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Archive for the ‘Cronyism’ Category

The great French economist from the 1800s, Frederic Bastiat, famously explained that good economists are aware that government policies have indirect effects (the “unseen”).

Bad economists, by contrast, only consider direct effects (the “seen”).

Let’s look at the debate over stadium subsidies. Tim Carney of the American Enterprise Institute narrates a video showing how the “unseen” costs of government favoritism are greater than the “seen” benefits.

Unfortunately, stadium subsidies are just the tip of the cronyism iceberg.

In a column for the Dallas Morning News, Dean Stansel of Southern Methodist University discussed some of his research on the topic.

While state and local economic development incentives may seem to help the local economy, the offsetting costs are usually ignored, so the overall effect is unclear. Furthermore, from the perspective of the nation as a whole, these policies are clearly a net loss. …In a new research paper, my colleague, Meg Tuszynski, and I examined whether there is any relationship between economic development incentive programs and five measures of entrepreneurial activity. Like the previous literature in this area, we found virtually no evidence of a positive relationship. In fact, we found a negative relationship with patent activity, a key measure of new innovation. …A recent study by the Mercatus Center found that 12 states could reduce their corporate income tax by more than 20 percent if incentive programs were eliminated. That includes a 24 percent cut in Texas’ business franchise tax. In six states, it could either be completely eliminated or reduced by more than 90 percent. These are big savings that would provide substantial tax relief to all businesses, both big and small, not just those with political influence. …That would provide a more level playing field in which all businesses can thrive.

And here’s a Wall Street Journal editorial from earlier the year.

Amazon left New York at the altar, turning down a dowry of $3 billion in subsidies. Foxconn’s promised new factory in Wisconsin, enticed with $4 billion in incentives, has fallen into doubt. …Now add General Electric , which announced…it will renege on its plan to build a glassy, 12-story headquarters on Boston’s waterfront. …The company reportedly…pledged to bring 800 jobs to Boston. In exchange, the city and state offered $145 million in incentives, including tax breaks and infrastructure funds. GE’s boss at the time, Jeff Immelt, said not to worry: For every public dollar spent, “you will get back one thousand fold, take my word for it.” …two CEOs later, a beleaguered GE won’t be building that fancy tower at all. There won’t even be 800 jobs. …GE will lease back enough space in two existing brick buildings for 250 employees. …what a failure of corporate welfare.

Let’s wrap this up with a look at some additional scholarly research.

Economists for the World Bank investigated government favoritism in Egypt and found that cronyism rewards politically connected companies at the expense of the overall economy.

This paper presents new evidence that cronyism reduces long-term economic growth by discouraging firms’ innovation activities. …The analysis finds that the probability that firms invest in products new to the firm increases from under 1 percent for politically connected firms to over 7 percent for unconnected firms. The results are robust across different innovation measures. Despite innovating less, politically connected firms are more capital intensive, as they face lower marginal cost of capital due to the generous policy privileges they receive, including exclusive access to input subsidies, public procurement contracts, favorable exchange rates, and financing from politically connected banks. …The findings suggest that connected firms out-rival their competitors by lobbying for privileges instead of innovating. In the aggregate, these policy privileges reduce…long-term growth potential by diverting resources away from innovation to the inefficient capital accumulation of a few large, connected firms.

For economics wonks, here’s Table 2 from the study, showing how subsidies are associated with less innovation.

The World Bank also found awful results because of cronyism in Ukraine.

But this isn’t a problem only in developing nations.

There’s some depressing research about the growing prevalence of cronyism in the United States (ethanol handouts, the Export-Import Bankprotectionismtax favoritismbailoutssubsidies, and green energy are just a few examples of how the friends of politicians get unearned wealth).

Cronyism is bad under Democrats and it’s bad under Republicans. Time for separation of business and state!

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From a macroeconomic perspective, President Obama’s so-called stimulus was a flop. The federal government borrowed and redistributed almost $1 trillion, yet the economy stagnated.

From a microeconomic perspective, the faux stimulus may have been an even bigger failure. One of the worst features was the laughable and scandal-ridden green energy program, which featured corrupt boondoggles such as Solyndra.

Well, if you liked Solyndra, you’ll love the “Green New Deal,” a proposal to dramatically expand Washington’s power over the private economy.  As I explained in an article for the American Conservative, the plan introduced by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) is cronyism on steroids.

Looking at Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, one is reminded of Voltaire’s comment that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. But that might be slightly unfair. There is some Green in the GND, though the ideas aren’t New, and it’s definitely not a Deal. At least not for taxpayers. …budget gurus have examined the GND wish list and they calculate that the 10-year cost could reach $90 trillion. That’s trillion, not billion—a staggering amount of money. For all intents and purposes, Ocasio-Cortez wants to expand the burden of federal spending from 21 percent of economic output to about 50 percent of economic output. …The economic implications of these policies are horrifying. The GND would mean Greek-style fiscal policy in the United States, with concomitant economic stagnation.

But it’s not just bad fiscal policy.

