Ben Bernanke defends QE3 before Congress even while Admitting it won’t Create any New Jobs

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 6th, 2012

Week in Review

Ben Bernanke, Federal Reserve Chairman, is a student of the Great Depression.  And of Milton Friedman.  Who he cited often to support his policies when speaking before Congress.  Insisting that their expansionary monetary policy will only stimulate growth.  Not inflation.  Of course, he has already tried quantitative easing one and two and they failed.  As demonstrated by the need of QE3.  Yet these Keynesians always go back to the tried and failed Keynesian policies.  Increase the money supply to lower interest rates.  To encourage people to build and sell new housing while the market is still flooded with homes left over when the housing bubble burst back in 2008.

Economics is not like trying to cure a hangover.  A little hair of the dog (drinking more alcohol to mitigate the effects of a hangover) doesn’t work in economics.  More bad monetary policy does not cure previous bad monetary policy.  At least, it hasn’t yet.  Nor does it appear that it ever will (see Bernanke presses Congress to support US economy by AFP posted 10/2/2012 on Channel News Asia).

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said on Monday he is confident the US economy will continue to expand, but he urged the US Congress and the White House to act to support stronger growth…

However, he said the economy is growing at a weak 1.5-2 percent rate, not fast enough to lower the employment rate, and that the Fed’s stimulus efforts need to be backed up by action from the rest of the government…

“Many other steps could be taken to strengthen our economy over time, such as putting the federal budget on a sustainable path, reforming the tax code, improving our educational system, supporting technological innovation, and expanding international trade,” Bernanke said.

“In particular, the Congress and the administration will soon have to address the so-called fiscal cliff, a combination of sharply higher taxes and reduced spending that is set to happen at the beginning of the year.

“According to the Congressional Budget Office and virtually all other experts, if that were allowed to occur, it would likely throw the economy back into recession,” he warned.

Bernanke is on to something here.  He acknowledges that the new taxes of the fiscal cliff could throw the economy back into recession.  So if more taxes will prolong or deepen the recession what can we infer from this?  Would not fewer taxes have the opposite effect?

This is the frustrating thing about all of these students of the Great Depression.  They only look at what the Fed did when they were contracting the money supply.  And nothing else.  They don’t talk about a massive increase in tariffs (the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930) in Congressional committee during 1929.  Before the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  Nor do they discuss the progressive policies of Republican Herbert Hoover.  And his interference into market forces.  Trying to raise prices everywhere to help farmers earn more and allow employers to pay their employees more.  And the near doubling of federal income tax rates.  Talk about your economic cold shower.

This was a 180-degree turn from the pro-business polices of the Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge administrations.  That let the Twenties roar with solid economic growth.  Yes, there were some inflationary monetary policies.  The Fed was no angel.  But the growth was strong even after the effects of inflation were factored in.  It was all those tax and tariff increases that turned a recession into a depression.  And then the bad Fed policy destroyed the banking industry on top of it.  Unfortunately, that’s the only part that any Keynesian ever sees.  What the Fed did.  Not the solid economic growth generated by low tax rates and a business-friendly environment.

The Fed’s artificially low interest rates pushed house prices into the stratosphere.  And because they were so high in 2008 they had a very long way to fall.  Which is why the Great Recession has been so painful and so prolonged.  Now they’re trying to stimulate the housing market again.  The very thing that got us into this mess in the first place.  Here’s another lesson the Keynesians need to learn.  Their expansionary policies make recessions longer and more painful.  And there is more to the economy than low interest rates.  For no matter how low they are if the environment is too business-unfriendly they won’t stimulate economic activity.  Lower tax rates and deregulation will.  But not lower interest rates.  That’s what Warren Harding/Calvin Coolidge did.  What JFK did.  What Ronald Reagan did.  What George W. Bush did.  Who all had much faster recoveries following bad recessions than President Obama is having under his Keynesian policies.

If only we could learn the objective lessons of history.  For as George Santayana (1905) said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it.”

