LESSONS LEARNED #27: “Yes, it’s the economy, but the economy is not JUST monetary policy, stupid.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 19th, 2010

WHAT GAVE BIRTH to the Federal Reserve System and our current monetary policy?  The Panic of 1907.  Without going into the details, there was a liquidity crisis.  The Knickerbocker Trust tried to corner the market in copper.  But someone else dumped copper on the market which dropped the price.  The trust failed.  Because of the money involved, a lot of banks, too, failed.  Depositors, scared, created bank runs.  As banks failed, the money supply contracted.  Businesses failed.  The stock market crashed (losing 50% of its value).  And all of this happened during an economic recession.

So, in 1913, Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act, creating the Federal Reserve System (the Fed).  This was, basically, a central bank.  It was to be a bank to the banks.  A lender of last resort.  It would inject liquidity into the economy during a liquidity crisis.  Thus ending forever panics like that in 1907.  And making the business cycle (the boom – bust economic cycles) a thing of the past.

The Fed has three basic monetary tools.  How they use these either increases or decreases the money supply.  And increases or decreases interest rates.

They can change reserve requirements for banks.  The more reserves banks must hold the less they can lend.  The less they need to hold the more they can lend.  When they lend more, they increase the money supply.  When they lend less, they decrease the money supply.  The more they lend the easier it is to get a loan.  This decreases interest rates (i.e., lowers the ‘price’ of money).  The less they lend the harder it is to get a loan.  This increases interest rates (i.e., raises the ‘price’ of money). 

The Fed ‘manages’ the money supply and the interest rates in two other ways.  They buy and sell U.S. Treasury securities.  And they adjust the discount rate they charge member banks to borrow from them.  Each of these actions either increases or decreases the money supply and/or raises or lowers interest rates.  The idea is to make money easier to borrow when the economy is slow.  This is supposed to make it easier for businesses to expand production and hire people.  If the economy is overheating and there is a risk of inflation, they take the opposite action.  They make it more difficult to borrow money.  Which increases the cost of doing business.  Which slows the economy.  Lays people off.  Which avoids inflation.

The problem with this is the invisible hand that Adam Smith talked about.  In a laissez-faire economy, no one person or one group controls anything.  Instead, millions upon millions of people interact with each other.  They make millions upon millions of decisions.  These are informed decisions in a free market.  At the heart of each decision is a buyer and a seller.  And they mutually agree in this decision making process.  The buyer pays at least as much as the seller wants.  The seller sells for at least as little as the buyer wants.  If they didn’t, they would not conclude their sales transaction.  When we multiply this basic transaction by the millions upon millions of people in the market place, we arrive at that invisible hand.  Everyone looking out for their own self-interest guides the economy as a whole.  The bad decisions of a few have no affect on the economy as a whole.

Now replace the invisible hand with government and what do you get?  A managed economy.  And that’s what the Fed does.  It manages the economy.  It takes the power of those millions upon millions of decisions and places them into the hands of a very few.  And, there, a few bad decisions can have a devastating impact upon the economy.

TO PAY FOR World War I, Woodrow Wilson and his Progressives heavily taxed the American people.  The war left America with a huge debt.  And in a recession.  During the 1920 election, the Democrats ran on a platform of continued high taxation to pay down the debt.  Andrew Mellon, though, had done a study of the rich in relation to those high taxes.  He found the higher the tax, the more the rich invested outside the country.  Instead of building factories and employing people, they took their money to places less punishing to capital.

Warren G. Harding won the 1920 election.  And he appointed Andrew Mellon his Treasury secretary.  Never since Alexander Hamilton had a Treasury secretary understood capitalism as well.  The Harding administration cut tax rates and the amount of tax money paid by the ‘rich’ more than doubled.  Economic activity flourished.  Businesses expanded and added jobs.  The nation modernized with the latest technologies (electric power and appliances, radio, cars, aviation, etc.).  One of the best economies ever.  Until the Fed got involved.

The Fed looked at this economic activity and saw speculation.  So they contracted the money supply.  This made it hard for business to expand to meet the growing demand.  When money is less readily available, you begin to stockpile what you have.  You add to that pile by selling liquid securities to build a bigger cash cushion to get you through tight monetary times.

Of course, the economy is NOT just monetary policy.  Those businesses were looking at other things the government was doing.  The Smoot-Hartley tariff was in committee.  Across the board tariff increases and import restrictions create uncertainty.  Business does not like uncertainty.  So they increase their liquidity.  To prepare for the worse.  Then the stock market crashed.  Then it got worse. 

It is at this time that the liquidity crisis became critical.  Depositors lost faith.  Bank runs followed.  But there just was not enough money available.  Banks began to fail.  Time for the Fed to step in and take action.  Per the Federal Reserve Act of 1913.  But they did nothing.  For a long while.  Then they took action.  And made matters worse.  They raised interest rates.  In response to England going off the gold standard (to prop up the dollar).  Exactly the wrong thing to do in a deflationary spiral.  This took a bad recession to the Great Depression.  The 1930s would become a lost decade.

