FT101: “Unlike government a business tries to fix bad policy before it bankrupts them.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 20th, 2012

Fundamental Truth

If Businesses give their Employees Overly Generous Pay and Benefits they will not be able to Stay in Business

A lot of people say businesses are greedy.  That they are always trying to go on the cheap when it comes to their employees.  The fatal flaw of capitalism some even say.  That need to make a profit.  And because of the profit-incentive businesses try to use as few employees as possible.  While paying them as little in pay and benefits as possible.  Which they, of course, do.  Because that’s the only way they can stay in business when their customers are doing the same.  When we go to the store looking for the maximum value at the lowest price.

You see, a business has to earn enough sales revenue to cover all their costs.  And their sales prices include these costs.  If these costs are too high people won’t buy from them.  So this is the reason why they pay their employees as little in pay and benefits as possible.  Because of us.  And our greed.  To keep as much of our money as possible when shopping.

So businesses can’t be overly generous to their employees.  For if they are they are then faced with two choices.  Raise prices to pay for this generosity.  Thus dissuading consumers from buying from them.  Which reduces their sales revenue.  Or they can choose not to raise their prices.  Which will increase their costs greater than their sales revenue.  Either way it’s bad for business.  For if they give their employees overly generous pay and benefits they will lose money.  And not be able to stay in business.

Businesses must make these Difficult Choices if they wish to Survive in the Real World

In free market capitalism businesses have real constraints.  They can’t be overly generous.  Because they won’t be able to earn enough revenue to cover their costs.  But neither can they be too miserly with their employees.  Because they have to be generous enough to entice them to work for them.  It’s this balancing act between generosity and being too cheap that causes a business problems.  Because in good economic times employees like to demand more.  And if they don’t get it where they currently work they will leave and work for someone else.  So employers are generous.  Sometimes too generous.  Which they usually learn when the good times end and they can no longer cover their costs at the new levels of revenue during those bad economic times.

A business cannot raise revenue by simply saying ‘raise revenue’.  For it is not up to them.  It’s up to the consumer.  And during bad economic times they’re just not buying like they once were.  Which leaves a business only one choice.  They must cut costs.  Either by cutting back on pay and benefits.  Or by really cutting back on pay and benefits.  By laying off employees.  It’s either that or they will bankrupt themselves out of business.

All businesses must make these difficult choices.  If they wish to survive.  Because they live in the real world.  Capitalism.  Where there are winners and losers.  And where businesses fail because they don’t make the difficult choices when they have to.  We’ve all seen a favorite store go out of business.  It may not always be because of the cost of their employees.  But it is always because they’re not earning enough revenue to cover their costs.

Difficult Choices are Rarely Politically Expedient and don’t bring in Many Votes

Health care costs and pensions have been the biggest costs businesses have struggled with.  That’s why defined benefit pension plans are a thing of the past.  Unless you’re in a union.  Or in government.  And employees are contributing more to the cost of their health care benefits.  Why?  Because of our aging population.  People are having fewer babies and are living longer.  And consuming more health care and pension benefits in their retirement than the actuaries ever dreamed possible when they created the health care benefit and defined benefit pension plans.

It’s no different in the public sector.  In fact, it’s worse.  Government grew.  And taxes grew to pay for that growing government.  It became more expensive to have babies.  So people had fewer.  Made possible by birth control and abortion.  Now there are fewer and fewer young people entering the work force to pay the taxes to pay for the ever growing number of seniors in their retirement.  Again, something the actuaries never calculated.  And there’s no way to fix it.  It’s a failed model.  But government won’t give up on this bad policy.  Unlike businesses have.  Because government doesn’t operate in the real world.  Like those businesses.

Government can do things businesses can’t.  They can tax.  They can run deficits.  Paid by massive borrowings.  And they can print money.  So they don’t have to make the difficult choices.  And chose not to.  Because those difficult choices are rarely politically expedient.  And don’t bring in many votes.

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Government Bonds, Deficits, Debt, Interest and Inflation

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 16th, 2012

Economics 101

Unlike Corporate Borrowing, Government Borrowing does not Translate into Consumer Goods and Services

When corporations need large sums of money to finance their businesses they issue stocks and bonds.  Investors respond by buying their stocks and bonds.  By loaning the business their money they are investing into these businesses.  Giving them capital to create more things to sell.  Thus stimulating the economy.  Because this investment translates into more consumer goods and services.  That consumers will ultimately buy.

When they offer these goods and services at prices consumers will pay the business does well.  As do the consumers.  Who are able to use their money to buy stuff they want.  So consumers do well.  Corporations do well.  And the investors do well.  For a corporation doing well maintains the value of their investments.  Everyone wins.  Unlike when the government enters the bond market.  For when they do there are some winners and, unfortunately, some losers.

Governments issue bonds when they spend more money than they collect in taxes.  They borrow instead of raising taxes because they know raising taxes reduces economic activity.  Which they want to avoid.  Because less economic activity means less tax revenue.  Which would make the original problem worse.  So like a corporation they have a financing need.  Unlike a corporation, though, the money they borrow will not translate into more consumer goods and services.  They will spend it inefficiently.  Reward political friends.  But mostly they will just pay for past spending.  In mature countries deficits and debt have grown so large that some governments are even borrowing to pay the interest on their debt.

Investors like Government Bonds because Government has the Power to Tax

When the government sells bonds it raises the borrowing costs for businesses.  Because their corporate bonds have to compete with these government bonds.  Corporations, then, pay a higher interest rate on their bonds to attract investors away from the government bonds.  Interest is a cost of business.  Which they add to the sales price of their goods and services.  Meaning the consumer ultimately pays these higher interest costs.  Worse, if a corporation can’t get financing at a reasonable interest rate they may not borrow.  Which means they won’t grow their business.  Or create new jobs.

As government debt grows they sell more and more bonds.  Normally not a problem for investors.  Because investors like government bonds.  (What we call sovereign debt.  Because it is the debt of sovereign states.)  Because government has the power to tax.  So investors feel confident that they will get their interest payments.  And that they will get back their principal.  Because the government can always raise taxes to service this debt.  And raise further funds to redeem their bonds.

