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Archive for the ‘Easy money’ Category

Whenever I narrate videos lasting longer than nine minutes, such as my three videos on tax havens or my video on international corporate taxation, I often get backhanded compliments along the lines of “that was good, but it would be even better if you said it in five minutes.”

So it is with considerable envy that I offer up this video about Europe’s fiscal/financial/monetary mess. Even though it lasts longer than nine minutes, I suspect it will keep everyone’s attention.

I’m not fully endorsing the contents of the video. Mr. McWilliams, for instance, probably has a confused IMF-type definition of austerity. But I definitely agree with him that policy is driven by the interests of the elite.

In any event, the production values of the video are first rate. Perhaps not in the same league as Part I and Part II of the Hayek v Keynes video set, but still remarkably well done.

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I’ve linked before to Professor George Selgin’s masterful video on the Federal Reserve’s horrible track record, and I’ve done my own video on the origin of central banking.

These types of posts often generate questions about what reforms we should support, and a lot of people ask about the gold standard. I’m not a monetary economist, so I’m not in a position to give competent answers. Fortunately, Prof. Selgin has decided to provide a very useful analysis of the issue.

Writing for a British paper, he explains that a genuine gold standard worked very well before World War I, but it probably wouldn’t work today because governments are so untrustworthy.

Of all the reasons usually given for condemning the gold standard, perhaps the most common is the claim that it was to blame for the Great Depression. What responsible politician, gold’s critics ask rhetorically, wants to relive the 1930s? But the criticism misses its mark. Fans of the gold standard are no more anxious to repeat the 1930s than their critics are. Their nostalgia is instead for the interval of exceptional international monetary stability that prevailed from the mid-1870s until World War I. That was the era of the classical gold standard – a standard policed by the citizens of participating countries, all of whom were able to convert their nations’ paper money into gold. This classical gold standard can have played no part in the Great Depression for the simple reason that it vanished during World War I, when most participating central banks suspended gold payments. (The US, which entered the war late, settled for a temporary embargo on gold exports.) Having cut their gold anchors, the belligerent nations’ central banks proceeded to run away, so that by the war’s end money stocks and price levels had risen substantially, if not dramatically, throughout the old gold standard zone. …the gold standard that failed so catastrophically in the 1930s wasn’t the gold standard that some Republicans admire: it was the cut-rate gold standard that Great Britain managed to cobble together in the 20s – a gold standard designed not to follow the rules of the classical gold standard but to allow Great Britain to break the old rules and get away with it. …the collapse of the gold-exchange standard forever undermined the public’s confidence in governments’ monetary promises; and absent such confidence there can be no question of a credible, government-sponsored gold standard, classical or otherwise. Sometimes with monetary systems, as with life, you can’t go home again.

I’m also glad that he explains that the gold standard was not responsible for the Great Depression. If you want to know more about that issue, including the damaging impact of statist policies by Hoover and FDR, this video is an excellent introduction.

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Nothing compares to the depth and substance of Professor George Selgin’s scholarly take-down of the Federal Reserve, but this video by a local libertarian has a very authentic feel.

Julie lists 10 reasons to dislike the Fed.

1.    The Fed has too much power.
2.    The Fed has devalued the currency.
3.    The Fed hurts the poor and middle class.
4.    The Fed is unaccountable.
5.    The Fed destabilizes the economy.
6.    The Fed is too secretive.
7.    The Fed benefits special interests.
8.    The Fed is unconstitutional.
9.    The Fed facilitates bailouts.
10.    The Fed encourages deficit spending.

If I want to nit-pick, I’m not sure that I agree with number 8 since the Constitution gives the federal government the power to coin money. I guess it depends how one interprets that particular power.

Also, I suspect politicians would waste just as much money even if the Fed didn’t exist, so number 10 may be a bit superfluous.

The main argument against the Fed is number 5. Looking at the economic chaos of the 1930s and 1970s, as well as the recent economic crisis, it is no exaggeration to say that the Federal Reserve deserves the lion’s share of the blame.

For those that like monetary policy, here’s my video that looks at the origin of central banking.

And I can’t resist including a link to the famous “Ben Bernank” QE2 video that was a viral smash.

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Europe is in the midst of a fiscal crisis caused by too much government spending, yet many of the continent’s politicians want the European Central Bank to purchase the dodgy debt of reckless welfare states such as Spain, Italy, Greece, and Portugal in order to prop up these big government policies.

So it’s especially noteworthy that economists at the European Central Bank have just produced a study showing that government spending is unambiguously harmful to economic performance. Here is a brief description of the key findings.

…we analyse a wide set of 108 countries composed of both developed and emerging and developing countries, using a long time span running from 1970-2008, and employing different proxies for government size… Our results show a significant negative effect of the size of government on growth. …Interestingly, government consumption is consistently detrimental to output growth irrespective of the country sample considered (OECD, emerging and developing countries).

There are two very interesting takeaways from this new research. First, the evidence shows that the problem is government spending, and that problem exists regardless of whether the budget is financed by taxes or borrowing. Unfortunately, too many supposedly conservative policy makers fail to grasp this key distinction and mistakenly focus on the symptom (deficits) rather than the underlying disease (big government).

The second key takeaway is that Europe’s corrupt political elite is engaging in a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which is when one bad government policy is used to justify another bad government policy. In this case, they undermined prosperity by recklessly increasing the burden of government spending, and they’re now using the resulting fiscal crisis as an excuse to promote inflationary monetary policy by the European Central Bank.

The ECB study, by contrast, shows that the only good answer is to reduce the burden of the public sector. Moreover, the research also has a discussion of the growth-maximizing size of government.

… economic progress is limited when government is zero percent of the economy (absence of rule of law, property rights, etc.), but also when it is closer to 100 percent (the law of diminishing returns operates in addition to, e.g., increased taxation required to finance the government’s growing burden – which has adverse effects on human economic behaviour, namely on consumption decisions).

This may sound familiar, because it’s a description of the Rahn Curve, which is sort of the spending version of the Laffer Curve. This video explains.

The key lesson in the video is that government is far too big in the United States and other industrialized nations, which is precisely what the scholars found in the European Central Bank study.

Another interesting finding in the study is that the quality and structure of government matters.

Growth in government size has negative effects on economic growth, but the negative effects are three times as great in non-democratic systems as in democratic systems. …the negative effect of government size on GDP per capita is stronger at lower levels of institutional quality, and ii) the positive effect of institutional quality on GDP per capita is stronger at smaller levels of government size.

The simple way of thinking about these results is that government spending doesn’t do as much damage in a nation such as Sweden as it does in a failed state such as Mexico.

Last but not least, the ECB study analyzes various budget process reforms. There’s a bit of jargon in this excerpt, but it basically shows that spending limits (presumably policies similar to Senator Corker’s CAP Act or Congressman Brady’s MAP Act) are far better than balanced budget rules.

…we use three indices constructed by the European Commission (overall rule index, expenditure rule index, and budget balance and debt rule index). …The former incorporates each index individually whereas the latter includes interacted terms between fiscal rules and government size proxies. Particularly under the total government expenditure and government spending specifications…we find statistically significant positive coefficients on the overall rule index and the expenditure rule index, meaning that having these fiscal numerical rules improves GDP growth for these set of EU countries.

