Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

On Iran’s Inflation Bogey

With Friday’s Iranian Presidential election fast approaching, there has been a cascade of reportage in the popular press about that opaque country. When it comes to economic data, Iran has resorted to lying, spinning and concealment – in part, because of its mores and history, and more recently, the ever-tightening international sanctions regime. In short, deception has been the order of the day.

The most egregious example of this deception concerns one of Iran’s most pressing economic problems – rampant inflation. Indeed, while the rest of the world watched Iran’s economy briefly slip into hyperinflation in October of 2012, the Statistical Centre of Iran and Iran’s central bank both defiantly reported only mild upticks in inflation.  

It is, therefore, rather surprising that the major international news outlets have continued to report the official inflation data without so much as questioning their accuracy. Even today, with official data putting Iran’s annual inflation rate at a mere 31 percent, respectable news sources faithfully report these bogus data as fact.

As I have documented, regimes in countries undergoing severe inflation have a long history of hiding the true extent of their inflationary woes. In many cases, such as the recent hyperinflation episodes in Zimbabwe and North Korea, the regimes resort to underreporting or simply fabricating statistics to hide their economic problems. Often, they stop reporting economic data all together; or, when they do report economic statistics, they do so with such a lag that the reported data are of limited use by the time they see the light of day.

Iran has followed this course – failing to report important economic data in a timely and replicable manner. Those data that are reported by tend to possess what I’ve described as an “Alice in Wonderland” quality. In light of this, it is fair to suggest that any official data on Iran’s inflation be taken with a grain of salt.

So, how can this problem be overcome? At the heart of the solution is the exchange rate. If free-market data (usually black-market data) are available, the inflation rate can be estimated. The principle of purchasing power parity (PPP), which links changes in exchange rates and changes in prices, allows for a reliable estimate. Indeed, PPP simply states that the exchange rate between two countries is equal to the rates of their relative price levels. Accordingly, if we can obtain data on free-market exchange rates, we can make a reliable estimate of the inflation rate.

In short, changes in the exchange rate will yield a reliable implied inflation rate, particularly in cases of extreme inflation. So, to calculate the inflation rate in Iran, a rather straightforward application of standard, time-tested economic theory is all that is required.

Using this methodology, it is possible to estimate a reliable figure for Iran’s annual inflation rate. At present the black-market IRR/USD exchange rate sits at 36,450. Using this figure, and a time series of black-market exchange rate data that I have collected over the past year from currency traders in the bazaars of Tehran, I estimate that Iran’s current annual inflation rate is 105.8 percent – a rate almost three and a half times the official annual inflation figure (see the accompanying chart). 

Moral of the Story: Tax Havens Are Okay if You’re a Politically Connnected Statist

Earlier this year, I had some fun when it was revealed that the president’s new Treasury Secretary had a lot of money in the Cayman Islands.

After all, leftists want us to believe tax havens are rogue regimes that should be eliminated. Some of them even want military intervention against these low-tax jurisdictions!

Much to my amusement, Mr. Lew even pretended he was financially illiterate to justify making sensible decisions to invest via the Cayman Islands.

And unlike the president’s first Treasury Secretary, Mr. Lew didn’t break the law and cheat on his tax return.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Secretary Lew wasn’t the first Democrat to utilize tax havens. Lawmakers such as John Kerry, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, and others on the left also have utilized tax havens to boost their own personal finances.

And it appears that Mr. Lew won’t be the last Democrat to be caught with his hands in the cookie jar.

Here’s some of what’s being reported by the New York Times in regard to the president’s nominee to be U.S. Trade Representative:

Michael Froman, a longtime White House economic aide nominated to be President Obama’s trade representative, has nearly half a million dollars in a fund based in the Cayman Islands, according to financial documents provided to the Senate Finance Committee. …White House officials said Mr. Froman played no role in creating, managing or operating the investment funds and had done nothing wrong. “Mike Froman has paid every penny of his taxes and reported all of the income, gains and losses from the investment on his tax returns,” Mr. Whithorne said.

I don’t remember that compliance with the tax law mattered when Obama and the media were going after Romney in 2012 for legally investing in the Cayman Islands.

Could it be that tax havens are okay, but only if you support big government?

The Federal Reserve vs. Small Business

Given all the attention that the Federal Reserve has garnered for its monetary “stimulus” programs, it’s perplexing to many that the U.S. has been mired in a credit crunch. After all, conventional wisdom tells us that the Fed’s policies, which have lowered interest rates to almost zero, should have stimulated the creation of credit. This has not been the case, and I’m not surprised.

As it turns out, the Fed’s “stimulus” policies are actually exacerbating the credit crunch. Since credit is a source of working capital for businesses, a credit crunch acts like a supply constraint on the economy. This has been the case particularly for smaller firms in the U.S. economy, known as small and medium enterprises (“SMEs”).

