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Posts Tagged ‘Monetary Policy’

There will be many lessons that we hopefully learn from the current crisis, most notably that it’s foolish to give so much regulatory power to sloth-like bureaucracies such as the FDA and CDC.

Today, I want to focus on a longer-run lesson, which is how tax policy (a bias for debt over equity) and monetary policy (artificially low interest rates) encourage excessive private debt.

Are current debt levels excessive? Let’s look at some excerpts from a column in the Washington Post, which was written by David Lynch last November – before coronavirus started wreaking havoc with the economy.

Little more than a decade after consumers binged on inexpensive mortgages that helped bring on a global financial crisis, a new debt surge — this time by major corporations — threatens to unleash fresh turmoil. A decade of historically low interest rates has allowed companies to sell record amounts of bonds to investors, sending total U.S. corporate debt to nearly $10 trillion… Some of America’s best-known companies…have splurged on borrowed cash. This year, the weakest firms have accounted for most of the growth and are increasingly using debt for “financial risk-taking,”… “We are sitting on the top of an unexploded bomb, and we really don’t know what will trigger the explosion,” said Emre Tiftik, a debt specialist at the Institute of International Finance, an industry association. …The root cause of the debt boom is the decision by the Federal Reserve and other key central banks to cut interest rates to zero in the wake of the financial crisis and to hold them at historic lows for years.

Needless to say, Emre Tiftik didn’t know last November what would “trigger the explosion.”

Now we have coronavirus, and George Melloan explained a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal that the “unexploded bomb” has detonated.

The Covid-19 pandemic…will do further damage to the global economy… The danger is heightened by the heavy load of debt American corporations have piled up as they have taken advantage of low-cost borrowing. …Cheap credit brought on the heavy overload of corporate debt. The Federal Reserve has responded to the virus by—what else?—making credit even cheaper, cutting its fed funds lending rate all the way to 0%-0.25% on Sunday. …Rate cuts in response to crises are programmed into the Fed’s software. There is no compelling evidence that they are a solution or even a remedy. …the low interest rates of the past decade have ballooned all forms of debt: government, consumer, corporate. Corporate debt, the most worrisome type at the moment, stands at about $10 trillion and has made a steady climb to 47% of gross domestic product, a record level… But even cheap borrowing and securitized debt obligations have to be paid back. It becomes harder to make payments when a global health crisis is killing sales and your company is bleeding red ink. …the increased political bias toward easy money remains a problem. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 was political from the day Woodrow Wilson signed it. It has gotten more political ever since, increasingly becoming an instrument for robbing the poor—savers and pensioners—and giving to often profligate borrowers.

Melloan’s final points deserve emphasis. There are good reasons to reconsider the Federal Reserve, and we definitely should be angry about the perverse redistribution enabled by Fed policies.

But let’s keep our focus on the topic of government-encouraged debt and how it contributes to economic instability.

It’s not just an issue of bad monetary policy. We also have a tax code that encourages companies to disproportionately utilize debt.

But the 2017 tax bill addressed that flaw, as Reihan Salam explained two years ago in an article for National Review.

…one of the TCJA’s good points…limits that the legislation places on corporate interest deductibility, which…could change the way companies in the United States do business and make the U.S. economy more stable. …By stipulating that companies cannot use the interest deduction to reduce their earnings by more than 30 percent, the law made taking on debt somewhat less attractive compared to seeking financing by offering equity to investors. …equity is more flexible in times of crisis than debt, which means that problems are less likely to spiral out of control.

That’s the good news (along with the lower corporate rate and restriction on deductibility of state and local taxes).

The bad news is that the 2017 law only partially addressed the bias for debt over equity. Companies still have a tax-driven incentive to prefer borrowing.

Here’s the Tax Foundation’s depiction of how the pre-TCJA system worked, which I’ve altered to show how the new system operates.

I’ll close with the observation that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with private debt. Families borrow to buy homes, for instance, and companies borrow for reasons such as financing research and building factories.

But debt only makes sense if it’s based on market-driven factors (i.e., will borrowing enable future benefits and will there be enough cash to make payments). And that includes planning for what happens if there’s a recession and income falls.

