Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Brown-Vitter: More Hot Air

Today’s New York Times article by Senators Brown and Vitter (the preview of their much-touted “bank break-up” bill) starts with a very encouraging line: “governments shouldn’t pick economic winners and losers.”

Senator Brown, in particular, seems to have learned this important lesson fairly recently (auto bailout, anyone?). But putting this aside (and also ignoring the ongoing debate about the purported subsidy to large banking organizations, which should be eliminated, if it indeed exists), Senators Brown and Vitter display some disturbing, though not uncommon, misconceptions about U.S. and global banking. And, as is always the case, poorly understood and inaccurate facts create bad policy suggestions.

The first problem is the implicit assumption that large size and diversity of operations are negative traits. In fact, diversity is the key to managing risk in banking. Part of the reason why US banking has had such a checkered history relative to many other countries is because of its historical lack of geographical and product diversity – a result of the long-standing prohibitions on inter-state banking and branch banking and limitations on combining investment and commercial banking activities. One of the single biggest causes of the banking crisis in the late 1920s was a lack of geographical diversity (and, as congressional records show, States that prohibited branch banking fared the worst). Similarly, one of the primary causes of the 2008 financial crisis was a lack of asset diversity - too many banks holding too many securitized sub-prime mortgages.

Second, is the implicit assumption that investment banking and underwriting activity are inherently more risky than loan activities. Certainly, imprudent investment banking can be disastrous. So can making risky loans. And the 2008 crisis was, at its core, a loan origination problem (a fact largely ignored by Congress because of the uncomfortable questions it raises about the two GSE’s - Fannie and Freddie).

Third, is the belief that the 2008 bank bailouts were somehow linked to the FDIC deposit insurance scheme and that if we ‘narrow’ the safety net, all future bailouts will be avoided. I am no fan of federal deposit insurance, but the bailouts were unrelated to it. TARP was a Treasury creation, passed by Members of Congress under extraordinary circumstances. The only way to ensure it doesn’t happen in future is to rein in Congress and limit their ability to (in the words of Brown and Vitter) “pick economic winners and losers”.

As it turns out, the Brown-Vitter Bill is less about bank ‘break-up’ and more a U.S. variant of the FSB’s G-SIFI surcharge – which raises the question why it is necessary at all, except to put the U.S.’s global banks at a disadvantage, even though they are already disproportionately affected by the surcharge. Brown and Vitter’s calls for higher capital requirements are not objectionable per se, but as the ongoing problems with the Basel Accord shows, the devil is always in the details. And if you get it wrong, you risk creating exactly the systemic problems – such as an excessive reliance on sovereign bonds or mortgage-backed securities – that you were trying to avoid.

Essentially, the only way to end the perception of a government backstop is to put in place a credible system to allow large firms to fail if they make poor decisions. To this end, the Brown-Vitter Bill doesn’t add anything except more confusion.

Price Controls: A Troubling Trend in Latin America

Argentina, Venezuela, and now even Ecuador have all embraced an unfortunate, if familiar, economic craze currently sweeping the region – price controls. In a wrong-headed attempt to “suppress” inflation, the respective governments have attempted to fix prices at artificially low levels. As any economist worth his salt knows, this will ultimately lead to scarcity.

Consider Venezuela, where the government sets the price of a number of goods, including premium gasoline, which is fixed at only 5.8 U.S. cents per gallon. As the accompanying chart shows, 20.4% of goods are simply not available in stores.

While price controls ostensibly keep the prices of goods on official markets low, they ultimately lead to empty shelves, depriving many consumers access to essential goods (such as toilet paper). This, in turn, leads to “repressed” inflation – given the price controls that exist, the “true” rate of inflation is held down, or repressed through Soviet-style government intervention. As the accompanying chart shows, the implied annual inflation rate for Venezuela (using changes in the black-market VEF/USD exchange rate) puts the “repressed” inflation rate at 153%.

Likewise, Argentina is facing a similar dilemma (see the accompanying chart).

