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Posts Tagged ‘Easy money’

Having been exposed to scholars from the Austrian school as a graduate student, I have a knee-jerk suspicion that it’s not a good idea to rely on the Federal Reserve for macroeconomic tinkering.

In this interview from yesterday, I specifically warn that easy money can lead to economically harmful asset bubbles.

 

Since I don’t pretend to be an expert on monetary policy, I’ll do an appeal to authority.

Claudio Borio of the Bank for International Settlements is considered to be one of the world’s experts on the issue.

Here are some excerpts from a study he recently wrote along with three other economists. I especially like what they wrote about the risks of looking solely at the price level as a guide to policy.

The pre-crisis experience has shown that, in contrast to common belief, disruptive financial imbalances could build up even alongside low and stable, or even falling, inflation. Granted, anyone who had looked at the historical record would not have been surprised: just think of the banking crises in Japan, the Asian economies and, going further back in time, the US experience in the run-up to the Great Depression. But somehow the lessons had got lost in translation… And post-crisis, the performance of inflation has repeatedly surprised. Inflation…has been puzzlingly low especially more recently, as a number of economies have been reaching or even exceeding previous estimates of full employment. …the recent experience has hammered the point home, raising nagging doubts about a key pillar of monetary policymaking. …Our conclusion is that…amending mandates to explicitly include financial stability concerns may be appropriate in some circumstances.

Here’s a chart showing that financial cycles and business cycles are not the same thing.

The economists also point out that false booms instigated by easy money can do a lot of damage.

Some recent work with colleagues sheds further light on some of the possible mechanisms at work (Borio et al (2016)). Drawing on a sample of over 40 countries spanning over 40 years, we find that credit booms misallocate resources towards lower-productivity growth sectors, notably construction, and that the impact of the misallocations that occur during the boom is twice as large in the wake of a subsequent banking crisis. The reasons are unclear, but may reflect, at least in part, the fact that overindebtedness and a broken banking system make it harder to reallocate resources away from bloated sectors during the bust. This amounts to a neglected form of hysteresis. The impact can be sizeable, equivalent cumulatively to several percentage points of GDP over a number of years.

Here’s a chart quantifying the damage.

And here’s some more evidence.

In recent work with colleagues, we examined deflations using a newly constructed data set that spans more than 140 years (1870–2013), and covers up to 38 economies and includes equity and house prices as well as debt (Borio et al (2015)). We come up with three findings. First, before controlling for the behaviour of asset prices, we find only a weak association between deflation and growth; the Great Depression is the main exception. Second, we find a stronger link with asset price declines, and controlling for them further weakens the link between deflations and growth. In fact, the link disappears even in the Great Depression (Graph 4). Finally, we find no evidence of a damaging interplay between deflation and debt (Fisher’s “debt deflation”; Fisher (1932)). By contrast, we do find evidence of a damaging interplay between private sector debt and property (house) prices, especially in the postwar period. These results are consistent with the prevalence of supply-induced deflations.

I’ll share one final chart from the study because it certainly suggest that the economy suffered less instability when the classical gold standard was in effect before World War I.

I’m not sure we could trust governments to operate such a system today, but it’s worth contemplating.

P.S. I didn’t like easy money when Obama was in the White House and I don’t like it with Trump in the White House. Indeed, I worry the good economic news we’re seeing now could be partly illusory.

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Being a policy wonk in a political town isn’t easy. I care about economic liberty while many other people simply care about political maneuvering. And the gap between policy advocacy and personality politics has become even larger in the Age of Trump.

One result is that people who should be allies periodically are upset with my columns. Never Trumpers scold me one day and Trump fanboys scold me the next day. Fortunately, I have a very simple set of responses.

  • If you would have loudly cheered for a policy under Reagan but oppose a similar policy under Trump, you’re the problem.
  • If you would have loudly condemned a policy under Obama but support a similar policy under Trump, you’re the problem.

Today, we’re going to look at an example of the latter.

The New York Times reported today on Trump’s advocacy of easy-money Keynesianism.

President Trump on Friday called on the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates and take additional steps to stimulate economic growth… On Friday, he escalated his previous critiques of the Fed by pressing for it to resume the type of stimulus campaign it undertook after the recession to jump-start economic growth. That program, known as quantitative easing, resulted in the Fed buying more than $4 trillion worth of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities as a way to increase the supply of money in the financial system.

I criticized these policies under Obama, over and over and over again.

If I suddenly supported this approach under Trump, that would make me a hypocrite or a partisan.

I’m sure I have my share of flaws, but that’s not one of them.

Regardless of whether a politician is a Republican or a Democrat, I don’t like Keynesian fiscal policy and I don’t like Keynesian monetary policy.

Simply stated, the Keynesians are all about artificially boosting consumption, but sustainable growth is only possible with policies that boost production.

There are two additional passages from the article that deserve some commentary.

First, you don’t measure inflation by simply looking at consumer prices. It’s quite possible that easy money will result in asset bubbles instead.

That’s why Trump is flat-out wrong in this excerpt.

“…I personally think the Fed should drop rates,” Mr. Trump said. “I think they really slowed us down. There’s no inflation. I would say in terms of quantitative tightening, it should actually now be quantitative easing. Very little if any inflation. And I think they should drop rates, and they should get rid of quantitative tightening. You would see a rocket ship. Despite that, we’re doing very well.”

To be sure, many senior Democrats were similarly wrong when Obama was in the White House and they wanted to goose the economy.

Which brings me to the second point about some Democrats magically becoming born-again advocates of hard money now that Trump is on the other side.

Democrats denounced Mr. Trump’s comments, saying they showed his disregard for the traditional independence of the Fed and his desire to use its powers to help him win re-election. “There’s no question that President Trump is seeking to undermine the…independence of the Federal Reserve to boost his own re-election prospects,” said Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee.

Notwithstanding what I wrote a few days ago, I agree with Sen. Wyden on this point.

Though I definitely don’t recall him expressing similar concerns when Obama was appointing easy-money supporters to the Federal Reserve.

To close, here’s what I said back in October about Trump’s Keynesian approach to monetary policy.

I also commented on this issue earlier this year. And I definitely recommend these insights from a British central banker.

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Back in January, I spoke with Cheddar about market instability and put much of the blame on the Federal Reserve. Simply stated, I fear we have a bubble thanks to years and years (and years and years) of easy money and artificially low interest rates.

To be sure, I also noted that there are other policies that could be spooking financial markets.

But I do think monetary policy is the big threat. Mistakes by the Fed sooner or later cause recessions (and the false booms that are the leading indicator of future downturns).

Mistakes by Congress, by contrast, “merely” cause slower growth.

In this next clip from the interview, I offer guarded praise to the Fed (not my usual position!) for trying to unwind the easy-money policies from earlier this decade and therefore “normalize” interest rates (i.e., letting rates climb to the market-determined level).

For those interested in the downside risks of easy money, I strongly endorse these cautionary observations from a British central banker.

My modest contribution to the discussion was when I mentioned in the interview that we wouldn’t be in the tough position of having to let interest rates climb if we didn’t make the mistake of keeping them artificially low. Especially for such a long period of time.

My motive for addressing this topic today is that Robert Samuelson used his column in the Washington Post to launch an attack against Steve Moore.

Stephen Moore does not belong on the Federal Reserve Board… Just a decade ago, the U.S. and world economies suffered the worst slumps since World War II. What saved us then were the skilled interventions of the Fed under Chairman Ben S. Bernanke… Do we really want Moore to serve as the last bulkhead against an economic breakdown? …as a matter of prudence, we should assume economic reverses. If so, the Fed chief will become a crisis manager. That person should not be Stephen Moore.

I’ve been friends with Steve for a couple of decades, so I have a personal bias.

That being said, I would be arguing that Samuelson’s column is problematic for two reasons even if I never met Steve.

  • First, he doesn’t acknowledge that the crisis last decade was caused in large part by easy-money policy from the Fed. Call me crazy, but I hardly think we should praise the central bank for dousing a fire that it helped to start.
  • Second, he frets that Steve would be bad in a crisis, which presumably is a time when it might be appropriate for the Fed to be a “lender of last resort.”* But he offers zero evidence that Steve would be opposed to that approach.

For what it’s worth, I actually worry Steve would be too willing to go along with an easy-money approach. Indeed, I look forward to hectoring him in favor of hard money if he gets confirmed.

But this column isn’t about a nomination battle in DC. My role is to educate on public policy.

So let’s close by reviewing some excerpts from a column in the Wall Street Journal highlighting the work of Claudio Borio at the Bank for International Settlements.

In a 2015 paper Mr. Borio and colleagues examined 140 years of data from 38 countries and concluded that consumer-price deflation frequently coincides with healthy economic growth. If he’s right, central banks have spent years fighting disinflation or deflation when they shouldn’t have, and in the process they’ve endangered the economy more than they realize. “By keeping interest rates very, very, very low,” he warns, “you are contributing to the buildup of risks in the financial system through excessive credit growth, through excessive increases in asset prices, that at some point have to correct themselves. So what you have is a financial boom that necessarily at some point will turn into a bust because things have to adjust.” …It’s not that other economists are blind to financial instability. They’re just strangely unconcerned about it. “There are a number of proponents of secular stagnation who acknowledge, very explicitly, that low interest rates create problems for the future because they’re generating all these financial booms and busts,” Mr. Borio says. Yet they still believe central banks must set ultralow short-term rates to support economic growth—and if that destabilizes the financial system, it’s the will of the economic gods.

Amen. I also recommend this column and this column for further information on how central bankers are endangering prosperity.

P.S. For a skeptical history of the Federal Reserve, click here. If you prefer Fed-mocking videos, click here and here.

P.P.S. I fear the European Central Bank has the same misguided policy. To make matters worse, policy makers in Europe have used easy money as an excuse to avoid the reforms that are needed to generate real growth.

P.P.P.S. Samuelson did recognize that defeating inflation was one of Reagan’s great accomplishments.

*For institutions with liquidity problems. Institutions with solvency problems should be shut down using the FDIC-resolution approach.

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In this interview yesterday, I noted that there are “external” risks to the economy, most notably the spillover effect of a potential economic implosion in China or a fiscal crisis in Italy.

But many of the risks are homegrown, such as Trump’s self-destructive protectionism and the Federal Reserve’s easy money.

Regarding trade, Trump is hurting himself as well as the economy. He simply doesn’t understand that trade is good for prosperity and that trade deficits are largely irrelevant.

Regarding monetary policy, I obviously don’t blame Trump for the Fed’s easy money policy during the Obama years, though I wish that he wouldn’t bash the central bank and instead displayed Reagan’s fortitude about accepting the need to unwind such mistakes.

The interview wasn’t that long, but I had a chance to pontificate on additional topics.

The bottom line is that Trump has a very mixed record on the economy. But I fear the good policies are becoming less important and the bad policies are becoming more prominent.

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I periodically explain that you generally don’t get a recession by hiking taxes, adding red tape, or increasing the burden of government spending. Those policies are misguided, to be sure, but they mostly erode the economy’s long-run potential growth.

If you want to assign blame for economic downturns, the first place to look is monetary policy.

When central banks use monetary policy to keep interest rates low (“Keynesian monetary policy,” but also known as “easy money” or “quantitative easing”), that can cause economy-wide distortions, particularly because capital gets misallocated.

And this often leads to a recession when this “malinvestment” gets liquidated.

I’ve made this point in several recent interviews, and I had a chance to make the same point yesterday.

By the way, doesn’t the other guest have amazing wisdom and insight?

But let’s not digress.

Back to the main topic, I’m not the only one who is worried about easy money.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute is similarly concerned.

Never before have the world’s major central banks kept interest rates so low for so long as they have done over the past decade. More importantly yet, never before have these banks increased their balance sheets on anything like the scale that they have done since 2008 by their aggressive bond-buying programmes. Indeed, since 2008, the size of the combined balances sheet of the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan and the Bank of England has increased by a mind-boggling US$10tn. …in recent years, if anything central bank monetary policy might have been overly aggressive. By causing global asset price inflation as well as the serious mispricing and misallocation of global credit, the seeds might have been sown for another Lehman-style economic and financial market crisis down the road. …the all too likely possibility that, by having overburdened monetary policy with the task of stabilizing output, advanced country governments might very well have set us up for the next global boom-bust economic cycle.

If you want the other side of the issue, the Economist is more sympathetic to monetary intervention.

And if you want a very learned explanation of the downsides of easy money, I shared some very astute observations from a British central banker back in 2015.

The bottom line is that easy money – sooner or later – backfires.

By the way, here’s a clip from earlier in the interview. Other than admitting that economists are lousy forecasters, I also warned that the economy is probably being hurt by Trump’s protectionism and his failure to control the growth of spending.

P.S. The “war on cash” in many nations is partly driven by those who want the option of easy money.

P.P.S. I worry that politicians sometimes choose to forgo good reforms because they hope easy money can at least temporarily goose the economy.

P.P.P.S. Easy money is also a tool for “financial repression,” which occurs when governments surreptitiously confiscate money from savers.

P.P.P.P.S. Maybe it’s time to reconsider central banks?

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I often discuss the importance of long-run growth and I pontificate endlessly about the policies that will produce better economic performance.

But what about short-term fluctuations? Where are we in the so-called business cycle? I don’t think economists are good at forecasting the ups and downs of the economy, but I did mention the factors that might contribute to a downturn in this interview with Dana Loesch.

Dana isn’t the only one interested in this topic.

The New York Times opined today about the state of the economy.

…the American economy has a lot more power…, and it’s making a lot of noise. …While Mr. Trump praised himself effusively…the stock market seemed unimpressed. …That’s because if you look down the line, there are few clear reasons to be so enthusiastic.

I suspect the editors at the NYT are somewhat motivated by a desire to make Trump look bad, but I don’t necessarily disagree with some of their analysis.

Though I think they are wrong on tax policy, which is the best thing that’s happened since Trump took office.

…the initial jolt of the Republicans’ $1.5 trillion tax cuts, mostly for corporations and the wealthy, is wearing off. Corporations have bought back $437 billion of their own shares, which leaves them that much less to invest in new production, or wages.

By the way, there’s nothing wrong with stock buybacks. It’s a way for companies to return profits to shareholders. And those shareholders generally then reinvest the money, so the NYT screwed up on that bit of analysis.

But they raise a very legitimate issue when looking at the impact of monetary policy.

