Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

The Bailout: Secret Payments?

From the blog:

Just two weeks after the passage of the bailout bill, and one day after a Treasury Department official declared, “we are committed to transparency and oversight in all aspects of the program,” the Treasury Department began covering up the amount it would pay to New York Mellon Bank to act as a financial agent in the bailout.

Spending $700,000,000,000.00 in taxpayer money is not business as usual. And hiding the terms of government contracts shouldn’t be business as usual anyway.

Non-Myths about the Financial Crisis

A paper by three Minneapolis Fed economists is making the rounds – disputing any funding crisis for non-financial corporate firms. IMHO, this is a very disingenuous paper.  All of these so-called myths are really non-myths. Basically, the paper’s focus on “bank lending” is mistaken.  Focusing on total borrowing by non-financial sectors shows the accurate picture.

Myth 1. Bank lending to nonfinancial corporations and individuals has declined sharply.

The financial market crisis is in the non-bank financial sector, not in the banking sector.  And the authors say (correctly) that the majority (80 percent) non-financial sector borrowing is not from banks.  So why focus on bank lending to the non-financial firms to see if there’s a credit crunch?

Myth 2. Interbank lending is essentially nonexistent.

If that’s not true, so what? (See response to Myth 1.) Banks are more tightly regulated by the Fed (compared to non-bank financial companies by the SEC).  So banks did not hold the riskiest mortgage backed securities (although they originated and sequestered such assets in off-balance sheet entities and “adverse selected” the best ones for their own portfolio, selling the rest to non-bank financial and other firms).  So, again, the banking sector is not where the financial market crisis occurred – it happened in the non-bank financial sector.

Myth 3. Commercial paper issuance by nonfinancial corporations has declined sharply and rates have risen to unprecedented levels.

But Federal Reserve Board data on total commercial paper borrowing by non-financial sectors took a huge hit in the 2nd quarter of 2008  (see Flow of Funds, Table F.2 from release Z.1 September 18, 2008, line 3).  Thus, it’s not surprising that bank credit to non-financial companies may be increasing: Those companies may be drawing more heavily on their lines of credit with banks because non-bank sources of borrowing are constricted. So, where’s the mystery?

Myth 4. Banks play a large role in channeling funds from savers to borrowers.

Again, non-bank financial (and other) companies supply the overwhelming share of non-financial sector borrowing. And the non-bank financial sector is where the financial market crisis is occurring.  So, there IS a funding crisis for non-financial firms. Get with it, Minneapolis Fed!

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.