Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

How’s that Housing Stimulus Working Out for You?

Yesterday Case-Shiller released their monthly housing price index.  Surprise, it fell by 4.2% in the first quarter of 2011.  I’ve been predicting a decline of about 6% over the course of 2011 (might need to adjust that).  Of course, this should come as no surprise.  We’ve spent the last couple of years trying to re-create the bubble, with little success.  While there’s been a home-buyer tax credit, the largest stimulus has been extremely cheap credit on the part of the Federal Reserve.  The problem with all these subsidies is they ignore the fact that eventually the housing market will come back to fundamentals.  And those fundamentals are demographics and income.  You cannot over long periods of time sustain house price increases without increases in incomes.  Loose credit only gets you so far.  Prices have already fallen enough to pretty much wipe out the entire value of the home-buyer tax credit.

Even worse than putting off the inevitable correction, subsidies that maintain prices above construction costs result in additional supply being added to an already glutted market.  While housing starts are near historic lows - they are still positive.  And worse, they are higher in the very markets in which we don’t want more building.  That permitting activity is twice as high in Phoenix as in San Diego, despite being of similar size, illustrates the perverse incentives of trying to re-inflate the bubble via demand subsides.  In supply-constrained markets you simply maintain prices at unaffordable levels - San Diego is still 54% above its 2000 price level - while in easy-to-build markets you add to the glut - prices in Phoenix are now back to 2000 levels. 

House prices were always going to find their “true” bottom. The question was simply: did we want to get there right away, or drag out the process? Washington chose the course of dragging out the process, at considerable cost.  I believe dragging out the process has only further spooked potential buyers.  Any buyer today has to suspect that further price declines are possible.  We need to get to the point where the only direction is up.  We aren’t there yet.  Policymakers continue to ignore the basics of supply and demand.  Unfortunately the rest of us pay the price for their doing so.

With the Support of the Obama Administration, Paris-Based OECD Now Wants De Facto World Tax Organization as Part of Its Anti-Tax Competition Campaign

I’ve been battling the Organization for Economic Cooperation for years, ever since the Paris-based bureaucracy unveiled its “harmful tax competition” project in the late 1990s. Controlled by Europe’s high-tax welfare states, the OECD wants to prop up the fiscal systems of nations such as Greece and France by hindering the flow of jobs and capital to low-tax jurisdictions.

Guided by a radical theory know as Capital Export Neutrality, the OECD wants to impose global tax rules that would prevent taxpayers from ever having the ability to benefit from better tax law in other jurisdictions. This is why, for instance, the international bureaucrats are anxious to undermine national tax laws – such as America’s favorable treatment of bank deposits from overseas – that enable people to escape onerous tax regimes.

Bolstered by support from the Obama Administration, the OECD now is taking its campaign to the next level. At its Global Tax Forum in Bermuda, which ends later today, the bureaucrats unveiled a new scheme that effectively would result in the creation of something akin to a World Tax Organization.

The vehicle for this effort is a Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters. This may sound dry and technical, but the OECD wants all nations to participate in this pact, which has existed for a couple of decades but was radically expanded last year to give high-tax governments sweeping new powers to impose bad tax law on income generated in low-tax jurisdictions.

But the real smoking gun is that the OECD has put itself in charge of the “co-ordinating body” that will have enormous powers to interpret the agreement, modify the pact, and resolve disputes – thus giving itself the ability to serve as judge, jury, and executioner.

This is a profoundly dangerous development with all sorts of very troubling implications. Since I’m in Bermuda trying to destabilize this effort, I don’t have time for extensive analysis, but here’s a press release from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity and here are some of my immediate concerns.

  1. Higher tax burdens. If high-tax governments succeed is imposing this Multilateral Convention (insert “World Tax Organization” whenever you see that term), tax competition will be undermined and politicians will respond by increasing tax burdens. This is why nations such as France have been pushing this scheme, of course, and why left-wing academics have long dreamed of this type of arrangement.
  2. Risk to human rights. Amazingly, the Multilateral Convention is open to repressive regimes, which then would have access to all sorts of sensitive and confidential taxpayer information. Already, the thuggish dictatorship of Azerbaijan has signed up, as well as the unstable nation of Moldova and the corrupt government of Mexico. The implications are grim, including the sale of private data to criminal gangs, the loss of sensitive information to hackers, and the direct misuse of American tax returns.
  3. Loss of sovereignty. For all intents and purposes, the Multilateral Convention outlaws certain pro-growth tax policies and discourages others. Equally worrisome, it creates a system allowing foreign tax collectors to cross borders. The Obama Administration has specifically acquiesced to this provision, so perhaps we will soon see corrupt Mexican tax authorities harassing businesses and individuals on American soil.
  4. Outlawing tax avoidance. The OECD historically has tried to portray its efforts as a fight against tax evasion, but the Multilateral Convention explicitly talks about “combating tax avoidance.” This should not be a surprise since the Capital Export Neutrality ideology is based on the notion that taxpayers should have zero ability to lower their tax burdens. This means we can fully expect an assault on all forms of tax planning, with American companies almost sure to be among the first to be in the OECD’s crosshairs.

