Capital Markets, IPO, Bubbles and Stock Market Crashes

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 22nd, 2013

Economics 101

Entrepreneurs turn to Venture Capitalists because they Need a Lot of Money Fast

It takes money to make money.  Anyone who ever started a business knows this only too well.  For starting a money-making business takes money.  A lot of it.  New business owners will use their lifesavings.  Mortgage their home.  Borrow from their parents.  Or if they have a really good business plan and own a house with a lot of equity built up in it they may be able to get a loan from a bank.  Or find a cosigner who is willing to pledge some collateral to secure a loan.

Once the business is up and running they depend on business profits to pay the bills.  And service their debt.  If the business struggles they turn to other sources of financing.  They pay their bills slower.  They use credit cards.  They draw down their line of credit at their bank.  They go back to a parent and borrow more money.  A lot of businesses fail at this point.  But some survive.  And their profits not only pay their bills and service their debt.  But these profits can sustain growth.

This is one path.  Entrepreneurs with a brilliant new invention may need a lot of money fast.  To pay for land, a large building for manufacturing, equipment and tooling, energy, waste disposal, packaging, distribution and sales.  And all the people in production and management.  This is just too much money for someone’s lifesavings or a home mortgage to pay for.  So they turn to venture capital.  Investors who will take a huge risk and pay these costs in return for a share of the profits.  And the huge windfall when taking the company public.  If the company doesn’t fail before going public.

The Common Stockholders take the Biggest Risk of All who Finance a Business

As a company grows they need more financing.  And they turn to the capital markets.  To issue bonds.  A large loan broken up into smaller pieces that many bond purchasers can buy.  Each bond paying a fixed interest rate in return for these buyers (i.e., creditors) taking a risk.  Businesses have to redeem their bonds one day (i.e., repay this loan).  Which they don’t have to do with stocks.  The other way businesses raise money in the capital markets.   When owners take their business public they are selling it to investors.  This initial public offering (IPO) of stock brings in money to the business that they don’t have to pay back.  What they give up for this wealth of funding is some control of their business.  The investors who buy this stock get dividends (similar to interest) and voting rights in exchange for taking this risk.  And the chance to reap huge capital gains.

The common stockholders take the biggest risk in financing a business.  (Preferred stockholders fall between bondholders and common stockholders in terms of risk, get a fixed dividend but no voting rights.)  In exchange for that risk they get voting rights.  They elect the board of directors.  Who hire the company’s officers.  So they have the largest say in how the business does its business.  Because they have the largest stake in the company.  After all, they own it.  Which is why businesses work hard to please their common stockholders.  For if they don’t they can lose their job.

During profitable times the board of directors may vote to increase the dividend on the common stock.  But if the business is not doing well they may vote to reduce the dividend.  Or suspend it entirely.  What will worry stockholders, though, more than a reduced dividend is a falling stock price.  For stockholders make a lot of money by buying and selling their shares of stock.  And if the price of their stock falls while they’re holding it they will not be able to sell it without taking a loss on their investment.  So a reduced dividend may be the least of their worries.  As they are far more concerned about what is causing the value of their stock to fall.

Investors make Money by Buying and Selling Stocks based on this Simple Adage, “Buy Low, Sell High.”

A business only gets money from investors from the IPO.  Once investors buy this stock they can sell it in the secondary market.  This is what drives the Dow Jones Industrial Average.  This buying and selling of stocks between investors on the secondary market.  A business gets no additional funding from these transactions.  But they watch the price of their stock very closely.  For it can affect their ability to get new financing.  Creditors don’t want to take all of the risk.  Neither do investors. They want to see a mix of debt (bonds) and equity (stocks).  And if the stock price falls it will be difficult for them to raise money by issuing more stock.  Forcing them to issue more bonds.  Increasing the risk of the creditors.  Which raises the bond interest rate they must pay to attract creditors.  Which makes it hard for the business to raise money to finance operations when their stock price falls.  Not to mention putting the jobs of executive management at risk.

Why?  Because this is not why venture capitalists risk their money.  It is not why investors buy stock in an IPO.  They take these great risks to make money.  Not to lose money.  And the way they expect to get rich is with a rising stock price.  Business owners and their early financers get a share of the stock at the IPO.  For their risk-taking.  And the higher the stock trades for after the IPO the richer they get.  When the stock price settles down after a meteoric rise following the IPO the entrepreneurs and their venture capitalists can sell their stock at the prevailing market price and become incredibly rich.  Thanks to a huge capital gain in the price of the stock.  At least, that is the plan.

But what causes this huge capital gain?  The expectations of future profitability of the new public company.  It’s not about what it is doing today.  But what investors think they will be doing tomorrow.  If they believe that their new product will be the next thing everyone must have investors will want to own that stock before everyone starts buying those things.  So they can take that meteoric rise along with the stock price.  As this new product produces record profits for this business.  So everyone will bid up the price because the investors must have this stock.  Just as they are sure consumers will feel they must have what this business sells.  When there are a lot of companies competing in the same technology market all of these tech stock prices can rise to great heights.  As everyone is taking a big bet that the company they’re buying into will make that next big thing everyone must have.  Causing these stocks to become overvalued.  As these investors’ enthusiasm gets the better of them.  And when reality sets in it can be devastating.

