The Austrian School of Economics

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 3rd, 2014

Economics 101

(Originally published February 27th, 2012)

Because of the Unpredictable Human Element in all Economic Exchanges the Austrian School is more Laissez-Faire

Name some of the great inventions economists gave us.  The computer?  The Internet?  The cell phone?  The car?  The jumbo jet?  Television?  Air conditioning?  The automatic dishwasher?  No.  Amazingly, economists did not invent any of these brilliant inventions.  And economists didn’t predict any of these inventions.  Not a one.  Despite how brilliant they are.  Well, brilliant by their standard.  In their particular field.  For economists really aren’t that smart.  Their ‘expertise’ is in the realm of the social sciences.  The faux sciences where people try to quantify the unquantifiable.  Using mathematical equations to explain and predict human behavior.  Which is what economists do.  Especially Keynesian economists.  Who think they are smarter than people.  And markets.

But there is a school of economic thought that doesn’t believe we can quantify human activity.  The Austrian school.  Where Austrian economics began.  In Vienna.  Where the great Austrian economists gathered.  Carl Menger.  Ludwig von Mises.  And Friedrich Hayek.  To name a few.  Who understood that economics is the sum total of millions of people making individual human decisions.  Human being key.  And why we can’t reduce economics down to a set of mathematical equations.  Because you can’t quantify human behavior.  Contrary to what the Keynesians believe.  Which is why these two schools are at odds with each other.  With people even donning the personas of Keynes and Hayek to engage in economic debate.

Keynesian economics is more mainstream than the Austrian school.  Because it calls for the government to interfere with market forces.  To manipulate them.  To make markets produce different results from those they would have if left alone.  Something governments love to do.  Especially if it calls for taxing and spending.  Which Keynesian economics highly encourage.  To fix market ‘failures’.  And recessions.  By contrast, because of the unpredictable human element in all economic exchanges, the Austrian school is more laissez-faire.  They believe more in the separation of the government from things economic.  Economic exchanges are best left to the invisible hand.  What Adam Smith called the sum total of the millions of human decisions made by millions of people.  Who are maximizing their own economic well being.  And when we do we maximize the economic well being of the economy as a whole.  For the Austrian economist does not believe he or she is smarter than people.  Or markets.  Which is why an economist never gave us any brilliant invention.  Nor did their equations predict any inventor inventing a great invention.  And why economists have day jobs.  For if they were as brilliant and prophetic as they claim to be they could see into the future and know which stocks to buy to get rich so they could give up their day jobs.  When they’re able to do that we should start listening to them.  But not before.

Low Interest Rates cause Malinvestment and Speculation which puts Banks in Danger of Financial Collapse

Keynesian economics really took off with central banking.  And fractional reserve banking.  Monetary tools to control the money supply.  That in the Keynesian world was supposed to end business cycles and recessions as we knew them.  The Austrian school argues that using these monetary tools only distorts the business cycle.  And makes recessions worse.  Here’s how it works.  The central bank lowers interest rates by increasing the money supply (via open market transactions, lowering reserve requirements in fractional reserve banking or by printing money).  Lower interest rates encourage people to borrow money to buy houses, cars, kitchen appliances, home theater systems, etc.  This new economic activity encourages businesses to hire new workers to meet the new demand.  Ergo, recession over.  Simple math, right?  Only there’s a bit of a problem.  Some of our worst recessions have come during the era of Keynesian economics.  Including the worst recession of all time.  The Great Depression.  Which proves the Austrian point that the use of Keynesian policies to end recessions only makes recessions worse.  (Economists debate the causes of the Great Depression to this day.  Understanding the causes is not the point here.  The point is that it happened.  When recessions were supposed to be a thing of the past when using Keynesian policies.)

The problem is that these are not real economic expansions.  They’re artificial ones.  Created by cheap credit.  Which the central bank creates by forcing interest rates below actual market interest rates.  Which causes a whole host of problems.  In particular corrupting the banking system.  Banks offer interest rates to encourage people to save their money for future use (like retirement) instead of spending it in the here and now.  This is where savings (or investment capital) come from.  Banks pay depositors interest on their deposits.  And then loan out this money to others who need investment capital to start businesses.  To expand businesses.  To buy businesses.  Whatever.  They borrow money to invest so they can expand economic activity.  And make more profits.

But investment capital from savings is different from investment capital from an expansion of the money supply.  Because businesses will act as if the trend has shifted from consumption (spending now) to investment (spending later).  So they borrow to expand operations.  All because of the false signal of the artificially low interest rates.  They borrow money.  Over-invest.  And make bad investments.  Even speculate.  What Austrians call malinvestments.  But there was no shift from consumption to investment.  Savings haven’t increased.  In fact, with all those new loans on the books the banks see a shift in the other direction.  Because they have loaned out more money while the savings rate of their depositors did not change.  Which produced on their books a reduction in the net savings rate.  Leaving them more dangerously leveraged than before the credit expansion.  Also, those lower interest rates also decrease the interest rate on savings accounts.  Discouraging people from saving their money.  Which further reduces the savings rate of depositors.  Finally, those lower interest rates reduce the income stream on their loans.  Leaving them even more dangerously leveraged.  Putting them at risk of financial collapse should many of their loans go bad.

Keynesian Economics is more about Power whereas the Austrian School is more about Economics

These artificially low interest rates fuel malinvestment and speculation.  Cheap credit has everyone, flush with borrowed funds, bidding up prices (real estate, construction, machinery, raw material, etc.).  This alters the natural order of things.  The automatic pricing mechanism of the free market.  And reallocates resources to these higher prices.  Away from where the market would have otherwise directed them.  Creating great shortages and high prices in some areas.  And great surpluses of stuff no one wants to buy at any price in other areas.  Sort of like those Soviet stores full of stuff no one wanted to buy while people stood in lines for hours to buy toilet paper and soap.  (But not quite that bad.)  Then comes the day when all those investments don’t produce any returns.  Which leaves these businesses, investors and speculators with a lot of debt with no income stream to pay for it.  They drove up prices.  Created great asset bubbles.  Overbuilt their capacity.  Bought assets at such high prices that they’ll never realize a gain from them.  They know what’s coming next.  And in some darkened office someone pours a glass of scotch and murmurs, “My God, what have we done?”

