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Posts Tagged ‘Federal Reserve’

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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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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The War against Cash continues.

  • In Part I, we looked at the argument that cash should be banned or restricted so governments could more easily collect additional tax revenue.
  • In Part II, we reviewed the argument that cash should be curtailed so that governments could more easily impose Keynesian-style monetary policy.
  • In Part III, written back in March, we examined additional arguments by people on both sides of the issue and considered the risks of expanded government power.

Now it’s time for Part IV.

Professor Larry Summers of Harvard University is President Obama’s former top economic adviser and he’s a relentless advocate of higher taxes and bigger government. If he favors an idea, it doesn’t automatically make it bad, but it’s surely a reason to be suspicious. So you won’t be surprised to learn that he wrote a column for the Washington Post applauding the move in Europe to eliminate €500 notes. Indeed, he wants to ban all large-denomination notes.

There is little if any legitimate use for 500-euro notes. Carrying out a transaction with 20 50-euro notes hardly seems burdensome, and this would represent over $1,000 in purchasing power. Twenty 200-euro notes would be almost $5,000. Who in today’s world needs cash for a legitimate $5,000 transaction? …Cash transactions of more than 3,000 euros have in fact been made illegal in Italy, while France has placed the limit at 1,000 euros. …In contrast to the absence of an important role for 500-euro notes in normal commerce, these bills have a major role facilitating illicit activity, as suggested by their nickname —“Bin Ladens.” …Estimates by the International Monetary Fund and others of total annual money laundering consistently exceed $1 trillion. High-denomination notes also have a substantial role in facilitating tax evasion and capital flight.

Who “needs cash” for transactions, he asks, but isn’t the real issue whether people should have the freedom to use cash if that’s what they prefer?

Also, in dozens of trips to Europe since the adoption of the euro, I’ve never heard anyone refer to the €500 note as a “Bin Laden,” so I suspect that’s an example of Summers trying to demonize something that he doesn’t like.

But perhaps the most important revelation from his column is that he admits there’s no evidence that crime would be stopped by his plan to restrict cash.

To be sure, it is difficult to estimate how much crime would be prevented by stopping the creation of 500-euro notes. It would surely impose some burdens on criminals and might interfere with some transactions, which is not unimportant.

Unsurprisingly, he wants to coerce other governments into restricting high-value notes.

Europe has led on a significant security issue. But its action should be seen as a beginning, not an end. As a first follow-on, the world should demand that Switzerland stop issuing 1,000-Swiss-franc notes. After Europe’s action, these will stand out as the world’s highest-denomination note by a huge margin. Switzerland has a long and unfortunate history with illicit finance. It would be tragic if it were to profit from criminal currency substitution following Europe’s bold step. …There would be a strong case for stopping the creation of notes with values greater than perhaps $50.

Summers isn’t the only academic from Harvard who is agitating to restrict cash. Prof. Kenneth Rogoff (who’s also the former Chief Economist at the IMF) recently wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal explaining his hostility.

…paper currency lies at the heart of some of today’s most intractable public-finance and monetary problems. …There is little debate among law-enforcement agencies that paper currency, especially large notes such as the U.S. $100 bill, facilitates crime: racketeering, extortion, money laundering, drug and human trafficking, the corruption of public officials, not to mention terrorism.

At the risk of bursting his balloon, cash played almost no role in the most notorious terrorist event, the 9-11 attacks. And Rogoff admits that bad guys would use easy substitutes.

There are substitutes for cash—cryptocurrencies, uncut diamonds, gold coins, prepaid cards.

So he then dredges up the argument that cash facilitates tax evasion.

Cash is also deeply implicated in tax evasion, which costs the federal government some $500 billion a year in revenue. According to the Internal Revenue Service, a lot of the action is concentrated in small cash-intensive businesses, where it is difficult to verify sales and the self-reporting of income.

I addressed these issues in Part I of this series, but I’ll simply add that the academic evidence shows that lower tax rates are the best way of boosting tax compliance (as even the IMF has admitted).

To his credit, Rogoff acknowledges that his preferred policy would reduce the rights of individuals.

Perhaps the most challenging and fundamental objection to getting rid of cash has to do with privacy—with our ability to spend anonymously. But where does one draw the line between this individual right and the government’s need to tax and regulate.

His main argument is that our rights should be reduced to give government more power. He especially wants central bankers to have more power to impose Keynesian monetary policy.

Cutting interest rates delivers quick and effective stimulus by giving consumers and businesses an incentive to borrow more. It also drives up the price of stocks and homes, which makes people feel wealthier and induces them to spend more. Countercyclical monetary policy has a long-established record, while political constraints will always interfere with timely and effective fiscal stimulus.