Investors make money by buying and selling stocks.  The key to making wealth is this simple adage, “Buy low, sell high.”  Which means you don’t want to be holding a stock when its price is falling.  So what is an investor to do?  Sell when it could only be a momentary correction before continuing its meteoric rise?  Missing out on a huge capital gain?  Or hold on to it waiting for it to continue its meteoric rise?  Only to see the bottom fall out causing a great financial loss?  The kind of loss that has made investors jump out of a window?  Tough decision.  With painful consequences if an investor decides wrong.  Sometimes it’s just not one individual investor.  If a group of stocks are overvalued.  If there is a bubble in the stock market.  And it bursts.  Look out.  The losses will be huge as many overvalued stocks come crashing down.  Causing a stock market crash.  A recession.  A Great Recession.  Even a Great Depression.

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Tax Cuts, Roaring Twenties, Farm Prices, Smoot-Hawley Tariff, Stock Market Crash, New Deal, Great Depression and the Great Recession

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 6th, 2012

History 101

(Originally published March 20, 2012)

Tax Cuts and the Small Government Policies of Harding and Coolidge gave us the Roaring Twenties

Keynesians blame the long duration of the Great Depression (1929-1939) on the government clinging to the gold standard.  Even renowned monetarist economist Milton Friedman agrees.  Though that’s about the only agreement between Keynesians and Friedman.   Their arguments are that the US could have reduced the length and severity of the Great Depression if they had only abandoned the gold standard.  And adopted Keynesian policies.  Deficit spending.  Just like they did in the Seventies.  The decade where we had both high unemployment and high inflation.  Stagflation.  Something that’s not supposed to happen under Keynesian economics.  So when it did they blamed the oil shocks of the Seventies.  Not their orgy of spending.  Or their high taxes.  And they feel the same way about the Great Depression.

Funny.  How one price shock (oil) can devastate all businesses in the US economy.  So much so that it stalled job creation.  And caused high unemployment.  Despite the government printing and spending money to create jobs.  And to provide government benefits so recipients could use those benefits to stimulate economic activity.  All of that government spending failed to pull the country out of one bad recession.  Because of that one price shock on the cost of doing business.  Yet no one talks about the all out assault on business starting in the Hoover administration that continued and expanded through the Roosevelt administration.

Herbert Hoover may have been a Republican.  But he was no conservative.  He was a big government progressive.  And believed that the federal government should interfere into the free market.  To make things better.  Unlike Warren Harding.  And Calvin Coolidge.  Who believed in a small government, hands-off policy when it came to the economy.  They passed tax cuts.  Following the advice of their treasury secretary.  Andrew Mellon.  Which gave business confidence of what the future would hold.  So they invested.  Expanded production.  And created jobs.  It was these small government policies that gave us the Roaring Twenties.  An economic boom that electrified and modernized the world.  With real economic growth.

If an Oil Shock can prevent Businesses from Responding to Keynesian Policies then so can FDR’s all out War on Business

The Roaring Twenties was a great time to live if you wanted a job.  And wanted to live in the modern era.  Electric power was spreading across the country.  People had electric appliances in their homes.  Radios.  They went to the movies.  Drove cars.  Flew in airplanes.  The Roaring Twenties was a giant leap forward in the standard of living.  Factories with electric power driving electric motors increased productivity.  And reduced air pollution as they replaced coal-fired steam boilers that up to then powered the Industrial Revolution.  This modernization even made it to the farm.  Farmers borrowed heavily to mechanize their farms.  Allowing them to grow more food than ever.  Bumper crops caused farm prices to fall.  Good for consumers.  But not those farmers who borrowed heavily.

Enter Herbert Hoover.  Who wanted to use the power of government to help the farmers.  By forcing Americans to pay higher food prices.  Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates.  Thinking that a boom in the stock market was from speculation and not the real economic growth of the Twenties.  So they contracted the money supply.  Cooling that real economic growth.  And making it very hard to borrow money.  Causing farmers to default on their loans.  Small rural banks that loaned to these farmers failed.  These bank failures spread to other banks.  Weakening the banking system.  Then came the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Passed in 1930.  But it was causing business uncertainty as early as 1928.  As the Smoot-Hawley Tariff was going to increase tariffs on just about everything by 30%.  Basically adding a 30% tax on the cost of doing business.  That the businesses would, of course, pass on to consumers.  By raising prices.  Because consumers weren’t getting a corresponding 30% pay hike they, of course, could not buy as much after the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Putting a big cramp in sales revenue.  Perhaps even starting an international trade war.  Further cramping sales.  Something investors no doubt took notice of.  Seeing that real economic growth would soon come to a screeching halt.  And when the bill moved through committees in the autumn of 1929 the die was cast.  Investors began the massive selloff on Wall Street.  The Stock Market Crash of 1929.  The so-called starting point of the Great Depression.  Then the Smoot-Hawley Tariff became law.  And the trade war began.  As anticipated.