The central bank may try to delay this day of reckoning.  By keeping interest rates low.  But that only allows asset bubbles to get bigger.  Making the inevitable correction more painful.  But eventually the central bank has to step in and raise interest rates.  Because all of that ‘bidding up of prices’ finally makes its way down to the consumer level.  And sparks off some nasty inflation.  So rates go up.  Credit becomes more expensive.  Often leaving businesses and speculators to try and refinance bad debt at higher rates.  Debt that has no income stream to pay for it.  Either forcing business to cut costs elsewhere.  Or file bankruptcy.  Which ripples through the banking system.  Causing a lot of those highly leveraged banks to fail with them.  Thus making the resulting recession far more painful and more long-lasting than necessary.  Thanks to Keynesian economics.  At least, according to the Austrian school.  And much of the last century of history.

The Austrian school believes the market should determine interest rates.  Not central bankers.  They’re not big fans of fractional reserve banking, either.  Which only empowers central bankers to cause all of their mischief.  Which is why Keynesians don’t like Austrians.  Because Keynesians, and politicians, like that power.  For they believe that they are smarter than the people making economic exchanges.  Smarter than the market.  And they just love having control over all of that money.  Which comes in pretty handy when playing politics.  Which is ultimately the goal of Keynesian economics.  Whereas the Austrian school is more about economics.

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The Federal Government’s entry into the Student Loan Market eliminates Market Forces

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 7th, 2013

Week in Review

A sound banking system is a requirement for any advanced economy.  Because you need capital to make an advanced economy.  And how do you do that?  By people responsibly saving for their retirement.  Putting away a few dollars of every paycheck.  A small amount of money that can’t buy much of anything.  But when hundreds of thousands of people save a few dollars from every paycheck those small amounts become capital.  Large sums of money banks can lend out to investors who want to build factories.  Responsible bankers loaned their customers’ deposits to investors.  Investors paid the bankers interest on these loans.  And the bankers paid interest to their depositors.  The economy grew.  And people saved for their retirement.  The system worked well.  And grew the US economy into the world’s number one economy.  But now we’re in danger of dropping from that number one spot.  Because the government destroyed our banking system (see Exclusive – JPMorgan to stop making student loans by Reuters posted 9/5/2013 on Yahoo! Finance).

JPMorgan Chase & Co (NYS:JPM) will stop making student loans in October, according to a document reviewed by Reuters on Thursday, after the biggest U.S. bank concluded that competition from federal government programs limits its ability to expand the business.

When the government runs a deficit they sell bonds to finance it.  Pulling capital out of the private sector.  Raising borrowing costs.  The government then tries to lower borrowing costs by printing money.  Expanding the money supply.  And by making more money available to lend interest rates fall.  But it also does something else.  It encourages bad investments.  Malinvestments.  People who look at those artificially low interest rates and think they should borrow money when the borrowing is good.  Even when they don’t have a good investment opportunity.

They may expand their business now because money is cheap now.  Even though they don’t really need the additional capacity now.  And then if the government raises interest rates to cool the overheated economy thanks to those artificially low interest rates these same investors see their revenues fall as they took on additional expenses by expanding their business.  Just because interest rates were low.  Now their costs are higher just when their revenues have fallen.  Pushing the business towards bankruptcy.  Which would never have happened if the government didn’t encourage them to borrow money they didn’t need by keeping interest rates artificially low.

But getting people to borrow money when they don’t need it is the government’s only economic policy.  Which they took to another level in the housing market.  With pressure from the Clinton Justice Department on lenders to qualify the unqualified for loans.  Exploding the use of risky subprime lending.  And then using Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to buy these risky subprime loans from these lenders.  Removing all risks from these lenders and passing them on to the taxpayers.  To encourage these lenders to lower their lending standards.  So they would keep making risky loans.  Which they were more than willing to do if they incurred no risk in making these loans.  Which Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac did for them.  Thus further destroying the banking system.

And now the government has taken over student loans.  Where they will do to student loans what they did to home mortgages.  Where lending decisions will be made for political reasons instead of objective lending standards.  Guaranteeing more subprime mortgage crises in the future.  A further destruction of the banking system.  And the destruction of one of the pillars of an advanced economy.

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Keynesian Economics Destroyed Good Lending Practices at our Banks and gave us the Subprime Mortgage Crisis

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 11th, 2013

Week in Review

In the days of classical economics, before Keynesian economics, people put their money into a bank to earn interest.  The banks gathered all of these deposits together and created a pool of investment capital.  People and businesses then went to the banks to borrow this capital to invest into something.  A house to start a new family in.  Or a factory.  And the more people saved the more money there was to loan to investors.  Which kept the cost of borrowing that money reasonable.  And created booming economic activity.

It was a beautiful system.  And one that worked so well it made the United States the number one economic power in the world.  Then John Maynard Keynes came along and ruined that proven system.  By telling governments that they should intervene into their economies.  That they should manipulate the interest rates.  By printing money.  Which changed the banking system forever (see The Housing Market Is Still Missing a Backbone by GRETCHEN MORGENSON posted 8/10/2013 on The New York Times).

Yet with the government backing or financing nine out of 10 residential mortgages today, it is crucial to lure back private capital, with no government guarantees, to the home loan market. Mr. Obama contended that “private lending should be the backbone” of the market, but he provided no specifics on how to make that happen.

This is a huge, complex problem. In fact, there are many reasons for the reluctance of banks and private investors to fund residential mortgages without government backing.

For starters, banks have grown accustomed to earning fees for making mortgages that they sell to Fannie and Freddie. Generating fee income while placing the long-term credit or interest rate risk on the government’s balance sheet is a win-win for the banks.

