The Austrian School of Economics

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 3rd, 2014

Economics 101

(Originally published February 27th, 2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Powerful Government Forces suppressing the Economic Principles of Friedrich Hayek in China and America

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 16th, 2013

Week in Review

Large governments like to control their economies.  And their people.  Because those in power always want one thing.  More power. 

The United States became the world’s number one economic power before the federal government grew into the thing it is today.  Way too big.  Reaching way too far into the private sector economy.  Before Keynesian economics became all the rage to empower the growth of governments there was classical economics.  With simple principles.  Thrift.  People thought long-term and saved their money instead of buying everything they wanted today.  Banks collected their savings and transformed them into investment capital.  The more people saved (i.e., the thriftier they were) the more capital there was available to loan to entrepreneurs.  Thus lowering interest rates.  There was also sound money.  Backed by gold.  In various forms of the gold standard.  That held the value of money over time.  And the federal government taxed little.  Regulated little.  And spent little.  These classical economic principles stimulated strong economic growth.  (Principles similar to the Austrian school of economics championed by Friedrich Hayek.)  And it is these principles that we have moved away from as we turned to Keynesian economics.  And a form of state-capitalism that we have today.

During the Nineties China turned to classical economic principles.  As they slowly allowed people some economic liberty.  But just a taste of it.  For the ruling Chinese communists did not want what happened during the collapse of the Soviet Union to happen in China.  The Chinese Communist Party would not collapse like it did in the former Soviet Union.  While there were free thinkers that embraced the principles of Friedrich Hayek the state kept them on a short leash.  A leash that appears to be even shorter these days (see A Lonely Passion: China’s Followers of Friedrich A. Hayek by DIDI KIRSTEN TATLOW published 10/30/2013 on The New York Times).

Hayek believed that economic planning by the state leads to a loss of individual liberty, and that a private economy run by people whose rights are protected and enlarged by good laws delivers the best life.

‘‘There is some distance between Hayek and the current realities’’ in China, Gao Quanxi, a prominent Chinese Hayekian and law professor at Beihang University in Beijing, said in an interview this week.

Mr. Gao was probably choosing his words carefully. The gap is enormous, as he explained last Friday in a talk at the Unirule Institute of Economics, a think tank in Beijing…

In his talk, titled ‘‘Reconsidering Hayek’s Theoretical Legacy,’’ Mr. Gao did not mince words: China is less free now than 10 years ago, at the end of the Jiang Zemin era. There is no ‘‘free market of ideas’’ in universities. Publishing on topics the authorities disapprove of has become more difficult. The state is on the march…

Capitalism, several participants said, functions in China according to the unwritten rules created by the power holders, not by good laws, as Hayek urged.

‘‘Communism has failed. Socialism has failed. What we have here is statism. And Hayek really opposed that. So how should we understand Hayek in the context of today’s China?’’ asked Mr. Gao…

Many economists, scholars and politicians believe that China is facing deep challenges to its economic model, that it needs to shift from a fixed investment-fueled economy, where the hand of the state is heavy, to one with more private enterprise and market forces.

President Obama and the Chinese communists share something in common.  They both are trying to move their economies in the same direction.  Only the Chinese communists don’t publicly bash capitalism as much as President Obama and his fellow Democrats do.

When China was enjoying double digit GDP growth the liberals in the United States wanted to do what the Chinese were doing.  To manage the economy more.  As they thought they were even more brilliant than communist state planners in China.  And could even outperform the Chinese economy.  If they could only control it.  Decide what we make.  Like solar panels.  And electric cars.  Of course, most of China’s economic growth produced exports.  And they sold well because of China’s low wages.  Which is pretty much all they had going for them.  Their middle class did not grow.  And with the worldwide decline in economic activity thanks to Keynesian economic policies by state planners everywhere who think they are smarter than the market their export market cooled.  As it cooled so did their GDP growth.

China is suffering a little economic malaise now because they don’t have a thriving middle class of entrepreneurs starting small businesses.  All they have are large state-run factories.  That produce exports.  Because they don’t have a thriving middle class to buy these products.  Which is what happens when you don’t have individual liberty.  Friedrich Hayek understood this.  Pity the Chinese communists don’t.  Or President Obama and his fellow Democrats.  Then again, perhaps they do.  But they know the price of individual liberty is less government power.  And that’s just something anathema to communists.  President Obama.  And Democrats.

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Is the New York Times ready to blame Bill Clinton for the Subprime Mortgage Crisis?

