The Minimum Wage isn’t a Living Wage because the Federal Reserve devalued the Dollar

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 1st, 2014

Week in Review

The Democrats like to talk about income inequality.  Which they say isn’t good.  So they want to raise the minimum wage.  To reduce income inequality.  Even President Obama said during the State of the Union address that he wanted to raise the minimum wage.  To $10.10.  To give them a living wage.  Because they can’t make it on the current minimum wage.  Of course, there’s a reason for this.   And it’s not because of the wage rate.  It’s about the depreciation of the dollar (see Hiking wages with worthless dollars by Seth Lipsky posted 1/29/2014 on the New York Post).

The most startling thing about President Obama’s State of the Union message is what he failed to say about the minimum wage. “Today the federal minimum wage is worth about 20 percent less than it was when Ronald Reagan first stood here,” he declared Tuesday night.

But wait, wasn’t the minimum wage $3.35 an hour throughout Reagan’s two terms? Isn’t it now $7.25 an hour? How does that add up to a drop in value by 20 percent? The president glided right past that point. Maybe he thought nobody would notice.

It strikes me that the president owed the country more of an explanation. After all, he spoke exactly on the 100th anniversary of the start of the Federal Reserve System. The central bank is about to begin its second century. Obama made no reference to any of that history.

Yet a century ago Congress refused to agree to a Federal Reserve until there was a promise about the value of the dollar: It insisted on having the Federal Reserve Act state that it would not lead to an end of the convertibility of the dollar into gold.

That legislative promise came to an end in a series of defaults that started in the Great Depression and ended under President Richard Nixon. By the mid-1970s, America had moved to a fiat currency, meaning a dollar that is not redeemable by law in anything of value. Only what one critic calls “irredeemable electronic paper ticket money.”

The minimum-wage crisis is a sign that fiat money is not working. It’s not, after all, that the nominal minimum wage has failed to go up (it’s been raised seven times since Reagan). It’s that the value of the dollar has collapsed. Today it has a value of only a 1,250th of an ounce of gold, a staggering plunge from an 853rd of an ounce on the day Obama took office.

Back in 1907 some people tried to manipulate the stock price of a copper company and long story short the Knickerbocker Trust Company collapsed and caused a panic in the banking system.  Enter the Federal Reserve System (the Fed).  A central bank that can inject liquidity during a banking crisis.  And forever eliminate these banking crises.  Or so went the theory.  But central banks have a nasty habit of devaluing their currency.  Because they can print money.  Fiat currency.  Well, the deal with the Fed was that they would not succumb to the central bank disease.  But, alas, they did.  Which is why minimum wage workers have less purchasing power today than they did during the Reagan administration.  Even though they are paid more dollars.

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The First Bank of the United States, the Second Bank of the United States and the Federal Reserve System

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 2nd, 2013

History 101

Merchants raise their Prices when the Monetary Authority depreciates the Currency

What is inflation?  A depreciation of the currency.  By adding more money into the money supply each piece of currency becomes less valuable.  Let’s assume our currency is whiskey.  In bottles.  Whiskey has value because people are willing to pay for it.  And because we are willing to pay for it we are willing to accept it as legal tender.  Because we can always trade it to others.  Who can drink it.  Or they can trade it with others.

Now let’s say the monetary authority wants to stimulate economic activity.  Which they try to do by expanding the money supply.  So there is more money available to borrow.  And because there is more money available to borrow interest rates are lower.  Hence making it easy for people to borrow money.  But the monetary authority doesn’t want to make more whiskey.  Because that is costly to do.  Instead, they choose an easier way of expanding the money supply.  By watering down the bottles of whiskey.

Now pretend you are a merchant.  And people are coming in with the new watered-down whiskey.  What do you do?  You know the whiskey is watered down.  And that if you go and try to resell it you’re not going to get what you once did.  For people typically drink whiskey for that happy feeling of being drunk.  But with this water-downed whiskey it will take more drinks than it used to take to get drunk.  So what do you as a merchant do when the money is worth less?  You raise your prices.  For it will take more bottles of lesser-valued whiskey to equal the purchasing power of full-valued whiskey.   And if they water down that whiskey too much?  You just won’t accept it as legal tender.  Because it will be little different from water.  And you can get that for free from any well or creek.  Yes, water is necessary to sustain life.  But no one will pay ‘whiskey’ prices for it when they can drink it from a well or a creek for free.