This research is important because it shows that rules focusing on deficits and debt (such as requirements to balance the budget) are not as effective because politicians can use them as an excuse to raise taxes.

At the risk of citing myself again, the number one message from this new ECB research is that lawmakers – at the very least – need to follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule and make sure government spending grows slower than the private sector. Fortunately, that can happen, as shown in this video.

But my Golden Rule is just a minimum requirement. If politicians really want to do the right thing, they should copy the Baltic nations and implement genuine spending cuts rather than just reductions in the rate of growth in the burden of government.

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There’s a rather simple solution to Europe’s fiscal crisis, but politicians will never do the right thing unless every other option is exhausted.

That’s why American taxpayers should not be involved in any sort of European bailout, either directly or indirectly.

This cartoon captures my sentiment.

At the risk of being picky, however, I would replace “Fed” with “USA/IMF” or something like that.

As I explained a few days ago, the Federal Reserve’s recent announcement that it will provide dollar liquidity to Europe is not necessarily objectionable. After all, the Europeans have to pay us back if they borrow dollars, with interest, at current exchange rates.

Yes, I worry European politicians may interpret the Fed’s actions as a signal that they can defer long-overdue reforms, and I also worry that it might be a precursor for easy-money policies in the future.

But the real threat to American taxpayers is that the International Monetary Fund may provide more bailouts to Europe.

I keep explaining that the only solution is for Europe’s welfare states to copy the Baltic nations and actually cut spending, but that will never happen if European politicians think that they can get an IMF handout (and thus shift some of their bad fiscal policy onto the backs of American taxpayers).

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In hopes of stopping investor panic about Europe’s fiscal crisis, the world’s major central banks just announced that they will do whatever is needed to ensure financial markets don’t freeze up.

This could be an appropriate and relatively benign use of the lender-of-last-resort powers, or it could signal another round of reckless easy money and quantitative easing.

I’m skeptical of the Fed and other central banks, but I don’t want to play back-seat driver on monetary policy. Instead, I want to focus on the underlying issue, which is whether there is any alternative to immediate – and real – spending cuts.

Maybe there is some way to muddle through, but I think the answer is no. Easy money from central banks is not a solution. Bailouts from the IMF or some other entity are not the solution.

In this interview with Neil Cavuto, I explain that more bailouts won’t work and that Europe’s welfare states should copy the Baltic nations and shrink the burden of government spending.

One point I made deserves to be emphasized. We wouldn’t be in the current mess if the political elite at the IMF and in Europe and the United States had followed my sage advice and rejected the original bailout for Greece.

The Wall Street Journal agrees. Here’s a passage from today’s editorial page.

Europe’s original sin in this crisis was not letting Greece default, remaining in the euro but shrinking its debt load as it reformed its economy. The example would have sent a useful message of discipline to countries and creditors alike. The fear at the time was that a default would spread the contagion of higher bond rates, but those rates have soared despite the bailouts of Greece and Portugal.

Sadly, I expect more bad policies. Politicians are addicted to big government, so they’ll always take the primrose path of bailouts and easy money as an alternative to fiscal restraint. Especially when the United States is a source of laughably bad advice from the clowns in the Obama Administration.

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As demonstrated by the new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, there are five key lessons to learn from the fiscal crisis in Europe.

Unfortunately, Europe’s despicable political class has not learned from their mistakes. They are not taking the simple and obvious steps that are needed to address the problems of spendthrift governments.

Instead, they want to compound bad fiscal policy with bad monetary policy by having the European Central Bank purchase even more bonds issued by the continent’s most decrepit welfare states.

I warned last year that this was a big mistake and I’m glad to see that the issue is now getting more attention. Here’s some of what the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial this morning.

Only weeks into his new job as president of the European Central Bank, the Italian is being portrayed along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the main—the only—obstacle to saving the euro zone. If only the ECB would print a few trillion euros to buy the debt of spendthrift European countries, all will be well. Hang in there, Mr. Draghi, and you too, Chancellor. Don’t let the French, the British and the Yanks, the euro-pundits and the other blabbering bullies for bailouts get you down. Someone needs to defend the principle of central bank independence and price stability. The ECB has been by far the most effective part of the euro system since its founding. It shouldn’t squander that legacy now by taking on the debts of spendthrift governments that are the real cause of this crisis. It’s true that the ECB has already become a little bit pregnant in buying sovereign bonds, first taking on Greek, Irish and Portuguese debt, and this summer Spanish and Italian bonds. A week ago Friday, the ECB held €187 billion worth of country bonds. …So far, the ECB’s bond purchases have been limited enough that the central bank has been able to “sterilize” them, meaning they are offset by withdrawing money elsewhere in the banking system and haven’t added to the overall supply of money. But a multitrillion euro program would make sterilization impossible and would become a money-printing exercise. …If the Germans and ECB do write a blank check, then the balance of power within the euro zone will shift markedly, and perhaps irreversibly, in favor of the spenders. Even if this prevented short-term panic, it would merely postpone the day of reckoning and leave Europe worse off in the medium and long term. Without a system that can enforce spending restraint, borrowing discipline and economic reform, all the ECB bond-buying in the world won’t save the euro, and the independence of the ECB itself will become another casualty of the crisis.

The mess in Europe is like a slow-motion train wreck. It’s easy to see it won’t work, but that doesn’t stop the politicians from doing the wrong thing.

Indeed, I predicted most of the bad policies. But it doesn’t require much insight to know that statism won’t work, as I acknowledged in my I-told-you-so post.

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Welcome Instapundit readers: If you want a longer-term perspective on the Fed’s misdeeds, this George Selgin analysis is highly recommended.

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In a move that some are calling QE3, the Federal Reserve announced yesterday that it will engage in a policy called “the twist” – selling short-term bonds and buying long-term bonds in hopes of artificially reducing long-term interest rates. If successful, this policy (we are told) will incentivize more borrowing and stimulate growth.

I’ve freely admitted before that it is difficult to identify the right monetary policy, but it certainly seems like this policy is – at best – an ineffective gesture. This is why the Fed’s various efforts to goose the economy with easy money have been described as “pushing on a string.”

Here are two related questions that need to be answered.

1. Is the economy’s performance being undermined by high long-term rates?

Considering that interest rates are at very low levels already, it seems rather odd to claim that the economy will suddenly rebound if they get pushed down a bit further. Japan has had very low interest rates (both short-run and long-run) for a couple of decades, yet the economy has remained stagnant.

Perhaps the problem is bad policy in other areas. After all, who wants to borrow money, expand business, create jobs, and boost output if Washington is pursuing a toxic combination of excessive spending and regulation, augmented by the threat of higher taxes.

2. Is the economy hampered by lack of credit?

Low interest rates, some argue, may not help the economy if banks don’t have any money to lend. Yet I’ve already pointed out that banks have more than $1 trillion of excess reserves deposited at the Fed.

Perhaps the problem is that banks don’t want to lend money because they don’t see profitable opportunities. After all, it’s better to sit on money than to lend it to people who won’t pay it back because of an economy weakened by too much government.

The Wall Street Journal makes all the relevant points in its editorial.