A coming shift by the Federal Reserve in its quantitative easing program may also be curbing banks’ appetite for mortgage loans they keep on their own books. These institutions are hesitant to make 30-year, fixed-rate loans before the Fed shifts its stance and rates climb. For a bank, the value of such loans falls when rates rise. This process has already begun — rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages were 4.4 percent last week, up from 3.35 percent in early May. This is painful for banks that actually hold older, lower-rate mortgages.

In other words, the federal government’s intervention into the private sector economy caused the subprime mortgage crisis.  And the Great Recession.  By removing all risk from the banking industry by transferring it to the taxpayer.  This created an environment that encouraged lenders to adopt poor lending standards.  Because they made their money on loan initiation fees.  No matter how risky those loans were.  And not by managing a portfolio of performing mortgages.  Which kept the bank honest when writing a loan.  As they would feel the pain if the borrower did not make his or her loan payments.  But if they sold those loans and broomed them off of their balance sheets what would they care if these people ever serviced their loans?

This is what you get with government intervention into the free market.  Distortions of the free market.  Keynesian economics was supposed to get rid of recessions.  By cutting away half of the business cycle.  And just keeping the inflationary side of it.  Trading permanent inflation for no recessions ever.  But since the Keynesians began intervening we’ve had a Great Depression.  A subprime mortgage crisis.  And a Great Recession.  All because they tried to improve the free market.  Which also, coincidentally, enabled Big Government.  The ultimate goal of Keynesian economics.  To get smart government planners in control of our lives.  Just like they were in the former Soviet Union.  But revolutions are messy.  So the government planners bided their time.  And slow-walked their way to power.  First they took control of the banks.  And now they have health care.  Which they will destroy.  Just as they destroyed good lending practices.  Which have given us the worst economic recovery since that following the Great Depression.

Anytime you move away from capitalism things get worse.  When this nation embraced free market capitalism we became the number one economic power in the world.  And the destination for oppressed people everywhere in the world.  For the better life that was available in America.  While the nations that chose the state planning of socialism and communism became those places oppressed people wanted to flee.  And life in those nations only got better with a move towards capitalism.  China may soon become the world’s number one economic power.  But they’re not doing this by adhering strictly to their state-planning ways of Mao’s China.  No.  They are doing this by moving away from the state-planning of Mao’s China.  To something called state-capitalism.  Pseudo-capitalism.  Just hints and traces of capitalism simmering in state-planning stew.  Where communist planners still control the people’s lives.  A direction America is slow-walking itself to.  Slowly.  But surely.

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Venture Capital and Private Equity

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 28th, 2012

Economics 101

An Idea is only an Idea unless there’s Capital to Develop it and a Business Plan

People put money in the bank to save it.  And to earn interest.  To make their savings grow.  So they can afford a down payment on a house one day.  Or start up a business.  To start a college fund.  Or a variety of other things.  They put their money into a bank because they have confidence that the bank will repay that money whenever they want to withdraw it.   And confident that the bank will earn a profit.  By prudently loaning out their deposits in business loans, mortgages, equity loans, etc.  So the bank can pay interest on their savings.  And make it grow.  While not risking the solvency of the bank by making risky loans that people won’t be able to repay.  With responsible saving and responsible lending both parties achieve what they want.  And the economy grows.

A high savings rate means banks can make more loans.  And businesses can borrow more to expand their businesses.  This is a very critical element in capitalism.  Getting capital to the people who need it.  Who can do incredible things with it.  Create new jobs.  Develop a new technology.  Find a better way to use our limited resources.  Bringing consumer prices down and increasing our standard of living.  Because when prices go down we can buy more things.  So we don’t have to sacrifice and go without.  We have a higher standards of living thanks to capitalism.  And the efficient use of capital.

As technology advanced individuals had more and more brilliant ideas.  But an idea is only an idea unless there’s capital to develop it.  And a business plan.  Something a lot of brilliant entrepreneurs are not good at.  They may think of a great new use of technology that will change the world.  Their mind can be that creative.  But they don’t know how to put a business plan together.  Or convince a banker that this idea is gold.  That this innovation is so new that no one had ever thought of it before.  That it’s cutting edge.  Paradigm shifting.  And it may be that and more.  But a banker won’t care.  Because bankers are conservative with other people’s money.  They don’t want to loan their deposits on something risky and risk losing it.  They want to bet on sure things.  Loan money to people that are 99% certain to repay it.  Not take chances with new technology that they haven’t a clue about.

Venture Capitalists make sure their Seed Capital is Used Wisely so it can Bloom into its Full Potential

Enter the venture capitalists.  Who are the polar opposite of bankers.  They are willing to take big risks.  Especially in technology.  Because new technologies have changed the world.  And made a lot of people very wealthy.  Especially those willing to gamble and invest in an unknown.  Those who provide the seed money for these ventures in the beginning.  That’s their incentive.  And why they are willing to risk such large sums of money on an unknown.  Something a banker never would do.  Who say ‘no’ to these struggling entrepreneurs.  And tell them to come back when they are more established and less risky. 

This is responsible banking.  And this is why people put their money into the bank.  Because bankers are conservative.  But there is a price for this.  Lost innovation.  If no one was willing to risk large sums of money on unknowns with brilliant ideas the world wouldn’t be the same place it is today.  This is what the venture capitalists give us.  Innovation.  And a world full of new technology.  And creature comforts we couldn’t have imagined a decade earlier.  Because they will risk a lot of money on an unknown with a good idea.

Most venture capitalists have been there before.  They were once that entrepreneur with an idea that turned it into great success.  That’s part of the reason they do this.  To recapture the thrill.  While mentoring an entrepreneur into the ways of business.  Like someone once did for them.  But it’s also the money.  They expect to make a serious return on their risky investment.  So much so that they often take over some control of the business.  They do what has to be done.  Make some hard decisions.  And make sure they use their investment capital wisely.  Sometimes pushing aside the entrepreneur if necessary.  To make sure that seed capital can bloom into its full potential.  Perhaps all the way to an initial public offering of stock.  And when it does everyone gets rich.  The entrepreneur with the good idea.  And the venture capitalist.  Who now has more seed capital available for other start-ups with promise.

