Alan Greenspan blames Irrational Risk-Taking and not his Keynesian Policies for the Subprime Mortgage Crisis

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 26th, 2013

Week in Review

Since the Keynesians took over monetary policy we’ve had the Great Depression, the inflation racked Seventies, the dot-com bubble/recession of the late 1990s/early 2000s and the subprime mortgage crisis.  It’s also given Japan their Lost Decade, a deflationary spiral that started in the late Eighties that they are still fighting today.  As well as the sovereign debt crisis still ongoing in Europe.  So Keynesian economics has a record of failure.  Yet governments everywhere embrace it.  Why?  Because they love having the power to create money.  Especially when it’s ostensibly for helping the economy.  Which it never does.  As efforts to do so resulted in the carnage noted above.  But it always gives a good excuse for another surge in government spending.  And Keynesians love government spending.

Why does Keynesian economics fail?  Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve whose policies helped create some of this carnage (dot-com bubble and subprime mortgage crisis), explains (see Greenspan ponders the roots of a financial crisis he failed to foresee by Martin Crutsinger, The Associated Press, posted 10/21/2013 on The Star).

Now, Alan Greenspan has struck back at any notion that he — or anyone — could have known how or when to defuse the threats that triggered the crisis. He argues in a new book, The Map and the Territory, that traditional economic forecasting is no match for the irrational risk-taking that can inflate catastrophic price bubbles in assets like homes or tech stocks.

This is why the Soviet Union lost the Cold War.  Because their managed economy failed.  As all managed economies fail.  Because it is impossible to know the decisions of hundreds of million people in the market.  These people making decisions for themselves result in economic activity.  But when governments try to decide for them you get Great Depressions, debilitating inflation, bubbles and nasty recessions.  As well as the collapse of the Soviet Union.

People only took irrational risks when the Federal Reserve (the Fed)/government interfered with market forces.  The dot-com bubble grew because the Fed kept interest rates artificially low.  So was it irrational for people to take advantage of those artificially low interest rates and make risky investments they otherwise wouldn’t have made?  Yes.  But if the Fed didn’t keep them artificially low in the first place there would have been no dot-com bubble in the second place.

Was it irrational for people to buy houses they couldn’t afford when the Clinton administration forced lenders to qualify the unqualified for mortgages they couldn’t afford?  Was it irrational behavior for people to buy houses they couldn’t afford because of artificially low interest rates, ‘cheap’ adjustable rate mortgages, zero-down mortgages, interest only mortgages and no-documentation mortgages?  Yes.  But if the Fed/government did not interfere with market forces in the first place to increase home ownership (especially among those who couldn’t qualify for a conventional mortgage) there would have been no subprime housing bubble in the second place.

The problem with Keynesians is they call anyone who doesn’t behave as they hope to make people behave with their policies irrational.  That is, people are irrational if they don’t think like a Keynesian and therefore cause Keynesian policies to fail.  But before there could be irrational exuberance there has to be a climate that encourages irrational exuberance first.  For if we went back to the banking system where our savings rate determined our interest rates as well as the investment capital available there would be no bubbles.  And no irrational exuberance.  What kind of a banking system would that be?  The kind that vaulted the United States from their Founding to the number one economic power in the world in about one hundred years.  And they did that without making money.  Unlike today.

Q: The size of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet stands at a record $3.7 trillion, reflecting all the Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities the Fed has bought to push long-term interest rates down. You have expressed concerns about this size, which is more than four times where the balance sheet stood before the start of the financial crisis. What are your worries?

A: My basic concern is that we have to rein this thing in well before the demand for funds picks up and makes it very difficult to rein in. (Inflation) is not immediate. It is down the road. But historically, there are no cases where central banks blow up their balance sheets or where countries print money which doesn’t hit (with higher inflation).

The balance sheet is four times what it was before the Great Recession?  That’s an enormous amount of new money created to stimulate the economy.  And yet we’re still wallowing in the worst economic recovery since that following the Great Depression.  I don’t know how much more you can prove the failure of Keynesian economics than this.  About five years of priming the economic pump with stimulus stimulated little.  Other than rich Wall Street investors who are using this easy money to make more money.  While the median household income falls.

Keynesian economics attacks the middle class.  While enriching the ruling class.  And their crony friends on Wall Street.  These policies further the divide between the rich and everyone else.  Yet they continually say these same policies are the only way to reduce the divide between the rich and everyone else.  The historical record doesn’t prove this.  And those familiar with the historical record know this.  Which is why the left controls public education.  So people don’t learn the historical record.  Because once they do it becomes harder to win elections when you’re constantly lying to the American people.

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Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were Good for the World but Bad for Special Interests

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 14th, 2013

Week in Review

People either loved Margaret Thatcher.  Or they hated her.  And it all came down to their political ideology.  If you were pro-capitalism you loved her.  If you preferred socialism you hated her.  And the biggest socialist to hate her (and her friend Ronald Reagan) was the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR).  Not only did the success of her economic policies make the failure of the Soviet economic policies stark by comparison she was outspoken about her hatred of communism.  Even allowed her good friend, Ronald Reagan, base American nuclear cruise missiles on British soil.