Then there’s the flattening yield curve, which the St. Louis Federal Reserve’s president, James Bullard, warns could invert late this year if current conditions persist. That means short-term rates, such as those for two-year Treasury bonds, run higher than long-term rates, like the 10-year bond, a sign of pessimism that is a well-known red flag.

Though I would add that we wouldn’t be in the position of having to raise rates if the Fed hadn’t pushed rates artificially low in the first place (the same mistake they made last decade, by the way).

In other words, the best way of avoiding “tight money” is to not engage in periods of “easy money.”

The NYT editorial also looks at consumer spending, which is fine if the goal is to see whether retailers are happy. But if the issue is whether the economy is doing well, it’s much more important to see whether personal income is rising or falling.

Consumers were in a spending mood this spring, an attitude that won’t necessarily continue. …A recent Reuters analysis found that the bottom 60 percent of income-earners have been fueling their spending, and thus the economy’s, by using their savings or credit cards. They almost have to, because wage growth is expanding at a disappointing 2.7 percent annual clip.

I fully agree with this excerpt about trade. Assuming he wants to run for reelection, Trump is being very foolish to push for more protectionism.

…consider the administration’s effort to apply the sledgehammer to the economy’s toes via a trade war and ensuing tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, among other products. …Not only have the tariffs contributed to $1 billion in higher costs for General Motors, they are now contributing to rising prices of everything from Cokes to vacuum cleaners as companies pass along those costs to consumers.

Last but not least, I don’t necessarily agree that expansion have to end. After all, the economy is largely capable of self-correcting.

But a “business cycle” is probably inevitable so long as government has so much power to intervene.

None of these issues by themselves will put the brakes on an economy that is powering along with a 3.9 percent unemployment rate. But the friction is building. …economic expansions — and this one is in its 10th year — eventually run out of gas. …Mr. President, while you like to take credit for positive economic trends that are well beyond your control, you will own the downside, too.

For what it’s worth, I think misguided monetary policy usually deserves blame for short-run economic instability.

I mentioned in the interview that the central bank is trying to “normalize” interest rates. I hope the Fed is successful, though I worry that financial markets (and housing markets) have become dependent on easy money and will take a hit.

I’ll close by pointing out that the pundit class is focusing on whether the economy is growing faster under Trump than it grew under Obama.

I don’t care about that contest. I’m much more interested in whether we can get the kind of free market-driven prosperity we enjoyed under Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton.

We didn’t get that growth during the Obama years.

And given Trump’s schizophrenic approach to policy, I don’t have high hopes we’ll average 3 percent-plus growth during his tenure.

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During the Obama years, I used data from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve to explain that the economic recovery was rather weak. And when people responded by pointing to a reasonably strong stock market, I expressed concern that easy-money policies might be creating an artificial boom.

Now that Trump’s in the White House, some policies are changing. On the plus side, we got some better-than-expected tax reform. Moreover, the onslaught of red tape from the Obama years has abated, and we’re even seeing some modest moves to reduce regulation.

But there’s also been bad news. Trump’s bad protectionist rhetoric is now turning into bad policy. And his track record on spending is very discouraging.

What’s hard to pin down, though, is the impact of monetary policy. The Federal Reserve apparently is in the process of slowly unwinding the artificially low interest rates that were part of its easy-money approach. Is this too little, too late? Is it just right? What’s the net effect?

Since economists are lousy forecasters, I don’t pretend to know the answer, but I think we should worry about the legacy impact of all the easy money, which is the point I made in this clip from a recent interview.

James Pethokoukis from the American Enterprise Institute has similar concerns.

Here’s some of what he recently wrote on the topic.

…this supposed “boom” looks more like same-old, same-old. First quarter GDP, for instance, was just revised down two ticks to 2% and monthly job growth is a bit weaker than under President Obama’s final few years. …What’s more, pretty much every recession for a century has been accompanied by some magnitude of explicit Fed tightening. And, of course, the Fed is now well into a tightening cycle. …Another complicating factor is the Trump trade policy, which seems to be a market suppressant right now, if not yet a significant economic one.

Those are all good points, though we still don’t know the answer.

I’ll close with two observations.

  • First, our main concern should be boosting the economy’s long-run growth rate, and that’s why we need lower tax rates, less government spending, open trade, and less red tape. As I’ve noted already, Trump has a mixed track record.
  • Second, a short-run concern is whether the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policy in recent years has created a bubble that is poised to burst. If it does, Trump will take the blame simply because he happens to be in the White House.

And that second issue gives me an excuse to re-emphasize that Keynesian monetary policy is just as foolish as Keynesian fiscal policy. You may enjoy a “sugar high” for a period of time, but eventually there’s a painful reckoning.

P.S. For what it’s worth, we’d have more growth and stability if policymakers learned from the “Austrian School” of economics.

P.P.S. Moreover, it’s a good idea to be skeptical about the Federal Reserve.

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When I was younger, folks in the policy community joked that BusinessWeek was the “anti-business business weekly” because its coverage of the economy was just as stale and predictably left wing as what you would find in the pages of Time or Newsweek.

Well, perhaps it’s time for The Economist to be known as the “anti-economics economic weekly.”

Writing about the stagnation that is infecting western nations, the magazine beclowns itself by regurgitating stale 1960s-style Keynesianism. The article is worthy of a fisking (i.e., a “point-by-point debunking of lies and/or idiocies”), starting with the assertion that central banks saved the world at the end of last decade.

During the financial crisis the Federal Reserve and other central banks were hailed for their actions: by slashing rates and printing money to buy bonds, they stopped a shock from becoming a depression.

I’m certainly open to the argument that the downturn would have been far worse if the banking system hadn’t been recapitalized (even if it should have happened using the “FDIC-resolution approach” rather than via corrupt bailouts), but that’s a completely separate issue from whether Keynesian monetary policy was either desirable or successful.

Regarding the latter question, just look around the world. The Fed has followed an easy-money policy. Has that resulted in a robust recovery for America? The European Central Bank (ECB) has followed the same policy. Has that worked? And the Bank of Japan (BoJ) has done the same thing. Does anyone view Japan’s economy as a success?

At least the article acknowledges that there are some skeptics of the current approach.

The central bankers say that ultra-loose monetary policy remains essential to prop up still-weak economies and hit their inflation targets. …But a growing chorus of critics frets about the effects of the low-rate world—a topsy-turvy place where savers are charged a fee, where the yields on a large fraction of rich-world government debt come with a minus sign, and where central banks matter more than markets in deciding how capital is allocated.

The Economist, as you might expect, expresses sympathy for the position of the central bankers.

In most of the rich world inflation is below the official target. Indeed, in some ways central banks have not been bold enough. Only now, for example, has the BoJ explicitly pledged to overshoot its 2% inflation target. The Fed still seems anxious to push up rates as soon as it can.

The preceding passage is predicated on the assumption that there is a mechanistic tradeoff between inflation and unemployment (the so-called Phillips Curve), one of the core concepts of Keynesian economics. According to adherents, all-wise central bankers can push inflation up if they want lower unemployment and push inflation down if they want to cool the economy.

This idea has been debunked by real world events because inflation and unemployment simultaneously rose during the 1970s (supposedly impossible according the Keynesians) and simultaneously fell during the 1980s (also a theoretical impossibility according to advocates of the Phillips Curve).

But real-world evidence apparently can be ignored if it contradicts the left’s favorite theories.

That being said, we can set aside the issue of Keynesian monetary policy because the main thrust of the article is an embrace of Keynesian fiscal policy.

…it is time to move beyond a reliance on central banks. …economies need succour now. The most urgent priority is to enlist fiscal policy. The main tool for fighting recessions has to shift from central banks to governments.

As an aside, the passage about shifting recession fighting “from central banks to governments” is rather bizarre since the Fed, the ECB, and the BoJ are all government entities. Either the reporter or the editor should have rewritten that sentence so that it concluded with “shift from central banks to fiscal policy” or something like that.

In any event, The Economist has a strange perspective on this issue. It wants Keynesian fiscal policy, yet it worries about politicians using that approach to permanently expand government. And it is not impressed by the fixation on “shovel-ready” infrastructure spending.

The task today is to find a form of fiscal policy that can revive the economy in the bad times without entrenching government in the good. …infrastructure spending is not the best way to prop up weak demand. …fiscal policy must mimic the best features of modern-day monetary policy, whereby independent central banks can act immediately to loosen or tighten as circumstances require.

So The Economist endorses what it refers to as “small-government Keynesianism,” though that’s simply its way of saying that additional spending increases (and gimmicky tax cuts) should occur automatically.

…there are ways to make fiscal policy less politicised and more responsive. …more automaticity is needed, binding some spending to changes in the economic cycle. The duration and generosity of unemployment benefits could be linked to the overall joblessness rate in the economy, for example.

In the language of Keynesians, such policies are known as “automatic stabilizers,” and there already are lots of so-called means-tested programs that operate this way. When people lose their jobs, government spending on unemployment benefits automatically increases. During a weak economy, there also are automatic spending increases for programs such as Food Stamps and Medicaid.

I guess The Economist simply wants more programs that work this way, or perhaps bigger handouts for existing programs. And the magazine views this approach as “small-government Keynesianism” because the spending increases theoretically evaporate as the economy starts growing and fewer people are automatically entitled to receive benefits from the various programs.

Regardless, whoever wrote the article seems convinced that such programs help boost the economy.

When the next downturn comes, this kind of fiscal ammunition will be desperately needed. Only a small share of public spending needs to be affected for fiscal policy to be an effective recession-fighting weapon.

My reaction, for what it’s worth, is to wonder why the article doesn’t include any evidence to bolster the claim that more government spending is and “effective” way of ending recessions and boosting growth. Though I suspect the author of the article didn’t include any evidence because it’s impossible to identify any success stories for Keynesian economics.

  • Did Keynesian spending boost the economy under Hoover? No.
  • Did Keynesian spending boost the economy under Roosevelt? No.
  • Has Keynesian spending worked in Japan at any point over the past twenty-five years? No.
  • Did Keynesian spending boost the economy under Obama? No.

Indeed, Keynesian spending has an unparalleled track record of failure in the real world. Though advocates of Keynesianism have a ready-built excuse. All the above failures only occurred because the spending increases were inadequate.

But what do expect from the “perpetual motion machine” of Keynesian economics, a theory that is only successful if you assume it is successful?

I’m not surprised that politicians gravitate to this idea. After all, it tells them that their vice  of wasteful overspending is actually a virtue.

But it’s quite disappointing that journalists at an allegedly economics-oriented magazine blithely accept this strange theory.

P.S. My second-favorite story about Keynesian economics involves the sequester, which big spenders claimed would cripple the economy, yet that’s when we got the only semi-decent growth of the Obama era.

P.P.S. My favorite story about Keynesianism is when Paul Krugman was caught trying to blame a 2008 recession in Estonia on spending cuts that occurred in 2009.

P.P.P.S. Here’s my video explaining Keynesian economics.

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Remember Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, the 1993 comedy classic about a weatherman who experiences the same day over and over again?

Well, the same thing is happening in Japan. But instead of a person waking up and reliving the same day, we get politicians pursuing the same failed Keynesian stimulus policies over and over again.

The entire country has become a parody of Keynesian economics. Yet the politicians make Obama seem like a fiscal conservative by comparison. They keep doubling down on the same approach, regardless of all previous failures.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the details of the latest Keynesian binge.

Japan’s cabinet approved a government stimulus package that includes ¥7.5 trillion ($73 billion) in new spending, in the latest effort by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to jump-start the nation’s sluggish economy. The spending program, which has a total value of ¥28 trillion over several years, represents…an attempt to breathe new life into the Japanese economy… The government will pump money into infrastructure projects… The government will provide cash handouts of ¥15,000, or about $147, each to 22 million low-income people… Other items in the package included interest-free loans for infrastructure projects…and new hotels for foreign tourists.

As already noted, this is just the latest in a long line of failed stimulus schemes.

The WSJ story includes this chart showing what’s happened just since 2008.

And if you go back farther in time, you’ll see that the Japanese version of Groundhog Day has been playing since the early 1990s.

Here’s a list, taken from a presentation at the IMF, of so-called stimulus plans adopted by various Japanese governments between 1992-2008.

And here’s my contribution to the discussion. I went to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database and downloaded the numbers on government borrowing, government debt, and per-capita GDP growth.

I wanted to see how much deficit spending there was and what the impact was on debt and the economy. As you can see, red ink skyrocketed while the private economy stagnated.

Though we shouldn’t be surprised. Keynesian economics didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt, or Bush and Obama, so why expect it to work in another country.

By the way, I can’t resist making a comment on this excerpt from a CNBC report on Japan’s new stimulus scheme.

Abe ordered his government last month to craft a stimulus plan to revive an economy dogged by weak consumption, despite three years of his “Abenomics” mix of extremely accommodative monetary policy, flexible spending and structural reform promises.

In the interest of accuracy, the reporter should have replaced “despite” with “because of.”

In addition to lots of misguided Keynesian fiscal policy, there’s been a radical form of Keynesian monetary policy from the Bank of Japan.

Here are some passages from a very sobering Bloomberg report about the central bank’s burgeoning ownership of private companies.

Already a top-five owner of 81 companies in Japan’s Nikkei 225 Stock Average, the BOJ is on course to become the No. 1 shareholder in 55 of those firms by the end of next year…. BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda almost doubled his annual ETF buying target last month, adding to an unprecedented campaign to revitalize Japan’s stagnant economy. …opponents say the central bank is artificially inflating equity valuations and undercutting efforts to make public companies more efficient. …the monetary authority’s outsized presence will make some shares harder to buy and sell, a phenomenon that led to convulsions in Japan’s government bond market this year. …the BOJ doesn’t acquire individual shares directly, it’s the ultimate buyer of stakes purchased through ETFs. …investors worry that BOJ purchases could give a free ride to poorly-run firms and crowd out shareholders who would otherwise push for better corporate governance.

Wow. I don’t pretend to be an expert on monetary economics, but I can’t image that there will be a happy ending to this story.

Just in case you’re not sufficiently depressed about Japan’s economic outlook, keep in mind that the nation also is entering a demographic crisis, as reported by the L.A. Times.

All across Japan, aging villages such as Hara-izumi have been quietly hollowing out for years… Japan’s population crested around 2010 with 128 million people and has since lost about 900,000 residents, last year’s census confirmed. Now, the country has begun a white-knuckle ride in which it will shed about one-third of its population — 40 million people — by 2060, experts predict. In 30 years, 39% of Japan’s population will be 65 or older.