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Great Depression, Monetary Expansion, Keynesian, Smoot Hawley Tariff, Gold Window, Subprime Mortgage Crisis and Great Recession

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 2nd, 2012

History 101

There was Real Economic Activity in the Twenties so the Great Depression should only have been a Recession

The Great Depression began with the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  Which led to a period of record unemployment.  On average the unemployment rate was 13.46% during the Thirties.  Or, if you don’t count all of the make-work government jobs, 18.23%.  So what caused this unemployment?  Was it the expansionary monetary policy of the Twenties?  The Keynesians thought so.  Even the economists from the Austrian school of economics thought so.  The only ones to have predicted the Great Depression.  So were they right?  A little bit.

Yes, there was monetary expansion during the Twenties.  So a recessionary correction was inevitable.  But a depression?  When you look at the economic activity of the Twenties, no.  The Roaring Twenties were a transformative time.  It was when we began to say goodbye to the steam engine.  And said hello to electricity.  We said goodbye to the horse and buggy.  And said hello to the automobile.  We said goodbye to the horse and plow.  And said hello to the tractor.  As well as said hello to radio, motion pictures, air travel, electric lighting and electric appliances in the home, etc.  So there was real economic activity in the Twenties.  It wasn’t all a bubble.  So the Great Depression should have only been a regular recession.  But it wasn’t.  So what happened?

Government.  The government interfered with market forces.  Based on Keynesian advice.  They said the government needed to increase aggregate demand.  As that demand would encourage businesses to expand and hire new workers.  Thus lowering the unemployment rate.  And part of increasing demand was keeping wages from falling.  So people had more money to spend.  Of course, if employers were to continue to pay higher wages that meant that prices could not fall.  Like they normally do during a recession.  So the Keynesian advice was to prevent the market from correcting prices to match supply to demand.  Prolonging the inevitable recession.  But there was more bad government policy.

The Keynesian Cure for Unemployment is Inflation

The stock market was soaring in the late Twenties.  Because of that real economic growth.  So what happened to that economic growth?  Well, in part, the Smoot Hawley Tariff of 1930.  Which was in committee in 1929 before the great crash.  But investors saw it coming.  And they knew tariffs rising as much as 50% were going to cool those hot earnings they’ve been enjoying.  As well as Herbert Hoover’s progressive plans.  Who would go on to double income tax rates.  When Herbert Hoover won the 1928 election the writing was on the wall.  And investors bailed.  Especially when the Smoot Hawley Tariff was moving through committee.  Because raising the cost of doing business does not help business.  So the great earnings ride of the Twenties was ending and the investors sold their stocks to lock in their profits.  Precipitating the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  And the record unemployment that would follow.  And the Great Depression.

So the Keynesians got it wrong during the Thirties.  Their next grand experiment would be in the Seventies.  As government spending took off thanks to the Vietnam War, the Great Society and the Apollo moon program.  There was so much spending that they had to print money to pay for it all.  As they did, though, they devalued the dollar.  Which became a problem.  As the U.S. at the time agreed to exchange gold for dollars at $35/ounce.  So when the Americans made their dollar worth less our trading partners decided to take our gold instead.  Gold flew out of the gold window.  So to stop this gold flow out of the country Nixon did what any Keynesian would do.  No, he didn’t cut back spending.  He decoupled the dollar from gold.  Slamming the gold window shut.  Without any advanced warning to the world.  So we now call this action he took on August 15, 1971 the Nixon Shock.  The Keynesians were thrilled.  Because they now had no restraint in printing new money.

The reason Keynesians were happy to be able to print more money was because that was their cure for unemployment.  Inflation.  When the economy goes into recession it was just a simple matter of expanding the money supply.  Which lowers interest rates.  Which makes businesses who had no intention to expand their businesses borrow money to expand their businesses.  So to pull the economy out of recession they inflated the money supply.  And did it work?  No.  Of course it didn’t.  It just raised prices.  Increasing the cost of business.  As well as leaving consumers with less real income.  So, no, the economy didn’t improve.  It just stagnated.  The average unemployment rate during the Seventies was 6.21%.  While the average inflation rate was 7.08%.  Also, the top marginal tax rate of 70%.  Which didn’t help the anti-business environment.