Capitalism’s victory over Soviet socialism was so apparent that Mikhail Gorbachev opened dialogue with the Great Margaret Thatcher.  Ultimately bringing about the Soviet’s defeat in the Cold War.  Because socialism as an economic system doesn’t work.  Which is why Britain soared to new heights under the capitalist policies of Margaret Thatcher.  While the Soviet Union collapsed under their socialist policies.  And she entered office when Britain was at its worst (see To blame Margaret Thatcher for today’s problems is to misunderstand history by Allister Heath posted 4/9/2013 on The Telegraph).

[Margaret Thatcher] inherited a basket case of an economy, crippled by obsolete state-owned firms, a legacy of decades of poor policies. Management was insular and demoralised, the workforce used as pawns by militant union leaders who would call strikes at every opportunity, customers treated like dirt and production techniques stuck in the past.

Productivity was appalling, overmanning the norm and the quality of UK-made goods notoriously poor. Britain was sclerotic, anti-entrepreneurial and anti-innovation, often specialising in industries with no long-term future.

Yet it is a little-known fact that manufacturing output actually went up during her time in office, despite the necessary liquidation of so many unviable plants.

This was basically the problem they were having in the Soviet Union.  Everything was state-owned.  Production techniques were stuck in the past.  No one clamored to get their hands on good Soviet products.  Because there were no good Soviet products.  And they had far too many workers in their plants building stuff no one wanted.  While store shelves sat empty and people went without the basic necessities.  Britain was far along the path to outright socialism.  While Soviet Union was nearing the end of that path.  Margaret Thatcher turned the country around before they could end up where the Soviet Union was.  And the sun began to shine once more on the British Empire.  Albeit a smaller one.

Output had grown another 4.9pc by the start of 1997, when the Tories were booted out. Given the bitterness of the 1980s’ recession, caused by the desperate need to wring out extreme levels of inflation from the system by using high interest rates, it shows just how effective her supply-side reforms turned out to be…

…She was right to slash income tax, to repeal capital controls and to shake up the City of London with Big Bang. Most of her reforms to retail banking, including allowing banks and building societies to compete with one another, were spot-on.

There were some bad changes, however, though not the ones usually cited: still-high inflation made the ultra-safe saving banks unviable, especially after the EU forced the UK to introduce retail deposit insurance in 1979; there was a counter-productive move away from individual responsibility in retail financial services; and the UK signed up to the Basel Accords in 1990, a flawed international system to regulate banks that triggered all sorts of dangerous unintended behaviour and ensured financial institutions retained far too little reserves. In all cases, however, these were changes that didn’t really follow her basic philosophy…

Thatcherism was about choice, individual responsibility and independence from the state, not the politicised, artificially pump-primed markets we ended up with by the mid-2000s. She hated bail-outs, government subsidies and nationalisations; and would have looked on in horror at the gradual socialisation of losses and privatisation of profit in the financial services industry in the 15 years running up to the crisis.

Starting with the rescue of the LTCM fund in 1998 in New York, regulators decided that no large financial institution could ever fail. Alan Greenspan saw himself as an economist-king, manipulating interest rates to bolster financial markets and ensure perpetual growth, and triggering a giant bubble that burst twice. This was corporatism, not genuine capitalism.

Under the new order, including Gordon Brown’s late, unlamented Financial Services Authority, banks were disciplined neither by the free market – the authorities were there as a backstop, so there was no chance of going bust – nor by regulators, who allowed risk to build up unchecked. Greed was no longer balanced out by fear; moral hazard had replaced prudence. Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter and keen student of F.A Hayek, would have despaired.

A genuinely Thatcherite government in the 2000s is unlikely to have tolerated the explosion in the money supply – and house price madness – that Brown allowed, not least because Lord Lawson made a similar mistake in the late 1980s when he was Chancellor, triggering an earlier, disastrous house price bubble and bust. The parallels between the two episodes are striking but bizarrely uncommented upon.

So it is silly to blame Thatcher for today’s problems. If only one of her disciples had been in power in the 2000s, we wouldn’t be in anything like the mess we are in today.

Supply-side reforms?  Those were the same kind of reforms that her good friend, Ronald Reagan, favored.  And by using them he undid the Keynesian damage of his predecessors (LBJ, Nixon, Ford and Carter).  Pulling the United States off the path towards socialism.  Long before they got where Britain was before Thatcher.  But like in Britain it didn’t take long to return to the failed policies of the past.  The Keynesians returned in full force.  Playing with interest rates.  Keeping them artificially low to interfere with market forces.  Causing great irrational exuberance.  Those famous words uttered by Alan Greenspan.  An irrational exuberance his Federal Reserve policies enabled. Allowing people to borrow cheap money to invest with abandon.  With no fear of the economic fallout.  Pure Keynesian economics.  This wasn’t capitalism.  For capitalism would have raised those interest rates before they created such great bubbles.  And capitalism would have disciplined those free markets.  By checking greed with fear and having serious consequences for irrational exuberance.  Not government bailouts.

If Thatcher and Reagan were in office in the past decade things would be a lot better now.  And the simple proof of that is that when we moved away from their policies we created the mess we have today.

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LESSONS LEARNED #79: “Tax cuts stimulate. Not tax hikes.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 18th, 2011

With Bubbles the Ride Down is never as Enjoyable as the Ride Up

Bill Clinton dealt George W. Bush a horrible hand.  Clinton enjoyed the irrational exuberance.  He rode the good side of the dot-com bubble.  Saw the treasury awash in cash.  Dot-com people cashing in their stock options and paying huge capital gains taxes.  There was so much money pouring in that projections showed a balanced budget for the first time in a long time.  As long as the people stayed irrationally exuberant.  And that damn Alan Greenspan didn’t raise interest rates.  To rain on his parade.