It was while in the Continental Army that Alexander Hamilton began thinking about a Central Bank

During the American Revolutionary War we had a very weak central government.  The Continental Congress.  Which had no taxing authority.  Which posed a problem in fighting the Revolutionary War.  Because wars are expensive.  You need to buy arms and supplies for your army.  You have to feed your army.  And you have to pay your army.  The Continental Congress paid for the Revolution by asking states to contribute to the cause.  Those that did never gave as much as the Congress asked for.  They got a lot of money from France.  As we were fighting their long-time enemy.  And we borrowed some money from other European nations.  But it wasn’t enough.  So they turned to printing paper money.

This unleashed a brutal inflation.  Because everyone was printing money.  The central government.  And the states.  Prices soared.  Merchants didn’t want to accept it as legal tender.  Preferring specie instead.  Because you can’t print gold and silver.  So you can’t depreciate specie like you can paper money.  All of this just made life in the Continental Army worse.  For they were hungry, half-naked and unpaid.  And frustrating for men like Alexander Hamilton.  Who served on General Washington’s staff.  Hamilton, and many other officers in the Continental Army, saw how the weakness of the central government almost lost the war for them.

It was while in the army that Hamilton began thinking about a central bank.  But that’s all he did.  For there was not much support for a central government let alone a central bank.  That would change, though, after the Constitutional Convention of 1787 created the United States of America.  And America’s first president, George Washington, chose his old aide de camp as his treasury secretary.  Alexander Hamilton.  A capitalist who understood finance.

Despite the Carnage from the Subprime Mortgage Crisis the Fed is still Printing Money

At the time the new nation’s finances were in a mess.  Few could make any sense of them.  But Hamilton could.  He began by assuming the states’ war debts.  Added them to the national war debt.  Which he planned on paying off by issuing new debt.  That he planned on servicing with new excise taxes.  And he would use his bank to facilitate all of this.  The First Bank of the United States.  Which faced fierce opposition from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  Who opposed it for a couple of reasons.  For one they argued it wasn’t constitutional.  There was no central bank enumerated in the Constitution.  And the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution stated that any power not enumerated to the new federal government belonged to the states.  And that included banking.  A central bank would only further consolidate power in the new federal government.  By consolidating the money.  Transferring it from the local banks.  Which they feared would benefit the merchants, manufacturers and speculators in the north.  By making cheap money available for them to make money with money.  Which is the last thing people who believed America’s future was an agrarian one of yeoman farmers wanted to do.

They fought against the establishment of the bank.  But failed.  The bank got a 20 year charter.  Jefferson and Madison would later have a change of heart on a central bank.  For it helped Jefferson with the Louisiana Purchase.  And like it or not the country was changing.  It wasn’t going to be an agrarian one.  America’s future was an industrial one.  And that required credit.  Just as Alexander Hamilton thought.  So after the War of 1812, after the charter of the First Bank of the United States had expired, James Madison signed into law a 20-year charter for the Second Bank of the United States.  Which actually did some of the things Jefferson and Madison feared.  It concentrated a lot of money and power into a few hands. Allowing speculators easy access to cheap money.  Which they borrowed and invested.  Creating great asset bubbles.  And when they burst, great depressions.  Because of that paper money.  Which they printed so much of that it depreciated the dollar.  And caused asset prices to soar to artificial heights.

Andrew Jackson did not like the bank.  For he saw it creating a new noble class.  A select few were getting rich and powerful.  Something the Americans fought to get away from.  When the charter for the Second Bank of the United States was set to expire Congress renewed the charter.  Because of their friends at the bank.  And their friends who profited from the bank.  But when they sent it to Andrew Jackson for his signature he vetoed the bill.  And Congress could not override it.  Sensing some blowback from the bank Jackson directed that they transfer the government’s money out of the Second Bank of the United States.  And deposited it into some state banks.  The president of the bank, Nicholas Biddle, did not give up, though.  For he could hurt those state banks.  Such as calling in loans.  Which he did. Among other things.  To try and throw the country into a depression.  So he could blame it on the president’s anti-bank policies.  And get his charter renewed.  But it didn’t work.  And the Second Bank of the United States was no more.

