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Archive for the ‘Financial Crisis’ Category

I periodically comment about government corruption, often in the context of trying to make the general point that shrinking the size and scope of the public sector is the most effective way of reducing sleaze in Washington.

Now let’s get specific. I’ve already cited Obamacare, the tax code, and the Export-Import Bank as facilitators of corruption. Let’s augment that list by looking at government intervention in the financial sector.

We’ll start with some findings on the effectiveness of lobbying. In some new research, two professors at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center found that being active in Washington is beneficial for top executives, but it doesn’t help a company’s bottom line.

Here’s how the Washington Examiner summarized the study.

What is the return on investment in lobbying? Does a PAC contribution actually pay for itself? There are so many cases of a lobbyist winning an earmark, or a PAC contribution immediately preceding a subsidy, that it’s hard not to see politics as a good investment. …But for every company that hits the jackpot after lobbying campaign, scores of others end up throwing away money on lobbyists — and scores of executives whose PAC contributions don’t help the company a bit. Business professors Russell Sobel and Rachel Graefe-Anderson of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University collected the data and dug into the bigger question: Do lobbying expenditures and PAC contributions increase corporate profits, on average? Their answer: No… When Sobel and Graefe-Anderson crunched numbers, conducted regressions, and controlled for firm size, industry and other factors, they arrived at data “suggesting that any benefits gained from corporate political activity are largely captured by firm executives.” In short, when a CEO and a lobbyist decide to get their company more involved in politics, the CEO and the lobbyist benefit, while not helping the company.

These findings at first struck me as counterintuitive. After all, there are plenty of companies, such as General Electric and Archer Daniels Midland, that seem to obtain lots of unearned profits thanks to their lobbying activities.

But don’t forget that government – at best – is a zero-sum game. So for every company, industry, or sector that “wins,” there will be lots of companies, industries, and sectors that suffer.

And speaking of industries that benefit, there was one exception to the Mercatus Center findings.

The only exception was the banking and financial sectors, where they found “positive and significant correlations between firm lobbying activity and three measures of firm financial performance,” including return on investment and return on equity.

At this stage, let’s be careful to specify that lobbying is not necessarily bad. If a handful of business owners want to join forces to fight against higher taxes or more regulation, I’m all in favor of that kind of lobbying. They’re fighting to be left alone.

But a big chunk of the lobbying in Washington is not about being left alone. It’s about seeking undeserved benefits by using the coercive power of government.

And this latter definition is a good description of what the financial industry has been doing in Washington. That’s bad for taxpayers, but it’s also bad for the financial sector and the overall economy. Here are some of the conclusions from a recent study published by the New York Federal Reserve Bank.

…there have been many concerns with banks deemed “too big to fail.” These concerns derive from the belief that the too-big-to-fail status gives large banks a competitive edge and incentives to take on additional risk. If investors believe the largest banks are too big to fail, they will be willing to offer them funding at a discount. Together with expectations of rescues, this discount gives the too-big-to-fail banks incentives to engage in riskier activities. …The debate around too-big-to-fail banks has given rise to a large literature. … we study whether banks that rating agencies classify as likely to receive government support increase their risk-taking. …The results of our investigation show that a greater likelihood of government support leads to a rise in bank risk-taking. Following an increase in government support, we see a larger volume of bank lending becoming impaired. Further, and in line with this finding, our results show that stronger government support translates into an increase in net charge-offs. Additionally, we find that the effect of government support on impaired loans is stronger for riskier banks than safer ones, as measured by their issuer default ratings. …the level of impaired loans in a bank loan portfolio increases directly with the level of government support. …riskier banks are more likely to take advantage of potential sovereign support.

Isn’t that wonderful. Our tax dollars have been used to increase systemic risk and undermine economic growth. Though none of us should be surprised.

Since this has been a depressing column, let’s enjoy some morbid TARP humor.

Here’s a cartoon from Robert Ariail about the cronies who got rich from the Bush-Obama bailouts.