The Goal of the Private Equity Firm is to Get In, Fix the Problems and Get Out

Venture capital belongs to the larger world of private equity.  Where private equity investment firms operate sort of like a bank.  But with a few minor differences.  Instead of depositors they have investors.  Instead of safe investments they have risky investments.  Instead of low returns on investment they have high returns on investment.  And instead of a passive review of a firm’s financial statements by a bank’s loan officer they actively intervene with business management.  Because private equity does more than just loan money.  They fix problems.  Especially in underperforming businesses.

A mature business that has seen better days is the ideal candidate for private equity.  The business is struggling.  They’re losing money.  And they’ve run out of ideas.  Management is either blind to their problems or unable (or unwilling) to take the necessary corrective action.  They can’t sell because business is too bad.  They don’t want to go out of business because they’ve invested their life savings to try and keep the business afloat.  Only to see continued losses.  Their only hope to recover their losses is to fix the business.  To make it profitable again.  And selling their business to a private equity firm solves a couple of their problems fast.  First of all, they get their prior investments back.  But more importantly they get hope. 

The private equity firm uses some of their investment capital to secure a large loan.  The infamous leveraged buyout which has a lot of negative connotations.  But to a business owner about to go under and lose everything the leveraged buyout is a blessing.  And it’s so simple.  A private equity firm buys a business by taking on massive amounts of debt.  They put that debt on the business’ books.  Debt that future profits of the business will service.  Once the equity firm does its magic to restore the business to profitability.  Starting with a new management team.  Which is necessary.  As the current one was leading the firm to bankruptcy.  They may interview people.  Identify problems.  Find untapped potential to promote.  They may close factories and lay off people.  They may expand production to increase revenue.  Whatever restructuring is necessary to return the firm to profitability they will do.  Their goal is to get in, fix the problems and get out.  Selling the now profitable business for a greater sum than the sum of debt and equity they used to buy it.

But with great risk comes the chance for great failure.  When it works it works well.  Producing a huge return on investment.  But sometimes they can’t save the business.  And the firm can’t avoid bankruptcy.  The business then will be liquidated to repay the banks who loaned the money.  While the equity the firm invested is lost.  Which is why they need to make big profits.  Because they suffer some big losses.  But they typically save more businesses than they fail to save.  And the businesses they do save would have gone out of business otherwise.  So in the grand scheme of things the world is a better place with private equity.

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The Austrian School of Economics

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 27th, 2012

Economics 101

Because of the Unpredictable Human Element in all Economic Exchanges the Austrian School is more Laissez-Faire

Name some of the great inventions economists gave us.  The computer?  The Internet?  The cell phone?  The car?  The jumbo jet?  Television?  Air conditioning?  The automatic dishwasher?  No.  Amazingly, economists did not invent any of these brilliant inventions.  And economists didn’t predict any of these inventions.  Not a one.  Despite how brilliant they are.  Well, brilliant by their standard.  In their particular field.  For economists really aren’t that smart.  Their ‘expertise’ is in the realm of the social sciences.  The faux sciences where people try to quantify the unquantifiable.  Using mathematical equations to explain and predict human behavior.  Which is what economists do.  Especially Keynesian economists.  Who think they are smarter than people.  And markets.

But there is a school of economic thought that doesn’t believe we can quantify human activity.  The Austrian school.  Where Austrian economics began.  In Vienna.  Where the great Austrian economists gathered.  Carl Menger.  Ludwig von Mises.  And Friedrich Hayek.  To name a few.  Who understood that economics is the sum total of millions of people making individual human decisions.  Human being key.  And why we can’t reduce economics down to a set of mathematical equations.  Because you can’t quantify human behavior.  Contrary to what the Keynesians believe.  Which is why these two schools are at odds with each other.  With people even donning the personas of Keynes and Hayek to engage in economic debate.

Keynesian economics is more mainstream than the Austrian school.  Because it calls for the government to interfere with market forces.  To manipulate them.  To make markets produce different results from those they would have if left alone.  Something governments love to do.  Especially if it calls for taxing and spending.  Which Keynesian economics highly encourage.  To fix market ‘failures’.  And recessions.  By contrast, because of the unpredictable human element in all economic exchanges, the Austrian school is more laissez-faire.  They believe more in the separation of the government from things economic.  Economic exchanges are best left to the invisible hand.  What Adam Smith called the sum total of the millions of human decisions made by millions of people.  Who are maximizing their own economic well being.  And when we do we maximize the economic well being of the economy as a whole.  For the Austrian economist does not believe he or she is smarter than people.  Or markets.  Which is why an economist never gave us any brilliant invention.  Nor did their equations predict any inventor inventing a great invention.  And why economists have day jobs.  For if they were as brilliant and prophetic as they claim to be they could see into the future and know which stocks to buy to get rich so they could give up their day jobs.  When they’re able to do that we should start listening to them.  But not before.

Low Interest Rates cause Malinvestment and Speculation which puts Banks in Danger of Financial Collapse

Keynesian economics really took off with central banking.  And fractional reserve banking.  Monetary tools to control the money supply.  That in the Keynesian world was supposed to end business cycles and recessions as we knew them.  The Austrian school argues that using these monetary tools only distorts the business cycle.  And makes recessions worse.  Here’s how it works.  The central bank lowers interest rates by increasing the money supply (via open market transactions, lowering reserve requirements in fractional reserve banking or by printing money).  Lower interest rates encourage people to borrow money to buy houses, cars, kitchen appliances, home theater systems, etc.  This new economic activity encourages businesses to hire new workers to meet the new demand.  Ergo, recession over.  Simple math, right?  Only there’s a bit of a problem.  Some of our worst recessions have come during the era of Keynesian economics.  Including the worst recession of all time.  The Great Depression.  Which proves the Austrian point that the use of Keynesian policies to end recessions only makes recessions worse.  (Economists debate the causes of the Great Depression to this day.  Understanding the causes is not the point here.  The point is that it happened.  When recessions were supposed to be a thing of the past when using Keynesian policies.)

