Not So Dismal

Making Economics a Little Easier to Understand

Archive for September 2008

The New Sound Money

leave a comment »

There’s a great article on the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page today that can be found here.  Excerpt below, but I highly recommend you read the whole thing if you’re willing to swim in some moderately-deep economic waters.  Maybe I’ll cover the subject at a more elementary level in a few days.

The whimpering is real, and justified, because it hurts to have your world come crashing down. And global financial markets are definitely crashing, even when the impact is momentarily softened through massive injections of artificial money — “artificial” because the fiat money does not represent a store of genuine value but rather an airy government claim to future wealth yet to be created.

In the aftermath of this financial catastrophe, as we sort out causes and assign blame, with experts offering various solutions — More regulation! Less complex financial instruments! — let’s not lose sight of the most fundamental component of finance. No credit-default swap, no exotic derivative, can be structured without stipulating the monetary unit of account in which its value is calculated. Money is the medium of exchange — the measure, the standard, the store of value — which defines the very substance of the economic contract between buyer and seller. It is the basic element, the atom of financial matter.

It is the money that is broken.

Written by caseyayers

30 September, 2008 at 1:02 pm

Life After the Unbailout

leave a comment »

In response to the Politico Arena question this morning:

Is there a better way forward and a better way to persuade the public, fear itself having failed?

Look no farther than this morning’s market action to see what the lack of an immediate flood of freshly printed money really means: not much.  The market is taking care of itself, with bargain hunters re-entering the market even today to try and acquire stakes in solid enterprises while the market as a whole is significantly down in value.

The government does have a role here, it’s just not the one conventional wisdom currently holds as its dire and immediate responsibility.  Steps should be taken to suspend mark-to-market rules for those mortgage-backed securities most to blame for the current liquidity crunch.  Some may see this as simply playing tricks with the value of securities in order to fake our way out of this crisis.  Yet that’s exactly what the goal of the Treasury plan is as stands: the benefit of moving these assets to the Treasury’s books is because they aren’t subject to the unfair regulations requiring banks to mark to markets that simply don’t have the volume necessary to properly price assets. 

Additionally, both candidates are correct that raising the FDIC guaranteed limits to $250,000 or simply making all deposits guaranteed regardless of account value would help to stop consumers from further choking financials by withdrawing their funds en masse.  Corporate tax cuts would help, as well, but let’s not try to ask the Congress to accomplish too many things well at once.

Written by caseyayers

30 September, 2008 at 8:58 am

A Gloomy but Great Day for America

with one comment

Today is a great, if gloomy, day for America. Congress continues to do what it has always done best: stall and tend towards inaction and gridlock. The American people should be very approving, in this case.

A bailout is unnecessary. The issue here lies in low interest rates and accounting rules, not how quickly the Treasury can print new money. Since the Greenspan era, the Fed “target rate”, or the charge at which the Fed would like to see banks loan money to each other overnight, has almost constantly been negative once inflation is taken into account. This rate directly affects the interest rates offered by banks to consumers, the rates that all manner of corporate paper garners, etc. When interest rates are kept so low, subprime investments emerge; with money still left to loan at cheap rates after all of the normally-acceptable loanees have been placated, “malinvestment” occurs.

This malinvestment must be allowed to diffuse itself. Yes, this means a period of slower economic growth, and possibly even a short period of recession. But another word for recession is reorganization: various resources are simply shifting from one failed business or policy into a new and more promising one. Just as a child might build a better toy spaceship out of Lego pieces only by first taking apart his old design, so an economy must liquidate the bad before creating newer and better opportunities.

We see it almost hourly now: various banks failing or being purchased at low prices relative to their assets. This is a good thing because those that made mistakes are being made to pay for them, swiftly and surely. However, the originator of all this trouble has yet to be taken fully to task: the Congress, forcing bad loan policies on banks, the Fed with its artificially low rates and the GSEs with their wreckless decisions all hold equal blame with those that actually made loans at the end of the day for creating a scenario almost impossible to resist.