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 18th, 2013

Week in Review

President Obama likes to say that the Republicans only want to try the failed policies of the past.  And he’s both right and wrong.  For the Republicans do want to implement the policies of the past.  Because these policies did NOT fail.  Contrary to President Obama’s recurring bleat.  For the policies of President Reagan were based on classical economics.  Those same policies that made America the world’s number one economic power.  While the policies of the left, Keynesian economic policies, have failed every time they’ve been tried.  And reduced America’s economic prowess.

Before John Maynard Keynes came along during World War I the U.S. economy was steeped in the philosophy of our Founding Fathers.  Thrift.  Frugal.  Rugged individualism.  These are the things that made America great.  For over a hundred years Americans worked hard and saved their money.  Spending as little for the here and now.  Always planning for the future.  They put everything they didn’t have to spend into the bank.  As everyone put away these small amounts of money banks turned the aggregate of these numerous small deposits into capital.  Which investors borrowed at reasonable interest rates because we had a high savings rate.  Providing plenty of capital to grow the American economy.  Thanks to a sound banking system.   That exercised sound lending practices.  With investment capital a high savings rate provided.

This system worked so well because people balanced risk with reward.  Bankers made wise lending decisions based on the likelihood of those loans being repaid.  And investors with a history of wise and responsible borrowing had continued access to that investment capital.  While banks who took too great a risk failed.  And investors who took great risks soon found themselves broke with no further access to investment capital.  This balance of risk and reward complimented with a populace that was thrifty and frugal with their money created Carnegie Steel.  The Standard Oil Company.  And the Ford Motor Company.  Risk takers.  Who balanced risk with reward.  And paid a heavy price when they took too great a risk that had no reward.

But the days of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller (Standard Oil) and Henry Ford are gone.  These men probably couldn’t—or wouldn’t— do what they did in today’s regulatory environment the left has created.  The higher taxes.  And the financial instability caused by the left’s destruction of the banking system.  As the left has made high-finance a plaything for their rich friends.  By transferring all risk to the taxpayer.  Allowing bankers to take great risks.  With little downside risk.  Giving us things like the subprime mortgage crisis.  Where President Clinton’s Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending (1994) unleashed 10 federal agencies on banks to pressure them to loan to the unqualified or else.  So they did.  Using the Adjustable Rate Mortgage as the vehicle to get the unqualified into homeownership.  These with no-documentation mortgage applications, zero-down, interest-only, etc., put people into homes by the droves.  Especially those who could not afford them.  Of course, banks just won’t loan to the unqualified without some federal assistance.  Which came in the guise of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  Who bought those toxic mortgages from these lenders, repackaged them into collateralized debt obligations and sold them to unsuspecting investors.  And, well, you know the rest.

So Bill Clinton gave us the subprime mortgage crisis.  And the Great Recession.  It’s always the same.  Whenever liberals get into power they do the same thing over and over again.  They destroy the economy with policies that only benefit them and their rich friends.  America’s aristocracy.  Yet they talk the talk so well people believe that THIS time things will be different.  But they never are.  Already President Obama is talking about doing the same things to increase homeownership that got us into the subprime mortgage crisis.  And his disastrous policies didn’t even prevent his reelection.  Because he can talk the talk so well.  Just like Clinton.  So well that few look at the swath of destruction in their wakes.  At least, not on this side of the Atlantic (see The New York Times takes down the Clinton Foundation. This could be devastating for Bill and Hillary by Tim Stanley posted 8/14/2013 on The Telegraph).

Is the New York Times being guest edited by Rush Limbaugh? Today it runs with a fascinating takedown of the Clinton Foundation – that vast vanity project that conservatives are wary of criticising for being seen to attack a body that tries to do good. But the liberal NYT has no such scruples. The killer quote is this:

For all of its successes, the Clinton Foundation had become a sprawling concern, supervised by a rotating board of old Clinton hands, vulnerable to distraction and threatened by conflicts of interest. It ran multimillion-dollar deficits for several years, despite vast amounts of money flowing in.

A lot of people are scratching their heads as to why the New York Times would run this story.  For it is very out of character for a liberal paper to attack a liberal icon.  Could it be to air out this dirty laundry long before Hillary is a candidate for president?  What, that?!?  That’s old news.  We’ve talked about it already.  Talked it to death.  Nothing to see there.  So let’s focus on what’s important for the American people.

