Without a Bill Clinton the Bursting of the Canadian Housing Bubble will be less Painful than in the US

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 10th, 2012

Week in Review

The subprime mortgage crisis caused the Great Recession.  And bad government policy caused the subprime mortgage policy.  First with artificially low interest rates to encourage everyone to borrow money and take on enormous amounts of debt.  Then the Clinton administration took it up a notch.  By charging lenders with discrimination in their lending practices.  And if they didn’t find a away to qualify the unqualified for mortgages they would soon find themselves out of the mortgage business.  So they came up with subprime lending.  Adjustable rate mortgages (ARM).  No documentation mortgages.  Anything to get the government off of their backs.  And the government was so pleased with what they saw they started to buy (and/or guarantee) those toxic mortgages with their Government Sponsored Enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  Clearing those toxic mortgages from the lenders balance sheet by unloading them onto unsuspecting investors.  Clearing the way for even more toxic subprime lending.  The government was pleased.  And the bankers were making money with bad lending practices.  Something they normally would have avoided because it is very risky.  But when the government was transferring that risk to the taxpayer what did they have to lose?

Governments like a hot real estate market.  Because housing sales drives so much economic activity.  Because people put a lot of stuff into those houses.  Which is why governments are always quick to use their monetary authority to lower interest rates.  Which is what they did in the US.  Cheap money to borrow.  Lax lending practices thanks to the Clinton administration.  Creating a housing boom.  And a housing bubble.  It was a perfect storm brewing.  The only thing that it needed was a raise in the interest rates.  Which came.  Causing the subprime mortgage crisis as those ARMS reset at higher interest rates.  Leading to a wave of subprime mortgage defaults.  And the Great Recession.  Which raced around the world thanks to those toxic mortgages Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac unloaded on unsuspecting investors.

Canada did not suffer as much from the Great Recession.  Because they did not pressure their lenders to qualify the unqualified like Bill Clinton did in the US.  But they still used their monetary authority to keep interest rates artificially low.  So while they escaped the great damage the Americans suffered in their subprime mortgage they still have a housing bubble.  And it looks like it may be time for it to burst (see Analysis: Canada braces as housing slowdown takes hold by Andrea Hopkins posted 11/10/2012 on Reuters).

Long convinced the country’s housing boom would never end in a crash, Canadians have watched this autumn as a sharp slowdown in real estate spreads across the country, leaving would-be home buyers hopeful and sellers scared…

Signs are everywhere that Canada’s long run-up in house prices is over, hit by a combination of tighter mortgage lending rules and growing consumer reluctance to take on more debt. Sales of existing homes are down steeply, with condo sales hit especially hard, and some long-booming prices have started to fall…

Canadian households hold more debt than American families did before the U.S. housing bubble burst, which has led the government to tighten mortgage lending rules four times in four years…

Tal believes slower sales activity will be followed by falling prices in many cities. But he says Canadian lending standards have been higher, and borrowers more cautious, than in the United States before its crash, which will prevent large-scale mortgage defaults and plunging prices.

Mindful of what happened in the United States, the Canadian government has tightened mortgage rules to prevent home buyers from taking on too much debt. While interest rates are low and expected to stay low into 2013, the fear is that eventual rate hikes will drive borrowers out of their homes or into bankruptcy…

The last round of mortgage rule changes took effect in July, forcing home buyers to cut back on their budget and pushing many prospective first-time buyers out of the market entirely.

The Canadians may escape the damage the US suffered as Bill Clinton was an American and not a Canadian.  So they only have to suffer the effects of bad monetary policy.  Not the effects of government enforced bad lending practices.  So housing prices will fall in Canada.  And there will probably be a recession to correct those inflated real estate prices.  But housing prices probably will not fall as far as they did in the US.  For the Canadians were more responsible with their irresponsible monetary policy than the Americans were.

The lesson here is that when markets determine interest rates housing bubbles are smaller and recessions are less painful.  If you don’t believe that just ask an American with an underwater mortgage.

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The Line of Diocletian, the Byzantine Empire, Italian City-States, Banking, Usury and the Protestant Reformation

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 3rd, 2012

History 101

Europe began to Awake from its Slumber of the Dark Ages in about 1300 Italy

Once upon a time the only lending was to help someone in need.  Such as someone with a poor harvest to survive the winter.  We did it out of the goodness of our hearts to help others in need.  So to charge interest for a loan like this would have been cruel.  Taking advantage of someone’s misfortune wasn’t the Christian thing to do.  Or the Jewish.  Or the Muslim.  That’s why no one then charged interest for loaning money.  You just didn’t kick a person when he or she was down.  And if you did you could expect some swift justice from the religious authorities.  As well as the state.

