Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Planned Economy, Privacy Problems

If someone asked you what’s wrong with a planned economy, your first answer might not be “privacy.” But it should be. For proof, look no further than the financial regulation bill the Senate is debating. Its 1,400 pages contain strong prescriptions for a government-micromanaged economy—and the undoing of your financial privacy. Here’s a look at some of the personal data collection this revamp of financial services regulation will produce.

The “Office of Financial Research” (sec. 152) will have a “Data Center” (sec. 154) that requires submisson of data on any financial activity that poses a threat to financial stability.

Use your noggin, now: Will government researchers know in advance what might cause financial instability? Will they home in on precisely that? No.

This is government entrée into any financial activities federal bureaucrats suspect might cause instability. It’s carte blanche to examine all financial transactions—including yours. (Confidentiality rules? The better view is that privacy is lost when the government takes data from your control, but we’ll come back to confidentiality.)

The Office of Financial Research is also a sop to industry. Morgan Stanley estimates that it will save the company 20 to 30 percent of its operating costs. The advocates for this bureaucracy want to replace the competitive environment for financial data with a uniform government data platform. Students of technology will instantly recognize what this data monoculture means: If the government’s data and assumptions are bad, everyone’s data and assumptions are bad, and all players in the financial services system fall together. The Office of Financial Research itself poses a threat to financial stability.

But all that’s about money. On with privacy…

The “Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection” (sec. 1011) in the bill is another beetle boring into your personal financial life. Among its mandates is to “gather information … regarding the organization, business conduct, markets, and activities of persons operating in consumer financial services markets” (sec. 1022(c)(4)).

In case you’re wondering, the definition of “person” includes “an individual” (sec. 1002(17)). The Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection can investigate your business conduct and activities.

Come now. All this private data gathering can’t possibly be what they mean to do, can it?

Section 1071(b) requires any deposit-taking financial institution to geo-code customer addresses and maintain records of deposits for at least three years. Think of the government having its own Google map of where you and your neighbors do your banking. The Bureau may “use the data for any other purpose as permitted by law,” such as handing it off to other bureaus, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Still, that’s really not what the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection is supposed to be about, is it? It can’t be!

It’s not. Nor was the Social Security number about creating a uniform national identifier that facilitates both lawful (excessive) data collection and identity fraud. The construction of surveillance infrastructure doesn’t turn on the intentions of its builders. They’re just giving another turn to the wheels that crush privacy.

Promises of confidentiality and “de-identified” data are not reassuring. It’s getting harder and harder to collect data that are not personally identifiable. Latanya Sweeney’s 2002 “k-anonymity” paper is best known for establishing how anonymous data can be “re-identified,” unraveling promised confidentiality and privacy.

Just a few “anonymous” data points can pick out individuals. Data-driven triangulation on individuals will get easier as data collection grows society-wide. Confidentiality rules in the bill will tend to fail over time, if they’re not simply reversed when some future exigency demands it. If we’re to maintain privacy, government data collection should be shrinking, not growing.

How do you manage an economy from the top? You collect data. Thanks to computing and communications, there are lots of data available nowadays. Maybe the failed Progressive-Era dream of “scientific government” has been revitalized by the idea that data can shore up regulation’s natural defects.

My colleague Mark Calabria has investigated and drawn into question whether it was a lack of consumer protection that caused the financial crisis. But Washington, D.C. has determined that Washington, D.C. should manage the financial services industry. Your personal and private financial affairs will be managed there too.

Greek Chutzpah

There’s an old joke that if you owe a bank $10,000, you have a problem, but if you owe a bank $10,000,000, the bank has a problem. The Greek government certainly seems to have that attitude. Short-sighted and corrupt politicians in Athens have spent their nation into a fiscal ditch and they now want to mooch from both the IMF and other European nations (especially Germany). The German Prime Minister (if only for political reasons) is talking tough, saying that Greece should do more to reduce subsidies and handouts. Why should Germans work until age 67, after all, so Greeks can enjoy overpaid government jobs and retire at age 61? So what is the response from the Greeks? Amazingly, one of the politicians had the gall to say his nation “cannot accept” further wage cuts. Here’s an excerpt from the Daily Telegraph:

It is far from clear whether Athens will agree to further austerity as strikes hit the country day after day. Andreas Loverdos, Greece’s labour minister, said the EU-IMF team wants further wages cuts. “We cannot accept that.” Greece knows it can opt for default at any time, setting off an EMU-wide crisis and bringing down Europe’s banks. It also knows that key figures in the Bundestag favour debt restructuring. ‘Those who chased high yield by purchasing Greek debt must share the costs,’ said Volker Wissing, chair of Bundestag’s finance committee. Leo Dautzenberg from the Christian Democrats said banks should prepare for a `haircut’ of up to 50pc. The ECB, Brussels, and the IMF have been fighting feverishly to head off such a move, fearing a financial chain-reaction.

