Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

The IRS Run Amok

I’m not a big fan of the Internal Revenue Service, but I try not to demonize the bureaucrats because politicians actually deserve most of the blame for America’s complex, unfair, and corrupt tax system. The IRS generally is in the unenviable position of simply trying to enforce very bad laws.

But sometimes the IRS runs amok and the agency deserves to be held in contempt by the American people

Let’s look at a grotesque example of IRS misbehavior. It deals with a seemingly arcane issue, but it has big implications for the US economy, the rule of law, and human rights.

On January 7, the tax-collection bureaucracy proposed a regulation that, if implemented, would force American financial institutions to put foreign tax law above US tax law. Banks would be required to report to the IRS any interest they pay to foreigners, but not so the US government can collect tax, but in order to let foreign governments tax this US-source income.

This isn’t the first time the IRS has tried to pull this stunt. At the very end of the Clinton years, the agency proposed a rule to do the same thing. But the bureaucrats were thwarted because of overwhelming opposition from Capitol Hill, the financial services industry, and public policy experts. There was near-unanimous agreement that it would be crazy to drive job-creating capital out of the US economy and there was also near-unanimous agreement that the IRS had no authority to impose a regulation that was completely inconsistent with the laws enacted by Congress.

But like a zombie, this IRS regulation has risen from the grave.

I’m not sure what is most upsetting about this proposed rule, but there are five serious flaws in the IRS’s back-door scheme to turn American banks into deputy tax collectors for foreign governments.

1. The IRS is flouting the law, using regulatory dictates to overturn laws enacted through the democratic process.

Ever since 1921, and most recently reconfirmed by legislation in 1976 and 1986, Congress specifically has chosen not to tax interest paid to non-resident foreigners. Lawmakers wanted to attract money to the U.S. economy.

Yet rogue IRS bureaucrats want to impose a regulation to overturn the outcome of the democratic process. Heck, if they really think they have that sort of power, why don’t they do us a favor and unilaterally junk the entire internal revenue code and give us a flat tax?

2. The IRS has failed to perform a cost-benefit analysis, as required by executive order 12866.

Issued by the Clinton Administration, this executive order requires that regulations be accompanied by “An assessment of the potential costs and benefits of the regulatory action” for any regulation that will, “Have an annual effect on the economy of $100 million or more or adversely affect in a material way the economy, a sector of the economy, productivity, competition, jobs, the environment, public health or safety, or State, local, or tribal governments or communities.”

Yet the IRS blithely asserts that this interest-reporting proposal is “not a significant regulatory action.” Amazing, we have trillions of dollars of foreign capital invested in our economy, perhaps $1 trillion of which is deposited in banks, and we know some of which definitely will be withdrawn if this regulation is implemented, but the bureaucrats unilaterally decided the regulation doesn’t require a cost-benefit analysis.

During a previous incarnation of this regulation, the IRS’s failure to comply with the rules led the Office of Advocacy at the Small Business Administration to denounce the tax-collection bureaucracy, stating that “…there is ample evidence that the impact of the regulation is significant and that a substantial number of small businesses will be impacted.”

3. The IRS is imposing a regulation that puts America’s economy at risk.

According to the Commerce Department, foreigners have invested more than $10 trillion in the U.S. economy.

And according to the Treasury Department, foreigners have more than $4 trillion in American banks and brokerage accounts.

We don’t know how much money will leave America if this regulation is implemented, but there are many financial centers – such as London, Hong Kong, Cayman, Singapore, Tokyo, Zurch, Luxembourg, Bermuda, and Panama – that would gladly welcome the additional investment if the IRS makes the American financial services sector less attractive.

4. The IRS is destabilizing America’s already shaky financial system.

Five years ago, when the banking industry was strong, the IRS regulation would have been bad news. Now, with many banks still weakened by the financial crisis, the regulation could be a death knell. Not only would it drive capital to banks in other nations, it also would impose a heavy regulatory burden.

How bad would it be? Commenting on an earlier version of the regulation, which only would have applied to deposits from 15 countries, the Chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation warned that, “[a] shift of even a modest portion of these [nonresident alien] funds out of the U.S. banking system would certainly be termed a significant economic impact.” He also noted that potentially $1 trillion of deposits might be involved. And a study from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University estimated that $87 billion would leave the American economy. And remember, that estimate was based on a regulation that would have applied to just 15 nations, not the entire world.

