A Mining Boom has caused Gold to fall while Gasoline continues to Rise

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 2nd, 2013

Week in Review

Gold and oil share something in common.  We price both of these commodities in U.S. dollars.  Which makes it difficult to hide inflation in these commodities.  Food companies can shrink package sizing to keep from having to raise their prices to factor in inflation.  But you can’t do that when you sell oil by a fixed quantity.  A barrel.  Or gold.  Which we sell by the ounce.  Which means if you depreciate the dollar (with quantitative easing where we print money to buy bonds to increase the money supply so as to lower interest rates to encourage people to borrow money and buy things) you have to increase the price of these commodities.  Because if you make the money worth less it will take more of it to buy what it once bought.

But gold and oil also have a major difference.  While an increase in the price of gold encourages gold mines to bring more gold to market environmental concerns have prevented people from bringing more oil to market.   It is because of this that the price of gold has fallen while gasoline prices are rising again (see The Gold Standard by SARAH MAX posted 6/1/2013 on Barron’s).

Gold prices rise in times of economic malaise—hence its 23% rise in 2009 and 27% rise in 2010. When prices are rising, mining stocks have historically outperformed the physical asset. Yet gold-mining stocks have lagged over the past few years, even before the price of gold plummeted from its August 2011 high of roughly $1,900 a troy ounce to less than $1,400 today. “The main reason is cost inflation,” says Foster, explaining that a global mining boom has driven up the costs of labor and materials, while forcing miners to look farther afield for new gold deposits.

As the government inflates the money supply it reduces our purchasing power.  This erodes the value of our savings.  Making the money we worked hard for and put in the bank to pay for our retirement unable to buy as much as we hoped it would.  This is why people buy gold.  Because gold will hold its value.  If they increase the money supply by 20% the price of gold should rise, too.  Close to that 20%.  So when the Federal Reserve finally abandons their inflationary policies people can sell their gold and put their retirement savings back into the bank.  Adjusted, of course, for inflation.

The price of gold has fallen despite the Fed’s quantitative easing still going strong.  So if the dollar is worth less how come it now takes fewer of them, instead of more of them, to buy a given amount of gold?  Supply and demand.  With the high gold price people mined more gold and brought it to market.  Increasing the supply.  And lowering the price.  But because the Fed is still depreciating the dollar costs continue to rise.  Making it more costly for these mining companies to mine and bring gold to market.  Reducing their profits.  And the cost of their stock.

If only the oil business was free to operate like this.  For with the Fed depreciating the dollar they’re raising the price of a barrel of oil.  Making it attractive to bring more oil to market.  But wherever it can the federal government has shut down oil exploration and production.  To appease the environmentalists in their political base.  So, instead, gasoline prices continue to rise.  While gold prices fall.  And the dollar continues to depreciate.  Which will one day ignite a vicious inflation.  Much like it did in the Seventies.  And then it will take a nasty recession to get rid of that vicious inflation.  Like we had in the Eighties.  But at least in the Eighties we had one of the strongest and longest economic expansion follow that nasty recession.  Thanks to a strong dollar.  Low taxes.  And a reduction of regulatory costs.  Something the current administration clearly opposes. So we’ll probably have the inflation.  And the recession.  But not the economic expansion.  For that we may have to wait for the next Republican administration.

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Recession and Depression

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 25th, 2012

Economics 101

A Depression is an Exceptionally Bad Recession 

When campaigning for the presidency Ronald Reagan explained what a recession, a depression and a recovery were.  He said a recession is when your neighbor loses his job.  A depression is when you lose your job.  And a recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his job.  This was during the 1980 presidential election.  Where Reagan included that famous question at the end of one of the debates.  “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”  And the answer was “no.”  Ronald Reagan surged ahead of Jimmy Carter after that and won by a landslide.  And he won reelection by an even bigger landslide in 1984.