The final insult to injury is that American taxpayers are the biggest funders of the OECD, providing nearly one-fourth of the bureaucracy’s bloated budget. So our tax dollars are being used by OECD bureaucrats (who receive tax-free salaries!) to dream up new ways of increasing our tax burdens. In case you need any additional reasons to despise this bureaucracy, here’s a video detailing its anti-free market activities.

 

And since I’m recycling some videos, here’s one explaining why tax competition is so important.

Inflation Expert

Who knows more about inflation, Richard Galanti or Ben Bernanke? I maintain that, when it comes to the facts, Mr. Galanti knows more than the Fed chairman. Galanti is the CFO of Costco Wholesale Corp.

The Wall Street Journal reported last Thursday (May 26th) on a conference call with Mr. Galanti. He said “we saw quite a bit of inflationary pricing” in the 3rd quarter.

Price increases occurred in a broad range of products” dry dog food (3.5%). Detergents (10%+), plastic products (8-9%). Costco will “hold prices as long as we can.” When it can no longer, the consumer will face rising prices.

Costco is a good leading indicator of inflation at the retail level. It turns over inventory quickly, and is leading other retailers in restocking at higher prices. Costco offers a forward-looking view of consumer price inflation.

Meanwhile the Fed and its chairman, Ben Bernanke, rely on backward looking measures of inflation, like the CPI. That index, and the “core” component that excludes food and energy prices, overweight the depressed housing sector. And they are yesterday’s news.

For years, American consumers have benefitted from cheap imports from China and India. When those countries liberalized and opened up to global commerce, Americans got the benefit of the hard work and low wages of 2 ½ billion workers. The era of cheap labor is coming to an end, and with it the flood of imports that held down prices in the U.S. Especially in China, wage rates are rising rapidly.

Heretofore, the flood of dollars has chiefly affected asset prices and inflation in other countries. The flow through to U.S. consumer prices will now be quicker. You’ll experience it when you go to Costco to restock.

The “I-Told-You-So” Blog Post about the Completely Predictable Failure of the Greek Bailout

Way back in February of 2010, I wrote that a Greek bailout would be a failure. Not surprisingly, the bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund and the political elite from other European nations ignored my advice and gave tens of billions of dollars to Greece’s corrupt politicians.

The bailout happened in part because politicians and international bureaucrats (when they’re not getting arrested for molesting hotel maids) have a compulsion to squander other people’s money. But it also should be noted that the Greek bailout was a way of indirectly bailing out the big European banks that recklessly lent money to a profligate government (as explained here).

At the risk of sounding smug, let’s look at my four predictions from February 2010 and see how I did.

1. The first prediction was that “Bailing out Greece will reward over-spending politicians and make future fiscal crises more likely.” That certainly seems to be the case since Europe is in even worse shape, so I’ll give myself a gold star.

2. The second prediction was that “Bailing out Greece will reward greedy and short-sighted interest groups, particularly overpaid government workers.” Given the refusal of Greek politicians to follow through with promised cuts and privatizations, largely because of domestic resistance, it seems I was right again. As such, I’ll give myself another pat on the back.

3. My third prediction was that “Bailing out Greece will encourage profligacy in Spain, Italy, and other nations.” Again, events certainly seem to confirm what I warned about last year, so let’s put this one in the win column as well.

4. Last but not least, my fourth prediction was that “Bailing out Greece is not necessary to save the euro.” Well, since everybody is now talking about two possible non-bailout options—either a Greek default (a “restructuring” in PC terms) or a Greek return to using the drachma—and acknowledging that neither is a threat to the euro, it seems I batted 4-4 in my predictions.

But there’s no reward for being right. Especially when making such obvious predictions about the failure of big-government policies. So now we’re back where we were early last year, with Greece looking for another pile of money. Here’s a brief blurb from Reuters.

The European Union is racing to draft a second bailout package for Greece to release vital loans next month and avert the risk of the euro zone country defaulting, EU officials said on Monday.

If this second bailout happens (and it probably will), then I will make four new predictions. But I don’t need to spell them out because they’ll be the same ones I made last year.

We’ve reached the lather-rinse-repeat stage of fiscal collapse for the welfare state.

Hoenig for FDIC

On July 8th, Sheila Bair will step down as Chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).  While I believe she’s gotten a lot wrong (such as not preparing the fund for the coming crisis), she has been about the only voice among senior bank regulators for actually ending too-big-to-fail.  With her departure, we might lose that one voice.  Later this year, Kansas City Fed President Tom Hoenig is also scheduled to leave his current position.

Hoenig has actually gone beyond Bair in trying to address too-big-to-fail, having called for the largest banks to be broken up.  While I don’t believe that should be our first approach, having an advocate for both the taxpayer and the overall economy at the helm of the FDIC could make a significant difference.