Or could it be that the left has grown tired of the Clintons?  After all, Barack Obama was the first black man elected president.  Something the young people can get excited about.  But will today’s young even know who the Clintons are?  Could be a problem for a party that historically gets the youth vote.  So is this the first sign that Hillary won’t be the anointed one in 2016?  And is this an opening broadside against Hillary?  A harbinger of what is yet to come?  Perhaps.  Or it could mean people are just not falling for the Clinton charm anymore.  Something our friends in the British media have no problem seeing through.

The cynical might infer from the NYT piece that the Clintons are willing to sell themselves, their image, and even their Foundation’s reputation in exchange for money to finance their personal projects. In Bill’s case, saving the world. In Hillary’s case, maybe, running for president.

It’s nothing new to report that there’s an unhealthy relationship in America between money and politics, but it’s there all the same. While the little people are getting hit with Obamacare, high taxes and joblessness, a class of businessmen enjoys ready access to politicians of both Left and Right that poses troubling questions for how the republic can continue to call itself a democracy so long as it functions as an aristocracy of the monied. Part of the reason why America’s elites get away with it is becuase they employ such fantastic salesmen. For too long now, Bill Clinton has pitched himself, almost without question, as a homespun populist: the Boy from Hope. The reality is that this is a man who – in May 1993 – prevented other planes from landing at LAX for 90 minues while he got a haircut from a Beverley Hills hairdresser aboard Air Force One. The Clintons are populists in the same way that Barack Obama is a Nobel prize winner. Oh, wait…

Wish America could see Clinton and Obama as plainly as this.  And not get lost in the gaze of their eyes.

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Post Office, Telegraph, Telephone, Cell Phones, Texting, Technology, Productivity, Savings, Investment, Japan Inc. and Eurozone Crisis

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 13th, 2013

History 101

(Originally published August 28th, 2012)

Ben Franklin’s Post Office struggles to Stay Relevant in a World where Technology offers a Better Alternative

Once upon a time people stayed in touch with each other by mailing letters to each other.  Benjamin Franklin helped make this possible when he was America’s first Postmaster General of the United States.  And it’s in large part due to his Post Office that the American Revolutionary War became a united stand against Great Britain.  As news of what happened in Massachusetts spread throughout the colonies via Franklin’s Post Office.

In America Samuel Morse created a faster way to communicate.  (While others created this technology independently elsewhere.)  Through ‘dots’ and ‘dashes’ sent over a telegraph wire.  Speeding up communications from days to seconds.  It was fast.  But you needed people who understood Morse code.  Those dots and dashes that represented letters.  At both ends of that telegraph wire.  So the telegraph was a bit too complicated for the family home.  Who still relied on the Post Office to stay in touch

Then along came a guy by the name of Alexander Graham Bell.  Who gave us a telephone in the house.  Which gave people the speed of the telegraph.  But with the simplicity of having a conversation.  Bringing many a teenage girl into the kitchen in the evenings to talk to her friends.  Until she got her own telephone in her bedroom.  Then came cell phones.  Email.  Smartphones.  And Texting.   Communication had become so instantaneous today that no one writes letters anymore.  And Ben Franklin’s Post Office struggles to stay relevant in a world where technology offers a better alternative.

As Keynesian Monetary Policy played a Larger Role in Japan Personal Savings Fell

These technological advances happened because people saved money that allowed entrepreneurs, investors and businesses to borrow it.  They borrowed money and invested it into their businesses.  To bring their ideas to the market place.  And the more they invested the more they advanced technology.  Allowing them to create more incredible things.  And to make them more efficiently.  Thus giving us a variety of new things at low prices.  Thanks to innovation.  Risk-taking entrepreneurs.  And people’s savings.  Which give us an advanced economy.  High productivity.  And growing GDP.

Following World War II Japan rebuilt her industry and became an advanced economy.  As the U.S. auto industry faltered during the Seventies they left the door open for Japan.  Who entered.  In a big way.  They built cars so well that one day they would sell more of them than General Motors.  Which is incredible considering the B-29 bomber.  That laid waste to Japanese industry during World War II.  So how did they recover so fast?  A high savings rate.  During the Seventies the Japanese people saved over 15% of their income with it peaking in the mid-Seventies close to 25%.