Written by caseyayers

29 September, 2008 at 7:50 pm

Let the Market Liquidate

with one comment

It’s incredible the lengths to which politicians on K Street and traders on Wall Street will go to in order to forget history. It must be truly difficult, especially for those old enough to have lived through similar scenarios in the past. There’s a wealth of knowledge that can be referenced in regards to this most recent “crisis” in the financial sector. The problem is that events never look quite the same twice, so all too many people either cannot or refuse to see the swinging pattern that we have been in for a long time now. Just as there seems to be a political pendulum that often swings from left to right- and back- a similar pendulum affects the American financial markets.

The two forces at battle here are interest rates and regulation. We are currently in a time of low interest rates and little regulation. This appears to be on the verge of changing, with Republicans and Democrats alike taking a populist stance against the “fat cats” on Wall Street, all while trying to figure out where to endorse a check that will increase the national debt by almost ten percent.

Look for regulation to make a strong comeback; following closely behind will be inflation. Regulatory measures serve only to squash free market efficiencies and add barriers and costs that make otherwise favorable investments no longer feasible. Regulation, in finance and elsewhere, serves to stunt growth. This is not exactly what the American and global economy needs at the moment, but don’t tell that to those dwelling within the Beltway, or executives looking for a way to personally escape their troubles at any cost to their shareholders and the American people.

The real problem is, and has been, and overabundance of money in the US financial system caused by incongruously low interest rates. Indeed, the current real interest rates offered by the Federal Reserve to banks is negative, once even very conservative inflation figures are taken into account! These low interest rates flooded the economy in the past few years with more new funds than were required to sustain normal growth. The excess money was left only to chase sub-standard investments. After all, money does not sit still for long. Indeed, it is this pattern of low interest rates that created the dot-com bubble in the late-90s, too. Fed Chairman Greenspan lowered rates dramatically to combat perceived weakness at that point, as well as to jump-start the economy following 9/11, after having taken them higher only for a very short amount of time. The housing bubble was given birth by these new low interest rates. After rates had increased slowly for a time, new Chairman of the Fed Ben Bernanke led the Reserve Board in lowering rates again to fight the outer bands of the current mortgage storm over the past two years. This series of rate-cuts undermined the US Dollar and resulted in the insane growth in commodity prices, including oil and gas, over the past year. The truth is that fiddling with interest rates almost never results in long-term good.

More concerning still, low interest rates combined with the Treasury’s plan to print C-notes continuously for months to come to bail out Wall Street will flood the market with ever more dollars. New regulations and the wounded nature of finance’s old titans will leave these dollars with no new direction in which to go. Given our current course, we face a short-term future where zero growth leaves new dollars only to chase existing goods, resulting in high levels of inflation. It’s the 1970s all over again.

And that’s my point. This is a cycle that the US is repeating for the umpteenth time. The economy boomed post-World War II largely because there was such a pent-up supply of money that simply couldn’t be spent during years of rationing. This newly-unleashed wealth resulted in explosive growth. The heavy, near-socialistic regulations on industry that existed during the war were torn down, and a relatively free-market emerged. Yet in the next two decades, regulation would creep back into American policy, again stunting the economy. Then, too, interest rates were kept at levels that put money into the marketplace at a faster rate than America’s GDP could digest. Cue the staggering inflationary period in the 1970s. Reagan broke the back of this inflation by taking dollars out of the market; Fed Chair Paul Volcker took the unpopular, yet necessary, steps to bring the monetary supply back in line with the true economy.

Inflation kills growth. If one expects a five percent yearly return for undertaking some sort of investment risk, yet sees that his money will be worth less the next year than now, he will instead require a return of five percent plus the anticipated rate of inflation. Only the very best projects are fully funded, and those nearer to the margin are either underfunded and forced to fail or never even are endeavoured upon. By breaking the back of inflation, Reagan and Volcker reset the economic environment and created the most important condition for growth to occur. Reagan then successfully sparked one of the most incredible periods of growth in the history of the world by lowering interest rates back to nominal- but not low- levels, decreasing the regulatory bondage faced by American enterprise and lowered taxes across the board. Lowering taxes simultaneously lowers the required rate of return for an investment and decreases regulatory (aka avoidance) costs that increase when taxes are high.

