Panic of 1907, Federal Reserve Act and Depression of 1920

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 17th, 2013

History 101

In 1907 the Heinze Brothers thought Investors were Shorting the Stock of their United Copper Company

Buying and selling stocks is one way to get rich.  Typically by buying low and selling high.  But you can also get rich if the stock price falls.  How you ask?  By short-selling the stock.  You borrow shares of a stock that you think will fall in price.  You sell them at the current price.  Then when the stock price falls you buy the same number of shares you borrowed at the lower price.  And use these to return the shares you borrowed.  You subtract the price you pay to buy the cheaper shares from the proceeds of selling the costlier shares for your profit.  And if the price difference/number of shares is great enough you can get rich.

In 1907 the Heinze brothers thought investors were shorting the stock of their United Copper Company.  So they tried to turn the tables on them and get rich.  They already owned a lot of the stock.  They then went on a buying spree with the intention of raising the price of the stock.  If they successfully cornered the market on United Copper Company stock then the investors shorting the stock would have no choice but to buy from them to repay their borrowed shares.  Causing the short sellers to incur a great loss.  While reaping a huge profit for themselves.

Well, that was the plan.  But it didn’t quite go as planned.  For they did not control as much of the stock as they thought they did.  So when the short-sellers had to buy new shares to replace their borrowed shares they could buy them elsewhere.  And did.  When other investors saw they weren’t going to get rich on the cornering scheme the price of the stock plummeted.  For the stock was only worth that inflated price if the short-sellers had to buy it at the price the Heinze brothers dictated.  When the cornering scheme failed the stock they paid so much to corner was worth nowhere near what they paid for it.  And they took a huge financial loss.  But it got worse.

The Panic of 1907 led to the Federal Reserve Act of 1913

After getting rich in the copper business in Montana they moved east to New York City.  And entered the world of high finance.  And owned part of 6 national banks, 10 state banks, 5 trusts (kind of like a bank) and 4 insurance companies.  When the cornering scheme failed the Heinze brothers lost a lot of money.  Which spooked people with money in their banks and trusts.  As these helped finance their scheme.  So the people rushed to their banks and pulled their money out.  Causing a panic.  First their banks.  Then their trusts.  Including the Knickerbocker Trust Company.  Which collapsed.  As the contagion spread to other banks the banking system was in risk of collapsing.  Causing a stock market crash.  Resulting in the Panic of 1907.

Thankfully, a rich guy, J.P. Morgan, stepped in and saved the banking system.  By using his own money.  And getting other rich guys to use theirs.  To restore liquidity in the banking system.  To avoid another liquidity crisis like this Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act (1913).  Giving America a central bank.  And the progressives the tool to take over the American economy.  Monetary policy.  By tinkering with interest rates.  And breaking away from the classical economic policies of the past that made America the number one economic power in the world.  Built on a foundation of thrift, savings, investment, free trade, the gold standard, etc.  Where people saved for the future.  The greater their savings the more investment capital there was.  And the lower interest rates were.

The Federal Reserve (the Fed) changed all of that.  By printing money to keep interest rates artificially low.  Giving us boom and bust cycles as people over invest and over build because of cheap credit.  Leading to bubbles (the boom) in asset prices that painful recessions (the bust) correct.  Instead of the genuine growth that we got when our savings determined interest rates.  Where there is no over-investing or over-building.  Because the limited investment capital did not permit it.  Guaranteeing the efficient flows of capital to generate real economic activity.

Warren Harding’s Tax Cuts ignited Economic Activity and gave us the Modern World

Thanks to the Fed there was a great monetary expansion to fund World War I.  The Fed cut the reserve requirements in half for banks.  Meaning they could loan more of their deposits.  And they did.  Thanks to fractional reserve banking these banks then furthered the monetary expansion.  And the Fed kept the discount rate low to let banks borrow even more money to lend.  The credit expansion was vast.  Creating a huge bubble in asset prices.  Creating a lot of bad investments.  Or malinvestments.  Economist Ludwig von Mises had a nice analogy to explain this.  Imagine a builder constructing a house only he doesn’t realize he doesn’t have enough materials to finish the job.  The longer it takes for the builder to realize this the more time and resources he will waste.  For it will be less costly to abandon the project before he starts than waiting until he’s built as much as he can only to discover he will be unable to sell the house.  And without selling the house the builder will be unable to recover any of his expenses.  Giving him a loss on his investment.

