Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Do Inflation Expectations Drive Consumption?

After proponents of the Federal Reserve’s second round of quantitative easing (QE2) abandoned the argument that QE2 would spur growth by bringing down interest rates (only after rates increased), the new defense became “we intended for rates to go up all along, as a result of increased inflation expectations.”  Since few would argue for increased inflation, or expectations of such, as an end in itself, the claim was that increases in inflation expectations would drive households to consume more, which would in turn causes businesses to hire more, bringing down the unemployment rate.  But does this chain of reasoning withstand empirical scrutiny?

It turns out looking at the historical data on inflation expectations, as collected at the University of Michigan, that inflation expectations and household savings rates (the inverse of consumption rates) are positively correlated.  Now of course correlation doesn’t mean causality,but what the data suggest is that instead of consuming more when inflation expectations increase, households have actually saved more.  This positive correlation also holds for the second half of the data series, so it’s not simply the result of a downward trend in either inflation or savings.

To review, the latest argument for QE2:  increase inflation expectations, which is assumed to increase consumption, which is hoped to increase employment.  The problem I’ve had all along with this position is that the only thing we know for certain is the first part, QE2 would increase inflation expectations.  The hope that it would increase consumption and hence employment was just that:  hope.  Given the disconnect we’ve seen between consumption and unemployment over the past 18 months, the third link in that chain is also a weak one.   So what do we have at the end of the day:  certain costs with fairly speculative and uncertain benefits.  And here I was thinking that reckless speculation was the sole province of the private sector.

Bank Deregulation and Income Inequality

Since the financial crisis, “deregulation” has become a catch-all phrase for everything that went wrong in our financial markets.  Unfortunately said deregulation is rarely ever explained, but is rather asserted.  To truly inform policy debates, discussions must center on specific instances of deregulation.  One such example of banking deregulation that did actually occur was the The Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act of 1994 (imagine that, a Democrat Congress and a Democrat President deregulating the banking industry).  The heart of Riegle-Neal was to remove barriers to interstate branching. 

A recent article in the Journal of Finance looks at the impact of bank branching deregulation on the distribution of income across U.S. States.  A working paper version can be found here.  The researchers find that as bank deregulation increased competition and improved efficiency, “deregulation materially tightened the distribution of income by boosting incomes in the lower part of the income distribution while having little impact on incomes above the median. Bank deregulation tightened the distribution of income by increasing the relative wage rates and working hours of unskilled workers.”  The bottom line is that the increased competition that resulted from deregulation disproportionately benefited those on the bottom of the income distribution.  As Washington continues to pile additional new regulations upon the banking industry, we should bear in mind that much of the impact of increased regulation might be felt by those least able to bear it.

The extent to which regulatory barriers in banking benefits the rich at the expense of the poor is also illustrated in a forthcoming article, again in the Journal of Finance.  In this article, the authors find in the early 20th century, counties where the elite had disproportionately large land holdings had fewer banks per capita, with costlier credit, and more limited access. The authors see this as suggestive that elites restrict financial development in order to limit access to finance, and hence maintain existing income inequalities.

One of the lessons I take away from these papers is that we need to examine banking regulation/deregulation as it actually occurs and is implemented, and not how we believe some all knowing, benevolent government would impose it.  The odds seem to me that the more extensive is banking regulation, the more likely it is to be captured by economic elites and narrow interests.

The New Year and Financial Crises

The New Year is likely to bring renewal of financial problems in the European Union. In Greece, the crisis was fiscal in origin and spread to Greek banks and banks in other countries that had lent to Greek banks and the Greek government. In Ireland, the crisis began with problem real-estate loans at Irish banks. That spread to European banks, mainly British, that had lent to Irish banks.

In its year-end issue, the Economist reminds us of the 2008 banking crisis in Iceland.  The Icelandic government responded much differently in that crisis than did the Irish government to its banking crisis. Iceland let its banks go under and to some extent stiffed their creditors. It did so out of necessity. Banking assets there were 10 times the country’s GDP, while they were “only” 2-3 times the Irish GDP. Iceland’s defiance did not cost its citizens more than did Ireland’s acquiescence.