But there is a downside for investors.  Too much government debt makes them nervous.  Because there is something governments can do that businesses can’t.  Governments can print money.  And there is the fear that if a government’s debt is so great and they have to pay higher and higher interest rates on their sovereign debt to attract investors that they may just start printing money.  Inflate the money supply.  By printing money to pay investors.  Sounds good if you don’t understand the consequences of printing money.  But ‘inflating the money supply’ is another way of saying inflation.  Where you have more dollars chasing the same amount of goods and services.

When Corporations Fail and go Bankrupt they don’t Increase Consumer Prices or Cause Inflation

Think of it this way.  The existing value of all available goods and services equals the amount of money in circulation.  When you increase the money supply it doesn’t change the amount of goods and services in the economy.  But it still must equal the amount of money in circulation.  So the dollar must now be worth less.  Because more of them still add up to the same value of goods and services.  That is, by printing more money they depreciate the dollar.  Make it worth less.  And if the dollar is worth less it will take more of them to buy the same things.  Causing consumer prices to rise.

Worse, inflation reduces the value of bonds.  When they depreciate the dollar the money locked into these long-term investments shrink in value.  And when people get their money back they can’t buy as much with it as they could before they bought these long-term investments.  Meaning they lost purchasing power while the government had their money.  Which gives investors a negative return on their investment.  And if a person invested their retirement into these bonds they will have less purchasing power in their retirement.  Because a depreciated dollar shrinks their savings.  And increases consumer prices.  So retirees are especially hard hit by inflation.

So excessive government borrowing raises consumer prices.  By making corporations compete for investment capital.  And by causing inflation.  Whereas excessive corporate borrowing does not.  They either provide goods and services at prices consumers willingly pay.  Or they fail and go bankrupt.  Hurting no one but their private investors.  And their employees who lose their jobs.  Sad, but at least their failure does not increase consumer prices.  Or cause inflation.

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The Great Depression

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 20th, 2011

History 101

The  Roaring Twenties were a Time of Unprecedented Innovation and Manufacturing

The Roaring Twenties were good times.  Kicked off by the Warren Harding administration.  Thanks to one of the few honest guys in his administration besides Harding.  Andrew Mellon.  Secretary of the treasury extraordinaire.  Some say the best secretary of the treasury since our first.  Alexander Hamilton.  High praise indeed.

So what did Mellon do?  He did some research that showed rich people paid less in taxes the higher the tax rates were.  The higher the rate the less they invested in plant and equipment in America.  Instead they invested their money out of the country.  In other countries’ plant and equipment.  So Mellon was a tax-cutter.  And that was his advice to Harding.  And that’s what Harding did.  And Calvin Coolidge continued.  Kept taxes low.  And kept government out of the business of business.

And how business responded.  The 1920s were a time of unprecedented innovation and manufacturing.  Low taxes, little government spending and limited government produced record employment.  Record upward mobility.  And record per capita income.  Gains in the decade touched 37%.  How?  I’ll tell you how.

The auto industry was booming thanks to Henry Ford’s moving assembly line.  Everyone was driving who wanted to drive.  The car companies sold one car for every 5 people.  This production created a boom in other industries to feed this industry.  And cars did something else.  They gave people mobility.  And opportunity.  People left the farms in droves and drove to better jobs.  Which didn’t hurt the farmers in the least as mechanization on the farm put more land under cultivation with fewer people.  Housing and cities grew.  Radio debuted.  And radio advertising.  Motion pictures went from silent to talkies.  Telephones became more common.  New electric utilities brought electricity to homes.  And new electric appliances filled those homes.  Including radios.  New electric motors filled our factories, increasing productivity and slashing consumer prices.  More people than ever before flew.  An increase of nearly 1000%.  It’s nowhere near today’s number of flyers but it was a reflection of the new industrial dominance of the United States.  There was nothing we couldn’t do.  And Europe was taking notice.  And not liking what they saw.  And talked about a European union to compete against the Americans.

Businesses scaled back Production in Anticipation of the Smoot Hawley Tariff Act

So the spectacular economic growth of the Roaring Twenties was solid growth.  It wasn’t a bubble.  It was the real deal.  Thanks to capitalism.  And a government willing to leave the free market alone.  It was so dominating that the Europeans wanted to stop it anyway they could.  One way was protective tariffs on farm imports.

American farm exports boomed during World War I.  Because most of Europe’s farmers were busy fighting.  With the end of the war the Europeans went back to their farms.  Which reduced the need for American farm imports.  And the tariffs compounded that problem.  To make things worse, prices were already falling thanks to the mechanization of the American farm.  Producing bumper crops.  Which, of course, dropped farm prices.  Good for consumers.  But bad for farmers.  Especially with the Europeans shutting off their markets to the Americans.  Because they paid for a lot of that land and mechanization with borrowed money.  And this debt was getting harder and harder to service.  Throw in some weather and insect problems in some regions and it was just too much.   Some farms failed.  Then a lot.  And then the banks that loaned money to these farms began to fail.

We created the Federal Reserve to increase the money supply to keep pace with the growing economy.  By making money cheap to borrow for those businesses trying to expand to meet demand.  They weren’t exactly doing a stellar job, though, in keeping pace with this economic expansion.  And when the bank failures hit the money supply contracted.  Thanks to fractional reserve banking.  All that money the banks created simply disappeared as the banks failed.  Starving manufactures of money to maintain growth to meet demand.  Things were getting bad around 1928.  The Fed did not intervene to save these banks.  Worried that investors were the only ones borrowing money for speculation in the stock market, they shrunk the money supply further.  About a third by 1932.  Manufacturers had no choice but to cut production.

While businesses were dealing with a shrinking money supply they had something else to worry about.  Congress was moving the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act through congressional committees in 1929 on its way to becoming law in 1930.  This act would add a 30% tax on most imports.  Meaning that the cost factories paid for raw materials would increase by up to 30%.  Of course, sales prices have to include all costs of production.  So sales prices would have to increase.  Higher prices mean fewer sales.  Because people just can’t afford to buy as much at higher prices.  Businesses knew that once the tariff was passed into law it would reduce sales.  So they took preemptive steps.  And scaled back production for the expected fall in sales.

