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Posts Tagged ‘Bailouts’

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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Folks, the pendulum is swinging in the right direction.

PendulumIn recent weeks, I’ve shared a bunch of examples to support my hypothesis that libertarians, small-government conservatives, and classical liberals are finally making some progress.

This trend actually started with the fiscal cliff, though that was simply a smaller-than-expected defeat.

Since then, we’ve enjoyed victories on the sequester, the IMF, and dynamic scoring. I’ve also posted some evidence showing that the Tea Party has made a positive difference and specifically shared data showing that the burden of government fiscal policy has been reduced since the 2010 elections.

Well, here’s another feel-good story. A powerful Committee Chairman in the House of Representatives realizes that being pro-market is not the same as being pro-business. Hallelujah!

The Wall Street Journal reports:

During Jeb Hensarling’s first congressional bid, a man at a campaign stop in Athens, Texas, asked the Republican if he was “pro-business.” “No,” the candidate replied, drawing curious stares from local business leaders who had gathered to hear him speak, a former Hensarling aide recalled. “I’m not pro-business. I’m pro-free enterprise.” Now, more than a decade later, that distinction has Wall Street on edge. The new chairman of the House financial services committee wants to limit taxpayers’ exposure to banking, insurance and mortgage lending by unwinding government control of institutions and programs the private sector depends on, from mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to flood insurance. Banks and other large financial institutions are particularly concerned because Mr. Hensarling plans to push legislation that could require them to hold significantly more capital and establish new barriers between their federally insured deposits and other activities, including trading and investment banking. …In interviews, a half-dozen industry representatives expressed some level of anxiety about Mr. Hensarling’s legislative agenda.

So, the cronyists are “on edge” and feeling “anxiety.” Gee, just breaks my heart.

And it’s not just Rep. Hensarling that is singing from the right song sheet.

Earlier this month, all 45 Senate Republicans voted for a symbolic measure aimed at banks with more than $500 billion in assets. The amendment, offered by Sens. David Vitter (R., La.) and Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), sought to eliminate any subsidies or other advantages enjoyed by the biggest financial institutions because investors expect the government to prevent them from collapsing. …Most congressional Republicans believe the changes enacted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis—principally in the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill—enshrined the notion that the biggest institutions are “too big to fail” because they guaranteed the government would step in to prevent the most sprawling firms from going under.

To be sure, many of these same politicians voted for TARP, so I’m not under any illusions that they’ve become committed supporters of genuine capitalism.

Putting taxpayers before Wall Street

Though Hensarling did vote the right way, so I’m confident that he understands that insolvent banks should be liquidated rather than bailed out.

Too bad folks in the Bush Administration didn’t understand this simple principle of free markets.

Here are some more details from the article about Hensarling’s commitment to economic liberty.

Mr. Hensarling has been a vocal critic of taxpayer backstops for the private sector. He voted against the Wall Street rescue package in the fall of 2008 and supported measures to ease the importation of prescription drugs. He even picked a fight with one of the largest employers in his backyard—American Airlines—by supporting initiatives to allow more long-distance flights out of Dallas’s Love Field, the home base for rival Southwest Airlines. Now, his other potential targets include: the Export-Import Bank of the U.S., which makes loans to American companies that do business overseas, and the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, a temporary backstop created in the aftermath of 9/11 to insure construction projects. The latter measure expires at the end of 2014, unless Mr. Hensarling’s committee acts to extend it. “In every jurisdictional area that I can get my fingers on, I want to move us away from the Washington insider economy,” he said. Mr. Hensarling sharpened his free-market views when he studied economics under former Sen. Phil Gramm at Texas A&M University.

I’m especially happy to see that he wants to end the corrupt system of subsidies from the Export-Import Bank, which is a typical example of big businesses being anti-free market.

So what does all this mean? Perhaps not much in the short run, particularly with Obama in the White House and Tim Johnson of South Dakota chairing the Senate Banking Committee.

In the long run, though, this is a positive sign. Our prosperity and liberty depend on small government and free markets, so we need at least a few lawmakers who understand that there shouldn’t be any special favors for big interest groups.

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I’m not a fan of the International Monetary Fund. It galls me that a bunch of bureaucrats enjoy opulent lifestyles at our expense, and don’t even have to pay on their lavish incomes.

But I might be willing to overlook all that if it wasn’t for the fact that IMF routinely and reflexively pushes for bad policy.

And the icing on the cake is that the IMF was created for the purpose of helping the manage the system of fixed exchange rates that was imposed after World War II. That system no longer exists, yet the IMF is still plaguing us.

I’ll be happy if they simply take their hands out of my pockets

I remember reading someplace that cockroaches were the only animals that would survive a nuclear war. I have no idea if that’s true, but it appears that international bureaucracies have similar survival skills.