The scheme would give politicians and bureaucrats immense powers to micro-manage the productive sector of the economy.

It’s equally important to consider how the GND would dramatically expand Washington’s power over the economy—above and beyond new taxes and higher spending. …the government would be obliged to end any and all reliance on fossil fuels and shift the nation to 100 percent renewable energy. …the government would be obliged to provide universal and unrestricted access to health care for everyone. …the government would be obliged to provide everybody with a job that includes generous benefits, including paid vacations and a comfortable retirement. …the government would be obliged to create a nationwide system that was so quick and so effective that commercial air travel could be ended. …the government would be obliged to gut and rebuild every single structure in the country so that they all met a zero-net-carbon goal.

What would this mean?

A feeding frenzy of well-connected special interests at the expense of ordinary taxpayers, which would be very unseemly.

That’s the direct cost.

But from an economic perspective, what matters is that labor and capital increasingly would be allocated by political forces (i.e., cronyism) rather than market forces (i.e., the preferences of consumers).

For all intents and purposes, the GND is a form of central planning. Not full Soviet style steering of the economy, but nonetheless a step in that direction.

And this indirect costs imposed by this approach wouldn’t be trivial.

Every single one of these costly ideas will serve as a magnet for consultants, contractors, administrators, and others who will want to profit by “helping” to implement the various pieces of the GND. For those who remember the corruption and cronyism of the Obama administration’s green energy program (part of the failed stimulus), Ocasio-Cortez wants to do the same thing. But far more extensive. …what happens if the “invisible hand” of consumer-driven competition is replaced (or substantially weakened) because politicians adopt something like the Green New Deal? …market forces will get squeezed as politicians directly allocate resources in the economy. …cronyism and regulation undermine the free market just as taxes and spending undermine the free market. The mechanism—direct versus indirect—isn’t the same, but in both cases the preferences of consumers no longer drive the economy.

The bottom line is that the GND is a corporatist scheme using the environment as a pretext.

If you don’t believe me, just look at what AOC’s top aide said about the proposal.

The chief of staff for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated that her signature Green New Deal was not really about saving the planet after all. In a report by the Washington Post, Saikat Chakrabarti revealed that “it wasn’t originally a climate thing at all … we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.” …The Green New Deal itself was fraught with complications in its February roll-out, which included confusing language and contradictions in the “Frequently Asked Question” section. …The Green New Deal, which some estimated could cost upwards of $93 trillion to enact, also promised “economic prosperity for all.”

Refreshingly honest on the part of Mr. Chakrabarti, but also a stark warning to the rest of us.

By the way, the excerpt mentions the “confusing language” in the original GND documents. I would call is terrifying language. This section is particularly crazy.

David Harsanyi highlighted 10 of the most bizarre provisions in a column for the Federalist.

It is not hyperbole to contend that GND is likely the most ridiculous and un-American plan that’s ever been presented by an elected official to voters. …the plan’s authors assure us that this “massive transformation of our society” needs some “clear goals and a timeline.” The timeline is ten years. Here are some of the goals: …Ban affordable energy. …Eliminate nuclear energy. …Eliminate 99 percent of cars. …Gut and rebuild every building in America. …Eliminate air travel. …A government-guaranteed job. ….Free education for life. …A salubrious diet. …A house. …Free money. …Bonus insanity: Ban meat.

And remember, all these provisions are enforced by politicians and bureaucrats repressing market forces and replacing them with political pull.

Alex Brill of the American Enterprise Institute summarizes why this is a bad idea.

…funding allocations will undoubtedly be determined by political forces rather than market forces. …final allocation will depend on the relative clout of the lawmakers and will inefficiently differ from the allocations that consumers and producers would demand. In short, the Green New Deal would be a deficit financed expansion of federal bureaucratic power to dictate investment decisions in one of the most dynamic sectors of the economy. …further centralizing energy market decisions puts at risk the free market economy that our nation has relied on for economic growth for more than two centuries.

Exactly right, which is why the GND would translate to fewer jobs and lower living standards.

Here are two real-world examples from the Wall Street Journal showing why green cronyism is a bad idea.

The first is from the United States.

…consider the public housing projects near Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s New York office. The New York City Housing Authority (Nycha)…is switching to LED lighting, which lasts longer than incandescent bulbs and consumes less energy. Sounds smart, until you see how many union workers it takes to screw in a light bulb. One recent project focused on 23 housing developments, and changing the light bulbs and fixtures there cost $33.2 million. Supplies account for a fraction of that cost. Under Nycha’s Project Labor Agreement, electricians make $81 in base pay and $54 in fringe per hour, and overtime is usually time and a half. Add administrative and contracting expenses. All in, Nycha paid an average of $1,973 per apartment to install LEDs. …In the private economy, $1,973 could go a long way toward improving a dilapidated apartment. Only in the world of green government spending is replacing light bulbs for two grand a unit a cost-saving measure.

Don’t forget, by the way, that light bulbs also are more expensive once government is part of the equation.

The second is from Australia.

