Tag: monetary policy

Does the Left Know We Had a Housing Bubble?

Over the last week, speaking at a variety of events, I heard three different representatives of the Left; first a Democrat US Senator, then a senior member of the Obama Administration, and finally a “consumer” advocate, all repeat the same narrative:  all was fine in the housing market until predatory lenders forced hard-working honest families into foreclosure, which reduced house prices, bringing the economy to a crash.  That’s correct, apparently the Left believes we all would still be seeing double-digit home price appreciation if it wasn’t for those evil lenders.

Undoubtedly foreclosures, especially those that result in houses that remain vacant for a considerable amount of time, have an adverse impact on surrounding property values.  Many constitute a serious eye-sore and provide a haven for criminal activity.  But did foreclosures really drive down prices, or were foreclosures first driven by price declines resulting from a bursting housing bubble?  While causality is always difficult to establish with certainty, we do know that the rate of house price appreciation peaked and started declining about 18 months before the dramatic up-turn in mortgage delinquencies.  If one prefers a more rigorous test, economists at the Boston Fed have directly tested if prices first drove foreclosures or whether foreclosures drove prices.  Their results conclude that its was declining prices that matter, and that the price effect of foreclosures is minimal.

Why does any of this ultimately matter?  Because if we craft policies to avoid the adverse impacts of the next property bubble based upon a narrative of “consumer protection” – as is being pushed by the Obama Administration, we will do little to avoid the creation of the next housing bubble and its damaging aftermath.  Instead we should be focusing attention on those policies that contributed to the creation of the housing bubble: expansionary monetary policy and the Federal government’s blind pursuit of ever-expanding home-ownership rates at any cost.

What Fed Independence?

More than 250 economists have signed an “Open Letter to Congress and the Executive Branch” calling upon them to “defend the independence of the Federal Reserve System as a foundation of U.S. economic stability.”

Allan Meltzer is not a signatory to the petition and he has explained why not.  The Fed has frequently not shown independence in the past, and there is no reason to expect it to do so reliably in the future.  Professor Meltzer has just completed a multi-volume history of the Fed and knows all-too-well of the Fed’s willingness to accommodate the policies of administrations from FDRs to Lyndon Johnson’s. 

I would add that the Fed’s behavior under Chairman Bernanke breaks new ground in aligning the central bank’s policy with Treasury’s.  Much of what the Fed has done, first under Bush/Paulson, and now under Obama/Geithner, involves credit allocation.  Since that ultimately involves the provision of public money for private purpose, it is pre-eminently fiscal policy.  Central bank independence is a fuzzy concept.  If it means anything, however, it is that monetary policy is conducted independently of Treasury’s fiscal policy.

In short, it is not the critics of the Fed who threaten its independence, but the Fed’s own actions.  Its intervention in the economy is unprecedented in size and scope. It is inevitable that those actions would lead to calls for further Congressional oversight and control.  The Fed is a creature of Congress and ultimately answerable to that body. 

The petition raises legitimate concerns about whether the Fed will be able to tighten monetary policy when the time comes, and exit from its interventions in credit markets.  But it is precisely the Fed’s own recent actions that raise those problems.  Critics of recent Fed policy actions have for some time complained that the Fed has no exit strategy.  Apparently the critics are now going to be blamed for the Fed’s inability to extricate itself from its interventions.

Cross-posted at ThinkMarkets

Week in Review: No End to Spending and Regulation in Sight

Geithner to Propose Unprecedented Restrictions on Financial System

geithnerThe Washington Post reports, “Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner plans to propose today a sweeping expansion of federal authority over the financial system… The administration also will seek to impose uniform standards on all large financial firms, including banks, an unprecedented step that would place significant limits on the scope and risk of their activities.”

Calling Geithner’s plan another “jihad against the market,” Cato senior fellow Jerry Taylor blasts the administration’s proposal:

What President Obama is selling is the idea that government must be the final arbiter regarding how much risk-taking is appropriate in this allegedly free market economy. It is unclear, however, whether anybody short of God is in the position to intelligently make that call for every single actor in the market.