Irish taxpayers are now burdened with their banks’ debt.  The ultimate beneficiaries of the Irish bailout are British banks and, indirectly, British taxpayers. The political irony of that has not been lost on Irish voters, and in the upcoming elections in March the populist political left is likely to gain. Then, whether by necessity or choice, look for calls for renegotiating (i.e., defaulting on) the debt. Calls for that are already being heard in Ireland.

If the Irish domino falls, look for others to topple. Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain are all candidates. (Together these 5 countries are called the PIIGS.) The Fed has backed EU banks through currency swaps and thus exposed US taxpayers to the EU crisis. In the words of former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, the Fed continues to operate at “the very edge” of its legal authority. (Words spoken in April 2008 speech after the bailout of Bear Sterns.)

The New Year will be an interesting one.

Johan Norberg on Bubbles Yet to Come

Cato senior fellow Johan Norberg, author of In Defense of Global Capitalism and Financial Fiasco, has the cover story in this week’s issue of The Spectator, the eminent 182-year-old British weekly. Titled “The great debt bubble of 2011,” it warns that governments are repeating their mistakes of the past decade:

There is a broad consensus that the financial crisis of 2007 was at least in part a result of record-low interest rates, huge deficits and large-scale credit-financed consumption. Today, governments across the world are trying to solve the crisis — by means of record-low interest rates, huge deficits and large-scale credit-financed consumption. This time, they are also using more novel means of creating easy money: bank bailouts, stimulus packages and quantitative easing.

After discussing the soaring debt burdens of European countries, Norberg writes:

At this point, it is traditional to say: thank God for those roaring economics in East Asia, India and Brazil. But how real is their remarkable growth? Look closely, and even this may be in part a result of artificial stimulus. India’s and Brazil’s growth is financed by short-term capital from abroad: money that could disappear overnight. Easy money always ends up somewhere. The last time it was in property, this time it is in emerging markets (and often in the property markets of emerging markets)….

Aside from the foreign capital inflows, China had its own stimulus package, as big as America’s. Beijing has printed yuan and pushed banks and local governments to spend like drunken Keynesians. Absurdly, China’s money supply is now larger than America’s, even though its economy is a third of the size. We can see the results of this stimulus in stock market prices and in new roads, bridges and housing complexes all over the country.

Happy New Year! And watch for more on incipient bubbles in the January-February issue of Cato Policy Report.

CBO on Fannie, Freddie and Mortgage Finance Options

Just in time for the holidays, the Congressional Budget Office has released its analysis of the costs and benefits of various alternatives to our current system of mortgage finance, particularly the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The report examines three possibilities:

  1. A hybrid public/private model in which the government provides explicit guarantees on privately issued mortgages or MBSs;
  2. A fully public model in which a wholly federal entity would guarantee qualifying mortgages or MBSs; or
  3. A fully private model in which there would be no special federal backing for the secondary mortgage market.

The report doesn’t really push one option over another, but simply lays out the advantages and disadvantages of each.  Some highlights worth keeping in mind as the debate continues into the new year:

“Relying on explicit government guarantees…would also have some disadvantages…If competition remained muted, with only a few…firms participating in the secondary market, limiting risk to the overall financial system and avoiding regulatory capture could be difficult…federal guarantees would reduce creditors’ incentive to monitor risk. Experience with other federal insurance and credit programs suggests that the government would have trouble setting risk-sensitive prices and would most likely end up imposing some cost and risk on taxpayers. In addition, a hybrid approach might not eliminate the frictions that arise between private and public missions.”