The Green New Deal…calls among other things for “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States…” We’ve tried it in Australia—on a much smaller scale—and it didn’t go well. On Feb. 3, 2009, Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his treasurer, Wayne Swan, announced the Energy Efficient Homes Package. “To support jobs and set Australia up for a low carbon future the Rudd Government will install free ceiling insulation in around 2.7 million Australian homes…” There were only 250 registered insulation businesses in Australia when the package was announced. That number quickly blew out to 7,000 because the government was handing out free money to installers. …They received their rebates directly from the government rather than from homeowners, who therefore had little incentive to check if the work had been done well or even at all. …Almost every insulation job went right up to the $1,600 cap, regardless of size or ceiling area. …Nearly 100 houses caught fire. …In February 2010, a year after the Energy Efficient Homes Package was announced, it was abandoned.

I also recommend this column about what happened in Germany.

Let’s close with a bit of humor.

Our first example is a modification of the famous map of the Korean Peninsula showing the difference between capitalism and communism.

In this case, however, we show a “successful” low-carbon economy.

By the way, some people don’t get the joke. Jeffrey Sachs actually ranks hellholes such as Cuba ahead of the United States in part because impoverished people don’t consume much energy.

And some environmentalists put together a grotesquely misnamed “Happy Planet Index” that also ranked the grim disaster of Venezuela ahead of America.

To conclude, here’s a cartoon strip that nicely summarizes how the GND is fueled.

In other words, the middle class will pay a lot more if AOC’s scheme is ever adopted.

P.S. Donald Trump is also at least somewhat guilty of wanting to replace market forces with government intervention.

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One of the worst examples of Washington cronyism is the Export-Import Bank, which has provided subsidies for big companies that sell to foreign buyers.

Corrupt firms such as Boeing and General Electric argue that they need help from the Ex-Im Bank in order make those sales.

Is that true?

Interestingly, we had a real-world test earlier this decade when the Ex-Im Bank was temporarily shut down and then, after re-opening, was largely unable to provide subsidies to big corporations.

So what happened? Veronique de Rugy of Mercatus explains that exporters did just fine when the Ex-Im Bank was curtailed.

Back in 2015, there was widespread agreement in Congress that the Export-Import Bank — the U.S. government’s export credit agency — was nothing but a crony bank, mostly serving the greedy interests of Boeing and other large companies. As a result, Congress let the bank’s charter expire. It was reauthorized a few months later but in a much-diminished form, operating at 15% capacity. …A thorny problem for those supporting Ex-Im’s revival is that we now have nearly a half-decade’s worth of data on what happened to U.S. exports, economic growth, jobs and beneficiaries while the institution was mostly dormant between 2015 and 2019. During that time, …its activities dropped from $21 billion in 2014 (the last year the bank functioned at full capacity) to $3.6 billion in 2018. …Back in 2014, 65% of the bank’s activities benefited 10 giant companies. Boeing alone got 40% of Ex-Im’s largesse. On the foreign side, the bank’s clients belong to a who’s who list of large, wealthy, successful and often state-owned companies. …Most of this profligacy ended between 2015 and 2018. During that time, the share of funding that benefited large firms dropped by 93%. …once Ex-Im stopped extending giant deals to giant companies, American taxpayers’ liability fell from $112 billion in 2014 to $72.5 billion in 2018. U.S. exports continued to grow without being impacted whatsoever by Ex-Im limitations, and many beneficiaries of the bank had their best year ever in 2018, demonstrating that none of these subsidies are necessary for their success.

Sadly, the Ex-Im Bank is now back in business (and President Trump deserves a big chunk of the blame).

But its charter has to be renewed this year.

There’s no chance of killing the program, but there may be an opportunity to at least curtail its power and authority.

Negotiations on Capitol Hill have produced a compromise package between the top Democrat and top Republican on the House Financial Services Committee.

But not everyone is a fan. The Washington Examiner opined that the deal should be rejected.

House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., has drafted a bill that would expand the Ex-Im Bank, rename it, free it from oversight, and charge it with a handful of irrelevant liberal mandates. The committee’s top Republican, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., has unfortunately agreed to Waters’ bill. …Republicans should outright reject Waters’ proposal. It’s pitched as a compromise, but the Senate GOP has no reason to compromise. Either fix Waters’ bill or let the Ex-Im Bank’s charter expire in the fall. The “reforms” in Waters’ bill are weak tea. They don’t do anything to steer the Ex-Im Bank away from being welfare for America’s largest corporations.

So did House Republicans kill the deal, which should have been an easy decision?

Not exactly. According to a Politico report, House Democrats stopped it.

But not because they’re opposed to corporate welfare. They rebelled because they want a deal that’s even worse.