The Subprime Mortgage Crisis and the Great Recession were Direct Consequences of Bad Monetary Policy

So the Keynesians failed.  Again.  Their inflationary monetary policy only made things worse during the Seventies.  All of that inflation just kept pushing prices ever higher.  Ensuring that the inevitable recession to correct those prices would be long and painful.  Which it was.  In the early Eighties.  Then Paul Volcker rang out all of that inflation.  And Ronald Reagan began bringing the top marginal tax rate down until it was at 28% by the end of the decade.  Making a more favorable business environment.  So business grew.  And began to hire new workers.  Teaching an economic lesson some in government refused to learn.  Keynesian inflationary monetary policies did not work.

During the Nineties the Keynesians were back.  Inflating the money supply slowly but surely to continue an economic expansion.  Making money available to borrow.  And borrow it people did.  Creating a long and sustained housing boom that would last for about 2 decades.  That expansionary monetary policy gave us cheap mortgages.  Making it very easy to buy a house.  Housing prices rose.  And continued to rise during those two decades.  Then President Clinton had his Justice Department tell banks to lower their standards for approving mortgages for the unqualified.  So everyone could buy a house.  Even if they couldn’t afford to pay for it.  Ushering in the subprime mortgage industry.  Further increasing the demand for houses.  And further driving up housing prices.  Making the inevitable correction a long and painful one.

Meanwhile, there was something new in the market place in the Nineties.  The Internet.  And new Internet start-ups (dot-coms) flooded the market.  Investors poured money into them.  Even though they didn’t have a product to sell.  And had no earnings.  But investors were exuberant.  And irrational.  Kids flooded into universities to get degrees in computer science.  To staff all of those Internet start-ups.  Companies went public.  Creating a stock market bubble as investors scrambled to buy their stock.  They raised a boatload of money from those IPOs.  And spent it all.  Many without producing anything to sell.  And when that money ran out they went bankrupt.  Bursting that stock market bubble.  And throwing a lot of computer scientists out of a job.  Causing a painful recession in the early 2000s that George Bush helped mitigate with tax cuts.

And low interest rates.  People were back buying houses.  But this time they were buying McMansions.  Because that easy monetary policy gave us cheap mortgage rates.  And subprime, no-documentation, zero down loans, etc., made it easier than ever to buy a house.  Housing prices soared.  And builders flooded the market with more McMansions.  Pushing prices ever higher.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were buying those toxic subprime mortgages from banks to encourage them to approve more toxic subprime mortgages.  Pushing the inevitable correction further and further out.  Running up prices so high that their fall would be a long and painful one.  Which it was when the subprime mortgage crisis hit.  As well as the Great Recession.  Direct consequences of bad monetary policy.  And the government’s interference into market forces.

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Macroeconomic Disequilibrium

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 24th, 2012

Economics 101

In the Barter System we Traded our Goods and Services for the Goods and Services of Others

Money.  It’s not what most people think it is.  It’s not what most politicians think it is.  Or their Keynesian economists.  They think it’s wealth.  That it has value.  But it doesn’t.  It is a temporary storage of value.  A medium of exchange.  And that alone.  Something that we created to make economic trades easier and more efficient.  And it’s those things we trade that have value.  The things that actually make wealth.  Not the money we trade for these things.

In our first economic exchanges there was no money.  Yet there were economic exchanges.  Of goods and services.  That’s right, there was economic activity before money.  People with talent (i.e., human capital) made things, grew things or did things.  They traded this talent with the talent of other people.  Other people with human capital.  Who made things, grew things or did things.  Who sought each other out.  To trade their goods and services for the goods and services of others.  Which you could only do if you had talent yourself.