There are a couple of ways to define a recession.  Falling output and rising unemployment.  Two consecutive quarters of falling Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  A decline in new factory orders.  The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, officially marks the start and end dates of all U.S. recessions.  They consider a lot of economic data.   It’s not an exact science.  But they track the business cycle.  That normal economic cycle between economic expansion and economic contraction.  The business cycle has peaks (expansion) and troughs (contraction).  A recession is the time period between a peak and a trough.  From the time everyone is working and happy and buying a lot of stuff.  Through a period of layoffs where people stop buying much of anything.  Until the last layoff before the next economic expansion begins.

A depression has an even more vague science behind it.  We really don’t have a set of requirements that the economy has to meet to tell us we’re in a depression.  Since the Great Depression we haven’t really used the word anymore for a depression is just thought of as an exceptionally bad recession.  Some have called the current recession (kicked off by the subprime mortgage crisis) a depression.  Because it has a lot of the things the Great Depression had.  Bank failures.  Liquidity crises.  A long period of high unemployment.  In fact, current U.S unemployment is close to Great Depression unemployment if you measure more apples to apples and use the U-6 rate instead of the official U-3 rate that subtracts a lot of people from the equation (people who can’t find work and have given up looking, people working part-time because they can’t find a full-time job, people underemployed working well below their skill level, etc.).  For these reasons many call the current recession the Great Recession.  To connect it to the Great Depression.  Without calling the current recession a depression.

Whether Inventories sell or not Businesses have to Pay their People and their Payroll Taxes

So what causes a recession?  Good economic times.  Funny, isn’t it?  It’s the good times that cause the bad times.  Here’s how.  When everyone has a job who wants a job a lot of people are spending money in the economy.  Creating a lot of economic activity.  Businesses respond to this.  They increase production.  Even boost the inventories they carry so they don’t miss out on these good times.  For the last thing a business wants is to run out of their hot selling merchandise when people are buying like there is no tomorrow.  Businesses will ramp up production.  Add overtime such as running production an extra day of the week.  Perhaps extend the working day.  Businesses will do everything to max out their production with their current labor force.  Because expanding that labor force will cause big problems when the bloom is off of the economic rose.

But if the economic good times look like they will last businesses will hire new workers.  Driving up labor costs as businesses have to pay more to hire workers in a tight labor market.  These new workers will work a second shift.  A third shift.  They will fill a manufacturing plant expansion.  Or fill a new plant.  (Built by a booming construction industry.  Just as construction workers are building new houses in a booming home industry.)  Businesses will make these costly investments to meet the booming demand during an economic expansion.  Increasing their costs.  Which increases their prices.  And as businesses do this throughout the economy they begin to produce even more than the people are buying.  Inventories begin to build up until inventories are growing faster than sales.  The business cycle has peaked.  And the economic decline begins.

Inventories are costly.  They produce no revenue.  But incur cost to warehouse them.  Worse, businesses spent a lot of money producing these inventories.  Or I should say credit.  Typically manufacturers buy things and pay for them later.  Their accounts payable.  Which are someone else’s accounts receivable.  A lot of bills coming due.  And a lot of invoices going past due.  Because businesses have their money tied up in those inventories.  But one thing they can’t owe money on is payroll.  Whether those inventories sell or not they have to pay their people on time or face some harsh legal penalties.  And they have to pay their payroll taxes (Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, withholding taxes, etc.) for the same reasons.  As well as their Workers’ Compensation insurance.  And they have to pay their health care insurance.  Labor is costly.  And there is no flexibility in paying it while you’re waiting for that inventory to sell.  This is why businesses are reluctant to add new labor and only do so when there is no other way to keep up with demand.

The Fed tries to Remove the Recessionary Side of the Business Cycle with Small but ‘Manageable’ Inflation

As sales dry up businesses reduce their prices to unload that inventory.  To convert that inventory into cash so they can pay their bills.  At the same time they are cutting back on production.  With sales down they are only losing money by building up inventories of stuff no one is buying.  Which means layoffs.  They idle their third shifts.  Their second shifts.  Their overtime.  They shut down plants.  A lot of people lose jobs.  Sales fall.  And prices fall.  As businesses try to reduce their inventories.  And stay in business by enticing the fewer people in the market place to buy their reduced production at lower prices.