This high savings rate provided enormous amounts of investment capital.  Which the Japanese used not only to rebuild their industry but to increase their productivity.  Producing one of the world’s greatest export economies.  The ‘Made in Japan’ label became increasingly common in the United States.  And the world.  Their economic clot grew in the Eighties.  They began buying U.S. properties.  Americans feared they would one day become a wholly owned subsidiary of some Japanese corporation.  Then government intervened.  With their Keynesian economics.  This booming economic juggernaut became Japan Inc.  But as Keynesian monetary policy played a larger role personal savings fell.  During the Eighties they fell below 15%.  And they would continue to fall.  As did her economic activity.  When monetary credit replaced personal savings for investment capital it only created large asset bubbles.  Which popped in the Nineties.  Giving the Japanese their Lost Decade.  A painful deflationary decade as asset prices returned to market prices.

Because the Germans have been so Responsible in their Economic Policies only they can Save the Eurozone

As the world reels from the fallout of the Great Recession the US, UK and Japan share a lot in common.  Depressed economies.  Deficit spending.  High debt.  And a low savings rate.  Two countries in the European Union suffer similar economic problems.  With one notable exception.  They have a higher savings rate.  Those two countries are France and Germany.  Two of the strongest countries in the Eurozone.  And the two that are expected to bail out the Eurozone.

Savings Rate

While the French and the Germans are saving their money the Japanese have lost their way when it comes to saving.  Their savings rate plummeted following their Lost Decade.  As Keynesian economics sat in the driver seat.  Replacing personal savings with cheap state credit.  Much like it has in the US and the UK.  Nations with weak economies and low savings rates.  While the French and the Germans are keeping the Euro alive.  Especially the Germans.  Who are much less Keynesian in their economics.  And prefer a more Benjamin Franklin frugality when it comes to cheap state credit.  As well as state spending.  Who are trying to impose some austerity on the spendthrifts in the Eurozone.  Which the spendthrifts resent.  But they need money.  And the most responsible country in the Eurozone has it.  And there is a reason they have it.  Because their economic policies have been proven to be the best policies.

And others agree.  In fact there are some who want the German taxpayer to save the Euro by taking on the debt of the more irresponsible members in the Eurozone.  Because they have been so responsible in their economic policies they’re the only ones who can.  But if the Germans are the strongest economy shouldn’t others adopt their policies?  Instead of Germany enabling further irresponsible government spending by transferring the debt of the spendthrifts to the German taxpayer?  I think the German taxpayer would agree.  As would Benjamin Franklin.  Who said, “Industry, Perseverance, & Frugality, make Fortune yield.”  Which worked in early America.  In Japan before Japan Inc.  And is currently working in Germany.  It’s only when state spending becomes less frugal that states have sovereign debt crises.  Or subprime mortgage crisis.  Or Lost Decades.

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

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 11th, 2013

Week in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Banking, Lending Standards, Dot-Com, Subprime Mortgage and Bill Clinton’s Recessions

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 19th, 2013

History 101

Lending more made Banks more Profitable as long as they Maintained Good Lending Standards

Money is a commodity.  And like any commodity the laws of supply and demand affect it.  If a lot of people want to borrow money interest rates rise.  This helps to make sure the people who want to borrow money the most can.  As they are willing to pay the higher interest rates.  While those who don’t want the money bad enough to pay the higher interest rates will let someone else borrow that money.  If few people want to borrow money interest rates fall.  To entice those people back into the credit markets who had decided not to borrow money when interest rates were higher.

Okay, but who is out there who wants people to borrow their money?  And why do they want this?  The key to any advanced civilization and the path to a higher standard of living is a good banking system.  Because if ordinary people can borrow money ordinary people can buy a house.  Or start a business.  Not just the rich.  For a good banking system allows a thriving middle class.  As people earn money they pay their bills.  And put a little away in the bank.  When a lot of people do this all of those little amounts add up to a large sum.  Which converts small change into capital.  Allowing us to build factories, automobiles, airplanes, cell towers, etc.  Giving us the modern world.  As banks are the intermediary between left over disposable cash and investment capital.

Banks are businesses.  They provide a service for a fee.  And they make their money by loaning money to people who want to borrow it.  The more money they lend the more money they make.  They pay people to use their deposits.  By paying interest to people who deposit their money with them.  They then loan this money at a higher interest rate.  The difference between what they pay to depositors and what they collect from borrowers pays their bills.  Covers bad loans.  And gives them a little profit.   Which can be a lot of profit if they do a lot of lending.  However, the more they lend the more loans can go bad.  So they have to be very careful in qualifying those they lend money to.  Making sure they will have the ability to pay their interest payments.  And repay the loan.