The Fed announced that through June 2012 it will buy $400 billion in Treasury bonds at the long end of the market—with six- to 30-year maturities—and sell an equal amount of securities of three years’ duration or less. The point, said the FOMC statement, is to put further “downward pressure on longer-term interest rates and help make broader financial conditions more accommodative.” It’s hard to see how this will make much difference to economic growth. Long rates are already at historic lows, and even a move of 10 or 20 basis points isn’t likely to affect many investment decisions at the margin. The Fed isn’t acting in a vacuum, and any move in bond prices could well be swamped by other economic news. Europe’s woes are accelerating, and every CEO in America these days is worried more about what the National Labor Relations Board is doing to Boeing than he is about the 30-year bond rate. The Fed will also reinvest the principal payments it receives on its asset holdings into mortgage-backed securities, rather than in U.S. Treasurys. The goal here is to further reduce mortgage costs and thus help the housing market. But home borrowing costs are also at historic lows, and the housing market suffers far more from the foreclosure overhang and uncertainty encouraged by government policy than it does from the price of money. The Fed’s announcement thus had the feel of an attempt to show it is doing something to help the economy, even if it can’t do much. …the economy’s problems aren’t rooted in the supply and price of money. They result from the damage done to business confidence and investment by fiscal and regulatory policy, and that’s where the solutions must come. Investors on Wall Street and politicians in Washington want to believe that the Fed can make up for years of policy mistakes. The sooner they realize it can’t, the sooner they’ll have no choice but to correct the mistakes.

Let’s also take this issue to the next level. Some people are explicitly arguing in favor of more “quantitative easing” because they want some inflation. They argue that “moderate” inflation will help the economy by indirectly wiping out some existing debt.

This is a very dangerous gambit. Letting the inflation genie out of the bottle could trigger 1970s-style stagflation. Paul Volcker fires a warning shot against this risky approach in a New York Times column. Here are the key passages.

…we are beginning to hear murmurings about the possible invigorating effects of “just a little inflation.” Perhaps 4 or 5 percent a year would be just the thing to deal with the overhang of debt and encourage the “animal spirits” of business, or so the argument goes. The siren song is both alluring and predictable. …After all, if 1 or 2 percent inflation is O.K. and has not raised inflationary expectations — as the Fed and most central banks believe — why not 3 or 4 or even more? …all of our economic history says it won’t work that way. I thought we learned that lesson in the 1970s. That’s when the word stagflation was invented to describe a truly ugly combination of rising inflation and stunted growth. …What we know, or should know, from the past is that once inflation becomes anticipated and ingrained — as it eventually would — then the stimulating effects are lost. Once an independent central bank does not simply tolerate a low level of inflation as consistent with “stability,” but invokes inflation as a policy, it becomes very difficult to eliminate. …At a time when foreign countries own trillions of our dollars, when we are dependent on borrowing still more abroad, and when the whole world counts on the dollar’s maintaining its purchasing power, taking on the risks of deliberately promoting inflation would be simply irresponsible.

Last but not least, here is my video on the origin of central banking, which starts with an explanation of how currency evolved in the private sector, then describes how governments then seized that role by creating monopoly central banks, and closes with a list of options to promote good monetary policy.

And I can’t resist including a link to the famous “Ben Bernank” QE2 video that was a viral smash.

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I generally try to avoid commenting on monetary policy. Not because I don’t have opinions, but for the simple reason that I don’t follow the issue closely enough to feel fully confident about what I say.

This doesn’t mean I’m happy with Fed Chairman Bernanke. But I’m most likely to be upset that he is making misguided statements about fiscal policy (endorsing the faux stimulus, endorsing bailouts, endorsing tax increases, and siding with Obama on the debt-limit fight).

On monetary policy, as I’ve previously explained, it’s possible that “easy money” is the right approach. I’m skeptical, but I admitted on CNBC that the TIPS data does suggest that future inflation is not a problem.

So with all these caveats out of the way, I don’t embrace everything in this video, which is very critical of the Fed, but it’s amusing and worth sharing.

If you find it even remotely interesting and/or amusing, then you definitely should watch the famous Ben-Bernank-quantitative-easing video.

And if you want to actually understand more about the Federal Reserve and monetary policy, then you should watch this video on the history of the Fed featuring Professor George Selgin.

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Allen Meltzer, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University, writes today in the Wall Street Journal about the Fed’s worrisome announcement that it will continue the easy-money policy of artificially low interest rates.

Professor Meltzer’s key point (at least to me) is that the economy is weak because of too much government intervention and too much federal spending, and you don’t solve those problems with a loose-money policy – especially since banks already are sitting on $1.6 trillion of excess reserves (why lend money when the economy is weak and you may not get repaid?).

Meltzer then outlines some of the reforms that would boost growth, all of which are desirable, albeit a bit tame for my tastes.

…the United States does not have the kind of problems that printing more money will cure. Banks currently hold more than $1.6 trillion of idle reserves at the Fed. Banks can use those idle reserves to create enormous amounts of money. Interest rates on federal funds remain near zero. Longer-term interest rates on Treasurys are at record lows. What reason can there be for adding more excess reserves? The main effect would be a further devaluation of the dollar against competing currencies and gold, followed by a rise in the price of oil and other imports. …Money growth (M2) reached 10% for the past six months, presaging more inflation ahead. …What we need most is confidence in our future. That calls for:

• Reducing corporate tax rates permanently to encourage investment (paid for by closing loopholes).

• Agreeing on long-term reductions in entitlement spending.

• A five-year moratorium on new regulations affecting energy, environment, health and finance.

• An explicit inflation target between zero and 2% to force the Fed to pay more attention to the medium term and to increase public confidence that we will not experience runaway inflation.

The president is wrong to pose the issue as more taxes for millionaires to pay for more redistribution now. That path leads to future crises because higher taxes support the low productivity growth of the welfare state, delay the transition to export-led growth, and do not reduce future budget liabilities enough.

Meltzer’s final point about the futility of class-warfare taxes is very important. He doesn’t use the term, but he’s making a Laffer Curve argument. Simply stated, if punitive tax rates cause investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners to earn/declare less taxable income, then the government won’t collect as much money as predicted by the Joint Committee on Taxation’s simplistic models.

Of course, Obama said in 2008 than he wanted high tax rates for reasons of “fairness,” even if such policies didn’t lead to more tax revenue. That destructive mentality probably helps explain why not only banks, but also companies, are sitting on cash and afraid to make significant investments.

But if you really want to understand how Obama’s policies are causing “regime uncertainty,” this cartoon is spot on.

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To put it mildly, the Federal Reserve has a dismal track record. It bears significant responsibility for almost every major economic upheaval of the past 100 years, including the Great Depression, the 1970s stagflation, and the recent financial crisis. Perhaps the most damning statistic is that the dollar has lost 95 percent of its value since the central bank was created.

Notwithstanding its poor performance, the Federal Reserve seems to get more power over time. But rather than rewarding the central bank for debasing the currency and causing instability, perhaps it’s time to contemplate alternatives. This new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity dives into that issue, exposing the Fed’s poor track record, explaining how central banking evolved, and mentioning possible alternatives.

This video is the first installment of a multi-part series on monetary policy. Subsequent videos will examine possible alternatives to monopoly central banks, including a gold standard, free banking, and monetary rules to limit the Fed’s discretion.