During the economic expansion costs increased.  Labor costs increased.  And prices increased.  Because demand was greater than supply.  Businesses incurred these higher costs to meet that demand.  During the contraction these had to fall.  Because supply exceeded demand.  Buyers could and did shop around for the lowest price.  Without fear of anything running out of stock and not being there to buy the next day.  Or the next week.  And when prices stop falling it marks the end of the recession and the beginning of the next expansion.  When supply equals demand once again.  Prices, then, are key to the business cycle.  They rise during boom times.  And fall during contractions.  And when they stop falling the recession is over.  This is so important that I will say it again.  When prices stop falling a recession is over.

Jimmy Carter had such a bad economy because his administration still followed Keynesian economic policies.  Which tried to massage the business cycle by removing the contraction side of it.  By using monetary policy.  The Keynesians believed that whenever the economy starts to go into recession all the government has to do is to print money and spend it.  And the government printed a lot of money in the Seventies.  So much that there was double digit inflation.  But all this new money did was raise prices during a recession.  Which only made the recession worse.  This was the turning point in Keynesian economics.  And the end of highly inflationary policies.  But not the end of inflationary policies.

The Federal Reserve (the Fed) still tries to remove the recessionary side of the business cycle.  And they still use monetary policy to do it.  With a smaller but ‘manageable’ amount of inflation.  During the great housing bubble that preceded the subprime mortgage crisis and the Great Recession the Fed kept expanding the money supply to keep interest rates very low.  This kept mortgage rates low.  People borrowed money and bought big houses.  Housing prices soared.  These artificially low interest rates created a huge housing bubble that eventually popped.  And because the prices were so high the recession would be a long one to bring them back down.  Which is why many call the current recession the Great Recession.  Because we haven’t seen a price deflation like this since the Great Depression.

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The Great Depression

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 20th, 2011

History 101

The  Roaring Twenties were a Time of Unprecedented Innovation and Manufacturing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LESSONS LEARNED #55: “Liberals are all for trickle-down economics as long as the wealth trickles down from those who support liberals.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 3rd, 2011

 JFK Governed as a Conservative

We’ve had two ‘trickle-down’ administrations in recent times.  Both JFK and Ronald Reagan were proponents of supply-side economics.  Between these two administrations we had a few Keynesians (LBJ, Nixon, Ford and Carter).  JFK and Reagan cut tax rates.  The Keynesians never lowered the tax rate lower than JFK’s.  Reagan did.  But not the Keynesians.

JFK was a Democrat.  But he governed as a conservative.  He was strong on defense.  Even got us into Vietnam to prevent the dominoes from falling in Southeast Asia.  And he was business friendly.  But that doesn’t stop Democrats from loving him, though.  Most probably don’t know anything about his conservative side.  They think about Camelot.  Jackie.  John John.  “Ich bin ein Berliner” (the big Cold War speech after the Soviet Union built the Berlin Wall).  Landing a man on the moon and returning him safely.  “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  And the civil rights stuff.  Not that he was a hawk when it came to war (Bay of Pigs-sort of, Cuban Missiles Crisis and Vietnam).  And a tax cutter.

LBJ may have been JFK’s vice president but he was no JFK.  Kennedy wanted to build a strong economy and he believed that started with making a business-friendly environment.  Which he did.  Johnson, on the other hand, was a big, old school, liberal.  To him businesses were just cash piñatas for the government to whack.  He wanted their money.  Because he wanted to spend it.  And boy did he.  He exploded the role of government in our lives.  Increased taxes.  Increased regulation.  And increased the government bureaucracy.  He called it his Great Society.  And he gave FDR‘s New Deal a run for its money.

JFK’s Tax Cuts Stimulated Economic Activity

When Kennedy became president, there was a bit of a recession going on.  Unemployment got as high as 6.7% in his first year.  And the top marginal tax rate was 91%.  When he looked at the two the answer was obvious to him.  With a top marginal tax rate of 91%, there was little incentive to invest.  If your earnings exceed a certain amount, you only kept 9 cents of each additional dollar?  So why bother?  Like Billy Joel said, “You can pay Uncle Sam with the overtime.  Is that all you get for your money?”  Or like George Harrison said, “There’s one for you, nineteen for me.  Cause I’m the taxman.”   