In addition to scarcity and repressed inflation, price controls can lead to unintended political consequences down the road. Once price controls are implemented it is very difficult to remove them without generating popular unrest – just consider the 1989 riots in Venezuela when President Carlos Perez attempted to remove price controls. 

Hopefully, Ecuador – which, thanks to its dollarization, is experiencing an annual inflation rate of only 3% – will see this folly and abandon its expirement with price controls.

If countries like Venezuela are really interested in keeping inflation under control, they should follow Ecuador’s lead – simply junk their domestic currencies and “dollarize”.

A Tax Haven Primer for the New York Times

I could only use 428 words, but I highlighted the main arguments for tax havens and tax competition in a “Room for Debate” piece for the New York Times.

I hope that my contribution is a good addition to the powerful analysis of experts such as Allister Heath and Pierre Bessard.

I started with the economic argument.

[T]ax havens are very valuable because they discourage anti-growth tax policy. Simply stated, it is very difficult for governments to impose and enforce confiscatory tax rates when investors and entrepreneurs can shift their economic activity to jurisdictions with better tax policy. Particularly if those nations have strong policies on financial privacy, thus making it difficult for uncompetitive high-tax nations to track and tax flight capital. Thanks to this process of tax competition, with havens playing a key role, top personal income tax rates have dropped from an average of more than 67 percent in 1980 to about 42 percent today. Corporate tax rates also have plummeted, falling from an average of 48 percent to 24 percent.

…Lawmakers also were pressured to lower or eliminate death taxes and wealth taxes, as well as to reduce the double taxation of interest, dividends and capital gains. Once again, tax havens deserve much of the credit because politicians presumably would not have implemented these pro-growth reforms if they didn’t have to worry that the geese with the golden eggs might fly away to a confidential account in a well-run nation like Luxembourg or Singapore.

Since I didn’t have much space, I couldn’t go into much greater detail. Below the jump is a video that elaborates on the economic benefits of tax havens, including an explanation of why fiscal sovereignty is a big part of the debate.

Yay Authoritarianism!

Cato-at-Liberty readers who are enjoying—or, at least, chronicling—our nation’s slide down The Road to Serfdom will have to add Neil Irwin’s Washington Post Outlook piece, “Why the financial crisis was bad for democracy,” to their travelogue:

In a democratic society, there will always be tension over which decisions should be made by expert appointees, and which by those with the legitimacy and accountability that come with competing for citizens’ votes. The technocrats can make complex decisions quickly, quietly and efficiently. The words “quick, “quiet” and “efficient” are rarely applied to the U.S. Senate or the Italian Parliament — but these institutions are imbued with an authority that comes directly from the people, the explicit consent of the governed.

So, in a crisis, which do you want: unaccountable decisiveness or inefficient accountability?

Consciously or not, we’ve made our choice: The financial crisis and its long, ugly aftermath have marked the triumph of the technocrats…

None of this is a great way to run a society. Like most journalists, I believe in transparency and accountability. I wish the Federal Reserve’s policy meetings were broadcast on C-SPAN. Instead, we get written transcripts five years later. (That still beats Europe, where such information is under lock and key for 30 years.)

Yet, when the world is on the brink, decisive problem-solving trumps the niceties of democratic process. I won’t like it much — but I’ll take it.

Authoritarianism cannot take hold without intellectual support, and Friedrich Hayek couldn’t have described the rationale better himself. Just equally well. Almost verbatim, actually.

For more, see my paper (with Diane Cohen) on IPAB and this Cato policy forum on IPAB and Dodd-Frank. And of course, read Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom while it’s still legal.

Margaret Thatcher and the Battle of the 364 Keynesians

With the death of Margaret Thatcher, and the ensuing profusion of commentary on her legacy, it is worth looking back at an overlooked chapter in the Thatcher story. I am referring to her 1981 showdown with the Keynesian establishment—a showdown that the Iron Lady won handily. Before getting caught up with the phony “austerity vs. fiscal stimulus” debate, the chattering classes should take note of how Mrs. Thatcher debunked the Keynesian “fiscal factoid.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a factoid is “an item of unreliable information that is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact.” The standard Keynesian fiscal policy prescription for the maintenance of non-inflationary full employment is a fiscal factoid. The chattering classes can repeat this factoid on cue: to stimulate the economy, expand the government’s deficit (or shrink its surplus); and to rein in an overheated economy, shrink the government’s deficit (or expand its surplus).

