FT127: “Obamacare is a lot like the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in terms of scaring the bejesus out of businesses.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 20th, 2012

Fundamental Truth

The Roaring Twenties gave us Automobiles, Electric Power, Radio, Movies, Telephones and Air travel

In 1921 there were 9 million automobile registrations.  That jumped to 23 million by 1929.  An increase of 156%.  That’s a lot more cars on the roads.  In the Roaring Twenties we made cars out of steel, paint and glass.  Inside we fitted them with lumber, cotton and leather.  We put rubber tires on them.  And filled their fuel tanks with gasoline.  So this surge in car ownership created a surge in all of these industries.  Extraction of raw materials.  Factories and manufacturing plants to build the equipment to extract those raw materials.  As well as the machinery to build these automobile components.  And the moving assembly lines in assembly plants to assemble these automobiles.  The plants, warehouses and automobile dealers created a surge in the construction industry.  And all the industries that fed the construction industry.  Including the housing industry to house all these gainfully employed workers.

And this was just the auto industry.  Which wasn’t the only industry that was booming during the Roaring Twenties.  Thanks to the hands-off government policies of the administrations of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge businesses introduced us to the modern world.  Electric power came into its own.  By 1929 about 80% of all installed horsepower was electrical.  And it entered our homes.  Electric lighting and electric appliances.  Vacuum cleaners.  Washing machines.  Refrigerators.  All of this required even more raw material extraction from the ground.  More manufacturing equipment and plants.  More wholesale and retail construction.  And more housing to house all of these workers earning a healthy paycheck.

And there was more.  The Roaring Twenties gave us broadcast radio in our electric-powered homes.  Free entertainment, sports broadcasts and news.  Paid for by the new industry of advertising.  Competing with radio was another growing industry.  Motion pictures.  That by the end of the Roaring Twenties were talkies.  And speaking of talking there was a lot of that on the new telephone.  In our homes.  Interconnecting all of these industries was ship, rail and truck transportation.  Even air travel took off during the Twenties.  More raw material extraction.  More equipment.  More manufacturing.  More construction.  And jobs.  More and more jobs.  The hands-off government policies of the Harding and Coolidge administrations created the great Bull Market of the Twenties.  Explosive economic activity.  Real economic growth.  Creating low-cost consumer goods to modernize America.  Increase her productivity.  Making her the dominant economic power in the world.  The Europeans were so worried about America’s economic prowess that they met in 1927 at the International Economic Conference in Geneva to discuss the American problem.  And how they were going to compete with the American economic juggernaut.  Because the free market capitalism of the New World was leaving the Old World in the dust.

Herbert Hoover was a Republican in Name Only that FDR once Admired but Calvin Coolidge Despised

This was real economic growth.  It was not speculation.  This wasn’t artificially low interest rates creating an asset bubble.  Working Americans bought homes and cars.  And furnishings.  Businesses produced these to meet that demand.  They had growing sales.  And growing profits.  Which increased their stock prices.  Investors wanted to own their stocks because these companies were making money.  And with the world modernizing these stock prices weren’t going anywhere but up in the foreseeable future.  Unless something changed the business environment.  Well, something did.

Despite the roaring economy Calvin Coolidge did not run for a second term.  Which was a pity.  For his successor, Herbert Hoover, was a Republican in name only.  He was a big time progressive.  Who wanted to use the power of government to make the world perfect.  A devout believer in the benevolence of Big Government.  He added about 2,000 bureaucrats to the Department of Commerce.  FDR at one time admired him (before he ran against him for president).  Coolidge despised him.  Under Hoover the federal government intruded into the private sector.  His economics were Keynesian.  He, too, worshipped at the altar of demand.  He believed high wages were the key to prosperity.  For people with more money buy more.  And all that buying created demand for businesses to meet.  Even during a recession he believed wages should not fall.  Despite the fact that’s what recessions do on the back side of the business cycle.  Lower prices and wages.  And lay off people.