The problem is that these are not real economic expansions.  They’re artificial ones.  Created by cheap credit.  Which the central bank creates by forcing interest rates below actual market interest rates.  Which causes a whole host of problems.  In particular corrupting the banking system.  Banks offer interest rates to encourage people to save their money for future use (like retirement) instead of spending it in the here and now.  This is where savings (or investment capital) come from.  Banks pay depositors interest on their deposits.  And then loan out this money to others who need investment capital to start businesses.  To expand businesses.  To buy businesses.  Whatever.  They borrow money to invest so they can expand economic activity.  And make more profits.

But investment capital from savings is different from investment capital from an expansion of the money supply.  Because businesses will act as if the trend has shifted from consumption (spending now) to investment (spending later).  So they borrow to expand operations.  All because of the false signal of the artificially low interest rates.  They borrow money.  Over-invest.  And make bad investments.  Even speculate.  What Austrians call malinvestments.  But there was no shift from consumption to investment.  Savings haven’t increased.  In fact, with all those new loans on the books the banks see a shift in the other direction.  Because they have loaned out more money while the savings rate of their depositors did not change.  Which produced on their books a reduction in the net savings rate.  Leaving them more dangerously leveraged than before the credit expansion.  Also, those lower interest rates also decrease the interest rate on savings accounts.  Discouraging people from saving their money.  Which further reduces the savings rate of depositors.  Finally, those lower interest rates reduce the income stream on their loans.  Leaving them even more dangerously leveraged.  Putting them at risk of financial collapse should many of their loans go bad.

Keynesian Economics is more about Power whereas the Austrian School is more about Economics

These artificially low interest rates fuel malinvestment and speculation.  Cheap credit has everyone, flush with borrowed funds, bidding up prices (real estate, construction, machinery, raw material, etc.).  This alters the natural order of things.  The automatic pricing mechanism of the free market.  And reallocates resources to these higher prices.  Away from where the market would have otherwise directed them.  Creating great shortages and high prices in some areas.  And great surpluses of stuff no one wants to buy at any price in other areas.  Sort of like those Soviet stores full of stuff no one wanted to buy while people stood in lines for hours to buy toilet paper and soap.  (But not quite that bad.)  Then comes the day when all those investments don’t produce any returns.  Which leaves these businesses, investors and speculators with a lot of debt with no income stream to pay for it.  They drove up prices.  Created great asset bubbles.  Overbuilt their capacity.  Bought assets at such high prices that they’ll never realize a gain from them.  They know what’s coming next.  And in some darkened office someone pours a glass of scotch and murmurs, “My God, what have we done?”

The central bank may try to delay this day of reckoning.  By keeping interest rates low.  But that only allows asset bubbles to get bigger.  Making the inevitable correction more painful.  But eventually the central bank has to step in and raise interest rates.  Because all of that ‘bidding up of prices’ finally makes its way down to the consumer level.  And sparks off some nasty inflation.  So rates go up.  Credit becomes more expensive.  Often leaving businesses and speculators to try and refinance bad debt at higher rates.  Debt that has no income stream to pay for it.  Either forcing business to cut costs elsewhere.  Or file bankruptcy.  Which ripples through the banking system.  Causing a lot of those highly leveraged banks to fail with them.  Thus making the resulting recession far more painful and more long-lasting than necessary.  Thanks to Keynesian economics.  At least, according to the Austrian school.  And much of the last century of history.

The Austrian school believes the market should determine interest rates.  Not central bankers.  They’re not big fans of fractional reserve banking, either.  Which only empowers central bankers to cause all of their mischief.  Which is why Keynesians don’t like Austrians.  Because Keynesians, and politicians, like that power.  For they believe that they are smarter than the people making economic exchanges.  Smarter than the market.  And they just love having control over all of that money.  Which comes in pretty handy when playing politics.  Which is ultimately the goal of Keynesian economics.  Whereas the Austrian school is more about economics.

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Monetary Policy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 30th, 2012

Economics 101

Monetary Policy created the Housing Bubble and the Subprime Mortgage Crisis

Those suffering in the fallout of the Subprime Mortgage Crisis can thank monetary policy.  That tool used by the federal government that kept interest rates so low for so long.  Following the old Milton Friedman idea of a permanent level of inflation (but small and manageable) to stimulate constant economic growth.  Why?  Because when people are buying houses the economy is booming.  Because it takes a lot of economic activity to build them.  And even more to furnish them.  Which means jobs.  Lots and lots of jobs.

But there is a danger in making money too cheap to borrow.  A lot of people will borrow that cheap money.  Creating an artificial demand for ever more housing.  And not for your parent’s house.  But bigger and bigger houses.  The McMansions.  Houses 2-3 times the size of your parent’s house.  This demand ran up the price of these houses.  Which didn’t deter buyers.  Because mortgage rates were so low.  People who weren’t even considering buying a new house, let alone a McMansion, jumped in, too.  When the jumping was good.  To take advantage of those low mortgage rates.  There was so much house buying that builders got into it, too.  House flippers.  Who took advantage of those cheap ‘no questions asked’ (no documentation) mortgages (i.e., subprime) and bought houses.  Fixed them up.  And put them back on the market.

