Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Fed’s QEII Offers More Risk Than Reward

As the Federal Reserve Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meets today, it is widely expected that the Fed will announce a new round of quantitative easing (QE).  The first round began in March 2009, as the Fed started large-scale purchases of Fannie and Freddie debt and MBS.  The next round is expected to focus on purchases of long-dated US Treasuries.

The objective of QEII would be to reduce long-term interest rates, with the belief that such a reduction would spur investment and consumption, thus increasing employment.   Estimated impacts on rates range from zero to 80 basis points (80/100s of one percent).  

Given the large excess reserves in the banking system, it is likely that much of the monetary stimulus provided by QEII will simply be added to bank reserves, which would correspondingly have little to no impact on either lending or interest rates.  So its likely that we will get very little bang out of QEII.

Even if QEII did lower rates as much as some Fed leaders claim, the impact would still be relatively small, under one percent.  Given that mortgage rates have already fallen by that much over the last six months without changing the direction of the housing market, it is hard to see even a 1% decline in rates moving the economy.  Quite simply, the major problem facing the economy today is not high interest rates.

The real impact, and the greatest risk, of QEII is that it changes expectations of inflation.  It seems pretty clear that the Fed wants higher inflation than we have now.  QEII sends the signal that the Fed will do everything possible to create that additional inflation.  QEII also runs the real risk that the Fed ends up “monetizing the debt” - both reducing the political pressure to address our fiscal imbalances as well as undermining the dollar.  I see these risks as easily outweighing what little bump one might get from a few basis points decline in long-term interest rates.

Misleading Headline Dept.: ‘Council Aids West Side Housing’

At his must-read blog Future of Capitalism, Ira Stoll points out (reprinted by permission) an instance in which the news-side WSJ uncritically accepts at face value the claims of New York City politicos:

“Council Aids West Side Housing” is the headline over a news article in the Wall Street Journal reporting, “A change to city zoning laws aims to preserve affordable housing for a large swath of the West Side, blocking new development in the Garment District, West Chelsea and Hudson Yards….The City Council voted on Wednesday to extend a zoning-law amendment that previously has been applied to Clinton, a midtown West area also known as Hell’s Kitchen. It now will also restricts landlords or developers from changing more than 20% of any multi-family building in the additional West Side neighborhoods. Council members say the rules will allow for building renovations but not demolitions…..About 1,500 units in 108 buildings will fall under the new amendment….The vote on Wednesday was an extension of the 1974 Clinton Special District amendment, which was passed to protect that area’s low-rise character and affordable housing.”

A free-market-oriented economist with some common sense might point out that restricting new high-rise development may preserve “affordable housing” for the lucky few occupants of the 1,500 units now locked into place. But this free-market-oriented economist with some common sense might also point out that by restricting the supply of new housing units, the change in the law won’t “Aid Housing,” as the headline claims, but it will actually hurt housing by making it illegal to build much more of it. People living outside these neighborhoods who would like to move in will have a harder time doing so now that the government has artificially restricted the housing supply. The Journal article doesn’t get into this.

A commenter further points out that the land-use freeze will cut into the property tax base on which the city can draw, meaning that the city will raise funds by taxing someone else – another reason to expect that life for city newcomers will be less affordable in coming years, not more.

What Gets You Most Upset about the TARP Bailout, the Lying, the Corruption, or the Economic Damage?

As an economist, I should probably be most agitated about the economic consequences of TARP, such as moral hazard and capital malinvestment. But when I read stories about how political insiders (both in government and on Wall Street) manipulate the system for personal advantage, I get even more upset.

Yes, TARP was economically misguided. But the bailout also was fundamentally corrupt, featuring special favors for the well-heeled. I don’t like it when lower-income people use the political system to take money from upper-income people, but it is downright nauseating and disgusting when upper-income people use the coercive power of government to steal money from lower-income people.

Now, to add insult to injury, we’re being fed an unsavory gruel of deception as the political class tries to cover its tracks. Here’s a story from Bloomberg about the Treasury Department’s refusal to obey the law and comply with a FOIA request. A Bloomberg reporter wanted to know about an insider deal to put taxpayers on the line to guarantee a bunch of Citigroup-held securities, but the government thinks that people don’t have a right to know how their money is being funneled to politically-powerful and well-connected insiders.