But he did.  The days of free money were over.  (For awhile, at least).  Because people where bidding up stock prices for companies that hadn’t produced a product or provided a service.  Money poured into these dot-coms as investors were ever hopeful that they had found the next Microsoft.  These companies hired programmers.  Colleges couldn’t graduate enough of them.  To program whatever these companies would eventually do.  But with the spigot of free money turned off these companies ran out of startup capital.  As most of these businesses had no revenue they went out of business.  By the droves.  Throwing these programmers out onto the street.

And then the great contraction.  Which follows a bubble after it is a bubble no more.  Prices fell as deflation replaced inflation.  And as prices fell, unemployment went up.  The phantom prosperity at the end of the Nineties was being corrected.  And the ride down is never as enjoyable as the ride up. 

Easy Monetary Policy and lack of Congressional Oversight of Fannie Mae and Fannie Mac

And then there was, of course, 9/11.  Which further weakened an already weakened economy.  So that’s the backstory to the economic activity of the 2000s.  A decade that began with the aftermath of one bubble bursting.  And ended with an even worse bubble bursting.  The subprime mortgage crisis.  It was a decade of government stimulus.  George W. Bush used both tax cuts (at the beginning of his presidency).  And then a more Keynesian approach (tax rebates and tax incentives) at the end of his presidency.  In other words, tax and spend.

But the subprime mortgage crisis was so devastating that the 2008 stimulus urged by Ben Bernanke (Chairman of the Federal Reserve) to ward off a possible recession failed.  The easy monetary policy and lack of Congressional oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac caused big trouble.  And put far too many people into houses who couldn’t afford them.  The housing bubble was huge.  And because Fannie and Freddie were buying these risky mortgages and repackaging them into ‘safe’ securities, the fallout went beyond the housing market.  Pension funds, IRAs and 401(k)s that bought these ‘safe’ securities lost huge swaths of wealth.  The economic fallout was vast.  And global.

And then came Barack Obama.  A Keynesian if there was ever one.  With the economy in a free fall towards a depression, he signed into law an $800 billion stimulus package.  Not surprisingly, it turned out that about 88% of that was pure pork and earmarks.  Making his ‘stimulus’ stimulate even less than the George W. Bush $152 billion stimulus package.  And worked about as well.

Home Ownership was the Key to Economic Prosperity in the U.S.

So let’s look at the numbers.  Below is a chart graphing GDP, the unemployment rate and the inflation rate for the 2000s.  GDP is in billions of 2005 dollars.

(Sources: GDP, unemployment, inflation.  *Average to date (GDP – 2 quarters, unemployment rate – 7 months and inflation – 7 months).)

You can see the fallout of the dot-com bust.  The decade opens with deflation and a rising unemployment rate.  GDP, though, was still tracking upward.  After the bush tax cuts in 2001 (Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001) and 2003 (Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003) you can see improvement.  Unemployment peaks out and then falls.  Inflation replaces deflation.  And GDP grows at a greater rate. 

Things were looking good.  But lurking in the background was that easy credit.  And federal policies to qualify unqualified people for mortgages.  To put them into houses they couldn’t afford.  All because home ownership was the key to economic prosperity in the U.S.

Which makes the rising rate of inflation a concern.  Rising inflation (i.e., expansionary or ‘easy’ monetary policy) created the dot-com bubble.  A rising inflation rate can be bad.  But at least during this period the growth rate of GDP is greater than the growth in the inflation rate.  Which indicates real economic growth.  Accompanied by a falling unemployment rate.  All nice.  Until…

Bernanke and Company Crapped their Pants

Those people approved for mortgages they weren’t qualified for?  Guess what?  They couldn’t make their mortgage payments.  And because Fannie and Freddie bought so many of these risky mortgages, these defaults weren’t the banks’ problems.  They were the taxpayers’ problems.  And anyone who bought those ‘safe’ securities.

Long story short, Bernanke and company crapped their pants.  He urged the $152 billion Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 to ward off a possible recession.  This was a Keynesian stimulus.  Remember that summer when you got those $300 checks?  This was that stimulus.  But it didn’t stimulate anything.  People used that money to pay down debt.  Because they were crapping their pants, too.

The good times were over.  That huge housing bubble was bursting.  And nothing was going to stop it.  Certainly not more of the same (Keynesian stimulus).  GDP fell.  Unemployment rose.  Inflation became deflation.  And Bernanke stepped in and turned the printing presses on.  Desperate not to make the same mistake the Fed made during the Great Depression.  When bad Fed policy caused all of those bank runs.

An Inflation Rate Greater than the GDP Growth Rate may Return us to Stagflation

The Obama administration (all Keynesians) pushed for a massive stimulus to fix the economy.  The best and brightest in the administration, Ivy League educated economists, guaranteed that if passed they could hold the unemployment rate under 8%.  So they passed it.  And Bernanke kept printing money.  In other words, more of the same.  More of what gave us the dot-com bubble.  And more of what gave us the housing bubble.  Inflationary monetary policy.  And more government spending.