Good times indeed.  But they couldn’t last.  Because those houses weren’t the only thing getting expensive.  Price inflation was creeping into the other things we bought.  And all those houses at such inflated prices were creating a dangerous housing bubble.  So the Federal Reserve, America’s central bank, tapped the brakes.  To cool the economy down.  To reduce the growing inflation.  By raising interest rates.  Making mortgages not cheap anymore.  So people stopped buying houses.  Leaving a glut of unsold houses on the market.  Bursting that housing bubble.  And it got worse.  The higher interest rate increased the monthly payment on adjustable rate mortgages.  A large amount of all those subprime mortgages.  Causing many people to default on these mortgages.  Which caused the Subprime Mortgage Crisis.  And the Great Recession.

The Federal Reserve System conducts Monetary Policy by Changing both the Money Supply and Interest Rates

Money is a commodity.  And subject to the laws of supply and demand.  When money is in high demand (during times of inflation) the ‘price’ of money goes up.  When money is in low demand (during times of recession) the ‘price’ of money goes down.  The ‘price’ of money is interest.  The cost of borrowing money.  The higher the demand for loans the higher the interest rate.  The less the demand for loans the lower the interest rate.

So there is a relationship between money and interest rates.  Adjusting one can affect the other.  If the money supply is increased the interest rates will decrease.  Because there is more money to loan to the same amount of borrowers.  When the money supply is decreased interest rates will increase.  Because there will be less money to loan to the same amount of borrowers.  And it works the other way.  If the interest rates are lowered people respond by borrowing more money.  Increasing the amount of money in the economy buying things.  If interest rates are raised people respond by borrowing less money.   Reducing the amount of money in the economy buying things.  We call these changes in the money supply and interest rates monetary policy.  Made by the monetary authority.  In most cases the central bank of a nation.  In the United States that central bank is the Federal Reserve System (the Fed).

The Fed changes the amount of money in the economy and the interest rates to minimize the length of recessions, combat inflation and to reduce unemployment.  At least in theory.  And they have a variety of tools at their disposal.  They can change the amount of money in the economy through open market operations.  Basically buying (increasing the money supply) or selling (decreasing the money supply) treasury bills, government bonds, company bonds, foreign currencies, etc., on the open market.  They can also buy and sell these financial instruments to change interest rates.  Such as the Federal funds rate.  The interest rate banks pay when borrowing from each other.  Moving money between their accounts at the central bank.  Or the Fed can change the discount rate.  The rate banks pay to borrow from the central bank itself.  Often called the lender of last resort.  Or they can change the reserve requirement in fractional reserve banking.  Lowering it allows banks to loan more of their deposits.  Raising it requires banks to hold more of their deposits in reserve.  Not used much these days.  Open market operations being the monetary tool of choice.

There is more to Economic Activity than Monetary Policy

Fractional reserve banking multiplies these transactions.  Where banks create money out of thin air.  When the Fed increases the money supply a little this creates a lot of lendable funds.  As buyers borrow money from some banks and pay sellers.  Then sellers deposit that money in other banks.  And these banks hold a little of these deposits in reserve.  And loan the rest.  Borrowers create depositors as buyers meet sellers.  And complete economic transactions.  When the Fed reduces the money supply a little this process works in reverse.  Fractional reserve banking pulls a lot of money out of the economy.  Some treat these economic transactions, and the way to increase or decrease them, as simple math.  Always obeying their mathematical formulas.  We call these people Keynesian economists.  Named for the economist John Maynard Keynes.

Big interventionist governments embrace monetary policy.  Because they think they can easily manipulate the economy as they wish.  So they can tax and spend (Keynesian fiscal policy).  And when economic activity declines they can simply use monetary policy to restore it.  But there is one problem.  It doesn’t work.  If it did there would not have been a Subprime Mortgage Crisis.  Or any of the recessions we’ve had since the advent of central banking.  Including the Great Depression.  As well as the Great Recession.

There is more to economic activity than monetary policy.  Such as punishing fiscal policy (high taxes and stifling regulations).  Technological innovation.  Contracts.  Property rights.  Etc.  Any one of these can influence risk takers.  Business owners.  Entrepreneurs.  The job creators.  The people who create economic activity.  And no amount of monetary policy will change this.

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Goldsmiths, Gold Standard, Fractional Reserve Banking, Sherman Silver Purchase Act, Panics of 1893 & 1907 and the Federal Reserve System

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 24th, 2012

History 101

Goldsmiths Encouraged others to Store their Precious Metals with them by Paying Interest on their Deposits

Goldsmiths were some of our first banks.  Because they worked with gold.  And needed a safe place to lock it up.  To prevent thieves from getting their gold.  Other people who had precious metals (gold and silver) also needed a safe place to put their precious metals.  And what better place was there than a goldsmith?  For a goldsmith knew a thing or two about securing precious metals.

People used gold and silver for money.  But they didn’t like carrying it around.  Because carrying a heavy pouch of gold and silver was just an invitation for thieves.  So they took their gold and silver to the goldsmith.  The goldsmith locked it up for a small fee.  And gave the person a receipt for his or her gold or silver.  Which became paper currency.  Backed by precious metal.  The first ‘gold’ standard.  These receipts could be inconspicuously tucked away and hidden from the prying eyes of thieves.  They were light, convenient and a nice temporary storage of value.  Sellers would accept these receipts as money because they could take these receipts to the goldsmith and exchange them for the precious metal held in the goldsmith’s depository.

As these receipts circulated as money the goldsmith noted that more and more gold and silver accumulated in his depository.  Few holders of his receipts were exchanging them for the deposited gold and silver.  The precious metal just sat there.  Doing nothing.  And earning nothing.  Which gave these early ‘bankers’ an idea.  They would invest some of these deposits and have them earn something.  Leaving just a little on hand in their depositories for the occasional few who came in and exchanged their receipts for the precious metals they represented.  It was a novel idea.  And a profitable one.  Soon storage fees became interest payments.  As goldsmiths encouraged others to store their precious metals with them by paying them interest on their deposits.