National banks versus local banks.  Hard money (specie) versus paper money.  Nobility versus the common people.  They’ve argued the same arguments throughout the history of the United States.  But we never learn anything.  We never learn the ultimate price of too much easy money.  Even now.  For here we are.  Suffering through the worst recession since the Great Depression.  Because our current central bank, the Federal Reserve System, likes to print paper money.  And create asset bubbles.  Their last being the one that burst into the subprime mortgage crisis.  And despite the carnage from that they’re still printing money.  Money that the rich few are borrowing to invest in the stock market.  Speculators.  Who are making a lot of money.  Buying and selling assets.  Thanks to the central bank’s inflationary policies that keep increasing prices.

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Federal Reserve System, Great Depression, Banking Crises, Gold Reserves, Gold Exchange Standard, Interest Rates and Money Supply

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 31st, 2012

History 101

The Gold Exchange Standard provided Stability for International Trade

Congress created the Federal Reserve System (the Fed) with the passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913.  They created the Fed because of some recent bad depressions and financial panics.  Which they were going to make a thing of the past with the Fed.  It had three basic responsibilities.  Maximize employment.  Stabilize prices.  And optimize interest rates.  With the government managing these things depressions and financial panics weren’t going to happen on the Fed’s watch.

The worst depression and financial panic of all time happened on the Fed’s watch.  The Great Depression.  From 1930.  Until World War II.  A lost decade.  A period that saw the worst banking crises.  And the greatest monetary contraction in U.S. history.  And this after passing the Federal Reserve Act to prevent any such things from happening.  So why did this happen?  Why did a normal recession turn into the Great Depression?  Because of government intervention into the economy.  Such as the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act that triggered the great selloff and stock market crash.  And some really poor monetary policy.  As well as bad fiscal policy.

At the time the U.S. was on a gold exchange standard.  Paper currency backed by gold.  And exchangeable for gold.  The amount of currency in circulation depended upon the amount of gold on deposit.  The Federal Reserve Act required a gold reserve for notes in circulation similar to fractional reserve banking.  Only instead of keeping paper bills in your vault you had to keep gold.  Which provided stability for international trade.  But left the domestic money supply, and interest rates, at the whim of the economy.  For the only way to lower interest rates to encourage borrowing was to increase the amount of gold on deposit.  For with more gold on hand you can increase the money supply.  Which lowered interest rates.  That encouraged people to borrow money to expand their businesses and buy things.  Thus creating economic activity.  At least in theory.

The Fed contracted the Money Supply even while there was a Positive Gold Flow into the Country

The gold standard worked well for a century or so.  Especially in the era of free trade.  Because it moved trade deficits and trade surpluses towards zero.  Giving no nation a long-term advantage in trade.  Consider two trading partners.  One has increasing exports.  The other increasing imports.  Why?  Because the exporter has lower prices than the importer.  As goods flow to the importer gold flows to the exporter to pay for those exports.  The expansion of the local money supply inflates the local currency and raises prices in the exporter country.  Back in the importer country the money supply contracts and lowers prices.  So people start buying more from the once importing nation.  Thus reversing the flow of goods and gold.  These flows reverse over and over keeping the trade deficit (or surplus) trending towards zero.  Automatically.  With no outside intervention required.

Banknotes in circulation, though, required outside intervention.  Because gold isn’t in circulation.  So central bankers have to follow some rules to make this function as a gold standard.  As gold flows into their country (from having a trade surplus) they have to expand their money supply by putting more bills into circulation.  To do what gold did automatically.  Increase prices.  By maintaining the reserve requirement (by increasing the money supply by the amount the gold deposits increased) they also maintain the fixed exchange rate.  An inflow of gold inflates your currency and an outflow of gold deflates your currency.  When central banks maintain this mechanism with their monetary policy currencies remain relatively constant in value.  Giving no price advantage to any one nation.  Thus keeping trade fair.

After the stock market crash in 1929 and the failure of the Bank of the United States in New York failed in 1930 the great monetary contraction began.  As more banks failed the money they created via fractional reserve banking disappeared.  And the money supply shrank.  And what did the Fed do?  Increased interest rates.  Making it harder than ever to borrow money.  And harder than ever for banks to stay in business as businesses couldn’t refinance their loans and defaulted.  The Fed did this because it was their professional opinion that sufficient credit was available and that adding liquidity then would only make it harder to do when the markets really needed additional credit.  So they contracted the money supply.  Even while there was a positive gold flow into the country.