House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters on Wednesday shelved a bipartisan Export-Import Bank bill that sparked a fierce backlash from her own caucus… The delay raises questions about the fate of the beleaguered bank, which, without action by Congress, will see its operating charter lapse in September. …the original compromise she drafted with McHenry ignited criticism from a wide swath of the Democrats on the committee… They objected to new restrictions that would be imposed on the bank and big manufacturers such as Boeing, that benefit from its loan guarantees… Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.)…had been raising concerns about sections of the bill that would impose new disclosure requirements on major manufacturers and restrict the agency from providing financial support for deals with Chinese state-owned enterprises. …The restrictions turned out to be one of the biggest sticking points for Democrats. …The bank is only now returning to full operation after years of being hobbled by conservative Republican lawmakers who criticized the agency as engaging in “crony capitalism” and posing a risk to taxpayers.

The moral of the story is that big government and big business shouldn’t be in bed together.

The federal government shouldn’t redistribute money, and it’s especially offensive to have programs that give handouts to rich and powerful companies.

And it’s not just the Ex-Im Bank.

P.S. If you want to understand why export subsidies are economically harmful, I strongly recommend this video from Mercatus.

P.P.S. I have no objection to companies getting profits, but I want them to earn money by serving consumers and not steal money by fleecing taxpayers.

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During my early years in public policy, back in the late 1980s, I repeatedly crossed swords with people who argued that Washington should have more power over the economy so that the United States could compete with Japan, which supposedly was an economic juggernaut because of “industrial policy” directed by wise and far-sighted bureaucrats at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

Given Japan’s subsequent multi-decade slump, it certainly seems like I was right to warn against giving American politicians the power to pick winners and losers.

But not everybody learned from that experience. In the words of Yogi Berra, “It’s deja vu all over again,” only this time we’re supposed to be terrified because the Chinese government wants to subsidize and promote certain industries as part of “Made in China 2025”.

At the risk of understatement, I’m not scared.

Yes, China has enjoyed some impressive growth since it partially liberalized its economy in the late 1900s, but it will remain far behind the United States unless – as I recently explained on CNBC – there is a new wave of free-market reforms.

Needless to say, a government initiative to favor certain industries is hardly a step in that direction.

Some Chinese policy makers even realize that it’s counterproductive to give that kind of power to politicians and bureaucrats.

Here are some excerpts from a report in the South China Morning Post.

“Made in China 2025” has been a waste of taxpayers’ money, China’s former finance minister Lou Jiwei has said…“[Made in China] 2025 has been a lot of talking but very little was done,” Lou, chairman of the National Council for Social Security Fund, said on Wednesday… “those industries are not predictable and the government should not have thought it had the ability to predict what is not foreseeable.” …“The negative effect of [the plan] is to have wasted taxpayers’ money.” He suggested the market should have played a greater role in developing the industries that MIC2025 was designed to push. “The [resources] should have been allocated by the market; the government should give the market a decisive role,” Lou said. “Why has the government pushed so hard on this strategy? [Hi-tech industry prospects] can all change in a few years, it is too unforeseeable.”

Sounds like Mr. Lou learned from Obama’s Solyndra fiasco that cronyism doesn’t work.

But some of his colleagues still need to be educated.

Made in China 2025 (MIC2025) strategy, Beijing’s blueprint for tech supremacy. …Since the plan’s launch in 2015, the government has poured money into MIC2025 to try to turn a number of domestic industries – including artificial intelligence, pharmaceuticals and electric vehicles – into global leaders by 2025. …Lou said: “It [the strategy] should not have been done that way anyway. I was against it from the start, I did not agree very much with it.

I hope senior government officials change their minds about this harmful exercise in central planning.

Not because I’m afraid it will work, but rather because I like China and I want the country to prosper. The partial reforms from last century produced great results for China, including huge reductions in poverty.

Additional reforms could lead to mass prosperity. But that won’t happen if the Chinese government tries to control the allocation of resources.

Let’s close with a big-picture look at central planning and industrial policy, starting with the common-sense observation that there are degrees of intervention.

Here’s my back-of-the-envelope perspective. We have examples of nations, such as the Soviet Union, where the government had near-total control over the allocation of labor and capital. And I suppose Hong Kong would be the closest example of a laissez-faire jurisdiction. And then there’s everything in between.

I’ve already shared two great videos on government planning versus the market. I strongly recommend this Prager University video, narrated by Professor Burton Folsom, on the failure of government-dictated investment. And also this video narrated by Professor Russ Roberts, which shows how a decentralized market efficiently provides a bounty to consumers.

Here’s a third, which celebrates the work of the late Don Lavoie, one of my professors when I studied at George Mason University.

By the way, there is a terrible flaw in the video. The photo that appears at 1:38 shows select faculty and students in 1987. Why is that a flaw? For the simple reason that I was part of the photo but got cropped out in the video.

P.S. Some people worry that China’s industrial policy will have a negative spillover effect on the United States because American companies will lose market share to the subsidized Chinese companies. That’s a legitimate concern and American officials should use the World Trade Organization to counter mercantilist policies.

P.P.S. To my dismay, some people don’t want China to become a rich nation. I assume those people are hoping China follows the advice of the OECD and IMF.

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What’s the worst thing the government does?

That’s a difficult question to answer. I’ve argued that giving U.S. tax dollars to the OECD is the worst item in the budget, on a per-dollar-spent basis.

