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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Rule of Law

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 21st, 2011

Economics 101

To take Civilization to the Next Level required the Rule of Law

Agriculture advances gave us food surpluses.  Food surpluses gave us a division of labor.  The division of labor gave us trade.  Money made that trade more efficient.  And religion allowed great gatherings of people to live together in urban settings.  Which was a start.  But it didn’t solve all the ills of packing a lot of people together in a crowded urban setting.

Religion did bring people together.  But organized civilization needs leadership.  And having a leadership position over the masses gives one great powers.  For good.  As well as bad.  And all too often leaders have become intoxicated on that power.  Especially if that leader was also the god that the people worshipped.  Who felt they could do anything they wanted.  To anyone they wanted.  And often did.

But it’s just not leaders who failed to choose good.  A lot of the people did, too.  Some people cheated each other.  Stole from each other.  Didn’t honor their agreements.  Fights broke out.  Some harmed others.  Even killed people.  Clearly, religion alone wasn’t enough to get everyone to live in peace and harmony.  They needed something more.  Some basic ground rules.  Rules of the game.  The game being living together in a crowded urban setting.  Working together.  And entering into economic transactions.  What they needed to take civilization to the next level was the Rule of Law.

We use the Rule of Law to Clearly Identify and Protect our Private Property

The key for economic development rested on the principle of private property.  Economic activity is based on trade.  To trade you need first to create things to trade.  Often requiring costs and great personal effort to create these things.  Which people will gladly undertake.  As long as if they own what they create.  And are free to do whatever they wish with it.  Keep it.  Use it.  Or trade it.

We use the Rule of Law to clearly identify and protect our private property.  We define what is ours.  And forbid others to take what is ours without our consent.  If they do they will be punished under the law.  Which will deter some.  And those undeterred will face the consequences.  Thus producing a safer environment to live in.  Where we are safe in our persons and property.  Especially in crowded urban settings.

This encouraged greater economic activity.  With more opportunity to trade.  Sometimes we didn’t exchange things after concluding our negotiations.  Instead entering into a contract for an economic exchange.  Such as summarizing the terms for the exchange of a piece of land.  Or for a future farm crop.  Agreements we freely and consensually enter into.  Because we trust the Rule of Law to protect and enforce these agreements.

Private Property Rights and Contracts are the Indispensible Requirements of any Free Market Economy

The Rule of Law picked up where religion left off.  For those who did not wish to choose good behavior.  Whether it be people in the masses.  Or the leaders.  The Rule of Law became supreme.  Everyone was answerable to the laws of the land.  Today, government leaders often swear an oath to support and defend these laws.

And by clearly setting the ground rules for economic exchange, the Rule of Law unleashed economic activity.  Perhaps more so than any other thing.  By establishing private property rights.  And creating contracts.  The indispensible requirements of any free market economy.


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