So what happens if more banks fail? I guess the bureaucrats at the IRS would probably just shrug their shoulders and suggest another bailout.

5. The IRS is endangering the lives of foreigners who deposit funds in America because of persecution, discrimination, abuse, crime, and instability in their home countries.

If you’re from Mexico you don’t want to put money in local banks or declare it to the tax authorities. Corruption is rampant and that information might be sold to criminal gangs who then kidnap one of your children. If you’re from Venezuela, you have the same desire to have your money in the United States, but perhaps you’re more worried about persecution or expropriation by a brutal dictatorship.

There are people all over the world who have good reasons to protect their private financial information. Yet this regulation would put them and their families at risk. The only silver lining is that these people presumably will move their money to other nations. Good for them, bad for America.

Let’s wrap this up. Under current law, America is a safe haven for international investors. This is good news for foreigners, and good news for the American economy. That’s why it is so outrageous that the IRS, unilaterally and without legal justification, is trying to reverse 90 years of law for no other reason than to help foreign governments.

By the way, you can add your two cents by clicking on this link which will take you to the public comment page for this regulation. Don’t be bashful.

One last point. The Obama Administration says this regulation is part of a global effort to improve tax compliance. But unless Congress changes the law, the IRS is not responsible for helping foreign tax collectors squeeze more money out foreign taxpayers. Moreover, the White House has been grossly misleading about U.S. compliance issues (as this video illustrates), so their assertions lack credibility.

Race and Homeownership: Historical Trends

A common rationale for federal policies to expand homeownership is the desire to reduce observed racial differences in homeownership.  Receiving the most attention has been the gap in homeownership rates between white households and African-American.  The current homeownership rate for whites is 76.5%  (2007), while that for African-Americans is 54%, leaving a gap of 22.5%.

Limitations on available data have made observations prior to 1940 difficult (1940 was the first “Census of Housing”).  A new working paper adds to our understanding by constructing a time series back to 1870, using previous Census data.  The findings are quite surprising.

In 1870 the gap between white and African-American homeownership rates stood at an astonishing 48.8 percent.  As mentioned, this gap in 2007 was 22.5%, representing a 26.3 percentage point decline.  However, of that 26.3 narrowing, 25.3 occurred before 1910.  That is correct, almost all of the decline in the racial homeownership gap occurred before we had any national policies targeting said gap.  Given all the massive resources that have been devoted to pushing homeownership, it is somewhat surprising that these policies have made almost no difference in the racial homeownership gap.

Obviously homeownership rates in general, and by race, have steadily increased (until the recent bursting of the housing bubble), but these rates largely increased the same across racial groups.  We should also note that the vast majority, if not all, of the racial homeownership gap is explained by factors such as age, income, family status, wealth and local housing costs (see Coulson and Dalton forthcoming).  Given what little impact these policies have had, and their significant costs, it should be clear that we, as a society, would be better off abandoning efforts to socially engineer a specific homeownership rate, either for the population in general or by racial group.

Political Uncertainty and Investment: Empirical Results

An oft heard explanation for some of the weakness facing our economy, particularly investment and hiring, is that firms are concerned about policy uncertainty coming from Washington, be it health care, financial regulation, labor regulation, etc.  For the most part, those arguments have been based upon anecdote or theory (see Bernanke’s 1983 QJE piece), with some difficulty finding strong empirical support either way.  A forthcoming paper in the Journal of Finance helps to shed some light on the question, by providing more generalized estimates of the impact of electoral uncertainty on investment decisions.

The authors examine whether elections, particularly those that are close, have an impact on corporate investment.  The logic behind the research: “if an election can potentially result in a bad outcome from a firm’s perspective, the option value of waiting to invest increases and the firm may rationally delay investment until some or all of the policy uncertainty is resolved.”  Their sample is national elections in 48 countries from 1980 to 2005.  These almost all developed, industrialized economies, as the unit of observation is a publicly traded firm.  US companies constitute a large portion of their sample.