And I’ve expressed scathing disdain for the horrid practice of civil asset forfeiture. There are also really destructive features of the tax system, such as FATCA and the death tax.

But you could make a strong case for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well.

These two government-created corporations not only reduce long-run growth by distorting the allocation of capital, they also bear considerable responsibility for last decade’s financial crisis since they played a major role in fueling the housing bubble.

The U.K.-based Economist describes America’s interventionist regime as a form of socialism.

…the mortgage system…is…largely nationalised and subject to administrative control. …America’s mortgage-finance system, with $11 trillion of debt, is probably the biggest concentration of financial risk to be found anywhere. …The supply of mortgages in America has an air of distinctly socialist command-and-control about it. …The structure of these loans, their volume and the risks they entail are controlled not by markets but by administrative fiat. …the subsidy for housing debt is running at about $150 billion a year, or roughly 1% of GDP. A crisis as bad as last time would cost taxpayers 2-4% of GDP, not far off the bail-out of the banks in 2008-12. …the securitisation of loans, most of which used to be in the private sector, is now almost entirely state-run. …There are at least 10,000 relevant pages of federal laws, regulatory orders and rule books. …In the land of the free, where home ownership is a national dream, borrowing to buy a house is a government business for which taxpayers are on the hook.

In other words, our system of housing finance is mucked up by government intervention (very much akin to the way healthcare is a mess because of government).

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that Fannie and Freddie have been in “conservatorship” every since they got a big bailout last decade. And that means the two cronyist firms are now somewhat constrained. They can’t lobby, for instance (though Republicans and Democrats still seek to expand subsidies in response to campaign cash from other housing-related lobbyists).

But the worst news is that there are people in the Trump Administration who want to go back to the bad ol’ pre-bailout days.

The Wall Street Journal opined on the issue as Trump prepared to take office. The editorial noted that the implicit government guarantee for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac led to an explicit bailout.

Fan and Fred’s owners feasted for decades on an implied taxpayer guarantee before the housing crisis. Since everyone knew the two government-created mortgage giants would receive federal help in a crisis, they were able to run enormous risks and still borrow cheaply as they came to own or guarantee $5 trillion of mortgage paper. When the housing market went south, taxpayers had to stage a rescue in 2008 and poured nearly $190 billion into the toxic twins.

As part of that bailout and the subsequent “conservatorship,” Fannie and Freddie still get to operate, and they still have a big implicit subsidy that allows near-automatic profits (at least until and unless there’s another big hiccup in the housing market), but the Treasury Department gets those profits.

Needless to say, this upsets the shareholders. They bought stock so they could get a slice of the undeserved profits generated by the Fannie/Freddie cronyist business model.

They claim going back to the pre-bailout days would be a form of privatization, but the WSJ editorial correctly warns that it’s not pro-free market to allow these two government-created companies to distort housing markets with their government-granted favors, preferences, and subsidies.

…the expectation that Treasury secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin is going to revive the Beltway model of public risk and private reward. …private shareholders of these so-called government-sponsored enterprises keep pretending that something other than the government is responsible for their income streams. As if anyone would buy their guarantees—or give them cheap financing—if Uncle Sam weren’t standing behind them. …what they really want is to liberate for themselves the profits that flow from a duopoly backed by taxpayers. …We’re all for businesses getting out of government control—unless they’re playing with taxpayer money. Americans were told that Fannie and Freddie were safe for years before the last crisis. The right answer is to shut them down.

Amen. Not just shut them down, dump them in the Potomac River.

The Wall Street Journal then revisited the issue early last year, once again expressing concern that the Treasury Secretary wants to go back to the days of unchecked cronyism.

Fannie Mae is again going hat in hand to taxpayers… Washington should take this news as a kick in the keister to finally start winding down the mortgage giant and its busted brother, Freddie Mac . But the Trump Administration seems to be moving in the opposite direction. …The pair, now in “conservatorship,”…were left in limbo. Hedge funds bought up their shares, betting they could pressure Washington into bringing back the old business model of public risk and private reward. …Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told the Senate Banking Committee: “I think it’s critical that we have a 30-year mortgage. I don’t believe that the private markets on their own could support it.” But many countries have robust housing markets and ownership rates without a 30-year mortgage guarantee. Mr. Mnuchin sounds like his predecessor, Democrat Jack Lew. Wasn’t Donald Trump elected to eliminate crony capitalism?

This issue is now heating up, with reports indicating that the Treasury Secretary is pushing to restore the moral hazard-based system that caused so much damage last decade.

The Trump administration is at war with itself over who should take the lead in the reform of the government-backed mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac… The battle centers on whether the Treasury Department should continue to advocate what it views as a plan for the future of the mortgage companies or cede control of those efforts to the incoming chief of the Federal Housing Financial Agency (FHFA), economist Mark Calabria.

The good news is that Trump has nominated a sensible person to head FHFA, which has some oversight authority over Fannie and Freddie.