When FDR took office, he tried to fix things with some Keynesian spending.  But nothing worked.  High taxes along with high government spending sucked life out of the private sector.  This unprecedented growth in government filled business with uncertainty.  They had no idea what was coming next.  So they hunkered down.  And prepared to weather more bad times.  It took a world war to end the Great Depression.  And only because the government abandoned much of its controls and let business do what they do best.  Pure, unfettered capitalism.  American industry came to life.  It built the war material to first win World War II.  Then it rebuilt the war torn countries after the war.

DURING THE 1980s, in Japan, government was partnering with business.  It was mercantilism at its best.  Japan Inc.  The economy boomed.  And blew great big bubbles.  The Keynesians in America held up the Japanese model as the new direction for America.  An American presidential candidate said we must partner government with business, too.  For only a fool could not see the success of the Japanese example.  Japan was growing rich.  And buying up American landmarks (including Rockefeller Center in New York).  National Lampoon magazine welcomed us to the 90s with a picture of a Japanese CEO at his desk.  He was the CEO of the United States of America, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Honda Motor Company.  The Japanese were taking over the world.  And we were stupid not to follow their lead.

But there was no invisible hand in Japan.  It was the hand of Japan Inc.  It was Japan Inc. that pursued economic policies that it thought best.  Not the millions upon millions of ordinary Japanese citizens.  Well, Japan Inc. thought wrong. 

There was collusion between Japanese businesses.  And collusion between Japanese businesses and government.  And corruption.  This greatly inflated the Japanese stock market.  And those great big bubbles finally burst.  The powerful Japan Inc. of the 1980s that caused fear and trembling was gone.  Replaced by a Japan in a deflationary spiral in the 1990s.  Or, as the Japanese call it, their lost decade.  This once great Asian Tiger was now an older tiger with a bit of a limp.   And the economy limped along for a decade or two.  It was still number 3 in the world, but it wasn’t what it used to be.  You don’t see magazine covers talking about it owning other nations any more.  (In 2010, China took over that #3 spot.  But China is a managed economy.   Will it suffer Japan’s fate?  Time will tell.)

The Japanese monetary authorities tried to fix the economy.  Interest rates were zero for about a decade.  In other words, if you wanted to borrow, it was easy.  And free.  But it didn’t help.  That huge economic expansion wasn’t real.  Business and government, in collusion, inflated and propped it up.  It gave them inflated capacity.  And prices.  And you don’t solve that problem by making it easier for businesses to borrow money to expand capacity and create jobs.  That’s the last thing they need.  What they need to do is to get out of the business of managing business.  Create a business-friendly climate.  Based on free-market principles.  Not mercantilism.  And let that invisible hand work its wonders.

MONETARY POLICY CAN do a lot of things.  Most of them bad.  Because it concentrates far too much power in too few hands.  The consequences of the mistakes of those making policy can be devastating.  And too tempting to those who want to use those powers for political reasons.  As we can see by Keynesian ‘stimulus’ spending that ends up as pork barrel spending.  The empirical data for that spending has shown that it stimulates only those who are in good standing with the powers that be.  Never the economy.

Sound money is important.  The money supply needs to keep pace with economic expansion.  If it doesn’t, a tight money supply will slow or halt economic activity.  But we have to use monetary policy for that purpose only.  We cannot use it to offset bad fiscal policy that is anti-business.  For if the government creates an anti-business environment, no amount of cheap money will encourage risk takers to take risks in a highly risky and uncertain environment.  Decades were lost trying.

No, you don’t stimulate with monetary policy.  You stimulate with fiscal policy.  There is empirical evidence that this works.  The Mellon tax cuts of the Harding administration created nearly a decade of strong economic growth.  The tax cuts of JFK were on pace to create similar growth until his assassination.  LBJ’s policies were in the opposite direction, thus ending the economic recovery of the JFK administration.  Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts produced economic growth through two decades. 

THE EVIDENCE IS there.  If you look at it.  Of course, a good Keynesian won’t.  Because it’s about political power for them.  Always has been.  Always will be.  And we should never forget this.



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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #15: “Most people would rather hear a pleasant lie than an unpleasant truth.” -Old Pithy.

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 25th, 2010

“DO THESE JEANS make my ass look big?”  Men don’t like this question.  And when their wife or girlfriend ask it, they know to tread lightly.  Unless the relationship is on the outs.  In which case they may answer with something like, “No, it’s your fat ass that makes those jeans look big.”

If the man cares for the woman.  If he loves her.  If he ever expects to have sex with her again, he’ll say something nice.  No matter how much more of her there is to love back there.  It’s called a white lie.  Normally, we don’t base our relationships on lies.  But when it comes to the butt, though, lies are good.  They spare hurt feelings.  Should a person’s genes not bless them with a heavenly derriere to display in a tight pair of jeans.

White lies don’t hurt people.  In fact, we use them in order not to hurt people.  Such lies don’t have consequences.  And people may know you are lying.  Even expect you to lie.  It shows you care enough to make someone feel better about something you know they’re sensitive about.  Like her big butt.  Or his performance in bed (“Whew, that was the best five minutes of my life.  Really.”).