One of the challenges in this field is that opponents of the Fed often are portrayed as cranks. Defenders of the status quo may not have a good defense of the Fed, but they are rather effect in marginalizing critics. Congressman Ron Paul and others are either summarily dismissed or completely ignored.

The implicit assumption in monetary circles is that there is no alternative to central banking and fiat money. Anybody who criticizes the current system therefore is a know-nothing who wants to create some sort of libertarian dystopia featuring banking panics and economic chaos.

To be fair, it certainly might be possible to create a monetary regime that is worse than the Fed. That is why the next videos in this series will offer a careful look at the costs and benefits of possible alternatives.

As they say, stay tuned.

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A lot of guests for this appearance, but I think I got a fair share of airtime. More important, I explained why it is not a good thing for Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve to let the inflation genie out of the bottle.

Monetary policy is one area where I always try to display some humility. While I know the right goal is zero inflation, I realize that achieving that goal requires central bankers to know both the supply of money (not as easy as it used to be) and the demand for money (always a challenge).

This is why I’m skeptical of QE2, but also willing to admit that it might be the right approach (though it grates on me that it is often portrayed as a form of stimulus, which definitely is wrong).

I’ll soon release a video that begins to tackle monetary policy. I don’t want to give away too much right now, but suffice to say that a monopoly central bank run by government is a recipe for mischief.

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The news is going from bad to worse for Ireland. The Irish Independent is reporting that the Swiss Central Bank no longer will accept Irish government bonds as collateral. The story also notes that one of the world’s largest bond firms, PIMCO, is no longer purchasing debt issued by the Irish government.

And this is happening even though (or perhaps because?) Ireland received a big bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (and the IMF’s involvement means American taxpayers are picking up part of the tab).

I’ve already commented on Ireland’s woes, and opined about similar problems afflicting the rest of Europe, but the continuing deterioration of the Emerald Isle deserves further analysis so that American policy makers hopefully grasp the right lessons. Here are five things we should learn from the mess in Ireland.

1. Bailouts Don’t Work – When Ireland’s government rescued depositors by bailing out the nation’s three big banks, they made a big mistake by also bailing out creditors such as bondholders. This dramatically increased the cost of the bank bailout and exacerbated moral hazard since investors are more willing to make inefficient and risky choices if they think governments will cover their losses. And because it required the government to incur a lot of additional debt, it also had the effect of destabilizing the nation’s finances, which then resulted in a second mistake – the bailout of Ireland by the European Union and IMF (a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which occurs when one bad government policy leads to another bad government policy).

American policy makers already have implemented one of the two mistakes mentioned above. The TARP bailout went way beyond protecting depositors and instead gave unnecessary handouts to wealthy and sophisticated companies, executives, and investors. But something good may happen if we learn from the second mistake. Greedy politicians from states such as California and Illinois would welcome a bailout from Uncle Sam, but this would be just as misguided as the EU/IMF bailout of Ireland. The Obama Administration already provided an indirect short-run bailout as part of the so-called stimulus legislation, and this encouraged states to dig themselves deeper in a fiscal hole. Uncle Sam shouldn’t be subsidizing bad policy at the state level, and the mess in Europe is a powerful argument that this counterproductive approach should be stopped as soon as possible.

By the way, it’s worth noting that politicians and international bureaucracies behave as if government defaults would have catastrophic consequences, but Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute explains that there have been more than 200 sovereign defaults in the past 200 years and we somehow avoided Armageddon.

2. Excessive Government Spending Is a Path to Fiscal Ruin – The bailout of the banks obviously played a big role in causing Ireland’s fiscal collapse, but the government probably could have weathered that storm if politicians in Dublin hadn’t engaged in a 20-year spending spree.

The red line in the chart shows the explosive growth of government spending. Irish politicians got away with this behavior for a long time. Indeed, government spending as a share of GDP (the blue line) actually fell during the 1990s because the private sector was growing even faster than the public sector. This bit of good news (at least relatively speaking) stopped about 10 years ago. Politicians began to increase government spending at roughly the same rate as the private sector was expanding. While this was misguided, tax revenues were booming (in part because of genuine growth and in part because of the bubble) and it seemed like bigger government was a free lunch.

Eventually, however, the house of cards collapsed. Revenues dried up and the banks failed, but because the politicians had spent so much during the good times, there was no reserve during the bad times.

American politicians are repeating these mistakes. Spending has skyrocketed during the Bush-Obama year. We also had our version of a financial system bailout, though fortunately not as large as Ireland’s when measured as a share of economic output, so our crisis is likely to occur when the baby boom generation has retired and the time comes to make good on the empty promises to fund Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

3. Low Corporate Tax Rates Are Good, but They Don’t Guarantee Economic Success if other Policies Are Bad – Ireland used to be a success story. They went from being the “Sick Man of Europe” in the early 1980s to being the “Celtic Tiger” earlier this century in large part because policy makers dramatically reformed fiscal policy. Government spending was capped in the late 1980 and tax rates were reduced during the 1990s. The reform of the corporate income tax was especially dramatic. Irish lawmakers reduced the tax rate from 50 percent all the way down to 12.5 percent.

This policy was enormously successful in attracting new investment, and Ireland’s government actually wound up collecting more corporate tax revenue at the lower rate. This was remarkable since it is only in very rare cases that the Laffer Curve means a tax cut generates more revenue for government (in the vast majority of cases, the Laffer Curve simply means that changes in taxable income will have revenue effects that offset only a portion of the revenue effects caused by the change in tax rates).

Unfortunately, good corporate tax policy does not guarantee good economic performance if the government is making a lot of mistakes in other areas. This is an apt description of what happened to Ireland. The silver lining to this sad story is that Irish politicians have resisted pressure from France and Germany and are keeping the corporate tax rate at 12.5 percent. The lesson for American policy makers, of course, is that low corporate tax rates are a very good idea, but don’t assume they protect the economy from other policy mistakes.

4. Artificially Low Interest Rates Encourage Bubbles – No discussion of Ireland’s economic problems would be complete without looking at the decision to join the common European currency. Adopting the euro had some advantages, such as not having to worry about changing money when traveling to many other European nations. But being part of Europe’s monetary union also meant that Ireland did not have flexible interest rates.

Normally, an economic boom drives up interest rates because the plethora of profitable opportunities leads investors demand more credit. But Ireland’s interest rates, for all intents and purposes, were governed by what was happening elsewhere in Europe, where growth was generally anemic. The resulting artificially low interest rates in Ireland helped cause a bubble, much as artificially low interest rates in America last decade led to a bubble.

But if America already had a bubble, what lesson can we learn from Ireland? The simple answer is that we should learn to avoid making the same mistake over and over again. Easy money is a recipe for inflation and/or bubbles. Simply stated, excess money has to go someplace and the long-run results are never pleasant. Yet Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve have launched QE2, a policy explicitly designed to lower interest rates in hopes of artificially juicing the economy.

5. Housing Subsidies Reduce Prosperity – Last but not least, Ireland’s bubble was worsened in part because politicians created an extensive system of preferences that tilted the playing field in the direction of real estate. The combination of these subsidies and the artificially low interest rates caused widespread malinvestment and Ireland is paying the price today.