Even the economic oracles embrace the fiscal factoid. That, of course, is one reason that the Keynesians’ fiscal mantra has become a factoid. No less than Nobelist Paul Krugman repeats it ad nauseam. Now, the new secretary of the treasury, Jack Lew (who claims no economic expertise), is in Europe peddling the fiscal factoid.

Unfortunately, the grim reaper finally caught up with Margaret Thatcher—but not before she laid waste to 364 wrong-headed British Keynesians.

In 1981, Prime Minister Thatcher made a dash for confidence and growth via a fiscal squeeze. To restart the economy, Mrs. Thatcher instituted a fierce attack on the British fiscal deficit, coupled with an expansionary monetary policy. Her moves were immediately condemned by 364 distinguished economists. In a letter to The Times, they wrote a knee-jerk Keynesian response: “Present policies will deepen the depression, erode the industrial base of our economy and threaten its social and political stability.”

Mrs. Thatcher was quickly vindicated. No sooner had the 364 affixed their signatures to that letter than the economy boomed. Confidence in the British economy was restored, and Mrs. Thatcher was able to introduce a long series of deep, free-market reforms.

As for the 364 economists (who included seventy-six present or past professors, a majority of the Chief Economic Advisors to the Government in the post-WWII period, and the president, as well as nine present or past vice-presidents, and the secretary general of the Royal Economic Society), they were not only wrong, but also came to look ridiculous.

In the United States, the peddlers of the fiscal factoid have never suffered the intellectual humiliation of their British counterparts. In consequence, American Keynesians can continue to peddle snake oil with reckless abandon and continue to influence policy in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

What Is the Value of Bitcoin?

With Bitcoin enjoying a spike in price against government currencies, there is lots of talk about it on the Interwebs. If you’re not familiar with it yet, here’s a good Bitcoin primer, which also counsels reading a lot more before you acquire Bitcoin, as Bitcoin may fail. If you like Bitcoin and want to buy some, don’t go all goofy. Do your homework. As if you need to be told, be careful with your money.

Much of the commentary declares a Bitcoin bubble for one reason or another. It might be a bubble, but nobody actually knows. A way of guessing is to compare Bitcoin’s qualities as a currency and payment network to the alternatives. Like any service or good, there are many dimensions to value storage and transfer.

I may not capture them all, and they certainly don’t predict the correct price against the dollar or other currencies. That depends on the ultimate viscosity of Bitcoin. But Bitcoin certainly has value of a different kind: it may discipline fiat currencies and the states that control them.

Iran’s Inflation Statistics: Lies, Lies and Mehr Lies

The Mehr News Agency is now reporting that Iran’s annual inflation rate has reached 31.5%. According to the Central Bank’s official line, Iran’s annual inflation rate has bumped up only 1.3 percentage points from February to March.

Never mind that this official inflation statistic is well below all serious estimates of Iran’s inflation. And yes, Iran’s official inflation statistics are also contradicted by the overwhelming body of anecdotal reports in the financial press.

Since September 2012, I have been estimating Iran’s inflation rate – which briefly reached hyperinflation levels in October 2012 – using a standard, widely-accepted methodology. By measuring changes in the rial’s black-market (read: free-market) U.S. dollar exchange rate, it is possible to calculate an implied inflation rate for Iran.

When we do so, a much different picture of Iran’s inflation emerges. Indeed, Iran’s annual inflation rate is actually 82.5% – a rate more than double the official rate of 31.5% (see the accompanying chart).

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, the regimes resort to underreporting or simply fabricating statistics to hide their economic problems. And, in some cases, such as Zimbabwe and North Korea, the government simply stops reporting economic data altogether.

Iran has followed a familiar path, failing to report inflation data in a timely and replicable manner. Those data that are reported by Iran’s Central Bank tend to possess what I’ve described as an “Alice in Wonderland” quality and should be taken with a grain of salt.