The Gold Standard works Great when all of your Trading Partners use it and they Follow the Rules

Those in the New York Federal Reserve Bank wanted to increase the money supply.  The Federal Reserve Board in Washington disagreed.  Saying again that sufficient credit was available in the market.  Meanwhile people lost faith in the banking system.  Rushed to get their money out of their bank before it, too, failed.  Causing bank runs.  And more bank failures.  With these banks went the money they created via fractional reserve banking.  Further deflating the money supply.  And lowering prices.  Which was the wrong thing to happen with a rising gold supply.

Well, that didn’t last.  France went on the gold standard with a devalued franc.  So they, too, began to accumulate gold.  For they wanted to become a great banking center like London and New York.  But these gold flows weren’t operating per the rules of a gold exchange.  Gold was flowing generally in one direction.  To those countries hoarding gold.  And countries that were accumulating gold weren’t inflating their money supplies to reverse these flows.  So nations began to abandon the gold exchange standard.  Britain first.  Then every other nation but the U.S.

Now the gold standard works great.  But only when all of your trading partners are using it.  And they follow the rules.  Even during the great contraction of the money supply the Fed raised interest rates to support the gold exchange.  Which by then was a lost cause.  But they tried to make the dollar strong and appealing to hold.  So people would hold dollars instead of their gold.  This just further damaged the U.S. economy, though.  And further weakened the banking system.  While only accelerating the outflow of gold.  As nations feared the U.S. would devalue their currency they rushed to exchange their dollars for gold.  And did so until FDR abandoned the gold exchange standard, too, in 1933.  But it didn’t end the Great Depression.  Which had about another decade to go.

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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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LESSONS LEARNED #28: “Politicians love failure because no one ever asked government to fix something that was working.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 26th, 2010

THE TELEVISION SHOW Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. aired from 1964-1969.  It was a spinoff from the Andy Griffith Show.  Gomer, a naive country bumpkin who worked at Wally’s filling station, joined the Marines Corps.  And there was much mirth and merriment.  To the chagrin of Sergeant Carter, Pyle’s drill instructor (DI).  Think of Gunny Sergeant R. Lee Ermey’s Sergeant Hartman in the movie Full Metal Jacket only with no profanity or mature subject matter.  Sergeant Carter was a tough DI like Sergeant Hartman.  But more suitable for the family hour on prime time television.

Gunny sergeants are tough as nails.  And good leaders.  They take pride in this.  But sometimes a gunny starts to feel that he’s not himself anymore.  This was the subject of an episode.  And Gomer, seeing that Sergeant Carter was feeling down, wanted to help.  So he stuffed Sergeant Carter’s backpack with hay before a long march.  While the platoon was worn and tired, Sergeant Carter was not.  He was feeling good.  Like his old self.  Until he found out he was not carrying the same load his men were.  He asked Pyle, “why hay?”  He could understand rocks, but hay?  Because if he outlasted his men while carrying a heavier load, he would feel strong.  But knowing he had carried a lighter load only made him feel weak.

This is human nature.  People take pride in their achievements.  They don’t take pride in any achievement attained by an unfair advantage.  Self-esteem matters.  And you can’t feel good about yourself if you need help to do what others can do without help. 

AN OLD CHINESE proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  Let’s say I am a fisherman in a small village.  I catch fish to feed my family and sell/trade for other family needs.  There’s a man in my village who asks me for a fish each day so he can eat.  I’m a caring person.  So I give him a fish each day.  So a pattern develops.  Each day he shows up when I come in from my fishing.  He takes the fish and goes away.  It works out well for him.  He doesn’t have to work.  He can live off of my kind charity.  Then I move.  Without me being there to give him a fish each day, he no longer can eat.  And dies.  If I only had taught that man to fish. 

Kindness can lead to dependency.  And once dependent, you become lazy.  Why develop marketable skills to provide for yourself when someone else will provide for you?  The problem is, of course, what happens when that charity ends?  If you’re unable to provide for yourself and there is no longer someone providing for you, what do you do?  Steal?

Dependency and a lack of self-esteem are a dangerous combination.  And they feed off of each other.  This combination can lead to depression.  Behavioral problems.  Resentment.  Bitterness.  Envy.  Or a defeatist attitude.

These are often unintended consequences of government programs.  A failed program, then, has far reaching consequences beyond the initial economic costs of a program.

