Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How the Government Caused the Financial Crisis

In Praise of Bankruptcy

Daily Article by | Posted on 10/28/2008

[An MP3 audio version of this article, read by Dr. Floy Lilley, is available here.]

In one word, the market approach to the financial problem is bankruptcy. Firms go bankrupt when they do not have enough revenue to pay their bills. Banks make money by borrowing from lenders at a low interest rate and lending to borrowers at a higher interest rate. If banks make bad loans and borrowers quit repaying, banks go bankrupt.

Insurance firms help people avoid risk, collecting premiums to pay those who suffer bad luck. If the premiums collected by an insurance firm are less than what it has to pay, it goes bankrupt. AIG sold insurance policies to stockholders that banks and other firms would not go bankrupt and could not pay the policies when that happened.

Bankruptcy is a normal part of economic life, covered by laws that guarantee stockholders will be compensated as much as possible. More efficient firms move in to take over what is left of bankrupt firms, buying what can be put to productive use. There is no crime in bankruptcy and, if handled quickly, little economic harm. When the largest US energy company Enron went bankrupt a few years ago, there was not even a ripple in the energy markets, much less the economy. Bankruptcy is not criminal and should not be a surprise, but it can be unnerving if large, well-known firms go bankrupt.

Banks and insurance firms are careful when lending or selling policies because they want to ensure their revenue will pay their bills. Government involvement, however, provides a cushion for failure and allows banks and insurance firms to be careless. This carelessness occurred with the government-sponsored mortgage bank, the Federal National Mortgage Association.

Fannie Mae provides backing to mortgage banks, more or less encouraging them to make bad loans. Fannie Mae makes subsidized loans to mortgage companies when they are short of cash. Freddie Mac is a government mortgage bank that sells mortgages without the usual worry of making a profit, given its taxpayer backing. The government has taken over these two losing mortgage banks, and losses will be paid by taxpayers.

The government provides subsidized mortgage insurance in case home buyers cannot pay. This insurance lets commercial mortgage banks relax and make loans to people who might not be able to pay. Government support for people wanting to buy a house elevated demand for houses and pushed up prices. Rising prices made home buyers confident they could buy a house they could not afford and sell it soon for a profit, counting on a "greater fool" to come along. Realistically, people should only buy a house when they plan to live in it and can actually pay for it. Greater fools do not always come along.

The result of government meddling in the mortgage market is that people have bought houses they cannot afford. When prices quit going up, people were left owing more on their house than it was worth in the market. With their subsidized mortgage insurance and little penalty, people defaulted on their mortgages. The mortgage banks are left without income. This mortgage mess is the root cause of the present financial crisis.

One part of the evolving financial bailout is the government using taxpayer money to help people who have not been able to pay their mortgage. The government is taxing those who have paid their mortgages and transferring the money to those who have not. It is not a good idea to reward inefficiency.

The government is also giving money to select financial and insurance firms, rewarding their poor performance with taxpayer money. Better advice is, "Don't throw good money after bad." The failed firms should go bankrupt.

Another part of the bailout plan is that the Treasury will actually buy houses with defaulted mortgages that the failing banks are holding — the overpriced mortgages that people quit paying. The Treasury has become a realty speculator, hoping to sell these overpriced houses sometime in the future for an even higher price. It is much more likely that taxpayers will pay the losses. The bailout money will purchase 6% of the houses in the United States — not such a large amount and only a very small part of the total real-estate market. The bailout money, as large as it is, will have little effect on the aggregate housing market.

As another part of the bailout, the Federal Reserve will make short-term loans to troubled banks and insurance companies to meet their payroll or other bills. The Fed's job is to make loans to banks and buy or sell bonds to control the money supply. Certainly the bankrupt firms will be first in line to borrow such short-term funds. These loans are likely to go unpaid and be written off at taxpayer expense. It is easy for the Fed to make loans since it is in charge of the money supply.

In the bailout, the Treasury also plans to buy a stake in the failed firms, using taxpayer money to become part owner of second-rate mortgage banks and insurance firms — your tax dollars at work.

The underlying goal of the financial bailout is not to keep the economy "healthy" but to keep a few Wall Street firms, mortgage banks, and insurance firms in business. Never mind that most mortgage and insurance firms in the country are profitable; the government wants to support the inefficient, large, high-profile firms. If these firms were allowed to go bankrupt, the economy would recover quickly. Other firms, not necessarily with an address on Wall Street, would step in and buy them out. Wall Street is much less important now than in the past, due to national and global financial competition.

Profit motives in business are clear, but governments have no profit motive and are able to collect taxes, print money, and borrow against future taxpayer money to pay their bills. Mortgage and other financial-market firms will wait to see what the government agencies do in the market and then generally do the opposite, playing against taxpayer money. The rules are changing with more government involvement, but competition will continue. The situation would be like the government making delivery of packages less than 5 pounds illegal except by the US Post Office.