Of course, the Keynesians ignore this lead up to the Great Depression.  This massive government intrusion into the free market.  And the next president would build on this intrusion into the free market.  Ignoring the success of the small-government and tax cuts of Harding and Coolidge.  As well as ignoring the big-government free-market-intrusion failures of Herbert Hoover.  The New Deal programs of FDR were going to explode government spending to heights never before seen in peace time.  Causing uncertainty like never seen before in the business community.  It was an all out assault on business.  Taxes and regulation that increased the cost of business.  And massive government spending for new benefits and make-work programs.  All paid for by the people who normally create jobs.  Which there wasn’t a lot of during the great Depression.  Thanks to programs like Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, Homeowners Loan Corporation, Tennessee Valley Authority, Agricultural Adjustment Act, National Industrial Recovery Act, Public Works Administration, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Glass–Steagall Act, Securities Act of 1933, Civil Works Administration, Indian Reorganization Act, Social Security Act, Works Progress Administration, National Labor Relations Act, Federal Crop Insurance Corporation, Surplus Commodities Program, Fair Labor Standards Act, Rural Electrification Administration, Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration, etc.  Oil shocks of the Seventies?  If an oil shock can prevent businesses from responding to Keynesian policies then an all out war on business in the Thirties could do the same.  And worse.  Far, far worse.  Which is why the Great Depression lasted 10 years.  Because the government turned what would have been a normal recession into a world-wide calamity.  By trying to interfere with market forces.

Only Real Economic Growth creates Jobs, not Government Programs

The unemployment rate in 1929 was 3.1%.  In 1933 it was 24.9%.  It stayed above 20% until 1936.  Where it fell as low as 14.3% in 1937.  It then went to 19.0%, 17.2% and 14.6% in the next three years.  These numbers stayed horrible throughout the Thirties because the government wouldn’t stop meddling.  Or spending money.  None of the New Deal programs had a significant effect on unemployment.  The New Deal failed to fix the economy the way the New Dealers said it would.  Despite the massive price tag.  So much for super smart government bureaucrats.

What finally pulled us out of the Great Depression?  Adolf Hitler’s conquering of France in 1940.  When American industry received great orders for real economic growth.  From foreign countries.  To build the war material they needed to fight Adolf Hitler.  And the New Deal programs be damned.  There was no time for any more of that nonsense.  So during World War II businesses had a little less uncertainty.  And a backlog of orders.  All the incentive they needed to ramp up American industry.  To make it hum like it once did under Harding and Coolidge.  And they won World War II.  For there was no way Adolf Hitler could match that economic output.  Which made all the difference on the battlefield.

Still there are those who want to blame the gold standard for the Great Depression.  And still support Keynesian policies to tax and spend.  Even today.  Even after 8 years of Ronald Reagan that proved the policies of Harding and Coolidge.  We’re right back to those failed policies of the past.  Massive government spending to stimulate economic activity.  To pull us out of the Great Recession.  And utterly failing.  Where the unemployment rate struggles to get below 9%.  The U-3 unemployment rate, that is.  The rate that doesn’t count everyone who wants full time work.  The rate that counts everyone, the U-6 unemployment rate, currently stands at 14.9%.  Which is above the lowest unemployment rate during the Great Depression.  Proving once again only real economic growth creates jobs.  Not government programs.  No matter how many trillions of dollars the government spends.

So much for super smart government bureaucrats.

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

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 2nd, 2012

History 101

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

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

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

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

The Keynesian Cure for Unemployment is Inflation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FT127: “Obamacare is a lot like the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in terms of scaring the bejesus out of businesses.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 20th, 2012

Fundamental Truth

The Roaring Twenties gave us Automobiles, Electric Power, Radio, Movies, Telephones and Air travel

In 1921 there were 9 million automobile registrations.  That jumped to 23 million by 1929.  An increase of 156%.  That’s a lot more cars on the roads.  In the Roaring Twenties we made cars out of steel, paint and glass.  Inside we fitted them with lumber, cotton and leather.  We put rubber tires on them.  And filled their fuel tanks with gasoline.  So this surge in car ownership created a surge in all of these industries.  Extraction of raw materials.  Factories and manufacturing plants to build the equipment to extract those raw materials.  As well as the machinery to build these automobile components.  And the moving assembly lines in assembly plants to assemble these automobiles.  The plants, warehouses and automobile dealers created a surge in the construction industry.  And all the industries that fed the construction industry.  Including the housing industry to house all these gainfully employed workers.

And this was just the auto industry.  Which wasn’t the only industry that was booming during the Roaring Twenties.  Thanks to the hands-off government policies of the administrations of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge businesses introduced us to the modern world.  Electric power came into its own.  By 1929 about 80% of all installed horsepower was electrical.  And it entered our homes.  Electric lighting and electric appliances.  Vacuum cleaners.  Washing machines.  Refrigerators.  All of this required even more raw material extraction from the ground.  More manufacturing equipment and plants.  More wholesale and retail construction.  And more housing to house all of these workers earning a healthy paycheck.

And there was more.  The Roaring Twenties gave us broadcast radio in our electric-powered homes.  Free entertainment, sports broadcasts and news.  Paid for by the new industry of advertising.  Competing with radio was another growing industry.  Motion pictures.  That by the end of the Roaring Twenties were talkies.  And speaking of talking there was a lot of that on the new telephone.  In our homes.  Interconnecting all of these industries was ship, rail and truck transportation.  Even air travel took off during the Twenties.  More raw material extraction.  More equipment.  More manufacturing.  More construction.  And jobs.  More and more jobs.  The hands-off government policies of the Harding and Coolidge administrations created the great Bull Market of the Twenties.  Explosive economic activity.  Real economic growth.  Creating low-cost consumer goods to modernize America.  Increase her productivity.  Making her the dominant economic power in the world.  The Europeans were so worried about America’s economic prowess that they met in 1927 at the International Economic Conference in Geneva to discuss the American problem.  And how they were going to compete with the American economic juggernaut.  Because the free market capitalism of the New World was leaving the Old World in the dust.

