Panic of 1907, Federal Reserve Act and Depression of 1920

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 17th, 2013

History 101

In 1907 the Heinze Brothers thought Investors were Shorting the Stock of their United Copper Company

Buying and selling stocks is one way to get rich.  Typically by buying low and selling high.  But you can also get rich if the stock price falls.  How you ask?  By short-selling the stock.  You borrow shares of a stock that you think will fall in price.  You sell them at the current price.  Then when the stock price falls you buy the same number of shares you borrowed at the lower price.  And use these to return the shares you borrowed.  You subtract the price you pay to buy the cheaper shares from the proceeds of selling the costlier shares for your profit.  And if the price difference/number of shares is great enough you can get rich.

In 1907 the Heinze brothers thought investors were shorting the stock of their United Copper Company.  So they tried to turn the tables on them and get rich.  They already owned a lot of the stock.  They then went on a buying spree with the intention of raising the price of the stock.  If they successfully cornered the market on United Copper Company stock then the investors shorting the stock would have no choice but to buy from them to repay their borrowed shares.  Causing the short sellers to incur a great loss.  While reaping a huge profit for themselves.

Well, that was the plan.  But it didn’t quite go as planned.  For they did not control as much of the stock as they thought they did.  So when the short-sellers had to buy new shares to replace their borrowed shares they could buy them elsewhere.  And did.  When other investors saw they weren’t going to get rich on the cornering scheme the price of the stock plummeted.  For the stock was only worth that inflated price if the short-sellers had to buy it at the price the Heinze brothers dictated.  When the cornering scheme failed the stock they paid so much to corner was worth nowhere near what they paid for it.  And they took a huge financial loss.  But it got worse.

The Panic of 1907 led to the Federal Reserve Act of 1913

After getting rich in the copper business in Montana they moved east to New York City.  And entered the world of high finance.  And owned part of 6 national banks, 10 state banks, 5 trusts (kind of like a bank) and 4 insurance companies.  When the cornering scheme failed the Heinze brothers lost a lot of money.  Which spooked people with money in their banks and trusts.  As these helped finance their scheme.  So the people rushed to their banks and pulled their money out.  Causing a panic.  First their banks.  Then their trusts.  Including the Knickerbocker Trust Company.  Which collapsed.  As the contagion spread to other banks the banking system was in risk of collapsing.  Causing a stock market crash.  Resulting in the Panic of 1907.

Thankfully, a rich guy, J.P. Morgan, stepped in and saved the banking system.  By using his own money.  And getting other rich guys to use theirs.  To restore liquidity in the banking system.  To avoid another liquidity crisis like this Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act (1913).  Giving America a central bank.  And the progressives the tool to take over the American economy.  Monetary policy.  By tinkering with interest rates.  And breaking away from the classical economic policies of the past that made America the number one economic power in the world.  Built on a foundation of thrift, savings, investment, free trade, the gold standard, etc.  Where people saved for the future.  The greater their savings the more investment capital there was.  And the lower interest rates were.

The Federal Reserve (the Fed) changed all of that.  By printing money to keep interest rates artificially low.  Giving us boom and bust cycles as people over invest and over build because of cheap credit.  Leading to bubbles (the boom) in asset prices that painful recessions (the bust) correct.  Instead of the genuine growth that we got when our savings determined interest rates.  Where there is no over-investing or over-building.  Because the limited investment capital did not permit it.  Guaranteeing the efficient flows of capital to generate real economic activity.

Warren Harding’s Tax Cuts ignited Economic Activity and gave us the Modern World

Thanks to the Fed there was a great monetary expansion to fund World War I.  The Fed cut the reserve requirements in half for banks.  Meaning they could loan more of their deposits.  And they did.  Thanks to fractional reserve banking these banks then furthered the monetary expansion.  And the Fed kept the discount rate low to let banks borrow even more money to lend.  The credit expansion was vast.  Creating a huge bubble in asset prices.  Creating a lot of bad investments.  Or malinvestments.  Economist Ludwig von Mises had a nice analogy to explain this.  Imagine a builder constructing a house only he doesn’t realize he doesn’t have enough materials to finish the job.  The longer it takes for the builder to realize this the more time and resources he will waste.  For it will be less costly to abandon the project before he starts than waiting until he’s built as much as he can only to discover he will be unable to sell the house.  And without selling the house the builder will be unable to recover any of his expenses.  Giving him a loss on his investment.