As Reagan proved, the recipe that sets the American economy on fire, rather than on firesale, is a nominal interest rate environment combined with low levels of regulation. Problems arise when politicians get greedy and try to meddle with the normal ebb and flow of capital in the free market. Meddling with interest rates corrupts the economic environment and results in mal-investment, such as the sub-prime housing debt now out in the market. Worse still, several Congressional measures have been passed in the past few decades that require banks to make a certain portion of their loans available to uncredible clients. Creating legal momentum and combining with it interest rates that spawn more money than the economy can normally absorb leaves nowhere for the money to go but to sub-prime debt. Indeed, although banks should have resisted the urge to make loans oftentimes bordering on crazy, blame for this should be shared by the monetary and fiscal policymakers in Washington.

Unfortunately, what comes up must come down. There are those out there that argue that the lack of a bailout will result in catastrophe. Yet we’ve already seen breathtaking changes in the composition of the financial sector in the last few weeks. The market will adapt on its own, as it should. Bad investments must fail, otherwise no true risk was taken. This creates a moral hazard equation where, in the future, people are ever more likely to make erratic investment decisions because they are confident that they will be able to keep the gain for themselves and share in any losses with the taxpayer.

The bailout must not occur. Instead, as is so often the case, economist Brian Wesburyoffers a better solution. The fact is that bad investments did occur, but the illiquid nature of the mortgage market means that just a few failures, or an immediate need for cash by just one or two small firms, creates a catostrophic accounting loss for all of the players in the market. As he says, the current accounting rules create a nonsensical mark-to-market necessity that is bringing even relatively well-capitalized firms to their knees:

Imagine if you had a $200,000 mortgage on a $300,000 house that you planned on living in for 20 years. But a neighbor, because of very special circumstances had to sell his house for $150,000. Then, imagine if your banker said you had to mark to this “new market” and give the bank $80,000 in cash immediately 9so that you would have 20% down), or lose your home. Would this reflect reality? Not at all. Would this create chaos? Absolutely.

Indeed, many mortgages may fail and not pay out. But the financial instruments these are wrapped up in were created with this largely in mind: by wrapping many mortgages together into some other type of product, risk is diversified and lessened.

The Congress needs to act to end this crisis, but a Publisher’s Clearinghouse check won’t do the trick. Instead, as Wesbury suggests, a suspension of mark-to-market requirements for certain instruments would allow banks to isolate these products until the real value of each can be more properly divined. In the meantime, the Federal Reserve needs to begin slowly cranking rates back up to a reasonable level (reasonable being defined as 2-3% after taking out inflation’s dithering effect). Investors that made particularly bad decisions will fail. But this is the risk that they took when they were tempted by astronomical gain. The stock market should not be in the same business as Little League baseball, handing out trophies to all participants.

It is not necessarily our fate to once again re-enter the stagflationary period of the 1970s, but that is the trajectory we currently follow. We must work together to slow down policymakers and to bring an end to the ready-fire-aim mentality that sweeps evermore heavily upon Washington in an election year of this magnitude.

Let the market liquidate. Rewrite the rules, though, so that the liquidation is fair and not frenzied. It won’t be pretty, but it won’t be another depression. $700 billion sounds like a lot of money, but it’s only five percent of annual GDP. If we took that whole hit this year alone, it would be the first thing large enough to actually cause a minor recession to an economy still silently growing at more than three percent. Next, set fair rates and resist the urges to let Washington arm-wrestle the invisible hand of the market with new regulations. Indeed, the answer here is less government meddling, not more.

Written by caseyayers

23 September, 2008 at 6:59 pm