Yes, he’s right. Activist monetary policy does have a long-established track record. It played a key role in causing the Great Depression, the 1970s stagflation, and the recent financial crisis.

Hooray, Federal Reserve!

And Rogoff wants the arsonists at the Fed to have more power to create boom-bust cycles.

In principle, cutting interest rates below zero ought to stimulate consumption and investment in the same way as normal monetary policy, by encouraging borrowing. Unfortunately, the existence of cash gums up the works. If you are a saver, you will simply withdraw your funds, turning them into cash, rather than watch them shrink too rapidly. Enormous sums might be withdrawn to avoid these loses, which could make it difficult for banks to make loans—thus defeating the whole purpose of the policy. Take cash away, however, or make the cost of hoarding high enough, and central banks would be free to drive rates as deep into negative territory as they needed in a severe recession. …if a strong dose of negative rates can power an economy out of a downturn, it could bring inflation and interest rates back to positive levels relatively quickly, arguably reducing vulnerability to bubbles rather than increasing it.

Needless to say, I disagree with Rogoff and agree with Thomas Sowell that an institution that repeatedly screws up shouldn’t be given more power.

Especially since I’m concerned that the option to use bad monetary policy may actually be one of the excuses that politicians use for not fixing the problems that actually are hindering growth.

So, yes, instead of expanding their power, I want to clip the wings of the Federal Reserve and other central banks.

Now let’s consider the harm that would be caused by restricting or banning cash. Two professors from NYU Law School looked at some of the logistical issues of a shift to digital money. The echoed some of the points raised by Summers and Rogoff, but they also pointed out some downsides. Such as government being able to monitor everything we buy.

…centralization of banking under this system would also create a Leviathan with the power to monitor and control the personal finances of every citizen in the country. This is one of the chief reasons why many are loath to give up on hard currency. With digital money, the government could view any financial transaction and obtain a flow of information about personal spending that could be used against an individual in a whole host of scenarios.

It also would cause a mess because so many people around the world rely on dollars, something that’s beneficial to the U.S. Treasury and foreigners from places with untrustworthy central banks.

…a transition to digital currency might come at a large cost for the U.S. in particular, because the dollar remains the world’s de facto reserve currency. The U.S. collects enormous seigniorage revenue that accrues to the economy when the Federal Reserve prints dollars that are exported abroad in exchange for foreign goods and services. These bank notes ultimately end up in countries with less reliable central banks where locals prefer to hold U.S. currency instead of their own. Forfeiting this franchise as the world’s reserve currency might be too costly, as the U.S. currency held abroad exceeds half a trillion dollars, according to reliable estimates.

Professor Larry White of George Mason University (also a Senior Fellow at Cato) writes about what he calls “currency prohibitionists.”

The rhetoric of the anti-high-denomination gang has gotten increasingly shrill.  …Charles Goodhart in September called the European Central Bank and the Swiss National Bank “shameless” for issuing “vastly high-denomination notes,” namely the €500 and SWF 1000, “which are there to finance the drug deals.” …I have an alternative suggestion for removing $100 bills from the illegal drug trades:  Legalize the trade.  …My suggestion would reduce the demand for high-denomination currency.

Nice plug for sensible libertarian policy.

But even if one favors drug prohibition, that doesn’t mean currency prohibition will be effective.

Today’s high-denomination-currency prohibitionists, like today’s drug prohibitionists and yesterday’s alcohol prohibitionists, only think about the supply side.  But does anyone think that banning the $100 bill during Prohibition (when it had a purchasing power more than 11 times today’s, as evaluated using the CPI) and even higher denominations would have put a major dent in the rum-running business, if an army of T-Men couldn’t? …eliminating high denomination, high value notes we would make life harder” for such criminal enterprises.  No doubt.  But we would also make life harder for everyone else.  The rest of us also find high-denomination notes convenient now and again for completely legal and non-controversial purposes, like buying automobiles and carrying vacation cash compactly.  …currency prohibitionists too often regard those who defend high-denomination notes not as intellectually honest but mistaken opponents, but rather as morally suspect characters.  Larry Summers goes out of his way to smear an ECB executive from Luxembourg (who has had the temerity to ask for better evidence before accepting the case for prohibiting high-denomination notes)… The case for prohibiting large-denomination currency, to summarize, is largely based on guilt by association or on wishful thinking about the benefits of allowing greater range of action to discretionary monetary policy.