Unfortunately, government intervention has distorted market signals and the result is excessive debt. And now the economic damage of the coronavirus will be even higher because more companies will become insolvent.

P.S. Even the International Monetary Fund is on the correct side about the downsides of tax-driven debt.

P.P.S. In addition to eliminating the bias for debt over equity, it also would be a very good idea to get rid of the bias for current consumption over future consumption (i.e., double taxation).

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The coronavirus is a genuine threat to prosperity, at least in the short run, in large part because it is causing a contraction in global trade.

The silver lining to that dark cloud is that President Trump may learn that trade is actually good rather than bad.

But dark clouds also can have dark linings, at least when the crowd in Washington decides it’s time for another dose of Keynesian economics.

  • Fiscal Keynesianism – the government borrows money from credit markets and politicians then redistribute the funds in hopes that recipients will spend more.
  • Monetary Keynesianism – the government creates more money in hopes that lower interest rates will stimulate borrowing and recipients will spend more.

Critics warn, correctly, that Keynesian policies are misguided. More spending is a consequence of economic growth, not the trigger for economic growth.

But the “bad penny” of Keynesian economics keeps reappearing because it gives politicians an excuse to buy votes.

The Wall Street Journal opined this morning about the risks of more Keynesian monetary stimulus.

The Federal Reserve has become the default doctor for whatever ails the U.S. economy, and on Tuesday the financial physician applied what it hopes will be monetary balm for the economic damage from the coronavirus. …The theory behind the rate cut appears to be that aggressive action is the best way to send a strong message of economic insurance. …Count us skeptical. …Nobody is going to take that flight to Tokyo because the Fed is suddenly paying less on excess reserves. …The Fed’s great mistake after 9/11 was that it kept rates at or near 1% for far too long even after the 2003 tax cut had the economy humming. The seeds of the housing boom and bust were sown.

And the editorial also warned about more Keynesian fiscal stimulus.

Even if a temporary tax cuts is the vehicle used to dump money into the economy.

This being an election year, the political class is also starting to demand more fiscal “stimulus.” …If Mr. Trump falls for that, he’d be embracing Joe Bidenomics. We tried the temporary payroll-tax cut idea in the slow growth Obama era, reducing the worker portion of the levy to 4.2% from 6.2% of salary. It took effect in January 2011, but the unemployment rate stayed above 9% for most of the rest of that year. Temporary tax cuts put more money in peoples’ pockets and can give a short-term lift to the GDP statistics. But the growth effect quickly vanishes because it doesn’t permanently change the incentive to save and invest.

Excellent points.

Permanent supply-side tax cuts encourage more prosperity, not temporary Keynesian-style tax cuts.

Given the political division in Washington, it’s unclear whether politicians will agree on how to pursue fiscal Keynesianism.

But that doesn’t mean we can rest easy. Trump is a fan of Keynesian monetary policy and the Federal Reserve is susceptible to political pressure.

Just don’t expect good results from monetary tinkering. George Melloan wrote about the ineffectiveness of monetary stimulus last year, well before coronavirus became an issue.

The most recent promoters of monetary “stimulus” were Barack Obama and the Fed chairmen who served during his presidency, Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen. …the Obama-era chairmen tried to stimulate growth “by keeping its policy rate at zero for six-and-a-half years into the economic recovery and more than quadrupled the size of the Fed’s balance sheet.” And what do we have to show for it? After the 2009 slump, economic growth from 2010-17 averaged 2.2%, well below the 3% historical average, despite the Fed’s drastic measures. Low interest rates certainly stimulate borrowing, but that isn’t the same as economic growth. Indeed it can often restrain growth. …Congress got the idea that credit somehow comes free of charge. So now the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders think there is no limit to how much Uncle Sam can borrow. Easy money not only expands debt-service costs but also encourages malinvestment. …when Donald Trump hammers on the Fed for lower rates, …he is embarked on a fool’s errand.

Since the Federal Reserve has already slashed interest rates, that Keynesian horse already has left the barn.

That being said, don’t expect positive results. Keynesian economics has a very poor track record (if fiscal Keynesianism and monetary Keynesianism were a recipe for success, Japan would be booming).

So let’s hope politicians don’t put a saddle on the Keynesian fiscal horse as well.