Since we just endured a financial crisis caused in large part by a corrupt system of housing subsidies for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, American policy makers should have learned this lesson already. But as Thomas Sowell sagely observes, politicians are still fixated on somehow re-inflating the housing bubble. The lesson they should have learned is that markets should determine value, not politics.

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The mid-term elections were a rejection of President Obama’s big-government agenda, but those results don’t necessarily mean better policy. We should not forget, after all, that Democrats rammed through Obamacare even after losing the special election to replace Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts (much to my dismay, my prediction from last January was correct).

Similarly, GOP control of the House of Representatives does not automatically mean less government and more freedom. Heck, it doesn’t even guarantee that things won’t continue to move in the wrong direction. Here are five possible bad policies for 2011, most of which the Obama White House can implement by using executive power.

1. A back-door bailout of the states from the Federal Reserve – The new GOP Congress presumably wouldn’t be foolish enough to bail out profligate states such as California and Illinois, but that does not mean the battle is won. Ben Bernanke already has demonstrated that he is willing to curry favor with the White House by debasing the value of the dollar, so what’s to stop him from engineering a back-door bailout by having the Federal Reserve buy state bonds? The European Central Bank already is using this tactic to bail out Europe’s welfare states, so a precedent already exists for this type of misguided policy. To make matters worse, there’s nothing Congress can do – barring legislation that Obama presumably would veto – to stop the Fed from this awful policy.

2. A front-door bailout of Europe by the United States – Welfare states in Europe are teetering on the edge of insolvency. Decades of big government have crippled economic growth and generated mountains of debt. Ireland and Greece already have been bailed out, and Portugal and Spain are probably next on the list, to be followed by countries such as Italy and Belgium. So why should American taxpayers worry about European bailouts? The unfortunate answer is that American taxpayers will pick up a big chunk of the tab if the International Monetary Fund is involved. Indeed, this horse already has escaped the barn. The United States provides the largest amount of  subsidies to the International Monetary Fund, and the IMF took part in the bailouts of Greece and Ireland. The Senate did vote against having American taxpayers take part in the bailout of Greece, but that turned out to be a symbolic exercise. Sadly, that’s probably what we can expect if and when there are bailouts of the bigger European welfare states.

3. Republicans getting duped by Obama and supporting a VAT – The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Obama Administration is contemplating a reduction in the corporate income tax. This sounds like a great idea, particularly since America’s punitive corporate tax rate is undermining competitiveness and hindering job creation. But what happens if Obama demands that Congress approve a value-added tax to “pay for” the lower corporate tax rate? This would be a terrible deal, sort of like a football team trading a great young quarterback for a 35-year old lineman. The VAT would give statists a money machine that they need to turn the United States into a French-style welfare state. This type of national sales tax would only be acceptable if the personal and corporate income taxes were abolished – and the Constitution was amended to make sure the federal government never again could tax what we earn and produce. But that’s not the deal Obama would offer. My fingers are crossed that Obama doesn’t offer to swap a lower corporate income tax for a VAT, particularly since we already know that some Republicans are susceptible to the VAT.

4. Regulatory imposition of global warming policy – This actually is an issue we needed to start worrying about before this year. The Obama Administration already is in the process of trying to use regulatory edicts to impose Kyoto-style restrictions on energy use, and 2011 may be a pivotal year for this issue. This issue is troubling because of the potential impact on economic growth, but it also represents an assault on the rule of law since the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency are engaging in regulatory overreach because they did not have enough support to get so-called climate change legislation through Congress. The new GOP majority presumably will try to use the “power of the purse” to limit the EPA’s power grab, and the outcome of that fight could have dramatic implications for job creation and competitiveness.

5. U.N. control of the Internet – The Federal Communications Commission just engaged in an unprecedented power grab as part of its “Net Neutrality” initiative, so we already have bad news for both Internet consumers and America’s telecommunications industry. But it may get worse. The bureaucrats at the United Nations, conspiring with autocratic governments, have created an Internet Governance Forum in hopes of grabbing power over the online world. This has caused considerable angst, leading Vint Cerf, one of inventors of the Internet (sorry, Al Gore) to warn: “We don’t believe governments should be allowed to grant themselves a monopoly on Internet governance. The current bottoms-up, open approach works — protecting users from vested interests and enabling rapid innovation. Let’s fight to keep it that way.” International bureaucracies are very skilled at incrementally increasing their authority, so this won’t be a one-year fight. Stopping this power grab will require persistent oversight and a willingness to reject compromises that inevitably give bureaucracies more power and simply set the stage for further demands.

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The Chairman of the Federal Reserve is such a swell guy, but you already would know that if you saw his Facebook page. Well, thanks to his “QE2 plan,” he’s giving the rest of us a very thoughtful Christmas present.

To be fair, I suppose it should be noted that Bernanke’s policy isn’t necessarily a bad idea – but only if you think that there will be future deflation and “quantitative easing” is the way of preventing that from happening. I’m quite skeptical, as explained here, but freely admit that I’m not a monetary policy expert (thanks for catching my mistake, Charlie). But Christmas isn’t the right time for serious discussion, so let’s just enjoy a laugh and keep our fingers crossed that we’re not heading into Jimmy Carter Inflation-land.

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Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is at it again, giving an interview that combines all of the worst features of Keynesian economics. I have an excerpt below from a New York Times report, which features an amazing amount of mistakes in a very short amount of space. Here are three that demand correction.

1. The economy needs less government intervention, not more “government help.” Bernanke doesn’t understand that job creation and entrepreneurship are hurting because politicians are doing too much, yet he wants more interference from Washington.

2. The economy needs less government spending, not Keynesian nonsense about big deficits to boost consumer spending. Bernanke seems to think so-called stimulus schemes for more wasteful spending help the economy, even though those policies failed for Hoover, Roosevelt, Bush, and Obama.

3. The economy needs a strong and stable dollar, not inflationary quantitative easing. Bernanke wants us to believe that low interest rates are the key to growth, but apparently oblivious to the fact that interest rates are very low now (and have been very low in Japan during that country’s 20-year stagnation. Memo to Ben: People don’t invest when they expect to lose money, regardless of interest rates.

Here’s the excerpt about Helicopter Ben’s thinking:

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is stepping up his defense of the Fed’s $600 billion Treasury bond-purchase plan, saying the economy is still struggling to become “self-sustaining” without government help. In a taped interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday night, Bernanke also argued that Congress shouldn’t cut spending or boost taxes given how fragile the economy remains. The Fed chairman said he thinks another recession is unlikely. But he warned that the economy could suffer a slowdown if persistently high unemployment dampens consumer spending. The interview is part of a broad counteroffensive Bernanke has been waging against critics of the bond purchase plan the Fed announced Nov. 3. The purchases are intended to lower long-term interest rates, lift stock prices and encourage more spending to boost the economy.

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Thanks to the folks at the Mises Institute, Professor George Selgin of the University of Georgia (!) has a superb presentation on the failings of the Federal Reserve. George was one of my professors at George Mason University back in the 1980s and is one of the world’s experts on competing currencies. This video is 1,000-times more substantive than the famous “QE2” video I posted last month. Fed bashing is fun, but watch this if you want to understand economics and history.

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Maybe I’m crazy, or maybe I’m just getting into the Christmas spirit, but I saw this photo of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke on the Drudge Report and my mind instantly connected his image with this character from “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.”