If the Germans have any brains and pride, they will tell the Greeks to go jump in a lake (other phrases come to mind, but this is a family-oriented blog). And if this means that German banks take a loss on their holdings of Greek government debt, there’s a silver lining to that dark cloud since it is time for financial institutions to realize that they should not be lending so much money to corrupt and wasteful governments.

Greetings from Spain

I arrived in Madrid yesterday for a speech to the annual Convention of Independent Financial Advisors, and it is somehow fitting that Spain was downgraded by Standard and Poor’s as I entered the country. I’m not a fan of the bond-rating agencies, and the fact that it has taken so long for Spain to be downgraded simply reinforces my skepticism about their value. So let’s focus instead on identifying the sources of Spain’s fiscal crisis. If you look at the OECD’s fiscal database, you will see that Spain’s short-run problem is solely the result of a growth in the burden of government spending. Over the past seven years, the budget in Spain has skyrocketed from 38.4 percent of GDP to 47.2 percent of GDP. And since tax revenues have stayed the same as a share of national economic output, it is difficult to see how anyone can conclude that the fiscal crisis is the result of inadequate revenue. In the long run, the problem also is excessive government spending, largely because demographic factors such as an aging population will push up outlays for pensions and health care.

In other words, Spain is in trouble for the same reason that Greece is in trouble. Government is too big and politicians are unwilling to take the modest steps that are needed to rein in dependency. This, of course, is exactly why there should not be a bailout. Subsidizing Greek politicians and Spanish politicians – regardless of whether the bailout comes from German taxpayers and/or the IMF – will send a signal to other European nations that there is an easy way out. But the “easy way out” simply postpones the day of reckoning and makes the eventual adjustment much more challenging. Here’s an excerpt from the Washington Post report:

European and International Monetary Fund officials on Wednesday were considering a dramatically increased $158 billion bailout package for Greece as the country’s debt crisis continued to ripple across Europe, with Standard & Poor’s downgrading the credit rating on Spain, the continent’s fourth-largest economy. …In Europe, the most intense focus remains on Greece, but fears were intensifying elsewhere, especially in Portugal and Spain. Though analysts noted that both countries are in better shape than Greece – with lower ratios of debt – they both shared large fiscal deficits and poor long-term economic prospects. On Wednesday, the government in Portugal announced that it would move up a program of painful spending cuts to shrink its budget deficit and shore up confidence amid signs that fearful depositors were moving capital out of Lisbon banks. After lowering Greek debt to junk bond status on Tuesday, Standard & Poor’s kept Spain at investment grade status, but lowered its rating one notch, to AA.

Mismanaged States Blame Messenger

Mismanaged municipal and state governments around the country are finding a new target to blame for their own self-inflicted wounds:  the growing market for credit defaults swaps (CDS) on municipal debt.

A municipal credit default swap would be a derivative that pays off in the event of default by a specific state or a default on one of said state’s debt instruments.

As reported in today’s Wall Street Journal, a handful of state treasurers are demanding information from Wall Street firms on who exactly is “betting against” these states.

It should come as no surprise, except to state officials, that the major buyers of these CDS are the very bondholders investing in their state.  In fact the availability of municipal CDS will likely increase the demand for municipal debt.  Just speaking for myself, there’s no way I’d buy debt issued by California if I couldn’t at least hedge some of that credit risk

Of course states complain that “betting on a default creates a perception of risk,” as if there wasn’t already a widespread perception of risk to investing in municipal debt of certain states.  The states also express concern that adverse movements in the price of CDS could impact their credit ratings, and hence their cost of borrowing.  Given the slow speed of which credit ratings moved on sub-prime mortgage debt, I am not sure that cities and states have much to worry about rating agencies being “too aggressive”.  If these states had even a small understanding of how markets work, they’d understand the rating is just one element that goes into pricing.  Witness the large spread in yields of similarly rated debt.  No rating, or credit default swap price for that matter, is going to fool investors into believing that many American local and state governments are just anything other than mini versions of Greece.