Good to see Hank Paulson getting ripped. At the end of the Bush Administration, I attempted to convince the White House that “FDIC resolution” was a much better way of recapitalizing the banking system. I was repeatedly told, though, that Paulson was in charge and there was no way of stopping him from bailing out his former cronies on Wall Street.

Oh well, at least I tried.

Here’s another cartoon about the real victims of TARP. Like the first cartoon, it’s an oldie but goodie and it’s a good illustration of how government is a zero-sum scam.

But let me re-emphasize a point I made above. Taxpayers aren’t the only ones to lose. The entire economy suffers from bailouts and subsidies. Such policies distort the allocation of capital and lead to slower long-run growth.

That may not be easy to measure, but it matters a lot.

Here’s a video explaining how such policies create moral hazard.

This is a good time to recycle the famous poster about supposed government solutions.

P.S. Not all financial institutions are corrupted by government. The nation’s 10th-largest bank, BB&T, did not want and did not need a bailout. But as the bank’s former CEO (and, I’m proud to say, current Cato Institute president) explained in his book, thugs from Washington threatened to use regulatory coercion if BB&T didn’t participate.

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At the beginning of the year, I was asked whether Europe’s fiscal crisis was over. Showing deep thought and characteristic maturity, my response was “HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, are you ;@($&^#’% kidding me?”

But I then shared specific reasons for pessimism, including the fact that many European nations had the wrong response to the fiscal crisis. With a few exceptions (such as the Baltic nations), European governments used the crisis to impose big tax hikes, including higher income tax rates and harsher VAT rates.

Combined with the fact that Europe’s demographic outlook is rather grim, you can understand why I’m not brimming with hope for the continent. And I’ve shared specific dismal data for nations such as Portugal, France, Greece, Italy, Poland, Spain, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.

But one thing I’ve largely overlooked is the degree to which the European Central Bank may be creating an unsustainable bubble in Europe’s financial markets. I warned about using bad monetary policy to subsidize bad fiscal policy, but only once in 2011 and once in 2012.

Check out this entertaining – but worrisome – video from David McWilliams and you’ll understand why this issue demands more attention.

I’ve openly argued that the euro is not the reason that many European nations got in trouble, but it appears that Europe’s political elite may be using the euro to make a bad situation even worse.

And to add insult to injury, the narrator is probably right that we’ll get the wrong outcome when this house of cards comes tumbling down. Instead of decentralization and smaller government, we’ll get an expanded layer of government at the European level.

Or, as I call it, Germany’s dark vision for Europe.

That’s Mitchell’s Law on steroids.

P.S. Here’s a video on the five lessons America should learn from the European crisis.

P.P.S. On a lighter note, the mess in Europe has generated some amusing videos (here, here, and here), as well as a very funny set of maps.

P.P.P.S. If all this sounds familiar, that may be because the Federal Reserve in the United States could be making the same mistakes as the European Central Bank. I don’t pretend to know when and how the Fed’s easy-money policy will turn out, but I’m not overly optimistic about the final outcome. As Thomas Sowell has sagely observed, “We all make mistakes. But we don’t all have the enormous and growing power of the Federal Reserve System… In the hundred years before there was a Federal Reserve System, inflation was less than half of what it became in the hundred years after the Fed was founded.”

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For my birthday last year, the only present I wanted was for the Supreme Court to uphold the Constitution and reject Obamacare.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Instead, the Chief Justice put politics above the law and made a mockery of his Oath of Office.

So I’m now a bit superstitious and I’m not going to write about anything I want today or in the future. But I will pretend that something good happened because it’s my birthday, so let’s celebrate the fact that the European Union has basically made the right decision on how to deal with insolvent banks.

Technically, it happened yesterday, the day before my birthday, but it’s being reported today, and that’s close enough for me. Here are some details from the EU Observer.

Bank shareholders and creditors will be first in line to suffer losses if their bank gets into difficulties, according to draft rules agreed by ministers in the early hours of Thursday morning… Under the new regime, banks’ creditors and shareholders would be the first to take losses. But if this proves insufficient to rescue the bank in question, savers holding uninsured deposits worth more than €100,000 would also take a hit.