And it’s also good news that some of the economic people at the White House understand the danger of loosening the current limits on Fannie and Freddie.

White House economic officials…are seeking to prevent a repeat of the risk-taking activities by the companies that contributed to the mortgage bubble, leading to its 2008 collapse and $200 billion government bailout. These officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also say any reform must have the blessing of Calabria, a long-time libertarian economist and frequent critic of the outfit’s pre-crisis business model. ..He is also wary of returning Fannie and Freddie to their previous incarnations as private companies that have shareholders, but also receive backing from the federal government if they get in trouble as they did in 2008.

But it seems that the Treasury Department has some officials who – just like their predecessors in the Obama Administration – learned nothing from the financial crisis.

They want to give Fannie and Freddie free rein, perhaps in order to help some speculator buddies.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and his top house advisor Craig Phillips, have so far taken the lead… In January, acting director of the Federal Housing Agency Joseph Otting privately told employees about plans…, referring to Mnuchin’s past statements on the matter… Mnuchin also has business ties with at least one of the major investors in the GSE’s stock that has benefited amid the speculation… Paulson – who has stakes in the GSE’s preferred class of stock — has also submitted a proposal… A key feature of the framework touted by Mnuchin, Phillips, Otting and Paulson is that both Fannie and Freddie would have some backing from the federal government in times of emergency while remaining public companies, a business model similar to the one the GSEs operated with before 2008.

Given the Treasury Department’s bad performance on other issues, I’m not surprised that they’re on the wrong side on this issue as well.

Tobias Peter of the American Enterprise Institute outlines the correct approach.

The GSEs, however, do very little that cannot be done – and is not already done – by the private sector. In addition, these institutions pose a significant financial risk to U.S. taxpayers. Weighing this cost against the minimal benefits makes the case that the GSEs should be eliminated. …regulators have tilted the playing field in favor of the GSEs. …GSE borrowers can thus take on more debt to offset higher prices. With inventories lower than ever, this extra debt ends up driving prices even higher, creating a vicious cycle of more debt, higher prices, greater risk and, ironically, more demand for the GSEs. What keeps the GSEs in business are the same failed housing policies that brought us the last financial crisis. The GSEs are not needed in the housing market – and they have become detrimental to the market’s long-term health. They could be eliminated… This would create space for the re-emergence of an active private mortgage-backed securities market that ensures a safer and more stable housing finance system with access for all while letting taxpayers off the hook.

Mr. Peter is correct.

Here’s a flowchart that shows what happened and the choice we now face.

At the risk of stating the obvious, real privatization is the right approach. This would mean an end to the era of special favors and subsidies.

  • No taxpayers guarantees for mortgage-backed securities
  • No special exemption from complying with SEC red tape.
  • No more special tax favors such as special exemptions.

Sadly, I’m not holding my breath for any of this to happen.

The real battle in DC is between conservatorship and fake privatization (which really should be called turbo-charged and lobbyist-fueled cronyism).

And if that’s the case, then the obvious choice is to retain the status quo.

P.S. This is a secondary issue, but it’s worth noting that Fannie and Freddie like to squander money. Here are some excerpts from a report published by the Washington Free Beacon.

Fannie Mae is charging taxpayers millions for upgrades to its new headquarters, including $250,000 for a chandelier. The inspector general for the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which acts as a conservator for the mortgage lender, recently noted $32 million in questionable costs in an audit for Fannie Mae’s new headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C. …The inspector general reported that costs for the new headquarters have “risen dramatically,” to $171 million, up from $115 million when the consolidated headquarters was announced in 2015. …After the inspector general inquired about the chandelier, officials scrapped plans for a $150,000 “hanging key sculpture,” and $985,000 for “decorative screens” in a conference room.

The bottom line is that Fannie and Freddie, at best, undermine prosperity by diverting money from productive investment, and, at worst, they saddle the nation with financial crisis.

They should be shut down, not resuscitated.

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Since trade promotes prosperity, I want increased market-driven, cross-border commerce between China and the United States.

But you can see in this CNBC interview that I’m worried about achieving that outcome given protectionism from President Trump and mercantilism from President Xi in China.

There’s never much chance to elaborate in short interviews, so here’s some additional analysis on the key points.

1. China’s economy is weak because of insufficient liberalization.

I have written about how China got great results – especially huge reductions in poverty – thanks to partial economic liberalization last century. But those reforms were just a step in the right direction. The country currently ranks only #107 according to Economic Freedom of the World, largely because so much of the economy is hampered by subsidies, regulation, protectionism, and cronyism. Sweeping pro-market reforms are needed if China’s leaders want their country to become rich.

2. Trump’s unthinking protectionism hurts both sides, but China may be more vulnerable.

I mentioned in the interview that Trump’s protectionism meant that he was harming both nations. This is what always happens with protectionism, so I wasn’t saying anything insightful. But it is quite likely that China will suffer more because its economy doesn’t have the flexibility and durability of America’s more market-oriented system.

That is one of the conclusion from a recent news report.