But I’m digressing. Notwithstanding all the bad news listed above, we’re celebrating some good news today.

Here’s the situation. The IMF has been so busy subsidizing bad policy around the world with lots of bailouts that the gold-plated bureaucracy wants American approval to permanently misallocate more of the world’s capital.

I’ve explained over and over again why it’s not a good idea to give more matches to a pyromaniac. But I never expected that lawmakers would do the right thing.

Yet they have, so let’s enjoy this fleeting experience. Here are some excerpts from a Reuters report.

…lawmakers…rebuffed a request by the Obama administration to approve a permanent increase in U.S. funding to the International Monetary Fund in a setback for IMF reforms to boost the voting power of emerging economies. The reforms need congressional approval because they involve shifting and making permanent a $65 billion U.S. contribution to an IMF crisis fund. …the U.S. Treasury sought to tuck the provision into pending legislation in Congress that aims to avoid a U.S. government shutdown at the end of March. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives rejected the IMF funding request last week, but the administration hoped the Democratic-led Senate would include it in its version of the funding bill. After days of negotiations, authors of the bill in the Senate Appropriations Committee rejected the request as too politically sensitive in the tense budget environment in Washington, where the sweeping government spending cuts triggered on March 1 are starting to be felt.

Wow. I wrote previously that rejecting additional IMF handouts was a minimum test of GOP seriousness in the battle against statism.

And they actually cleared that hurdle. Miracles do happen!

But there’s no such thing as a permanent victory in the battle against statism.

The Obama administration will have another shot at winning approval for increased IMF voting power when Congress starts work on a new set of spending bills later this spring for the 2014 fiscal year, which starts on October 1. But failure by President Barack Obama to reach a deal with Republicans to shrink the U.S. budget deficit could complicate any new requests for IMF funding, aides cautioned.

Not only is there no such thing as a permanent victory, even this bit of short-run success probably doesn’t mean much. If I understand correctly, the IMF already received the authority to squander the additional $65 billion. All that’s really happening now is a fight over whether to grant the bureaucrats permanent approval to misuse the funds.

But I’ll take any victory. Fighting for freedom in Washington is a rather grim task. Yet in the past month, we got the sequester and now we’ve stiff-armed the IMF.

I’m almost delirious with joy.

P.S. While the IMF almost always pushes bad policy, there are occasional glimmers of sanity from the economists on staff who write reports. Researchers at the international bureaucracy, for instance, have acknowledged the Laffer Curve and warned that it makes no sense to push taxes too high. And some of the bureaucrats have even admitted that it sometimes make sense to reduce the burden of government spending.

And even though it wasn’t their intention, IMF bureaucrats even provided very strong evidence showing why the value-added tax is a destructive money machine for big government.

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The mess in Europe has been rather frustrating, largely because almost everybody is on the wrong side.

Some folks say they want “austerity,” but that’s largely a code word for higher taxes. They’re fighting against the people who say they want “growth,” but that’s generally a code word for more Keynesian spending.

So you can understand how this debate between higher taxes and higher spending is like nails on a chalkboard for someone who wants smaller government.

And then, to get me even more irritated, lots of people support bailouts because they supposedly are needed to save the euro currency.

When I ask these people why a default in, say, Greece threatens the euro, they look at me as if it’s the year 1491 and I’ve declared the earth isn’t flat.

So I’m delighted that the Wall Street Journal has published some wise observations by a leading French economist (an intellectual heir to Bastiat!), who shares my disdain for the current discussion. Here are some excerpts from Prof. Salin’s column, starting with his common-sense hypothesis.

…there is no “euro crisis.” The single currency doesn’t have to be “saved” or else explode. The present crisis is not a European monetary problem at all, but rather a debt problem in some countries—Greece, Spain and some others—that happen to be members of the euro zone. Specifically, these are public-debt problems, stemming from bad budget management by their governments. But there is no logical link between these countries’ fiscal situations and the functioning of the euro system.

Salin then looks at how the artificial link was created between the euro currency and the fiscal crisis, and he makes a very good analogy (and I think it’s good because I’ve made the same point) to a potential state-level bankruptcy in America.

The public-debt problem becomes a euro problem only insofar as governments arbitrarily decide that there must be some “European solidarity” inside the euro zone. But how does mutual participation in the same currency logically imply that spendthrift governments should get help from the others? When a state in the U.S. has a debt problem, one never hears that there is a “dollar crisis.” There is simply a problem of budget management in that state.

He then says a euro crisis is being created, but only because the European Central Bank has surrendered its independence and is conducting backdoor bailouts.

