Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

New at Cato Unbound: Monetary Lessons from the Not-So-Great Depression

unbound

Accounting for the Great Depression and devising plans for preventing a sequel has been a major preoccupation of monetary and macroeconomics for over seventy years now. If the sometimes vitriolic infighting raging now within the economics profession is any indication, our recent recession and financial collapse may play a similar role for years to come. Did Bernanke display a virtuoso touch and keep a bad thing from becoming worse? Or did the Fed drive the economy over the edge by compounding prior errors with fresh mistakes?

Until the Milton Friedmans and Anna Schwartzes of our “great recession” emerge, try this month’s Cato Unbound for some preliminary answers. We’ve recruited a panel of top-notch money specialists to tease out some of the key monetary lessons from the present mess, and here’s a quick gloss on what they’ve said so far.

In our lead essay, Bentley University economist Scott Sumner, a specialist on the Great Depression, stands against conventional wisdom in arguing that monetary policy in the period running up to the carnage in the financial sector was disastrously contractionary. Easier money, Sumner says, might have prevented the worst. He proposes a new strategy for central bankers — targeting forecasts of nominal GDP — that might help avert future crises. Sumner warns of the political dangers of misdiagnosing the crisis: unless the record is set straight, free markets will once again take the fall for a flubbed central banking.

In his reply essay, “It’s Harder than it Looks,” James Hamilton of UCSD and the popular blog Econbrowser disagrees with some, but agrees with much of Sumner’s diagnosis, including the claim that the Fed could have done better and might have limited the damage of the financial crisis had it pushed  rates of nominal GDP growth higher than they were. But Hamilton points out that this is easier said than done and raises doubts about the practicability of Sumner’s preferred targeting strategy.

Cato senior fellow and University of Georgia economist George Selgin agrees with Sumner that “tight money was the proximate cause of the post-September 2008 recession” and that “a policy of nominal income growth targeting might have prevented the recession.” But Selgin encourages Sumner to acknowledge the role easy money played in the subprime crisis, and argues that Sumner’s favored five-percent nominal income-growth target is “unnecessarily and perhaps dangerously high.” Selgin favors a lower target and tolerance for some price deflation, a strategy he contends would be less likely to perpetuate boom-bust cycles.

In the last of this issue’s formal replies, San Jose State’s Jeffrey Rogers Hummel sees merit in much of Sumner’s account of the causes of the financial crisis, but he doubts a better rule for central bankers will keep us out of trouble in the future. Hummel contends that “only abolition of the Fed, elimination of government fiat money, and complete deregulation of banks and other financial institutions offer any long-term hope of bringing better macroeconomic stability.”

Stay tuned as our panelists  continue to hash it out in free-for-all blog chat that begins Wednesday. And if this is the sort of thing that revs your engine, don’t forget about Cato’s annual monetary policy conference coming up in November.

CAP’s Proposal to Add ‘Public Members’ to Corporate Boards Is Flawed

Today the Center for American Progress rolled out its proposal that we add “public directors” to the boards of companies that have been bailed out by the government.  CAP scholar Emma Coleman Jordan argues that “public directors will provide a corrective to the boards of the financial institutions that helped cause the crisis.”

One has to wonder whether Ms. Jordan has ever heard of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  If she had, she might recall that a substantial number of the board members of Fannie and Freddie were so-called “public” members appointed by the President.  Perhaps she can ask CAP adjunct scholar and former Fannie Mae executive Ellen Seidman to review the history of those companies for her.

Where’s the evidence that any of those Fannie/Freddie “public” directors, whether they were appointed by Republican or Democrat Presidents, ever once look out for the public interest?  In fact all the evidence points to these public directors looking out for the interests of Fannie and Freddie, often lobbying Congress and the Administration on the behalf of these companies.

I suppose CAP would tell us that having the regulators pick the directors instead of the president would protect us from having those positions filled with political hacks.  Ms. Jordan argues that “regulators should determine most of the details of the public directorships—after all, they have the most direct experience in trying to regulate private companies that have received public funds.”  We tried that route as well.  In contrast to Fannie/Freddie, each of the twelve Federal Home Loan Banks had to have a number of its directors appointed by its then regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Board.  It was well known within the Beltway that these appointments were more often political hacks than not.  For instance one long time director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh was the son of a senior member of the US House Committee on Finance Services.  Once again we’ve gone down this road, we know how this story ends.