With the Federal Reserve keeping Interest Rates low Investors Borrowed Money and Poured it into the Dot-Coms

Just as a good banking system is necessary for an advanced civilization, a higher standard of living and a thriving middle class so is good lending standards necessary for a good banking system.  And when banks follow good lending standards economic growth is more real and less of a bubble.  For when money is too easy to borrow some people may borrow it to make unwise investments.  Or malinvestments as those in the Austrian school of economics call it.  Like buying an expensive car they don’t need.  A house bigger than their needs.  Building more houses than there are people to buy them.  Or investing in an unproven business in the hopes that it will be the next Microsoft.

America became the number one economic power in the world because of a good banking system that maintained good lending standards.  Which provided investment capital for wise and prudent investments.  Then the Keynesians in government changed that.  By giving us the Federal Reserve System.  America’s central bank.  And bad monetary policy.  The Keynesians believe in an active government intervening in the private economy.  That can manipulate interest rates to create artificial economic activity.  By keeping interest rates artificially low.  To make it easier for anyone to borrow money.  No matter their ability to repay it.  Or how poor the investment they plan to make.

The Internet entered our lives in the Nineties.  Shortly after Bill Gates became a billionaire with his Microsoft.  And investors were looking for the next tech geek billionaire.  Hoping to get in on the next Microsoft.  So they poured money into dot-com companies.  Companies that had no profits.  And nothing to sell.  And with the Federal Reserve keeping interest rates artificially low investors borrowed money and poured even more into these dot-coms.  Classic malinvestments.  The stock prices for these companies that had no profits or anything to sell soared.  As investors everywhere were betting that they had found the next Microsoft.  The surging stock market made the Federal Reserve chief, Alan Greenspan, nervous.  Such overvalued stocks were likely to fall.  And fall hard.  It wasn’t so much a question of ‘if’ but of ‘when’.  He tried to warn investors to cool their profit lust.  Warning them of their irrational exuberance.  But they didn’t listen.  And once that investment capital ran out the dot-com bubble burst.  Putting all those newly graduated computer programmers out of a job.  And everyone else in all of those dot-com businesses.  Causing a painful recession in 2000.

Based on the Labor Force Participation Rate we are in one of the Worse and Longest Recession in U.S. History

Encouraging malinvestments in dot-coms was not the only mismanagement Bill Clinton did in the Nineties.  For he also destroyed the banking system.  With his Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending.  Where he fixed nonexistent discriminatory lending practices by forcing banks to abandon good lending standards.  And to qualify the unqualified.  Putting a lot of people into houses they could not afford.  Their weapon of choice for the destruction of good lending practices?  Subprime lending.  And pressure from the Clinton Justice Department.  Warning banks to approve more loans in poor areas or else.  So if they wanted to stay in business they had to start making risky loans.  But the government helped them.  By having Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac buying those risky, toxic loans from those banks.  Getting them off the banks’ balance sheets so they would make more toxic subprime loans.  And as they did Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac passed these mortgages on to Wall Street.  Who chopped and diced them into new investment vehicles.  The collateralized debt obligation (CDO).  High-yield but low-risk investments.  Because they were backed by the safest investment in the world.  A stream of mortgage payments.  Of course what they failed to tell investors was that these were not conventional mortgages with 20% down payments.  But toxic subprime mortgages where the borrowers put little if anything down.  Making it easy for them to walk away from these mortgages.  Which they did.  Giving us the subprime mortgage crisis.  And the Great Recession.

So Bill Clinton and his Keynesian cohorts caused some of the greatest economic damage this nation had ever seen.  For Keynesian policies don’t create real economic activity.  They only create bubbles.  And bubbles eventually burst.  As those highly inflated asset prices (stocks, houses, etc.) have to come back down from the stratosphere.  The higher they rise the farther they fall.   And the more painful the recession.  For this government intrusion into the private economy caused a lot of malinvestments.  A tragic misuse of investment capital.  Directing it into investments it wouldn’t have gone into had it not been for the government’s interference with market forces.  And when the bubble can no longer be kept aloft market forces reenter the picture and begin clearing away the damage of those malinvestments.  Getting rid of the irrational exuberance.  Resetting asset prices to their true market value.  And in the process eliminating hundreds of thousands of jobs.  Jobs the market would have created elsewhere had it not been for the Keynesian interference.  We can see the extent of the damage of these two Clinton recessions if we graph the growth of gross domestic product (GDP) along with the labor force participation rate (the percentage of those who are able to work who are actually working).  As can be seen here (see Percent change from preceding period and Employment Situation Archived News Releases):