No one likes paying taxes.  Especially confiscatory taxes.  It’s why the Beatles left the UK.  All you need may be love.  But even hippies want to keep their money.  And JFK understood this.  High taxes discouraged investment.  And drove some business away.  So he put together an economic plan that included cuts in the tax rates.  He brought the top marginal rate from 91% to 70%.  And how did that work?  Not too bad.  Based on the numbers.

In the four years following his tax cuts, tax receipts increased 41%.  So he brought more money into Washington by cutting tax rates.  And it gets better.  The unemployment rate went down 33% (from 5.7% to 3.8%).  And GDP increased 35%.  In the technical language of economists, these numbers are awesome.

The LBJ/Nixon Policies End the JFK Economic Expansion

Well, the party wasn’t going to last.  Thanks to Lee Harvey Oswald.  JFK was dead.  Assassinated.  And LBJ took the oath of office in Air Force One before leaving Texas.  Who can forget the image of a grief-stricken Jackie as Johnson took the oath?  Much like with the assassination of Lincoln, the consequences of that action was to forever change the country (we all wonder how Reconstruction would have gone with Lincoln).  JFK was gone.  LBJ was in.  And he was bringing his Great Society with him.  And the size of government would never be the same.

Johnson raised taxes in his last 2 years to pay for the massive federal spending.  Nixon cut them.  He brought the top marginal rate back to the Kennedy level.  But he didn’t cut spending.  And to keep up with the spending he started printing money.  Gold started flying out of the country so he decoupled the dollar from gold, igniting inflation.  The heady days of the JFK economic expansion were over.  Looking at a period that included the last 2 years of LBJ’s term and Nixon’s 6 years, it’s not a pretty picture.

Tax receipts soared 77% to pay for all that government spending.  And, not surprisingly, the unemployment rate soared, too.  It went from 3.8% to 5.6% (an increase of 47%).  GDP shot up an impressive 80%, too.  Landing on the moon, Vietnam and the Great Society created a lot of economic activity.  But that economic activity wasn’t real.  It was a bubble.  Paid for with high taxes and printed dollars.  So prices were high thanks to inflation.  And a lot of us didn’t have a job.  And this is what Carter got when he entered office.  Malaise.  Stagflation (high unemployment and high inflation).  And something we called the misery index (the sum of the unemployment and inflation rates).  Carter was not going into the 1980 election with a lot going for him.  And the Iranian Hostage Crisis didn’t help any either.

Ronald Reagan Cuts Taxes, Stimulates the Economy and Wins the Cold War

Then came Ronald Reagan.  He put Carter out of his misery by winning the 1980 election.  Then rolled up his sleeves.  And got to work.  When he came into office the top marginal tax rate was 69%.  By the time he left it was 28%.  The Left called him reckless and irresponsible.  That he ran high deficits.  And exploded the federal debt.  Well, yes, both of these did increase during the Reagan years.  But it’s not because of the tax rate cuts.  Those were caused by spending more money than the treasury collected.  And, believe you me, the treasury really raked it in during the Reagan presidency.

In 1981, tax receipts were about $600 billion.  In 1990 (adding in the first year of George H.W. Bush), tax receipts were about $1 trillion.  In other words, the Reagan tax rate cuts increased tax receipts by 72%.  The treasury collected more tax dollars at the lower tax rates.  So there is no way no how you can blame deficits and debt on the Reagan tax rate cuts.  And it gets better.

During the Eighties, the unemployment rate fell 26%.  And the GDP rose 86%.  Lower tax rates.  Higher tax revenue.  Lower unemployment.  And a surge in economic activity.  Wow.  Can it get any better?  Why, yes.  Reagan spent the Soviet Union into defeat in the Cold War.  They just couldn’t keep up.  Caused a lot of trouble on the other side of the Iron Curtain.  Long story short, after his presidency, Eastern Europe would be free of Communism.  And the Berlin Wall would be no more. 