Herbert Hoover was a Republican in Name Only that FDR once Admired but Calvin Coolidge Despised

This was real economic growth.  It was not speculation.  This wasn’t artificially low interest rates creating an asset bubble.  Working Americans bought homes and cars.  And furnishings.  Businesses produced these to meet that demand.  They had growing sales.  And growing profits.  Which increased their stock prices.  Investors wanted to own their stocks because these companies were making money.  And with the world modernizing these stock prices weren’t going anywhere but up in the foreseeable future.  Unless something changed the business environment.  Well, something did.

Despite the roaring economy Calvin Coolidge did not run for a second term.  Which was a pity.  For his successor, Herbert Hoover, was a Republican in name only.  He was a big time progressive.  Who wanted to use the power of government to make the world perfect.  A devout believer in the benevolence of Big Government.  He added about 2,000 bureaucrats to the Department of Commerce.  FDR at one time admired him (before he ran against him for president).  Coolidge despised him.  Under Hoover the federal government intruded into the private sector.  His economics were Keynesian.  He, too, worshipped at the altar of demand.  He believed high wages were the key to prosperity.  For people with more money buy more.  And all that buying created demand for businesses to meet.  Even during a recession he believed wages should not fall.  Despite the fact that’s what recessions do on the back side of the business cycle.  Lower prices and wages.  And lay off people.

By the Twenties American farmers were mechanizing their farms.  Allowing them to grow more food than ever before.  Agriculture prices fell.  At first this wasn’t a problem as there were export markets for their bumper crops.  Thanks to a war-devastated Europe.  But eventually the European soldiers returned to the farm.  And the Europeans didn’t need the American food anymore.  Even places tariffs on U.S. imports to their countries to help their farmers get back on their feet.  Add in a bad winter that killed livestock.  Some bad insect infestation in the summer.  Add all this together and you had the beginning of the great farm crisis.  Debt defaults.  Bank failures.  And the contraction of the money supply.  Which the Federal Reserve (the Fed) did not step in to compensate for by expanding the money supply.  Which was sort of their purpose for being in existence.  As there was less money to borrow business could longer borrow to continue their growth.  Because of the time factor in the stages of production to expand production required borrowing money.  To make matters worse the Fed was actually pulling more money out of circulation.  Because they looked at the rising stock prices and concluded that speculators were borrowing money to invest in the stock market.  Thus inflating stock prices.  But it wasn’t speculators running up those prices.  It was an economic boom that was running up those stock prices.  Until the government put a stop to that, at least.

Bad Government Policy didn’t Create the Roaring Twenties but Bad Government Policy ended Them

The Smoot-Hawley Tariff was close to becoming law in the fall of 1929.  It was moving through committees on its way to becoming law.  This tariff would raise the tax on all imports by about 30%.  The idea was to protect domestic supplies and manufacturers.  But even in 1929 it was a global economy.  A lot of imports entered the stages of production.  Which meant costs would be increasing throughout the stages of productions.  Greatly increasing the input costs of all those businesses enjoying those high stock prices.  Which would raise their prices (to cover those higher input costs).  Reducing their sales.  And slashing their profits.  Add this to the contracting money supply and it painted a very bleak picture for business.

With demand sure to fall due to a massive new tariff that was about to become law businesses cut back.  To get rid of what was about to become excess capacity.  For they were smart.  And understood what affected their businesses.  And you know who else were smart?  Investors.  Who looked at this tariff and saw a locomotive engineer about to slam on the brakes.  And if Congress passed this into law after 1928 Coolidge wasn’t going to be there to veto the law.  So they all came to the same conclusions.  The bull market was coming to an end.  And they wanted to sell their stock to lock in their stock gains.  Which caused the great sell-off of 1929.  And the stock market crash.  Starting the Great Depression.

People still debate the cause of the Great Depression.  A popular argument is that greedy investors caused it by speculating in the stock market.  Or that greedy businesses out-produced demand.  But the economics of the Roaring Twenties don’t support this.  This wasn’t people buying big houses because interest rates were low.  This was the electrification of America.  Cars.  Telephones.  Radio.  Movies.  Air travel.  This was broad and real economic growth.  Bad government policy didn’t create it.  But bad government policy ended them.  And it was the expectations of even worse government policies that yanked the rug out from underneath the economy.  By causing a business contraction and stock market sell-off.  Much like Obamacare is doing to businesses today.  Scaring the bejesus out of them.  For they have no idea what their future costs will be under Obamacare.  So they are doing their best to prepare for it.  By not expanding their businesses.  By not hiring anyone.  And sitting on their cash.  To prepare for the worst.  Much like businesses did in 1928.  Which explains why the Great Recession lingers on.

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Tax Cuts, Roaring Twenties, Farm Prices, Smoot-Hawley Tariff, Stock Market Crash, New Deal, Great Depression and the Great Recession

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 20th, 2012

History 101

Tax Cuts and the Small Government Policies of Harding and Coolidge gave us the Roaring Twenties

Keynesians blame the long duration of the Great Depression (1929-1939) on the government clinging to the gold standard.  Even renowned monetarist economist Milton Friedman agrees.  Though that’s about the only agreement between Keynesians and Friedman.   Their arguments are that the US could have reduced the length and severity of the Great Depression if they had only abandoned the gold standard.  And adopted Keynesian policies.  Deficit spending.  Just like they did in the Seventies.  The decade where we had both high unemployment and high inflation.  Stagflation.  Something that’s not supposed to happen under Keynesian economics.  So when it did they blamed the oil shocks of the Seventies.  Not their orgy of spending.  Or their high taxes.  And they feel the same way about the Great Depression.

