Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

What Recovery?

Despite the ballyhooed cash-for-clunkers program, retail sales dipped in July. Initial claims for unemployment also rose. Housing continues to be plagued by foreclosures. And many banks are still operating under the burden of toxic assets, which inhibits their ability to provide credit. These are not the recipe for an economic recovery. Yet the Federal Reserve is signalling it thinks a recovery is on the way. And President Obama is making happy talk on the economy.

A recovery may very well technically begin in the 3rd quarter of 2009, as signalled by rising GDP. But it is shaping up to be a jobless and joyless recovery. Firms are finding ever new ways of producing and earning some profits without hiring workers. The prospect of higher taxes for health care and to fund all the bailouts understandably makes businessmen cautious about taking on the liability of new workers.

The administration’s economic policy has been behind the curve. The idea of initiating new federal mandates, like health care and cap-and-trade with the attendant higher taxes, is a sure way to derail an economic recovery. What is needed is less spending and broad-based tax cuts. The administration’s economic policy is the real clunker and it is time to trade it in.

Measuring Policy Success

NPR reported this morning that “Cash for Clunkers” style programs in Germany and France are “popular and successful.” Successful by what standard? I see that the Wall Street Journal has reported that in Europe “’cash for clunker’ programs have breathed fresh life into a battered auto industry.”

Yes, by that standard, no doubt subsidies for buying cars are successful in encouraging the sale of cars. Certainly subsidies to homebuying encouraged the buying of homes. A “Cash for Computers” program would “breathe fresh life” into computer sales. Make it “Cash for Compaq” or “Cash for Windows,” and you could direct purchasers to particular companies.

But to declare a policy successful, shouldn’t you mean that it makes the country better off? And that means that the subsidies produced more economic growth or more overall consumer satisfaction than a policy of nonintervention would have. That’s a much harder standard to meet. Subsidies by definition divert consumer choices from their natural outcome. Economists generally agree that subsidies create deadweight losses for society. And sometimes, by distorting consumer decisions and encouraging decisions that don’t make real economic sense – as in the long effort to channel consumer resources into housing – subsidies eventually prove unsustainable and unstable.

Indeed, it seems likely that another part of the Wall Street Journal was correct when it described “Cash for Clunkers” as “crackpot economics.”

No Consensus on Stimulus

Following up on Chris Edwards’ comments, Alan Blinder of Princeton writes in the Washington Post that the stimulus is working and “we need to stay the course.”

But Casey Mulligan of the University of Chicago writes in the New York Post that 90 percent of the stimulus money hasn’t been spent yet, so we could still stop it before it does too much harm:

The best case scenario for the stimulus law gives us results that are miniscule compared with the costs. In the worst case scenario, we actually pay money to further harm an already struggling economy….

It would have been designed better if money had stayed with the taxpayers instead of funneling through dozens of federal agencies – an option that is still available. Otherwise, we are looking at heavy taxes – and further economic damage – down the road to pay for all the borrowing.

Mulligan wrote earlier in the New York Times that “The economy has gotten worse than the Obama administration had predicted it would be even if Congress had spent nothing on ‘fiscal stimulus.’” Mulligan provides more details at his blog stopthefiscalstimulus.com.

Meanwhile, Mario Rizzo of New York University asks

what is the mechanism by which about $70 billion in extra spending (this is the amount of the total stimulus package now spent) reduces the rate of increase in unemployment and reduces the rate of decrease in output in a $14 trillion economy? If my advanced arithmetic is correct this is ½ of 1 percent of the GDP. What kind of Super Multiplier is that?

He goes on to point out that unemployment is now higher than the administration predicted just a few months ago it would be if we didn’t pass the stimulus. So how can we believe today’s econometric claims about the good effects of the so-called stimulus?

Congress Passed TARP for What?

I thought it was to clear up so-called toxic assets.  But apparently no toxic assets have been cleared up.

Reports ABC News:

Signs abound that the worst of the recession is over: Stocks have been surging, the rate of job losses has slowed, so it seems that the economic apocalypse has been averted.

Government programs such as the $787 billion stimulus and last fall’s $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program have so far been successful, the Obama administration says.

Except, the Congressional Oversight Panel warns in its August report, TARP never actually bought any troubled assets.

“It is likely that an overwhelming portion of the troubled assets from last October remain on bank balance sheets today,” the panel’s report says.

Those bad assets are still there, rotting away on banks’ books, making banks reluctant to ratchet up lending, and maybe, the watchdog warns, paving the way for another financial meltdown.

Isn’t American government great?!  The executive branch stampedes Congress into authorizing the former to spend an enormous amount of money allegedly to save the nation from economic calamity.  The executive branch changes its mind and uses the money in other ways.  The original problem remains — while the taxpayers are  far poorer — presumably still threatening economic calamity.  Now what?

TARP II.  Don’t be surprised if the Obama administration eventually unveils a massive new program to clear up toxic assets.

The lesson?  Beware government officials promising to help you by seizing your money and distributing it to a gaggle of grasping individuals and companies.  Especially beware government officials demanding a second chance after wasting your money the first time!

Flood Insurance: Mend It or End It, But Don’t Just Extend It

Before leaving for the August recess, the House of Representatives passed a bill (HR3139) to extend the authority for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) until March 2010.  The program was set to expire on Oct. 1, 2009.   The bill now goes to the Senate.  Instead of taking up HR3139, the Senate should insist on real reforms to the NFIP, rather then a blanket extension.