This is basically the “FDIC-resolution” approach that I’ve mentioned before, and it’s sort of what happened in Cyprus (after the politicians tried every other option).

And it’s the opposite of the corrupt TARP system that the Bush and Obama Administrations imposed on the American people.

The reason this new European approach is good is that it puts the pressure for sound business decisions where it belongs – with the shareholders who own the bank and with the big creditors (such as bondholders) who should be responsible for monitoring the underlying safety and soundness of a bank before lending it money.

And rich people (depositors with more than €100,000) also should be smart enough to apply some due diligence before putting their money someplace.

The last people to bear any costs should be taxpayers. They don’t own the bank. They don’t invest in the bank. And they don’t have big bucks. So why should they bear the cost when the big-money people screw up?!? Especially when TARP-style bailouts promote moral hazard!

I’m sure the new system won’t be properly implemented, that there are some bad details in the fine print, and there will be too many opportunities for back-door bailouts and cronyism, but let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Happy Birthday to me. And such an unexpected present: Something good actually came out of Europe!

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After the financial crisis, the consensus among government officials was that we needed more regulation.

This irked me in two ways.

1. I don’t want more costly red tape in America, particularly when the evidence is quite strong that the crisis was caused by government intervention. Needless to say, the politicians ignored my advice and imposed the costly Dodd-Frank bailout bill.

2. I’m even more worried about global regulations that force all nations to adopt the same policy. The one-size-fits-all approach of regulatory harmonization is akin to an investment strategy of putting all your retirement money into one stock.

I talked about this issue in Slovakia, as a conference that was part of the Free Market Road Show. The first part of my presentation was a brief description of cost-benefit analysis. I think that’s an important issue, and you can click here is you want more info about that topic.

But today I want to focus on the second part of my presentation, which begins at about the 3:40 mark. Simply stated, there are big downsides to putting all your eggs in one regulatory basket.

The strongest example for my position is what happened with the “Basel” banking rules. International regulators were the ones who pressured financial institutions to invest in both mortgage-backed securities and government bonds.

Those harmonized regulatory policies didn’t end well.

Sam Bowman makes a similar point in today’s UK-based City AM.

Financial regulations like the Basel capital accords, designed to make banks act more prudentially,  did the opposite – incentivising banks to load up on government-backed mortgage debt and, particularly in Europe, government bonds. Unlike mistakes made by individual firms, these were compounded across the entire global financial system.

The final sentence of that excerpt is key. Regulatory harmonization can result in mistakes that are “compounded across the entire global financial system.”

And let’s not forget that global regulation also would be a vehicle for more red tape since politicians wouldn’t have to worry about economic activity migrating to jurisdictions with more sensible policies – just as tax harmonization is a vehicle for higher taxes.

P.S. For a more learned and first-hand explanation of how regulatory harmonization can create systemic risk, check out this column by a former member of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

P.P.S. Politicians seem incapable of learning from their mistakes. The Obama Administration is trying to reinflate the housing bubble, which was a major reason for the last financial crisis. This Chuck Asay cartoon neatly shows why this is misguided.

Asay Housing Cartoon

P.P.S. Don’t forget that financial regulation is just one small piece of the overall red tape burden.

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Did Cyprus become an economic basket case because it is a tax haven, as some leftists have implied?

Did it get in trouble because the government overspent, which I have suggested?

The answers to those questions are “no” and “to some degree.”

The real problem, as I explain in this interview for Voice of America, is that Cypriot banks became insolvent because they made very poor investment decisions, particularly their purchases of Greek government bonds.

A few additional points.

1. The mess in Cyprus won’t cause problems in other nations, but it may lead investors in other nation to pay closer attention to whether there are problems with the government and/or banking sector.

2. There is not a “European problem” or “euro problem.” Some nations, such as Switzerland and Estonia, have made sound decisions. Others, such as Sweden, Denmark, and Germany, are in decent shape.

3. The final outcome in Cyprus was bad, but probably less bad than other options. The final result surely was better than the corrupt TARP regime in the United States.

4. It is utterly absurd to blame tax havens for the financial crisis. That disaster was caused by mistaken decisions by politicians in Washington.