Supply-Side Economics Works

The moral of this lesson?  Supply-side (aka, trickle-down) economics works.  It worked for JFK.  And it worked for Reagan.  What doesn’t work is the Keynesian economics of LBJ, Nixon, Ford and Carter.  They grew government.  Increased government spending.  Giving us higher taxes, higher unemployment, higher inflation and malaise.  The only thing that trickled down was their misery.

So if trickle-down can fill the federal coffers why do liberals hate it?  Because those who support supply-side economics are typically in the private sector.  Have jobs.  Don’t belong to a union.  And don’t need any help from government.  You put that all together and the answer is clear.  These people don’t lobby liberals.  So what good is their wealth when no part of it makes its way to liberal pockets?  Like Big Labor?  Or public sector unions?

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Financial Crises: The Fed Giveth and the Fed Taketh Away

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 3rd, 2010

Great Depression vs. Great Recession

Ben Bernanke is a genius.  I guess.  That’s what they keep saying at least. 

The chairman of the Federal Reserve is a student of the Great Depression, that great lesson of how NOT to implement monetary policy.  And because of his knowledge of this past great Federal Reserve boondoggle, who better to fix the present great Federal Reserve boondoggle?  What we affectionately call the Great Recession.

There are similarities between the two.  Government caused both.  But there are differences.  Bad fiscal policy brought on a recession in the 1920s.  Then bad monetary policy exasperated the problem into the Great Depression. 

Bad monetary policy played a more prominent role in the present crisis.  It was a combination of cheap money and aggressive government policy to put people into houses they couldn’t afford that set off an international debt bomb.  Thanks to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac buying highly risky mortgages and selling them as ‘safe’ yet high-yield investments.  Those rascally things we call derivatives.

The Great Depression suffered massive bank failures because the lender of last resort (the Fed) didn’t lend.  In fact, they made it more difficult to borrow money when banks needed money most.  Why did they do this?  They thought rich people were using cheap money to invest in the stock market.  So they made money more expensive to borrow to prevent this ‘speculation’.

The Great Recession suffered massive bank failures because people took on great debt in ideal times (low interest rates and increasing home values).  When the ‘ideal’ became real (rising interest rates and falling home values), surprise surprise, these people couldn’t pay their mortgages anymore.  And all those derivatives became worthless. 

The Great Depression:  Lessons Learned.  And not Learned.

Warren G. Harding appointed Andrew Mellon as his Secretary of the Treasury.  A brilliant appointment.  The Harding administration cut taxes.  The economy surged.  Lesson learned?  Lower taxes stimulate the economy.  And brings more money into the treasury.

The Progressives in Washington, though, needed to buy votes.  So they tinkered.  They tried to protect American farmers from their own productivity.  And American manufacturers.  Also from their own productivity.  Their protectionist policies led to tariffs and an international trade war.  Lesson not learned?  When government tinkers bad things happen to the economy.

Then the Fed stepped in.  They saw economic activity.  And a weakening dollar (low interest rates were feeding the economic expansion).  So they strengthened the dollar.  To keep people from ‘speculating’ in the stock money with borrowed money.  And to meet international exchange rate requirements.  This led to bank failures and the Great Depression.  Lesson not learned?   When government tinkers bad things happen to the economy.

Easy Money Begets Bad Debt which Begets Financial Crisis

It would appear that Ben Bernanke et al learned only some of the lessons of the Great Depression.  In particular, the one about the Fed’s huge mistake in tightening the money supply.  No.  They would never do that again.  Next time, they would open the flood gates (see Fed aid in financial crisis went beyond U.S. banks to industry, foreign firms by Jia Lynn Yang, Neil Irwin and David S. Hilzenrath posted 12/2/2010 on The Washington Post).

The financial crisis stretched even farther across the economy than many had realized, as new disclosures show the Federal Reserve rushed trillions of dollars in emergency aid not just to Wall Street but also to motorcycle makers, telecom firms and foreign-owned banks in 2008 and 2009.