On the topic of crime and cash, an article for the WSJ debunks one of the left’s main talking points. If using cash is supposed to be a sign of criminal activity, why are the world’s two most cash-friendly nations also two of the safest and crime-free countries?

Are Japan and Switzerland havens for terrorists and drug lords? High-denomination bills are in high demand in both places, a trend that some politicians claim is a sign of nefarious behavior. Yet the two countries boast some of the lowest crime rates in the world. The cash hoarders are ordinary citizens… The current hoarding in Switzerland and Japan thus underscores one of many ways in which cash is a basic tool of economic liberty: It lets people shield themselves from monetary policies that would force their savings into weak economies that can’t attract sufficient spending or investment on their own. These economies need reforms that boost incentives to work and invest, not negative interest rates and cash limits that raid the bank accounts of law-abiding citizens.

A column by Sarah Jeong in Bloomberg explores some of the additional implications of cash restrictions.

…wherever information gathers and flows, two predators follow closely behind it: censorship and surveillance. The case of digital money is no exception. Where money becomes a series of signals, it can be censored; where money becomes information, it will inform on you. …the Department of Justice began to come under fire for Operation Choke Point…the means were highly dubious. …the DOJ got creative, and asked banks and payment processors to comply with government policies, and proactively police “high-risk” activity. Banks were asked to voluntarily shut down the kinds of merchant activities that government bureaucrats described as suspicious. The price of resistance was an active investigation by the Department of Justice. …Where paternalism is bluntly enforced through a bureaucratic game of telephone, unpleasant or even inhumane unintended consequences are bound to result. …the cashless society offers the government entirely new forms of coercion, surveillance, and censorship. …As paper money evaporates from our pockets and the whole country—even world—becomes enveloped by the cashless society, financial censorship could become pervasive, unbarred by any meaningful legal rights or guarantees.

Her observation on Operation Choke Point is very important since that campaign has been a chilling example of how government abuses its power in the financial sector.

Megan McArdle’s Bloomberg column touches on some additional concerns.

What’s not to like? Very little. Except, and I’m afraid it’s a rather large exception, the amount of power that this gives the government over its citizens. Consider the online gamblers who lost their money in overseas operations when the government froze their accounts. Now, what they were doing was indisputably illegal in these here United States, and I am not claiming that they were somehow deeply wronged. But consider how immense the power that was conferred upon the government by the electronic payments system; at a word, your money could simply vanish. …Unmonitored resources like cash…create a sort of cushion between ordinary people and a government with extraordinary powers. Removing that cushion leaves people who aren’t criminals vulnerable to intrusion into every remote corner of their lives. …If we want to move toward a cashless society — and apparently we do — then we also need to think seriously about limiting the ability of the government to use the payments system as an instrument to control the behavior of its citizens.

For what it’s worth, one way of getting the benefits of a cashless world without the risks is with private digital monies such as bitcoin.

Steve Forbes nails the issue.

Gaining attention these days is the idea of abolishing high denominations of the dollar and the euro. This concept graphically displays the astonishing stupidity–and intellectual bankruptcy–of today’s liberal economic policymakers and the economics profession. …The ostensible reason is to help in the fight against terrorists, bribers, drug dealers and tax evaders by making it more inconvenient for these bad guys to move around and store their ill-gotten cash. …The notion that such evildoers as the Mexican drug cartels and ISIS will be seriously disrupted by the absence of the Benjamin–”These sacks of cash are too heavy now. Let’s surrender!”–is so comical… Monetary expert Seth Lipsky pithily points out in the New York Post, “When criminals use guns, the Democrats want to take guns from law-abiding citizens. When terrorists use hundreds, the liberals want to deny the rest of us the Benjamins.”

Excellent point. Politicians should concentrate on restricting the freedom of bad guys, not ordinary citizens.

So what are the implications of the war against cash? They aren’t pretty.

The real reason for this war on cash–start with the big bills and then work your way down–is an ugly power grab by Big Government. People will have less privacy: Electronic commerce makes it easier for Big Brother to see what we’re doing, thereby making it simpler to bar activities it doesn’t like, such as purchasing salt, sugar, big bottles of soda and Big Macs.

Steve raises a good point about tracking certain purchases. Imagine the potential mischief if politicians had a mechanism to easily impose discriminatory taxes on disapproved products.

He also notes that the war on cash is motivated by a desire to more effectively implement an ineffective policy.

Policymakers in Washington, Tokyo and the EU think the reason that their economies are stagnant is that ornery people aren’t spending and investing the way they should. How to make these benighted, recalcitrant beings do what they’re supposed to do? The latest nostrum from our overlords is negative interest rates. If people have to pay fees to store their money, as they do to put their stuff in storage facilities, then, by golly, they might be more inclined to spend it.