“Privatization might provide the strongest incentive for prudent behavior on the part of financial intermediaries by removing the moral hazard that federal guarantees create.  By increasing competition in the secondary market, the privatization approach would reduce the market’s reliance on the viability of any one firm. Private markets may also be best positioned to allocate the credit risk and interest rate risk of mortgages efficiently, and they would probably be more innovative than a secondary market dominated by a fully federal agency. Further, privatization would eliminate the tension between public and private purposes inherent in the traditional GSE model.”

It is worth remembering that over the years, the CBO has actually been quite strong in warning against the dangers of the GSE model.  Sadly Congress simply chose to ignore those warnings.  Here’s hoping that the CBO has little more influence on this issue than they’ve had in the past.

Economic Slack and Inflation

While listening to NPR this morning, I was subjected to yet another economist claiming that we cannot have inflation in an environment of such high economic slack.  Setting aside the fact that perhaps this economist missed the 1970s, this is a vital question to examine, because it is the foundation of so much of Bernanke and the Federal Reserve’s current thinking.  That is, the notion that inflation is always and everywhere the result of an over-heating, or excess demand, economy.

One of the measures commonly followed by the Fed, and others of the slack-restrains-inflation school, is the measure of capacity utilization rate.  Setting aside some of the problems with this measure, are increases in capacity utilization associated with increasing inflation, as would be suggested by the slack-restraint school?  It turns out not.  Since 1967, when the data series begins, the correlation between capacity utilization and inflation, as measured by the consumer price index (CPI), has been negative.  That is, as more and more industrial and economic resources have been brought into use, inflation has actually fallen, rather than risen (as would be predicted).  A negative correlation also implies that low or falling capacity utilization does not mean low inflation.

Now what is positively correlated with inflation is the growth in the money supply.   The chart below shows annual changes in both CPI and M2.  Even just eye-balling the chart, one can see the positive correlation, which also shows up under statistical analysis. 

Another question one often hears in today’s economic discussions is what would Milton Friedman say?  I won’t claim to be able to channel Milton (or anyone else), but I do think the empirical evidence continues to support the conclusion that inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.

Banks Are Lending, but to Whom?

A recurring concern we have heard since the financial crisis erupted is that banks are simply not lending, and that this is holding back economic activity.  If only banks would lend, the economy would grow.  As usual, the truth is a little more complex. 

Unlike in the Great Depression, and despite about 300 bank failures, the balance sheets and deposits of insured commercial banks and thrifts has been steady, if slowly, expanding throughout the financial crisis and recess.  Banks have continued lending during this time; however, they have changed who they are lending to.  Over the last two years we have witnessed a massive shift from lending to the private sector to lending to the public.

The chart below shows banking business lending and bank holdings of U.S. government securities.   The chart suggests that the approximately $500 billion increase in bank lending to Uncle Sam came at the expense of a $400 billion decline in lending to private business.  If one assumes that bank balance sheets have either been stable or increased slightly, then a loan to the government must off-set a loan otherwise made somewhere else.

While its hard to exactly measure the job impact of this reduced business lending, some estimates have been made on the impact of SBA lending.  According to one study, every $41,600 in new small business loans is associated with 1 new job created.   While this number should be taken with a grain of salt, it implies that the $400 billion reduction in business lending has cost over 9 million jobs.  Of course, one might argue that the half-trillion in lending to the govt has created or “saved” some jobs.  Accepting the difficulty of coming up with a reliable estimate, I think its fair to say that on net a few million jobs have been lost due to this shift of lending from the private to the public sector.

Also of interest is that since the financial crisis, and despite the failures of Fannie and Freddie, commercial banks and thrifts have increased their holdings of Fannie/Freddie/Ginnie securities by over $300 billion.

Textbook economics usually teaches that government crowding out of private investment only really occurs when we are near full-employment.  Yet looking at the balance sheets of our commercial banks and thrifts, would suggest that U.S. Treasuries and Agency securities have crowded out significant lending that would otherwise go to the private sector.   But this should come as no surprise, since banks can borrow for close to zero and invest risk-free in government debt, earning a nice spread of 3 to 4 percentage points.