This is the barter system.  Trading goods and services for goods and services.  Without using money.  Which meant you only had what you could do for yourself.  And the things you could trade for.  If you could find people that wanted what you had.  Which was the great drawback of the barter system.  The search costs.  The time and effort it took to find the people who had what you wanted.  And who wanted what you had.  It proved to be such an inefficient way to make economic transactions that they needed to come up with a better way.  And they did.

The Larger the Wheat Crop the Greater the Inflation and the Higher the Prices paid in Wheat

They found something to temporarily hold the value of their goods and services.  Money.  Something that held value long enough for people to trade their goods and services for it.  Which they then traded for the goods and services they wanted.  Greatly decreasing search costs.  Because you didn’t have to find someone who had what you wanted while having what they wanted.  You just had to take a sack of wheat (or something else that was valuable that other people would want) to market.  When you found what you wanted you simply paid an amount of wheat for what you wanted to buy.  Saving valuable time that you could put to better use.  Producing the goods or services your particular talent provided.

Using wheat for money is an example of commodity money.  Something that has intrinsic value.  You could use it as money and trade it for other goods and services.  Or you could use it to make bread.  Which is what gives it intrinsic value.  Everyone needs to eat.  And bread being the staple of life wheat was very, very valuable.  For back then famine was a real thing.  While living through the winter was not a sure thing.  So the value of wheat was life itself.  The more you had the less likely you would starve to death.  Especially after a bad growing season.  When those with wheat could trade it for a lot of other stuff.  But if it was a year with a bumper crop, well, that was another story.

If farmers flood the market with wheat because of an exceptional growing season then the value for each sack of wheat isn’t worth as much as it used to be.  Because there is just so much of it around.  Losing some of its intrinsic value.  Meaning that it won’t trade for as much as it once did.  The price of wheat falls.  As well as the value of money.  In other words, the bumper crop of wheat depreciated the value of wheat.  That is, the inflation of the wheat supply depreciated the value of the commodity money (wheat).  If the wheat crop was twice as large it would lose half of its value.  Such that it would take two sacks of wheat to buy what one sack once bought.  So the larger the wheat crop the greater the inflation and the higher the prices (except for wheat, of course).  On the other hand if a fire wipes out a civilization’s granary it will contract the wheat supply.  Making it more valuable (because there is less of it around).  Causing prices to fall (except for wheat, of course).  The greater the contraction (or deflation) of the wheat supply the greater the appreciation of the commodity money (wheat).  And the greater prices fall.  Because a little of it can buy a lot more than it once did.

Keynesian Expansionary Monetary Policy has only Disrupted Normal Market Forces

Creating a bumper crop of wheat is not easy.  Unlike printing fiat money.  It takes a lot of work to plow the additional acreage.  It takes additional seed.  Sowing.  Weeding.  Etc.  Which is why commodity money works so well.  Whether it’s growing wheat.  Or mining a precious metal like gold.  It is not easy or cheap to inflate.  Unlike printing fiat money.  Which is why people were so willing to accept it for payment.  For it was a relative constant.  They could accept it without fear of having to spend it quickly before it lost its value.  This brought stability to the markets.  And let the automatic price system match supply to the demand of goods and services.  If things were in high demand they would command a high price.  That high price would encourage others to bring more of those things to market.  If things were not in high demand their prices would fall.  And fewer people would bring them to market.  When supply equaled demand the market was in equilibrium.

Prices provide market signals.  They tell suppliers what the market wants more of.  And what the market wants less of.  That is, if there is a stable money supply.  Because this automatic price system doesn’t work so well during times of inflation.  Why?  Because during inflation prices rise.  Providing a signal to suppliers.  Only it’s a false signal.  For it’s not demand raising prices.  It’s a depreciated currency raising prices.  Causing some suppliers to increase production even though there is no increase in demand.  So they will expand production.  Hire more people.  And put more goods into the market place.  That no one will buy.  While inflation raises prices everywhere in the market.  Increasing the cost of doing business.  Which raises prices throughout the economy.  Because consumers are paying higher prices they cannot buy as much as they once did.  So all that new production ends up sitting in wholesale inventories.  As inventories swell the wholesalers cut back their orders.  And their suppliers, faced with falling orders, have to cut back.  Laying off employees.  And shuttering facilities.  All because inflation sent false signals and disrupted market equilibrium.