Policymakers in Europe have spared no effort to emphasize that there can be no winners in an escalated trade conflict between the United States and China. But a fresh study shows there are several beneficiaries. …But a study by research network EconPol Europe suggests such an assertion isn’t quite true — in fact, it isn’t true at all. The survey analyzes the impact of tariffs imposed by the US on China and the effect of China’s retaliatory tariffs. …The EconPol Europe study calculates that Chinese exporters are bearing approximately 75 percent of the costs… in Asia, Vietnam has been gaining the most from firms relocating their production away from China. Malaysia, Singapore and India have also been profiting from this development.

3. China’s cronyism presents a challenge for supporters of unilateral free trade.

I’m a supporter of unilateral free trade. America should eliminate all trade barriers, even if other nations want to hurt themselves by maintaining their restrictions. That being said, it’s not genuine free trade if another country has direct or indirect subsidies for its companies. As I noted in the interview, some economists say we shouldn’t worry since the net result is a wealth transfer from China’s taxpayers to America’s consumers. On the other hand, that approach means that some American workers and companies are being harmed. And if supporters of free markets are upset when American workers and companies are hurt by domestic cronyism, we also should be upset when the same thing happens because of foreign cronyism.

The challenge, of course, is whether you can use trade barriers to target only cronyism. I worry that such an effort would get hijacked by protectionists, though Professor Martin Feldstein makes a good argument in the Wall Street Journal that it’s the right approach.

China’s strategy is to give large government subsidies to state-owned companies and supplement their research with technology stolen from American and other Western companies. …That is the real reason why the Trump administration has threatened tariffs of 25% on $200 billion of Chinese exports to the U.S.—nearly half the total—unless Beijing reforms its policies. …The purpose of the tariffs is not to reduce the bilateral trade deficit but to counter Chinese technology theft and forced transfer. …the U.S. could impose heavier tariffs and other economic penalties in order to force China to play by the rules, ending its attempt to dominate global markets through subsidies and technology theft.

4. Trump should have used the World Trade Organization to encourage Chinese liberalization.

I wrote last year that the President would enjoy more success if he used the WTO to apply pressure on China.

It’s not just me making this claim. Here are some excerpts from a story in the Washington Post.

Pressure from Europe and Japan is amplifying the president’s vocal complaints about Chinese trade practices… “it wasn’t a Trump issue; it was a world issue,” said Jorge Guajardo, …a former Mexican ambassador to China. “Everybody’s tired of the way China games the trading system and makes promises that never amount to anything.” …Germany and the United Kingdom joined the United States this year in tightening limits on Chinese investment. …In September, trade ministers from the United States, European Union and Japan issued a joint statement that blasted the use of subsidies in turning “state owned enterprises into national champions and setting them loose in global markets.” The statement…also rejected forced technology transfer… The United States did win E.U. and Japanese support for a complaint to the WTO alleging China has violated U.S. intellectual property rights. But rather than use the global trade body for a broader attack on China, the administration has demanded changes in the way the organization operates. To critics, the administration missed an opportunity to marshal China’s trading partners behind an across-the-board indictment of its state-led economy.

5. The imperfect Trans-Pacific Partnership was an opportunity to pressure China to reduce cronyism.

Because of my concerns about regulatory harmonization, I wasn’t grievously disappointed when the United States chose not to participate in the TPP, but I fully recognized that the pact had very positive features. Including the pressure it would have placed on China to shift toward markets and away from cronyism.

6. Additional Chinese reform is the ideal outcome, both for China and the rest of the world.

Three years ago, I wrote that China needs a Reagan-style revolution of economic liberalization. That’s still true today. The bottom line is that China’s leaders should look at the progress that was achieved last century when the economy was partially liberalized and decide that the time is ripe for the free-market version of a great leap forward. In other words, the goal should be great economic success, not modest economic success.

I’ll conclude by pointing out that I don’t want China to copy the United States, even though that would be a step in the right direction.

According to data from Economic Freedom of the World, there’s a much better role model.

Indeed, I would like the United States to copy Hong Kong as well.

The recipe for prosperity is the same all over the world. The challenge is getting politicians to do what’s best for citizens rather than what’s best for themselves.

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When I think of over-bearing governments with myopic enforcement of silly rules, I obviously think of the United States, especially the IRS, EEOC, FDA, and EPA.

And I also think of Germany, Japan, and other straight-laced societies.

But I don’t think of Canada. After all, that’s the home of Dudley Do-Right. Canadians are too nice to do dumb things!

However, I shouldn’t be basing my views on a cartoon from my childhood. It seems that Canadians are quite capable of bizarre behavior. At least when you look at their legal system.

Let’s review three additional examples.

I’ve written about some of the mistakes that American states (California and Colorado, for instance) have made when legalizing marijuana. Well, there are similar mistakes in Canada according to the Washington Post.