It was Government Meddling that Turned a Recession in the Great Depression

This brings us to the stock market crash.  The Roaring Twenties produced huge stock market gains as industry exploded in America.  Things grew at an aggressive pace.  Stock prices soared.  Because the value of these manufacturers soared.  And investors saw nothing to indicate this growth was going to stop.  Until the contraction of the money supply.  And then the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.  Not only would these slow the growth, they would reverse it.  Leading to the great selloff.  The Great Crash.  And the Great Depression.

As feared the Europeans responded to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.  They imposed tariffs on American imports.  Making things worse for American exports.  Then President Hoover increased farm prices by law to help farmers.  Which only reduced farm sales further.  Then the banking crisis followed.  And the Fed did nothing to help the banks.  Again.  When they did start helping banks in trouble they made public which banks were receiving this help.  Which, of course, caused further bank runs as people hurried to get their money out of these troubled banks.  Tax revenue plummeted.  So Hoover passed a new sales tax to raise more revenue.  Which only made things worse.

Hoover was a Republican.  But he was a Big Government progressive.  Just like his successor.  FDR.  And all of their Big Government Keynesian solutions only prolonged the Great Depression.  It was government meddling that turned a recession into the Great Depression.  And further government meddling that prolonged the Great Depression.  Much of FDR’s New Deal programs were just extensions of the Hoover programs.  And they failed just as much as they did under Hoover.  The Great Depression only ended thanks to Adolf Hitler who plunged Europe back into war.  Providing an urgency to stop their government meddling.  And to let business do what they do best.  Business.  And they did.  Building the arsenal that defeated Hitler.

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Bernanke can’t Help this Bad Economy and Washington only Exasperates our Problems with their Regulatory Zeal

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 26th, 2011

Congressional Action thus far has Scared the Bejesus out of Households and Businesses

All eyes were on Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  Ben Bernanke was giving a much anticipated speech.  And the markets waited with bated breath.  They’re not bated anymore (see Bernanke pledges Fed support, but notes limits by Chris Isidore posted 8/26/2011 on CNNMoney).

“Most of the economic policies that support robust economic growth in the long run are outside the province of the central bank,” he said.

And he warned that when Congress weighs future deficit reduction plans, it should be careful to not hurt the economy in the short-term. They “should not…disregard the fragility of the current economic recovery.”

He said there needs to be a better way of Congress making decisions on taxes and spending. And he said a repeat of the this summer’s contentious debate over raising the debt ceiling would likely hurt the economy.

“It is difficult to judge by how much these developments have affected economic activity thus far,” he said about the threat of default and the downgrade of the U.S. credit rating. “But there seems little doubt that they have hurt household and business confidence and that they pose ongoing risks to growth.”

The economy has big problems.  Problems, though, that will take more than monetary policy to fix.  But when Congress addresses these fiscal issues they should be very careful not to damage the fragile economic recovery.  Because thus far their words and actions have only been scaring the bejesus out of households and businesses.

Businesses Prefer Stability and Responsible Government that doesn’t Govern Against their Interests

Households and businesses are so frightened of what the future holds that they are sitting on their money (see Key Passages From Bernanke’s Jackson Hole Remark by David Wessel posted 8/26/2011 on The Wall Street Journal).

“Financial stress has been and continues to be a significant drag on the recovery, both here and abroad. Bouts of sharp volatility and risk aversion in markets have recently re-emerged in reaction to concerns about both European sovereign debts and developments related to the U.S. fiscal situation…. It is difficult to judge by how much these developments have affected economic activity thus far, but there seems little doubt that they have hurt household and business confidence and that they pose ongoing risks to growth.”

Uncertainty.  The greatest fear of business.  Because you can’t plan uncertainty.  Because it is uncertain.  Businesses prefer stability.  Households, too.  That, and responsible government.  One that doesn’t govern against their interests.

The Department of Energy is going to raise our Electric Bills by 35%  

And so far government hasn’t been delivering what the households and businesses want (see US breaks ground on first industrial-scale carbon capture project by staff of Business Green, part of the Guardian Environment Network guardian.co.uk, posted 8/26/2011 on the Guardian).

The US government’s carbon capture and storage (CCS) efforts stepped up a gear this week, with the start of construction on the government’s first industrial-scale scheme and funds worth $41m set aside for another 16 research projects.

Work on the plant in Decatur, Illinois, which received $141m of public money and another $66.5m from private sector sources, started just a few weeks after American Electric Power abandoned plans to build its $668m CCS facility.

Is this responsible government?  After record deficits caused the first downgrade of U.S. sovereign debt ever should the government still be spending money on bad green investments?  How do I know this is a bad green investment?  Simple.  The private sector will only invest 32% of its total costs.  The taxpayers are picking up the other 68%.

The DoE said its selection yesterday of 16 projects across 13 states to share $41m funding over three years would further the aim.

Each project will focus on developing technologies capable of capturing at least 90% of CO2 produced, as well as reducing the added costs at power plants to no more than a 35% increase in the cost of electricity produced.

Oh, and the Department of Energy is only going to raise our electric bills by 35%.  So not only do the taxpayers have to pay for the construction of this plant, our electric bills will increase afterwards.  For both households.  And businesses.  Which will be a further drag on the economy.  Which won’t make Ben Bernanke happy.

Killing Businesses with Regulatory Compliance Costs

But it gets worse.  The EPA is causing uncertainty for American businesses.  And killing them with compliance costs.  So much so that John Boehner wrote a letter to President Obama demanding a tally of his punishing regulations (see Five EPA rules that will cost more than $1 billion by Conn Carroll posted 8/26/2011 on The Washington Examiner).

Boehner specifically mentions one regulation that “will cost our economy as much as $90 billion per year. That rule, titled “Reconsideration of the 2008 Ozone Primary and Secondary National Ambient Air Quality Standards” (aka “The Ozone Rule), is the biggest drag on growth that the EPA has formally proposed so far. The EPA is also working on global warming regulations that are sure to cost much more, but those proposals have not been published yet.

The EPA has published at least four other proposed regulations, however, that would inflict costs on the U.S. economy over or near $1 billion a year. These cost estimates are all from the EPA’s own numbers…

Here’s a chart summarizing the 5 regulations in this article:

 

And this is only 5 of them.  Imagine if you add them up in total.  Could it be holding back businesses?  Perhaps.  I mean, would you invest in anything new knowing billions of dollars of compliance costs were coming your way?  I wouldn’t.