Rome was once the center of the civilized world.  All roads led to Rome, after all.  Then Diocletian split the Empire into two in 285.  Along the Line of Diocletian.  Into East (Greek) and West (Latin). The West included Rome and fell around 486, ushering in the European Dark Ages.  Meanwhile the Eastern half, the Byzantine Empire, carried on.  And skipped the Dark Ages.  Its capital was Constantinople (named in 330) .  Formerly Byzantium.  Modern day Istanbul.  Where all Asian overland trade routes led to.  This city of Emperor Constantine.  His city.  Who reunited East and West.  And adopted Christianity as the Empire’s new religion (381).  Located at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, trade flourished and made the Byzantine Empire rich.  And long lasting.  Until weakened by the Venetian-financed Fourth Crusade (1202–1204).  (The Latin Christians’ attack on the Greek Christians was fallout from the Great Schism of 1054 where Christianity split between Latin Catholic and Greek Orthodox).  And then falling to the Ottomans in 1453.

Europe began to awake from its slumber in about 1300 Italy.  Great city-states arose.  Genoa.  Pisa.  And Venice.  Like those early Greek city-states.  Great ports of international trade.  Rising into trade empires with the decline of the Byzantine Empire.  Where these Italian merchants bought and sold all of those Asian goods.  Putting great commercial fleets to sea to bring those Asian goods into Genoa, Pisa and Venice.  Getting rich.  But to make money they had to have money.  Because in the international trade game you had to first buy what you sold.  Which included the cost of those great merchant fleets.  And how did they pay for all of this?  They borrowed money from a new institution called banking.

That Europe that Slumbered during the Dark Ages Arose to Rule International Trade

Modern finance was born in Italy.  Everything that makes the commercial economy work today goes back to these Italian city-states.  From international banking and foreign exchange markets to insurance to the very bookkeeping that kept track of profits and losses.  It is here we see the first joint-stock company to finance and diversify the risk of commercial shipping.  London would use the joint-stock company to later finance the British East India Company.  And Amsterdam the Dutch East India company.  Where the Dutch and the English sent ships across oceans in search of trade.  Thanks to their mastery of celestial navigation.  And brought back a fortune in trade.  Putting the great Italian city-states out of business.  For their direct sea routes were far more profitable than the overland routes.  Because the holds of their ships could hold far more than any overland caravan could.

The Catholic opposition to usury (charging interest to borrow money) opened the new banking industry to the oppressed Jews in the European/Christian cities.  For it was one of the few things the Christian rulers let the Jews do.  Which they did.  Even though it was technically against their religion.  And they did it well.  For they had an early monopoly.  Thanks to that same Catholic Church.  Then came another schism in the Christian church.  The Protestant Reformation.  Where, among other things, Protestants said the Old Testament did not bind them to all rules that the Jews had to follow.  Then John Calvin took it a step further and said commercial loans could charge interest.  And, well, the rest is banking history.

Europe was then the dominant region of the world.  That region that slumbered during the Dark Ages arose to rule international trade.  Thanks to their navigational abilities.  And their banking centers.  Which financed their trade.  And the great things to come.

The Enlightenment led to the Modern World, Limited Government, the Industrial Revolution and Beyond

With the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the rise of the Italian city-states, Greek thinkers left the Byzantine Empire and went West.  To those rich Italian city-states.  Bringing with them great books of Greek knowledge.  The intellectual remnants of the Roman Empire.  Translated them.  And massed produced them on the new printing press.  And kicked off the Enlightenment.  Which then spread throughout Europe.

The Enlightenment led to the modern world.  From limited government.  To the Industrial Revolution.  And beyond.  All thanks to those Italian city-states.  International trade.  And banking.

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Time Value of Money, Interest, Risk, Opportunity Costs and Banking

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 2nd, 2012

Economics 101

Entrepreneurs have to Borrow Money because their Income comes AFTER they Build Things

A lot of things came together to give us a modern civilization.  Food surpluses, division of labor, money, religion, rule of law, free trade, free labor, prices, incentive and competition.  As well as other important developments.  Such as banking.  That addressed the time value of money.  And the risk of lending.