Cato senior fellow Gerald P. O’Driscoll reveals the real reason behind the proposal:

Federal agencies have long had extensive regulatory powers over commercial banks, but allowed the banking crisis to develop despite those powers. It was a failure of will, not an absence of authority.   If the authority is extended over more institutions, there is no reason to believe we will have a different outcome.  This power grab is designed to divert attention away from the manifest failure of, first, the Bush Administration, and now the Obama Administration to devise a credible plan to deal with the crisis.

A new paper from Cato scholar Jagadeesh Gokhale explains the roots of the current global financial crisis and critically examines the reasoning behind the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve’s actions to prop up the financial sector. Gokhale argues that recovery is likely to be slow with or without the government’s bailout actions.

In the new issue of the Cato Policy Report, Cato chairman emeritus William A. Niskanen explains how President Obama is taking classic steps toward turning this recession into a depression:

Four federal economic policies transformed the Hoover recession into the Great Depression: higher tariffs, stronger unions, higher marginal tax rates, and a lower money supply. President Obama, unfortunately, has endorsed some variant of the first three of these policies, and he will face a critical choice on monetary policy in a year or so.

Obama Defends His Massive Spending Plan

President Obama visited Capitol Hill on Wednesday to lobby Democratic lawmakers on his $3.6 trillion budget proposal. Both the House and Senate are expected to vote on the plan next week.

obama-budget1In a new bulletin, Cato scholar Chris Edwards argues, “Sadly, Obama’s first budget sets a course for more government bloat, more economic distortions, and ultimately lower standards of living for everyone who is not living off of federal hand-outs.”

On Cato’s blog, Edwards discusses Obama’s misguided theory on government spending:

Obama’s budget would drive government health care costs up, not down. But aside from that technicality, the economics of Obama’s theory don’t make any sense.

Obama’s budget calls for a massive influx of government jobs. Writing in National Review, Cato senior fellow Jim Powell explains why government jobs don’t cure depression:

If government jobs were the secret of success, then the Soviet Union wouldn’t have collapsed, because it had nothing but government jobs. Communist China, glutted with government jobs, would have generated more income per capita than Hong Kong where, at least before the Communist takeover, there were hardly any government jobs, but Hong Kong’s per capita income was about 20 times higher than that on the mainland.

Multiplying the number of government jobs did nothing then and does nothing now to revive the private sector that pays all the bills, in large part because of the depressing effect of taxes required to pay for government jobs.

Cato on YouTube

Cato Institute is reaching out to new audiences with our message of individual liberty, free markets and peace. Last year, we launched our first YouTube channel, which has garnered thousands of views and subscriptions. Here are a few highlights:

The Fed Is Now Scared

Bloomberg News (March 25, 2009) reported a speech by San Francisco Fed president Janet Yellen in which she called for authority for the central bank to issue its own debt. The request must have most people perplexed, especially since her rationale was delivered in Fed-speak. “Issuing such debt would reduce the volume of reserves in the financial system and push up the funds rate without shrinking the total size of our balance sheet,” Yellen said.

Actually, Yellen, who is also an economist, is addressing a very serious issue. It is one that critics of current Fed policy have been raising for some time.

The Fed is loading up its balance sheet with illiquid assets, including many dubious assets taken in as collateral for loans of money and Treasury securities to financial institutions. In the process, the Fed has an ever diminishing supply of highly liquid (and safe) Treasury securities on its own balance sheet.

Critics like economic historian Anna J. Schwartz and former Fed attorney Walker F. Todd have pointed out that the Fed will have a technical problem if it wants to start sopping up all the liquidity it has created. In a 2008 paper in International Finance, Schwartz and Todd wrote that “it is fair to ask what the Fed intends to do if it decided that it would tighten monetary policy by raising interest rates.” Without a sufficient supply of highly liquid assets to sell in the markets, the Fed would need to dispose of its illiquid assets at losses. That would possibly drive up interest rates more than desired.

Yellen’s call for the power to issue Fed debt signals a number of things. First, the Fed, contrary to recent happy talk from other officials, is worried about inflation. Second, its critics are correct that the Fed has painted itself into a corner by taking illiquid assets onto its balance sheet. Third, the Fed wants to hold those dubious assets to maturity (hence Yellen’s point about not “shrinking the total size of our balance sheet”).

Yellen’s trial balloon drew a “no comment” from the Fed’s Washington headquarters. The issue will not go away.