If we are truly interested in protecting the taxpayer, we should, first, end the ability of the Federal Reserve to bailout companies, and second, as quickly as possible remove any government involvement in these companies.  Having the government appoint board directors only further entangles the government into our financial system; and if Fannie and Freddie are a good guide, actually increases the chances of future bailouts.

Republicans Just as Guilty of Flawed Keynesian Thinking

The core of Keynesian economic policy is that the government must come in and replace reductions in private sector demand with public sector demand, therefore bringing overall demand back to its previous level.  One of the many flaws in this thinking is in assuming that the previous level of demand was “correct” and getting us back to that level is the appropriate policy response.

Take the example of the housing market and the government response.  The primary response of Republicans in Washington has been to offer tax credits and other incentives to replace the drop in demand for housing.  Witness Senator Johnny Isakson’s  recent comments on why we need to extend the $8,000 homebuyer tax credit: “If you take that kind of business out of what’s already a very weak housing market, you do nothing but protract and extend the recession.”

This analysis could not be more wrong.  The tax credit largely acts to keep housing prices from falling further.  However, that is how markets are supposed to clear in an environment of excess supply.  If there’s too much housing, the way to address that is to allow housing prices to fall, which attracts buyers back into the market.

We should also recognize that the tax credit does not help the buyer, it helps the seller, by allowing the seller to charge that much more for the price of the home.

Perhaps the worst impact of the policy is that it encourages the continued building of homes, only adding to the over-supply, which itself will “protract and extend the recession.”  Witness the recent news that housing starts in the US just hit a nine month high.  While these levels are still low in historic terms, and housing inventories are declining, we still have an excess of housing.  The damage done by creating a false floor to housing prices is that builders don’t respond to inventory, they respond to prices, and as long as there is a positive gap between prices and construction costs, builders will build.  The tax credit only serves to widen that gap between prices and construction costs.

Back to Keynes: the central flaw in the thinking behind the tax credit proposal is its assumption that we need to re-inflate the housing bubble.  The previous level of housing demand, from say 2003 to 2006, was not driven by fundamentals; we had a bubble.  There will be a correction in the housing market.  Our choices are to either take that correction quickly and move on, or to prolong that correction, maybe even make it worse, by trying to create a false floor to the market.

Taxpayers, Anyone? And How About Tuition Inflation?

The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsiblilty Act will probably be approved by the House of Representatives today, and to push it along the bill’s sponsor, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), makes clear for whom he is working:

Let’s remember whose voices really matter here. It’s time to listen to our students and our families.

First of all, do the voices of taxpayers not matter at all? You know, the folks who are going to foot the bill for all this largesse? Oh yeah – concentrated benefits, diffuse costs. And have students and their families really been trees falling in the wilderness with no one to hear them? With inflation-adjusted aid per full-time-equivalent student (table 3) rising from $4,454 in 1987 to $10,392 in 2007 – a 134 percent increase – it sure doesn’t seem so.

In fairness, the bill’s proponents have paid lip service to taxpayers, saying with straight and utterly deceptive faces that SAFRA won’t cost taxpayers a dime. The thing is, not only is this totally unsupportable according to several Congressional Budget Office analyses, it completely ingores that tax money is covering all of the costs of the bill. SAFRA would simply transfer taxpayer ducats from backing ostensibly private loans to loans directly from Washington, as well as lots of other federal expenditures.

And then there’s this: SAFRA supporters can talk all they want about helping students and families, but increasing grants and loans ultimately just hurts college-goers. Why? Because colleges and universities raise their prices to capture every additional penny of aid, as basic economics makes clear they would. So the only people politicians are ultimately helping are colleges, and by appearing to care ever so much about likely voters, themselves.

Why Wall Street Loves Obama

wall streetWas it just me, or did there seem to be a whole lot of applause during Obama’s Wall Street speech?  Remember this was a room full of Wall Street executives.  The President even started by thanking the Wall Street execs for their “warm welcome.”