The effects already are being felt, and this is merely the beginning of the demographic wave.

Police and firefighters are grappling with the safety hazards of a growing number of vacant buildings. Transportation authorities are discussing which roads and bus lines are worth maintaining and cutting those they can no longer justify. …Each year, the nation is shuttering 500 schools. …In Hara-izumi, …The village’s population has become so sparse that wild bears, boars and deer are roaming the streets with increasing frequency.

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyhow), even modest-sized welfare states eventually collapse when you wind up with too few workers trying to support an ever-growing number of recipients.

Now maybe you can understand why I’ve referred to Japan as a basket case.

P.S. You hopefully won’t be surprised to learn that Japanese politicians are getting plenty of bad advice from the fiscal pyromaniacs at the IMF and OECD.

P.P.S. Maybe I’m just stereotyping, but I’ve always assumed the Japanese were sensible people, even if they have a bloated and wasteful government. But when you look at that nation’s contribution to the stupidest-regulation contest and the country’s entry in the government-incompetence contest, I wonder whether the Japanese have some as-yet-undiscovered genetic link to Greece?

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Although it doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it warrants, one of the greatest threats to liberty and prosperity is the potential curtailment and elimination of cash.

As I’ve previously noted, there are two reasons why statists don’t like cash and instead would prefer all of us to use digital money (under their rules, of course, not something outside their control like bitcoin).

First, tax collectors can’t easily monitor all cash transactions, so they want a system that would allow them to track and tax every possible penny of our income and purchases.

Second, Keynesian central planners would like to force us to spend more money by imposing negative interest rates (i.e., taxes) on our savings, but that can’t be done if people can hold cash.

To provide some background, a report in the Wall Street Journal looks at both government incentives to get rid of high-value bills and to abolish currency altogether.

Some economists and bankers are demanding a ban on large denomination bills as one way to fight the organized criminals and terrorists who mainly use these notes. But the desire to ditch big bills is also being fueled from unexpected quarter: central bank’s use of negative interest rates. …if a central bank drives interest rates into negative territory, it’ll struggle to manage with physical cash. When a bank balance starts being eaten away by a sub-zero interest rate, cash starts to look inviting. That’s a particular problem for an economy that issues high-denomination banknotes like the eurozone, because it’s easier for a citizen to withdraw and hoard any money they have got in the bank.

Now let’s take a closer look at what folks on the left are saying to the public. In general, they don’t talk about taxing our savings with government-imposed negative interest rates. Instead, they make it seem like their goal is to fight crime.

Larry Summers, a former Obama Administration official, writes in the Washington Post that this is the reason governments should agree on a global pact to eliminate high-denomination notes.

…analysis is totally convincing on the linkage between high denomination notes and crime. …technology is obviating whatever need there may ever have been for high denomination notes in legal commerce. …The €500 is almost six times as valuable as the $100. Some actors in Europe, notably the European Commission, have shown sympathy for the idea and European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi has shown interest as well.  If Europe moved, pressure could likely be brought on others, notably Switzerland. …Even better than unilateral measures in Europe would be a global agreement to stop issuing notes worth more than say $50 or $100.  Such an agreement would be as significant as anything else the G7 or G20 has done in years. …a global agreement to stop issuing high denomination notes would also show that the global financial groupings can stand up against “big money” and for the interests of ordinary citizens.

Summers cites a working paper by Peter Sands of the Kennedy School, so let’s look at that argument for why governments should get rid of all large-denomination currencies.

Illegal money flows pose a massive challenge to all societies, rich and poor. Tax evasion undercuts the financing of public services and distorts the economy. Financial crime fuels and facilitates criminal activities from drug trafficking and human smuggling to theft and fraud. Corruption corrodes public institutions and warps decision-making. Terrorist finance sustains organisations that spread death and fear. The scale of such illicit money flows is staggering. …Our proposal is to eliminate high denomination, high value currency notes, such as the €500 note, the $100 bill, the CHF1,000 note and the £50 note. …Without being able to use high denomination notes, those engaged in illicit activities – the “bad guys” of our title – would face higher costs and greater risks of detection. Eliminating high denomination notes would disrupt their “business models”.

Are these compelling arguments? Should law-abiding citizens be forced to give up cash in hopes of making life harder for crooks? In other words, should we trade liberty for security?

From a moral and philosophical perspective, the answer is no. Our Founders would be rolling in their graves at the mere thought.

But let’s address this issue solely from a practical, utilitarian perspective.

The first thing to understand is that the bad guys won’t really be impacted. The head the The American Anti-Corruption Institute, L. Burke Files, explains to the Financial Times why restricting cash is pointless and misguided.

Peter Sands…has claimed that removal of high-denomination bank notes will deter crime. This is nonsense. After more than 25 years of investigating fraudsters and now corrupt persons in more than 90 countries, I can tell you that only in the extreme minority of cases was cash ever used — even in corruption cases. A vast majority of the funds moved involved bank wires, or the purchase and sale of valuable items such as art, antiquities, vessels or jewellery. …Removal of high denomination bank notes is a fruitless gesture akin to curing the common cold by forbidding use of the term “cold”.

In other words, our statist friends are being disingenuous. They’re trying to exploit the populace’s desire for crime fighting as a means of achieving a policy that actually is designed for other purposes.

The good news, is that they still have a long way to go before achieving their goals. Notwithstanding agitation to get rid of “Benjamins” in the United States, that doesn’t appear to be an immediate threat. Additionally, according to SwissInfo, is that the Swiss government has little interest in getting rid of the CHF1,000 note.

The European police agency Europol, EU finance ministers and now the European Central Bank, have recently made noises about pulling the €500 note, which has been described as the “currency of choice” for criminals. …But Switzerland has no plans to follow suit. “The CHF1,000 note remains a useful tool for payment transactions and for storing value,” Swiss National Bank spokesman Walter Meier told swissinfo.ch.

This resistance is good news, and not just because we want to control rapacious government in North America and Europe.

A column for Yahoo mentions the important value of large-denomination dollars and euros in less developed nations.

Cash also has the added benefit of providing emergency reserves for people “with unstable exchange rates, repressive governments, capital controls or a history of banking collapses,” as the Financial Times noted.

Amen. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why I like bitcoin. People need options to protect themselves from the consequences of bad government policy, regardless of where they live.

By the way, if you’ll allow me a slight diversion, Bill Poole of the University of Delaware (and also a Cato Fellow) adds a very important point in a Wall Street Journal column. He warns that a fixation on monetary policy is misguided, not only because we don’t want reckless easy-money policy, but also because we don’t want our attention diverted from the reforms that actually could boost economic performance.

Negative central-bank interest rates will not create growth any more than the Federal Reserve’s near-zero interest rates did in the U.S. And it will divert attention from the structural problems that have plagued growth here, as well as in Europe and Japan, and how these problems can be solved. …Where central banks can help is by identifying the structural impediments to growth and recommending a way forward. …It is terribly important that advocates of limited government understand what is at stake. …calls for a return to near-zero or even negative interest rates…will do little in the short run to boost growth, but it will dig the federal government into a deeper fiscal hole, further damaging long-run prospects. It needs to be repeated: Monetary policy today has little to offer to raise growth in the developed world.

Let’s close by returning to the core issue of whether it is wise to allow government the sweeping powers that would accompany the elimination of physical currency.

Here are excerpts from four superb articles on the topic.

First, writing for The American Thinker, Mike Konrad argues that eliminating cash will empower government and reduce liberty.

Governments will rise to the occasion and soon will be making cash illegal.  People will be forced to put their money in banks or the market, thus rescuing the central governments and the central banks that are incestuously intertwined with them. …cash is probably the last arena of personal autonomy left. …It has power that the government cannot control; and that is why it has to go. Of course, governments will not tell us the real reasons.  …We will be told it is for our own “good,” however one defines that. …What won’t be reported will be that hacking will shoot up.  Bank fraud will skyrocket. …Going cashless may ironically streamline drug smuggling since suitcases of money weigh too much. …The real purpose of a cashless society will be total control: Absolute Total Control. The real victims will be the public who will be forced to put all their wealth in a centralized system backed up by the good faith and credit of their respective governments.  Their life savings will be eaten away yearly with negative rates. …The end result will be the loss of all autonomy.  This will be the darkest of all tyrannies.  From cradle to grave one will not only be tracked in location, but on purchases.  Liberty will be non-existent. However, it will be sold to us as expedient simplicity itself, freeing us from crime: Fascism with a friendly face.

Second, the invaluable Allister Heath of the U.K.-based Telegraph warns that the desire for Keynesian monetary policy is creating a slippery slope that eventually will give governments an excuse to try to completely banish cash.

…the fact that interest rates of -0.5pc or so are manageable doesn’t mean that interest rates of -4pc would be. At some point, the cost of holding cash in a bank account would become prohibitive: savers would eventually rediscover the virtues of stuffed mattresses (or buying equities, or housing, or anything with less of a negative rate). The problem is that this will embolden those officials who wish to abolish cash altogether, and switch entirely to electronic and digital money. If savers were forced to keep their money in the bank, the argument goes, then they would be forced to put up with even huge negative rates. …But abolishing cash wouldn’t actually work, and would come with terrible side-effects. For a start, people would begin to treat highly negative interest rates as a form of confiscatory taxation: they would be very angry indeed, especially if rates were significantly more negative than inflation. …Criminals who wished to evade tax or engage in illegal activities would still be able to bypass the system: they would start using foreign currencies, precious metals or other commodities as a means of exchange and store of value… The last thing we now need is harebrained schemes to abolish cash. It wouldn’t work, and the public rightly wouldn’t tolerate it.

The Wall Street Journal has opined on the issue as well.

…we shouldn’t be surprised that politicians and central bankers are now waging a war on cash. That’s right, policy makers in Europe and the U.S. want to make it harder for the hoi polloi to hold actual currency. …the European Central Bank would like to ban €500 notes. …Limits on cash transactions have been spreading in Europe… Italy has made it illegal to pay cash for anything worth more than €1,000 ($1,116), while France cut its limit to €1,000 from €3,000 last year. British merchants accepting more than €15,000 in cash per transaction must first register with the tax authorities. …Germany’s Deputy Finance Minister Michael Meister recently proposed a €5,000 cap on cash transactions. …The enemies of cash claim that only crooks and cranks need large-denomination bills. They want large transactions to be made electronically so government can follow them. Yet…Criminals will find a way, large bills or not. The real reason the war on cash is gearing up now is political: Politicians and central bankers fear that holders of currency could undermine their brave new monetary world of negative interest rates. …Negative rates are a tax on deposits with banks, with the goal of prodding depositors to remove their cash and spend it… But that goal will be undermined if citizens hoard cash. …So, presto, ban cash. …If the benighted peasants won’t spend on their own, well, make it that much harder for them to save money even in their own mattresses. All of which ignores the virtues of cash for law-abiding citizens. Cash allows legitimate transactions to be executed quickly, without either party paying fees to a bank or credit-card processor. Cash also lets millions of low-income people participate in the economy without maintaining a bank account, the costs of which are mounting as post-2008 regulations drop the ax on fee-free retail banking. While there’s always a risk of being mugged on the way to the store, digital transactions are subject to hacking and computer theft. …the reason gray markets exist is because high taxes and regulatory costs drive otherwise honest businesses off the books. Politicians may want to think twice about cracking down on the cash economy in a way that might destroy businesses and add millions to the jobless rolls. …it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the politicians want to bar cash as one more infringement on economic liberty. They may go after the big bills now, but does anyone think they’d stop there? …Beware politicians trying to limit the ways you can conduct private economic business. It never turns out well.

Last, but not least, Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, explores the downsides of banning cash in a column for USA Today.

…we need to restore the $500 and $1000 bills. And the reason is that people like Larry Summers have done a horrible job. …What is a $100 bill worth now, compared to 1969? According to the U.S. Inflation Calculator online, a $100 bill today has the equivalent purchasing power of $15.49 in 1969 dollars. …And although inflation isn’t running very high at the moment, this trend will only continue. If the next few decades are like the last few, paper money in current denominations will become basically useless. …to our ruling class this isn’t a bug, but a feature. Governments want to get rid of cash… But at a time when, almost no matter where you look in the world, the parts of it controlled by the experts and technocrats (like Larry Summers) seem to be doing badly, it seems reasonable to ask: Why give them still more control over the economy? What reason is there to think that they’ll use that control fairly, or even competently? Their track record isn’t very impressive. Cash has a lot of virtues. One of them is that it allows people to engage in voluntary transactions without the knowledge or permission of anyone else. Governments call this suspicious, but the rest of us call it something else: Freedom.

Amen. Glenn nails it.

Banning cash is a scheme concocted by politicians and bureaucrats who already have demonstrated that they are incapable of competently administering the bloated public sector that already exists.

The idea that they should be given added power to extract more of our money and manipulate our spending is absurd. Laughably absurd if you read Mark Steyn.

P.S. I actually wouldn’t mind getting rid of the government’s physical currency, but only if the result was a system that actually enhanced liberty and prosperity. Unfortunately, I don’t expect that to happen in the near future.

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I wrote yesterday that governments want to eliminate cash in order to make it easier to squeeze more money from taxpayers.

But that’s not the only reason why politicians are interested in banning paper money and coins.

They also are worried that paper money inhibits the government’s ability to “stimulate” the economy with artificially low interest rates. Simply stated, they’ve already pushed interest rates close to zero and haven’t gotten the desired effect of more growth, so the thinking in official circles is that if you could implement negative interest rates, people could be pushed to be good little Keynesians because any money they have in their accounts would be losing value.

I’m not joking.

Here’s some of what Kenneth Rogoff, a professor at Harvard and a former economist at the International Monetary Fund, wrote for the U.K.-based Financial Times.

Getting rid of physical currency and replacing it with electronic money would…eliminate the zero bound on policy interest rates that has handcuffed central banks since the financial crisis. At present, if central banks try setting rates too far below zero, people will start bailing out into cash.

And here are some passages from an editorial that also was published in the FT.

…authorities would do well to consider the arguments for phasing out their use as another “barbarous relic”…even a little physical currency can cause a lot of distortion to the economic system. The existence of cash — a bearer instrument with a zero interest rate — limits central banks’ ability to stimulate a depressed economy.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that the Willem Buiter of Citi (the same guy who endorsed military attacks on low-tax jurisdictions) supports the elimination of cash.