LIQUIDITY CRISES CAUSE a lot of economic damage.  If capital is not available for businesses to borrow, businesses can’t grow.  Or create jobs.  And we need jobs.  People have to work.  To support themselves.  And to pay taxes to fund the government.  So everyone is in favor of businesses growing to create jobs.  We all would like to see money being easy and cheap to borrow if it creates jobs.

But there is a downside to easy money.  Inflation.  Too much borrowing can create inflation.  By increasing the money supply (via fractional reserve banking).  More money means higher prices.  Because each additional dollar is worth a little less. This can lead to overvalued assets as prices are ‘bid’ up with less valuable dollars.  And higher prices can inflate business profits.  Looks good on paper.  But too much of this creates a bubble.  Because those high asset values and business profits are not real.  They’re inflated.  Like a bubble.  And just as fragile.  When bubbles burst, asset values and business profits drop.  To real values.  People are no longer ‘bidding’ up prices.  They stop buying until they think prices have sunk to their lowest.  We call this deflation.  A little bit of inflation or deflation is normal.  Too much can be painful economically.  Like in the Panic of 1907.

Without going into details, there was a speculative bubble that burst in 1907.  This led to a liquidity crisis as banks failed.  Defaults on loans left banks owing more money than they had (i.e., they became illiquid).  They tried to borrow money and recall loans to restore their liquidity.  Borrowers grew concerned that their bank may fail.  So they withdrew their money.  This compounded the banks problems.  This caused deflation.  Money was unavailable.  Causing bank runs.  And bank failures.  Business failures.  And unemployment grew. So government passed the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 to prevent a crisis like this from ever happening again.  The government gave the Federal Reserve System (the Fed) great powers to tweak the monetary system.  The smartest people at the time had figured out what had gone wrong in 1907.  And they created a system that made it impossible for it to happen again.

The worst liquidity crisis of all time happened from 1929-1933.  It’s part of what we call the Great Depression.  The 1920s had a booming economy.  Real income was rising.  Until the Fed took action.  Concerned that people were borrowing money for speculative purposes (in paper investments instead of labor, plant and material), they put on the brakes.  Made it harder and more expensive to borrow money.  Then a whole series of things happened along the way that turned a recession into a depression.  When people needed money, they made it harder to get it, causing a deflationary spiral.  The Great Depression was the result of bad decisions made by too few men with too much power.  It made a crisis far worse than the one in 1907.  And the Roosevelt administration made good use of this new crisis.  FDR exploded the size of government to respond to the unprecedented crisis they found themselves in.  The New Deal changed America from a nation of limited government to a country where Big Government reigns supreme.

ONE PROGRAM OF the New Deal was Social Security.  Unemployment in the 1930s ran at or above 14%.  This is for one whole decade.  Never before nor since has this happened.  Older workers generally earn more than younger ones.  Their experience commands a higher pay rate.  Which allows them to buy more things.  Resulting in more bills.  Therefore, the Great Depression hit older workers especially hard.  A decade of unemployment would have eaten through any life savings of even the most prudent savers.  And what does this get you?  A great crisis.

The government took a very atypical moment of history and changed the life of every American.  The government forced people to save for retirement.  In a very poor savings plan.  That paid poorly by comparison to private pensions or annuities.  And gave the government control over vast amounts of money.  It was a pervasive program.  They say FDR quipped, “Let them try to undo this.” 

With government taking care of you in retirement, more people stopped providing for themselves.  When they retired, they scrimped by on their ‘fixed’ incomes.  And because Social Security became law before widespread use of birth control and abortion, the actuaries of the day were very optimistic.  They used the birth rate then throughout their projections.  But with birth control and abortion came a huge baby bust.  The bottom fell out of the birth rate.  A baby bust generation followed a baby boom generation.  Actually, all succeeding generations were of the bust kind.  The trend is growing where fewer and fewer people pay for more and more people collecting benefits.  And these people were living longer.  To stay solvent, the system has to raise taxes on those working and reduce benefits on those who are not.  Or raise the retirement age.  All these factors have made it more difficult on our aged population.  Making them working longer than they planned.  Or by making that fixed income grow smaller.