This might explain Bernanke’s QE2 policy. I can see a film being released in time for next year’s holiday season: “The Grinch Who Debased the Dollar.”

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I’m utterly envious at how this video has gone viral, but I have to admit that it is quite clever. I don’t think my flat tax videos, for instance, have quite the same flair. In any event, one imagines “the Ben Bernank” is probably not happy about  this production.

If you really want to understand the Federal Reserve’s shortcomings, however, you should read this new Cato Institute working paper. Here’s the abstract.

As the one-hundredth anniversary of the 1913 Federal Reserve Act approaches, we assess whether the nation‘s experiment with the Federal Reserve has been a success or a failure. Drawing on a wide range of recent empirical research, we find the following: (1) The Fed‘s full history (1914 to present) has been characterized by more rather than fewer symptoms of monetary and macroeconomic instability than the decades leading to the Fed‘s establishment. (2) While the Fed‘s performance has undoubtedly improved since World War II, even its postwar performance has not clearly surpassed that of its undoubtedly flawed predecessor, the National Banking system, before World War I. (3) Some proposed alternative arrangements might plausibly do better than the Fed as presently constituted. We conclude that the need for a systematic exploration of alternatives to the established monetary system is as pressing today as it was a century ago.

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I have a column in today’s New York Post, where I pull no punches as I comment on how the rest of the world is increasingly worried about Obama’s policies of easy money and deficit spending. I note that other nations often are guilty of the same mistakes, but that’s no excuse for America sinking to that level.

Along with countries such as Germany, Brazil and South Africa, China’s worried that President Obama and Bernanke will destabilize the global economy by dumping too much money into the system. This distorts trade, creates bubbles and may prompt other nations to engage in similar devaluations. The fact that China is probably guilty of the same thing doesn’t change the fact that America is on the wrong path. …The monetary move is isn’t the only Obama policy causing unease around the globe. Having seen the destructive impact of too much deficit spending in nations such as Greece, Ireland and Spain, policymakers worldwide increasingly recognize that countries need to reduce the burden of government spending to prevent a spread of sovereign-debt crises. Nations such as Germany and the United Kingdom haven’t approached this issue in the best way. Too often, they’re using the fiscal crisis as an excuse to raise taxes rather than make long-overdue reductions in bloated budgets. But at least they recognize that the time has come to back away from the abyss of too much red ink. The United States, by contrast, is on a spending binge of historic proportions. …Some of these fears are overblown. Yes, the Bush-Obama years have dramatically boosted the burden of government, and one obvious symptom of this fiscal excess is a much bigger national debt. But America’s red ink, as a share of GDP, is lower than the comparable levels in many European nations, as well as Japan. But that’s hardly an excuse. We all tell our kids that their friends’ misbehavior is no excuse for them to the wrong thing as well. This is a good rule for the global economy. If China is keeping its currency artificially weak, that doesn’t mean we should do the same thing. If European nations have bigger governments and more debt, that doesn’t mean we should copy their mistakes.

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One of my first blog posts (and the first one to get any attention) highlighted the amusing/embarrassing irony of having Chinese students laugh at Treasury Secretary Geithner when he claimed the United States had a strong-dollar policy.

I suspect that even Tim “Turbotax” Geithner would be smart enough to avoid such a claim today, not after the Fed’s announcement (with the full support of the White House and Treasury) that it would flood the economy with $600 billion of hot money.

As I noted in an earlier post, monetary policy is not nearly as cut and dried as other issues, so I’m reluctant to make sweeping and definitive statements. That being said, I’m fairly sure that the Fed is on the wrong path. Here’s what my colleague Alan Reynolds wrote in the Wall Street Journal about Bernanke’s policy.

Mr. Bernanke…believes (contrary to our past experience with stagflation) that inflation is no danger thanks to economic slack (high unemployment). He reasons that if people can nonetheless be persuaded to expect higher inflation, regardless of the slack, that means interest rates will appear even lower in real terms. If that worked as planned, lower real interest rates would supposedly fix our hangover from the last Fed-financed borrowing binge by encouraging more borrowing. This whole scheme raises nagging questions. Why would domestic investors accept a lower yield on bonds if they expect higher inflation? And why would foreign investors accept a lower yield on U.S. bonds if they expect exchange rate losses on dollar-denominated securities? Why wouldn’t intelligent people shift their investments toward commodities or related stocks (such as mining and related machinery) and either shun, or sell short, long-term Treasurys? And if they did that, how could it possibly help the economy?

The rest of the world seems to share these concerns. The Germans are not big fans of America’s binge of borrowing and easy money. Here’s what Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble had to say in a recent interview.

The American growth model, on the other hand, is in a deep crisis. The United States lived on borrowed money for too long, inflating its financial sector unnecessarily and neglecting its small and mid-sized industrial companies. …I seriously doubt that it makes sense to pump unlimited amounts of money into the markets. There is no lack of liquidity in the US economy, which is why I don’t recognize the economic argument behind this measure. …The Fed’s decisions bring more uncertainty to the global economy. …It’s inconsistent for the Americans to accuse the Chinese of manipulating exchange rates and then to artificially depress the dollar exchange rate by printing money.

The comment about borrowed money has a bit of hypocrisy since German government debt is not much lower than it is in the United States, but the Finance Minister surely is correct about monetary policy. And speaking of China, we now have the odd situation of a Chinese rating agency downgrading U.S. government debt.

The United States has lost its double-A credit rating with Dagong Global Credit Rating Co., Ltd., the first domestic rating agency in China, due to its new round of quantitative easing policy. Dagong Global on Tuesday downgraded the local and foreign currency long-term sovereign credit rating of the US by one level to A+ from previous AA with “negative” outlook.

This development shold be taken with a giant grain of salt, as explained by a Wall Street Journal blogger. Nonetheless, the fact that the China-based agency thought this was a smart tactic must say something about how the rest of the world is beginning to perceive America.

Simply stated, Obama is following Jimmy Carter-style economic policy, so nobody shoud be surprised if the result is 1970s-style stagflation.

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Chairman Ben Bernanke has announced that the Federal Reserve will buy about $600 billion of government bonds as part of what is being called QE2 (because this is the second big stage of “quantitative easing”).

This actually isn’t printing money, but it has the same effect in that it creates more liquidity by putting more money into the financial system. The theory is that all this extra money will drive down interest rates, and that lower interest rates will encourage people to take on more debt to finance additional spending.

There are several reasons why this is a bad idea and one potential argument why it is a good idea.

* It is a bad idea because rising prices are the inevitable result when there is more money chasing the same amount of goods.

* It is a bad idea because it assumes that the economy is weak because of high low interest rates. That is nonsense. Interest rates already are very low. Trying to drive them lower in hopes of stimulating borrowing is like pushing on a string.

* It is a bad idea because you don’t solve bad fiscal and regulatory policy with bad monetary policy. The economy is weak in considerable part because of too much spending, new health care interventions, and the threat of higher taxes. You don’t solve those problems by printing money, just like you don’t make rotting fish taste good with ketchup.

* It is a bad idea because the easy-money policy of artificially low interest rates helped create the housing bubble and financial crisis, and “hair of the dog” is not the right approach.

* It is a bad idea because no nation becomes economically strong with a weak currency.