Before farmers can sell their harvests they have to plant them first.  This takes money.  Which raises an obvious question.  How do farmers get money to plant a crop?  When their income comes AFTER the planting of that crop?  Entrepreneurs have the same problem.  They can build things to sell.  But like the farmer they have to buy materials first.  Which takes money.  So how do entrepreneurs get money to build the things they build?  When their income comes AFTER the building of these things?

Of course farmers and entrepreneurs have to borrow money.  Say from a parent.  Who has been saving up for a really nice vacation.  A parent can loan the farmer or the entrepreneur money.  But that means that they may have to postpone their plans.  Or change their plans. For the same vacation may cost more next year than it does this year.  If they loan their money and get the same amount back they won’t be able to afford that same vacation.  Unless they charge interest.  So that when they get their money back AND the interest they can then afford that same but now more expensive vacation.

A Bank collects Deposits from Numerous Depositors so they can lend it to the People who Need Capital

This is the time value of money.  Over time money buys less.  Because it’s worth less.  The same amount of money will buy more today than it will 10 years from now.  This lost value is the cost of borrowed money.  And why borrowing money typically incurs interest.  Money a borrower owes in addition to the amount borrowed.  The interest compensates the lender for the lost value of their money.  So when you repay it they don’t lose any purchasing power.  And the lender can buy the same things that they could have when they loaned you the money.  Like a postponed vacation that became more expensive over time.

As the economy became more complex it required more borrowed money to pay for the production of other things.  Things that we sell much later than when we purchased the material to make these things.  Expensive things.  Tools.  Equipment.  Factories.  Trucks.  Costs so great that a person’s parents may not have enough savings to finance these things.  But they could if we combine their savings with other people’s savings.

Alexander Hamilton said a person’s savings was just money.  But when added to the savings of other people that money became capital.  Large pools of money available to loan.  So entrepreneurs could borrow money to buy tools, equipment, factories and trucks.  This important part of business became a business in itself.  The banking business.  A bank collects deposits from numerous depositors.  So they can lend it to the people who need capital.  They pay interest to depositors to encourage them to deposit their money.  And charge interest to borrowers to pay the depositors’ interest and other costs of running the bank.

Charging Interest Compensated the Lender for the Risk they were Taking and is a Necessary Part of Capitalism

Banks get a lot of bad press these days.  Since the dawn of banking, really.  People say bankers get rich for doing nothing.  Using other people’s money to boot.  Some call it a sin.  Usury.  Making money simply by lending money.  The ancient Jews forbade it.  So did the Christians.  Even the Muslims.  (And still do.)  But without banks we wouldn’t have a modern civilization.  In fact, if we had no banks you would not recognize the world you’d be living in.  There would be no middle class.  And our economic system would probably still be based on Manorialism.  Where most of us would still be serfs.  Working the land for the Lord of the Manor like our distant ancestors did in the Middle Ages.

There would have been no Industrial Revolution.  No cell phones.  No Internet.  Because all of these things required capital.  The pooling of people’s savings.  To provide the investment capital it takes to finance these things we take for granted in our lives today.

But things changed.  First the Jews started lending money for interest.  Then the Christians followed.  Seeing that business and commerce needed to borrow money.  And that lending money incurred risk.  (Some people might not repay their loans.)  And there were opportunity costs.  (The other things they could do with that money.)  Charging interest compensated the lender for the risk they were taking.  It wasn’t usury.  It was a necessary part of capitalism.  And the modern world we take for granted today.

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Bill Clinton created the Subprime Mortgage Crisis with his Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 6th, 2011

Week in Review

The proof is in the pudding.  And that pudding is the Federal Register.  Or as some would say the smoking gun in the subprime mortgage crisis (see Smoking-Gun Document Ties Policy To Housing Crisis by PAUL SPERRY posted 10/31/2011 on Investors.com).

At President Clinton’s direction, no fewer than 10 federal agencies issued a chilling ultimatum to banks and mortgage lenders to ease credit for lower-income minorities or face investigations for lending discrimination and suffer the related adverse publicity. They also were threatened with denial of access to the all-important secondary mortgage market and stiff fines, along with other penalties.