FDR used a crisis to create Social Security.  Now our elderly people are dependent on that system.  It may suck when they compare it to private pensions or annuities, but it may be all they have.  If so, they’ll quake in their shoes anytime anyone mentions reforming Social Security.  Because of this it has become the 3rd rail of politics.  A politician does not touch it lest he or she wishes to die politically.  But it’s not all bad.  For the politician.  Because government forced the elderly to rely on them for their retirement, it has made the Social Security recipient dependent on government.  In particular, the party of government who favors Big Government.  The Democrats.  And with a declining birth rate and growing aged population, this has turned into a large and loyal voting bloc indeed.  Out of fear.

A PROGRAM THAT straddled the New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society was Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).  Its original New Deal purpose was to help widows take care of their children.  When program outlays peaked in the 1970s, the majority of recipients were unmarried women and divorced women.  Because this was a program based on need, the more need you had the more you got.  Hence more children meant more money.  It also reduced the importance of marriage as the government could replace the support typically provided by a husband/father.  Noted economist Dr. Thomas Sowell blames AFDC as greatly contributing to the breakdown of the black family (which has the highest incidence of single-parent households).

With the women’s liberation movement, women have come to depend less on men.  Some affluent women conceive and raise children without a husband.  Or they adopt.  And the affluent no doubt can provide all the material needs their children will ever need.  Without a husband.  Or a father for their children.  But is that enough?

The existence of ‘big brother’ programs would appear to prove otherwise.  Troubled children are often the products of broken families.  Mothers search for big brothers to mentor these fatherless sons.  To be role models.  To show an interest in these children’s lives.  To care.  When no such role models are available, some of these troubled children turn to other sources of acceptance and guidance.  Like gangs.

AFDC has compounded this problem by providing the environment that fosters fatherless children.  And another government program compounds that problem.  Public housing.

POOR HOUSING CONDITIONS hurt families.  They especially hurt broken families.  Without a working husband, these families are destined to live in the cheapest housing available.  These are often in the worst of neighborhoods.  This is an unfair advantage to the children raised in those families.  For it wasn’t their fault they were born into those conditions.  So, to solve that problem, government would build good public housing for these poorest of the poor to move into.  Problem solved.

Well, not exactly.  Public housing concentrates these broken families together.  Usually in large apartment buildings.  This, then, concentrates large numbers of troubled children together.  So, instead of having these children dispersed in a community, public housing gathers them together.  Where bad behavior reinforces bad behavior.  It becomes the rule, not the exception.  Making a mother’s job that much more difficult.  And because these children live together, they also go to school together.  And this extends the bad behavior problem to the school.  Is it any wonder that public housing (i.e., the projects) have the worst living conditions?  And some of the highest gang activity? 

Government didn’t plan it this way.  It’s just the unintended consequences of their actions.  And those consequences are devastating.  To the poor in general.  To the black family in particular.  AFDC and public housing enabled irresponsible/bad behavior.  That behavior destroyed families.  As well as a generation or two.  But it wasn’t all bad.  For the politicians.  It made a very large constituency dependent on government.

THERE ARE SO many more examples.  But the story is almost always the same.  Dependency and a lack of self-esteem will beat down a person’s will.  Like an addict, it will make the dependent accept poorer and poorer living standards in exchange for their fix of dependency.  Eventually, the dependency will reach the point where they will not know how to provide for themselves.  The dependency will become permanent.  As will the lack of self-esteem.  Conscious or not of their actions, Big Government benefits from the wretched state they give these constituencies.  With no choice but continued dependence, they vote for the party that promises to give the most.  Which is typically the Democrat Party.

But how can you fault these politicians?  They acted with the best of intentions.  And they can fix these new problems.  They’ll gather the brightest minds.  They’ll study these problems.  And they will produce the best programs to solve these problems.  All it will take is more government spending.  And how can you refuse?  When people are hungry.  Or homeless.  Or have children that they can’t care for.  How can anyone not want to help the children?  How can anyone not have compassion?

Well, compassion is one thing.  When the innocent suffer.  But when government manufactures that suffering, it’s a different story.  Planned or not the result is the same whenever government tries to fix things.  The cost is high.  The solution is typically worse than the original problem.  And the poorest of the poor are pawns.  To be used by Big Government in the name of compassion. 

Of course, if Big Government were successful in fixing these problems, they would fix themselves right out of existence.  So as long as they want to run Big Government programs, they’ll need a stock of wretched, suffering masses that need their help.  And, of course, lots of crises.

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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.