Since Hurricane Katrina, the NFIP has operated under a deficit of close to $17 billion, which had to be borrowed from the Treasury in order to pay claims.  Under the NFIP’s current structure, it cannot even make the interest payments on its borrowing; these losses will ultimately hit the taxpayer. 

The Senate last Congress passed a strong reform bill that would have eliminated almost half of the subsidies in the NFIP.  The House decided to instead seek an expansion of the broken program, adding wind coverage and raising the coverage levels (despite the availability of private flood insurance).

Many of the homes receiving subsidies under the NFIP are either vacation/second homes or properties where the government has paid repeated claims.  In one instance, a house in Houston this is valued at around $100,000 received over $800,000 in flood insurance claims over a 20-year period, before it was finally destroyed. 

Not only does the NFIP subsidize at taxpayer expense beach-front vacation homes, but there is growing evidence that the program causes substantial harm to the environment and local fisheries.  Just last year, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a finding that the NFIP is pushing orcas and some runs of salmon to extinction.  Before the federal government forces significant costs on the private sector to protect the environment, perhaps it should take a close look at the damage its own activities inflict.

Too Risky to Continue

The profits being reported so far this year by the major financial firms appear to be driven by proprietary trading (trading for their own account, as opposed to those of their customers). The recent $3.44 billion profit of Goldman Sachs in the second quarter is a dramatic case in point.

Proprietary trading is a high-risk activity and signals the financial sector is returning to its bad old ways. Returns cannot be systematically high unless risk is correspondingly high.

None of this would matter if it were just private capital at stake. But Goldman, along with other major financial firms, is being guaranteed under the dubious doctrine that it is too-big-to-fail. Better there were no government guarantees. As long as these guarantees are in place, however, high-risk activity must be curtailed.

The simplest solution is that a firm should not be permitted to take insured deposits and operate what amounts to a hedge fund within the institution. Goldman is a difficult case because it is not currently relying on deposits (even though it has a bank charter). It should be told to return to a private partnership.

A firm too big-to-fail is too-big-to-exist (as a federally insured entity).

A Want Ad for God

The press is still abuzz over Tim Geithner’s behind-closed-doors tirade against critics of the Obama administration plan to tighten financial regulation. As Mark Calabria writes below, Geithner offered a simple message to Fed chair Ben Bernanke, FDIC chair Sheila Bair, and others: “[Y]ou’ve been heard, so you were ‘included,’ now shut up.”

But while Bernanke, Bair, et al. quibble over details of the Obama plan, Geithner should be more concerned about the glaring flaw at its center: the idea that government can conjure up a “systemic risk monitor” that will identify and avoid future market bubbles.

Many of the great bubbles in financial history grew out of some belief that “everyone” (including financiers, politicians, and regulators) was confident was true, yet it turned out to be wrong (either because it was always wrong, or conditions changed in some unforseen way). Some examples:

  • The supply of Dutch admiral tulip bulbs was constrained though they were in heavy demand, so the 17th-century tulip mania was good investing.
  • The supply of land in the South Seas and the Mississippi Valley was fixed, so the 18th-century land-buying mania was good investing.  
  • The emergence of a nationwide U.S. marketplace in the early 20th century was a watershed event, so the post-WWI stock frenzy was good investing.
  • The emergence of the Internet marketplace, combined with path dependency and network effects, was another watershed event, so buying “dotcom” stock was good investing.
  • And of course, until the last few years,”everyone knew” that investing in real estate and mortgages was “safe as houses.”

That last bullet wasn’t just the belief of “greedy investment banks,” but also of government officials and regulators. My colleagues Peter Van Doren and Jagadeesh Gokhale have a forthcoming paper that notes, in part, that despite the populist rhetoric now being bandied around, banking is heavily regulated under international rules. However, those rules assume that investment in mortgages and mortgage-backed securities is low-risk (and indeed the rules push money toward those investments).

The paper also quotes numerous top-tier economists who claimed the soaring house prices of the past decade were supported by “the fundamentals,” or that a bubble wouldn’t threaten the broader economy. (Their paper doesn’t mention — but could — that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, along with their bureaucratic and congressional overseers, believed those firms’ investments in riskier mortgages were “safe as houses.”)

Everyone “knew” housing was a sound investment. It just turned out that everyone was wrong.

Hence the problem with a “systemic risk monitor:” Such a monitor would have to know when everyone is wrong — including financial experts and government analysts. And the monitor would need the power to force everyone to act contrary to their beliefs and instead obey the monitor’s judgment — and not fall prey to public and political demand that the monitor be replaced because “everyone knows” his judgment is flawed.

It seems the Obama administration is creating a position for God. But I doubt that God will leave his current job.

Someone might object: We wouldn’t have needed God to realize that there was a housing bubble over the past decade. But the problem with bubbles is that they only become apparent — and policies against them only become politically defensible — once they collapse.

And even then they might not be recognized. Consider another asset that experienced a dramatic price spike and collapse in the last decade: oil. Ah, someone might argue, there wasn’t really an oil bubble; we’re just experiencing a temporary decrease in demand. Oil is a scarce commodity with strong price inelasticities, and its price will soar over the long term. But the same was said of admiral tulip bulbs, and South Seas and Mississippi Valley land, and housing in high-demand areas.

What would happen if a systemic risk monitor were to come to Washington and immediately mandate that we abandon ”energy sustainability” policies because they’re premised on a bubble? Would he be right? Who would believe him? And would politicians and the public stand behind this judgment?