The results:  holding all else equal, in terms of the economy and investment opportunities, elections  “reduce investment expenditures by an average of 4.8%.”  That’s a substantial hit to investment.  The results are even larger when the incumbent is viewed as “market-friendly.”  Of course one needs to be cautious in applying these results to non-election year political uncertainty.  There are also reasons, some of which are touched upon by the authors, that political uncertainty in the US may have either larger or smaller effects.  So while we might not know the exact magnitudes, I think its safe to say that the notion that political uncertainty depresses investment has both empirical and theoretical support (as well as a few anecdotes).

Bill Daley and ‘Too Big To Fail’

MIT Professor Simon Johnson recently argued that Bill Daley’s appointment as Obama’s Chief of Staff signals that “too big to fail,” as it relates to our largest financial institutions, is here to stay.  Personally I never thought it was in doubt.  With Geithner at Treasury and Dodd-Frank further codifiying “too big to fail,” its been clear for some time that the bailout net is larger than it’s ever been, and is not being pulled back. 

That said, Professor Johnson’s focus on Daley distracts from the real issue, which is changing our bank regulatory structure to end bailouts.  The focus on Daley has the potential to lead us down that path of “if we just had the right people in government…”  We shouldn’t be designing our regulatory structures with the “right” people in mind, but rather with the rule of law in mind.  In fact, one of the benefits of the Obama administration is that it serves as a great test of the “right people” hypothesis of government.  One is unlikely to see a more left-leaning White House than this one, so if this one gets captured by special interests, including Wall Street, than it’s a safe bet that any future administration will as well. 

Since I believe most of us actually want to end “too big to fail,” the real question is how to do it.  It strikes me that we have three options:  regulate the largest institutions to death (or competitive disadvantage), break them up, or credibly impose losses on their creditors.  Ultimately I think the regulation approach is bound to fail, if for no other reason than regulatory capture.   (Even Elizabeth Warren seems to get this: “Regulations, over time, fail. I want to see Congress focus more on a credible system for liquidating the banks that are considered too big to fail.”)  Breaking them up might sound attractive in theory, but I have a hard time seeing how it truly works in practice.  After all, few in Washington viewed Bear Stearns as “too big to fail.”  Accordingly, I believe the best approach would be to force creditors to take losses or be converted into equity.  To make this credible, we must bind the hands of the regulators.  As long as the Fed, Treasury, or the FDIC can inject money, then bailouts are always on the table.    

Sadly, what the Daley appointment reminds us is that any attempt to end “too big to fail” will likely have to wait until the next administration.  Not only is this one wed to bailouts, the President would likely veto any bill that really tied the hands of the Fed.

Five Lessons from Ireland

The news is going from bad to worse for Ireland. The Irish Independent is reporting that the Swiss Central Bank no longer will accept Irish government bonds as collateral. The story also notes that one of the world’s largest bond firms, PIMCO, is no longer purchasing debt issued by the Irish government.

And this is happening even though (or perhaps because?) Ireland received a big bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (and the IMF’s involvement means American taxpayers are picking up part of the tab).

I’ve already commented on Ireland’s woes, and opined about similar problems afflicting the rest of Europe, but the continuing deterioration of the Emerald Isle deserves further analysis so that American policy makers hopefully grasp the right lessons. Here are five things we should learn from the mess in Ireland.

1. Bailouts Don’t Work – When Ireland’s government rescued depositors by bailing out the nation’s three big banks, they made a big mistake by also bailing out creditors such as bondholders. This dramatically increased the cost of the bank bailout and exacerbated moral hazard since investors are more willing to make inefficient and risky choices if they think governments will cover their losses. And because it required the government to incur a lot of additional debt, it also had the effect of destabilizing the nation’s finances, which then resulted in a second mistake – the bailout of Ireland by the European Union and IMF (a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which occurs when one bad government policy leads to another bad government policy).

American policy makers already have implemented one of the two mistakes mentioned above. The TARP bailout went way beyond protecting depositors and instead gave unnecessary handouts to wealthy and sophisticated companies, executives, and investors. But something good may happen if we learn from the second mistake. Greedy politicians from states such as California and Illinois would welcome a bailout from Uncle Sam, but this would be just as misguided as the EU/IMF bailout of Ireland. The Obama Administration already provided an indirect short-run bailout as part of the so-called stimulus legislation, and this encouraged states to dig themselves deeper in a fiscal hole. Uncle Sam shouldn’t be subsidizing bad policy at the state level, and the mess in Europe is a powerful argument that this counter-productive approach should be stopped as soon as possible.