Didn’t work.  It took a year for the deflation to end.  As the market corrected prices.  And readjusted supply to match actual demand.  The unemployment rate maxed out around 10%.  And the Obama stimulus didn’t move it much from that high. 

GDP growth resumed.  However, the growth of inflation is now greater than the growth of GDP.  A very ominous sign.  Indicating that GDP growth is not real.  And will likely collapse once the ‘free money’ Fed policies end.  Or the growth of inflation coupled with high unemployment return us to the Jimmy Carter stagflation of the Seventies.

Keynesian Stimulus is the way to go if you want Deflation and Recession 

Further Keynesian stimulus may only make a bad situation worse.  And prolong this economic ‘recovery’.  These policies make bubbles.  Which are fine and dandy until they burst.  Giving us deflation and recession.  And the bigger the bubble, the greater deflation and recession that follows.

Tax cuts stimulate.  They ended the dot-com recession.  All Keynesian attempts during the 2000s have failed.  Proving again that tax and spend doesn’t work.  Easy monetary policy and government spending does not end well.  Unless you want deflation and recession.  Then the Keynesian way is the way to go.  But if you want to stimulate economic activity.  If you want real GDP growth.  Then you have to go with tax cuts.  As their track record of success shows.

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Asset Bubbles and Deflationary Spirals in Japan, the United States and China

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 25th, 2010

The Japanese Asset Bubble and their Lost Decade

During the eighties the Japanese government worked with Japanese business.  And the eighties in Japan were booming.  The Japanese went on an American buying spree.  They gobbled up American landmark buildings and business.  It was an economic Pearl Harbor.  Some people wringed their hands in distress, fearing the Japanese ascendancy.  Presidential candidates said we were fools for not following the Japanese model.

Easy money created excess liquidity.  Which created inflationary pressure on prices.  Real estate values soared.  And irrational exuberance bid up prices further, creating an asset bubble.  Times were good while they lasted.  But the bubble popped.  Real estate values tumbled.  And the Japanese suffered a deflationary spiral that would last a decade.  They call their 1990s the ‘lost decade’.  They still haven’t fully recovered.  And this was a direct consequence of government working with business.

The Subprime Mortgage Crisis and the Beginning of our Lost Decade

Totally ignoring the lessons of the Japanese, the Americans went down the same road.  Easy money created excess liquidity.  And like in Japan, this created inflationary pressure on prices.  And like the Japanese, real estate values soared.  Alan Greenspan warned us about our irrational exuberance.  But we didn’t listen.  We bid prices higher still.  Created the mother of all asset bubbles.  Times were good in the 1990s.  But the bubble popped.  As history has shown bubbles to do.  And real estate values tumbled.  But with a twist.

In America, government pressured bankers to approve mortgages for people who couldn’t qualify for a mortgage.  So bankers had to come up with some creative ways to make the unqualified qualified.  The weapon of choice was the subprime mortgage.  And everything worked as plan.  Until interest rates went up.  And then the whole deck of cards came crashing down. 

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (government sponsored enterprises) guaranteed those risky loans.  Then, to encourage bankers to make more of these risky loans, they bought them from the banks.  They chopped them up and created investment instruments.  We called them derivatives.  High yield (because of the ‘subprime’ in subprime mortgage).  And safe (because of the ‘mortgage’ in subprime mortgage).  So when interest rates rose and the unqualified couldn’t pay their mortgage payments anymore, we got the subprime mortgage crisis that reverberated throughout the world thanks to those derivatives.  All because government worked with business.

The Chinese are Working on an Asset Bubble of their Own

In the 2000s, it’s the Chinese that everyone fears.  Economically speaking.  (For now at least.)  Over the past decade or two, China has become more capitalistic than communist.  It’s not pure capitalism.  It’s more government partnering with business.  Sort of a throwback to mercantilism.  They have tariffs and monetary policies to protect their domestic industries.  And they subsidize their export industries in an export-driven economy.  And it’s been working.  So far.

It worked in Japan for awhile.  But we saw what happened there.  It worked in the United States for awhile.  But we saw what happened there.  Government partnering with business has, historically, been a train wreck.  Now China is trying her hand.  Will history repeat itself there?  Perhaps (see China Raises Interest Rates Again to Cool Inflation by Edward Wong posted 12/25/2010 on The New York Times).

China’s central bank announced on Saturday that it was raising interest rates for the second time in about two months in what appears to be a long-term campaign to suppress inflation as many ordinary Chinese express discontent with rising consumer prices.

Oh my.  Inflationary pressures are raising prices.  And to tamp those prices back down, they raised interest rates.  This is giving me a strange feeling of déjà vu.    

The Chinese economy has been awash in liquidity due to government stimulus money and generous lending by state banks. Chinese officials are now concerned about an overheated economy and the inflationary pressures that come with that.

Awash in liquidity?  Government stimulus money?  Generous state bank lending?  It feels like we went through this before.  Odd.  This feeling of déjà vu.

But investment in large capital-intensive projects has also been fueling the economic engine and driving up prices.

Capital-intensive projects?  That requires financing.  Lots of it.  Lots of bank loans.  Lots of liquidity.  And a lot of liability on bank’s balance sheets.  Shouldn’t be a problem.  As long as those are safe loans.  Backed by safe assets.  Just like in the United States.  Before we started putting people into houses who couldn’t afford to buy a house.