Perhaps the Problem with the Bad Economy is the People trying to Fix It

Bernanke is right.  You can’t fix this stuff with monetary policy.  When you’re attacking American households and businesses like this, no one is going to borrow any money to invest.  No matter how cheap it is.

Furthermore, all of these costs are going to be passed onto the American consumer.  They always are.  So this means consumers will have less disposable income.  Which means this will be a further drag on the economy.  And less economic activity means less tax revenue.  Which takes us back to those growing deficits.  They ain’t going away.

Perhaps the problem with the bad economy isn’t due to a lack of demand as the Keynesians say.  Perhaps the problem is with the people trying to fix it.  And there is no quick solution to that problem.  As the 2012 election is still more than a year away.

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President Obama Speaks to the Chamber of Commerce

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 7th, 2011

Businesses Keep Lots of Cash on their Balance Sheets during Bad Economic Times

Trying to remake his anti-business image, President Obama talks to the Chamber of Commerce (see Obama reaches out to business leaders by Lara Rowland posted 2/7/2011 on The Washington Times).

“Now is the time to invest in America,” Mr. Obama said, adding that U.S. companies have nearly $2 trillion sitting on their balance sheets. “Demand has risen more slowly than any of us would like. We’re in this together. But many of your own economists and salespeople are now forecasting a healthy increase in demand, so I just want to encourage you to get in the game.”

This illustrates Obama’s lack of understanding of business.  Let’s explain what’s wrong with his thinking by using an analogy.  During bad economic times, when there are ‘lay-off’ rumors at your workplace, do you spend money?  Or do you save money because you are unsure of the future?  Most people will save their money.  So if they do lose their job, they’ll have some cash to get by on until they can find another job.  The so called ‘saving for a rainy day’.  That rainy day is you without a job.

Businesses aren’t that different from people.  In fact, people run businesses.  So they think like people.  And during bad economic times, when sales are down and you may have to lay people off because you’re not selling anything to pay the bills, do you spend money to hire people?  No, you don’t.  You save your money.  To make sure you have cash to pay your bills when you don’t have the revenue coming in like you once did.

You see, it’s not as easy as President Obama thinks it is.  Businesses can’t create good economic times.  They can only wait for them.  Which is what they’re doing now.  And have been for about 2 years now.

Lower Taxes Stimulate Economic Activity and Create Jobs

Part of the reason why there aren’t good economic times is because of high taxes.  High taxes increase the cost of doing business.  And leaves people with less disposable cash to stimulate economic activity.

“If we’re fighting to reform the tax code and increase exports to help you compete, the benefits can’t just translate into greater profits and bonuses for those at the top,” he said. “We cannot go back to the kind of economy — and culture — we saw in the years leading up to the recession, where growth and gains in productivity just didn’t translate into rising incomes and opportunity for the middle class.”

Interesting.  Whose money is it?  Who made those profits?  Guess it’s a moot point.  Because the president believes it’s his money.  And if he chooses to allow businesses to keep more of it, well, they’ll have to make it worth his while.

But you don’t run business by dictate.  If that worked the Soviet Union would have won the Cold War.  But they didn’t.  Because business doesn’t work that way. When businesses see rising demand and rising revenues, then they hire people.  To meet the rising demand.  So they can make more money.  That’s how you create jobs.  Not because they are told to hire more people than are needed to meet demand.  It just doesn’t work that way.  Again, I refer you to the former Soviet Union.

Excessive Regulation Inhibits Economic Activity

Another reason is for poor economic times are excessive regulations hindering economic activity.

Separately on Monday, the Republican chairman of a House oversight panel released a raft of letters from businesses weighing in on the nation’s biggest regulatory impediments to job growth. Environmental Protection Agency rules were the most often-repeated complaint, according to documents posted by Rep. Darrell Issa of California.

Like higher taxes, excessive regulations increase the cost of doing business.  When you can’t expand your business because the land you want to expand onto has a small depression that holds water after a heavy rain and is classified as a ‘wetland‘ during the permitting process, that hinders economic activity.  They don’t allow the business to expand.  And the mosquitoes get a nice breeding ground during rainy days.  And it’s important to protect their habitat.  So we can spray it later to control the spread of the West Nile Virus.

The most Successful Regulation Shuts Down the Industry it Regulates

The Environmental Protection Agency is pro-environment.  And the best environmental position is no manmade impact on the environment.  That is, no business.  Therefore, the Environmental Protection Agency is anti-business.

This is typical of regulation.  The safest car is one that doesn’t drive.  The cleanest power plant is one that doesn’t produce power.  The safest oil rig is one that doesn’t drill.  You get the idea.  Regulation, in general, is anti-business.  The greatest success these regulations can have is the elimination of the industry they’re regulating.  So it is a tug-of-war.  Business on one side.  And the regulators on the other. 

“There’s no doubt that when you had the financial crisis on Wall Street, the bonus controversies, the battle around health care, the battle around financial reform, and then you had BP — you just had a successive set of issues in which I think business took the message that, well, gosh, it seems like we may be always painted as the bad guy,” Mr. Obama told reporters. “And so I’ve got to take responsibility in terms of making sure that I make clear to the business community, as well as to the country, that the most important thing we can do is to boost and encourage our business sector and make sure that they’re hiring.”

There’s a reason why businesses feel like they’re painted as the bad guy.  Because the Obama administration paints them as the bad guy.  One accident on a BP rig in the Gulf of Mexico and the Obama administration shuts down all offshore drilling.  Now all the rigs are not drilling.  And the regulators have regulated best.  In their opinion.

We are a Nation that has a Government

There’s a reason why the Obama administration and business don’t have a good relationship.  Business understands business.  Obama doesn’t.  Businesses want a business-friendly environment so they can grow and become prosperous and create jobs.  Obama wants the same thing only without the being prosperous part.  Because any ‘excess profits’ belong to the government to fund their government spending.  For President Obama believes that we are a government that has a nation.  Unlike Ronald Reagan who thought we were a nation that had a government.  Business liked Reagan.  While Barack Obama goes to the Chamber of Congress to persuade business that his anti-business policies aren’t anti-business.

Sorry.  But when you have to persuade people that you’re not anti-business, you’re probably anti-business.