The bigger those bubbles get the farther those artificially high prices have to fall.  And they will fall sooner or later.  And fall they did in 1920.  Giving us the Depression of 1920.  And it was bad.  Unemployment rose to 12%.  And GDP fell by 17%.  Interestingly, though, this depression was not a great depression.  Why?  Because the progressives were out of power.  Instead of the usual Keynesian solution to a recession Warren Harding (and then Calvin Coolidge after Harding died in office) did the opposite.  There was no stimulus deficit-spending.  There was no playing with interest rates.  Instead, Harding cut government spending.  Nearly in half.  And he cut tax rates.  These actions led to a reduction of the national debt (that’s DEBT—not deficit) by one third.  And ignited economic activity.  Ushering in the modern world (automobiles, electric power, radio, telephone, aviation, motion pictures, etc.).  Building the modern world generated real economic activity.  Not a credit-driven bubble.  Giving us one of the greatest economic expansions of all time.  The Roaring Twenties.  Ending the Depression of 1920 in only 18 months.  Without any Fed action or Keynesian stimulus spending.

By contrast FDR used almost every Keynesian tool available to him to end the Great Depression.  But his massive New Deal spending simply failed to end it.  After a decade or so of trying.  Proving that government spending cannot spend an economy out of recession.  But cuts in government spending and cuts in tax rates can.  Which is why the Great Recession lingers on still.  Some 6 years after the collapse of one of the greatest housing bubbles ever.  Created by one of the greatest credit expansions ever.  For President Obama is a Keynesian.  And Keynesian policies only lead to boom-bust cycles.  Not real economic growth.  The kind we got from classical economic policies.  Built on a foundation of thrift, savings, investment, free trade, the gold standard, etc.  The economic policies that made America the number economic power in the world.

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

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 16th, 2013

Week in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Germans are the Atlas of the Eurozone and the French may be Adding to their Burden

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 4th, 2011

Week in Review

The French and the Germans are carrying the weight of the Eurozone.  Sort of like a family.  Where the Germans are the hard-working adults.  And the French are the successful children with good jobs but living over their means.

Children being children, they want more of the same good times.  The parents, who have experienced true hard times, believe more in thrift and hard work.  So it’s natural that the French and Germans have different views on how to  handle Greek debt.  The French say let’s just print more Euros and monetize it away.  The Germans say, what?  Are you crazy (see A Culture Clash by Veronique de Rugy posted 11/28/2011 on The New York Times)?

First, the perceptions of the consequences of monetizing the Greek debt differ across the Rhine River. It is well known that Germans hate inflation. It is deeply rooted in their psyche. Part of Germany’s official theory is that Hitler came to power because of the disastrous consequences of the hyperinflation of 1922-1924 during the Weimar Republic. The French, on the other hand, have no such fears. On the contrary, ignoring how inflation chipped away their capital, my parents’ generation often fondly remembers paying their house “grace à l’inflation” during the 1970s.

Second, the official government debt and deficit numbers of France and Germany are substantially different. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development projects Germany’s debt at 87.3 percent of G.D.P. with a deficit of 2.1 percent of G.D.P. —possibly sustainable levels. However, France’s levels of debt and deficit are higher and unsustainable (debt of 97.3 percent of G.D.P. and a deficit of 5.6 percent of G.D.P.).

Third, attitudes toward reforming social programs differ too: in recent years. Germany has engaged in significant structural reforms to tackle the rigidity in the labor market as well as demographic pressure on the private and public pension system. France, however, has been reluctant to change any “acquis sociaux,” France’s famous social entitlements.

With higher levels of debts and no will to reform entitlement programs, sooner or later France is likely to need a European Central Bank “bailout” to keep paying its bills (and French banks may also be in big trouble). The need for a rescue plan makes France more inclined to set a precedent. However, Germany, after 60 years of desperately trying to avoid inflation, is reluctant to pay that bill.

It’s going to get tough in the Eurozone.  For Germany, that is.  Not only are they the responsible adults living a life of thrift and hard work, they’re children may soon be moving back home.  This on top of trying to save the rest of the Eurozone.

Poor Germans.  The Atlas of the Eurozone.  The only question is will they reach their limit?  And shrug off this crushing weight?

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