Citi’s Willem Buiter looks at this problem, which is known as the effective lower bound (ELB) on nominal interest rates. …the ELB only exists at all due to the existence of cash, which is a bearer instrument that pays zero nominal rates. Why have your money on deposit at a negative rate that reduces your wealth when you can have it in cash and suffer no reduction? Cash therefore gives people an easy and effective way of avoiding negative nominal rates. …Buiter’s solution to cash’s ability to allow people to avoid negative deposit rates is to abolish cash altogether.

So are they right? Should cash be abolished so central bankers and governments have more power to manipulate the economy?

There’s a lot of opposition from very sensible people, particularly in the United Kingdom where the idea of banning cash is viewed as a more serious threat.

Allister Heath of the U.K.-based Telegraph worries that governments would engage in more mischief if a nation got rid of cash.

Many of our leading figures are preparing to give up on sound money. The intervention I’m most concerned about is Bank of England chief economist Andrew Haldane’s call for a 4pc inflation target, as well as his desire to abolish cash, embrace a purely electronic currency and thus make it easier for the Bank to impose substantially negative interest rates… Imagine that banks imposed -4pc interest rates on savings today: everybody would pull cash out and stuff it under their mattresses. But if all cash were digital, they would be trapped and forced to hand over their money. …all spending would become subject to the surveillance state, dramatically eroding individual liberty. …Money is already too loose – turning on the taps would merely further fuel bubbles at home and abroad.

Also writing for the Telegraph, Matthew Lynn expresses reservations about this trend.

As for negative interest rates, do we really want those? Or have we concluded that central bankers are doing more harm than good with their attempts to manipulate the economy? …a banknote is an incredibly efficient way to handle small transactions. It is costless, immediate, flexible, no one ever needs a password, it can’t be hacked, and the system doesn’t ever crash. More importantly, cash is about freedom. There are surely limits to the control over society we wish to hand over to governments and central banks? You don’t need to be a fully paid-up libertarian to question whether…we really want the banks and the state to know every single detail of what we are spending our money on and where. It is easy to surrender that freedom – but it will be a lot harder to get back.

Merryn Somerset Webb, a business writer from the U.K., is properly concerned about the economic implications of a society with no cash.

…at the beginning of the financial crisis, there was much talk about financial repression — the ways in which policymakers would seek to control the use of our money to deal with out-of-control public debt. …We’ve seen capital controls in the periphery of the eurozone… Interest rates everywhere have been at or below inflation for seven years — and negative interest rates are now snaking their nasty way around Europe… This makes debt interest cheap for governments…and it and forces once-prudent savers to move their money into the kind of risky assets that are supposed to drive growth (and tax receipts).

Amen. She’s right that low interest rates are good news for governments and not very good news for people in the productive sector.

Last but not least, Chris Giles wrote a column for the FT and made one final point that is very much worth sharing.

Mr Haldane’s proposal to ban cash has all the hallmarks of a public official confusing what is convenient for the central bank with what is in the public interest.

Especially since the central bankers are probably undermining long-run economic prosperity with short-run tinkering.

Moreover, the option to engage in Keynesian monetary policy also gives politicians an excuse to avoid the reforms that actually would boost economic performance. Indeed, it’s quite likely that an easy-money policy exacerbates the problems caused by bad fiscal and regulatory policy.

Let’s conclude by noting that maybe the right approach isn’t to give politicians and central bankers more control over money, but rather to reduce government’s control over money. That’s one of the arguments I made in this video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.S. By the way, Ryan McKaken at the Mises Institute identifies a third reason why politicians would prefer a cash-free society.

…the elimination of physical cash makes it easier for the state to keep track of private persons, and it assists central banks in efforts to punish saving and expand the money supply by implementing negative interest rate schemes. A third advantage of the elimination of physical cash would be to more easily control people and potential dissidents through the freezing of their bank accounts.

Excellent point. We’ve already seen how asset forfeiture allows governments to steal people’s bank accounts without any conviction of wrongdoing. Imagine the damage politicians and bureaucrats could do if they had even more control over our money.

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We’ve been suffering through the weakest recovery since the Great Depression. Labor force participation hasn’t recovered and median household income is stagnant.

So how are our benevolent and kind overseers in Washington responding?

Are they reducing the burden of spending? Nope, they just busted the spending caps (again).

Are they cutting back on red tape? No, they’re moving in the other direction.

Are they lowering taxes? With Obama in the White House, that’s not even a serious question.

But that doesn’t mean all the people in Washington is sitting on their collective hands. The folks at the Federal Reserve have been trying to goose the economy with an easy-money policy.

Unfortunately, as I argue in this recent interview, that’s not a recipe for success.

At best, an easy-money policy is ineffective, akin to “pushing on a string.” At worst, it creates bubbles and does serious damage.

Yet if you don’t like the Fed trying to manipulate the economy, you’re often perceived as a crank. And if you’re an elected official who questions the Fed’s actions, you’re often portrayed as some sort of uninformed demagogue.

I explored this issue today in The Federalist. In my column, I defended Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

Rand Paul and Ted Cruz…deserve credit for criticizing the Federal Reserve. …This irks some folks, who seem to think Fed critics are knuckle-dragging rubes and yahoos with a superstitious fealty to the gold standard.

This isn’t a debate over the gold standard, per se, but instead of fight over monetary Keynesianism vs. monetary rules.

The dispute isn’t really about a gold standard, but whether the Federal Reserve should have lots of discretionary power.  …On one side are the advocates of…the monetary component of Keynesian economics. Proponents explicitly want the Fed to fine-tune and micromanage the economy. …On the other side are folks who believe in rules to limit the Fed’s powers…because they believe discretionary power is more likely to give us bad results such as higher price inflation, volatility in output and employment, and financial instability.

And the Joint Economic Committee is on the side of rules. Here’s an excerpt from a JEC report that I cited in my article.

Well-reasoned, stable and predictable monetary policy reduces economic volatility and promotes long-term economic growth and job creation. Generally, ‘rules-based’ policies reduce uncertainties and facilitate long-term planning and investment. …Conversely, activist, interventionist, and discretionary monetary policies have been historically associated with increased economic volatility and subpar economic performance.

I then mention various rules-based methods of limiting the Fed’s discretion and conclude by commenting on the legitimacy of those who want to curtail the Federal Reserve.

Paul and Cruz may not be experts on monetary policy, just as left-wing senators doubtlessly have no understanding of the intricacies of discretionary monetary policy. But the two senators are on very solid ground, with an illustrious intellectual lineage, when they assert that it would be a good idea to constrain the Fed.

Now let’s expand on two issues. First, I mention in my article the gold standard as a potential rule to constrain the Fed. I’ve previously shared some analysis by George Selgin on this topic. He’s concluded that governments won’t ever allow its return and probably couldn’t be trusted with such a system anyway, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.

Here are some excerpts from a recent article by George. Read the entire thing, but here’s the part that matters most for this discussion.

…the gold standard was hardly perfect, and gold bugs themselves sometimes make silly claims about their favorite former monetary standard. …the classical gold standard worked remarkably well (while it lasted). …it certainly did contribute both to the general abundance of goods of all sorts, to the ease with which goods and capital flowed from nation to nation, and, especially, to the sense of a state of affairs that was “normal, certain, and permanent.” The gold standard achieved these things mainly by securing a degree of price-level and exchange rate stability and predictability that has never been matched since.

And Norbert Michel of the Heritage Foundation touches on some of the same issues in a new column for Forbes.

Several candidates suggested the gold standard was a good system, and they’re all getting flak for talking about gold.

But here’s the most fascinating revelation from Norbert’s column. It turns out that even Ben Bernanke agrees with George Selgin that the classical gold standard worked very well. Norbert quotes this passage from Bernanke.

The gold standard appeared to be highly successful from about 1870 to the beginning of World War I in 1914. During the so-called “classical” gold standard period, international trade and capital flows expanded markedly, and central banks experienced relatively few problems ensuring that their currencies retained their legal value.

Both Norbert’s article and George’s article have lots of good (but depressing) analysis of how governments went off the gold standard because of World War I and then put in place a hopelessly weak and impractical version of a gold standard after the war (the politicians didn’t want to be constrained by an effective system).

So here’s Norbert’s bottom line, which is very similar to the conclusion in my column for The Federalist.

Many who favor the gold standard recognize that it provided a nominal anchor as opposed to the discretionary fiat system we have now. Maybe the gold standard isn’t the best way to achieve that nominal anchor, but we shouldn’t just dismiss the whole notion.

The second issue worth mentioning is that the best way to deal with bad monetary policy may be to have no monetary policy.

At least not a monetary policy from government. This video explains the merits of this approach.

Gee, maybe Friedrich Hayek was right and private markets produce better results than government monopolies.

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What’s the biggest economic fallacy on the left? What’s the defining mistake for our statist friends?

One obvious answer is that many of them hold the anti-empirical belief that the economy is  a fixed pie and that one person can’t climb the economic ladder unless another person falls a few rungs.

There’s no doubt that the fixed-pie myth is an obstacle to sound thinking, but I’m wondering whether an even bigger problem is the pervasive belief on the left that there are easy shortcuts to prosperity.

Keynesian fiscal policy, for instance, is based on the notion that more growth is just a simple question of having the government spend more money.

And Keynesian monetary policy is based on a similarly simplistic assumption that more growth is generated by having central banks create more money.

To be sure, both policies may seem to work in the short run since people suddenly perceive that they have more money. But perceptions and reality may be different, particularly if the short-run boost in the economy is an illusory bubble.

And that’s why I’m not a big fan of QE-type policies designed to “stimulate” growth with artificially low interest rates.

As I explain in this brief FBN interview, any short-run gain is offset by long-run pain.

And I’m not the only one who has a jaundiced view.

The Wall Street Journal also is not happy with the Federal Reserve, opining that the real economy has stagnated as financial assets have been propped up by easy money.

…the Fed has only itself to blame for its economic and political predicament. …One lesson here is that the Fed’s great monetary experiment since the recession ended in 2009 looks increasingly like a failure. Recall the Fed’s theory that quantitative easing (bond buying) and near-zero interest rates would lift financial assets, which in turn would lift the real economy. …But while stocks have soared, as have speculative assets like junk bonds and commercial real estate, the real economy hasn’t. This remains the worst economic recovery by far since World War II…the economic expectations of Fed Chairs Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen have been consistently wrong. …the Fed now finds itself caught between a slowing global economy and its promise to begin normalizing rates this year. …One result has been to increase economic uncertainty and market volatility.

Another result is that easy-money policies give politicians an excuse to avoid the real reforms that would boost long-run growth.

I definitely think that’s been a problem in Europe. Politicians keep waiting for magical results from the European Central Bank when the real obstacle to prosperity is a stifling burden of taxation, spending, and regulation.

The bottom line is that politicians all over the world are exacerbating bad fiscal and regulatory policy with bad monetary policy.

To augment this analysis, here’s a video from the Fraser Institute about the insight of Friedrich Hayek, who warned that government intervention, particularly via monetary policy, caused booms and busts by distorting market signals.

Needless to say, last decade’s financial crisis is a case study showing the accuracy of Hayek’s Austrian-school analysis.

But politicians never seem to learn. Or maybe they just don’t care. They focus on the short run (i.e., the next election) and it always feels good when the bubble is expanding.

And when the government-created bubble bursts, they can simply blame greed, or rich people, or find some other scapegoat (and then repeat the same mistakes as soon as the dust settles).

P.S. For a more detailed look at Austrian economics, check out this lecture. And Austrian-school scholars also have the best analysis of the Great Depression.

P.P.S. And for a more conventional critique of easy-money policies, here are some highlights from a speech by a member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee.

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Before getting to the main topic today, here are some excerpts from a New York Post story that patriotic American readers will appreciate.

It deals with a protest.

…the group Disarm the Police…had announced on social media that they had planned to burn the flag in protest of NYPD policies.

But the event didn’t go as planned, thanks to members of the Hallowed Sons Motorcycle Club.

One of the bikers rushed forward in a fit of rage and kicked over the grill, sending embers flying. He then doused it as members of the pro-flag crowd chanted “USA! USA!” The bikers then started trying to rough up the protesters.

Here’s where the ironic part of the story.

…anti-NYPD protesters needed New York’s Finest to save their skin from a gang of angry bikers who tried to pummel them… The protesters were shielded by the cops and escorted out of the park.

And here’s some evidence that silly government regulations (a New York City tradition) take the fun out of protesting and counter-protesting.

While it’s illegal to openly burn anything in Fort Greene Park, the self-styled anarchists managed to find a loophole in the law that allows cooking in closed barbecue grills.

A few final comments on this story.

I realize I shouldn’t care, but I’m always dumbfounded when left-wing crazies refer to themselves as anarchists. Don’t they realize that you can’t be an anarchist while simultaneously advocating for much bigger government?

Reminds me of this bit of humor from the Libertarian Party.

In any event, the supposed anarchists obviously aren’t very bright since they thought it was a good idea to get on the wrong side of a bunch of bikers.

Since this is America’s Independence Day, I can’t help but think they got what they deserved, even though in the abstract I support their right to protest and burn flags that they bought with their own money (or, more likely, with money from their parents or from the welfare office).

==========================

Now for today’s main topic.

I appreciate tax havens for many reasons, mostly having to do with the importance of having some sort of external constraint on the tendency of politicians to over-tax and over-spend.

But I also like these low-tax jurisdictions for non-tax reasons. And high on my list is that I want people to have safe havens for their money as an insurance policy against governments that are incompetent, venal, abusive and/or corrupt.

And for the same reason, I like alternative currencies such as bitcoin (click here is you want to see a short and informative primer). These “cryptocurrencies” give people a way of protecting themselves when government mis-manage or mis-use monetary and financial systems.

And we have some very compelling real-world examples of how this works.

We’ll start with Greece, where people with bitcoins still enjoy liquidity. Those using the banking system, by contrast, are in trouble because of irresponsible government policy.

Here are some excerpts from a Reuters story.