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The Fed to Buy $600 Billion in Government Bonds

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 5th, 2010

The Fed’s $600 billion government bond Purchase may Worsen the Recession

The Fed is preparing to buy some $600 billion in government bonds.  They call it quantitative easing (QE).  The goal is to stimulate the economy by making more money available.  The problem is, though, we don’t have a lack of money problem.  We have a lack of jobs problem.  Unemployed people can’t go to the store and buy stuff.  So businesses aren’t looking to make more stuff.  They don’t need more money to borrow.  They need people to go back to work.  And until they do, they’re not going to borrow money to expand production.  No matter how cheap that money is to borrow.

This isn’t hard to understand.  We all get it.  If we lose our job we don’t go out and buy stuff.  Instead, we sit on our money.  For as long as we can.  Spend it very carefully and only on the bare necessities.  To make that money last as long as possible to carry us through this period of unemployment.  And the last thing we’re going to do is borrow money to make a big purchase.  Even if the interest rates are zero.  Because without a job, any new debt will require payments that we can’t afford.  That money we saved for this rainy ‘day’ will disappear quicker the more debt we try to service.  Which is the opposite of what we want during a period of unemployment.

Incidentally, do you know how the Fed will buy those bonds?  Where they’re going to get the $600 billion?  They going to print it.  Make it out of nothing.  They will inflate the money supply.  Which will depreciate our currency.  Prices will go up.  And our money will be worth less.  Put the two together and the people who have jobs won’t be able to buy as much as they did before.  This will only worsen the recession.  So why do they do it?

Quantitative Easing May Ease the Global Economy into a Trade War

A couple of reasons.  First of all, this administration clings to outdated Keynesian economics that says when times are bad the government should spend money.  Print it.  As much as possible.  For the economic stimulus will offset the ‘negligible’ inflation the dollar printing creates.  The only problem with this is that it doesn’t work.  It didn’t work the last time the Obama administration tried quantitative easing.  As it didn’t work for Jimmy Carter.  Of course, when it comes to Big Government policies, when they fail the answer is always to try again.  Their reason?  They say that the government’s actions that failed simply weren’t bold enough.

Another reason is trade.  A cheaper dollar makes our exports cheaper.  When the exchange rates give you bushels full of U.S. dollars for foreign currency, those foreign nations can buy container ships worth of exported goods.  It’s not playing fair, though.  Because every nation wants to sell their exports.  When we devalue the dollar, it hurts the domestic economies of our trading partners.  Which they want to protect as much as we want to protect ours.  So what do they do?  They fight back.  They will use capital controls to increase the cost of those cheap dollars.  This will increase the cost of those imports and dissuade their people from buying them.  They may impose import tariffs.  This is basically a tax added to the price of imported goods.  When a nation turns to these trade barriers, other nations fight back.  They do the same.  As this goes back and forth between nations, international trade declines.  This degenerates into a full-blown trade war.  Sort of like in the late 1920s.  Which was a major factor that caused the worldwide Great Depression.

Will there be a trade war?  Well, the Germans are warning this action may result in a currency war (see Germany Concerned About US Stimulus Moves by Reuters).  The Chinese warn about the ‘unbridle printing’ of money as the biggest risk to the global economy (see U.S. dollar printing is huge risk -China c.bank adviser by Reuters’ Langi Chiang and Simon Rabinovitch).  Even Brazil is looking at defensive measures to protect their economy from this easing (see Backlash against Fed’s $600bn easing by the Financial Times).  The international community is circling the wagons.  This easing may only result in trade wars and inflation.  With nothing to show for it.  Except a worse recession.

Businesses Create Jobs in a Business Friendly Environment

We need jobs.  We need real stimulus.  We need to do what JFK did.  What Reagan did.  Make the U.S. business friendly.  Cut taxes.  Cut regulation.  Cut government.  And get the hell out of the way. 

Rich people are sitting on excess cash.  Make the business environment so enticing to them that they can’t sit on their cash any longer.  If the opportunity is there to make a favorable return on their investment, guess what?  They’ll invest.  They’ll take a risk.  Create jobs.  Even if the return on their investment won’t be in the short term.  If the business environment will reward those willing to take a long-term risk, they will.  And the more investors do this the more jobs will be created.  And the more people are working the more stuff they can buy.  They may even borrow some of that cheap money for a big purchase.  If they feel their job will be there for awhile.  And they will if a lot of investors are risking their money.  Creating jobs.  For transient, make-work government jobs just don’t breed a whole lot of confidence in long term employment.  Which is what Keynesian government-stimulus jobs typically are.

We may argue about which came first, the chicken or the egg.  But here is one thing that is indisputable.  Jobs come before spending.  Always have.  Always will.  And quantitative easing can’t change that.

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LESSONS LEARNED #28: “Politicians love failure because no one ever asked government to fix something that was working.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 26th, 2010

THE TELEVISION SHOW Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. aired from 1964-1969.  It was a spinoff from the Andy Griffith Show.  Gomer, a naive country bumpkin who worked at Wally’s filling station, joined the Marines Corps.  And there was much mirth and merriment.  To the chagrin of Sergeant Carter, Pyle’s drill instructor (DI).  Think of Gunny Sergeant R. Lee Ermey’s Sergeant Hartman in the movie Full Metal Jacket only with no profanity or mature subject matter.  Sergeant Carter was a tough DI like Sergeant Hartman.  But more suitable for the family hour on prime time television.

Gunny sergeants are tough as nails.  And good leaders.  They take pride in this.  But sometimes a gunny starts to feel that he’s not himself anymore.  This was the subject of an episode.  And Gomer, seeing that Sergeant Carter was feeling down, wanted to help.  So he stuffed Sergeant Carter’s backpack with hay before a long march.  While the platoon was worn and tired, Sergeant Carter was not.  He was feeling good.  Like his old self.  Until he found out he was not carrying the same load his men were.  He asked Pyle, “why hay?”  He could understand rocks, but hay?  Because if he outlasted his men while carrying a heavier load, he would feel strong.  But knowing he had carried a lighter load only made him feel weak.

This is human nature.  People take pride in their achievements.  They don’t take pride in any achievement attained by an unfair advantage.  Self-esteem matters.  And you can’t feel good about yourself if you need help to do what others can do without help. 