The late Bloomberg News reporter Mark Pittman asked the U.S. Treasury in January 2009 to identify $301 billion of securities owned by Citigroup Inc. that the government had agreed to guarantee. He made the request on the grounds that taxpayers ought to know how their money was being used. More than 20 months later, after saying at least five times that a response was imminent, Treasury officials responded with 560 pages of printed-out e-mails – none of which Pittman requested. They were so heavily redacted that most of what’s left are everyday messages such as “Did you just try to call me?” and “Monday will be a busy day!” None of the documents answers Pittman’s request for “records sufficient to show the names of the relevant securities” or the dates and terms of the guarantees.

Here’s another reprehensible example. The Treasury Department, for all intents and purposes, prevaricated when it recently claimed that the AIG bailout would cost “only” $5 billion. This has triggered some pushback from Capitol Hill GOPers, as reported by the New York Times, but it is highly unlikely that anyone will suffer any consequences for this deception. To paraphrase Glenn Reynolds, “laws, honesty, and integrity, like taxes, are for the little people.”

The United States Treasury concealed $40 billion in likely taxpayer losses on the bailout of the American International Group earlier this month, when it abandoned its usual method for valuing investments, according to a report by the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. …“The American people have a right for full and complete disclosure about their investment in A.I.G.,” Mr. Barofsky said, “and the U.S. government has an obligation, when they’re describing potential losses, to give complete information.” …“If a private company filed information with the government that was just as misleading and disingenuous as what Treasury has done here, you’d better believe there would be calls for an investigation from the S.E.C. and others,” said Representative Darrell Issa, the senior Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He called the Treasury’s October report on A.I.G. “blatant manipulation.” Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said he thought “administration officials are trying so hard to put a positive spin on program losses that they played fast and loose with the numbers.” He said it reminded him of “misleading” claims that General Motors had paid back its rescue loans with interest ahead of schedule.

P.S. Allow me to preempt some emails from people who will argue that TARP was a necessary evil. Even for those who think the financial system had to be recapitalized, there was no need to bail out specific companies. The government could have taken the approach used during the S&L bailout about 20 years ago, which was to shut down the insolvent institutions. Depositors were bailed out, often by using taxpayer money to bribe a solvent institution to take over the failed savings & loan, but management and shareholders were wiped out, thus  preventing at least one form of moral hazard.

The ‘Every Economist’ Myth

Just days after we rapped Rep. Betsy Markey (D-CO) for claiming that “every economist from the far left to the far right was saying the government needs to step in because there was absolutely no private sector investment,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) tells the Washington Post,

You’re darn right I voted for the stimulus. Every economist, including [some] Republican economists … said, for God’s sake, don’t let it go off the cliff.

This is the myth that just won’t die. Markey and Connolly are echoing similar claims by President Obama, Vice President Biden, and even the notoriously unreliable Robert Reich. When Biden said it, Harvard economist Greg Mankiw asked if he was “disingenuous or misinformed” and pointed out:

That statement is clearly false. As I have documented on this blog in recent weeks, skeptics about a spending stimulus include quite a few well-known economists, such as (in alphabetical order) Alberto AlesinaRobert BarroGary BeckerJohn CochraneEugene FamaRobert LucasGreg MankiwKevin MurphyThomas SargentHarald Uhlig, and Luigi Zingales–and I am sure there many others as well. Regardless of whether one agrees with them on the merits of the case, it is hard to dispute that this list is pretty impressive, as judged by the standard objective criteria by which economists evaluate one another. If any university managed to hire all of them, it would immediately have a top ranked economics department.

When Robert Reich tried to claim that “economic advisers across the political spectrum support Obama’s plan,” I pointed out that that claim depended on exactly two names and that the Washington Post had demonstrated that neither of them was in fact a Republican supporter of the $787 billion stimulus bill.

In fact, of course, hundreds of economists went on record against the stimulus bill. The Cato Institute’s full-page ad with their names appeared in all the nation’s major newspapers. The ad and the economists were featured on dozens of television programs.