This is something the Keynesians don’t understand.  Or refuse to understand.  They believe they can control the economy simply by continuously inflating the money supply.  By just printing more fiat dollars.  As if the value was in the money.  And not the things (or services) of value we create with our human capital.  Economic activity is not about buying things with money.  It’s about using money to efficiently trade the things we make or do with our talent.  Inflating the money supply doesn’t create new value.  It just raises the price (in dollars) of our talents.  Which is why Keynesian expansionary monetary policy has been such a failure.  For their macroeconomic policies only disrupt normal market forces.  Which result in a macroeconomic disequilibrium.  Such as raising production in the face of falling demand.  Because of false price signals caused by inflation.  Which will only bring on an even more severe recession to restore that market equilibrium.  And the longer they try to prevent this correction through inflationary actions the longer and more severe the recession will be.

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LESSONS LEARNED #75: “Lower income tax rates generate more tax revenue by making more rich people who pay more income taxes.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 21st, 2011

Inflation is a Bitch

The top marginal tax rate during the Eisenhower administration peaked at 92%.  When it wasn’t at 92% it was at 91%.  This was post-war America.  A happy time.  They even named a TV series after this time.  Happy Days.  Life was good.  There were jobs aplenty.  And lots of baby making.  Everyone lived happily ever after.  Until the war-devastated economies rebuilt themselves and didn’t need American manufacturing anymore.

Things started to change in the Sixties.  Sure, a top marginal tax rate of 92% was high.  But few paid it.  Creative accounting and useful tax shelters avoided that punishing rate.  But government was still fat and happy with the money it was collecting.  Until the Vietnam War came along.  Johnson‘s Great Society.  And let’s not forget the Apollo moon program.  With renewed competition for American manufacturing, trouble in the oil-rich Middle East and rising inflation, the Seventies weren’t going to be happy.

And they weren’t.  Oil shockNixon shockStagflationMiseryKeynesian economics says to tax and spend to tweak the economy back to health.  When you can’t tax enough, you borrow.  When you can’t borrow, you print.  Nothing is more important than creating demand where no demand exists.  Give consumers more money to spend and ignore the debt, deficit and inflation.  The problem is, inflation is a bitch.

Reaganomics increased GDP 82.9%

Ronald Reagan routed Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election.  Carter’s economic numbers were some of the worst in history.  Double digit interest rates, unemployment and inflation.  All being flamed by an expansionary Keynesian monetary policy.  Until Paul Volcker took over the Fed during Carter’s last year or so in office.  And there really is only one way to cure a bad inflation.  With a bad recession.  And the Reagan recession of the early 1980s was one of the more severe ones.

Reagan was from the Austrian school of economics.  Supply-side.  His Reaganomics embraced the following tenets: cut spending, cut taxes, cut regulation and cut inflation.  In 1980 the top marginal tax rate was 70%.  When he left office it was 28%.  During his 8 years in office he took GDP from $2,788.1 billion to $5,100.4 billion (an increase of 82.9%).

The Reagan critics will note this explosive economic growth and say, “Yeah, but at what cost?  Record deficits.”  True, Reagan had some of the highest deficits up to his time.  But those deficits had nothing to do with his tax cuts.  For Reagan increased tax revenue from $798.7 billion to $1,502.4 billion (an increase of 88.1%).  Those deficits weren’t from a lack of revenue.  They were from an excess of spending.  And, therefore, not the fault of the Reagan tax cuts.