While of course, there was the obligatory slap on the wrist, that “we will not go back to the days of reckless behavior and unchecked excess,” but there was no mention that the bailouts were a thing of the past.  Indeed, there is nothing in Obama’s financial plan that would prevent future bailouts, which is why I believe there was such applause.  The message to the Goldman’s of the world, was, you better behave, but even if you don’t, you, and your debtholders will be bailed out.

The president also repeatedly called for “clear rules” and “transparency” - but where exactly in his plan is the clear line dividing who will or will not be bailed out?  That’s the part Wall Street loves the most; they can all say we’ve “learned the lesson of Lehman:  Wall Street firms cannot be allowed to fail.”  At least that’s the lesson that Obama, Geithner and Bernanke have taken away.  The truth is we’ve been down this road before with Fannie and Freddie.  Politicians always called for them to do their part, and that their misdeeds would not be tolerated.  Remember all the tough talk after the 2003 and 2004 accounting scandals at Freddie and Fannie?  But still they got bailed out, and what new regulations were imposed were weak and ineffective.

As if the applause wasn’t enough, as Charles Gaspario points out, financial stocks rallied after the president’s speech.  Clearly the markets don’t see his plan as bad for the financial industry.

It would seem the best investment Goldman has made in recent years was in its employees deciding to become the largest single corporate contributor to the Obama Presidential campaign.  That’s an investment that continues to yield massive dividends.

The Legacy of TARP: Crony Capitalism

When Treasury Secretary Hank Paul proposed the bailout of Wall Street banks last September, I objected in part because the TARP meant that government connections, not economic merit, would come to determine how capital gets allocated in the economy. That prediction now looks dead on:

As financial firms navigate a life more closely connected to government aid and oversight than ever before, they increasingly turn to Washington, closing a chasm that was previously far greater than the 228 miles separating the nation’s political and financial capitals.

In the year since the investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, paralyzing global markets and triggering one of the biggest government forays into the economy in U.S. history, Wall Street has looked south to forge new business strategies, hew to new federal policies and find new talent.

“In the old days, Washington was refereeing from the sideline,” said Mohamed A. el-Erian, chief executive officer of Pimco. “In the new world we’re going toward, not only is Washington refereeing from the field, but it is also in some respects a player as well… . And that changes the dynamics significantly.”

Read the rest of the article; it is truly frightening. We have taken a huge leap toward crony capitalism, to our peril.

Reform Needed, but Obama Plan Would Result in More Financial Crises, not Less

Today President Obama took his financial reform plan to the airwaves.  While there is no doubt our financial system is in need of financial reform, the President’s plan would make bailouts a permanent feature of the regulatory landscape.  Rather than ending “too big to fail” – the President wants us to believe that with additional discretion and power, the same Federal Reserve that missed the boat last time will save us next time.

The truth is that the President’s plan will result in a small number of companies being viewed by debtholders as “too big to fail”.  These companies would see their funding costs decline, allowing them to gain market-share at the expense of their rivals, making these firms even larger.  Greater concentration in our financial services industry is the last thing we need, yet the Obama plan all but guarantees it.

Obama also chooses myth’s over facts.  The President claims that de-regulation and competition among regulators caused the crisis.  The facts could not be more different.  Those institutions at the center of the crisis – Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, Lehman –could not choose their regulator.

The President’s plan chooses convenient targets and protects entrenched interests, rather than address the true underlying causes of the crisis.  At no time have we heard the President discuss the expansionary monetary policies that helped fuel the bubble.  Nor has the President talked about the global imbalances – the global savings glut that poured surplus savings from the rest of the world into the US.  But then the President appears to hope that loose monetary policy and continued American consumption funded by China will get him out of his own political problems with the economy.  It is especially striking that the President makes little mention of the housing bubble, as if it was only the bust that was the problem.

The President continues to say he inherited this crisis.  While true, he did not inherit the same individuals – Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke – who were at the center of creating the crisis.  All Obama needs to do is find a position for Hank Paulson and he will have completely re-assembled the Bush financial team.

Without real reform – fixing Fannie and Freddie, scaling back the massive subsidies for leverage in our tax code, loose monetary policy – it will only be a matter of time before the next crisis hits.  If we implement the President’s plan, we will, however, guarantee that the next crisis will be even larger and severe than the current one.