Officials have signaled throughout the month that moves will be taken to better control spending across the country. China announced on Dec. 3 that it would tighten monetary policy next year, shifting it from “relatively loose to prudent.” That was a clear sign that Chinese officials were intensely concerned about inflation.

The Chinese get a little Alan Greenspan.  They’re getting a little nervous about their irrational exuberance.

The property market in China has been booming. Rising property prices, along with the government stimulus money and loose bank lending, have spurred new developments across the country. Even long-term residents on the tropical southern island of Hainan have had to grapple with soaring real estate prices from outsiders coming in to buy up land.

Some analysts say this growth has resulted in a gargantuan bubble in the real estate market, while others argue that the capacity will be put to good use.

And for good reason.  Real estate bubbles aren’t good.  Things can get really ugly when they burst.  If you doubt me, ask the Japanese.  Or the Americans.

Until now, low wages have helped to hold down inflation and keep China’s export industry competitive. But those wages in the context of soaring real estate prices mean that migrant workers from the interior of China are becoming less tolerant of poor work conditions on the coasts, where many of China’s export manufacturing factories are located. Many workers are now choosing to stay closer to home in the interior provinces, and some companies are moving their manufacturing centers inland.

They took our jobs.  But now they don’t want them.  Those people who worked dirt cheap (by our standards, not theirs) have learned from the West.  They want more.  And, in a booming economy, they probably have choices out there.  It could add huge inflationary pressures on wages.  Or force a government crackdown on individual liberty.  Neither will probably be good for the economy.  Or those balance sheets.  At the banks financing those capital-intensive projects.

History Repeats – Ignore her at your Own Risk

One thing history shows us over and over is that free markets work.  Managed markets don’t.  Government partnering with business doesn’t work.  It didn’t work for the Japanese.  And it didn’t work for the United States.  When you intervene into market forces you disrupt market forces.  And often have unintended consequences.  Such as runaway inflation.  Asset bubbles.  And deflationary spirals.

The Japanese lost a decade.  The United States is looking like they will lose a decade.  Will the Chinese be next?  If history repeats, as history has a penchant for doing, they may be the next to lose a decade.  Of course, that could be a bit of a problem for us.  They hold a lot of our debt.  And if they want their money back to save themselves, guess what that will do to us.  Suffice it to say that the historians will then be able to write about the rise and fall of the United States.

History can be such a bitch when we ignore her.

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Printing Money and Screwing Friends

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 12th, 2010

My Coworker, the Cheap Canadian Bastard

I worked with a Canadian once.  A real cheap bastard.  Yeah, he had some financial issues.   But they weren’t my issues.  And I got tired of subsidizing his problems by driving him to lunch every day.  And I got tired of the conversations.  He brought up every negative story about America.  Belittled our president.  Chastised America for not signing on to the Kyoto Protocol.  And said that we did not honor our trade agreement concerning softwood lumber (that his government was subsidizing in order to undersell their American competitors).

What really bothered me was that he was a Canadian that lived near the border but worked in the U.S.  He criticized America but he chose to work in America instead of Canada.  Why?  Because he could get paid more in America.  And there were the perks of crossing the border every day.  He gassed his car up in the United States.  And his wife’s car.  Why?  Because our gas prices were cheaper.  Yeah, he would criticize America until he was blue in the face, but he took every opportunity to escape the taxes that paid for all those things that made his country superior to mine.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I like Canada.  I just don’t like hypocrisy.  He made good money over here.  And with a much more favorable exchange rate back then, that translated into big dollars on the other side of the border.  Back when the American dollar was strong and the Canadian dollar was weak, he did very well.  Those strong American dollars exchanged into a whole lot more Canadian dollars.  Which allowed him to buy a whole lot more stuff than his fellow Canadians.  In fact, a lot of Americans vacationed in Canada back then.  Because the American dollar bought more in Canada than it did in America.

Have Cheap Cash, Will Travel – In Canada

So what’s the point talking about this cheap bastard?  Exchange rates.  And whenever there’s a currency war on the horizon, I can’t help but think about this cheap bastard.  See how he, a Canadian working in America, lived very well with a cheap Canadian dollar.  We paid him in strong U.S. dollars.  He then could use those strong U.S. dollars to buy gas and other ‘less taxed’ items on the U.S. side of the border.  (If he brought in and exchanged weak Canadian dollars for strong U.S. dollars, that same amount of gas would cost him more.)  And when he took those strong U.S. dollars across the border back into Canada, he exchanged them and got so many weak Canadian dollars in return that he alone stimulated the local economy.

Of course, he wasn’t the only one bringing strong American dollars into Canada.  When those strong dollars were exchanged for weak ones, the Canadian tourism industry boomed.  People could vacation in Canada for a week for what a weekend in America would cost.  Canadians traveling into America, on the other hand, paid more for less.  A weekend in America would cost what a week in Canada would cost.

In the above example, you can see how the nation with the weaker currency has more economic activity than the nation with the stronger currency.  Now, to understand international trade and foreign exchange rates, make the following substitutions in the above example:

  • Canada -> America
  • America -> China/Germany/Brazil/other U.S. trading partner

Alone Against the World.  And Alan Greenspan

Well, America is devaluing their currency.  They’re printing money to buy back treasury debt.  Supposedly to stimulate the economy by injecting more liquidity. But our problem is not a liquidity problem.  It’s a lack of consumer spending because of high unemployment.  And a fear of being unemployed soon.  So this will do little to solve our problems.  But it will make our exports cheaper.  And our trading partners’ imports more expensive.  In other words, we’re trying to fix our broken economy by flooding our trading partners’ economies with cheap American goods.  Which is pissing them off big time (see Reuters’ Analysis: German tempers fray as U.S. policy gulf widens by Stephen Brown and Andreas Rinke posted 11/10/2010).

Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, 68, said last week that the U.S. Federal Reserve decision to buy $600 billion of government bonds undermined U.S. credibility and was “clueless.” There was no point, he said, in pumping money into the markets.

China and Brazil were among those echoing his comments but U.S. officials were particularly stung by Schaeuble and German Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle saying the Fed move amounted to “indirect manipulation” of the dollar to boost exports; this at a time when Washington is criticizing China for exactly the same kind of strategy.

“It’s not acceptable for the Americans to criticize China for currency manipulation then slyly help the dollar by printing at the Federal Reserve,” Schaeuble told Der Spiegel magazine.

And speaking of Brazil, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said warned America not to rely on exports alone (see Brazil’s Lula Says World Headed For ‘Bankruptcy’ Unless Rich Nations Act posted 11/11/2010 on the Dow Jones Newswires).

“If they don’t consume, and they just bet on exports, the world will go into bankruptcy,” he told reporters as leaders at the Group of 20 industrial and developing nations headed into a two-day summit in the South Korean capital.

Even Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve Chairman, is expressing concern over the impact of American policy on foreign exchange rates (see Greenspan warns over weaker dollar by Alan Beattie in Seoul posted 11/10/2010 in the Financial Times).  In that same article, Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, warned that this currency manipulation could trigger a trade war that would make the next 12 months worse than the previous 12 months.

We’re All Cheap Bastards Now

When it comes down to it, I guess we’re all cheap bastards.  We all want some unfair advantage in life.  Like my one-time Canadian coworker.  And I can understand how our trading partners feel.  I’ve worked with and been lectured for years about how my country should change.  All the while he prospered quite handsomely from the way things were.  Of course, I can take some solace in the dollar’s slide.  It’s trading pretty much at parity with the Canadian dollar now.  It’s gotten so bad that I’ve heard my old friend has since found work on his side of the border.  Good for him.  Now he can truly embrace all those taxes that he spoke so highly about while he was avoiding them for all those years.

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LESSONS LEARNED #3 “Inflation is just another name for irresponsible government.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 4th, 2010

PEOPLE LIKE TO hate banks.  And bankers.  Because they get rich with other people’s money.  And they don’t do anything.  People give them money.  They then loan it and charge interest.  What a scam.

Banking is a little more complex than that.  And it’s not a scam.  Countries without good banking systems are often impoverished, Third World nations.  If you have a brilliant entrepreneurial idea, a lot of good that will do if you can’t get any money to bring it to market.  That’s what banks do.  They collect small deposits from a lot of depositors and make big loans to people like brilliant entrepreneurs.

Fractional reserve banking multiplies this lending ability.  Because only a fraction of a bank’s total depositors will ask for their deposits back at any one time, only a fraction of all deposits are kept at the bank.  Banks loan the rest.  Money comes in.  They keep a running total of how much you deposited.  They then loan out your money and charge interest to the borrower.  And pay you interest on what they borrowed from you so they could make those loans to others.  Banks, then, can loan out more money than they actually have in their vaults.  This ‘creates’ money.  The more they lend the more money they create.  This increases the money supply.  The less they lend the less money they create.  If they don’t lend any money they don’t add to the money supply.  When banks fail they contract the money supply.

Bankers are capital middlemen.  They funnel money from those who have it to those who need it.  And they do it efficiently.  We take car loans and mortgages for granted.  For we have such confidence in our banking system.  But banking is a delicate job.  The economy depends on it.  If they don’t lend enough money, businesses and entrepreneurs may not be able to borrow money when they need it.  If they lend too much, they may not be able to meet the demands of their depositors.  And if they do something wrong or act in any way that makes their depositors nervous, the depositors may run to the bank and withdraw their money.  We call this a ‘run on the bank’ when it happens.  It’s not pretty.  It’s usually associated with panic.  And when depositors withdraw more money than is in the bank, the bank fails.

DURING GOOD ECONOMIC times, businesses expand.  Often they have to borrow money to pay for the costs of meeting growing demand.  They borrow and expand.  They hire more people.  People make more money.  They deposit some of this additional money in the bank.  This creates more money to lend.  Businesses borrow more.  And so it goes.  This saving and lending increases the money supply.  We call it inflation.  A little inflation is good.  It means the economy is growing.  When it grows too fast and creates too much money, though, prices go up. 

Sustained inflation can also create a ‘bubble’ in the economy.  This is due to higher profits than normal because of artificially high prices due to inflation.  Higher selling prices are not the result of the normal laws of supply and demand.  Inflation increases prices.  Higher prices increase a company’s profit.  They grow.  Add more jobs.  Hire more people.  Who make more money.  Who buy more stuff and save more money.  Banks loan more, further increasing the money supply.  Everyone is making more money and buying more stuff.  They are ‘bidding up’ the prices (house prices or dot-com stock prices, for example) with an inflated currency.  This can lead to overvalued markets (i.e., a bubble).  Alan Greenspan called it ‘irrational exuberance’ when testifying to Congress in the 1990s.  Now, a bubble can be pretty, but it takes very little to pop and destroy it.