The threat was codified in a 20-page “Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending” and entered into the Federal Register on April 15, 1994, by the Interagency Task Force on Fair Lending. Clinton set up the little-known body to coordinate an unprecedented crackdown on alleged bank redlining.

The edict — completely overlooked by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission and the mainstream media — was signed by then-HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, Attorney General Janet Reno, Comptroller of the Currency Eugene Ludwig and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, along with the heads of six other financial regulatory agencies.

“The agencies will not tolerate lending discrimination in any form,” the document warned financial institutions.

So this is where it all started.  In 1994.  When the government pressured lenders to qualify the unqualified.  To put people into houses they couldn’t afford.  Or else.

The unusual full-court press was predicated on a Boston Fed study showing mortgage lenders rejecting blacks and Hispanics in greater proportion than whites. The author of the 1992 study, hired by the Clinton White House, claimed it was racial “discrimination.” But it was simply good underwriting.

It took private analysts, as well as at least one FDIC economist, little time to determine the Boston Fed study was terminally flawed. In addition to finding embarrassing mistakes in the data, they concluded that more relevant measures of a borrower’s credit history — such as past delinquencies and whether the borrower met lenders credit standards — explained the gap in lending between whites and blacks, who on average had poorer credit and higher defaults.

The study did not take into account a host of other relevant data factoring into denials, including applicants’ net worth, debt burden and employment record. Other variables, such as the size of down payments and the amount of the loans sought to the value of the property being bought, also were left out of the analysis. It also failed to consider whether the borrower submitted information that could not be verified, the presence of a cosigner and even the loan amount.

When these missing data were factored in, it became clear that the rejection rates were based on legitimate business decisions, not racism.

Still, the study was used to support a wholesale abandonment of traditional underwriting standards — the root cause of the mortgage crisis.

So there was no racism.  No redlining.  Just good mortgage lending practices.  But good mortgage lending practices don’t buy you votes.  Or get you kickbacks from mortgage lenders.

Confronted with the combined force of 10 federal regulators, lenders naturally toed the line, and were soon aggressively marketing subprime mortgages in urban areas. The marching orders threw such a scare into the industry that the American Bankers Association issued a “fair-lending tool kit” to every member. The Mortgage Bankers Association of America signed a “fair-lending” contract with HUD. So did Countrywide.

HUD also pushed Fannie and Freddie, which in effect set industry underwriting standards, to buy subprime mortgages, freeing lenders to originate even more high-risk loans.

So how do you qualify the unqualified and avoid the wrath of the federal government?  That’s easy.  You create the subprime mortgage market.  And then you get Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to buy these toxic mortgages and pass them on to unsuspecting investors.  Freeing up the mortgage lenders to make more bad loans.  And putting the world on a course to financial calamity.

All in a day’s work for an activist, corrupt, Big Government.

Clinton’s task force survived the Bush administration, during which it produced fair-lending brochures in Spanish for immigrant home-loan applicants.

And it’s still alive today. Obama is building on the fair-lending infrastructure Clinton put in place.

As IBD first reported in July, Attorney General Eric Holder has launched a witch hunt vs. “racist” banks.

“It’s a more aggressive fair-lending enforcement approach now,” said Washington lawyer Andrew Sandler of Buckley Sandler LLP in a recent interview. “It is well beyond anything we saw during the Clinton administration.”

Guess we haven’t learned the lessons of the subprime mortgage crisis.  Or we have and just don’t care.  Because buying votes and getting kickbacks from mortgage lenders is more important than preventing another subprime mortgage crisis.

All of this, of course, means that Wall Street didn’t cause the mess we’re in now.  Bill Clinton did.  And his racist lending policies.  To correct for a racism in mortgage lending that wasn’t there.  By qualifying the unqualified.  And putting them into houses they couldn’t afford.  Which the Obama administration appears to be doubling down on.

Boy.  I’d hate to be in our shoes.

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

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 17th, 2010

DURING UNCERTAIN ECONOMIC times, people act differently.  If business is down where you work, your company may start laying off people.  Your friends and co-workers.  Even you.  If there is a round of layoffs and you survive, you should feel good but don’t.  Because it could have been you.  And very well can be you.  Next time.  Within a year.  In the next few months.  Any time.  You just don’t know.  And it isn’t a good feeling.