AN OLD CHINESE proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  Let’s say I am a fisherman in a small village.  I catch fish to feed my family and sell/trade for other family needs.  There’s a man in my village who asks me for a fish each day so he can eat.  I’m a caring person.  So I give him a fish each day.  So a pattern develops.  Each day he shows up when I come in from my fishing.  He takes the fish and goes away.  It works out well for him.  He doesn’t have to work.  He can live off of my kind charity.  Then I move.  Without me being there to give him a fish each day, he no longer can eat.  And dies.  If I only had taught that man to fish. 

Kindness can lead to dependency.  And once dependent, you become lazy.  Why develop marketable skills to provide for yourself when someone else will provide for you?  The problem is, of course, what happens when that charity ends?  If you’re unable to provide for yourself and there is no longer someone providing for you, what do you do?  Steal?

Dependency and a lack of self-esteem are a dangerous combination.  And they feed off of each other.  This combination can lead to depression.  Behavioral problems.  Resentment.  Bitterness.  Envy.  Or a defeatist attitude.

These are often unintended consequences of government programs.  A failed program, then, has far reaching consequences beyond the initial economic costs of a program.

LIQUIDITY CRISES CAUSE a lot of economic damage.  If capital is not available for businesses to borrow, businesses can’t grow.  Or create jobs.  And we need jobs.  People have to work.  To support themselves.  And to pay taxes to fund the government.  So everyone is in favor of businesses growing to create jobs.  We all would like to see money being easy and cheap to borrow if it creates jobs.

But there is a downside to easy money.  Inflation.  Too much borrowing can create inflation.  By increasing the money supply (via fractional reserve banking).  More money means higher prices.  Because each additional dollar is worth a little less. This can lead to overvalued assets as prices are ‘bid’ up with less valuable dollars.  And higher prices can inflate business profits.  Looks good on paper.  But too much of this creates a bubble.  Because those high asset values and business profits are not real.  They’re inflated.  Like a bubble.  And just as fragile.  When bubbles burst, asset values and business profits drop.  To real values.  People are no longer ‘bidding’ up prices.  They stop buying until they think prices have sunk to their lowest.  We call this deflation.  A little bit of inflation or deflation is normal.  Too much can be painful economically.  Like in the Panic of 1907.

Without going into details, there was a speculative bubble that burst in 1907.  This led to a liquidity crisis as banks failed.  Defaults on loans left banks owing more money than they had (i.e., they became illiquid).  They tried to borrow money and recall loans to restore their liquidity.  Borrowers grew concerned that their bank may fail.  So they withdrew their money.  This compounded the banks problems.  This caused deflation.  Money was unavailable.  Causing bank runs.  And bank failures.  Business failures.  And unemployment grew. So government passed the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 to prevent a crisis like this from ever happening again.  The government gave the Federal Reserve System (the Fed) great powers to tweak the monetary system.  The smartest people at the time had figured out what had gone wrong in 1907.  And they created a system that made it impossible for it to happen again.

The worst liquidity crisis of all time happened from 1929-1933.  It’s part of what we call the Great Depression.  The 1920s had a booming economy.  Real income was rising.  Until the Fed took action.  Concerned that people were borrowing money for speculative purposes (in paper investments instead of labor, plant and material), they put on the brakes.  Made it harder and more expensive to borrow money.  Then a whole series of things happened along the way that turned a recession into a depression.  When people needed money, they made it harder to get it, causing a deflationary spiral.  The Great Depression was the result of bad decisions made by too few men with too much power.  It made a crisis far worse than the one in 1907.  And the Roosevelt administration made good use of this new crisis.  FDR exploded the size of government to respond to the unprecedented crisis they found themselves in.  The New Deal changed America from a nation of limited government to a country where Big Government reigns supreme.

ONE PROGRAM OF the New Deal was Social Security.  Unemployment in the 1930s ran at or above 14%.  This is for one whole decade.  Never before nor since has this happened.  Older workers generally earn more than younger ones.  Their experience commands a higher pay rate.  Which allows them to buy more things.  Resulting in more bills.  Therefore, the Great Depression hit older workers especially hard.  A decade of unemployment would have eaten through any life savings of even the most prudent savers.  And what does this get you?  A great crisis.

The government took a very atypical moment of history and changed the life of every American.  The government forced people to save for retirement.  In a very poor savings plan.  That paid poorly by comparison to private pensions or annuities.  And gave the government control over vast amounts of money.  It was a pervasive program.  They say FDR quipped, “Let them try to undo this.” 

With government taking care of you in retirement, more people stopped providing for themselves.  When they retired, they scrimped by on their ‘fixed’ incomes.  And because Social Security became law before widespread use of birth control and abortion, the actuaries of the day were very optimistic.  They used the birth rate then throughout their projections.  But with birth control and abortion came a huge baby bust.  The bottom fell out of the birth rate.  A baby bust generation followed a baby boom generation.  Actually, all succeeding generations were of the bust kind.  The trend is growing where fewer and fewer people pay for more and more people collecting benefits.  And these people were living longer.  To stay solvent, the system has to raise taxes on those working and reduce benefits on those who are not.  Or raise the retirement age.  All these factors have made it more difficult on our aged population.  Making them working longer than they planned.  Or by making that fixed income grow smaller.

FDR used a crisis to create Social Security.  Now our elderly people are dependent on that system.  It may suck when they compare it to private pensions or annuities, but it may be all they have.  If so, they’ll quake in their shoes anytime anyone mentions reforming Social Security.  Because of this it has become the 3rd rail of politics.  A politician does not touch it lest he or she wishes to die politically.  But it’s not all bad.  For the politician.  Because government forced the elderly to rely on them for their retirement, it has made the Social Security recipient dependent on government.  In particular, the party of government who favors Big Government.  The Democrats.  And with a declining birth rate and growing aged population, this has turned into a large and loyal voting bloc indeed.  Out of fear.

A PROGRAM THAT straddled the New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society was Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).  Its original New Deal purpose was to help widows take care of their children.  When program outlays peaked in the 1970s, the majority of recipients were unmarried women and divorced women.  Because this was a program based on need, the more need you had the more you got.  Hence more children meant more money.  It also reduced the importance of marriage as the government could replace the support typically provided by a husband/father.  Noted economist Dr. Thomas Sowell blames AFDC as greatly contributing to the breakdown of the black family (which has the highest incidence of single-parent households).