Hyperinflation is inflation at its worse.  Bankers don’t create it by lending too much.  People don’t create it by bidding up prices.  Governments create it by printing money.  Literally.  Sometimes following a devastating, catastrophic event like war (like Weimar Germany after World War II).  But sometimes it doesn’t need a devastating, catastrophic event.  Just unrestrained government spending.  Like in Argentina throughout much of the 20th century.

During bad economic times, businesses often have more goods and services than people are purchasing.  Their sales will fall.  They may cut their prices to try and boost their sales.  They’ll stop expanding.  Because they don’t need as much supply for the current demand, they will cut back on their output.  Lay people off.  Some may have financial problems.  Their current revenue may not cover their costs.  Some may default on their loans.  This makes bankers nervous.  They become more hesitant in lending money.  A business in trouble, then, may find they cannot borrow money.  This may force some into bankruptcy.  They may default on more loans.  As these defaults add up, it threatens a bank’s ability to repay their depositors.  They further reduce their lending.  And so it goes.  These loan defaults and lack of lending decreases the money supply.  We call it deflation.  We call deflationary periods recessions.  It means the economy isn’t growing.  The money supply decreases.  Prices go down.

We call this the business cycle.  People like the inflation part.  They have jobs.  They’re not too keen on the deflation part.  Many don’t have jobs.  But too much inflation is not good.  Prices go up making everything more expensive.  We then lose purchasing power.  So a recession can be a good thing.  It stops high inflation.  It corrects it.  That’s why we often call a small recession a correction.  Inflation and deflation are normal parts of the business cycle.  But some thought they could fix the business cycle.  Get rid of the deflation part.  So they created the Federal Reserve System (the Fed) in 1913.

The Fed is a central bank.  It loans money to Federal Reserve regional banks who in turn lend it to banks you and I go to.  They control the money supply.  They raise and lower the rate they charge banks to borrow from them.  During inflationary times, they raise their rate to decrease lending which decreases the money supply.  This is to keep good inflation from becoming bad inflation.  During deflationary times, they lower their rate to increase lending which increases the money supply.  This keeps a correction from turning into a recession.  Or so goes the theory.

The first big test of the Fed came during the 1920s.  And it failed. 

THE TWO WORLD wars were good for the American economy.  With Europe consumed by war, their agricultural and industrial output decline.  But they still needed stuff.  And with the wars fought overseas, we fulfilled that need.  For our workers and farmers weren’t in uniform. 

The Industrial Revolution mechanized the farm.  Our farmers grew more than they ever did before.  They did well.  After the war, though, the Europeans returned to the farm.  The American farmer was still growing more than ever (due to the mechanization of the farm).  There were just a whole lot less people to sell their crops to.  Crop prices fell. 

The 1920s was a time America changed.  The Wilson administration had raised taxes due to the ‘demands of war’.  This resulted in a recession following the war.  The Harding administration cut taxes based on the recommendation of Andrew Mellon, his Secretary of the Treasury.  The economy recovered.  There was a housing boom.  Electric utilities were bringing electrical power to these houses.  Which had electrical appliances (refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, irons, toasters, etc.) and the new radio.  People began talking on the new telephone.  Millions were driving the new automobile.  People were traveling in the new airplane.  Hollywood launched the motion picture industry and Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse.  The economy had some of the most solid growth it had ever had.  People had good jobs and were buying things.  There was ‘good’ inflation. 

This ‘good’ inflation increased prices everywhere.  Including in agriculture.  The farmers’ costs went up, then, as their incomes fell.  This stressed the farming regions.  Farmers struggled.  Some failed.  Some banks failed with them.  The money supply in these areas decreased.

Near the end of the 1920s, business tried to expand to meet rising demand.  They had trouble borrowing money, though.  The economy was booming but the money supply wasn’t growing with it.  This is where the Fed failed.  They were supposed to expand the money supply to keep pace with economic growth.  But they didn’t.  In fact, the Fed contracted the money supply during this period.  They thought investors were borrowing money to invest in the stock market.  (They were wrong).  So they raised the cost of borrowing money.  To ‘stop’ the speculators.  So the Fed took the nation from a period of ‘good’ inflation into recession.  Then came the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.

Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in 1930.  But they were discussing it in committee in 1929.  Businesses knew about it in 1929.  And like any good business, they were looking at how it would impact them.  The bill took high tariffs higher.  That meant expensive imported things would become more expensive.  The idea is to protect your domestic industry by raising the prices of less expensive imports.  Normally, business likes surgical tariffs that raise the cost of their competitor’s imports.  But this was more of an across the board price increase that would raise the cost of every import, which was certain to increase the cost of doing business.  This made business nervous.  Add uncertainty to a tight credit market and business no doubt forecasted higher costs and lower revenues (i.e., a recession).  And to weather a recession, you need a lot of cash on hand to help pay the bills until the economy recovered.  So these businesses increased their liquidity.  They cut costs, laid off people and sold their investments (i.e., stocks) to build a huge cash cushion to weather these bad times to come.  This may have been a significant factor in the selloff in October of 1929 resulting in the stock market crash. 