And Steve correctly observes that bad monetary policy is now an excuse to not fix the problems that actually are contributing to economic stagnation.

Manipulating the value of money and controlling interest rates, i.e., the price of money, never works. Money measures value. It is a claim on services and is a tool for facilitating commerce and investing. The reason economies around the world are in the ditch–which is fueling anger, discontent and ugly politics–is structural, government-created barriers: unstable money, suffocating rules and too-high rates of taxation.

James Grant, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, is not impressed by the anti-cash agitprop and specifically debunks some of the arguments put forth by Rogoff. He starts with some very sensible observation that politicians should reform drug laws and tax laws rather than restricting our freedom to use cash.

Terrorists traffic in cash, Mr. Rogoff observes. So do drug dealers and tax cheats. Good, compliant citizens rarely touch the $100 bills that constitute a sizable portion of the suspiciously immense volume of greenbacks outstanding—$4,200 per capita. Get rid of them is the author’s message. Then, again, one could legalize certain narcotics to discommode the drug dealers and adopt Steve Forbes’s flat tax to fill up the Treasury. Mr. Rogoff considers neither policy option. Government control is not only his preferred position. It is the only position that seems to cross his mind.

Grant makes the (obvious-to-folks not-in-Washington) point that restricting cash to enable Keynesian monetary policy is akin to throwing good money after bad.

Mr. Rogoff lays the blame for America’s lamentable post-financial-crisis economic record not on the Obama administration’s suffocating tax and regulatory policies. The problem is rather the Fed’s inability to put its main interest rate, the federal funds rate, where it has never been before. In a deep recession, Mr. Rogoff proposes, the Fed ought not to stop cutting rates when it comes to zero. It should plunge right ahead, to minus 1%, minus 2%, minus 3% and so forth. At one negative rate or another, the theory goes, despoiled bank depositors will stop saving and start spending. …What would you do if your bank docked you, say, 3% a year for the privilege of holding your money? Why, you might convert your deposit into $100 bills, rent a safe deposit box and count yourself a shrewd investor. Hence the shooting war against currency. …In the topsy-turvy world of Mr. Rogoff, negative rates would be the reward to impetuousness and the cost of thrift. …Never mind that, in post-crisis America, near 0% interest rates have failed to deliver the promised macroeconomic goods. Come the next crackup, Mr. Rogoff would double down—and down.

And he echoes the insights of Austrian-school scholars about how easy-money policies are the cause of problems rather than the cure.

Interest rates are prices. They impart information. They tell a business person whether or not to undertake a certain capital investment. They measure financial risk. They translate the value of future cash flows into present-day dollars. Manipulate those prices—as central banks the world over compulsively do—and you distort information, therefore perception and judgment. The ultra-low rates of recent years have distorted judgment in a bullish fashion. True, they have not, at least in America, ignited a wave of capital investment—who needs it in a comatose economy? They have rather facilitated financial investment. They have inflated projected cash flows and anesthesized perceptions of risk (witness the rock-bottom yields attached to corporate junk bonds). In so doing, they have raised the present value of financial assets. Wall Street has enjoyed a wonderful bull market. The trouble is that the Fed has become hostage to that very bull market. The higher that asset prices fly, the greater the risk of the kind of crash that impels new rounds of intervention, new cries for government spending, bigger deficits—more “stimulus.”

Let’s close with the good news is that Switzerland doesn’t seem very interested in following Europe and the United States down the primrose path of seeking to curtail monetary freedom.

Manuel Brandenberg, a lawmaker in the Swiss canton of Zug, loves cash. …That belief in bills is shared by many of his compatriots, who have a penchant for hard currency even when electronic options are available. In a country whose wealth managers flourished thanks to banking secrecy, citizens often cherish the untraceable privacy conferred by notes and coins. “Cash is property and cash is freedom,” said Brandenberg… Unlike their neighbors, the Swiss have no plans to reconsider banknote denominations — 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 francs. Not even the highest of 1,000 francs ($1,040). …The predilection for notes and coins is evident on the streets of Zurich, where a number of stores don’t take plastic — among them Belcafe at Bellevue, a busy transport hub in the center. …Roughly 20 percent of purchases — including large sums for jewelry — were paid in cash, then-Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf told parliament in 2014. …“There’s no reason to change things,” said Rickli. “I don’t want the state to know who goes to what restaurant. That’s none of the government’s business.”

Thank goodness for the “sensible Swiss.” On so many issues, Switzerland is a beacon of common sense and individual freedom.

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