The bigger those bubbles get the farther those artificially high prices have to fall.  And they will fall sooner or later.  And fall they did in 1920.  Giving us the Depression of 1920.  And it was bad.  Unemployment rose to 12%.  And GDP fell by 17%.  Interestingly, though, this depression was not a great depression.  Why?  Because the progressives were out of power.  Instead of the usual Keynesian solution to a recession Warren Harding (and then Calvin Coolidge after Harding died in office) did the opposite.  There was no stimulus deficit-spending.  There was no playing with interest rates.  Instead, Harding cut government spending.  Nearly in half.  And he cut tax rates.  These actions led to a reduction of the national debt (that’s DEBT—not deficit) by one third.  And ignited economic activity.  Ushering in the modern world (automobiles, electric power, radio, telephone, aviation, motion pictures, etc.).  Building the modern world generated real economic activity.  Not a credit-driven bubble.  Giving us one of the greatest economic expansions of all time.  The Roaring Twenties.  Ending the Depression of 1920 in only 18 months.  Without any Fed action or Keynesian stimulus spending.

By contrast FDR used almost every Keynesian tool available to him to end the Great Depression.  But his massive New Deal spending simply failed to end it.  After a decade or so of trying.  Proving that government spending cannot spend an economy out of recession.  But cuts in government spending and cuts in tax rates can.  Which is why the Great Recession lingers on still.  Some 6 years after the collapse of one of the greatest housing bubbles ever.  Created by one of the greatest credit expansions ever.  For President Obama is a Keynesian.  And Keynesian policies only lead to boom-bust cycles.  Not real economic growth.  The kind we got from classical economic policies.  Built on a foundation of thrift, savings, investment, free trade, the gold standard, etc.  The economic policies that made America the number economic power in the world.

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China’s Continuing Credit Expansion is Starting to Worry the IMF

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 15th, 2013

Week in Review

As the U.S. fiscal year draws to a close the Republicans and Democrats are digging in their heels over the upcoming debt ceiling debate.  The Republicans want to cut spending and taxes to rein in out-of-control spending.  So they don’t have to keep borrowing money.  Running up the national debt.  The Democrats, on the other hand, say, “Who cares about the debt?  We’ll be dead and buried when the nation collapses under the weight of this mammoth debt load.  As long as we get what we want why should we care about future generations?”  At least, that’s what their actions say.

A lot of leading economists on the left, Keynesians economists, see no problem in running up the debt.  Print that money, they say.  Keep that expansion growing.  What could possibly go wrong?  Especially when the federal government has the power to print money?  Just look at what the Japanese did in the Eighties.  And what the Chinese are doing now (see As the West Faltered, China’s Growth Was Fueled by Debt by Christina Larson posted 9/12/2013 on Bloomberg Businessweek).

As demand for Chinese exports diminished in the wake of the financial meltdown, the Chinese economy kept humming at more than 9 percent annual gross domestic product growth each year from 2008 to 2011. The trick? “A huge monetary expansion and lending boom,” says Patrick Chovanec, chief strategist at Silvercrest Asset Management and a former professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing. With bank lending restrictions loosened in late 2008, “Total debt accelerated from 148 percent to 205 percent of GDP over 2008-12,” according to a May 2013 report from research firm CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets. When Beijing tried to rein in the banks beginning in late 2010, shadow banking—lending outside the formal sector—exploded. Today “China is addicted to debt to fuel growth,” according to the CLSA report, with the economy hampered by “high debt and huge excess capacity with only 60 percent utilization.”

The Beijing-based firm J. Capital Research dubbed 2012 the “Year of the (White) Elephant” in a report detailing some of China’s questionable infrastructure build-out. To take one example, 70 percent of the country’s airports lose money, yet more are being built in small and remote cities. At the shiny new Karamay Airport in far western Xinjiang province, there are four check-in counters serving two flights daily. Local governments have splurged on “new towns” and “special zones,” many of which have already fallen into disrepair. The $5 million Changchun Zhenzhuxi Park, intended as a scenic area, is now a large public garbage dump, as the local landscaping bureau never agreed to provide maintenance. Near the southern city of Hangzhou, a forlorn replica of the Eiffel Tower overlooks a faux Paris—the ersatz arrondissement attracted hardly any residents, and local media have dubbed it a ghost town.

“In China, you often hear people say they’re building for the future,” explains Chovanec. “But if you build something and it’s empty for 20 years, does that make any sense? By that point, it may already be falling apart.”

The classic Keynesian argument for economic stimulus is the one about paying people to dig a ditch.  Then paying them to fill in the ditch they just dug.  The ditch itself having no economic value.  But the people digging it and filling it in do.  For they will take their earnings and spend it in the economy.  But the fallacy of this argument is that money given to the ditch-diggers and the fillers-in could have been spent on something else that does have economic value.  Money that was pulled out of the private sector economy via taxation.  Or money that was borrowed adding to the national debt.  And increasing the interest expense of the nation.  Which negates any stimulus.