Given that Section 2 of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act requires the FDIC to have a bipartisan board, President Obama is faced with the choice of either appointing a non-Democrat or asking Vice-Chair Marty Gruenberg to leave.  While I have no idea as to Hoenig’s politics, he’d likely be able to pass that test.

Hoenig has also been willing to publicly challenge Bernanke on a number of issues.  Given the narrow group-think among regulators that contributed to the crisis, having a loud, credible, independent voice among bank regulators is solely needed.  Hoenig again fits that bill.  His appointment would also offer Obama a chance to show that he is not completely beholden to the Geithner “never seen a bailout I didn’t like” worldview.

Perhaps with Hoenig at the helm, we can actually begin a debate about reducing the moral hazard created by the Federal Reserve.  While Bair was all too willing to see both insurance coverage and regulatory powers of the FDIC expanded, Hoenig strikes me as open-minded to the very real excess bank risk-taking that is encouraged by the existence of the FDIC.

How Fannie and Fed Caused the Crash

Economist John B. Taylor reviews Reckless Endangerment by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner:

The book focuses on two agencies of government, Fannie Mae and the Federal Reserve. The mutual support system is better explained and documented in the case of Fannie, the government-sponsored enterprise that supported the home mortgage market by buying mortgages and packaging them into marketable securities which it then guaranteed and sold to investors. The federal government supported Fannie Mae — and the other large government-sponsored enterprise, Freddie Mac — by implicitly backing up those guarantees and by providing favorable regulatory treatment and protection from competition. These benefits enabled Fannie to rake in excess profits — $2 billion in excess, according to a 1995 study by the Congressional Budget Office.

The book then gives examples where Fannie’s executives — Jim Johnson, CEO from 1991 to 1998 [and also top aide to Vice President Walter Mondale, campaign manager for Mondale, head of vice presidential selection for both John F. Kerry and Barack Obama, and chairman of both the Kennedy Center and the Brookings Institution], is singled out more than anyone else — used the excess profits to support government officials in a variety of ways with plenty left over for large bonuses: They got jobs for friends and relatives of elected officials, including Rep. Barney Frank, who is tagged as “a perpetual protector of Fannie,” and they set up partnership offices around the country which provided more jobs. They financed publications in which writers argued that Fannie’s role in promoting homeownership justified federal support. They commissioned work by famous economists, such as Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz, which argued that Fannie was not a serious risk to the taxpayer, countering “critics who argued that both Fannie and Freddie posed significant risks to the taxpayer.” They made campaign contributions and charitable donations to co-opt groups like the community action organization ACORN, which “had been agitating for tighter regulations on Fannie Mae.” They persuaded executive branch officials — such as then Deputy Treasury Secretary Larry Summers — to ask their staffs to rewrite reports critical of Fannie. In the meantime, Countrywide, the mortgage firm led by Angelo Mozilo, partnered with Fannie in originating many of the mortgages Fannie packaged (26 percent in 2004) and gave “sweetheart” loans to politicians with power to affect Fannie, such as Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut. The authors write that “Countrywide and Fannie Mae were inextricably bound.”

But don’t ignore the role of the Fed:

Early on the authors take on the Boston Fed, and in particular its research director Alicia Munnell, for using a study documenting racial discrimination in mortgage lending to justify the relaxation of credit standards, even though the study’s findings were found to be flawed by other researchers. And they criticize the very low interest rate set by the Fed when Alan Greenspan was chairman and Ben Bernanke was a Fed governor, saying it “contributed mightily to the mortgage lending craze,” adding that “with the Fed on a rate-cutting rampage, demand for adjustable-rate mortgages with relatively low initial interest costs had become incendiary.”

If you watched the HBO movie Too Big to Fail, you wouldn’t get much sense that government actions – easy money, the homeownership mania, HUD and Fannie’s push to lend to non-creditworthy borrowers – played a major role in the housing bubble and subsequent financial crisis. Sounds like this book would make good supplemental reading for viewers, along with Johan Norberg’s Financial Fiasco.

Financial Crises as Information Problems

If you haven’t seen it already, be sure to give a read to Friedman Prize winner Hernando de Soto’s recent piece in Business Week, “The Destruction of Economic Facts.” It’s a fascinating perspective on the economic and financial turmoil that is wracking the United States and the world.

As de Soto perceives more easily from working in developing economies, an important input into functioning markets is good information—about property, ownership, debts, and so on. The “destruction of economic facts” is one of the roots of instability and uncertainty in Europe and the United States: “In a few short decades the West undercut 150 years of legal reforms that made the global economy possible.”

The law and markets are information systems, says de Soto:

The rule of law is much more than a dull body of norms: It is a huge, thriving information and management system that filters and processes local data until it is transformed into facts organized in a way that allows us to infer if they hang together and make sense.

If you’re interested in information and transparency, it’s worth a read.