There is at least one legal way to get your euros out of Greece these days, to guard against the prospect that they might be devalued into drachmas: convert them into bitcoin. Although absolute figures are hard to come by, Greek interest has surged in the online “cryptocurrency”, which is out of the reach of monetary authorities and can be transferred at the touch of a smartphone screen. New customers depositing at least 50 euros with BTCGreece, the only Greece-based bitcoin exchange, open only to Greeks, rose by 400 percent between May and June, according to its founder Thanos Marinos, who put the number at “a few thousand”. The average deposit quadrupled to around 700 euros.

Why are people shifting to bitcoin?

One part of the answer is that bitcoins are insulated from political risk.

Using bitcoin could allow Greeks to do one of the things that capital controls were put in place this week to prevent: transfer money out of their bank accounts and, if they wish, out of the country. …the bitcoin buyers’ main aim was to shield their money against the prospect that Greece might leave the euro zone and convert all the deposits in Greek banks into a greatly devalued national currency.

And is anyone surprised that there’s interest from other failing welfare states?

Coinbase, one of the world’s biggest bitcoin wallet providers, which is not currently accessible to Greeks, said it had seen huge interest from Italy, Spain and Portugal.

And it’s just a matter of time, I suspect, before there will be interest from France, Belgium, Japan, etc.

Now let’s look at Argentina, another corrupt and dysfunctional government that has a sordid history of abusing both the monetary system and the financial system.

The New York Times in May had an in-depth report on how people in that nation have been using bitcoin to circumvent bad government policy.

His occupation is one of the world’s oldest, but it remains a conspicuous part of modern life in Argentina…to serve local residents who want to trade volatile pesos for more stable and transportable currencies like the dollar. For Castiglione, however, money-changing means converting pesos and dollars into Bitcoin, a virtual currency, and vice versa. …Castiglione joked about the corruption of Argentine politics as he peeled off five $100 bills, which he was trading for a little more than 1.5 Bitcoins, and gave them to his client. …before showing up, he had transferred the Bitcoins — in essence, digital tokens that exist only as entries in a digital ledger — from his Bitcoin address to Castiglione’s.

Why are so many people interested in bitcoin?

Because the government is debasing and manipulating the official currency in ways that indirectly steal from the citizenry.

Had the German client instead sent euros to a bank in Argentina, the musician would have been required to fill out a form to receive payment and, as a result of the country’s currency controls, sacrificed roughly 30 percent of his earnings to change his euros into pesos. Bitcoin makes it easier to move money the other way too. The day before, the owner of a small manufacturing company bought $20,000 worth of Bitcoin from Castiglione in order to get his money to the United States, where he needed to pay a vendor, a transaction far easier and less expensive than moving funds through Argentine banks.

And don’t forget that Argentina’s government is one of the nations with a track record of stealing money when it’s left in banks.

Commerce of this sort has proved useful enough to Argentines that Castiglione has made a living buying and selling Bitcoin for the last year and a half. …The money brought to Argentina using Bitcoin circumvents the onerous government restrictions on receiving money from abroad. …It makes sense that a place like Argentina would be fertile ground for a virtual currency. Inflation is constant: At the end of 2014, for example, the peso was worth 25 percent less than it was at the beginning of the year. And that adversity pales in comparison with past bouts of hyperinflation, defaults on national debts and currency revaluations. Less than half of the population use Argentine banks and credit cards. Even wealthy Argentines fear keeping their money in the country’s banks.

Bitcoin protects consumers from rapacious and feckless politicians.

…in the fall of 2012, when the Argentine government ordered PayPal to bar direct payments between Argentines, part of the government’s effort to slow the exchange of pesos into other currencies. …Argentines were using Bitcoin to circumvent the government’s restrictions. “…competition eliminates all currencies from noneffective governments,” it said… In Argentina, the banks refuse to work with Bitcoin companies like Coinbase, which isn’t surprising, given the government’s tight control over banks. This hasn’t deterred Argentines, long accustomed to changing money outside official channels.

In an ideal world, of course, there would be no need for bitcoin. At least not as a hedge against bad government policy (if a world of private monies, of course, cryptocurrencies presumably would be one of the market-based options).

But we don’t live in an ideal world. Some of us already live in nations where government financial and/or monetary policy make bitcoin a very important alternative.

And others of us live in countries where there is good reason to worry about future instability because of misguided fiscal, monetary, and economic policy. So it will be good if we have options such as bitcoin.

That doesn’t mean, to be sure, that the average person should transfer all their liquid wealth into bitcoin. Indeed, I’ve specifically stated that “I wouldn’t put my (rather inadequate) life savings in bitcoin.

But I certainly want that option if future events warrant a change of strategy.

P.S. If you’re in a patriotic mood (and if you like the Second Amendment), then you’ll definitely enjoy this slideshow.

P.P.S. If you enjoyed the six-frame image about bitcoin owners, you’ll probably like a similar image portraying libertarians.

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Back in 2010, I described the “Butterfield Effect,” which is a term used to mock clueless journalists for being blind to the real story.

A former reporter for the New York Times, Fox Butterfield, became a bit of a laughingstock in the 1990s for publishing a series of articles addressing the supposed quandary of how crime rates could be falling during periods when prison populations were expanding. A number of critics sarcastically explained that crimes rates were falling because bad guys were behind bars and invented the term “Butterfield Effect” to describe the failure of leftists to put 2 + 2 together.

Here are some of my favorite examples, all of which presumably are caused by some combination of media bias and economic ignorance.

  • A newspaper article that was so blind to the Laffer Curve that it actually included a passage saying, “receipts are falling dramatically short of targets, even though taxes have increased.”
  • Another article was entitled, “Few Places to Hide as Taxes Trend Higher Worldwide,” because the reporter apparently was clueless that tax havens were attacked precisely so governments could raise tax burdens.
  • In another example of laughable Laffer Curve ignorance, the Washington Post had a story about tax revenues dropping in Detroit “despite some of the highest tax rates in the state.”
  • Likewise, another news report had a surprised tone when reporting on the fully predictable news that rich people reported more taxable income when their tax rates were lower.

Now we have a new example for our collection.

Here are some passages from a very strange economics report in the New York Times.

There are some problems that not even $10 trillion can solve. That gargantuan sum of money is what central banks around the world have spent in recent years as they have tried to stimulate their economies and fight financial crises. …But it has not been able to do away with days like Monday, when fear again coursed through global financial markets.

I’m tempted to immediately ask why the reporter assumed any problem might be solved by having governments spend $10 trillion, but let’s instead ask a more specific question. Why is there unease in financial markets?

The story actually provides the answer, but the reporter apparently isn’t aware that debt is part of the problem instead of the solution.

Stifling debt loads, for instance, continue to weigh on governments around the world. …high borrowing…by…governments…is also bogging down the globally significant economies of Brazil, Turkey, Italy and China.

So if borrowing and spending doesn’t solve anything, is an easy-money policy the right approach?

…central banks like the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank have printed trillions of dollars and euros… Central banks can make debt less expensive by pushing down interest rates.

The story once again sort of provides the answer about the efficacy of monetary easing and artificially low interest rates.

…they cannot slash debt levels… In fact, lower interest rates can persuade some borrowers to take on more debt. “Rather than just reflecting the current weakness, low rates may in part have contributed to it by fueling costly financial booms and busts,” the Bank for International Settlements, an organization whose members are the world’s central banks, wrote in a recent analysis of the global economy.

This is remarkable. The reporter seems puzzled that deficit spending and easy money don’t help produce growth, even though the story includes information on how such policies retard growth. It must take willful blindness not to make this connection.

Indeed, the story in the New York Times originally was entitled, “Trillions Spent, but Crises like Greece’s Persist.”

Wow, what an example of upside-down analysis. A better title would have been “Crises like Greece’s Persist Because Trillions Spent.”

The reporter/editor/headline writer definitely deserve the Fox Butterfield prize.

Here’s another example from the story that reveals this intellectual inconsistency.

Debt in China has soared since the financial crisis of 2008, in part the result of government stimulus efforts. Yet the Chinese economy is growing much more slowly than it was, say, 10 years ago.

Hmmm…, maybe the Chinese economy is growing slower because of the so-called stimulus schemes.

At some point one might think people would make the connection between economic stagnation and bad policy. But journalists seem remarkably impervious to insight.

The Economist has a story that also starts with the assumption that Keynesian policies are good. It doesn’t explicitly acknowledge the downsides of debt and easy money, but it implicitly shows the shortcomings of that approach because the story focuses on how governments have less “fiscal space” to engage in another 2008-style orgy of Keynesian monetary and fiscal policy

The analysis is misguided, but the accompanying chart is useful since it shows which nations are probably most vulnerable to a fiscal crisis.

If you’re at the top of the chart, because you have oil like Norway, or because you’re semi-sensible like South Korea, Australia, and Switzerland, that’s a good sign. But if you’re a nation like Japan, Italy, Greece, and Portugal, it’s probably just a matter of time before the chickens of excessive spending come home to roost.

P.S. Related to the Fox Butterfield effect, I’ve also suggested that there should be “some sort of “Wrong Way Corrigan” Award for people like Drum who inadvertently help the cause of economic liberty.”

P.P.S. And in the same spirit, I’ve proposed an “own-goal effect” for “accidentally helping the other side.”

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The standard argument against an easy-money policy is that it creates distortions in an economy that lead to either rapid increases in the price level, like we endured in the 1970s, or unsustainable asset bubbles, like we experienced last decade.

Those arguments are completely valid, but they only tell part of the story.

Central banks also should be criticized because “quantitative easing” and “zero interest rate policies” create major imbalances in capital markets.

A major new study from Swiss Re quantifies the damage to savers. Here are some excerpts from a CNBC report.

The Federal Reserve’s efforts to stimulate the U.S. economy after the financial crisis ended up costing savers nearly half a trillion dollars in interest income, according to report released Thursday. Since the central bank dropped interest rates to near zero at the end of 2008, savers have labored under plain-vanilla bank accounts and money market funds that have yielded close to nothing. …In a landmark report, Swiss Re quantifies just how much savers and others have languished… The reinsurance firm put the number at $470 billion in the 2008-13 period studied, so the number is likely even higher now. …”the impact of foregone interest income for households and long-term investors has become substantial.” …Swiss Re said the “financial repression” has taken its toll not only on savers but also on some areas of investing.

Here’s a chart from the Swiss Re report. As you can see, an easy-money policy is a massive tool for redistribution, with savers being hurt and government being subsidized.

Indeed, Swiss Re actually calculates a “financial repression index.”

Financial repression reflects the ability of policymakers to direct funds to themselves that would otherwise go elsewhere.

And the level of this repression has been at record highs in recent years.

It is true that some households benefit from easy money and artificially low interest rates. Their debt expenses have been reduced and they also are enjoying higher asset values.

But those benefits may be fleeting if the end result is a bubble that bursts, as happened in 2008.

Writing for the Washington Times, my Cato colleague Richard Rahn agrees that central banks are hurting savers, but he augments this analysis by making the very important point that easy-money policies simply don’t work.

Government economic policymakers have been trying to solve a problem of too much government spending, taxing and regulation by inappropriately using monetary policy, which has not and cannot solve the fundamental problems (it is like using a hammer rather than a shovel to dig a hole). The major central banks have been holding down interest rates, which is actually a massive indirect tax levied on the world’s savers. Historically, savers would receive about 3 percent interest above the rate of inflation on their safest investments, but now interest rates often do not cover even the low inflation that is occurring in the developed countries. …Many economists expected savers to save less and consume more as a result of low or even negative interest rates… When businesses and individuals look at the world debt situation and the increased chances of another financial collapse, their rational response is to increase “precautionary” savings, even though they are not receiving interest on them.

So the bottom line is that central banks are engaging in “financial repression” today and creating risks of price instability and/or asset bubbles tomorrow.

But there’s no compensating benefit to make all these costs (and future risks) worthwhile.

That’s not a good deal.

So what’s the alternative?

In the short run, the best hope is that central bankers, including the ones at the Federal Reserve, will take their feet off the figurative gas pedal and follow some sort of monetary rule that precludes destructive intervention.

In the long run, the ideal answer would be a return to market-provided private currencies. This isn’t just silly libertarian fantasy. There actually have been countries that successfully used this “free banking” approach.

Professor Larry White has a must-read historical review of what happened before governments monopolized currency issue.

When we look into these episodes, we find a record of innovation, improvement, and success at serving money-users. As in other goods and services, competition provided the public with improved products at better prices. The least regulated systems were not only the most competitive but also by and large the least crisis-prone. …the record of these historical free banking systems, “most if not all can be considered as reasonably successful, sometimes quite remarkably so.”…Those systems of plural note issue that were panic prone, like those of pre-1913 United States and pre-1832 England, were not so because of competition but because of legal restrictions that significantly weakened banks. Where free banking was given a reasonable trial, for example in Scotland and Canada, it functioned well for the typical user of money and banking services.

The history of central banking, by contrast, is not nearly as successful. There’s been massive erosion in the value of money and central banks are largely responsible for the boom-bust cycle that has afflicted many economies.

At this point, you may be wondering why central banking triumphed over free banking if the latter is so superior.

The answer is simple. As Professor White explains, look at what’s in the best interest of the political elite.

Free banking often ended because the imposition of heavy legal restrictions or creation of a privileged central bank offered revenue advantages to politically influential interests. The legislature or the Treasury can tap a central bank for cheap credit, or (under a fiat standard) simply have the central bank pay the government’s bills by issuing new money. …Central banks primarily arose, directly or indirectly, from legislation that created privileges to promote the fiscal interests of the state or the rent-seeking interests of privileged bankers, not from market forces.

In other words, a system of competitive currencies is perfectly plausible, but it’s not in the interest of politicians (just as having no income tax is plausible, but also not in the interest of politicians).

For more information on free banking, here’s a video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Professor White also has a good video explaining why a central bank isn’t needed.

P.S. For those of you who like the gold standard, Professor George Selgin (now head of Cato’s Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives) has some major concerns (at least if the government is in charge of it).

P.P.S. Don’t forget that the Federal Reserve also imposes a lot of costly regulation on the financial sector.

P.P.P.S. Thomas Sowell has some wise observations on why we shouldn’t grant more power to the Fed and John Stossel explains why monetary competition would be good.

P.P.P.P.S. To end with some humor, here’s the famous “Ben Bernank” video. And if that doesn’t exhaust your interest in the topic, here’s a snarky cartoon video mocking the Fed and another video with 10 reasons to dislike the Fed.

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During periods of economic weakness, governments often respond with “loose” monetary policy, which generally means that central banks will take actions that increase liquidity and artificially lower interest rates.