Funny.  How one price shock (oil) can devastate all businesses in the US economy.  So much so that it stalled job creation.  And caused high unemployment.  Despite the government printing and spending money to create jobs.  And to provide government benefits so recipients could use those benefits to stimulate economic activity.  All of that government spending failed to pull the country out of one bad recession.  Because of that one price shock on the cost of doing business.  Yet no one talks about the all out assault on business starting in the Hoover administration that continued and expanded through the Roosevelt administration.

Herbert Hoover may have been a Republican.  But he was no conservative.  He was a big government progressive.  And believed that the federal government should interfere into the free market.  To make things better.  Unlike Warren Harding.  And Calvin Coolidge.  Who believed in a small government, hands-off policy when it came to the economy.  They passed tax cuts.  Following the advice of their treasury secretary.  Andrew Mellon.  Which gave business confidence of what the future would hold.  So they invested.  Expanded production.  And created jobs.  It was these small government policies that gave us the Roaring Twenties.  An economic boom that electrified and modernized the world.  With real economic growth. 

If an Oil Shock can prevent Businesses from Responding to Keynesian Policies then so can FDR’s all out War on Business

The Roaring Twenties was a great time to live if you wanted a job.  And wanted to live in the modern era.  Electric power was spreading across the country.  People had electric appliances in their homes.  Radios.  They went to the movies.  Drove cars.  Flew in airplanes.  The Roaring Twenties was a giant leap forward in the standard of living.  Factories with electric power driving electric motors increased productivity.  And reduced air pollution as they replaced coal-fired steam boilers that up to then powered the Industrial Revolution.  This modernization even made it to the farm.  Farmers borrowed heavily to mechanize their farms.  Allowing them to grow more food than ever.  Bumper crops caused farm prices to fall.  Good for consumers.  But not those farmers who borrowed heavily.

Enter Herbert Hoover.  Who wanted to use the power of government to help the farmers.  By forcing Americans to pay higher food prices.  Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates.  Thinking that a boom in the stock market was from speculation and not the real economic growth of the Twenties.  So they contracted the money supply.  Cooling that real economic growth.  And making it very hard to borrow money.  Causing farmers to default on their loans.  Small rural banks that loaned to these farmers failed.  These bank failures spread to other banks.  Weakening the banking system.  Then came the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Passed in 1930.  But it was causing business uncertainty as early as 1928.  As the Smoot-Hawley Tariff was going to increase tariffs on just about everything by 30%.  Basically adding a 30% tax on the cost of doing business.  That the businesses would, of course, pass on to consumers.  By raising prices.  Because consumers weren’t getting a corresponding 30% pay hike they, of course, could not buy as much after the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Putting a big cramp in sales revenue.  Perhaps even starting an international trade war.  Further cramping sales.  Something investors no doubt took notice of.  Seeing that real economic growth would soon come to a screeching halt.  And when the bill moved through committees in the autumn of 1929 the die was cast.  Investors began the massive selloff on Wall Street.  The Stock Market Crash of 1929.  The so-called starting point of the Great Depression.  Then the Smoot-Hawley Tariff became law.  And the trade war began.  As anticipated.

Of course, the Keynesians ignore this lead up to the Great Depression.  This massive government intrusion into the free market.  And the next president would build on this intrusion into the free market.  Ignoring the success of the small-government and tax cuts of Harding and Coolidge.  As well as ignoring the big-government free-market-intrusion failures of Herbert Hoover.  The New Deal programs of FDR were going to explode government spending to heights never before seen in peace time.  Causing uncertainty like never seen before in the business community.  It was an all out assault on business.  Taxes and regulation that increased the cost of business.  And massive government spending for new benefits and make-work programs.  All paid for by the people who normally create jobs.  Which there wasn’t a lot of during the great Depression.  Thanks to programs like Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, Homeowners Loan Corporation, Tennessee Valley Authority, Agricultural Adjustment Act, National Industrial Recovery Act, Public Works Administration, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Glass–Steagall Act, Securities Act of 1933, Civil Works Administration, Indian Reorganization Act, Social Security Act, Works Progress Administration, National Labor Relations Act, Federal Crop Insurance Corporation, Surplus Commodities Program, Fair Labor Standards Act, Rural Electrification Administration, Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration, etc.  Oil shocks of the Seventies?  If an oil shock can prevent businesses from responding to Keynesian policies then an all out war on business in the Thirties could do the same.  And worse.  Far, far worse.  Which is why the Great Depression lasted 10 years.  Because the government turned what would have been a normal recession into a world-wide calamity.  By trying to interfere with market forces.

Only Real Economic Growth creates Jobs, not Government Programs

The unemployment rate in 1929 was 3.1%.  In 1933 it was 24.9%.  It stayed above 20% until 1936.  Where it fell as low as 14.3% in 1937.  It then went to 19.0%, 17.2% and 14.6% in the next three years.  These numbers stayed horrible throughout the Thirties because the government wouldn’t stop meddling.  Or spending money.  None of the New Deal programs had a significant effect on unemployment.  The New Deal failed to fix the economy the way the New Dealers said it would.  Despite the massive price tag.  So much for super smart government bureaucrats.