So what happens now? I fear that Cyprus is going to be like Ireland, a nation that used to have a few attractive policies but now will have a bleak future.

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Writing for the New York Times, Paul Krugman has a new column promoting more government spending and additional government regulation. That’s a dog-bites-man revelation and hardly noteworthy, of course, but in this case he takes a swipe at the Cato Institute.

The financial crisis of 2008 and its painful aftermath…were a huge slap in the face for free-market fundamentalists. …analysts at right-wing think tanks like…the Cato Institute…insisted that deregulated financial markets were doing just fine, and dismissed warnings about a housing bubble as liberal whining. Then the nonexistent bubble burst, and the financial system proved dangerously fragile; only huge government bailouts prevented a total collapse.

Upon reading this, my first reaction was a perverse form of admiration. After all, Krugman explicitly advocated for a housing bubble back in 2002, so it takes a lot of chutzpah to attack other people for the consequences of that bubble.

He likes cats, so he’s not all bad

But let’s set that aside and examine the accusation that folks at Cato had a Pollyanna view of monetary and regulatory policy. In other words, did Cato think that “deregulated markets were doing just fine”?

Hardly. If Krugman had bothered to spend even five minutes perusing the Cato website, he would have found hundreds of items by scholars such as Steve Hanke, Gerald O’Driscoll, Bert Ely, and others about misguided government regulatory and monetary policy. He could have perused the remarks of speakers at Cato’s annual monetary conferences. He could have looked at issues of the Cato Journal. Or our biennial Handbooks on Policy.

The tiniest bit of due diligence would have revealed that Cato was not a fan of Federal Reserve policy and we did not think that financial markets were deregulated. Indeed, Cato scholars last decade were relentlessly critical of monetary policy, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Community Reinvestment Act, and other forms of government intervention.

Heck, I imagine that Krugman would have accused Cato of relentless and foolish pessimism had he reviewed our work  in 2006 or 2007.

I will confess that Cato people didn’t predict when the bubble would peak and when it would burst. If we had that type of knowledge, we’d all be billionaires. But since Krugman is still generating income by writing columns and doing appearances, I think it’s safe to assume that he didn’t have any special ability to time the market either.

Krugman also implies that Cato is guilty of historical revisionism.

…many on the right have chosen to rewrite history. Back then, they thought things were great, and their only complaint was that the government was getting in the way of even more mortgage lending; now they claim that government policies, somehow dictated by liberals even though the G.O.P. controlled both Congress and the White House, were promoting excessive borrowing and causing all the problems.

I’ve already pointed out that Cato was critical of government intervention before and during the bubble, so we obviously did not want government tilting the playing field in favor of home mortgages.

It’s also worth nothing that Cato has been dogmatically in favor of tax reform that would eliminate preferences for owner-occupied housing. That was our position 20 years ago. That was our position 10 years ago. And it’s our position today.

I also can’t help but comment on Krugman’s assertion that GOP control of government last decade somehow was inconsistent with statist government policy. One obvious example would be the 2004 Bush Administration regulations that dramatically boosted the affordable lending requirements for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which surely played a role in driving the orgy of subprime lending.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The burden of government spending almost doubled during the Bush years, the federal government accumulated more power, and the regulatory state expanded. No wonder economic freedom contracted under Bush after expanding under Clinton.

But I’m digressing. Let’s return to Krugman’s screed. He doesn’t single out Cato, but presumably he has us in mind when he criticizes those who reject Keynesian stimulus theory.

…right-wing economic analysts insisted that deficit spending would destroy jobs, because government borrowing would divert funds that would otherwise have gone into business investment, and also insisted that this borrowing would send interest rates soaring. The right thing, they claimed, was to balance the budget, even in a depressed economy.

Actually, I hope he’s not thinking about us. We argue for a smaller burden of government spending, not a balanced budget. And we haven’t made any assertions about higher interest rates. We instead point out that excessive government spending undermines growth by undermining incentives for productive behavior and misallocating labor and capital.