To understand the problem, we must delve into the plumbing of the financial system, specifically the loan markets. Retail bank lending involves making risky forward commitments, such as extending a line of credit to a corporate client, for example. The willingness of a bank to make such forward commitments depends, to a large extent, on a well-functioning interbank market – a market operating with positive interest rates and without counterparty risks.

With the availability of such a market, banks can lend to their clients with confidence because they can cover their commitments by bidding for funds in the wholesale interbank market.

At present, however, the interbank lending market is not functioning as it should. Indeed, one of the major problems facing the interbank market is the so-called zero-interest-rate trap. In a world in which the risk-free Fed funds rate is close to zero, there is virtually no yield be found on the interbank market.

In consequence, banks with excess reserves are reluctant to part with them for virtually no yield in the interbank market. As a result, thanks to the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policies, the interbank market has dried up (see the accompanying chart).

 

Without the security provided by a reliable interbank lending market, banks have been unwilling to scale up or even retain their forward loan commitments. This was verified in a recent article in Central Banking Journal by Stanford Economist Prof. Ronald McKinnon – appropriately titled “Fed ‘stimulus’ chokes indirect finance to SMEs.” The result, as Prof. McKinnon puts it, has been “constipation in domestic financial intermediation” – in other words, a credit crunch.

When banks put the brakes on lending, it is small and medium enterprises that are the hardest hit. Whereas large corporate firms can raise funds directly from the market, SMEs are often primarily reliant on bank lending for working capital. The current drought in the interbank market, and associated credit crunch, has thus left many SMEs without a consistent source of funding.

As it turns out, these “small” businesses make up a big chunk of the U.S. economy – 49.2% of private sector employment and 46% of private-sector GDP. Indeed, the untold story is that the zero-interest-rate trap has left SMEs in a financial straightjacket.

In short, the Fed’s zero interest-rate policy has exacerbated a credit crunch that has been holding back the economy. The only way out of this trap is for the Fed to abandon the conventional wisdom that zero-interest-rates stimulate the creation of credit. Suppose the Fed were to raise the Fed funds rate to, say, two percent. This would loosen the screws on interbank lending, and credit would begin to flow more readily to small and medium enterprises.

How about ‘Don’t Give Them Loans at All’?

The big catch phrase for those fighting to keep subsidized student loan interest rates at 3.4 percent is “don’t double my rate.” That’s because the rate is set to increase from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1. But if President Obama’s Rose Garden pep rally today is any indication, the phrase should be more like “don’t raise my rate at all.”

The POTUS attacked recently passed legislation in the House–which tracks pretty closely with his own proposal–because, he said, it doesn’t do enough to keep loan rates low. Really? The Smarter Solution for Students Act–which, by the way, is hardly all that smart–would set interest rates for subsidized loans at the 10-year Treasury note plus 2.5 percent. Today, that rate is 2.3 percent. Adding 2.5 to it is 4.8 percent, absolutely not a doubling of 3.4.

Of course, T-bill rates could, and likely will, rise, but the main point is supposed to be to make student loan rates track with normal interest rates rather than have politicians set them arbitrarily. That was certainly the case over the last few years, when student loan rates didn’t plummet along with overall rates. But it seems a tracked rate isn’t really what students and colleges want: they want super-cheap–preferably free–loans, which makes sense (for them). Like normal people, they want money at as little cost to themselves as possible. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, that is what many vote-seeking politicians want to give them, despite the powerful evidence that aid mainly lets colleges raise their prices at breakneck speeds, fuels demand for frills, and abets serious noncompletion. In other words, it likely does more harm than good.

All of this is why Washington should get out of student aid entirely. But for that to happen, regular people will have to make their catch-phrase, “Don’t give them loans at all.”

It’s Obvious Student Aid Is Driven by Politics. But Not This Obvious

Federal aid for college students, it’s really no secret, is driven by what works politically, not what’s best for students. While logic and evidence strongly suggest that aid mainly enables colleges to raise their prices at breakneck speeds, politicians talk nonstop about aid making college “affordable.” Financial reality simply does not trump appearing to “care.” But on Friday, the Obama administration appears poised to take aid exploitation to a new level.

Tomorrow, the President will host what sounds like will be a textbook, campaign-style event featuring lots of no doubt somber – but oh-so-grateful-to-the-President – looking college students. With the photo-op thus set up, Mr. Obama will demand that Congress do something to stop the impending doubling of interest rates on subsidized federal loans from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.