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LESSONS LEARNED #23: “Those who seek a third party cede the election to the opposition.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 22nd, 2010

SLAVERY WAS ALWAYS a complicated issue.  Many of the Founding Fathers saw the contradiction with the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence.  And there were the economic costs.  George Washington wanted to transition to paid laborers as the generations of slaves he inherited were consuming an ever growing share of his harvest.  (You only pay paid-laborers; you didn’t have to house and feed them and their families.)  He had whole families that included babies and the elderly long past their working prime.  People would buy slaves in their working prime but wouldn’t take their parents and grandparents, too.  He didn’t want to break up the families.  And he couldn’t free them.  Someone had to take care of those who could no longer work.  So he would.  Even after death.  He freed his slaves in his will and directed his heirs to train and help them so they could integrate into the workforce.  (Not every slave-owner, though, was as caring as Washington).

So Washington, John Adams and some of the other Founding Fathers saw slavery as an institution that would eventually wither and die.  They saw it as immoral.  As well as an inefficient economic system.   It would just have to die out one day.  So they tabled the discussion to get the southern states to join the union.  But they did put an end date on the slave trade.  Twenty years should be enough time they thought.  And in those 20 years, the South would figure out what to do with the slaves they had.  Because no one in the north could figure that one out.  Who would compensate the slave owners for their emancipated ‘property’?  And there were no biracial societies at that time.  No one could imagine that a formerly enslaved majority will become peaceful neighbors with their former minority masters.  Especially in the South.

But the cotton gin changed all of that.  The one thing that slave labor was good for was big single-crop plantations.  And there was none better than King Cotton.  Separating the seed from the cotton was the one bottleneck in the cotton industry.  Ely Whitney changed that in 1791.  Cotton production exploded.  As did slavery.  The southern economy changed.  As did the political debate.  The southern economy was a cotton economy.  And cotton needed slaves.  The South, therefore, needed slavery.

CARVED OUT OF the new Louisiana Territory were territories that would organize into states and request admittance into the union.  But would they be free or slave?  The first test was resolved with the Missouri Compromise (1820).  Henry Clay (the Great Compromiser) kept the peace.  Saved the union.  For awhile.  The compromise forbade slavery north of Missouri’s southern border (approximately the 36th parallel) in the Louisiana Territory (except in Missouri, of course).  Martin Van Buren saw this as a temporary fix at best.  Any further discussion on the slavery issue could lead to secession.  Or war.  So he created the modern Democratic Party with but one goal.  To get power and to keep power.  With power he could control what they debated.  And, once he had power, they wouldn’t debate slavery again.

During the 1844 presidential campaign, the annexation of the Republic of Texas was an issue.  The secretary of state, Daniel Webster, opposed it.  It would expand slavery and likely give the Senate two new democratic senators.  Which was what John C. Calhoun wanted.  He succeeded Webster as secretary of state.  The new northern Whigs were antislavery.  The southern Whigs were pro-cotton.  The Whig presidential candidate in 1844 was Henry Clay (the Great Compromiser).  He wasn’t for it or against it.  Neither was Martin Van Buren, the Democrat frontrunner.  They wished to compromise and avoid this hot issue all together.

Well, Clay wasn’t ‘anti’ enough for the antislavery Whigs.  So they left and formed the Liberty Party and nominated James. G. Birney as their candidate.  Meanwhile, the Democrats weren’t all that happy with Van Buren.  Enter James Knox Polk.  He didn’t vacillate.  He pledged to annex Texas.  And the Oregon territory.  The Democrats nominated him and said goodbye to Van Buren.

The Whig and Liberty parties shared the northern antislavery votes, no doubt costing Clay the election.  A fait accompli, President Tyler signed off on the annexation of Texas before Polk took the oath of office.

BUT ALL WAS not well.  Those sectional differences continued to simmer just below the boiling point.  The Fugitive Slave Law now made the ‘southern’ problem a northern one, too.  Federal law now required that they help return this southern ‘property’.  It got ugly.  And costly.  Harriet Ward Beecher’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin only inflamed the abolitionist fires in the North.  And then Stephen Douglas saw a proposed transcontinental railroad that could take him to the Whitehouse. 

The railroad would go through the unorganized Nebraskan territory (the northern part of the Louisiana Purchase).   As Washington discussed organizing this territory, the South noted that all of this territory was above 36th parallel.  Thus, any state organized would be, by the terms of the Missouri Compromise, free.  With no state below the 36th parallel added, the balance of power would tip to the North.  The South objected.  Douglas assuaged them.  With the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.  Which replaced the Missouri Compromise (the 36th parallel) with popular sovereignty.  And Kansas bled.