* It is a bad idea because it may lead to “competitive devaluation,” as other nations copy the Fed’s misguided policy in hopes of keeping their exports affordable.

So what about arguments in favor of the Fed’s policy? There’s only one possible reason to support Bernanke’s policy, and at least one monetarist friend has offered this as justification for what is happening. I hope he’s right.

* The only legitimate argument for quantitative easing is if more money needs to be put in the system to counteract deflation. In other words, if the Fed focuses on its one appropriate responsibility – price stability, and if there is a legitimate concern of falling prices in the future, then an “easy-money” policy today could offset that future deflation.

By the way, some people say that the stock market’s recent performance is a sign that Bernanke’s policy is good for the economy. This is wrong because it confuses portfolio shifting with long-term economic performance. When the Fed creates liquidity, that drives down interest rates. What does that mean for investors? Well, it means that putting money into bonds will yield a lower return, so the only other major option is stocks. That is why Fed policy often leads (seemingly inexplicably) to short-term results that are at odds with the long-term consequences.

Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said the central bank must focus on the U.S. rather than overseas economies when trying to spur the recovery by purchasing an additional $600 billion in Treasuries. …Bernanke came under fire yesterday from officials in Germany, China, and Brazil, who said his plan to pump cash into the banking system may jar other economies and fail to fuel U.S. growth. Critics including Michael Burry, the former hedge-fund manager who predicted the housing market’s plunge, have said Fed policy is encouraging investors to take on too much risk and threatens to undermine the dollar. …“We are showing insufficient stimulus,” Bernanke said yesterday in his remarks, mostly in response to questions. Asset purchases have “the goal of reducing interest rates, providing more stimulus to the economy and, we hope, creating a faster recovery and an inflation rate consistent with long-run stability,” Bernanke said to students.

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Two CNBC stories are linked on the Drudge Report this morning, and they both highlight the growing risk of the Fed’s easy-money policy. The first story discusses whether the dollar will continue to depreciate. Since the “optimist” argument is based on global instability, this is hardly encouraging regardless of what you think will happen to the dollar.

The dollar’s slump could get far worse if the dollar index takes out last year’s low, Robin Griffiths, technical strategist at Cazenove Capital, told CNBC Monday. …”The dollar is being trashed, we’ve actually had effectively devaluation of about 14 percent in the last two months,” Griffiths said. His view is contrary to that of HSBC foreign exchange strategist David Bloom, who told CNBC that a continuation of the currencies war after the G20 might put pressure on risky assets, causing a flight to safety into the dollar.

The Germans certainly are not happy about U.S. monetary policy. The other story reveals that Bernanke’s easy-money policy met with criticism from other nations at the recent G-20 meeting in South Korea.

German Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle on Saturday took issue with what he called a U.S. policy of increasing liquidity, saying it indirectly manipulated exchange rates. The U.S. Federal Reserve is widely expected to embark on a fresh round of asset purchases to prop up the economy. “There was criticism of the American policy of monetary easing, or creating more liquidity,” Bruederle said after a meeting in South Korea of finance officials from the Group of 20 economic powers. “I tried to make clear in my contribution to the discussion that I regard that as the wrong way to go,” he said.

But maybe this image captures the real meaning of what’s happening to the dollar. On a more serious note, the United States is not in danger of becoming another Zimbabwe or Argentina, but there are real reasons to be concerned that political manipulation of monetary policy will bring us back to 1970s-style inflation. At that point, the question becomes whether we get a leader like Reagan who is willing to make the tough choices needed to restore a sound currency.



The Wall Street Journal obviously isn’t happy about the Fed’s policy. Writing about what happened in South Korea, they opine this morning that:

…the clear implication is that the U.S. will continue to print dollars until China and other surplus nations with currencies pegged to the dollar cry uncle and revalue. As for Europe and those countries whose currencies float against the dollar, they’ll have to decide whether to join the Fed’s easing binge or accept rising currencies too. This is a recipe for more currency turmoil, not less. And it is likely to drive more capital, not less, to Asia and elsewhere other than the U.S.

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George Melloan’s column in the Wall Street Journal discusses the new Basel capital standards and correctly observes that 22 years of global banking regulations have not generated good results. This is not because requiring reserves is a bad thing, but rather because such policies do nothing to fix the real problem. In the case of the United States, easy money policy by the Fed and a corrupt system of Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac subsidies caused the housing bubble and resulting financial crisis. Yet these problems have not been addressed, either in the Dodd-Frank bailout bill or the new Basel rules. Indeed, Melloan points out that Fannie and Freddie were exempted from the Dood-Frank legislation.

There’s something to be said for holding banks to higher capital standards, even at the cost of more constrained lending and slower economic growth. But the much-bruited idea that Basel rules will make the world freer of financial crises is highly doubtful, given current political circumstances. The 2008 financial meltdown was not primarily the result of lax regulation but of co-option and abuse of the U.S. financial system by the political class in Washington. The federal government’s “affordable housing” endeavors, beginning in the 1990s, allowed and even forced banks to make highly risky mortgage loans. Those loans were folded into mortgage-backed securities (MBS) sold in vast numbers throughout the world, most promiscuously by two government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Federal Reserve contributed a credit bubble that caused house prices to soar, a classic asset inflation. When the bubble began to deflate in 2007, the bad loans in mortgage securities became poisonous. The MBS market seized up, and financial institutions holding them became illiquid and began to crash. The Lehman Brothers collapse was the biggest shock. The only way Basel standards might have helped prevent this would have been if they had been applied to Fannie and Freddie as well as to banks. They weren’t. President Bill Clinton exempted the two giants from Basel capitalization rules because they were the primary instruments of a federal policy aimed at helping more lower-income people become homeowners. This was a laudable goal that ultimately wrecked the housing and banking industries. Washington has learned nothing from this debacle, which is why the next financial crisis is likely to have federal policy origins and may come sooner than we think. Fannie and Freddie—now fully controlled by Uncle Sam and exempt from the Dodd-Frank financial “reform” legislation—are still going strong, guaranteeing and restructuring loans while they continue to rack up huge losses for taxpayers. …The record since the Basel process began 22 years ago doesn’t generate faith in banking regulation either. Basel rules didn’t prevent the collapse of Japanese banking in 1990, they didn’t prevent the 2008 meltdown, and they are not preventing the banking failures that plague the financial system even today.

P.S. The bureaucrats and regulators who put together the Basel capital standards were the ones who decided that mortgage-backed securities were very safe assets and required less capital. That was a common assumption at the time, so the point is not that the Basel folks are particularly incompetent, but rather that regulation is a very poor substitute for market discipline. Letting financial firms go bankrupt instead of bailing them out would be a far better way of encouraging prudence.

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The Free Market Mojo site asked me a number of interesting questions about public policy. I’m not sure all of my answers were interesting, but here are some snippets that capture my curmudgeonly outlook.