But we are critics of Keynesianism for reasons I explain in this video. And if you look at current economic performance, it’s certainly difficult to make the argument that Obama’s so-called stimulus was a success.

ZombieBut Krugman will argue that the government should have squandered even more money. Heck, he even asserted that the 9-11 attacks were a form of stimulus and has argued that it would be pro-growth if we faced the threat of an alien invasion.

In closing, I will agree with Krugman that there’s too much “zombie” economics in Washington. But I’ll let readers decide who’s guilty of mindlessly staggering in the wrong direction.

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Several months ago, I wrote a rather wonky post explaining that the western world became rich in large part because of jurisdictional competition. Citing historians, philosophers, economists, and other great thinkers, I explained that the rivalry made possible by decentralization and diversity played a big role in both economic and political liberalization.

In other words, it’s not just a matter of tax competition and tax havens (though you know how I feel about those topics).

Now I want to provide another argument in favor of the jurisdictional differences that are encouraged by national sovereignty. Simply stated, it’s the idea of diversification. Reduce risk by making sure one or two mistakes won’t cause a catastrophe.

This isn’t my insight. The author of The Black Swan understands that this simple principle of financial investment also applies to government. He recently explained his thinking in a short interview with Foreign Policy. The magazine began with a few sentences of introduction.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has made a career of going against the grain, and he has been successful enough that the title of his book The Black Swan is a catchphrase for global unpredictability far beyond its Wall Street origins. …His newest project is helping governments get smarter about risks.

The rest of the article is Taleb in his own words. Here are some of my favorite passages, beginning with some praise for Switzerland’s genuine federalism and strong criticism of the EU bureaucracy in Brussels.

The most stable country in the history of mankind, and probably the most boring, by the way, is Switzerland. It’s not even a city-state environment; it’s a municipal state. Most decisions are made at the local level, which allows for distributed errors that don’t adversely affect the wider system. Meanwhile, people want a united Europe, more alignment, and look at the problems. The solution is right in the middle of Europe — Switzerland. It’s not united! It doesn’t have a Brussels! It doesn’t need one.

But it’s important to understand why he likes Switzerland and dislikes the European Union: Small is beautiful. More specifically, decentralized decision making means less systemic risk.

We need smaller, more decentralized government. On paper, it might appear much more efficient to be large — to have economies of scale. But in reality, it’s much more efficient to be small. …an elephant can break a leg very easily, whereas you can toss a mouse out of a window and it’ll be fine. Size makes you fragile.

Taleb elaborates on this theme, echoing many of the thinkers I cited in my wonky September post.

The European Union is a horrible, stupid project. The idea that unification would create an economy that could compete with China and be more like the United States is pure garbage. What ruined China, throughout history, is the top-down state. What made Europe great was the diversity: political and economic. Having the same currency, the euro, was a terrible idea. It encouraged everyone to borrow to the hilt.

Because it’s a short article, he doesn’t cite many specific examples, so let me elaborate. One of the reasons for the financial crisis is that the world’s financial regulators thought it would be a good idea if everybody agreed to abide the same rules for weighing risks. This resulted in the Basel rules that tilted the playing field in favor of mortgage-backed securities, thus helping to create and pump up the housing bubble. And we know how that turned out.

But that’s just part of the story. The regulatory cartel also decided to provide a one-size-fits-all endorsement of government debt. Now we’re in the middle of a sovereign debt crisis, so we see how that’s turning out.

Unfortunately, governments seem drawn to harmonization like moths to a flame. To make matters worse, the corporate community often has the same instinct. Their motive often is somewhat benign. They like the idea of one rulebook rather than having to comply with different policies in every nations.

But mistakes made for benign reasons can be just as bad as mistakes made for malignant reasons.

P.S. Last but not least, it’s worth noting that Taleb is not a big fan of democracy.

I have a negative approach to democracy. I think it should be primarily a mechanism by which people can remove a bad leader

I don’t know if this is because he recognizes the danger of untrammeled majoritarianism, much like Thomas Sowell, George Will, and Walter Williams. But if you want more information on why 51 percent of the people shouldn’t be allowed to oppress 49 percent of the people, here’s a very good video.

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