The idea of popular sovereignty said that the people of the new organized state would determine if they were free or slave.  So the free and slave people raced to populate the territory.  It was a mini civil war.  A precursor of what was to come.  It split up the Whig and Democratic parties.  Southern Whigs and Northern Democrats quit their parties.  The Whig Party would wither and die.  The new Republican Party would rise from the Whig’s ashes.  They would address the cause, not the symptoms.  And at the heart of all the sectional divides was the issue of slavery itself.  It had to be addressed.  As Abraham Lincoln would say in 1858, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

ZACHARY TAYLOR CHOSE Whig Millard Fillmore as his vice president to appeal to northern Whigs.  When Taylor died some 2 years into his first term, Fillmore became president.  His support of the Compromise of 1850 (admit California as a free state, settle Texas border, grant territorial status to New Mexico, end the slave trade in the District of Columbia and beef up the Fugitive Slave Law) alienated him from the Whig base.

In the 1856 presidential contest, the Republicans nominated John C. Frémont.  The Democrats nominated James Buchanan.  And Millard Fillmore (compromiser and one time Whig) ran on the American Party ticket.  There was talk of secession should Frémont win.  It was a 3-way race.  Buchanan battled with the ‘compromiser’ in the South.  And with the ‘abolitionist’ in the North.  The race was close.  Buchanan won with only 45% of the vote.  But Frémont lost by only 2 states.  He had won all but 5 of the free states.  Had Fillmore not run, it is unlikely that these free states would have voted for the slavery candidate.  So Fillmore no doubt denied Frémont the election.

AMERICA’S ORIGINAL TRUST buster, Teddy Roosevelt (TR), said he wouldn’t run for reelection.  And he didn’t.  He picked Howard Taft as his ‘successor’.  TR was a progressive frontier man.  He had that smile.  This made him a popular and formidable candidate.  Taft just wasn’t as much of a TR as TR was.  So some asked TR to run again.  Against his own, hand-picked ‘successor’.  Which he did.

Taft won the Republican Nomination, though.  Undeterred (and having a really big ego), TR formed a third party, the Progressive Party.  He moved to the left of Taft.  So far left that it made Woodward Wilson, the Democrat candidate, look moderate. 

The 1912 presidential election turned into a 3-man race.  Between 3 progressives.  Taft ‘busted’ more trusts than did TR.  But he just wasn’t TR.  Woodward Wilson was probably the most progressive and idealist of the three.  But in the mix, he looked like the sensible candidate.  Roosevelt beat Taft.  But Wilson beat Roosevelt.  Wilson won with only 45% of the vote.  And gave us the income tax and the Federal Reserve System.  Big Government had come.

IN THE 1992 presidential campaign, George Herbert Walker Bush (read my lips, no new taxes) ran in a 3-way race between Democrat Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.  Perot bashed both parties for their high deficits.  He was a populist candidate against the status quo.  He went on TV with charts and graphs.  He called Reaganomics ‘voodoo’ economics.  While Bush fought these attacks on his 12 years in the executive office (8 as vice president and on 4 as president), Clinton got by with relative ease on his one big weakness.  Character. 

Exit polling showed that Perot took voters from both candidates.  More people voted that year.  But the increase was roughly equal to the Perot vote (who took 19%).  If anyone energized the election that year, it wasn’t Clinton.  He won with only 43% of the vote.  The majority of Americans did not vote for Clinton.  Had the focus not been on Reaganomics and the deficit (where Perot took it), Clinton’s character flaws would have been a bigger issue.  And if it came down to character, Bush probably would have won.  Despite his broken ‘read my lips’ pledge.

HISTORY HAS SHOWN that third party candidates don’t typically win elections.  In fact, when a party splinters into two, it usually benefits the common opposition.  That thing that is so important to bring a third party into existence is often its own demise.  It splits a larger voting bloc into two smaller voting blocs.  Guaranteeing the opposition’s victory. 

Politics can be idealistic.  But not at the expense of pragmatism.  When voting for a candidate that cannot in all probability win, it is a wasted vote.  If you’re making a ‘statement’ with your vote by voting for a third party candidate, that statement is but one thing.  You want to lose.

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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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