By the Twenties American farmers were mechanizing their farms.  Allowing them to grow more food than ever before.  Agriculture prices fell.  At first this wasn’t a problem as there were export markets for their bumper crops.  Thanks to a war-devastated Europe.  But eventually the European soldiers returned to the farm.  And the Europeans didn’t need the American food anymore.  Even places tariffs on U.S. imports to their countries to help their farmers get back on their feet.  Add in a bad winter that killed livestock.  Some bad insect infestation in the summer.  Add all this together and you had the beginning of the great farm crisis.  Debt defaults.  Bank failures.  And the contraction of the money supply.  Which the Federal Reserve (the Fed) did not step in to compensate for by expanding the money supply.  Which was sort of their purpose for being in existence.  As there was less money to borrow business could longer borrow to continue their growth.  Because of the time factor in the stages of production to expand production required borrowing money.  To make matters worse the Fed was actually pulling more money out of circulation.  Because they looked at the rising stock prices and concluded that speculators were borrowing money to invest in the stock market.  Thus inflating stock prices.  But it wasn’t speculators running up those prices.  It was an economic boom that was running up those stock prices.  Until the government put a stop to that, at least.

Bad Government Policy didn’t Create the Roaring Twenties but Bad Government Policy ended Them

The Smoot-Hawley Tariff was close to becoming law in the fall of 1929.  It was moving through committees on its way to becoming law.  This tariff would raise the tax on all imports by about 30%.  The idea was to protect domestic supplies and manufacturers.  But even in 1929 it was a global economy.  A lot of imports entered the stages of production.  Which meant costs would be increasing throughout the stages of productions.  Greatly increasing the input costs of all those businesses enjoying those high stock prices.  Which would raise their prices (to cover those higher input costs).  Reducing their sales.  And slashing their profits.  Add this to the contracting money supply and it painted a very bleak picture for business.

With demand sure to fall due to a massive new tariff that was about to become law businesses cut back.  To get rid of what was about to become excess capacity.  For they were smart.  And understood what affected their businesses.  And you know who else were smart?  Investors.  Who looked at this tariff and saw a locomotive engineer about to slam on the brakes.  And if Congress passed this into law after 1928 Coolidge wasn’t going to be there to veto the law.  So they all came to the same conclusions.  The bull market was coming to an end.  And they wanted to sell their stock to lock in their stock gains.  Which caused the great sell-off of 1929.  And the stock market crash.  Starting the Great Depression.

People still debate the cause of the Great Depression.  A popular argument is that greedy investors caused it by speculating in the stock market.  Or that greedy businesses out-produced demand.  But the economics of the Roaring Twenties don’t support this.  This wasn’t people buying big houses because interest rates were low.  This was the electrification of America.  Cars.  Telephones.  Radio.  Movies.  Air travel.  This was broad and real economic growth.  Bad government policy didn’t create it.  But bad government policy ended them.  And it was the expectations of even worse government policies that yanked the rug out from underneath the economy.  By causing a business contraction and stock market sell-off.  Much like Obamacare is doing to businesses today.  Scaring the bejesus out of them.  For they have no idea what their future costs will be under Obamacare.  So they are doing their best to prepare for it.  By not expanding their businesses.  By not hiring anyone.  And sitting on their cash.  To prepare for the worst.  Much like businesses did in 1928.  Which explains why the Great Recession lingers on.

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Roaring Twenties, Farmers, Mechanization, Smoot-Hawley Tariff, Stock Market Crash, Great Depression and Taxi Medallions

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 12th, 2012

History 101

The New Economic Reality of Farming was that we needed Fewer Farmers in the Age of Mechanization

The Roaring Twenties was a decade of solid, real economic growth.  The world modernized during the Twenties.  Electric power, telephone, radio, motion pictures, air travel, etc.  So much of what we take for granted today became a reality during the Roaring Twenties.  But there was a downside.  Farmers borrowed money to mechanize their farms.  As farms mechanized they produced great crop yields.  Bringing bumper crops to market.  There was so much food brought to market that prices plummeted.  Reducing farm incomes so much that they couldn’t service the debt they incurred to mechanize their farms.  They defaulted.  Causing banks to fail.

By the late Twenties all the European farmers who fought in World War I were back on the farm.  And were feeding Europe again.  So not only were the Americans producing bumper crops they were losing a large export market.  Forcing farm prices down further.  There were simply more farmers than the economy was demanding thanks to the new efficiencies in farming.  But because there were so many farmers they were an important political constituency.  They were still casting a lot of votes.  So the politicians stepped in.  With a complete disregard to economic principles.  And tried to help the farmers.  With rent-seeking policies.