I’m not a big fan of this approach.

If an economy is suffering from bad fiscal policy or bad regulatory policy, why expect that an easy-money policy will be effective?

What if politicians use an easy-money policy as an excuse to postpone or avoid structural reforms that are needed to restore growth?

And shouldn’t we worry that an easy-money policy will cause economic damage by triggering systemic price hikes or bubbles?

Defenders of central banks and easy money generally respond to such questions by assuring us that QE-type policies are not a substitute or replacement for other reforms.

And they tell us the downside risk is overstated because central bankers will have the wisdom to soak up excess liquidity at the right time and raise interest rates at the right moment.

I hope they’re right, but my gut instinct is to worry that central bankers are not sufficiently vigilant about the downside risks of easy-money policies.

But not all central bankers. While I was in London last week to give a presentation to the State of the Economy conference, I got to hear a speech by Kristin Forbes, a member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee.

She was refreshingly candid about the possible dangers of the easy-money approach, particularly with regards to artificially low interest rates.

Here is one of the charts from her presentation.

Those of us who are old enough to remember the 1970s will be concerned about her first point. And this is important. It would be terrible to let the inflation genie out of the bottle, particularly since there may not be a Ronald Reagan-type leader in the future who will do what’s needed to solve such a mess.

But today I want to focus on her second, fourth, and fifth points.

So here are some of the details from her speech, starting with some analysis of the risk of bubbles.

…when interest rates are low, investors may “search for yield” and shift funds to riskier investments that are expected to earn a higher return – from equity markets to high-yield debt markets to emerging markets. This could drive up prices in these other markets and potentially create “bubbles”. This can not only lead to an inefficient allocation of capital, but leave certain investors with more risk than they appreciate. An adjustment in asset prices can bring about losses that are difficult to manage, especially if investments were supported by higher leverage possible due to low rates. If these losses were widespread across an economy, or affected systemically-important institutions, they could create substantial economic disruption. This tendency to assume greater risk when interest rates are low for a sustained period not only occurs for investors, but also within banks, corporations, and broader credit markets. Studies have shown that during periods of monetary expansion, banks tend to soften lending standards and experience an increase in their assessed “riskiness”. There is evidence that the longer an expansion lasts, the greater these effects. Companies also take advantage of periods of low borrowing costs to increase debt issuance. If this occurs during a period of low default rates – as in the past few years – this can further compress borrowing spreads and lead to levels of debt issuance that may be difficult to support when interest rates normalize. There is a lengthy academic literature showing that low interest rates often foster credit booms, an inefficient allocation of capital, banking collapses, and financial crises. This series of risks to the financial system from a period of low interest rates should be taken seriously and carefully monitored.

Her fourth and fifth points are particularly important since they show she appreciates the Austrian-school insight that bad monetary policy can distort market signals and lead to malinvestment.

Here’s some of what she shared about the fourth point.

…is there a chance that a prolonged period of near-zero interest rates is allowing less efficient companies to survive and curtailing the “creative destruction” that is critical to support productivity growth? Or even within existing, profitable companies – could a prolonged period of low borrowing costs reduce their incentive to carefully assess and evaluate investment projects – leading to a less efficient allocation of capital within companies? …For further evidence on this capital misallocation, one could estimate the rate of “scrappage” during the crisis and the level of capital relative to its optimal, steady-state level. Recent BoE work has found tentative evidence of a “capital overhang”, an excess of capital above that judged optimal given current conditions. Usually any such capital overhang falls quickly during a recession as inefficient factories and plants are shut down and new investment slows. The slower reallocation of capital since the crisis could partly be due to low interest rates.

And here is some of what she said about the fifth point.

A fifth possible cost of low interest rates is that it could shift the sources of demand in ways which make underlying growth less balanced, less resilient, and less sustainable. This could occur through increases in consumption and debt, and decreases in savings and possibly the current account. …if these shifts are too large – or vulnerabilities related to overconsumption, overborrowing, insufficient savings, or large current account deficits continue for too long – they could create economic challenges.

In her speech, Ms. Forbes understandably focused on the current environment and speculated about possible future risks.

But the concerns about easy-money policies are not just theoretical.

Let’s look at some new research from economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the University of California, and the University of Bonn.

In a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, they look at the connections between monetary policy and housing bubbles.

How do monetary and credit conditions affect housing booms and busts? Do low interest rates cause households to lever up on mortgages and bid up house prices, thus increasing the risk of financial crisis? And what, if anything, should central banks do about it? Can policy directed at housing and credit conditions, with monetary or macroprudential tools, lead a central bank astray and dangerously deflect it from single- or dual-mandate goals?

It appears the answer is yes.

This paper analyzes the link between monetary conditions, credit growth, and house prices using data spanning 140 years of modern economic history across 14 advanced economies. …We make three core contributions. First, we discuss long-run trends in mortgage lending, home ownership, and house prices and show that the 20th century has indeed been an era of increasing “bets on the house.” …Second, turning to the cyclical fluctuations of lending and house prices we use novel instrumental variable local projection methods to show that throughout history loose monetary conditions were closely associated with an upsurge in real estate lending and house prices. …Third, we also expose a close link between mortgage credit and house price booms on the one hand, and financial crises on the other. Over the past 140 years of modern macroeconomic history, mortgage booms and house price bubbles have been closely associated with a higher likelihood of a financial crisis. This association is more noticeable in the post-WW2 era, which was marked by the democratization of leverage through housing finance.

So what’s the bottom line?

The long-run historical evidence uncovered in this study clearly suggests that central banks have reasons to worry about the side-effects of loose monetary conditions. During the 20th century, real estate lending became the dominant business model of banks. As a result, the effects that low interest rates have on mortgage borrowing, house prices and ultimately financial instability risks have become considerably stronger. …these historical insights suggest that the potentially destabilizing byproducts of easy money must be taken seriously

In other words, we’re still dealing with some of the fallout of a housing bubble/financial crisis caused in part by the Fed’s easy-money policy last decade.

Yet we have people in Washington who haven’t learned a thing and want to repeat the mistakes that created that mess.

Even though we now have good evidence about the downside risk of easy money and bubbles!

Sort of makes you wonder whether the End-the-Fed people have a good point.

P.S. Central banks also can cause problems because of their regulatory powers.

P.P.S. Just as there are people in Washington who want to double down on failure, there are similar people in Europe who think a more-of-the-same approach is the right cure for the problems caused in part by a some-of-the-same approach.

P.P.P.S. For those interested in monetary policy, the good news is that the Cato Institute recently announced the formation of the Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives, led by former UGA economics professor George Selgin, which will focus on development of policy recommendations that will create a more free-market monetary system.

P.P.P.P.S. If you watch this video, you’ll see that George doesn’t give the Federal Reserve a very high grade.

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Everyone, it seems, is worried about global economic stagnation.

And there is good reason to be concerned. Europe is in the doldrums. Japan is stagnant. The developing world is hampered by intervention, corruption, and absence of property rights. And the United States is stumbling through an abnormally weak recovery.

But what’s the solution to this economic malaise?

The international economic policymaking elite seems to think easy money is the right elixir. The Wall Street Journal editorial page is underwhelmed by this approach.

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi announced a plan to buy what amounts to €50 billion ($56.84 billion) a month in government bonds and other assets at least through September 2016 on top of the €10 billion the ECB already was buying through various programs. …This QE program is more a political than economic triumph. …someone has to point out—since the QE cheering section among the political and investor classes won’t—that Mr. Draghi himself warned in his press conference Thursday that quantitative easing by itself won’t revive stalling eurozone economies… Reforms that would displace entrenched interests, whether domestic businesses or unions, are hard for politicians to enact, while demanding easier money from the central bank is easy.

Unfortunately, the ECB’s easy-money policy will probably give politicians in national capitals further leeway to avoid real reforms.

Politicians should now get serious about reforms on the theory that the central bank has done what they want. Smaller, sicker European economies have no more monetary excuses for their failure to reform. Or at least we can dream. The likelier outcome is that to the extent quantitative easing drives down bond yields, it will reduce market pressure for reforms until another economic crisis or deflationary blip spurs calls for a QE expansion.

Even folks that lean more to the left don’t think dumping more money into the economy will solve underlying problems.

Here are some excerpts from a David Ignatius column in the Washington Post.

A sign of the concern among business and political leaders here about sluggish economic growth is that one of the World Economic Forum sessions this week was titled “Avoiding a Centennial Slump” — meaning a downturn that lasts a hundred years. …The European Central Bank did the equivalent of pushing the panic button Thursday, announcing a bond-buying program of 1.1 trillion euros meant to lower interest rates and encourage investment. …But rates are already rock-bottom, and although the ECB’s “quantitative easing,” as it’s known, will flood Europe with cash, there’s no guarantee that it will be used to cure the region’s structural impediments to growth. Indeed, persistent low rates are one of the attributes of a deflationary economy, rather than a cure.

I largely disagree with the policies that Ignatius then proposes, but at least we generally agree that the European economy isn’t in the dumps because of inadequate liquidity.

The problem isn’t just in Europe. Like the ECB, the Federal Reserve also has tried to goose growth with easy-money policies.

But that’s like pushing on a string. Maybe there are times that the financial system needs more liquidity, but folks shouldn’t labor under the impression that printing more money solves the structural problems caused by too much spending, too high taxes, and too onerous levels of regulation.

And it’s quite possible, of course, that easy-money policies actually undermine long-run prosperity by creating bubbles.

Though as this Chip Bok cartoon illustrates, Wall Street enjoys bubbles, at least when they’re expanding.

P.S. Since I cited a Washington Post columnist who’s attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this is a good opportunity to share some excerpts from a column Dan Hannan wrote for CapX.

As you can see, he’s not a big fan.

Davos is a place where powerful people pick up consultancies and directorships and international posts. Left-wingers rightly resent this. What they see, in Marxist terms, is a gang of rentiers coming together to devise new means to live off the sweat of the workers. …Yet, when it comes to free markets, Davos Man is often on the same side as the Lefties. He derives most of his income, directly or indirectly, from state patronage. If he is in the private sector – and he is more likely to be a lobbyist, politician or bureaucrat than a businessman – he’ll be an instinctive monopolist, keen to persuade ministers and officials to raise barriers against his potential rivals.

Since I’ve never been to one of these meetings and have never perused an attendance list, I don’t know if Hannan is being overly dour.

But I do worry that folks who are already rich and powerful are probably more focused on maintaining the status quo than on needed reforms.

As such, they’re susceptible to wanting to manage the economy rather than allow unfettered markets.

All right, you say, but surely it’s useful for powerful people to exchange ideas and learn from each other’s mistakes. Well, yes; but this lot rarely seem to learn. Whatever the problem, their preferred solution is always to establish a global bureaucracy staffed by people like themselves. Obviously, they don’t put it like that. “The stability of the global economy” is a much prettier phrase than “a juicy public sector post for me”. It’s like an Ayn Rand novel, where lobbyists reach cosy arrangements with each other in elliptical language. Remember the way she described members of a company board? “Men whose careers depended on keeping their faces bland, their remarks inconclusive and their clothes immaculate”. That’s Davos.

There’s also a bit of hypocrisy at Davos.

One of the big agenda items is the supposed horror of climate change.

So you would think participants would be taking every possible step to reduce their carbon footprints, right?

But according to CNN, not so much.

Look to the skies this week in Switzerland and you’ll see the heavens are cluttered with private jets. Billionaires and world leaders from across the globe are flying en masse to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — and they insist on traveling in style. Roughly 1,700 private flights are expected over the course of the week.

The problem isn’t that some rich people use private jets. But if they fly in luxury and then pontificate on how the rest of us should accept lower living standards, they open themselves to some well-deserved abuse.

Speaking of Davos, climate change, and hypocrisy, here’s a perfect example of an empty poseur.

Al Gore is teaming up with rapper and producer Pharrell Williams to promote ‘climate change’ awareness through a series of concerts called “Live Earth,” which will take place on June 18th across six continents. The concerts will help “build support for a U.N. climate pact in Paris among more than 190 nations in December,” ABC reports. The announcement was made at the World Economic Forum on Wednesday where Pharrell said he wants “to have a billion voices with one message–to demand climate action now.”

Sounds noble, right? But Mr. Williams isn’t exactly the poster child for energy asceticism.

…when he’s not fighting to decrease your carbon footprint, Pharrell is flying across the planet on his private jet, sailing the seas on fossil fuel-burning yachts, and driving around in his pollution pumping luxury cars. …Pharrell owns a Mercedes-Benz SLR, which gets about 12 miles to the gallon. He has a McLaren Roadster, which gets him about 13 miles per gallon. Pharrell also owns a Rolls Royce Phantom and a Porsche Spyder 550, which both get about 10 and 20 miles per gallon.

Hmmmm…, sounds like another multi-millionaire hypocrite from the entertainment industry.

P.S. Returning to the issue of monetary policy, don’t forget that there are very strong arguments for getting governments out of the business of money.

P.P.S. And on the issue of boosting growth, there’s no substitute for free markets and limited government.

P.P.P.S. Yet most European nations are traveling in the opposite direction. Even more absurd, Obama wants to copy their failures, as captured by these cartoons from Michael Ramirez, Glenn Foden, Eric Allie and Chip Bok.

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Back in 2010, I shared a video that predicted a catastrophic end to the welfare state.

I said it was an example of “Libertarian Porn” because:

…it is designed for the dark enjoyment of people who think the government is destroying the nation. If you don’t like bloated government and statist intervention and you think that the policies being imposed by Washington are going to lead to hyperinflation and societal collapse, then you will get a certain level of grim satisfaction by watching the video.

While I also stated in that post that I thought the video was far too dour and pessimistic, I don’t automatically reject the hypothesis that the welfare state will lead to societal chaos.

UK RiotsIndeed, I’ve specifically warned that America might experience European-type disarray because of big government and I even wrote about which nations that might be good escape options if the welfare state causes our country to unravel.

Moreover, I’ve speculated about the possible loss of democracy in Europe and specifically said that people should have the right to be well armed just in case society goes you-know-where in a handbasket.

So I’m definitely not a Pollyanna.

I’ve given this background because here’s another video for those of you who revel in the glass being nine-tenths empty. It’s about the United Kingdom, but these numbers from the BIS, OECD, and IMF show that the long-term spending problem is equally severe in the United States.