What finally pulled us out of the Great Depression?  Adolf Hitler’s conquering of France in 1940.  When American industry received great orders for real economic growth.  From foreign countries.  To build the war material they needed to fight Adolf Hitler.  And the New Deal programs be damned.  There was no time for any more of that nonsense.  So during World War II businesses had a little less uncertainty.  And a backlog of orders.  All the incentive they needed to ramp up American industry.  To make it hum like it once did under Harding and Coolidge.  And they won World War II.  For there was no way Adolf Hitler could match that economic output.  Which made all the difference on the battlefield.

Still there are those who want to blame the gold standard for the Great Depression.  And still support Keynesian policies to tax and spend.  Even today.  Even after 8 years of Ronald Reagan that proved the policies of Harding and Coolidge.  We’re right back to those failed policies of the past.  Massive government spending to stimulate economic activity.  To pull us out of the Great Recession.  And utterly failing.  Where the unemployment rate struggles to get below 9%.  The U-3 unemployment rate, that is.  The rate that doesn’t count everyone who wants full time work.  The rate that counts everyone, the U-6 unemployment rate, currently stands at 14.9%.  Which is above the lowest unemployment rate during the Great Depression.  Proving once again only real economic growth creates jobs.  Not government programs.  No matter how many trillions of dollars the government spends. 

So much for super smart government bureaucrats.

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The Great Depression

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 20th, 2011

History 101

The  Roaring Twenties were a Time of Unprecedented Innovation and Manufacturing

The Roaring Twenties were good times.  Kicked off by the Warren Harding administration.  Thanks to one of the few honest guys in his administration besides Harding.  Andrew Mellon.  Secretary of the treasury extraordinaire.  Some say the best secretary of the treasury since our first.  Alexander Hamilton.  High praise indeed.

So what did Mellon do?  He did some research that showed rich people paid less in taxes the higher the tax rates were.  The higher the rate the less they invested in plant and equipment in America.  Instead they invested their money out of the country.  In other countries’ plant and equipment.  So Mellon was a tax-cutter.  And that was his advice to Harding.  And that’s what Harding did.  And Calvin Coolidge continued.  Kept taxes low.  And kept government out of the business of business.

And how business responded.  The 1920s were a time of unprecedented innovation and manufacturing.  Low taxes, little government spending and limited government produced record employment.  Record upward mobility.  And record per capita income.  Gains in the decade touched 37%.  How?  I’ll tell you how.

The auto industry was booming thanks to Henry Ford’s moving assembly line.  Everyone was driving who wanted to drive.  The car companies sold one car for every 5 people.  This production created a boom in other industries to feed this industry.  And cars did something else.  They gave people mobility.  And opportunity.  People left the farms in droves and drove to better jobs.  Which didn’t hurt the farmers in the least as mechanization on the farm put more land under cultivation with fewer people.  Housing and cities grew.  Radio debuted.  And radio advertising.  Motion pictures went from silent to talkies.  Telephones became more common.  New electric utilities brought electricity to homes.  And new electric appliances filled those homes.  Including radios.  New electric motors filled our factories, increasing productivity and slashing consumer prices.  More people than ever before flew.  An increase of nearly 1000%.  It’s nowhere near today’s number of flyers but it was a reflection of the new industrial dominance of the United States.  There was nothing we couldn’t do.  And Europe was taking notice.  And not liking what they saw.  And talked about a European union to compete against the Americans.

Businesses scaled back Production in Anticipation of the Smoot Hawley Tariff Act

So the spectacular economic growth of the Roaring Twenties was solid growth.  It wasn’t a bubble.  It was the real deal.  Thanks to capitalism.  And a government willing to leave the free market alone.  It was so dominating that the Europeans wanted to stop it anyway they could.  One way was protective tariffs on farm imports.

American farm exports boomed during World War I.  Because most of Europe’s farmers were busy fighting.  With the end of the war the Europeans went back to their farms.  Which reduced the need for American farm imports.  And the tariffs compounded that problem.  To make things worse, prices were already falling thanks to the mechanization of the American farm.  Producing bumper crops.  Which, of course, dropped farm prices.  Good for consumers.  But bad for farmers.  Especially with the Europeans shutting off their markets to the Americans.  Because they paid for a lot of that land and mechanization with borrowed money.  And this debt was getting harder and harder to service.  Throw in some weather and insect problems in some regions and it was just too much.   Some farms failed.  Then a lot.  And then the banks that loaned money to these farms began to fail.

We created the Federal Reserve to increase the money supply to keep pace with the growing economy.  By making money cheap to borrow for those businesses trying to expand to meet demand.  They weren’t exactly doing a stellar job, though, in keeping pace with this economic expansion.  And when the bank failures hit the money supply contracted.  Thanks to fractional reserve banking.  All that money the banks created simply disappeared as the banks failed.  Starving manufactures of money to maintain growth to meet demand.  Things were getting bad around 1928.  The Fed did not intervene to save these banks.  Worried that investors were the only ones borrowing money for speculation in the stock market, they shrunk the money supply further.  About a third by 1932.  Manufacturers had no choice but to cut production.

While businesses were dealing with a shrinking money supply they had something else to worry about.  Congress was moving the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act through congressional committees in 1929 on its way to becoming law in 1930.  This act would add a 30% tax on most imports.  Meaning that the cost factories paid for raw materials would increase by up to 30%.  Of course, sales prices have to include all costs of production.  So sales prices would have to increase.  Higher prices mean fewer sales.  Because people just can’t afford to buy as much at higher prices.  Businesses knew that once the tariff was passed into law it would reduce sales.  So they took preemptive steps.  And scaled back production for the expected fall in sales.