If Trump really feels he has to do something, I ranked his options last summer.

The bottom line is that good short-run policy is also good long-run policy.

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Yesterday’s column was my annual end-of-year round-up of the best and worst developments of the concluding year.

Today I’ll be forward looking and give you my hopes and fears for the new year, which is a newer tradition that began in 2017 (and continued in 2018 and 2019).

With my glass-half-full outlook, we’ll start with the things I hope will happen.

Supreme Court strikes down civil asset forfeiture – It is nauseating that bureaucrats can steal property from citizens who have never been convicted of a crime. Or even charged with a crime. Fortunately, this disgusting practice already has attracted attention from Clarence Thomas and other sound-thinking Justices on the Supreme Court. Hopefully, this will produce a decision that ends this example of Venezuela-style government thuggery.

Good free-trade agreements for the United Kingdom – This is a two-pronged hope. First, I want a great agreement between the U.S. and the U.K., based on the principle of mutual recognition. Second, I want the best-possible agreement between the U.K. and the E.U., which will be a challenge since the political elite in Brussels has a spiteful desire to “punish” the British people for supporting Brexit.

Maduro’s ouster in Venezuela – I already wished for this development in 2018 and 2019, so this is my “Groundhog Day” addition to the list. But if I keep wishing for it, sooner or later it will happen and I’ll look prescient. But I actually don’t care about whether my predictions are correct, I just want an end to the horrible suffering for the people of Venezuela.

Here are the things I fear will happen in 2020.

A bubble bursts – I hope I’m wrong (and that may be the case since I’ve been fretting about it for a long time), but I fear that financial markets are being goosed by an easy-money policy from the Federal Reserve. Bubbles feel good when they’re expanding, but last decade should have taught us that they can be very painful when they pop.

A loss of economic liberty in Chile and/or Hong Kong – As shown by Economic Freedom of the World, there are not that many success stories in the world. But we can celebrate what’s happened in Hong Kong since WWII and what’s happened in Chile since the late 1970s. Economic liberty has dramatically boosted prosperity. Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s liberty is now being threatened from without and Chile’s liberty is now being threatened from within.

Repeal of the Illinois flat tax – The best approach for a state is to have no income tax, and a state flat tax is the second-best approach. Illinois is in that second category thanks to a long-standing provision of the state’s constitution. Needless to say, this irks the big spenders who control the Illinois government and they are asking voters this upcoming November to vote on whether to bust the flat tax and open the floodgates for an ever-growing fiscal burden. By the way, it’s quite likely that I’ll be including the Massachusetts flat tax on this list next year.

I’ll also add a special category for something that would be both good and bad.

Trump gets reelected – Because Trump is producing better tax policy and better regulatory policy, and because of my hopes for judges who believe in the Constitution’s protections of economic liberty, it would be good if he won a second term.

Trump gets reelected – Because Trump is producing worse spending policy and worse trade policy, and because of my concerns never-ending Keynesian monetary policy from the Federal Reserve, it would be bad if he won a second term.

Happy New Year, everyone.

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I’m worried. There’s a lot of talk in Washington about Trump trying to goose the economy with either Keynesian monetary policy or Keynesian fiscal policy.

It would be much better, as I discuss in this interview with Yahoo Finance, if Trump instead declared a ceasefire in the trade wars he’s started.

The interview largely revolved around trade policy and monetary policy, so I was mostly critical of Trump.

But I want to focus on the point I made midway through the discussion, when I said that Trump is undermining and offsetting some of his Administration’s good policies – most notably tax reform and regulatory easing.

As an economist, I’m frustrated by this inconsistency. It’s akin to a watching a kid get good grades in some classes and bad grades in others (and I worry his GPA is declining).

Though I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. This is what the theory of “public choice” tells us to expect.

I can only imagine, though, how frustrating this must be for Republican political operatives. They’re focused on winning in 2020 and the President is sabotaging that goal with bad trade policy.

P.S. Toward the end of the interview, I pointed out that Trump should have gone through the World Trade Organization in his effort to curtail China’s protectionism. When the history of the Trump presidency is written, I suspect this will be viewed as a major mistake.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a chart quantifying the damage.

And here’s some more evidence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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