The Panic of 1893 was the Worst Depression until the Great Depression

But there were risks.  Because they only kept a small fraction of their deposits in the bank.  Which could prove to be quite a problem if a lot of borrowers asked for their money back at the same time.  It’s happened.  And when it did it wasn’t pretty.  Because all borrowers eventually get wind of trouble.  And they know about that limited amount of money actually in the bank.  So when there is trouble in the air they run to the bank.  To withdraw their deposits while the bank still has money to withdraw.  What we call a run on the bank.  Which often precedes a bank failure.  Hence the run.

In 1890 U.S. farmers were using technology to over produce.  And some miners discovered some rich silver veins.  Making farm crops and silver plentiful.  A little too plentiful.  The price of silver fell below the cost of mining it.  And farm prices fell.  Making it difficult for farmers to service their debt.  They wanted some inflation.  To be able to pay off their past debt with cheaper dollars.  And all that silver could make that happen.  With the help of friends in Congress.  And the Sherman Silver Purchase Act.  Which required the U.S. government to buy a lot of that silver.  And issue notes backed in that silver.  Notes that could be exchanged for silver.  As well as gold.  A big mistake as it turned out.  Because silver was flooding the market.  While gold wasn’t.  Investors clearly understood this.  They took those new notes and exchanged them for gold.  Depleting U.S. gold reserves.

While this was happening there was a railroad boom.  They were building new railroads everywhere.  Financed by excessive borrowing.  In hopes to reap great profits from those new lines.  Lines as it turned out that could never pay for themselves.  Railroads failed.  Which meant they could not repay those great debts.  Which caused a lot of bank failures.  As this was happening people ran to their banks to withdraw their money while the banks still had money to withdraw.  Which only made the banking crisis worse.  Coupled with the depletion of U.S. gold reserves this shook the very foundation of the U.S. banking system.  And launched the Panic of 1893.  The worst depression until the Great Depression.

The Federal Reserve System did not work as well as J.P. Morgan

But this wasn’t the last crisis.  As soon as 1907 there was another one.  Involving another metal.  This time copper.  Not a metal backing the U.S. dollar.  But a metal that precipitated another rash of bank runs.  Including the downfall of the Knickerbocker Trust Company.  A New York financial powerhouse.   Instigated by someone who borrowed heavily to corner the market in copper.  Who failed.  Forcing his creditors to eat his massive loans.  Thus precipitating the aforementioned bank runs.

The bank runs of 1893 and 1907 were caused by liquidity crises as depositors pulled out more money than these banks had on hand.  That risk of fractional reserve banking.  At the time of these crises there was no central bank to step in and restore liquidity.  So a rich guy did.  J.P. Morgan.  Who on more than one occasion stepped in and used his wealth and influence to save the U.S. banking system.  The last crisis, the Panic of 1907, would be the last time for Morgan.  Who said another one would ruin him.  And the United States.

Shortly thereafter Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act in 1913.  Creating the American central bank.  The Federal Reserve System.  To prevent further bank runs by being the lender of last resort during future liquidity crises.  Which did not work as well as J.P. Morgan.  For the worst banking crisis of all time happened during the Great Depression.  Which followed the creation of the Federal Reserve System.  And just goes to show you that a smart rich guy is better than a bunch of government bureaucrats.

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Consumption, Savings, Fractional Reserve Banking, Interest Rates and Capital Markets

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 23rd, 2012

Economics 101

Keynesians Prefer Consumption over Savings because Everyone Eventually Dies

Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of total economic activity.  This consumption drives the economy.  In fact, someone built a school of economics around consumption.  Keynesian economics.  And he loved consumption.  John Maynard Keynes even created a formula for it.  The consumption function.  Which basically says the more income a person has the more that person will consume.  Even created a mathematical formula for it.  No doubt about it, Keynesians are just gaga for consumption.

Of course, Keynesians don’t love everything.  They aren’t all that fond of saving.  Which they see as a drain on economic activity.  Because if people are saving their money they aren’t doing as much consuming as they could.  In fact, their greatest fear when they propose stimulus spending (by giving people more money to spend) to jump-start an economy out of a recession is that people may take that money and save it.  Or, worse yet, pay down their credit card balances.  Which is something most responsible people do during bad economic times.  To lower their monthly bills so they can still pay them if they find themselves living on a reduced income.  Of course, being responsible doesn’t increase consumption.  Nor does it make Keynesians happy.

Keynesians don’t like people behaving responsibly.  They want everyone to live beyond their means.  To borrow money to buy a house.  To buy a car.  Or two.  To use their credit cards.  To keep shopping.  Above and beyond the limits of their income.  To spend.  And to keep spending.  Always consuming.  Creating endless economic activity.  And never worry about saving.  Because everyone eventually dies.  And what good will all that saving be then?

To Help Create more Capital from a Low Savings Rate we use Fractional Reserve Banking

Intriguing argument.  But too much consuming and not enough saving can be a problem, though.  Because before we consume we must produce.  And those producing the things we consume need capital.  Large sums of money businesses use to pay for buildings, equipment, tools and supplies.  To make the things consumers consume.  And where does that capital come from?  Savings.

A low savings rate raises the cost of borrowing.  Because businesses are competing for a smaller pool of capital.  Which raises interest rates.  Because capital is an economic commodity, subject to the law of supply and demand.  Also, with people living beyond their means by consuming far more than they are saving has caused other problems.  Borrowing to buy houses and cars and using credit cards to consume more has led to dangerous levels of personal debt.  Resulting in record personal bankruptcies.  Further raising the cost of borrowing.  As these banks have to increase their interest rates to make up for the losses they incur from those personal bankruptcies.