A Downward Trend in Prices is like an Upward Trend in Wages

And the Reagan critic will counter this with, “Sure, the economy grew.  But the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.”  Yes, his income and capital gains tax cuts made a lot of rich people.  But they also transferred the tax burden from the poor to the rich.  In 1980, the top 1% of earners paid 19.1% of all federal income taxes.  By the time he left office that number grew to 27.6% (an increase of 44.8%).  Meanwhile the bottom 50% of earners paid less.  Their share fell from 7.1% to 5.7% (a decrease of 18.9%).

Of course, the Reagan critic will then note that Reagan slashed domestic spending to pay for his military spending.  Well, yes, Reagan did spend a lot.  He increased spending from $846.5 billion to $1,623.6 billion (or an increase of 91.8%).  But he made a tax deal with Congress.  For every new $1 in taxes Congress would cut $3 in spending.  Those spending cuts never came.  Hence Reagan’s monstrous $200 billion deficits.  That’s a lot of money for both guns and butter.

But the greatest thing he did for low-income people was curbing inflation.  High inflation makes everything cost more, leaving low-income people with less to live on.  In 1980, inflation was at 13.5%.  When Reagan left office he had lowered it to 4.1% (a decrease of 69.6%).  No one benefited more from this reduction in inflation than low-income people.  A downward trend in prices is like an upward trend in wages.

The Reagan Economy was Better than the Clinton Economy

The Reagan critic likes to point to the Clinton years as a better economic period with better economic (and fairer) policies.  The Nineties were a period of economic growth.  But even with the dot-com bubble near the end of that period the Clinton GDP growth of 56.9% was less than Reagan’s 82.9%.   

Whereas Reagan achieved spectacular GDP growth while fighting inflation, the Clinton growth did not have to slay the inflation beast.  In fact, inflation rose from 3.0% to 3.4% during his two terms, indicting the GDP growth was not as real as Reagan’s.  Reagan’s was measured with a strengthening dollar.  Clinton’s was measured with a weakening dollar.  Also, real prices fell under Reagan.  While they rose under Clinton.  Making life more expensive for low-income people under Clinton than under Reagan.

Thanks to the dot-com boom, though, Clinton continued to transfer the tax burden to the rich.  He experienced a wind-fall of capital gains tax revenue when all those rich dot-com people cashed in their stock options.  In 1992, the top 1% of earners paid 27.4% of all federal income taxes.  By the time he left office that number grew to 37.4%.  This was an increase of 35.9% (compared to Reagan’s 44.8%).  Meanwhile the bottom 50% of earners paid less, too.  Their share fell from 5.1% to 3.9%.  This was a decrease of 22.7% (compared to Reagan’s 18.9%). 

Over all, though, Clinton’s policies increased tax revenue 69.8% compared to Reagan’s 88.1%.  And this was with the dot-com boom thrown in.  Had there been no dot-com bubble (that burst after he left office) no doubt his GDP and tax revenue would have been less.  Some of this economic dampening perhaps being caused by his increase of the top marginal tax rate from 31% to 39.6%. 

Both Reagan and Clinton made more Rich People

Reagan’s tax cuts led to an economic boom.  He cut inflation making life more affordable for lower-income people.  And he transferred the tax burden to the rich.

Clinton increased taxes.  His economic boom was good but not great.  A big part of his GDP growth and tax revenue was due more to irrational exuberance than real economic growth. 

But both Reagan and Clinton made more rich people.  And these rich people paid more taxes.  And because they did low-income people paid less.  Which would seem to prove that the best way to increase tax revenue (and make the tax system more progressive) would be to create more rich people.  And yet the very people who want to do this advance policies that work against these objectives.  Why?

Politics.  Sure, the Austrian school of economics has a proven track record over the Keynesian school.  But Austrian school economics has a terrible side affect.  It doesn’t grow government.  And all the economic growth and tax revenue doesn’t mean a thing if you lose your comfy federal job.  At least to a Big Government politician.

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