Because European politicians have decided to create an artificial link between national budget problems and the functioning of the euro system, they have now effectively created a “euro crisis.” To help out badly managed governments, the European Central Bank is now buying public bonds issued by these governments or supplying liquidity to support their failing banks. In so doing, the ECB is violating its own principles and introducing harmful distortions.

Last but not least, Salin warns that politicians are using the crisis as an excuse for more bad policy – sort of the European version of Mitchell’s Law, with one bad policy (excessive spending) being the precursor of additional bad policy (centralization).

Politicians now argue that “saving the euro” will require not only propping up Europe’s irresponsible governments, but also centralizing decision-making. This is now the dominant opinion of politicians in Europe, France in particular. There are a few reasons why politicians in Paris might take that view. They might see themselves being in a similar situation as Greece in the near future, so all the schemes to “save the euro” could also be helpful to them shortly. They might also be looking to shift public attention away from France’s internal problems and toward the rest of Europe instead. It’s easier to complain about what one’s neighbors are doing than to tackle problems at home. France needs drastic tax cuts and far-reaching deregulation and labor-market liberalization. Much simpler to get the media worked up about the next “euro crisis” meeting with Angela Merkel.

This is a bit of a dry topic, but it has enormous implications since Europe already is a mess and the fiscal crisis sooner or later will spread to the supposedly prudent nations such as Germany and the Netherlands. And, thanks to entitlement programs, the United States isn’t that far behind.

So may as well enjoy some humor before the world falls apart, including this cartoon about bailouts to Europe from America, the parody video about Germany and downgrades, this cartoon about Greece deciding to stay in the euro, this “how the Greeks see Europe” map, and this cartoon about Obama’s approach to the European model.

P.S. Here’s a video narrated by a former Cato intern about the five lessons America should learn from the European fiscal crisis.

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I don’t like the international bureaucrats at the IMF, and I don’t like the corrupt politicians of Greece, so for whom do I cheer if there’s a fight between those two groups?

Ideally, both sides will lose (which is also my view of the European fight between Keynesians and tax increasers).

You’ll understand when you read about the recent remarks by Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund. Here’s what the UK-based Guardian reported.

IMF chief Christine Lagarde’s uncompromising description of Greeks as rampant tax-dodgers has provoked a furious reaction in Athens less than a month before the crisis-hit country heads to the polls. With Greece mired in ever-worsening recession, with cutbacks and tax rises, the IMF managing director was rounded on by almost the entire political establishment. In an interview with the Guardian, Lagarde said she had more sympathy for victims of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa than Greeks hit by the economic crisis. “As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all those people who are trying to escape tax all the time. All these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax.” Evangelos Venizelos, the Greek socialist leader, who met Lagarde several times as finance minister, accused her of “insulting” Greeks. “Nobody has the right to humiliate the Greek people during the crisis, and I say this today specifically addressing Ms Lagarde … who with her stance insulted the Greek people.”

So what should we think of this fight?

Well, I agree with Lagarde that the people of sub-Saharan Africa are more deserving of sympathy. After all, the Greek people repeatedly voted to steal money from their fellow citizens by using the coercive power of government, so it’s hard to feel much sympathy for people who thought that scam could continue indefinitely.

Though, to be fair, the people in sub-Saharan Africa would probably make the same venal choices if they had democracy.

Top IMF Moocher

On the other hand, I am nauseated by Lagarde’s comments about tax evasion. She is one of the world’s biggest leeches, with annual compensation of more than $550,000 that is diverted from the productive sector of the economy. And, adding insult to injury, her bloated salary is tax free. So we have the grotesque spectacle of a pampered international bureaucrat whining and moaning that ordinary people aren’t paying enough tax.

Keep in mind, by the way, that the tax burden in Greece is more than 40 percent of economic output (see annex table 26), which (at least to normal people) shows that the problems is that the Greek government is spending far too much.

Leading Greek Kleptocrat

Then we have the sniveling comments of Greece’s former socialist finance minister, who says the Greek people have been “insulted.” Well, they should be insulted. And mocked. And berated. After all, these are the people who voted for one kleptocrat government after another.

These are the people who thought it was a good idea to elect governments that made insane decisions such as choosing to subsidize pedophiles and imposing a regulatory requirement to collect stool samples from entrepreneurs setting up online companies.

I think “a pox on both your houses” was a line in one of Shakespeare’s plays. But wherever it comes from, it sums up my view of this spat between the IMF and Greece. The only good decision for the United States would be to back away and not be involved. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration wants American taxpayers on the hook for the reckless overspending of foreign politicians.

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I’m in Slovakia, where I just returned from some meetings at the annual conference of the Freedom and Solidarity Party. Unlike Republicans in the United States, these people practice what they preach about free markets and individual liberty.

