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Posts Tagged ‘Easy money’

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).

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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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