The Fed’s efforts to prop up the financial sector reached across a broad spectrum of the economy, benefiting stalwarts of American industry including General Electric and Caterpillar and household-name companies such as Verizon, Harley-Davidson and Toyota. The central bank’s aid programs also supported U.S. subsidiaries of banks based in East Asia, Europe and Canada while rescuing money-market mutual funds held by millions of Americans.

The Fed learned its lesson.  Their easy money gave us all that bad debt.  And we all learned just how bad ‘bad debt’ can be.  They wouldn’t make that mistake again.

The data also demonstrate how the Fed, in its scramble to keep the financial system afloat, eventually lowered its standards for the kind of collateral it allowed participating banks to post. From Citigroup, for instance, it accepted $156 million in triple-C collateral or lower – grades that indicate that the assets carried the greatest risk of default.

Well, maybe next time.

You Don’t Stop a Run by Starting a Run

With the cat out of the bag, people want to know who got these loans.  And how much each got.  But the Fed is not telling (see Fed ID’s companies that used crisis aid programs by Jeannine Aversa, AP Economics Writer, posted 12/1/2010 on Yahoo! News).

The Fed didn’t take part in that appeal. What the court case could require — but the Fed isn’t providing Wednesday — are the names of commercial banks that got low-cost emergency loans from the Fed’s “discount window” during the crisis.

The Fed has long acted as a lender of last resort, offering commercial banks loans through its discount window when they couldn’t obtain financing elsewhere. The Fed has kept secret the identities of such borrowers. It’s expressed fear that naming such a bank could cause a run on it, defeating the purpose of the program.

I can’t argue with that.  For this was an important lesson of the Great Depression.  When you’re trying to stop bank runs, you don’t advertise which banks are having financial problems.  A bank can survive a run.  If everyone doesn’t try to withdraw their money at the same time.  Which they may if the Fed advertises that a bank is going through difficult times.

When Fiscal Responsibility Fails, Try Extortion

Why does government always tinker and get themselves into trouble?  Because they like to spend money.  And control things.  No matter what the lessons of history have taught us.

Cutting taxes stimulate the economy.  But it doesn’t buy votes.  You need people to be dependent on government for that.  So no matter what mess government makes, they NEVER fix their mess by shrinking government or cutting taxes.  Even at the city level. 

When over budget what does a city do?  Why, they go to a favored tactic.  Threaten our personal safety (see Camden City Council Approves Massive Police And Fire Layoffs Reported by David Madden, KYW Newsradio 1060, posted 12/2/2010 on philadelphia.cbslocal.com).

Camden City Council, as expected, voted Thursday to lay off almost 400 workers, half of them police officers and firefighters, to bridge a $26.5 million deficit.

There’s a word for this.  And it’s not fiscal responsibility.  Some would call it extortion.

It’s never the pay and benefits of the other city workers.  It’s always the cops and firefighters.  Why?  Because cutting the pay and benefits of a bloated bureaucracy doesn’t put the fear of God into anyone.

Here we go Again

We never learn.  And you know what George Santayana said.  “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  And here we are.  Living in the past.  Again.

www.PITHOCRATES.com

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

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 19th, 2010

WHAT GAVE BIRTH to the Federal Reserve System and our current monetary policy?  The Panic of 1907.  Without going into the details, there was a liquidity crisis.  The Knickerbocker Trust tried to corner the market in copper.  But someone else dumped copper on the market which dropped the price.  The trust failed.  Because of the money involved, a lot of banks, too, failed.  Depositors, scared, created bank runs.  As banks failed, the money supply contracted.  Businesses failed.  The stock market crashed (losing 50% of its value).  And all of this happened during an economic recession.

So, in 1913, Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act, creating the Federal Reserve System (the Fed).  This was, basically, a central bank.  It was to be a bank to the banks.  A lender of last resort.  It would inject liquidity into the economy during a liquidity crisis.  Thus ending forever panics like that in 1907.  And making the business cycle (the boom – bust economic cycles) a thing of the past.

The Fed has three basic monetary tools.  How they use these either increases or decreases the money supply.  And increases or decreases interest rates.