Be warned, though, that it’s depressing as well as long. And I gather it’s also designed to sell a magazine, so you can ignore that (particularly if you’re not British).

Now that I’ve shared the video, I’ll add a couple of my own observations.

First and foremost, no country is past the point of no return, at least based on the numbers. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the United Kingdom, the United States, Greece, or France. Politicians always have the option of reforming entitlements and restraining the burden of government spending. So long as they follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule over an extended period of time, they can dig out of the mess.

That’s why I’m a big fan of Switzerland’s spending cap, That policy, technically known as the debt brake, imposes a rolling cap on budgetary growth and has been very effective. Colorado also has a spending cap that has been somewhat effective in restraining the cost of the public sector.

My second observation, however, is that some nations may be past the psychological point of return. This is not easy to measure, but it basically means that there’s good reason to be pessimistic when the majority of citizens in a country think it’s morally acceptable to have their snouts in the public trough and to live off the labor of others. When you have too many people riding in the wagon (or riding in the party ship), then it’s difficult to envision how good policy is implemented.

Indeed, the video includes some discussion of how a growing number of people in the United Kingdom now live off the state. And if you add together the votes of people like NatailijaTraceyAnjem, Gina, and Danny, perhaps the United Kingdom has reached a grim tipping point. Especially since welfare spending has dramatically increased in recent years!

A third and final point about the video. I think it focuses too much on deficits and debt. Red ink is a serious issue, to be sure, but it’s very important to understand that too much borrowing is merely a symptom of too much spending.

P.S. On a totally separate matter, everyone should read the USA Today column by Glenn Reynolds. He explains how government is perverting our criminal justice system.

Here are some of the most important passages, but you should read the whole thing.

Here’s how things all-too-often work today: Law enforcement decides that a person is suspicious (or, possibly, just a political enemy). Upon investigation into every aspect of his/her life, they find possible violations of the law, often involving obscure, technical statutes that no one really knows. They then file a “kitchen-sink” indictment involving dozens, or even hundreds of charges, which the grand jury rubber stamps. The accused then must choose between a plea bargain, or the risk of a trial in which a jury might convict on one or two felony counts simply on a “where there’s smoke there must be fire” theory even if the evidence seems less than compelling.

This is why, Glenn explains, there are very few trials. Almost everything gets settled as part of plea bargains.

But that’s not a good thing, particularly when there are no checks and balances to restrain bad behavior by the state.

…although there’s lots of due process at trial — right to cross-examine, right to counsel, rules of evidence, and, of course, the jury itself, which the Framers of our Constitution thought the most important protection in criminal cases — there’s basically no due process at the stage when prosecutors decide to bring charges. Prosecutors who are out to “get” people have a free hand; prosecutors who want to give favored groups or individuals a pass have a free hand, too.When juries decide not to convict because doing so would be unjust, it’s called “jury nullification,” and although everyone admits that it’s a power juries have, many disapprove of it. But when prosecutors decide not to bring charges, it’s called “prosecutorial discretion,” and it’s subject to far less criticism, if it’s even noticed.

Here’s the bottom line.

…with today’s broad and vague criminal statutes at both the state and federal level, everyone is guilty of some sort of crime, a point that Harvey Silverglate underscores with the title of his recent book, Three Felonies A Day: How The Feds Target The Innocent, that being the number of felonies that the average American, usually unknowingly, commits. …The combination of vague and pervasive criminal laws — the federal government literally doesn’t know how many federal criminal laws there are — and prosecutorial discretion, plus easy overcharging and coercive plea-bargaining, means that where criminal law is concerned we don’t really have a judicial system as most people imagine it. Instead, we have a criminal justice bureaucracy that assesses guilt and imposes penalties with only modest supervision from the judiciary, and with very little actual accountability.

Glenn offers some possible answers.

…prosecutors should have “skin in the game” — if someone’s charged with 100 crimes but convicted of only one, the state should have to pay 99% of his legal fees. This would discourage overcharging. (So would judicial oversight, but we’ve seen little enough of that.) Second, plea-bargain offers should be disclosed at trial, so that judges and juries can understand just how serious the state really thinks the offense is. …And finally, I think that prosecutors should be stripped of their absolute immunity to suit — an immunity created by judicial activism, not by statute — and should be subject to civil damages for misconduct such as withholding evidence. If our criminal justice system is to be a true justice system, then due process must attach at all stages. Right now, prosecutors run riot. That needs to change.

Amen to all that. And you can read more on this topic by clicking here.

The Obama years have taught us that dishonest people can twist and abuse the law for ideological purposes.

Obamacare rule of law cartoonWhether we’re talking about the corruption of the IRS, the deliberate disregard of the law for Obamacare, or the NSA spying scandal, the White House has shown that it’s naive to assume that folks in government have ethical standards.

And that’s also true for the law enforcement bureaucracy, as Glenn explained. Simply stated, people in government abuse power. And jury nullification, while a helpful check on misbehavior, only works when there is a trial.

Indeed, I’m now much more skeptical about the death penalty for many of the reasons Glenn discusses in his column. To be blunt, I don’t trust that politically ambitious prosecutors will behave honorably.

That’s why, regardless of the issue, you rarely will go wrong if you’re advocating fewer laws and less government power.

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Like John Stossel and Thomas Sowell, I’m not a big fan of the Federal Reserve.

It’s not just that I’m a libertarian who fantasizes about the denationalization of money.

I also think the Fed hasn’t done a good job, even by its own metrics. There’s very little doubt, for instance, that easy-money policies last decade played a major role in creating the housing bubble and causing the financial crisis.

Yes, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac played a big role, but it was the Fed that provided the excess liquidity that the GSEs used to subsidize the subprime lending orgy.

But I’m not writing today about possible alternatives to the Fed or big-picture issues dealing with monetary policy.

Instead, I want to highlight three rather positive signs about the Janet Yellen, the new Chair of the Fed’s Board of Governors.

1. Unlike a normal political animal and typical bureaucratic empire builder, she didn’t assert powers that she doesn’t have. She was asked at a congressional hearing about bitcoin and she forthrightly stated that the Federal Reserve has no legislative authority to mess with the online currency.

The Federal Reserve has no authority to supervise or regulate Bitcoin, chair Janet Yellen told Congress on Thursday. …On Wednesday, Manchin wrote to the Fed, Treasury and other regulators warning that the currency was “disruptive to our economy” and calling for its regulation. “Bitcoin is a payment innovation that’s taking place outside the banking industry. To the best of my knowledge there’s no intersection at all, in any way, between Bitcoin and banks that the Federal Reserve has the ability to supervise and regulate. So the Fed doesn’t have authority to supervise or regulate Bitcoin in anyway,” said Yellen.

This is very refreshing. A government official who is willing to be bound by the rule of law.

President Obama, by contrast, is now infamous for his radical and unilateral rewrites of his failed healthcare law.

Eighteen of them for those keeping count at home.

But it’s not just Obamacare.

Because of my interest in tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy, I’m upset that his Treasury Department pushed through a regulation that overturns – rather than enforces – laws about protecting American banks from tax inquiries by foreign governments.

But let’s not wander into other issues. Today’s post is about positive signs from Janet Yellen.

2. And here’s another one.

Political Cartoons by Gary VarvelThe Fed Chair poured cold water on the left’s fantasy view that higher minimum wage mandates don’t kill jobs.

The new Federal Reserve chairman, Janet Yellen, seemed to offer some support for the CBO’s recent conclusion that increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, as President Obama and Senate Democrats propose, would cost a significant number of jobs. The CBO projected that the proposal would mean 500,000 fewer jobs by the end of 2016, a conclusion the White House took issue with. Yellen said the CBO “is as qualified as anyone to evaluate the literature” about the employment effects of the minimum wage (some of which argues there would be little to no jobs losses, and some of which suggests there would be significant job losses), and that she “wouldn’t want to argue with their assessment.”

In the cautious-speak world of Fed officials, this is a very strong statement.

Congratulations to Yellen for putting intellectual honesty above partisan loyalty.

3. Most important of all, Yellen also affirmed that she plans on continuing the “taper,” which is the buzzword for winding down the Fed’s easy-money policy.

…she reiterated that it would take a “significant change” to the economy’s prospects for the Fed to put plans to wind down its bond-buying program on hold. …After more than five years of ultra easy monetary policy in the wake of the 2007-2009 recession, the Fed is taking the first small steps towards a more normal footing. It trimmed its bond buying by $10 billion in each of the past two months, and it expects to raise interest rates some time next year as long as the economy continues to improve. Yellen reiterated her concerns about possible asset price bubbles, and suggested the Fed would move to a more qualitative description of when it plans to finally raise rates. …Yellen acknowledged that such low borrowing costs “can give rise to behavior that poses threats to financial stability.”

And she even acknowledged that easy money can cause bubbles.

A refreshing change from some previous Fed Governors.

Now let’s give a caveat. None of this suggests Yellen is a closet libertarian.

She is perceived as being on the left of the spectrum, and it’s worth noting that many hardcore statists in the Democratic Party urged her selection over Larry Summers because he was (incorrectly) seen as somehow being too moderate.

Moreover, I suspect she will say many things in the coming years that will add to my collection of gray hair.

All that being said, I’m glad Obama picked her over Summers. By all accounts, Yellen is honest and will focus her attention on monetary policy.

Summers, by contrast, is a far more political animal and would have used the position of Fed Chair to aggressively push for more statism in areas outside of monetary policy.

P.S. Private financial institutions also played a role in the housing bubble and financial crisis, which is why those entities should have been allowed to go bankrupt instead of benefiting from the corrupt TARP bailout.

P.P.S. Since this post mentions bitcoin and since I sometimes get asked about the online currency, I’ll take this opportunity to say that I hope that it is ultimately successful so that we have alternatives to government monetary monopolies. That being said, I wouldn’t put my (rather inadequate) life savings in bitcoin.

P.P.P.S. If you want an amusing video mocking the Fed, here’s the famous “Ben Bernank” video. And if you want a serious takedown of the Fed, here’s George Selgin’s scholarly but accessible analysis.

P.P.P.P.S. On a completely unrelated topic, if you’re a fan of “House of Cards,” I invite you to pay close attention at about the 30:00 mark of Episode 5, Season 2. If you don’t blink, you may notice an unexpected cameo appearance. Maybe this person has a future acting career if he ever succeeds in restoring limited government and needs to find something new to occupy his time. After all, if President Obama has a future on the silver screen, why not others?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s Mitchell’s Law on steroids.

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

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

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

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When speaking about the difference between the private sector and the government, I sometimes emphasize that mistakes and errors are inevitable, and that the propensity to screw up may be just as prevalent in the private sector as it is in the public sector.

I actually think the government is more likely to screw up, for reasons outlined here, here, and here, but let’s bend over backwards to be fair and assume similar levels of mistakes.

The key difference between capitalism and government, though, is the feedback mechanism.

Private firms that make errors are quickly penalized. They lose customers, which means they lose profits. Or perhaps they even fail and go out of business (remember, capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell).

This tends to concentrate the mind. Executives work harder, shareholders and bondholders focus more on promoting good corporate governance. All of which benefits the rest of us in our roles as workers and consumers.

But mistakes in the public sector rarely lead to negative feedback. Indeed, agencies and departments that make mistakes sometimes get rewarded with even bigger budgets. This means the rest of us are doubly victimized because we are taxpayers and we have to rely on certain government services.

Citing the Federal Reserve as an example, Thomas Sowell explains how this process works. He starts with a look at the Fed’s recent failures and asks some basic questions about why we should reward the central bank with more power.

The recent release of the Federal Reserve Board’s transcripts of its deliberations back in 2007 shows that their economic prophecies were way off. How much faith should we put in their prophecies today — or the policies based on those prophecies?

Here’s another example.

Ben Bernanke said in 2007, “The impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the subprime market seems likely to be contained.” It turned out that financial disasters in the housing market were not “contained,” but spread out to affect the whole American economy and economies overseas.

And here’s the icing on the cake.

Bernanke said: “It is an interesting question why what looks like $100 billion or so of credit losses in the subprime market has been reflected in multiple trillions of dollars of losses in paper wealth.” What is an even more interesting question is why we should put such faith and such power in the hands of a man and an institution that have been so wrong before.

Sowell acknowledges that we all make errors, but then makes the key point about the risks of giving more and more power to a central bank that has such a dismal track record.

We all make mistakes. But we don’t all have the enormous and growing power of the Federal Reserve System — or the seemingly boundless confidence that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke still shows as he intervenes in the economy on a massive scale.

Sowell then highlights some of the reasons why we should worry about concentrating more power into the hands of a few central bankers.

Being wrong is nothing new for the Federal Reserve System. Since this year is the one hundredth anniversary of the Fed’s founding, it may be worth looking back at its history. …In the hundred years before there was a Federal Reserve System, inflation was less than half of what it became in the hundred years after the Fed was founded. The biggest deflation in the history of the country came after the Fed was founded, and that deflation contributed to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

If you want a more detailed examination of the Fed’s performance, this George Selgin video is withering indictment.

In other words, instead of giving the Fed more power, we should be looking at ways of clipping its wings.

I realize my fantasy of competitive currencies isn’t going to be realized anytime soon, and I’ve already explained why we should be very leery of trusting the government to operate a gold standard.

So I’m not sure whether I have any firm recommendations – other than perhaps hoping to convince policy makers that easy money is the not the right way of boosting an economy that is listless because of bad fiscal and regulatory policy.

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This is an easy question for me to answer. To be honest, I have no idea.

If I knew such things, I could time the market and I’d be rich beyond my wildest dreams and relaxing on the beach in the Cayman Islands instead of sitting in my kitchen in chilly Virginia.

Heck, I don’t even know whether the Fed’s policy is wrong or just worrisome. It’s possible, after all, that the central bank has provided appropriate liquidity and it will soak it up at the right time.

I don’t think that’s the case. I fear Bernanke is in over his head and that the Fed is engaging in the monetary version of Keynesian economics.

And if that’s true, something bad will happen at some point. If there’s too much liquidity out there, it presumably will show up at some point as either rising prices or an asset bubble.

Then again, we know banks are keeping more than $1 trillion of excess reserves parked at the Fed and maybe it will stay that way forever. In which case the private sector is inadvertently protecting us from bad monetary policy. Thomas Sowell has suggested that something like this is happening.

I can say for sure is that we wouldn’t have to worry if we were in a libertarian fantasy world and the private sector was responsible for money.

