sector collapse, which began in the United States and swept the world. “What we have seen is the comprehensive failure of extreme capitalism – extreme capitalism which now turns to government to prevent systemic failure,” Rudd told the National Press Club in Canberra. …Governments should act so that greed and lax regulation were never allowed to put the world in the same position again, he said, adding that Australia would press for this at a meeting of the G20 group of 20 rich and emerging nations next month. …Rudd said his government would work with the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority (APRA) to bring fat-cat pay packets under control. “This is not just a question of fairness and perceived fairness in the system, it goes actually to the kernel of the incentive structures around risk-taking,” he said.