Which brings us back to the question that Mankiw asked of Biden and that I asked of Markey. Is Representative Connolly really unaware that there was vigorous debate among economists about the so-called stimulus bill, and that hundreds of economists expressed their opposition in every major newspaper? Connolly has lived in Washington his entire adult life. He spent 19 years on a Senate committee staff. He served for 14 years on the Fairfax County Board. He worked as vice president at two large government contractors. Is it possible that he doesn’t read the Washington Post – or the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times, or Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill? If so, then maybe he really believes that “every economist, including Republican economists” endorsed the stimulus. Someone should ask him: misinformed or disingenuous?

How Herbert Hoover Didn’t End the Depression

Joshua Green writes in the Atlantic, after discussing the Austrian economists’ views in 1929 on what to do about the not-yet-great depression:

Herbert Hoover’s Treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, offered similar counsel, famously urging Hoover to “liquidate” and “purge the rottenness out of the system.” But this failed to stop the catastrophe.

That’s true. And you know, here’s a general rule: Absolutely nothing that a treasury secretary says to a president will affect the real economy if the president ignores his advice and does something else.

Hoover didn’t cut federal spending, he doubled it. He established the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. He propped up wages and prices. Indeed, he launched the New Deal. And Green is right: In the face of these policies, Mellon’s memos to Hoover failed to stop the catastrophe.

The rest of the article, about Ron Paul as “The Tea Party’s Brain,” is pretty interesting.

White House Right to Oppose Moratorium

With the recent discovery of “robo-signers” and other paperwork problems in the mortgage foreclosure process, several prominent congressional Democrats have called for a national moratorium on mortgage foreclosures.  At least one large lender has already started to implement one.  A moratorium, however, would be irresponsible and harmful. And the White House is correct to oppose it.

Whatever mistakes might have been made by lenders do not change the basic fact: most foreclosures are happening because the borrower is not paying the mortgage.  I recently talked to one large lender who said of their delinquent mortgages that over a fourth have not made a payment in over two years.  How exactly is someone who has been getting two years of free rent a victim?

Of course, in the small number of cases where a real mistake has been made and a foreclosure is moving forward against a borrower who is current on their mortgage, the courts have the ability to stop that from proceeding.  In judicial foreclosure states the easiest solution to this problem is for the judge to ask the borrower, “When was the last payment you made?”  If it has been awhile, say over six months, then the foreclosure should proceed, and proceed quickly.

Its been four years since the housing market peaked.  Government policy has continued to delay the needed correction in our housing market.  A moratorium on foreclosures only puts off a turnaround in the housing market.  And if we ever expect or hope to see private capital come back into the mortgage market, then government needs to stop threatening to steal away that capital once it’s invested.  The current efforts by states to use technical mistakes by lenders to allow borrowers to remain in homes without paying could ultimately undermine the very concept of a mortgage: that it is a loan secured by property.  Instead, we risk seeing mortgages turned into another form of unsecured lending, which would raise interest rates for everyone.

Meltzer on Looming Inflation

Allan H. Meltzer, a frequent participant in Cato’s annual monetary conferences, warns in the Wall Street Journal that the Federal Reserve may be about to lay the groundwork for another Great Inflation like we saw in the 1970s:

The Federal Reserve seems determined to make mistakes. First it started rumors that it would resume Treasury bond purchases, with the amount as high as $1 trillion. It seems all but certain this will happen once the midterm election passes.

Then the press reported rumors about plans to raise the inflation target to 4% or higher, from 2%. This is a major change from the Fed’s quick rejection of a higher target when the International Monetary Fund suggested it a few months ago.

Anyone can make a mistake, but wise people don’t repeat the same one. Increasing inflation to reduce unemployment initiated the Great Inflation of the 1960s and 1970s. Milton Friedman pointed out in 1968 why any gain in employment would be temporary: It would last only so long as people underestimated the rate of inflation. Friedman’s analysis is now a standard teaching of economics. Surely Fed economists understand this….

Yes, a sustained deflation would be a big problem, but it is unlikely in today’s circumstances. Countries with a depreciating exchange rate, an unsustainable budget deficit, and more than $1 trillion of excess monetary reserves are more likely to inflate. That’s our problem today, and it’s another reason the Fed should give up this nonsense about more stimulus and offer a credible long-term program to prevent the next inflation.

Register for Cato’s upcoming monetary conference here. More on inflation risks here and here.