The Case for Auditing the Fed

Recently, the Federal Reserve has significantly altered the procedures and goals that it had followed for decades. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) has introduced a bill calling for an audit of the Fed.

Remarkably, there is significant opposition to such oversight, and the political prospects for undertaking such an audit are relatively bleak. In a new paper, Cato scholar Arnold Kling examines the processes and outcomes on which an audit should focus, and looks at opposition to the audit:

We should document why the Fed took each step, what the expected results were, and whether those results were achieved. …The profit or loss of the Fed’s investments would provide a very helpful indicator of whether the Fed’s actions served the economy as a whole or merely transferred wealth from ordinary taxpayers to bank shareholders.

Read the whole thing.

The Greek Model

It was a good idea to get science and democracy from the ancient Greeks. It’s not such a good idea to get fiscal policy from the modern Greeks.

But that’s the way we’re headed.

Greece has a budget deficit of 13.6 percent. We’re not in that league – ours is only 10.6 percent, the highest level since 1945.

Greece has a public debt of 113 percent of GDP. We’re not there yet. But the 2009 Social Security and Medicare Trustees Reports show the combined unfunded liability of these two programs has reached nearly $107 trillion.

Under President Obama’s budget, debt held by the public would grow from $7.5 trillion (53 percent of GDP) at the end of 2009 to $20.3 trillion (90 percent of GDP) at the end of 2020. It could rise to 215 percent of GDP in 30 years. Welcome to Greece.

Here’s a graphic presentation of the official debt and real net liabilities of various countries, including the United States and Greece at the right. (From the Telegraph, apparently based on Jagadeesh Gokhale’s report.)


And here’s a Heritage Foundation chart on where the national debt is headed in the coming decade:

Paul Krugman wrote, “My prediction is that politicians will eventually be tempted to resolve the [fiscal] crisis the way irresponsible governments usually do: by printing money, both to pay current bills and to inflate away debt. And as that temptation becomes obvious, interest rates will soar.” Now he was writing in 2003, when a different president was in office, but he was also warning about the possibility of a ten-year deficit of $3 trillion. Presumably the same warnings apply to today’s much larger deficit projections. And he was absolutely right to fear that government would turn to inflation as a supposed solution.

Hayek after 35 Years

Today I reread F. A. Hayek’s Nobel Lecture, “The Pretence of Knowledge.” Hayek was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in 1974 and delivered his lecture on December 11, 1974. I was amazed at how modern it was, and appropriate once again for the times.

The 1970s were terrible times: stop-go demand management policies had produced stagflation that would continue for the rest of the decade.  Hayek said that “we have indeed at the moment little cause for pride: as a profession we have made a mess of things.” He charged that the mess had been produced by policies the majority of economists “recommended and even urged governments to pursue.”

The focus of his lecture was on scientism and how its errors had led economists and the Western economies to where they found themselves at that moment.  What was the chief theoretical error? It was “the belief that we can permanently assure full employment by maintaining total money expenditure at an appropriate level.” The “Pretence of Knowledge” was that economists had or could ever have the knowledge required to do that.

What was the correct theory of the cause of widespread unemployment? It is “the existence of discrepancies between the distribution of demand among the different goods and services and the allocation of labour and other resources among the production of those outputs.” We call such discrepancies a coordination failure.

The coordination failure cannot be resolved by stimulating demand because spending is always on particular goods and services.  There is no aggregate out put on which to spend money. Aggregate demand and supply are categories of a model with no empirical counterparts.

Unless economists can solve the knowledge problem, they have no way of aligning spending with actual preferences.  Stimulus policies are more likely to aggravate as alleviate the problem.

Indeed, it was stimulus that caused the coordination failure.  Hayek outlined his theory succinctly in one paragraph.

  • Monetary injections into particular markets stimulate demand only temporarily.
  • Labor and other resources are drawn into the stimulated activities [think housing, 2002-07].
  • Once the monetary stimulus ceases or merely slows, the production and employment cannot be maintained.
  • Only if monetary stimulus or accelerated (once expectations come into play) can the new pattern of production and employment be maintained.

The consequence of monetary stimulus is “a distribution of employment which can be maintained only by a rate of inflation which would rapidly lead to a disorganization of all economic activity.”

The lecture is worth reading by those who have not done so, and rereading by those who have.

[Cross-posted at Thinkmarkets.]