Labor Force Participation Rate and GDP Growth

The first Clinton recession caused a decline in the labor force participation rate (LFPR) that didn’t level out until after 2004.  Even though there were not two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth during this time.  Usually what it takes to call an economic slump a recession.  But the falling LFPR clearly showed very bad economic times.  That began with the dot-com bubble bursting.  And was made worse after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.  Eventually George W. Bush pulled us out of that recession with tax cuts.  The much maligned Bush tax cuts.  Which not only caused a return to positive GDP growth.  But it arrested the decline of the LFPR.  But the good times did not last.  For the second Clinton recession was just around the corner.  The subprime mortgage crisis.  Created with President Clinton’s Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending.  That unleashed real economic woe.  Woe so bad we call it the Great Recession.  The little brother of the Great Depression.

This recession not only had two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth but five of six consecutive quarters showed negative growth.  And one of those quarters nearly reached a negative ten percent.  Which is when a recession becomes a depression.  This recession was so long and so painful because those artificially low interest rates and the pressure on bankers to lower their lending standards created a huge housing bubble.  Pushing housing prices so high that when the housing bubble burst those prices had a very long way to fall.  Worse, President Obama kept to the Keynesian policies that caused the recession.  Trying to spend the economy out of recession.  Instead of cutting taxes.  Like George W. Bush did to pull the economy out of the first Clinton recession.  Worse, anti-business policies and regulations stifled any recovery.  And then there was Obamacare.  The great job killer.  Which he helped pass into law instead of trying to end the Great Recession.  GDP growth eventually returned to positive growth.  And the official unemployment fell.  A little.  But the president’s policies did nothing to reverse one of the greatest declines in the LFPR.  More people than ever have disappeared from the labor force.  That will take a lot of time and a lot of new, real economic activity to bring them back into the labor force.  And no matter what the current GDP growth rate or the official unemployment rate are it doesn’t change the reality of the economy.  Based on the LFPR it is in one of the worse and longest recession in U.S. history.  And the worse recovery since the Great Depression.  Because of President Obama’s embrace of Keynesian policies.  Which do more to increase the size of government than help the economy.

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Bill Gates, Microsoft, Dot-Com Companies, Dot-Com Bubble, Green Energy and Green Energy Companies

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 18th, 2012

History 101

Investors poured Money into Dot-Com IPOs to get in on the Ground Floor of the next BIG Thing

Cash is king.  It is the lifeblood of a business.  The most serious business issues are discussed in blood metaphors.  When a company’s operations are losing money the company is ‘in the red’.  When the company’s losses are so great that there is a high probability of bankruptcy business analysts may say the company is ‘bleeding (or hemorrhaging) red ink all over their balance sheet’.  Indicating the death of the business is imminent.  For if the company is bleeding too much cash it simply won’t have the cash to pay its people, its vendors, its taxes, etc.  And it will cease to be.  Like any living organism that loses too much blood.

Healthy cash flows in a business are so important that analysts, investors, bankers, etc., will review one particular financial statement, the statement of cash flows, for an immediate assessment of a business’ health.  This statement shows the three sources of cash a business has.  Operating activities, investing activities and financing activities.  A successful business can generate all the cash they need from their operating activities.  To get there, though, they need startup capital.  Which comes from their financing activities.  The companies that are preparing for a surge in growth will look for venture capital.  And the inevitable initial public offering (i.e., going public).  For many companies the IPO is the measure of success.  Because going public is what makes these entrepreneurs millionaires.  And billionaires.

In the Eighties one such entrepreneur that became a billionaire is Bill Gates.  Mr. Microsoft himself.  Who made a fortune.  And is now working to give it away.  Just like Andrew Carnegie.  And John D. Rockefeller.  This geek made so much money with his software company that he made a lot of people wealthy who were smart enough to buy Microsoft stock early.  How these stockholders loved Bill Gates.  And every investor since has been waiting for the next Bill Gates to come along.  So they can get in on the ground floor of the next BIG thing.  And they thought they found him.  Rather, they thought they found a whole bunch of him.  Pouring their money into IPO after IPO.  Just waiting for the nascent dot-com companies to take off and soar into the stratosphere of profits.  For the Internet had arrived.  Few knew what it did.  But everyone knew it was the next BIG thing.