They can change reserve requirements for banks.  The more reserves banks must hold the less they can lend.  The less they need to hold the more they can lend.  When they lend more, they increase the money supply.  When they lend less, they decrease the money supply.  The more they lend the easier it is to get a loan.  This decreases interest rates (i.e., lowers the ‘price’ of money).  The less they lend the harder it is to get a loan.  This increases interest rates (i.e., raises the ‘price’ of money). 

The Fed ‘manages’ the money supply and the interest rates in two other ways.  They buy and sell U.S. Treasury securities.  And they adjust the discount rate they charge member banks to borrow from them.  Each of these actions either increases or decreases the money supply and/or raises or lowers interest rates.  The idea is to make money easier to borrow when the economy is slow.  This is supposed to make it easier for businesses to expand production and hire people.  If the economy is overheating and there is a risk of inflation, they take the opposite action.  They make it more difficult to borrow money.  Which increases the cost of doing business.  Which slows the economy.  Lays people off.  Which avoids inflation.

The problem with this is the invisible hand that Adam Smith talked about.  In a laissez-faire economy, no one person or one group controls anything.  Instead, millions upon millions of people interact with each other.  They make millions upon millions of decisions.  These are informed decisions in a free market.  At the heart of each decision is a buyer and a seller.  And they mutually agree in this decision making process.  The buyer pays at least as much as the seller wants.  The seller sells for at least as little as the buyer wants.  If they didn’t, they would not conclude their sales transaction.  When we multiply this basic transaction by the millions upon millions of people in the market place, we arrive at that invisible hand.  Everyone looking out for their own self-interest guides the economy as a whole.  The bad decisions of a few have no affect on the economy as a whole.

Now replace the invisible hand with government and what do you get?  A managed economy.  And that’s what the Fed does.  It manages the economy.  It takes the power of those millions upon millions of decisions and places them into the hands of a very few.  And, there, a few bad decisions can have a devastating impact upon the economy.

TO PAY FOR World War I, Woodrow Wilson and his Progressives heavily taxed the American people.  The war left America with a huge debt.  And in a recession.  During the 1920 election, the Democrats ran on a platform of continued high taxation to pay down the debt.  Andrew Mellon, though, had done a study of the rich in relation to those high taxes.  He found the higher the tax, the more the rich invested outside the country.  Instead of building factories and employing people, they took their money to places less punishing to capital.

Warren G. Harding won the 1920 election.  And he appointed Andrew Mellon his Treasury secretary.  Never since Alexander Hamilton had a Treasury secretary understood capitalism as well.  The Harding administration cut tax rates and the amount of tax money paid by the ‘rich’ more than doubled.  Economic activity flourished.  Businesses expanded and added jobs.  The nation modernized with the latest technologies (electric power and appliances, radio, cars, aviation, etc.).  One of the best economies ever.  Until the Fed got involved.

The Fed looked at this economic activity and saw speculation.  So they contracted the money supply.  This made it hard for business to expand to meet the growing demand.  When money is less readily available, you begin to stockpile what you have.  You add to that pile by selling liquid securities to build a bigger cash cushion to get you through tight monetary times.

Of course, the economy is NOT just monetary policy.  Those businesses were looking at other things the government was doing.  The Smoot-Hartley tariff was in committee.  Across the board tariff increases and import restrictions create uncertainty.  Business does not like uncertainty.  So they increase their liquidity.  To prepare for the worse.  Then the stock market crashed.  Then it got worse. 

It is at this time that the liquidity crisis became critical.  Depositors lost faith.  Bank runs followed.  But there just was not enough money available.  Banks began to fail.  Time for the Fed to step in and take action.  Per the Federal Reserve Act of 1913.  But they did nothing.  For a long while.  Then they took action.  And made matters worse.  They raised interest rates.  In response to England going off the gold standard (to prop up the dollar).  Exactly the wrong thing to do in a deflationary spiral.  This took a bad recession to the Great Depression.  The 1930s would become a lost decade.