It was Government Meddling that Turned a Recession in the Great Depression

This brings us to the stock market crash.  The Roaring Twenties produced huge stock market gains as industry exploded in America.  Things grew at an aggressive pace.  Stock prices soared.  Because the value of these manufacturers soared.  And investors saw nothing to indicate this growth was going to stop.  Until the contraction of the money supply.  And then the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.  Not only would these slow the growth, they would reverse it.  Leading to the great selloff.  The Great Crash.  And the Great Depression.

As feared the Europeans responded to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.  They imposed tariffs on American imports.  Making things worse for American exports.  Then President Hoover increased farm prices by law to help farmers.  Which only reduced farm sales further.  Then the banking crisis followed.  And the Fed did nothing to help the banks.  Again.  When they did start helping banks in trouble they made public which banks were receiving this help.  Which, of course, caused further bank runs as people hurried to get their money out of these troubled banks.  Tax revenue plummeted.  So Hoover passed a new sales tax to raise more revenue.  Which only made things worse.

Hoover was a Republican.  But he was a Big Government progressive.  Just like his successor.  FDR.  And all of their Big Government Keynesian solutions only prolonged the Great Depression.  It was government meddling that turned a recession into the Great Depression.  And further government meddling that prolonged the Great Depression.  Much of FDR’s New Deal programs were just extensions of the Hoover programs.  And they failed just as much as they did under Hoover.  The Great Depression only ended thanks to Adolf Hitler who plunged Europe back into war.  Providing an urgency to stop their government meddling.  And to let business do what they do best.  Business.  And they did.  Building the arsenal that defeated Hitler.

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

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 19th, 2010

WHAT GAVE BIRTH to the Federal Reserve System and our current monetary policy?  The Panic of 1907.  Without going into the details, there was a liquidity crisis.  The Knickerbocker Trust tried to corner the market in copper.  But someone else dumped copper on the market which dropped the price.  The trust failed.  Because of the money involved, a lot of banks, too, failed.  Depositors, scared, created bank runs.  As banks failed, the money supply contracted.  Businesses failed.  The stock market crashed (losing 50% of its value).  And all of this happened during an economic recession.

So, in 1913, Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act, creating the Federal Reserve System (the Fed).  This was, basically, a central bank.  It was to be a bank to the banks.  A lender of last resort.  It would inject liquidity into the economy during a liquidity crisis.  Thus ending forever panics like that in 1907.  And making the business cycle (the boom – bust economic cycles) a thing of the past.

The Fed has three basic monetary tools.  How they use these either increases or decreases the money supply.  And increases or decreases interest rates.

They can change reserve requirements for banks.  The more reserves banks must hold the less they can lend.  The less they need to hold the more they can lend.  When they lend more, they increase the money supply.  When they lend less, they decrease the money supply.  The more they lend the easier it is to get a loan.  This decreases interest rates (i.e., lowers the ‘price’ of money).  The less they lend the harder it is to get a loan.  This increases interest rates (i.e., raises the ‘price’ of money). 

The Fed ‘manages’ the money supply and the interest rates in two other ways.  They buy and sell U.S. Treasury securities.  And they adjust the discount rate they charge member banks to borrow from them.  Each of these actions either increases or decreases the money supply and/or raises or lowers interest rates.  The idea is to make money easier to borrow when the economy is slow.  This is supposed to make it easier for businesses to expand production and hire people.  If the economy is overheating and there is a risk of inflation, they take the opposite action.  They make it more difficult to borrow money.  Which increases the cost of doing business.  Which slows the economy.  Lays people off.  Which avoids inflation.

The problem with this is the invisible hand that Adam Smith talked about.  In a laissez-faire economy, no one person or one group controls anything.  Instead, millions upon millions of people interact with each other.  They make millions upon millions of decisions.  These are informed decisions in a free market.  At the heart of each decision is a buyer and a seller.  And they mutually agree in this decision making process.  The buyer pays at least as much as the seller wants.  The seller sells for at least as little as the buyer wants.  If they didn’t, they would not conclude their sales transaction.  When we multiply this basic transaction by the millions upon millions of people in the market place, we arrive at that invisible hand.  Everyone looking out for their own self-interest guides the economy as a whole.  The bad decisions of a few have no affect on the economy as a whole.

Now replace the invisible hand with government and what do you get?  A managed economy.  And that’s what the Fed does.  It manages the economy.  It takes the power of those millions upon millions of decisions and places them into the hands of a very few.  And, there, a few bad decisions can have a devastating impact upon the economy.

TO PAY FOR World War I, Woodrow Wilson and his Progressives heavily taxed the American people.  The war left America with a huge debt.  And in a recession.  During the 1920 election, the Democrats ran on a platform of continued high taxation to pay down the debt.  Andrew Mellon, though, had done a study of the rich in relation to those high taxes.  He found the higher the tax, the more the rich invested outside the country.  Instead of building factories and employing people, they took their money to places less punishing to capital.

Warren G. Harding won the 1920 election.  And he appointed Andrew Mellon his Treasury secretary.  Never since Alexander Hamilton had a Treasury secretary understood capitalism as well.  The Harding administration cut tax rates and the amount of tax money paid by the ‘rich’ more than doubled.  Economic activity flourished.  Businesses expanded and added jobs.  The nation modernized with the latest technologies (electric power and appliances, radio, cars, aviation, etc.).  One of the best economies ever.  Until the Fed got involved.