WHEN YOUR CHILD IS learning a musical instrument, he may make more noise than music.  But you encourage him.  Or her.  You tell them they’re good.  That they’re getting better every day.  And, yes, you would love for them to play in front of your visiting family.  And when they do, the family applauds and tells them they’re good, too.  Your child is encouraged.  And he or she keeps practicing.  A little white lie and no one gets hurt.

Suppose your daughter wants to sing.  She listens to the reigning pop queens and sings along.  Only thing is, she’s tone deaf.  She doesn’t sing well at all.  In fact, when she does sing, you start looking for a hurt cat because you’re sure no human could make such inhuman noise.  But you don’t want to hurt her feelings.  And you’re sure it’s just a passing phase.  So you tell her how wonderful she sounds.  No one gets hurt.  Nothing can go wrong with that, can it?

Well, suppose her school is having a talent show. Anyone can simply walk up to an open mike and do whatever they want.  And she wants to sing.  In front of her friends.  In front of her classmates.  In front of the 2 kids that always tease her.  Now the issue is a little more complex.  Do you tell her the truth about her singing and hurt her feelings.  Or do you let her sing.  And risk the kids laughing at her.  And teasing her about it afterwards?

BUT IT’S NOT just the white lies we want to hear.  Say your husband is staying later and later at work.  You call to see what time to expect him for dinner but there’s no answer.  When he comes home late you tell him you were worried.  You called and there was no answer.  He apologizes for worrying you and says he was with a client.  You’re relieved.

Or you come home from work and your wife isn’t there.  Concerned, you call her and there’s no answer.  When she comes home she says she was at the gym with a friend and left her cell in her gym bag.  You’re relieved.  Then she goes upstairs to shower.  Funny, you think.  She usually showers at the gym.

Learning about infidelity is not easy.  And it’s painful.  You ignore signs as long as you can.  You believe the lies.  You want to.  You need to.  Then you find an earring in the car that isn’t yours.  Or you bump into your wife’s friend who says she misses her now that she quit going to the gym.  Soon, the evidence forces you to face the awful truth.  And it kills you inside.  Divorce.  The children.  It’s just the beginning of so much bad to come.

SO WE LIKE it when people lie to us.  At times.  For the truth can be disagreeable.  Ugly.  Painful.  And we’d rather not have that pain.  No, we’d rather live life in a sitcom where there is always a good laugh and rarely anything bad ever happens. 

Politicians know this.  They know that most people don’t like the harsh realities of life.  So when they need to get elected, they lie to us.  No one wants to pay more taxes.  So the politicians promise that only the rich will pay any new taxes.  But massive government spending requires massive taxation.  And taxing the rich just can’t pay for it all. 

George Herbert Walker Bush promised no new taxes.  He said, “Read my lips.  No new taxes.”  He raised them.  Didn’t want to.  Said he had to.  To balance the budget.  Because he and Congress didn’t want to cut spending.  Same with Bill Clinton.  He promised there would be no middle class tax increase.  But there was.  He said he tried as hard as he could not to but had to.  Again, the spending thing.  No one wants to cut spending.  It doesn’t help win elections.

But we wanted to believe the lie during the campaign.  They promise us everything and say it won’t cost anything.  That’s what we want to hear.  We don’t want to hear the intricacies of monetary and fiscal policy.  That increased taxation dampens economic activity.  Decreases incentive for risk takers.  So they take fewer risks.  Create fewer jobs.  Which increases unemployment.  But we don’t want to hear this.  We just want the free stuff.  Just promise it.  Tell us it’s free.  And we’ll vote for you.

LITTLE WHITE LIES have little consequence.  We say them because we care about someone.  Other lies, though, do.  Big ones.  If we fall for them.  If we believe in an ever-expanding welfare state, we’ll keep voting ourselves the treasury.  Until we’ve emptied it.  And when there’s no more money, we’ll say, well, it was nice while it lasted.  But all good things must come to an end.  Or we’ll riot.

Or we’ll cut spending elsewhere to fund our insatiable appetite for free stuff.  Maybe we won’t build a new aircraft carrier.  Or we’ll close an overseas Air Force base.  Or we’ll reduce the size of our conventional forces.  Because we’ve been lulled into a false sense of security, we may think a large standing army is not necessary anymore.  But it was that large projection of force that gave us that sense of security.  It scared the bad guys.  Because the ability to project force, and the will to do so, will create consequences if the bad guys do act. 

During the dot.com boom of the 1990s, times were good and we got complacent.  During those good times, though, the bad guys hit Americans in a series of attacks (World Trade Center bombing, Tanzanian Embassy bombing, Kenyan Embassy bombing, Khobar Towers bombing, the USS Cole attack).  We didn’t fight back.  We lied to ourselves.  We didn’t want to believe that America was under attack.  Head in the sand, we wanted to continue to enjoy the good times.  This only emboldened our enemies.  They saw that America didn’t have the will to fight back.  So they upped the ante.  And in 2001, they attacked on 9/11.  And that attack was just too great not to awake a slumbering giant.

WE MAY NOT like the unpleasant things in life.  But they are part of life.  And we have to deal with them.  However unpleasant they are.  They are what they are.  No matter how we try to rationalize them away.



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