When FDR took office, he tried to fix things with some Keynesian spending.  But nothing worked.  High taxes along with high government spending sucked life out of the private sector.  This unprecedented growth in government filled business with uncertainty.  They had no idea what was coming next.  So they hunkered down.  And prepared to weather more bad times.  It took a world war to end the Great Depression.  And only because the government abandoned much of its controls and let business do what they do best.  Pure, unfettered capitalism.  American industry came to life.  It built the war material to first win World War II.  Then it rebuilt the war torn countries after the war.

DURING THE 1980s, in Japan, government was partnering with business.  It was mercantilism at its best.  Japan Inc.  The economy boomed.  And blew great big bubbles.  The Keynesians in America held up the Japanese model as the new direction for America.  An American presidential candidate said we must partner government with business, too.  For only a fool could not see the success of the Japanese example.  Japan was growing rich.  And buying up American landmarks (including Rockefeller Center in New York).  National Lampoon magazine welcomed us to the 90s with a picture of a Japanese CEO at his desk.  He was the CEO of the United States of America, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Honda Motor Company.  The Japanese were taking over the world.  And we were stupid not to follow their lead.

But there was no invisible hand in Japan.  It was the hand of Japan Inc.  It was Japan Inc. that pursued economic policies that it thought best.  Not the millions upon millions of ordinary Japanese citizens.  Well, Japan Inc. thought wrong. 

There was collusion between Japanese businesses.  And collusion between Japanese businesses and government.  And corruption.  This greatly inflated the Japanese stock market.  And those great big bubbles finally burst.  The powerful Japan Inc. of the 1980s that caused fear and trembling was gone.  Replaced by a Japan in a deflationary spiral in the 1990s.  Or, as the Japanese call it, their lost decade.  This once great Asian Tiger was now an older tiger with a bit of a limp.   And the economy limped along for a decade or two.  It was still number 3 in the world, but it wasn’t what it used to be.  You don’t see magazine covers talking about it owning other nations any more.  (In 2010, China took over that #3 spot.  But China is a managed economy.   Will it suffer Japan’s fate?  Time will tell.)

The Japanese monetary authorities tried to fix the economy.  Interest rates were zero for about a decade.  In other words, if you wanted to borrow, it was easy.  And free.  But it didn’t help.  That huge economic expansion wasn’t real.  Business and government, in collusion, inflated and propped it up.  It gave them inflated capacity.  And prices.  And you don’t solve that problem by making it easier for businesses to borrow money to expand capacity and create jobs.  That’s the last thing they need.  What they need to do is to get out of the business of managing business.  Create a business-friendly climate.  Based on free-market principles.  Not mercantilism.  And let that invisible hand work its wonders.

MONETARY POLICY CAN do a lot of things.  Most of them bad.  Because it concentrates far too much power in too few hands.  The consequences of the mistakes of those making policy can be devastating.  And too tempting to those who want to use those powers for political reasons.  As we can see by Keynesian ‘stimulus’ spending that ends up as pork barrel spending.  The empirical data for that spending has shown that it stimulates only those who are in good standing with the powers that be.  Never the economy.

Sound money is important.  The money supply needs to keep pace with economic expansion.  If it doesn’t, a tight money supply will slow or halt economic activity.  But we have to use monetary policy for that purpose only.  We cannot use it to offset bad fiscal policy that is anti-business.  For if the government creates an anti-business environment, no amount of cheap money will encourage risk takers to take risks in a highly risky and uncertain environment.  Decades were lost trying.

No, you don’t stimulate with monetary policy.  You stimulate with fiscal policy.  There is empirical evidence that this works.  The Mellon tax cuts of the Harding administration created nearly a decade of strong economic growth.  The tax cuts of JFK were on pace to create similar growth until his assassination.  LBJ’s policies were in the opposite direction, thus ending the economic recovery of the JFK administration.  Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts produced economic growth through two decades. 

THE EVIDENCE IS there.  If you look at it.  Of course, a good Keynesian won’t.  Because it’s about political power for them.  Always has been.  Always will be.  And we should never forget this.

www.PITHOCRATES.com

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