I think it’s important to divide the topic into two issues, the policies that cause short-run fluctuations and the policies that impact long-run growth. Generally speaking, I try to avoid guessing games about what is happening today and tomorrow (or even yesterday), and instead focus on the policies that will boost the economy’s underlying productive capacity. …the Fed’s easy-money policy was a mistake. If the central bank had behaved appropriately, we presumably would not have suffered a financial crisis and recession. And if we go back in history, we find the Fed’s fingerprints whenever there is an economic meltdown. …I would not want the government to impose a gold standard. Competitive markets should determine the form of money and/or what backs up that money. Perhaps gold would emerge in such a competitive system, but a gold standard should not be imposed. …I don’t trust politicians. They would pass a bill to impose a VAT while simultaneously phasing out the income tax over a five-year period. But inevitably there would be some sort of “emergency” in year three and the income tax would be “temporarily” extended. When the dust settled, temporary would become permanent and we would be a decrepit European-style welfare state. …There are many great economists, but for my line of work, Milton Friedman has to be at the top of the list. He had an incredible ability to explain the benefits of liberty and the costs of statism in a way that reached average people.

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Actually, I suppose we should clearly state that someone is having some fun by mocking Helicopter Ben, but that person did a good job. Kudos to Tertium Quids for finding this gem.

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Appearing on Fox Business News, I summarize the many reasons why the Bush-Paulson-Obama-Geithner TARP bailout was – and still is – bad policy.

I’m sure I have plenty of flaws, but at least I am philosophically consistent. Here’s what I said about the issue more than 18 months ago. The core message is the same (though I also notice I have a bad habit of starting too many sentences with “well”).

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John Stossel appropriately scolds the former Federal Reserve Chairman for blaming the financial crisis on the free market. I’ll go one step farther and say that Greenspan’s behavior is a reprehensible example of someone lacking the cojones to take responsibility for his mistakes. Greenspan is surely not responsible for the corrupt system of subsidies from the government-created nightmares known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but he definitely deserves the lion’s share of the blame for the Fed’s easy-money policy of artificially-low interest rates. Greenspan presumably knows he screwed up, which makes his attack on free markets especially despicable. The icing on the cake is that he’s also sucking up to the political establishment by endorsing higher taxes. Hasn’t he already done enough damage?

I’m getting tired of Alan Greenspan. First, the former Federal Reserve chairman blamed an allegedly unregulated free market for the housing and financial debacle. Now he favors repealing the Bush-era tax cuts. …During a congressional hearing two years ago, Greenspan shocked me by blaming the free market — not Fed and housing policies — for the financial collapse. As The New York Times gleefully reported, “(A) humbled Mr. Greenspan admitted that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets.” He said he favored regulation of big banks, as if the banking industry weren’t already a heavily regulated cartel run for the benefit of bankers. Bush-era deregulation is a myth perpetrated by those who would have government control the economy. We libertarians were distressed by Greenspan’s apparent abandonment of his free-market philosophy and his neglect of the government’s decisive role in the crisis. …now Greenspan, going beyond what even President Obama favors, calls on Congress to let the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts expire — not just for upper-income people but for everyone. …the stupidest thing said about tax cuts is the often-repeated claim that “they ought to be paid for.” How absurd! Tax cuts merely let people keep money they rightfully own. It’s government programs, not tax cuts, that must be paid for. The tax-hungry politicians’ demand that cuts be “paid for” implies the federal budget isn’t $3 trillion, but $15 trillion — the whole GDP — with anything mercifully left in our pockets being some form of government spending. How monstrous!

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The Wall Street Journal opines about the number of new regulations that will be generated by the so-called financial reform legislation that has been approved by Congress. The big winners will by lawyers, the federal bureaucracy, and politicians. The big losers will be shareholders and consumers.
The Dodd-Frank financial reform bill passed by the Senate yesterday promises to generate historic levels of red tape. But apparently the 2,300 pages are so complicated that a debate has broken out over precisely how many new regulatory rule-makings it will require. This week we reported on an analysis by the Davis Polk & Wardwell law firm that at least 243 new federal rule-makings are on the way, not to mention 67 one-time studies and another 22 new periodic reports. The attorneys were careful to note that this was a low-ball estimate, counting only new regulations mandated by the bill. Now comes Tom Quaadman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who doesn’t quarrel with the Davis Polk estimate but has added rule-makings authorized by this legislation to those that are mandated and says that American businesses should expect a whopping 533 new sets of rules. To put this number in perspective, Sarbanes-Oxley, Washington’s last exercise in financial regulatory overreach, demanded only 16 new regulations. Thus he reasons that Dodd-Frank “is over 30 times the size of SOX.” …While it might seem that the regulatory uncertainty created by the bill won’t last much longer than a decade as new rules are implemented, that also could be optimistic. When regulators are granted new authorities without expiration dates on their powers, the rule-making possibilities are infinite. …The most likely result of Dodd-Frank in the near term is a generally higher cost of credit, and a bigger market share for the largest banks that can more easily absorb the new regulatory costs. In the longer term, do not expect it to prevent the next financial mania and panic.

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A number of economists have been warning about the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policy, but defenders of the central bank often ask, “if there’s an easy money policy, why isn’t that showing up in the form of higher prices?” Thomas Sowell has an answer to this question, explaining that people and businesses are sitting on cash because anti-business policies have dampened economic activity.

Not only has all the runaway spending and rapid escalation of the deficit to record levels failed to make any real headway in reducing unemployment, all this money pumped into the economy has also failed to produce inflation. The latter is a good thing in itself but its implications are sobering. How can you pour trillions of dollars into the economy and not even see the price level go up significantly? Economists have long known that it is not just the amount of money, but also the speed with which it circulates, that affects the price level. Last year the Wall Street Journal reported that the velocity of circulation of money in the American economy has plummeted to its lowest level in half a century. Money that people don’t spend does not cause inflation. It also does not stimulate the economy. The current issue of Bloomberg Businessweek has a feature article about businesses that are just holding on to huge sums of money. They say, for example, that the pharmaceutical company Pfizer is holding on to $26 billion. If so, there should not be any great mystery as to why they don’t invest it. With the Obama administration being on an anti-business kick, boasting of putting their foot on some business’ neck, and the president talking about putting his foot on another part of the anatomy, with Congress coming up with more and more red tape, more mandates and more heavy-handed interventions in businesses, would you risk $26 billion that you might not even be able to get back, much less make any money on the deal? Pfizer is not unique. Banks have cut back on lending, despite all the billions of dollars that were dumped into them in the name of “stimulus.” Consumers have also cut back on spending. For the first time, more gold is being bought as an investment to be held as a hedge against a currently non-existent inflation than is being bought by the makers of jewelry. There may not be any inflation now, but eventually that money is going to start moving, and so will the price level.

I do my best to avoid monetary policy issues and certainly am not an expert on the subject, so I asked a few people for their thoughts and was told that perhaps the strongest evidence for Sowell’s hypothesis comes from the Federal Reserve’s data on “Aggregate Reserves of Depository Institutions” – specifically the figures on excess reserves. This is the money that banks keep at the Federal Reserve voluntarily because they don’t have any better options. As you can see from the chart, excess reserves shot up during the financial crisis. But what’s important is that they did not come back down afterwards. Some people refer to this as “money on the sidelines” and Sowell clearly is worried that it will have an impact on the price level if banks start circulating it. That doesn’t sound like good news. On the other hand, it’s not exactly good news that banks are holding money at the Fed because there are not enough profitable opportunities.

What this really tells us is that the combination of easy money and big government isn’t working any better today than it did in the 1970s.

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