So, should this be you, what do you do?  Run up those credit cards?  By a new car?  Go on a vacation?  Take out a home equity loan to pay for new windows?  To remodel the kitchen?  Buy a hot tub?  Or do you cut back on your spending and start hoarding cash?  Just in case.  Because those unemployment payments may not be enough to pay for your house payment, your property taxes, your car payment, your insurances, your utilities, your groceries, your cable bill, etc.  And another loan payment won’t help.  So, no.  You don’t run up those credit cards.  Buy that car.  You don’t go on vacation.  And you don’t take that home equity loan.  Instead, you hunker down.  Sacrifice.  Ride it out.  Prepare for the worse.  Hoard your cash.  Enough to carry you through a few months of unemployment.  And shred those pre-approved credit card offers.  Even at those ridiculously low, introductory interest rates.

To help hammer home this point, you think of your friends who lost their jobs.  Who are behind on their mortgages.  Who are in foreclosure.  Whose financial hardships are stressing them out to no ends.  Suffering depression.  Harassed by collection agencies.  Feeling helpless.  Not knowing what to do because their financial problems are just so great.  About to lose everything they’ve worked for.  No.  You will not be in their position.  If you can help it.  If it’s not already too late.

AND SO IT is with businesses.  People who run businesses are, after all, people.  Just like you.  During uncertain economic times, they, too, hunker down.  When sales go down, they have less cash to pay for the cost of those sales.  As well as the overhead.  And their customers are having the same problems.  So they pay their bills slower.  Trying to hoard cash.  Receivables grow from 30 to 45 to 90 days.  So you delay paying as many of your bills as possible.  Trying to hoard cash.  But try as you might, your working capital is rapidly disappearing.  Manufacturers see their inventories swell.  And storing and protecting these inventories costs money.  Soon they must cut back on production.  Lay off people.  Idle machinery.  Most of which was financed by debt.  Which you still have to service.  Or you sell some of those now nonproductive assets.  So you can retire some of that debt.  But cost cutting can only take you so far.  And if you cut too much, what are you going to do when the economy turns around?  If it turns around?

You can borrow money.  But what good is that going to do?  Add debt, for one.  Which won’t help much.  You might be able to pay some bills, but you still have to pay back that borrowed money.  And you need sales revenue for that.  If you think this is only a momentary downturn and sales will return, you could borrow and feel somewhat confidant that you’ll be able to repay your loan.  But you don’t have the sales now.  And the future doesn’t look bright.  Your customers are all going through what you’re going through.  Not a confidence builder.  So you’re reluctant to borrow.  Unless you really, really have to.  And if you really, really have to, it’s probably because you’re in some really, really bad financial trouble.  Just what a banker wants to see in a prospective borrower.

Well, not really.  In fact, it’s the exact opposite.  A banker will want to avoid you as if you had the plague.  Besides, the banks are in the same economy as you are.  They have their finger on the pulse of the economy.  They know how bad things really are.  Some of their customers are paying slowly.  A bad omen of things to come.  Which is making them really, really nervous.  And really, really reluctant to make new loans.  They, too, want to hoard cash.  Because in bad economic times, people default on loans.  Enough of them default and the bank will have to scramble to sell securities, recall loans and/or borrow money themselves to meet the demands of their depositors.  And if their timing is off, if the depositors demand more of their money then they have on hand, the bank will fail.  And all the money they created via fractional reserve banking will disappear.  Making money even scarcer and harder to borrow.  You see, banking people are, after all, just people.  And like you, and the business people they serve, they, too, hunker down during bad economic times.  Hoping to ride out the bad times.  And to survive.  With a minimum of carnage. 

For these reasons, businesses and bankers hoard cash during uncertain economic times.  For if there is one thing that spooks businesses and banks more than too much debt it’s uncertainty.  Uncertainty about when a recession will end.  Uncertainty about the cost of healthcare.  Uncertainty about changes to the tax code.  Uncertainty about new government regulations.  Uncertainty about new government mandates.  Uncertainty about retroactive tax changes.  Uncertainty about previous tax cuts that they may repeal.  Uncertainty about monetary policy.  Uncertainty about fiscal policy.  All these uncertainties can result with large, unexpected cash expenditures at some time in the not so distant future.  Or severely reduce the purchasing power of their customers.  When this uncertainty is high during bad economic times, businesses typically circle the wagons.  Hoard more cash.  Go into survival mode.  Hold the line.  And one thing they do NOT do is add additional debt.