The Fed looked at this economic activity and saw speculation.  So they contracted the money supply.  This made it hard for business to expand to meet the growing demand.  When money is less readily available, you begin to stockpile what you have.  You add to that pile by selling liquid securities to build a bigger cash cushion to get you through tight monetary times.

Of course, the economy is NOT just monetary policy.  Those businesses were looking at other things the government was doing.  The Smoot-Hartley tariff was in committee.  Across the board tariff increases and import restrictions create uncertainty.  Business does not like uncertainty.  So they increase their liquidity.  To prepare for the worse.  Then the stock market crashed.  Then it got worse. 

It is at this time that the liquidity crisis became critical.  Depositors lost faith.  Bank runs followed.  But there just was not enough money available.  Banks began to fail.  Time for the Fed to step in and take action.  Per the Federal Reserve Act of 1913.  But they did nothing.  For a long while.  Then they took action.  And made matters worse.  They raised interest rates.  In response to England going off the gold standard (to prop up the dollar).  Exactly the wrong thing to do in a deflationary spiral.  This took a bad recession to the Great Depression.  The 1930s would become a lost decade.

When FDR took office, he tried to fix things with some Keynesian spending.  But nothing worked.  High taxes along with high government spending sucked life out of the private sector.  This unprecedented growth in government filled business with uncertainty.  They had no idea what was coming next.  So they hunkered down.  And prepared to weather more bad times.  It took a world war to end the Great Depression.  And only because the government abandoned much of its controls and let business do what they do best.  Pure, unfettered capitalism.  American industry came to life.  It built the war material to first win World War II.  Then it rebuilt the war torn countries after the war.

DURING THE 1980s, in Japan, government was partnering with business.  It was mercantilism at its best.  Japan Inc.  The economy boomed.  And blew great big bubbles.  The Keynesians in America held up the Japanese model as the new direction for America.  An American presidential candidate said we must partner government with business, too.  For only a fool could not see the success of the Japanese example.  Japan was growing rich.  And buying up American landmarks (including Rockefeller Center in New York).  National Lampoon magazine welcomed us to the 90s with a picture of a Japanese CEO at his desk.  He was the CEO of the United States of America, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Honda Motor Company.  The Japanese were taking over the world.  And we were stupid not to follow their lead.

But there was no invisible hand in Japan.  It was the hand of Japan Inc.  It was Japan Inc. that pursued economic policies that it thought best.  Not the millions upon millions of ordinary Japanese citizens.  Well, Japan Inc. thought wrong. 

There was collusion between Japanese businesses.  And collusion between Japanese businesses and government.  And corruption.  This greatly inflated the Japanese stock market.  And those great big bubbles finally burst.  The powerful Japan Inc. of the 1980s that caused fear and trembling was gone.  Replaced by a Japan in a deflationary spiral in the 1990s.  Or, as the Japanese call it, their lost decade.  This once great Asian Tiger was now an older tiger with a bit of a limp.   And the economy limped along for a decade or two.  It was still number 3 in the world, but it wasn’t what it used to be.  You don’t see magazine covers talking about it owning other nations any more.  (In 2010, China took over that #3 spot.  But China is a managed economy.   Will it suffer Japan’s fate?  Time will tell.)

The Japanese monetary authorities tried to fix the economy.  Interest rates were zero for about a decade.  In other words, if you wanted to borrow, it was easy.  And free.  But it didn’t help.  That huge economic expansion wasn’t real.  Business and government, in collusion, inflated and propped it up.  It gave them inflated capacity.  And prices.  And you don’t solve that problem by making it easier for businesses to borrow money to expand capacity and create jobs.  That’s the last thing they need.  What they need to do is to get out of the business of managing business.  Create a business-friendly climate.  Based on free-market principles.  Not mercantilism.  And let that invisible hand work its wonders.

MONETARY POLICY CAN do a lot of things.  Most of them bad.  Because it concentrates far too much power in too few hands.  The consequences of the mistakes of those making policy can be devastating.  And too tempting to those who want to use those powers for political reasons.  As we can see by Keynesian ‘stimulus’ spending that ends up as pork barrel spending.  The empirical data for that spending has shown that it stimulates only those who are in good standing with the powers that be.  Never the economy.

Sound money is important.  The money supply needs to keep pace with economic expansion.  If it doesn’t, a tight money supply will slow or halt economic activity.  But we have to use monetary policy for that purpose only.  We cannot use it to offset bad fiscal policy that is anti-business.  For if the government creates an anti-business environment, no amount of cheap money will encourage risk takers to take risks in a highly risky and uncertain environment.  Decades were lost trying.

No, you don’t stimulate with monetary policy.  You stimulate with fiscal policy.  There is empirical evidence that this works.  The Mellon tax cuts of the Harding administration created nearly a decade of strong economic growth.  The tax cuts of JFK were on pace to create similar growth until his assassination.  LBJ’s policies were in the opposite direction, thus ending the economic recovery of the JFK administration.  Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts produced economic growth through two decades. 

THE EVIDENCE IS there.  If you look at it.  Of course, a good Keynesian won’t.  Because it’s about political power for them.  Always has been.  Always will be.  And we should never forget this.

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LESSONS LEARNED #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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