HERBERT HOOVER WANTED to help the farmers.  By raising crop prices (which only made food more expensive for the unemployed).  But the Smoot-Hawley Tariff met retaliatory tariffs overseas.  Overseas agricultural and industrial markets started to close.  Sales fell.  The recession had come.  Business cut back.  Unemployment soared.  Farmers couldn’t sell their bumper crops at a profit and defaulted on their loans.  When some non-farming banks failed, panic ensued.  People rushed to get their money out of the banks before their bank, too, failed.  This caused a run on the banks.  They started to fail.  This further contracted the money supply.  Recession turned into the Great Depression. 

The Fed started the recession by not meeting its core expectation.  Maintain the money supply to meet the needs of the economy.  Then a whole series of bad government action (initiated by the Hoover administration and continued by the Roosevelt administration) drove business into the ground.  The ONLY lesson they learned from this whole period is ‘inflation good, deflation bad’.  Which was the wrong lesson to learn. 

The proper lesson to learn was that when people interfere with market forces or try to replace the market decision-making mechanisms, they often decide wrong.  It was wrong for the Fed to contract the money supply (to stop speculators that weren’t there) when there was good economic growth.  And it was wrong to increase the cost of doing business (raising interest rates, increasing regulations, raising taxes, raising tariffs, restricting imports, etc.) during a recession.  The natural market forces wouldn’t have made those wrong decisions.  The government created the recession.  Then, when they tried to ‘fix’ the recession they created, they created the Great Depression.

World War I created an economic boom that we couldn’t sustain long after the war.  The farmers because their mechanization just grew too much stuff.  Our industrial sector because of bad government policy.  World War II fixed our broken economy.  We threw away most of that bad government policy and business roared to meet the demands of war-torn Europe.  But, once again, we could not sustain our post-war economy because of bad government policy.

THE ECONOMY ROARED in the 1950s.  World War II devastated the world’s economies.  We stood all but alone to fill the void.  This changed in the 1960s.  Unions became more powerful, demanding more of the pie.  This increased the cost of doing business.  This corresponded with the reemergence of those once war-torn economies.  Export markets not only shrunk, but domestic markets had new competition.  Government spending exploded.  Kennedy poured money into NASA to beat the Soviets to the moon.  The costs of the nuclear arms race grew.  Vietnam became more and more costly with no end in sight.  And LBJ created the biggest government entitlement programs since FDR created Social Security.  The size of government swelled, adding more workers to the government payroll.  They raised taxes.  But even high taxes could not prevent huge deficits.

JFK cut taxes and the economy grew.  It was able to sustain his spending.  LBJ increased taxes and the economy contracted.  There wasn’t a chance in hell the economy would support his spending.  Unwilling to cut spending and with taxes already high, the government started to print more money to pay its bills.  Much like Weimar Germany did in the 1920s (which ultimately resulted in hyperinflation).  Inflation heated up. 

Nixon would continue the process saying “we are all Keynesians now.”  Keynesian economics believed in Big Government managing the business cycle.  It puts all faith on the demand side of the equation.  Do everything to increase the disposable money people have so they can buy stuff, thus stimulating the economy.  But most of those things (wage and price controls, government subsidies, tariffs, import restrictions, regulation, etc.) typically had the opposite effect on the supply side of the equation.  The job producing side.  Those policies increased the cost of doing business.  So businesses didn’t grow.  Higher costs and lower sales pushed them into recession.  This increased unemployment.  Which, of course, reduces tax receipts.  Falling ever shorter from meeting its costs via taxes, it printed more money.  This further stoked the fires of inflation.

When Nixon took office, the dollar was the world’s reserve currency and convertible into gold.  But our monetary policy was making the dollar weak.  As they depreciated the dollar, the cost of gold in dollars soared.  Nations were buying ‘cheap’ dollars and converting them into gold at much higher market exchange rate.  Gold was flying out of the country.  To stop the gold flight, Nixon suspended the convertibility of the dollar. 

Inflation soared.  As did interest rates.  Ford did nothing to address the core problem.  During the next presidential campaign, Carter asked the nation if they were better off than they were 4 years ago.  They weren’t.  Carter won.  By that time we had double digit inflation and interest rates.  The Carter presidency was identified by malaise and stagflation (inflation AND recession at the same time).  We measured our economic woes by the misery index (the unemployment rate plus the inflation rate).  Big Government spending was smothering the nation.  And Jimmy Carter did not address that problem.  He, too, was a Keynesian. 

During the 1980 presidential election, Reagan asked the American people if they were better off now than they were 4 years ago.  The answer was, again, ‘no’.  Reagan won the election.  He was not a Keynesian.  He cut taxes like Harding and JFK did.  He learned the proper lesson from the Great Depression.  And he didn’t repeat any of their (Hoover and FDR) mistakes.  The recession did not turn into depression.  The economy recovered.  And soared once again.

MONETARY POLICY IS crucial to a healthy and growing economy.  Businesses need to borrow to grow and create jobs.  However, monetary policy is not the be-all and end-all of economic growth.  Anti-business government policies will NOT make a business expand and add jobs no matter how cheap money is to borrow.  Three bursts of economic activity in the 20th century followed tax-cuts/deregulation (the Harding, JFK and Reagan administrations).  Tax increases/new regulation killed economic growth (the Hoover/FDR and LBJ/Nixon/Ford/Carter administrations).  Good monetary policies complimented the former.  Some of the worst monetary policies accompanied the latter.  This is historical record.  Some would do well to learn it.

www.PITHOCRATES.com

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