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Archive for May 23rd, 2012

I sometimes wonder whether journalists have the slightest idea of how capitalism works.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen breathless reporting on the $2 billion loss at JP Morgan Chase, and now there’s a big kerfuffle about the falling value of Facebook stock.

In response to these supposed scandals, there are all sorts of articles being written (see here, here, here, and here, for just a few examples) about the need for more regulation to protect the economy.

Underlying these stories seems to be a Lake Wobegon view of financial markets. But instead of Garrison Keillor’s imaginary town where “all children are above average, we have a fantasy economy where “all investments make money.”

I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble or shatter any childhood illusions, but losses are an inherent part of the free market movement. As the saying goes, “capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell.”

Unlike today’s chattering class, King Canute understood limits to power

Moreover, losses (just like gains) play an important role in that they signal to investors and entrepreneurs that resources should be reallocated in ways that are more productive for the economy.

Legend tells us that King Canute commanded the tides not to advance and learned there are limits to the power of a king when his orders had no effect.

Sadly, modern journalists, regulators, and politicians lack the same wisdom and think that government somehow can prevent losses.

But perhaps that’s unfair. They probably understand that losses sometimes happen, but they want to provide bailouts so that nobody ever learns a lesson about what happens when you touch a hot stove.

Government-subsidized risk, though, is just as foolish as government-subsidized success.

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I’ve written many times about the foolishness of bailing out profligate governments (or, for that matter, mismanaged banks and inefficient car companies).

Bailouts reward bad past behavior, encourage bad future behavior, and make the debt bubble bigger – thus increasing the likelihood of deeper economic problems. At the risk of stating the obvious, there’s a reason for the second word in the “moral hazard” phrase.

But I’m not surprised that politicians continue to advocate more bailouts. The latest version is the “eurobond,” sometimes referred to as “fiscal liability sharing.”

It doesn’t matter what it’s called, though, since we’re talking about the foolish idea of having Germany (with a few other small nations chipping in) guaranteeing the debt of Europe’s collapsing welfare states. Here’s how the New York Times described the issue.

When European leaders meet on Wednesday to discuss the troubles of the euro zone, France’s president will press the issue of euro bonds, his finance minister said in Berlin on Monday. …Pierre Moscovici, France’s newly appointed finance minister, traveled to Berlin for talks with his counterpart, Wolfgang Schäuble. In a news conference after the closed-door meeting, both characterized the exchange as friendly and productive, but Mr. Moscovici acknowledged that the two men, and their governments, had real differences of opinion over pooling obligations to use the credit of the strongest European countries to prop up the weaker ones, an approach achieved through euro bonds.

The good news is that the German government is opposed to this idea.

Steffen Kampeter, was much more forthcoming in reiterating German opposition to any such proposal. Mr. Kampeter called the joint bonds “a prescription at the wrong time with the wrong side effects,” in an interview with German public radio. “The government has repeatedly made clear that collective state borrowing — that is, euro bonds — are no way to overcome the current crisis,” said Georg Streiter, a spokesman for Ms. Merkel on Monday. “It is still the case that the government rejects euro bonds.” …German policy makers say, euro bonds would be comparable to the United States’ agreeing to pay off Mexico’s debts, almost like a blank check for nations that are in trouble for overspending in the first place. “Euro bonds are not where the keys to heaven lie,” said Michael Hüther, director of the Cologne Institute for Economic Research, because it would “mix up risk” and act as a disincentive for less competitive economies to reform.

The bad news is that the Germans support other bad policies instead.

Ms. Merkel has signaled flexibility on some of Mr. Hollande’s ideas, including more financing for the European Investment Bank and redirecting unspent European Union funds to try to fight unemployment.

And even when Merkel opposes bad policies, she indicates she will change her mind if one bad policy is mixed with another bad policy!

…the German government is staunchly opposed to euro bonds until deeper integration and harmonization of budgetary and public spending policies have been achieved.

If Ms. Merkel genuinely believes that political and fiscal union will solve Europe’s problems, she’s probably ingesting illegal substances. Centralization of European government will have the same unfortunate pro-statist impact as centralization of American government in the 1930s and 1960s.

Integration and harmonization simply means voters in the rest of Europe will take German funds using the ballot box.

Not surprisingly, all of the international bureaucracies are on the wrong side of this issue. The NY Times story notes that the European Commission is using the fiscal crisis to push for more centralization.

The European Commission floated the idea of bonds issued jointly by euro zone governments in November, suggesting that such “stability bonds” could be created “in parallel” with moves toward closer fiscal union, rather than at the end of the process, as the German government prefers, to “alleviate tension” in sovereign debt markets. “From an economic point of view this makes sense,” a commission spokesman, Amadeu Altafaj, said Monday. “But at the end of the day this is a political decision that has to be taken by the member states of the euro area.” Mr. Altafaj added that “any form of common debt issuance requires a closer coordination of fiscal policies, moving toward a fiscal union, it is a prerequisite.”

And the Financial Times reports that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is reflexively supportive of bigger government and more intervention, has endorsed eurobonds.

Mr Hollande…won backing from the OECD, which in its twice-yearly economic outlook specifically called for such bonds…“We need to get on the path towards the issuance of euro bonds sooner rather than later,” Pier Carlo Padoan, the OECD chief economist, told the Financial Times.

The fiscal pyromaniacs at the IMF also are pushing to make the debt bubble bigger according to the FT.

Christine Lagarde, the IMF chief, also called for more burden-sharing. Though she stopped short of explicitly backing euro bonds, she said “more needs to be done, particularly by way of fiscal liability sharing” – a thinly veiled reference to such debt instruments.

What makes this particularly frustrating is that American taxpayers provide the largest share of the subsidies that keep the IMF and OECD afloat. In other words, we’re paying for left-wing bureaucrats, who then turn around and push for bad policies that will result in bigger bailouts in the future.

Episodes like this make me understand why so many people believe in conspiracy theories. Folks watch something like this unfold and they can’t help but suspect that people in these governments and international bureaucracies want to deliberately destroy the global economy.

But as I’ve noted before, it’s not smart to believe conspiracies when corruption, incompetence, politics, ideology, greed, and self-interest provide better explanations for bad policy.

If the Europeans want to hit the self-destruct button, I’m happy to explain why it’s a bad idea, and I’m willing to educate them about better alternatives.

But I damn sure don’t want to subsidize their foolishness when they do the wrong thing.

P.S. It’s very appropriate to close this post with a link to this parody of Hitler complaining about debt crisis.

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