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

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 2nd, 2012

History 101

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

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

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

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

The Keynesian Cure for Unemployment is Inflation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monetary Policy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 30th, 2012

Economics 101

Monetary Policy created the Housing Bubble and the Subprime Mortgage Crisis

Those suffering in the fallout of the Subprime Mortgage Crisis can thank monetary policy.  That tool used by the federal government that kept interest rates so low for so long.  Following the old Milton Friedman idea of a permanent level of inflation (but small and manageable) to stimulate constant economic growth.  Why?  Because when people are buying houses the economy is booming.  Because it takes a lot of economic activity to build them.  And even more to furnish them.  Which means jobs.  Lots and lots of jobs.

But there is a danger in making money too cheap to borrow.  A lot of people will borrow that cheap money.  Creating an artificial demand for ever more housing.  And not for your parent’s house.  But bigger and bigger houses.  The McMansions.  Houses 2-3 times the size of your parent’s house.  This demand ran up the price of these houses.  Which didn’t deter buyers.  Because mortgage rates were so low.  People who weren’t even considering buying a new house, let alone a McMansion, jumped in, too.  When the jumping was good.  To take advantage of those low mortgage rates.  There was so much house buying that builders got into it, too.  House flippers.  Who took advantage of those cheap ‘no questions asked’ (no documentation) mortgages (i.e., subprime) and bought houses.  Fixed them up.  And put them back on the market.

Good times indeed.  But they couldn’t last.  Because those houses weren’t the only thing getting expensive.  Price inflation was creeping into the other things we bought.  And all those houses at such inflated prices were creating a dangerous housing bubble.  So the Federal Reserve, America’s central bank, tapped the brakes.  To cool the economy down.  To reduce the growing inflation.  By raising interest rates.  Making mortgages not cheap anymore.  So people stopped buying houses.  Leaving a glut of unsold houses on the market.  Bursting that housing bubble.  And it got worse.  The higher interest rate increased the monthly payment on adjustable rate mortgages.  A large amount of all those subprime mortgages.  Causing many people to default on these mortgages.  Which caused the Subprime Mortgage Crisis.  And the Great Recession.

The Federal Reserve System conducts Monetary Policy by Changing both the Money Supply and Interest Rates

Money is a commodity.  And subject to the laws of supply and demand.  When money is in high demand (during times of inflation) the ‘price’ of money goes up.  When money is in low demand (during times of recession) the ‘price’ of money goes down.  The ‘price’ of money is interest.  The cost of borrowing money.  The higher the demand for loans the higher the interest rate.  The less the demand for loans the lower the interest rate.

So there is a relationship between money and interest rates.  Adjusting one can affect the other.  If the money supply is increased the interest rates will decrease.  Because there is more money to loan to the same amount of borrowers.  When the money supply is decreased interest rates will increase.  Because there will be less money to loan to the same amount of borrowers.  And it works the other way.  If the interest rates are lowered people respond by borrowing more money.  Increasing the amount of money in the economy buying things.  If interest rates are raised people respond by borrowing less money.   Reducing the amount of money in the economy buying things.  We call these changes in the money supply and interest rates monetary policy.  Made by the monetary authority.  In most cases the central bank of a nation.  In the United States that central bank is the Federal Reserve System (the Fed).

The Fed changes the amount of money in the economy and the interest rates to minimize the length of recessions, combat inflation and to reduce unemployment.  At least in theory.  And they have a variety of tools at their disposal.  They can change the amount of money in the economy through open market operations.  Basically buying (increasing the money supply) or selling (decreasing the money supply) treasury bills, government bonds, company bonds, foreign currencies, etc., on the open market.  They can also buy and sell these financial instruments to change interest rates.  Such as the Federal funds rate.  The interest rate banks pay when borrowing from each other.  Moving money between their accounts at the central bank.  Or the Fed can change the discount rate.  The rate banks pay to borrow from the central bank itself.  Often called the lender of last resort.  Or they can change the reserve requirement in fractional reserve banking.  Lowering it allows banks to loan more of their deposits.  Raising it requires banks to hold more of their deposits in reserve.  Not used much these days.  Open market operations being the monetary tool of choice.

There is more to Economic Activity than Monetary Policy

Fractional reserve banking multiplies these transactions.  Where banks create money out of thin air.  When the Fed increases the money supply a little this creates a lot of lendable funds.  As buyers borrow money from some banks and pay sellers.  Then sellers deposit that money in other banks.  And these banks hold a little of these deposits in reserve.  And loan the rest.  Borrowers create depositors as buyers meet sellers.  And complete economic transactions.  When the Fed reduces the money supply a little this process works in reverse.  Fractional reserve banking pulls a lot of money out of the economy.  Some treat these economic transactions, and the way to increase or decrease them, as simple math.  Always obeying their mathematical formulas.  We call these people Keynesian economists.  Named for the economist John Maynard Keynes.

Big interventionist governments embrace monetary policy.  Because they think they can easily manipulate the economy as they wish.  So they can tax and spend (Keynesian fiscal policy).  And when economic activity declines they can simply use monetary policy to restore it.  But there is one problem.  It doesn’t work.  If it did there would not have been a Subprime Mortgage Crisis.  Or any of the recessions we’ve had since the advent of central banking.  Including the Great Depression.  As well as the Great Recession.

There is more to economic activity than monetary policy.  Such as punishing fiscal policy (high taxes and stifling regulations).  Technological innovation.  Contracts.  Property rights.  Etc.  Any one of these can influence risk takers.  Business owners.  Entrepreneurs.  The job creators.  The people who create economic activity.  And no amount of monetary policy will change this.

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