If that money was invested to expand a business that was struggling to keep up with demand that money would have created a return on investment.  That would last long after the people who built the expansion spent their wages.  This is why Keynesian stimulus doesn’t work.  It is at best temporary.  While the long-term costs are not.  It’s like getting a 30-year loan to by a new car.  If you finance $35,000 over 5 years at a 4.5% annual interest rate your car payment will be $652.51 and the total interest you’ll pay will be $4,018.95.  That’s $39,018.95 ($35,000 + 4,018.95) of other stuff you won’t be able to buy because of buying this car.  If you extend that loan to 30 years your car payment will fall to $177.34.  But you will be paying that for 30 years.  Perhaps 20-25 years longer than you will actually use that car.  Worse, the total interest expense will be $23,620.24 over those 30 years.  That’s $58,620.24 ($35,000 + 23,620.24) of stuff you won’t be able to buy because of buying this car.  Increasing the total cost of that car by 50.2%.

This is why Keynesian stimulus does not work.  Building stuff just to build stuff even when that stuff isn’t needed will have long-term costs beyond any stimulus it provides.  And when you have a “high debt and huge excess capacity with only 60 percent utilization” bad things will be coming (see IMF WARNS: China Is Taking Ever Greater Risks And Putting The Financial System In Danger by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, The Telegraph, posted 9/13/2013 on Business Insider).

The International Monetary Fund has warned that China is taking ever greater risks as surging credit endangers the financial system, and called for far-reaching reforms to wean the economy off excess investment…

The country has relied on loan growth to keep the economy firing on all cylinders but the law of diminishing returns has set in, with the each yuan of extra debt yielding just 0.20 yuan of economic growth, compared with 0.85 five years ago. Credit of all types has risen from $9 trillion to $23 trillion in five years, pushing the total to 200pc of GDP, much higher than in emerging market peers…

China’s investment rate is the world’s highest at almost 50pc of GDP, an effect largely caused by the structure of the state behemoths that gobble up credit. This has led to massive over-capacity and wastage.

“Existing distortions direct the flow of credit toward local governments and state-owned enterprises rather to households, perpetuating high investment, misallocation of resources, and low private consumption. A broad package of reforms is needed,” said the IMF.

Just like the miracle of Japan Inc. couldn’t last neither will China Inc. last.  Japan Inc. put Japan into a deflationary spiral in the Nineties that hasn’t quite yet ended.  Chances are that China’s deflationary spiral will be worse.  Which is what happens after every Keynesian credit expansion.  And the greater the credit expansion the more painful the contraction.  And with half of all Chinese spending being government spending financed by printing money the Chinese contraction promises to be a spectacular one.  And with them being a primary holder of US treasury debt their problems will ricochet through the world economy.  Hence the IMF warning.

Bad things are coming thanks to Keynesian economics.  Governments should have learned by now.  As Keynesian economics turned a recession into the Great Depression.  It gave us stagflation and misery in the Seventies.  It gave the Japanese their Lost Decade (though that decade actually was closer 2-3 decades).  It caused Greece’s economic collapse.  The Eurozone crisis.  And gave the U.S. record deficits and debt under President Obama.

The history is replete with examples of Keynesian failures.  But governments refuse to learn these lessons of history.  Why?  Because Keynesian economics empowers the growth of Big Government.  Something free market capitalism just won’t do.  Which is why communists (China), socialists (the European social democracies) and liberal Democrats (in the United States) all embrace Keynesian economics and relentlessly attack free market capitalism as corrupt and unfair.  Despite people enjoying the greatest liberty and economic prosperity under free market capitalism (Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, etc.).  While suffering the most oppression and poverty under communism and socialism (Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the communist countries behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, the People’s Republic of China under Mao, North Korea, Cuba, etc.).

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Goldsmiths, Specie, Bank Notes, Bank Reserves, Spanish Dollar, Continentals, Bank of the United States and the Panic of 1819

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 26th, 2012

History 101

When Spain came to the New World they Brought Home a lot of Gold and Silver and Turned it into Coin

Our first banks were goldsmiths’ vaults.  They locked up people’s gold or other valuable metals (i.e., specie) in their vaults and issued these ‘depositors’ receipts for their specie.  When a depositor presented their receipt to the goldsmith he redeemed it for the amount of specie noted on the receipt.  These notes were as good as specie.  And a lot easier to carry around.  So these depositors used these notes as currency.  People accepted them in payment.  Because they could take them to the goldsmith and redeem them for the amount of specie noted on the receipt.

The amount of specie these first bankers kept in their vaults equaled the value of these outstanding notes.  Meaning their bank reserves were 100%.   If every depositor redeemed their notes at the same time there was no problem.  Because all specie that was ever deposited was still in the vault.  So there was no danger of any ‘bank runs’ or liquidity crises.