With the women’s liberation movement, women have come to depend less on men.  Some affluent women conceive and raise children without a husband.  Or they adopt.  And the affluent no doubt can provide all the material needs their children will ever need.  Without a husband.  Or a father for their children.  But is that enough?

The existence of ‘big brother’ programs would appear to prove otherwise.  Troubled children are often the products of broken families.  Mothers search for big brothers to mentor these fatherless sons.  To be role models.  To show an interest in these children’s lives.  To care.  When no such role models are available, some of these troubled children turn to other sources of acceptance and guidance.  Like gangs.

AFDC has compounded this problem by providing the environment that fosters fatherless children.  And another government program compounds that problem.  Public housing.

POOR HOUSING CONDITIONS hurt families.  They especially hurt broken families.  Without a working husband, these families are destined to live in the cheapest housing available.  These are often in the worst of neighborhoods.  This is an unfair advantage to the children raised in those families.  For it wasn’t their fault they were born into those conditions.  So, to solve that problem, government would build good public housing for these poorest of the poor to move into.  Problem solved.

Well, not exactly.  Public housing concentrates these broken families together.  Usually in large apartment buildings.  This, then, concentrates large numbers of troubled children together.  So, instead of having these children dispersed in a community, public housing gathers them together.  Where bad behavior reinforces bad behavior.  It becomes the rule, not the exception.  Making a mother’s job that much more difficult.  And because these children live together, they also go to school together.  And this extends the bad behavior problem to the school.  Is it any wonder that public housing (i.e., the projects) have the worst living conditions?  And some of the highest gang activity? 

Government didn’t plan it this way.  It’s just the unintended consequences of their actions.  And those consequences are devastating.  To the poor in general.  To the black family in particular.  AFDC and public housing enabled irresponsible/bad behavior.  That behavior destroyed families.  As well as a generation or two.  But it wasn’t all bad.  For the politicians.  It made a very large constituency dependent on government.

THERE ARE SO many more examples.  But the story is almost always the same.  Dependency and a lack of self-esteem will beat down a person’s will.  Like an addict, it will make the dependent accept poorer and poorer living standards in exchange for their fix of dependency.  Eventually, the dependency will reach the point where they will not know how to provide for themselves.  The dependency will become permanent.  As will the lack of self-esteem.  Conscious or not of their actions, Big Government benefits from the wretched state they give these constituencies.  With no choice but continued dependence, they vote for the party that promises to give the most.  Which is typically the Democrat Party.

But how can you fault these politicians?  They acted with the best of intentions.  And they can fix these new problems.  They’ll gather the brightest minds.  They’ll study these problems.  And they will produce the best programs to solve these problems.  All it will take is more government spending.  And how can you refuse?  When people are hungry.  Or homeless.  Or have children that they can’t care for.  How can anyone not want to help the children?  How can anyone not have compassion?

Well, compassion is one thing.  When the innocent suffer.  But when government manufactures that suffering, it’s a different story.  Planned or not the result is the same whenever government tries to fix things.  The cost is high.  The solution is typically worse than the original problem.  And the poorest of the poor are pawns.  To be used by Big Government in the name of compassion. 

Of course, if Big Government were successful in fixing these problems, they would fix themselves right out of existence.  So as long as they want to run Big Government programs, they’ll need a stock of wretched, suffering masses that need their help.  And, of course, lots of crises.

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

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 17th, 2010

DURING UNCERTAIN ECONOMIC times, people act differently.  If business is down where you work, your company may start laying off people.  Your friends and co-workers.  Even you.  If there is a round of layoffs and you survive, you should feel good but don’t.  Because it could have been you.  And very well can be you.  Next time.  Within a year.  In the next few months.  Any time.  You just don’t know.  And it isn’t a good feeling.

So, should this be you, what do you do?  Run up those credit cards?  By a new car?  Go on a vacation?  Take out a home equity loan to pay for new windows?  To remodel the kitchen?  Buy a hot tub?  Or do you cut back on your spending and start hoarding cash?  Just in case.  Because those unemployment payments may not be enough to pay for your house payment, your property taxes, your car payment, your insurances, your utilities, your groceries, your cable bill, etc.  And another loan payment won’t help.  So, no.  You don’t run up those credit cards.  Buy that car.  You don’t go on vacation.  And you don’t take that home equity loan.  Instead, you hunker down.  Sacrifice.  Ride it out.  Prepare for the worse.  Hoard your cash.  Enough to carry you through a few months of unemployment.  And shred those pre-approved credit card offers.  Even at those ridiculously low, introductory interest rates.

To help hammer home this point, you think of your friends who lost their jobs.  Who are behind on their mortgages.  Who are in foreclosure.  Whose financial hardships are stressing them out to no ends.  Suffering depression.  Harassed by collection agencies.  Feeling helpless.  Not knowing what to do because their financial problems are just so great.  About to lose everything they’ve worked for.  No.  You will not be in their position.  If you can help it.  If it’s not already too late.

AND SO IT is with businesses.  People who run businesses are, after all, people.  Just like you.  During uncertain economic times, they, too, hunker down.  When sales go down, they have less cash to pay for the cost of those sales.  As well as the overhead.  And their customers are having the same problems.  So they pay their bills slower.  Trying to hoard cash.  Receivables grow from 30 to 45 to 90 days.  So you delay paying as many of your bills as possible.  Trying to hoard cash.  But try as you might, your working capital is rapidly disappearing.  Manufacturers see their inventories swell.  And storing and protecting these inventories costs money.  Soon they must cut back on production.  Lay off people.  Idle machinery.  Most of which was financed by debt.  Which you still have to service.  Or you sell some of those now nonproductive assets.  So you can retire some of that debt.  But cost cutting can only take you so far.  And if you cut too much, what are you going to do when the economy turns around?  If it turns around?

You can borrow money.  But what good is that going to do?  Add debt, for one.  Which won’t help much.  You might be able to pay some bills, but you still have to pay back that borrowed money.  And you need sales revenue for that.  If you think this is only a momentary downturn and sales will return, you could borrow and feel somewhat confidant that you’ll be able to repay your loan.  But you don’t have the sales now.  And the future doesn’t look bright.  Your customers are all going through what you’re going through.  Not a confidence builder.  So you’re reluctant to borrow.  Unless you really, really have to.  And if you really, really have to, it’s probably because you’re in some really, really bad financial trouble.  Just what a banker wants to see in a prospective borrower.