The Dot-Coms survived on Venture Capital and the Proceeds from their IPOs as they had no Sales Revenue

And these dot-coms took their money and spent it.  They hired programmers like there was no tomorrow.  They built office buildings.  Cities even offered lucrative incentives to attract these dot-coms to tech corridors they were building in their cities.  And splurged on infrastructure to support them.  The dot-coms bought advertising.  They spent a fortune to develop their brand identity.  Making them common place names in the new high-tech economy.  There was only one thing they didn’t do.  Develop something they could actually sell.

Those on the Left keep talking about how great the Clinton economy was in the Nineties.  Despite higher marginal tax rates than we have now.  These people who don’t even like Wall Street say the stock market did better under Clinton.  Apparently getting rich in the stock market was okay in the Nineties.  Today it only attracts occupy movements to protest the evil that stock profits now are.  But there was one subtle difference between the economy in the Nineties and the boom of the Eighties.  Most of the Nineties was a bubble.  A dot-com bubble.  It wasn’t real.  It was all paper profits that sent stock prices of companies that had nothing to sell soaring.  As all those stockholders sat and waited for these companies to sell the next BIG thing.  Taking them on a whirlwind ride to riches that never came.  Because once that startup capital petered out so did these dot-coms.  Leaving George W. Bush to deal with the resulting Clinton recession.

A review of their statement of cash flows for all of these failed dot-coms would show the same thing.  They would show tremendous flows of cash.  But it all flowed from their financing activities to their operating activities.  Which was nothing but a black hole for that startup capital.  All of these companies survived on venture capital and the proceeds from their IPOs.  They paid all their programmers, bought their buildings, paid for advertising and developed their brand with money from investors.  A healthy business eventually has to replace that startup capital with money from their operating activities.  Businesses that don’t fail.  Because even the most diehard of investors will stop investing in a company that can’t do anything but bleed red ink all over their balance sheet.

Instead of Investors taking the Loss on Green Energy Investments it’s the American Taxpayer taking the Loss

Bill Clinton had his dot-coms.  While President Obama has his green energy companies.  Which are similar to the dot-coms but with one major difference.  Instead of investors pouring money into these companies for a whirlwind ride to riches they’re sitting out the green energy industry.  Because it is a bad investment.  There will be no Microsoft in green energy.  Because it is a horrible business model.  The cost to harness the free energy out of wind and solar is just prohibitive.  The amount of infrastructure required is so costly that there can never be a return on investment.  Like there can be for a coal-fired power plant.  Which is something investors will invest their money in.

Green energy cannot compete in the marketplace unless the government subsidizes it with tax dollars.  Green industries cannot even build a factory.  While they have some private investors it is never enough.  Most green investors typically support these companies with a token investment.  But the real investors who expect a return on investment look at a green energy prospectus and say, “Thank you but no.  It is a horrible investment.”  And the people who want to build these plants know they’re horrible investments as they want to risk other people’s money.  Not theirs.  Which leaves but one source for startup capital.  A source that is so inept about business that they will pour money into a horrible investment.  The government.

The Energy Department invested heavily into these bad investments.  And a lot of them ended the same.  Just like the dot-coms.  The cash on their statement of cash flows went from financing activity to operating activities.  Another black hole for investment capital.  They spent that startup capital on plants and buildings.  Hired people.  And paid themselves very well.  But eventually they ran through that startup capital.  And were unable to get any more.  And with their operating activities unable to generate cash like in a healthy business many of the green energy companies went the way of the dot-coms.  Only instead of investors taking the loss it’s the American taxpayer taking the loss.  As it is their money that is bleeding out in red ink all over these green energy balance sheets.

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Post Office, Telegraph, Telephone, Cell Phones, Texting, Technology, Productivity, Savings, Investment, Japan Inc. and Eurozone Crisis

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 28th, 2012

History 101

Ben Franklin’s Post Office struggles to Stay Relevant in a World where Technology offers a Better Alternative

Once upon a time people stayed in touch with each other by mailing letters to each other.  Benjamin Franklin helped make this possible when he was America’s first Postmaster General of the United States.  And it’s in large part due to his Post Office that the American Revolutionary War became a united stand against Great Britain.  As news of what happened in Massachusetts spread throughout the colonies via Franklin’s Post Office.