By the way, it’s worth noting that politicians and international bureaucracies behave as if government defaults would have catastrophic consequences, but Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute explains that there have been more than 200 sovereign defaults in the past 200 years and we somehow avoided Armageddon.

2. Excessive Government Spending Is a Path to Fiscal Ruin – The bailout of the banks obviously played a big role in causing Ireland’s fiscal collapse, but the government probably could have weathered that storm if politicians in Dublin hadn’t engaged in a 20-year spending spree.

The red line in the chart shows the explosive growth of government spending. Irish politicians got away with this behavior for a long time. Indeed, government spending as a share of GDP (the blue line) actually fell during the 1990s because the private sector was growing even faster than the public sector. This bit of good news (at least relatively speaking) stopped about 10 years ago. Politicians began to increase government spending at roughly the same rate as the private sector was expanding. While this was misguided, tax revenues were booming (in part because of genuine growth and in part because of the bubble) and it seemed like bigger government was a free lunch.

Eventually, however, the house of cards collapsed. Revenues dried up and the banks failed, but because the politicians had spent so much during the good times, there was no reserve during the bad times.

American politicians are repeating these mistakes. Spending has skyrocketed during the Bush-Obama year. We also had our version of a financial system bailout, though fortunately not as large as Ireland’s when measured as a share of economic output, so our crisis is likely to occur when the baby boom generation has retired and the time comes to make good on the empty promises to fund Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

3. Low Corporate Tax Rates Are Good, but They Don’t Guarantee Economic Success if other Policies Are Bad – Ireland used to be a success story. They went from being the “Sick Man of Europe” in the early 1980s to being the “Celtic Tiger” earlier this century in large part because policy makers dramatically reformed fiscal policy. Government spending was capped in the late 1980 and tax rates were reduced during the 1990s. The reform of the corporate income tax was especially dramatic. Irish lawmakers reduced the tax rate from 50 percent all the way down to 12.5 percent.

This policy was enormously successful in attracting new investment, and Ireland’s government actually wound up collecting more corporate tax revenue at the lower rate. This was remarkable since it is only in very rare cases that the Laffer Curve means a tax cut generates more revenue for government (in the vast majority of cases, the Laffer Curve simply means that changes in taxable income will have revenue effects that offset only a portion of the revenue effects caused by the change in tax rates).

Unfortunately, good corporate tax policy does not guarantee good economic performance if the government is making a lot of mistakes in other areas. This is an apt description of what happened to Ireland. The silver lining to this sad story is that Irish politicians have resisted pressure from France and Germany and are keeping the corporate tax rate at 12.5 percent. The lesson for American policy makers, of course, is that low corporate tax rates are a very good idea, but don’t assume they protect the economy from other policy mistakes.

4. Artificially Low Interest Rates Encourage Bubbles – No discussion of Ireland’s economic problems would be complete without looking at the decision to join the common European currency. Adopting the euro had some advantages, such as not having to worry about changing money when traveling to many other European nations. But being part of Europe’s monetary union also meant that Ireland did not have flexible interest rates.

Normally, an economic boom drives up interest rates because the plethora of profitable opportunities leads investors demand more credit. But Ireland’s interest rates, for all intents and purposes, were governed by what was happening elsewhere in Europe, where growth was generally anemic. The resulting artificially low interest rates in Ireland helped cause a bubble, much as artificially low interest rates in America last decade led to a bubble.

But if America already had a bubble, what lesson can we learn from Ireland? The simple answer is that we should learn to avoid making the same mistake over and over again. Easy money is a recipe for inflation and/or bubbles. Simply stated, excess money has to go someplace and the long-run results are never pleasant. Yet Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve have launched QE2, a policy explicitly designed to lower interest rates in hopes of artificially juicing the economy.

5. Housing Subsidies Reduce Prosperity – Last but not least, Ireland’s bubble was worsened in part because politicians created an extensive system of preferences that tilted the playing field in the direction of real estate. The combination of these subsidies and the artificially low interest rates caused widespread malinvestment and Ireland is paying the price today.

Since we just endured a financial crisis caused in large part by a corrupt system of housing subsidies for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, American policy makers should have learned this lesson already. But as Thomas Sowell sagely observes, politicians are still fixated on somehow re-inflating the housing bubble. The lesson they should have learned is that markets should determine value, not politics.

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.