When the government launched Canada’s official recreational-pot market on Oct. 17, it was banking on the idea that many users would prefer to buy legally and that the black market would quickly begin to fade. …things aren’t going as expected. …a month after legalization, more than a third of Canadian cannabis users said they were still buying from their regular dealers and hadn’t even tried the legal system. Five illegal sellers in Quebec told The Washington Post their sales are slightly up.

It turns out that the legal system is a mess of harsh regulation.

In 2015, when the government first committed to legalization, many of them planned to apply to open private shops. “All of us thought, ‘Okay . . . I’m going to be able to come out of the shadows and I’m going to be able to pay taxes,’ ” David said. “As time went on, it became clear that’s not what they were after.” In Quebec and several other Canadian provinces, all cannabis stores are government-run, leaving no path to legality… said Lewis Koski, former director of the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division and now a consultant on legalization. “I can’t think of a state here in the U.S. that has a government-control model similar to . . . Canada’s.” Even in provinces that do allow private shops or dispensaries, including Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, small businesses face high barriers. It costs almost $5,000 just to apply for a license, and if approved, $23,000 each year thereafter in regulatory fees, with provinces often adding their own charges.

Let’s now look at a government-enforced Canadian cartel.

The maple syrup farmers of Québec have been saddled with compulsory membership to the Federation of Québec Maple Syrup Producers (FPAQ, according to the native French abbreviation) since 1990. The Federation holds monopoly rights over all maple syrup produced in the province, controlling wholesale distribution and prices. Anyone who dares to sell more than five litres of their boiled tree sap on their own farm or to local grocery stores faces a prison sentence and a fine of hundreds of thousands of dollars. …Angele Grenier and her husband, decades-long syrup farmers, have been smuggling their contraband syrup to the neighboring province of New Brunswick. In the dark of the night, they load barrels onto trucks and sneak across the province border to market freedom. For this terrible black market act of choosing their own customers and prices, Angele is one of Canada’s most wanted women. She has appealed the charges brought against her by the FPAQ, and her case is being taken up by the Supreme Court.

Maybe Canadian syrup smugglers can learn lessons from Norwegian butter smugglers?

Last but not least, the Toronto Star reports that Canadian law enforcement is capable of government thuggery.

At about 5 p.m. on May 13, 2009, Kosoian stepped on the down escalator at a subway station in Laval. She was heading to her history class at a university in downtown Montreal. Kosoian had used that same escalator almost every day for four years. She knew that at the front of the escalator, as well as at a spot halfway down, were yellow pictograms that said, “Caution … hold handrail.” She deemed the pictogram nothing more than a warning or recommendation. Besides, the H1N1 virus was making the rounds, and Kosoian considered the handrail a cesspool of microbes. …A police officer…stopped in front of Kosoian on the step below when the escalator had taken her about halfway down. The officer, Fabio Camacho, …ordered her to hold the handrail. Kosoian says she responded: “It’s my right to hold the handrail or not to hold it.” …when Kosoian reached the bottom of the escalator, Camacho and his partner, the officer who initially walked past Kosoian, grabbed her by the arms and took her to a nearby locked room that also contained a jail cell. …Camacho and his partner cuffed Kosoian’s hands behind her back and sat her in a chair. He searched her bag, found her driver’s licence and began writing her two tickets: a $100 fine for not holding the handrail, and a $320 fine for obstructing the work of a police officer.

It’s quite possible that Kosoian was being obnoxious and baiting the cops, but none of that changes the fact that not holding a handrail shouldn’t be a criminal offense.

Do cops in Canada bust into people’s houses to see if mattress tags are still attached (though perhaps only the U.S. is dumb enough to have such a rule)?

Interestingly, this episode from 2009 is now going to the Canadian Supreme Court.

The Laval police force and the transit agency…pressed for the fines to be paid, and Kosoian’s refusal triggered a municipal court hearing in May 2011. In March 2012, Judge Florent Bisson acquitted Kosoian of the tickets… Kosoian…launched a lawsuit against Camacho, the STM and the City of Laval. In August 2015, the Quebec Court dismissed it with a legal tongue lashing. …She appealed and, on Dec. 5, 2017, the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled against her in a 2-1 decision. …Kosoian and her lawyer again appealed, this time to the Supreme Court. …the Supreme Court has only granted about 10 per cent of the 500 or so requests for appeals it receives each year. So Thomas Slade, a lawyer who is not involved in the case, says he was initially surprised when the court agreed to hear Kosoian.

I’m not overflowing with sympathy for Ms. Kosoian, but there’s not much doubt that getting rid of stupid laws is the best way of avoiding this type of mess.

I’ll close with two observations. First, Americans can’t throw stones at our Canadian friends since we live in a glass house.

Second, Canada obviously needs to change some of its silly laws, but I don’t want this to be interpreted as an indictment of the entire country (notwithstanding Prime Minister Zoolander).

In recent decades, Canada has dealt with several issues (spending restraintwelfare reformcorporate tax reform, bank bailoutsregulatory budgeting, the tax treatment of saving, school choice, and privatization of air traffic control) in a very sensible fashion.

P.S. Though a Canadian politician is eligible for the hypocrite-of-the-century award.

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