In America Samuel Morse created a faster way to communicate.  (While others created this technology independently elsewhere.)  Through ‘dots’ and ‘dashes’ sent over a telegraph wire.  Speeding up communications from days to seconds.  It was fast.  But you needed people who understood Morse code.  Those dots and dashes that represented letters.  At both ends of that telegraph wire.  So the telegraph was a bit too complicated for the family home.  Who still relied on the Post Office to stay in touch

Then along came a guy by the name of Alexander Graham Bell.  Who gave us a telephone in the house.  Which gave people the speed of the telegraph.  But with the simplicity of having a conversation.  Bringing many a teenage girl into the kitchen in the evenings to talk to her friends.  Until she got her own telephone in her bedroom.  Then came cell phones.  Email.  Smartphones.  And Texting.   Communication had become so instantaneous today that no one writes letters anymore.  And Ben Franklin’s Post Office struggles to stay relevant in a world where technology offers a better alternative.

As Keynesian Monetary Policy played a Larger Role in Japan Personal Savings Fell

These technological advances happened because people saved money that allowed entrepreneurs, investors and businesses to borrow it.  They borrowed money and invested it into their businesses.  To bring their ideas to the market place.  And the more they invested the more they advanced technology.  Allowing them to create more incredible things.  And to make them more efficiently.  Thus giving us a variety of new things at low prices.  Thanks to innovation.  Risk-taking entrepreneurs.  And people’s savings.  Which give us an advanced economy.  High productivity.  And growing GDP.

Following World War II Japan rebuilt her industry and became an advanced economy.  As the U.S. auto industry faltered during the Seventies they left the door open for Japan.  Who entered.  In a big way.  They built cars so well that one day they would sell more of them than General Motors.  Which is incredible considering the B-29 bomber.  That laid waste to Japanese industry during World War II.  So how did they recover so fast?  A high savings rate.  During the Seventies the Japanese people saved over 15% of their income with it peaking in the mid-Seventies close to 25%.

This high savings rate provided enormous amounts of investment capital.  Which the Japanese used not only to rebuild their industry but to increase their productivity.  Producing one of the world’s greatest export economies.  The ‘Made in Japan’ label became increasingly common in the United States.  And the world.  Their economic clot grew in the Eighties.  They began buying U.S. properties.  Americans feared they would one day become a wholly owned subsidiary of some Japanese corporation.  Then government intervened.  With their Keynesian economics.  This booming economic juggernaut became Japan Inc.  But as Keynesian monetary policy played a larger role personal savings fell.  During the Eighties they fell below 15%.  And they would continue to fall.  As did her economic activity.  When monetary credit replaced personal savings for investment capital it only created large asset bubbles.  Which popped in the Nineties.  Giving the Japanese their Lost Decade.  A painful deflationary decade as asset prices returned to market prices.

Because the Germans have been so Responsible in their Economic Policies only they can Save the Eurozone

As the world reels from the fallout of the Great Recession the US, UK and Japan share a lot in common.  Depressed economies.  Deficit spending.  High debt.  And a low savings rate.  Two countries in the European Union suffer similar economic problems.  With one notable exception.  They have a higher savings rate.  Those two countries are France and Germany.  Two of the strongest countries in the Eurozone.  And the two that are expected to bail out the Eurozone.

While the French and the Germans are saving their money the Japanese have lost their way when it comes to saving.  Their savings rate plummeted following their Lost Decade.  As Keynesian economics sat in the driver seat.  Replacing personal savings with cheap state credit.  Much like it has in the US and the UK.  Nations with weak economies and low savings rates.  While the French and the Germans are keeping the Euro alive.  Especially the Germans.  Who are much less Keynesian in their economics.  And prefer a more Benjamin Franklin frugality when it comes to cheap state credit.  As well as state spending.  Who are trying to impose some austerity on the spendthrifts in the Eurozone.  Which the spendthrifts resent.  But they need money.  And the most responsible country in the Eurozone has it.  And there is a reason they have it.  Because their economic policies have been proven to be the best policies.

And others agree.  In fact there are some who want the German taxpayer to save the Euro by taking on the debt of the more irresponsible members in the Eurozone.  Because they have been so responsible in their economic policies they’re the only ones who can.  But if the Germans are the strongest economy shouldn’t others adopt their policies?  Instead of Germany enabling further irresponsible government spending by transferring the debt of the spendthrifts to the German taxpayer?  I think the German taxpayer would agree.  As would Benjamin Franklin.  Who said, “Industry, Perseverance, & Frugality, make Fortune yield.”  Which worked in early America.  In Japan before Japan Inc.  And is currently working in Germany.  It’s only when state spending becomes less frugal that states have sovereign debt crises.  Or subprime mortgage crisis.  Or Lost Decades.

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Venture Capital and Private Equity

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 28th, 2012

Economics 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Austrian School of Economics

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 27th, 2012

Economics 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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