To help create more capital from a low savings rate we use fractional reserve banking.  Here’s how it works.  If you deposit $100 into your bank the bank keeps a fraction of that in their vault.  Their cash reserve.  And loan out the rest of the money.  When lots of people do this the banks have lots of money to loan.  Which people and businesses borrow.  Who borrow to buy things.  And when buyers buy things sellers will then take their money and deposit it into their banks.  The buyer’s borrowed funds become the seller’s deposited funds.  These banks will keep a fraction of these new deposits in their vaults.  And loan out the rest.  Etc.  As this happens over and over banks will create money out of thin air.  Providing ever more capital for businesses to borrow.  Which all works well.  Unless depositors all try to withdraw their deposits at the same time.  Exceeding the cash reserve locked up in a bank’s vault.   Creating a run on the bank.  Causing it to fail.  Which can also raise the cost of borrowing.  Or just make it difficult to find a bank willing to loan.  Because banks not only loan to consumers and businesses.  They loan to other banks.  And when one bank fails it could very well cause problems for other banks.  So banks get nervous and are reluctant to lend until they think this danger has passed.

A Keynesian Stimulus Check may Momentarily Substitute for a Paycheck but it can’t Create Capital

Consumption, savings, investment and production are linked.  Consumption needs production.  Production needs investment.  And investment needs savings.  Whether it is someone depositing their paycheck into a bank that lends it to others.  Or rich investors who amassed and saved great wealth.  Who invest directly into a corporation by buying new shares of their stock (from an underwriter, not in the secondary stock market).  Or by buying their bonds.

Collectively we call these capital markets.  Where businesses go when they need capital.  If interest rates are low they may borrow from a bank.  Or sell bonds.  If interest rates are high they may issue stock.  Generally they have a mix of financing that best fits the investing climate in the capital markets.  To protect them from volatile movements in interest rates.  And from competition from other corporations issuing new stock that could draw investors (and capital) away from their new stock issue.  Even to secure capital when no one is lending.  By going contrary to Keynesian policy and saving for a rainy day.  By buying liquid investments that earn a small return on investment and carrying them on their balance sheet.  They don’t earn much but can be sold quickly and converted into cash when no one is lending.

A lot must happen before consumers can consume.  In fact, high consumption can pull capital away from those who make the things they consume.  Because without capital businesses can’t expand production or hire more workers.  And no amount of Keynesian stimulus can change that.  Because there are two things necessary for consumption.  A paycheck.  And consumer goods produced with capital.  A stimulus check may momentarily substitute for a paycheck.  But it can’t create capital.  Only savings can do that.

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Time Value of Money, Interest, Risk, Opportunity Costs and Banking

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 2nd, 2012

Economics 101

Entrepreneurs have to Borrow Money because their Income comes AFTER they Build Things

A lot of things came together to give us a modern civilization.  Food surpluses, division of labor, money, religion, rule of law, free trade, free labor, prices, incentive and competition.  As well as other important developments.  Such as banking.  That addressed the time value of money.  And the risk of lending.

Before farmers can sell their harvests they have to plant them first.  This takes money.  Which raises an obvious question.  How do farmers get money to plant a crop?  When their income comes AFTER the planting of that crop?  Entrepreneurs have the same problem.  They can build things to sell.  But like the farmer they have to buy materials first.  Which takes money.  So how do entrepreneurs get money to build the things they build?  When their income comes AFTER the building of these things?

Of course farmers and entrepreneurs have to borrow money.  Say from a parent.  Who has been saving up for a really nice vacation.  A parent can loan the farmer or the entrepreneur money.  But that means that they may have to postpone their plans.  Or change their plans. For the same vacation may cost more next year than it does this year.  If they loan their money and get the same amount back they won’t be able to afford that same vacation.  Unless they charge interest.  So that when they get their money back AND the interest they can then afford that same but now more expensive vacation.

A Bank collects Deposits from Numerous Depositors so they can lend it to the People who Need Capital

This is the time value of money.  Over time money buys less.  Because it’s worth less.  The same amount of money will buy more today than it will 10 years from now.  This lost value is the cost of borrowed money.  And why borrowing money typically incurs interest.  Money a borrower owes in addition to the amount borrowed.  The interest compensates the lender for the lost value of their money.  So when you repay it they don’t lose any purchasing power.  And the lender can buy the same things that they could have when they loaned you the money.  Like a postponed vacation that became more expensive over time.

As the economy became more complex it required more borrowed money to pay for the production of other things.  Things that we sell much later than when we purchased the material to make these things.  Expensive things.  Tools.  Equipment.  Factories.  Trucks.  Costs so great that a person’s parents may not have enough savings to finance these things.  But they could if we combine their savings with other people’s savings.

Alexander Hamilton said a person’s savings was just money.  But when added to the savings of other people that money became capital.  Large pools of money available to loan.  So entrepreneurs could borrow money to buy tools, equipment, factories and trucks.  This important part of business became a business in itself.  The banking business.  A bank collects deposits from numerous depositors.  So they can lend it to the people who need capital.  They pay interest to depositors to encourage them to deposit their money.  And charge interest to borrowers to pay the depositors’ interest and other costs of running the bank.

Charging Interest Compensated the Lender for the Risk they were Taking and is a Necessary Part of Capitalism

Banks get a lot of bad press these days.  Since the dawn of banking, really.  People say bankers get rich for doing nothing.  Using other people’s money to boot.  Some call it a sin.  Usury.  Making money simply by lending money.  The ancient Jews forbade it.  So did the Christians.  Even the Muslims.  (And still do.)  But without banks we wouldn’t have a modern civilization.  In fact, if we had no banks you would not recognize the world you’d be living in.  There would be no middle class.  And our economic system would probably still be based on Manorialism.  Where most of us would still be serfs.  Working the land for the Lord of the Manor like our distant ancestors did in the Middle Ages.

There would have been no Industrial Revolution.  No cell phones.  No Internet.  Because all of these things required capital.  The pooling of people’s savings.  To provide the investment capital it takes to finance these things we take for granted in our lives today.

But things changed.  First the Jews started lending money for interest.  Then the Christians followed.  Seeing that business and commerce needed to borrow money.  And that lending money incurred risk.  (Some people might not repay their loans.)  And there were opportunity costs.  (The other things they could do with that money.)  Charging interest compensated the lender for the risk they were taking.  It wasn’t usury.  It was a necessary part of capitalism.  And the modern world we take for granted today.

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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.

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