Indeed, the SAS Party (which I gather must be Slovak initials for Freedom and Solidarity) is so committed to principles that it refused to join with other coalition members to support the European bailout fund.

The same cannot be said about the other supposedly right-leaning parties that were part of the government. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s party wound up supporting the bailout (even though she initially was opposed). Amazingly, these other parties thought the bailouts were such a good idea that they were willing to lose a “no-confidence” vote – paving the way for the Social Democrats to win the most recent election!

I guess the analogy is Bush and the other GOP statists supporting corrupt policies such as TARP, which helped pave the way for Obama to get elected.

In this analogy, the SAS Party is akin to the tea party, representing honest conservatives and libertarians.

By the way, there are a small handful of genuinely good political parties in the world. If we limit ourselves to ones that have legislative seats, SAS is on the list, of course, but I would also include the Reform Party in Estonia, which leads that nation’s coalition government. It’s worth noting that Estonia responded to the recent economic crisis by imposing genuine spending cuts, which helps explain why that nation’s economy has bounced back while other nations are languishing.

New Zealand’s ACT Party also deserves a mention, though they’re down to just one seat in that nation’s Parliament. Hopefully they’ll bounce back.

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I wrote last year about a backlash from long-suffering Greek taxpayers. These people – the ones pulling the wagon rather than riding in the wagon – are being raped and pillaged by a political class that is trying to protect the greedy interest groups that benefit from Greece’s bloated public sector.

We now have another group of taxpayers who are fighting back against greedy government. My ancestors in Ireland have decided that enough is enough and there is widespread civil disobedience against a new property tax.

Here are the key details from an AP report.

The Serfs Fight Back

Ireland is facing a revolt over its new property tax. The government said less than half of the country’s 1.6 million households paid the charge by Saturday’s deadline to avoid penalties. And about 5,000 marched in protest against the annual conference of Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael party. Emotions ran raw as police backed by officers on horseback stopped demonstrators from entering the Dublin Convention Centre. …One man mistakenly identified as the government minister responsible for collecting the tax had to be rescued by police from an angry scrum. Kenny said his government had no choice, but to impose the new charge as part of the nation’s efforts to emerge from an international bailout. …The charge this year is a flat-fee €100 ($130) per dwelling, but is expected to rise dramatically next year once Ireland starts to vary the charge based on a property’s estimated value. Anti-tax campaigners have urged the public to ignore the tax demand, arguing that the government doesn’t have the power to collect it.

What makes this new tax so outrageous is that Irish taxpayers already have been victimized with higher income tax rates and a more onerous value-added tax. Yet they weren’t the ones to cause the nation’s fiscal crisis. Ireland is in trouble for two reasons, and both deal with the spending side of the fiscal equation.

1. The burden of government spending exploded last decade, more than doubling in less than 10 years. This wiped out all the gains from fiscal restraint in the 1980s and 1990s.

2. Irish politicians decided to give a bailout not only to depositors of the nation’s failed banks, but also to bondholders. This is a grotesque transfer of wealth from ordinary people to those with higher incomes – and therefore a violation of Mitchell’s Guide to an Ethical Bleeding Heart.

It’s worth noting that academic studies find that tax evasion is driven largely by high tax rates. This makes sense since there is more incentive to hide money when the government is being very greedy. But there is also evidence that tax evasion rises when people perceive that government is wasting money and being corrupt.

Heck, no wonder the Irish people are up in arms. They’re being asked to cough up more money to finance a bailout that was both corrupt and wasteful.

Let’s close by looking at American attitudes about tax evasion. Here’s part of a column from Forbes, which expresses surprise that Americans view tax evasion more favorably than behaviors such as shoplifting and littering.

A new survey suggests Americans consider cheating on their taxes more socially acceptable than shoplifting, drunk driving or even throwing trash out the window of a moving car. …only 66% of  the participants said they “completely agree” that “everyone who cheats on their taxes should be held accountable”  and only 72% completely agreed that “it’s every American’s civic duty to pay their fair share of taxes”–suggesting, as the Shelton study does, that perhaps disapproval of tax evasion is not as strong as, say, disapproval of stealing from private businesses.

I’m not sure, though, why anybody would be shocked by these results. We have a government in Washington that is pervasively corrupt, funneling money to corrupt scams like Solyndra.

These same people want higher tax rates, which will further encourage people to protect their income.

If we really want to promote better tax compliance, whether in the U.S., Ireland, or anywhere in the world, there are two simple answers. First, enact a simple and fair flat tax to keep rates low. Second, shrink government to its proper size, which will automatically reduce waste and limit opportunities for corruption.

But none of this is in the interests of the political class, so don’t hold your breath waiting for these reforms.

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