You may think that sounds crazy, but that’s the way it used to be, as explained in this short video.

John Stossel has made the same point about competing market-based currencies.

And if you want to see how well money has maintained its value since the Federal Reserve took over, this link has an excellent video.

P.S. I often get asked about the gold standard. It’s good in theory, but the real issue is whether governments can be trusted to operate it prudently and honestly.

P.P.S. Since Christmas is just two days away, we can all wonder whether we will get this present from Ben Bernanke. And if you still have some last-minute shopping to do, here’s a Bernanke t-shirt for your liberal friends.

P.P.P.S. For some laughs, check out Ben Bernanke’s Facebook page.

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In the past, I’ve shared Federal Reserve humor, including this special Fed toilet paper, Ben Bernanke’s hacked Facebook page, the Bernanke-who-stole-Christmas image, a t-shirt celebrating the Fed Chairman, and the famous “Ben Bernank” video.

But this film from Bernanke’s childhood years may be the best of all of them. It is a good symbol of how he learned to conduct monetary policy.

Though, to be fair, it is theoretically possible that the Fed Chairman’s monetary easing is simply the well-timed provision of liquidity and he will soak up all the extra money at precisely the right moment.

But I’m skeptical, as you can see here, here, and here.

The real problem, though, is that we’ve given government a monopoly over money. This video is a good introduction to how governments replaced market-based money with central banking.

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I’ve expressed concern about QE3 and other decisions by the Federal Reserve about monetary policy, but I have also admitted that it’s difficult to know the right monetary policy because it requires having a good idea about both the demand for money and the supply of money.

But this raises a bigger issue. The only reason we expect the Fed to “know the right monetary policy” is because it’s been assigned a monopoly role in the economy. But not just a monopoly role, we also expect the Fed to be some sort of omniscient central planner, knowing when to step on the gas and when to hit the brakes.

And we also are asked to suspend reality and assume that the folks at the Fed will be good central planners and never be influenced by their political masters. Yeah, good luck with that.

With so many difficult – or perhaps impossible – demands placed upon them, no wonder the Fed has a lousy track record (as documented in this powerful George Selgin video).

So let’s ask a fundamental question. Is the Fed necessary? Are we stuck with a central-planning monopoly because there’s no alternative? Professor Larry White says no in this new video from Learn Liberty.

This is one of the best videos I’ve ever seen, so I strongly encourage everyone to share this post widely.

Professor White effectively demonstrates how private markets can replace the five different roles of the Fed. But his arguments are not just based on theory. He shows that the private sector used to handle those roles in the past.

And I especially like his point about how a decentralized market system would operate. Indeed, I would have stressed even more how such a system overcomes the knowledge problem that exists with a monopoly central planner.

Here’s my video on the Fed. I focus more on how central banks developed, but you’ll see some common themes in the two videos.

P.S. Here’s a video with 10 reasons to dislike the Fed.

P.P.S. If you want some Fed humor, we have a Who-is-Ben-Bernanke t-shirt, this Fed song parody, some special Federal Reserve toilet paperBen Bernanke’s hacked Facebook page, and the famous “Ben Bernank” video.

P.P.P.S. Professor White’s video shows how we can improve monetary policy, but let’s also be aware that there are proposals that would lead to even worse monetary policy.

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I posted this t-shirt about Bernanke’s easy-money approach a couple of days ago, but I should have waited ’til today since it would be a perfect accompaniment to any analysis of the Fed Chairman’s unveiling of QE3.

But given the potential economic consequences, I suppose this isn’t a time for jokes. Let’s look at some of what the Wall Street Journal wrote this morning.

This is the Fed’s third round of quantitative easing (QE3) since the 2008 panic, and the difference this time is that Ben is unbounded. The Fed said it will keep interest rates at near-zero “at least through mid-2015,” which is six months longer than its previous vow. The bigger news is that the Fed announced another round of asset purchases—only this time as far as the eye can see. The Fed will start buying $40 billion of additional mortgage assets a month, with a goal of further reducing long-term interest rates. But if “the labor market does not improve substantially,” as the central bankers put it, the Fed will plunge ahead and buy more assets. And if that doesn’t work, it will buy still more. And if. . .

The “And if…” is the key passage. For all intents and purposes, Bernanke has said that the Fed is going to relentlessly focus on the variable it can’t control (employment) at the risk of causing bad news for the variable it can control (inflation).

A trip to the store in Bernankeville

Since that hasn’t worked in the past, it presumably won’t work in the future. The WSJ notes that recent Fed easings have made the economy worse.

Will it work? Mr. Bernanke recently offered a scholarly defense of his extraordinary policy actions since 2008, and there’s no doubt that QE1 was necessary in the heat of the panic. We supported it at the time. The returns on QE2 in 2010-2011 and the Fed’s other actions look far sketchier, even counterproductive. QE2 succeeded in lifting stocks for a time, but it also lifted other asset prices, notably commodities and oil. The Fed’s QE2 goal was to conjure what economists call “wealth effects,” or a greater propensity to spend and invest as consumers and businesses see the value of their stock holdings rise. But the simultaneous increase in commodity prices lifted food and energy prices, which raised costs for businesses and made consumers feel poorer. These “income effects” countered Mr. Bernanke’s wealth effects, and the proof is that growth in the real economy decelerated in 2011. It decelerated again this year amid Operation Twist. When does the Fed take some responsibility for policies that fail in their self-professed goal of spurring growth, rather than blaming everyone else while claiming to be the only policy hero?

For those of us who worry about the pernicious impact of inflation, it’s possible that the Fed will soak up all this excess liquidity at the right time. But don’t hold your breath. The WSJ continues.

The deeper into exotic monetary easing the Fed goes, the harder it will also be to unwind in a timely fashion. Mr. Bernanke says not to worry, he has the tools and the will to pull the trigger before inflation builds. That’s what central bankers always say. But good luck picking the right moment, which may be before prices are seen to be rising but also before the expansion has begun to lift middle-class incomes. That’s one more Bernanke Cliff the economy will eventually face—maybe after Ben has left the Eccles Building.

Last but not least, the WSJ is not terribly happy about the Fed seeking to influence the election.

Given the proximity to the Presidential election, the Fed move can’t be divorced from its political implications. Mr. Bernanke forswore any partisan motives on Thursday, and we’ll give him the benefit of the personal doubt. But by goosing stock prices, and thus lifting the short-term economic mood, the Fed has surely provided President Obama an in-kind re-election contribution.

If we go to the other side of the Atlantic, Allister Heath of City A.M. has some very wise thoughts about QE3.

In the long run, real sustainable growth comes from entrepreneurs inventing better ways of conducting business, from investment in productivity enhancing capex financed from savings, and from more people finding viable jobs. Eventually, the short-term becomes the long-term – and that is where we are today. Cheap money is just a temporary fix – and like all drugs, the economy needs more and more of it merely to stay still now it is hooked. …manipulating the housing and construction markets is a dangerous game that the Fed should not be playing; it would be better to allow the market to clear freely. In a brilliant new paper for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, William R White, one of the few economists to have predicted the financial crisis, warns of the disastrous unintended consequences of ultra easy money. He explains why there are limits to what central banks can do, that monetary “stimulus” is less effective in bolstering aggregate demand than previously, that it triggers negative feedback mechanisms that weaken both the supply and demand-sides of the economy, threatens the health of financial institutions and the functioning of financial markets, damages the independence of central banks, and encourages imprudent behaviour on the part of governments.

In other words, Allister is worried about the Fed acting as some sort of central planning body, attempting to steer the economy.

Sadly, the Fed has a long track record of doing precisely that, as documented in this lecture by Professor George Selgin. It’s 40 minutes, so not for the faint of heart, but if you watch the video, you’ll have a hard time giving the Fed the benefit of the doubt.

And let’s also remember that bad monetary policy is not the only thing to worry about when considering the Fed’s behavior. It also has started to interfere with the functioning of credit markets, thus distorting the allocation of capital.

Here’s the bottom line. I think, at best, the Fed is pushing on a string. Why will it help to create more liquidity when banks already have more than $1 trillion of excess reserves?

The real problem in our economy is the overall burden of government. The tax system is punitive. Wasteful and excessive government spending is diverting resources from productive use. The regulatory burden continues to expand.

These are the policies that need to be fixed. Sadly, they are less likely to be addressed if politicians think they can paper over the problems by figuratively printing more money.

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Like most of you, I imagine, I get lots of email advertisements. It’s very rare that I ever click on something, and I’ve never purchased anything. But sometimes I have to acknowledge a clever pitch or product.

And since I’ve previously publicized special Federal Reserve toilet paper, Ben Bernanke’s hacked Facebook page, and the famous “Ben Bernank” video, you will understand why I think this t-shirt is quite amusing.

Though I’m not sure that’s a great likeness of Bernanke on the t-shirt. Heck, my Bernanke-who-stole-Christmas image may be more accurate.

But I guess that’s not overly important since the real reason for the t-shirt is to express concern about inflationary monetary policy. And that’s something that should worry all of us (it’s already worrying drug dealers).

To be momentarily serious, I don’t follow monetary policy closely enough to make definitive statements, but here’s a good summary of why I’m also worried. I further address monetary policy in this post, and express displeasure with Bernanke’s behavior in this post.

Last but not least, this video is a good introduction to central banking.

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I’ve been worried for quite some time that the European Central Bank was losing its independence, thus undermining the long-run prospects of the euro.

Well, yesterday’s announcement that the ECB would buy the dodgy debt of nations such as Spain didn’t make me feel any better.

Central banks should not be bullied into creating too much money simply because politicians are too corrupt, venal, and short-sighted to control spending.

Here is some of what Allister Heath of City A.M. wrote earlier today. He begins with a wise warning about moral hazard.

There is nothing markets love more than a good dose of monetary activism, especially when they detect a hidden bailout, so it is no wonder that traders and investors reacted so positively to Mario Draghi’s bond buying plan. …Yet generally speaking these days, the more the markets like a central bank intervention, the more I worry. This is because all too often investors are trying to get central banks – and ultimately, the taxpayer – to monetise debt to protect themselves, or because they believe that there are monetary solutions to real, structural problems. I disagree on both counts: excessive debt needs to be written off, with the cost born by the creditors, not redistributed to the taxpayers of more prudent countries or inflated away. It is right that investors should be able to make a fortune if they make a correct bet – but it is equally right that they should lose their shirt when their investment goes sour. This habit of quietly enjoying the former but loudly refusing the latter is one of the main reasons why the City’s reputation is at such a low ebb.

He then explains that the ECB shouldn’t try to mask reality.

…there is a perfectly good reason why the yields of peripheral Eurozone nations have shot up over the past year. It is because the markets have finally started to price risk properly. Higher yields on Spanish or Greek debt reflect the reality of deeply troubled, structurally uncompetitive nations… The market is sending a clear and precise signal, and warning the world that there is a major problem that needs resolution; buying vast amounts of bonds to try and distort or even entirely eliminate that signal and pretend that nothing is wrong with Europe’s weaker economies would be an absurd act of delusion.

I’m not as optimistic as Allister is in this next section, largely because the supposed conditionality will lead to the kind of fiscal gimmicks and moving goal posts that we see in Greece.

…while there are many problems with Draghi’s plans, he is actually being relatively sensible. He will not help Portugal, Ireland and Greece until they are able to access bond markets; even more importantly, Spain and Italy will need to ask for European bailout fund support, and accept the ensuing conditionality, before ECB bond-buying starts. It will theoretically be unlimited in scale but Draghi only wants to “do whatever it takes” as long as politicians toe the line. Given that they won’t, and that many countries will soon be borrowing even more, the crisis will soon flare up again. The simple reality is that the Eurozone in its current form is doomed. Draghi’s plan will buy some time, and his next one even more, as will the one after that. But eventually the size of the fiscal and competitiveness crisis, combined with voter anger in both Northern and Southern countries, will overwhelm all of his attempts at papering over the cracks. It’s just a matter of time.

But I obviously agree with his conclusion. Unless European politicians decide to reduce the burden of government spending, the continent is in deep trouble.

Last but not least, the problem in Europe is not the euro. It is the welfare state. I’m not a huge fan of the single currency, but it is way down on my list of reasons that nations such as Spain, Italy, and Greece are in trouble.

P.S. America will be in the same boat at some point in the future if we don’t reform entitlements.

P.P.S. Allister is the author of this great article explaining why tax competition and tax havens are so important and valuable in the global economy.

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Ron Paul has made “End the Fed” a popular slogan, but some people worry that this is a radical untested idea. In part, this is because it is human nature to fear the unknown.

But there are plenty of examples of policy reforms that used to be considered radical but are now commonplace.

This list could go on, but the pattern is always the same. People assume something has to be done by government because “that’s the way it’s always been.” Then reform begins to happen and the myth is busted.

But is money somehow different? Not according to some experts.

Here’s some of what John Stossel wrote in a recent column.

Why must our government make currency competition illegal? …Competition is generally good. Why not competition in currencies? Most people I interviewed scoffed at the idea. They said private currency should be illegal. But impressive thinkers disagree. In 1975, a year after he won the Nobel Prize in economics, F.A. Hayek published “Choice in Currency,”which has inspired a generation of “free banking” economists. Hayek taught us that competition not only respects individual liberty, it produces essential knowledge we cannot obtain any other way. Any central bank is limited in its access to such knowledge, and subject to political pressure, no matter how independent it’s supposed to be. “This monopoly of government, like the postal monopoly, has its origin not in any benefit it secures for the people but solely in the desire to enhance the coercive powers of government,” Hayek wrote. “I doubt whether it has ever done any good except to the rulers and their favorites. All history contradicts the belief that governments have given us a safer money than we would have had without their claiming an exclusive right to issue it.” Former Federal Reserve economist David Barker discussed this idea recently with me. “There are a lot of ways that private money might be better,” Barker said. “It might have embedded chips that would make it easier to count.” The chips would also prevent counterfeiting. There used to be private currencies. A businessman who sold iron and tin made coins that advertised his business. The Georgia Railroad Co. also produced its own currency. This became illegal in 1864 — Abraham Lincoln was a fan of central banking.

Stossel’s historical references are particularly important. As I explain in this video, many nations – including the United States – used to have competing currencies.

And if you want a thorough analysis of the Fed’s performance, I urge you to watch this George Selgin speech. Then ask yourself whether we would have been in better shape with private currencies.

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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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