When Spain came to the New World they brought home a lot of gold and silver.  And turned it into coin.  Or specie.  The Spanish dollar entered the American colonies from trade with the West Indies.  As the British didn’t allow their colonies to coin any money of their own the Spanish dollar became the dominate money in circulation in commerce and trade in the cities.  (Which is why the American currency unit is the dollar).  While being largely commodity money in the rural parts of the country.  Tobacco in Virginia, rice in the south, etc.  Paper money didn’t enter into the picture until Massachusetts funded some military expeditions to Quebec.  Normally the soldiers in this expedition took a portion of the spoils they brought back for payment.  But when the French repulsed them and they came back empty handed the government printed paper money backed by no specie.  For there was nothing more dangerous than disgruntled and unpaid soldiers.  The idea was to redeem them with future taxation.  But they never did. 

Thomas Jefferson believed that the Combination of Money and Politics was the Source of all Evil in Government 

During the American Revolutionary War the Americans were starving for specie.  They were getting some from the French but it was never enough.  So they turned to printing paper money.  Backed by no specie.  They printed so much that it became worthless.  The more they printed the more they devalued it.  And the fewer people would take it in payment.  Anyone paying in these paper Continentals just saw higher and higher prices (while people paying in specie saw lower prices).  Until some just refused to accept them.  Giving rise to the expression “not worth a Continental.”  And when they did the army had to take what they needed from the people.  Basically giving them an IOU and telling the people good luck in redeeming them.

Skip ahead to the War of 1812 and the Americans had the same problem.  They needed money.  So they turned to the printing presses.  With the aid of the Second Bank of the United States (BUS).  America’s second central bank.  Just as politically contentious as the First Bank of the United States.  America’s first central bank.  The BUS was not quite like those early bankers.  The goldsmiths.  Whose deposits were backed by a 100% specie reserve.  The BUS specie reserve was closer to 10%.  Which proved to be a problem because their bank notes were redeemable for specie.  Which people did.  And because they did and the BUS was losing so much of its specie the government legislated the suspension of the redemption of bank notes for specie.  Which just ignited inflation.  With the BUS.  And the state banks.  Who were no longer bound by the requirement to redeem bank notes for specie either.  Enter America’s first economic boom created by monetary policy.  A huge credit expansion that created a frenzy of borrowing.  And speculation.

When more dollars are put into circulation without a corresponding amount of specie backing them this only depreciated the dollar.  Making them worth less, requiring more of them to buy the same stuff they did before the massive inflation.  This is why prices rise with inflation.  And they rose a lot from 1815 to 1818.  Real estate prices went up.  Fueling that speculation.  Allowing the rich to get richer by buying land that soared in value.  While ordinary people saw the value of their currency decline making their lives more difficult.  Thanks to those higher prices.  The government spent a lot of this new money on infrastructure.  And there was a lot of fraud.  The very reason that Thomas Jefferson opposed Alexander Hamilton’s first Bank of the United States.  The combination of money and politics was the source of all evil in government.  And fraud.  According to Jefferson, at least.  Everyone was borrowing.  Everyone was spending.  Which left the banks exposed to a lot of speculative loans.  While putting so much money into circulation that they could never redeem their notes for specie.  Not that they were doing that anyway.  Bank finances were growing so bad that the banks were in danger of failing.

Most Bad Recessions are caused by Easy Credit by a Central Bank trying to Stimulate Economic Activity 

By 1818 things were worrying the government.  And the BUS.  Inflation was out of control.  The credit expansion was creating asset bubbles.  And fraud.  It was a house of cards that was close to collapsing.  So the BUS took action.  And reversed their ruinous policies.  They contracted monetary policy.  Stopped the easy credit.  And pulled a lot of those paper dollars out of circulation.  It was the responsible thing to do to save the bank.  But because they did it after so much inflation that drove prices into the stratosphere the correction was painful.  As those prices had a long way to fall.

The Panic of 1819 was the first bust of America’s first boom-bust cycle.  The first depression brought on by the easy credit of a central bank.  When the money supply contracted interest rates rose.  A lot of those speculative loans became unserviceable.  With no easy credit available anymore the loan defaults began.  And the bank failures followed.  Money and credit of the BUS contracted by about 50%.  Businesses couldn’t borrow to meet their cash needs and went bankrupt.  A lot of them.  And those inflated real estate prices fell back to earth.  As prices fell everywhere from their artificial heights.

It was America’s first depression.  But it wouldn’t be the last.  Thanks to central banking.  And boom-bust cycles.  We stopped calling these central banking train wrecks depressions after the Great Depression.  After that we just called them recessions.  And real bad recessions.  Most of them caused by the same thing.  Easy credit by a central bank to stimulate economic activity.  Causing an asset bubble.  That eventually pops causing a painful correction.  The most recent being the Great Recession.  Caused by the popping of a great real estate bubble caused by the central bank’s artificially low interest rates.  That gave us the subprime mortgage crisis.  Which gave us the greatest recession since the Great Depression.  Just another in a long line of ‘real bad’ recessions since the advent of central banking.

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