Well, not really.  In fact, it’s the exact opposite.  A banker will want to avoid you as if you had the plague.  Besides, the banks are in the same economy as you are.  They have their finger on the pulse of the economy.  They know how bad things really are.  Some of their customers are paying slowly.  A bad omen of things to come.  Which is making them really, really nervous.  And really, really reluctant to make new loans.  They, too, want to hoard cash.  Because in bad economic times, people default on loans.  Enough of them default and the bank will have to scramble to sell securities, recall loans and/or borrow money themselves to meet the demands of their depositors.  And if their timing is off, if the depositors demand more of their money then they have on hand, the bank will fail.  And all the money they created via fractional reserve banking will disappear.  Making money even scarcer and harder to borrow.  You see, banking people are, after all, just people.  And like you, and the business people they serve, they, too, hunker down during bad economic times.  Hoping to ride out the bad times.  And to survive.  With a minimum of carnage. 

For these reasons, businesses and bankers hoard cash during uncertain economic times.  For if there is one thing that spooks businesses and banks more than too much debt it’s uncertainty.  Uncertainty about when a recession will end.  Uncertainty about the cost of healthcare.  Uncertainty about changes to the tax code.  Uncertainty about new government regulations.  Uncertainty about new government mandates.  Uncertainty about retroactive tax changes.  Uncertainty about previous tax cuts that they may repeal.  Uncertainty about monetary policy.  Uncertainty about fiscal policy.  All these uncertainties can result with large, unexpected cash expenditures at some time in the not so distant future.  Or severely reduce the purchasing power of their customers.  When this uncertainty is high during bad economic times, businesses typically circle the wagons.  Hoard more cash.  Go into survival mode.  Hold the line.  And one thing they do NOT do is add additional debt.

DEBT IS A funny thing.  You can lay off people.  You can cut benefits.  You can sell assets for cash.  You can sell assets and lease them back (to get rid of the debt while keeping the use of the asset).  You can factor your receivables (sell your receivables at a discount to a 3rd party to collect).  You can do a lot of things with your assets and costs.  But that debt is still there.  As are those interest payments.  Until you pay it off.  Or file bankruptcy.  And if you default on that debt, good luck.  Because you’ll need it.  You may be dependent on profitable operations for the indefinite future as few will want to loan to a debt defaulter.

Profitable operations.  Yes, that’s the key to success.  So how do you get it?  Profitable operations?  From sales revenue.  Sales are everything.  Have enough of them and there’s no problem you can’t solve.  Cash may be king, but sales are the life blood pumping through the king’s body.  Sales give business life.  Cash is important but it is finite.  You spend it and it’s gone.  If you don’t replenish it, you can’t spend anymore.  And that’s what sales do.  It gets you profitable operations.  Which replenishes your cash.  Which lets you pay your bills.  And service your debt.

And this is what government doesn’t understand.  When it comes to business and the economy, they think it’s all about the cash.  That it doesn’t have anything to do with the horrible things they’re doing with fiscal policy.  The tax and spend stuff.  When they kill an economy with their oppressive tax and regulatory policies, they think “Hmmm.  Interest rates must be too high.”  Because their tax and spending sure couldn’t have crashed the economy.  That stuff is stimulative.  Because their god said so.  And that god is, of course, John Maynard Keynes.  And his demand-side Keynesian economic policies.  If it were possible, those in government would have sex with these economic policies.  Why?   Because they empower government.  It gives government control over the economy.  And us.

And that control extends to monetary policy.  Control of the money supply and interest rates.  The theory goes that you stimulate economic activity by making money easier to borrow.  So businesses borrow more.  Create more jobs.  Which creates more tax receipts.  Which the government can spend.  It’s like a magical elixir.  Interest rates.  Cheap money.  Just keep interest rates low and money cheap and plentiful and business will do what it is that they do.  They don’t understand that part.  And they don’t care.  They just know that it brings in more tax money for them to spend.  And they really like that part.  The spending.  Sure, it can be inflationary, but what’s a little inflation in the quest for ‘full employment’?  Especially when it gives you money and power?  And a permanent underclass who is now dependent on your spending.  Whose vote you can always count on.  And when the economy tanks a little, all you need is a little more of that magical elixir.  And it will make everything all better.  So you can spend some more.

But it doesn’t work in practice.  At least, it hasn’t yet.  Because the economy is more than monetary policy.  Yes, cash is important.  But making money cheaper to borrow doesn’t mean people will borrow money.  Homeowners may borrow ‘cheap’ money to refinance higher-interest mortgages, but they aren’t going to take on additional debt to spend more.  Not until they feel secure in their jobs.  Likewise, businesses may borrow ‘cheap’ money to refinance higher-interest debt.  But they are not going to add additional debt to expand production.  Not until they see some stability in the market and stronger sales.  A more favorable tax and regulatory environment.  That is, a favorable business climate.  And until they do, they won’t create new jobs.  No matter how cheap money is to borrow.  They’ll dig in.  Hold the line.  And try to survive until better times.

NOT ONLY WILL people and businesses be reluctant to borrow, so will banks be reluctant to lend.  Especially with a lot of businesses out there looking a little ‘iffy’ who may still default on their loans.  Instead, they’ll beef up their reserves.  Instead of lending, they’ll buy liquid financial assets.  Sit on cash.  Earn less.  Just in case.  Dig in.  Hold the line.  And try to survive until better times.

Of course, the Keynesians don’t factor these things into their little formulae and models.  They just stamp their feet and pout.  They’ve done their part.  Now it’s up to the greedy bankers and businessmen to do theirs.  To engage in lending.  To create jobs.  To build things.  That no one is buying.  Because no one is confident in keeping their job.  Because the business climate is still poor.  Despite there being cheap money to borrow.

The problem with Keynesians, of course, is that they don’t understand business.  They’re macroeconomists.  They trade in theory.  Not reality.  When their theory fails, it’s not the theory.  It’s the application of the theory.  Or a greedy businessman.  Or banker.  It’s never their own stupidity.  No matter how many times they get it wrong.

www.PITHOCRATES.com

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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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