The farmers were hurting.  So they wanted to transfer some wealth from the masses to the farmers.  As in rent-seeking.  As opposed to profit-seeking.  Instead of creating wealth (profit-seeking) they were transferring wealth (rent-seeking).  And they did this with price supports.  They raised the price of their crops above market value.  Forcing Americans to make sacrifices in their lives so they could afford to pay higher food prices to help the farmers.  So the farmers wouldn’t have to adjust to the new economic reality of farming.  We need fewer farmers in the age of mechanization.  But it just didn’t end with higher prices.  The government would buy excess food grown by these ‘too many farmers’ and destroy it.  Or pay farmers NOT to grow food.  Then they took it up a notch.  And slapped tariffs on imported food.  Further raising the price of food.

In an Effort to raise Farming Prices the Rent-Seekers caused the Great Deflation of the Great Depression

Food tariffs were just one part of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.  This act pretty much raised the tariff on everything the U.S. imported.  Greatly increasing the cost of all imports.  To protect the domestic producers from cheap foreign competition.  But there was a problem with increasing the cost of all imports.  It increased the price of whatever we built with those imports.  So much so that when they were discussing this act in Congress businesses across America knew the boom of the Twenties would end.  As did investors investing in these companies.  So even before the bill became law it caused a huge stock selloff.  Which led to the stock market crash of 1929. 

At first the higher prices helped American businesses.  Their revenue increased.  Everyone thought the tariff act was a success.  But as prices went up costs went up throughout the manufacturing pipeline.  Prices grew so high that people stopped buying.  Inventories accumulated so they cut production.  And then laid people off en masse.  Causing a great recession.  Then further rent-seeking solutions (more governmental intervention into the free market) turned that recession into the Great Depression.  What started out as a problem for overly efficient farmers turned into a national crisis.  In an effort to raise farming prices they caused the great deflation of the Great Depression.  As prices fell so did revenues.  Making it very difficult to service debt.  More people defaulted on their debt.  And more banks failed.

When the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act became law our trading partners answered in kind.  Leading to a great trade war.  So on top of everything else what limited export markets we had shut down as well.  As the trade barriers went up economic activity decreased.  David Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage worked in reverse.  Increasing opportunity costs.  When international markets closed less efficient domestic industries took their place.  Pulling resources from more efficient uses.  Raising the cost of those resources.  Adding these cost increases on top of the tariffs.  Which further increased prices.  And further lowered economic activity.  Adding further woe onto the Great Depression.

The Medallion System dates back to the Medieval Guilds and Restricts Entry into the Cabbie Market

As the Great Depression languished on few people filled the streets of New York City (NYC).  At least few people with money who had to go places.  There were more cabs than people needed.  Supply exceeded demand.  Putting a downward pressure on taxi fares.  And increasing the time a cabbie had to work to earn some decent money.  Usually the market steps in and corrects such a situation.  Forcing some cabbies out of the cabbie business.  But not in NYC.  There they used the power of government to address this surplus of supply.  And introduced the medallion system.

This was the kind of rent seeking that dated back to those medieval guilds.  The medallion restricted entry into the cabbie market.  By limiting the number of cabs in NYC.  Every cab (at least those who can pick up passengers who hail a cab at the curb) must have a medallion permanently affixed to their cab.  Which they must purchase from the city.  Or transfer from another cab.  Currently, if you want to drive a taxi cab in NYC you better have some deep pockets.  Or have the kind of credit that lets you get a very large mortgage.  For the medallion system exists to this day.  And that medallion may cost you close to a half million dollars.

If you ever wondered why it sometimes takes so long to hail a cab in NYC this is the reason.  Rent-seeking.  As in the medallion system.  Which works just like tariffs.  Reducing supply.  And increasing prices for consumers.  So the rent-seekers can use the power of government to transfer wealth.  Instead of using innovation to create wealth.  And bringing that wealth to the market place to trade.  Instead they choose to take more wealth from the market place than they bring to it.  With the help of government.  And their rent-seeking policies.  Thus reducing overall wealth in the economy.  Which reduces economic activity.  And does nothing to help lift an economy out of recession.  Or out of a Great Depression. 

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