But the GOP-led House has done something, and it is largely along the lines of what the President has called for. Last week, the House passed legislation that would peg student loan interest rates to 10-year Treasury bills, and would even cap rates at 8.5 percent or 10.5 percent, depending on the type of loan. It’s not exactly what the President wants – rates will vary over the life of the loan rather than being set at the origination rate, and the add-on to T-bill rates is higher – but the plans are still pretty close.

At this point, you’d think the President would be negotiating, not grandstanding. But then you wouldn’t understand federal student aid (or, really, almost anything government does). It is first and foremost about politicians – who are normal, self-interested people – getting what they need: political support, not sane college prices. And you get a lot of that support by appearing to want to “help people” more than the other guys.

If ever there will be a blatant, inescapable demonstration of what really drives federal aid policy, it will be the event we are likely to witness tomorrow. Let’s hope the public will get the right message: Politicians aren’t primarily driven by a desire to make college affordable. They’re driven by a desire for political gain. And that’s why we need them to get out of the student aid business.

Imaginary Squabbles Part 4: Krugman and DeLong on the Top 1 Percent

In End This Depression Now! (pages 77-78) Paul Krugman offers the strangest arguments I have seen.   The story opens with familiar fulminations about the “top 1 percent” (those earning more than $366,623 in 2011).  As he put it in a 2011 column, “income inequality in America really is about oligarchs versus everyone else.”

“Incomes of the rich,” his book claims, “are at the heart of what has been happening to America’s economy and society.”  Yet it apparently requires great bravery to even dare to mention “the rising incomes” of the top 1 percent or top 0.1 percent:

Merely to raise the issue was to enter a political war zone: income distribution at the top is one of those areas where anyone who raises his head above the parapet will encounter fierce attacks from what amount to hired guns protecting the interests of the wealthy.  For example, a few years ago Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez … found themselves under fire from Alan Reynolds of the Cato Institute, who has spent decades arguing that inequality hasn’t really increased; every time one of his arguments is thoroughly debunked, he pops up with another.

To be called a “hired gun” of the wealthy might be insulting if it was not so ridiculous.  First of all, no employer has ever tried to influence what I write.  Second, I have been a very successful investor and live quite comfortably from realized capital gains plus mandatory distributions from IRA, Keogh and 403(b) accounts that President Obama would regard as much too large.  I negotiated a token salary from Cato (smaller than my Social Security check) but return at least 40 percent of it as a charitable donation.  I am usually in the top 1 percent, at least when stocks are up, and thus not easily bribed.  I would be flabbergasted if Krugman is not also a member of that demonized bunch of oligarchs.

Krugman complains that some of my arguments changed (new ones popped up) over decades, but arguments should change after decades of new data.  I must have made a couple of mistakes since 1992, but mistakes (including Krugman’s) are not evidence of deliberate deception or corruption.

Imaginary Squabbles Part 3: Krugman and DeLong’s Changing Theories and Missing Facts

Responding to a student question after a recent Kansas State debate with Brad DeLong I posed a conceptual puzzle.  I asked students to ponder why textbooks treat Treasury sales of government bonds as a “stimulus” to demand (nominal GDP) in the same sense as Federal Reserve purchases of such bonds.  “Those are very different polices,” I noted; “Why should they have the same effect?”  

The remark was intended to encourage students to probe more deeply into what such metaphors as “stimulating” or “jump starting” really mean, not to accept as dogma that fiscal and monetary policy are equally effective or that economists are certain just how they work.

DeLong’s misinterpretation of my question led him to lecture me that, “if you really do think that monetary expansion undoes fiscal expansion because monetary expansion buys bonds and fiscal expansion sells bonds, you need to educate yourself.” Citing that wholly imaginary rewriting of my question, Paul Krugman wrote, “My heart goes out to Brad DeLong, who debated Alan Reynolds and discovered that his opponent really doesn’t understand at all how either fiscal or monetary policy work.”

Did I really say that “monetary expansion undoes fiscal expansion”?  Of course not.  If that had been my question, I would have answered myself by saying that piling more debt on the backs of taxpayers is unlikely to stimulate private spending (much less encourage more or better labor and capital) unless the added debt is “monetized” by the Fed and regulators allow banks to lend more to private borrowers.  DeLong made much the same point by saying, “Expansionary monetary policy makes it a sure thing that expansionary fiscal policy is effective by removing the channels for interest-rate and tax crowding out.” 

The Fed’s current bond-buying spree is bound to have some effect, if only to facilitate cheap corporate buybacks of shares and speculative day trading of such stocks on margin.   But selling more government bonds per se (if the Fed won’t buy more) would be just as much an added burden for taxpayers as it would be a benefit to whoever receives the resulting government transfers, contracts or subsidies. 

This make-believe squabble about monetary expansion undoing fiscal expansion exists only in DeLong’s imagination, like my non-prediction of mammoth inflation or Krugman’s non-facts about Ireland’s fiscal frugality.