DEBT IS A funny thing.  You can lay off people.  You can cut benefits.  You can sell assets for cash.  You can sell assets and lease them back (to get rid of the debt while keeping the use of the asset).  You can factor your receivables (sell your receivables at a discount to a 3rd party to collect).  You can do a lot of things with your assets and costs.  But that debt is still there.  As are those interest payments.  Until you pay it off.  Or file bankruptcy.  And if you default on that debt, good luck.  Because you’ll need it.  You may be dependent on profitable operations for the indefinite future as few will want to loan to a debt defaulter.

Profitable operations.  Yes, that’s the key to success.  So how do you get it?  Profitable operations?  From sales revenue.  Sales are everything.  Have enough of them and there’s no problem you can’t solve.  Cash may be king, but sales are the life blood pumping through the king’s body.  Sales give business life.  Cash is important but it is finite.  You spend it and it’s gone.  If you don’t replenish it, you can’t spend anymore.  And that’s what sales do.  It gets you profitable operations.  Which replenishes your cash.  Which lets you pay your bills.  And service your debt.

And this is what government doesn’t understand.  When it comes to business and the economy, they think it’s all about the cash.  That it doesn’t have anything to do with the horrible things they’re doing with fiscal policy.  The tax and spend stuff.  When they kill an economy with their oppressive tax and regulatory policies, they think “Hmmm.  Interest rates must be too high.”  Because their tax and spending sure couldn’t have crashed the economy.  That stuff is stimulative.  Because their god said so.  And that god is, of course, John Maynard Keynes.  And his demand-side Keynesian economic policies.  If it were possible, those in government would have sex with these economic policies.  Why?   Because they empower government.  It gives government control over the economy.  And us.

And that control extends to monetary policy.  Control of the money supply and interest rates.  The theory goes that you stimulate economic activity by making money easier to borrow.  So businesses borrow more.  Create more jobs.  Which creates more tax receipts.  Which the government can spend.  It’s like a magical elixir.  Interest rates.  Cheap money.  Just keep interest rates low and money cheap and plentiful and business will do what it is that they do.  They don’t understand that part.  And they don’t care.  They just know that it brings in more tax money for them to spend.  And they really like that part.  The spending.  Sure, it can be inflationary, but what’s a little inflation in the quest for ‘full employment’?  Especially when it gives you money and power?  And a permanent underclass who is now dependent on your spending.  Whose vote you can always count on.  And when the economy tanks a little, all you need is a little more of that magical elixir.  And it will make everything all better.  So you can spend some more.

But it doesn’t work in practice.  At least, it hasn’t yet.  Because the economy is more than monetary policy.  Yes, cash is important.  But making money cheaper to borrow doesn’t mean people will borrow money.  Homeowners may borrow ‘cheap’ money to refinance higher-interest mortgages, but they aren’t going to take on additional debt to spend more.  Not until they feel secure in their jobs.  Likewise, businesses may borrow ‘cheap’ money to refinance higher-interest debt.  But they are not going to add additional debt to expand production.  Not until they see some stability in the market and stronger sales.  A more favorable tax and regulatory environment.  That is, a favorable business climate.  And until they do, they won’t create new jobs.  No matter how cheap money is to borrow.  They’ll dig in.  Hold the line.  And try to survive until better times.

NOT ONLY WILL people and businesses be reluctant to borrow, so will banks be reluctant to lend.  Especially with a lot of businesses out there looking a little ‘iffy’ who may still default on their loans.  Instead, they’ll beef up their reserves.  Instead of lending, they’ll buy liquid financial assets.  Sit on cash.  Earn less.  Just in case.  Dig in.  Hold the line.  And try to survive until better times.

Of course, the Keynesians don’t factor these things into their little formulae and models.  They just stamp their feet and pout.  They’ve done their part.  Now it’s up to the greedy bankers and businessmen to do theirs.  To engage in lending.  To create jobs.  To build things.  That no one is buying.  Because no one is confident in keeping their job.  Because the business climate is still poor.  Despite there being cheap money to borrow.

The problem with Keynesians, of course, is that they don’t understand business.  They’re macroeconomists.  They trade in theory.  Not reality.  When their theory fails, it’s not the theory.  It’s the application of the theory.  Or a greedy businessman.  Or banker.  It’s never their own stupidity.  No matter how many times they get it wrong.

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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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