The present financial problems would disappear quickly if the government let the markets operate and let inefficient firms go bankrupt. The irony is that the government is stepping in to solve the problems it created. The solution might "work," but the underlying disincentives in the mortgage and insurance markets will persist. Increased government meddling in the financial markets will only make the financial problems linger.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Government Intervention Is Responsible for the Crisis

The Myth that Laissez Faire Is Responsible for Our Present Crisis

Daily Article by | Posted on 10/23/2008
The news media are in the process of creating a great new historical myth. This is the myth that our present financial crisis is the result of economic freedom and laissez-faire capitalism.
The attempt to place the blame on laissez faire is readily confirmed by a Google search under the terms "crisis + laissez faire." On the first page of the results that come up, or in the web entries to which those results refer, statements of the following kind appear:
  • "The mortgage crisis is laissez-faire gone wrong."
  • "Sarkozy [Nicolas Sarkozy, the President of France] said 'laissez-faire' economics, 'self-regulation' and the view that 'the all-powerful market' always knows best are finished."
  • "'America's laissez-faire ideology, as practiced during the subprime crisis, was as simplistic as it was dangerous,' chipped in Peer Steinbrück, the German finance minister."
  • "Paulson brings laissez-faire approach on financial crisis…."
  • "It's au revoir to the days of laissez faire."[1]
Recent articles in The New York Times provide further confirmation. Thus, one article declares, "The United States has a culture that celebrates laissez-faire capitalism as the economic ideal…."[2] Another article tells us, "For 30 years, the nation's political system has been tilted in favor of business deregulation and against new rules."[3] In a third article, a pair of reporters assert, "Since 1997, Mr. Brown [the British Prime Minister] has been a powerful voice behind the Labor Party's embrace of an American-style economic philosophy that was light on regulation. The laissez-faire approach encouraged the country's banks to expand internationally and chase returns in areas far afield of their core mission of attracting deposits."[4] Thus even Great Britain is described as having a "laissez-faire approach."

The mentality displayed in these statements is so completely and utterly at odds with the actual meaning of laissez faire that it would be capable of describing the economic policy of the old Soviet Union as one of laissez faire in its last decades. By its logic, that is how it would have to describe the policy of Brezhnev and his successors of allowing workers on collective farms to cultivate plots of land of up to one acre in size on their own account and sell the produce in farmers' markets in Soviet cities. According to the logic of the media, that too would be "laissez faire" — at least compared to the time of Stalin.

Laissez-faire capitalism has a definite meaning, which is totally ignored, contradicted, and downright defiled by such statements as those quoted above. Laissez-faire capitalism is a politico-economic system based on private ownership of the means of production and in which the powers of the state are limited to the protection of the individual's rights against the initiation of physical force. This protection applies to the initiation of physical force by other private individuals, by foreign governments, and, most importantly, by the individual's own government. This last is accomplished by such means as a written constitution, a system of division of powers and checks and balances, an explicit bill of rights, and eternal vigilance on the part of a citizenry with the right to keep and bear arms. Under laissez-faire capitalism, the state consists essentially just of a police force, law courts, and a national defense establishment, which deter and combat those who initiate the use of physical force. And nothing more.

The utter absurdity of statements claiming that the present political-economic environment of the United States in some sense represents laissez-faire capitalism becomes as glaringly obvious as anything can be when one keeps in mind the extremely limited role of government under laissez-faire and then considers the following facts about the present-day United States:
  1. Government spending in the United States currently equals more than forty percent of national income, i.e., the sum of all wages and salaries and profits and interest earned in the country. This is without counting any of the massive off-budget spending such as that on account of the government enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Nor does it count any of the recent spending on assorted "bailouts." What this means is that substantially more than forty dollars of every one hundred dollars of output are appropriated by the government against the will of the individual citizens who produce that output. The money and the goods involved are turned over to the government only because the individual citizens wish to stay out of jail. Their freedom to dispose of their own incomes and output is thus violated on a colossal scale. In contrast, under laissez-faire capitalism, government spending would be on such a modest scale that a mere revenue tariff might be sufficient to support it. The corporate and individual income taxes, inheritance and capital gains taxes, and social security and Medicare taxes would not exist.
  2. There are presently fifteen federal cabinet departments, nine of which exist for the very purpose of respectively interfering with housing, transportation, healthcare, education, energy, mining, agriculture, labor, and commerce, and virtually all of which nowadays routinely ride roughshod over one or more important aspects of the economic freedom of the individual. Under laissez-faire capitalism, eleven of the fifteen cabinet departments would cease to exist and only the departments of justice, defense, state, and treasury would remain. Within those departments, moreover, further reductions would be made, such as the abolition of the IRS in the Treasury Department and the Antitrust Division in the Department of Justice.
  3. The economic interference of today's cabinet departments is reinforced and amplified by more than one hundred federal agencies and commissions, the most well known of which include, besides the IRS, the FRB and FDIC, the FBI and CIA, the EPA, FDA, SEC, CFTC, NLRB, FTC, FCC, FERC, FEMA, FAA, CAA, INS, OHSA, CPSC, NHTSA, EEOC, BATF, DEA, NIH, and NASA. Under laissez-faire capitalism, all such agencies and commissions would be done away with, with the exception of the FBI, which would be reduced to the legitimate functions of counterespionage and combating crimes against person or property that take place across state lines.
  4. To complete this catalog of government interference and its trampling of any vestige of laissez faire, as of the end of 2007, the last full year for which data are available, the Federal Register contained fully seventy-three thousand pages of detailed government regulations. This is an increase of more than ten thousand pages since 1978, the very years during which our system, according to one of The New York Times articles quoted above, has been "tilted in favor of business deregulation and against new rules." Under laissez-faire capitalism, there would be no Federal Register. The activities of the remaining government departments and their subdivisions would be controlled exclusively by duly enacted legislation, not the rule-making of unelected government officials.
  5. And, of course, to all of this must be added the further massive apparatus of laws, departments, agencies, and regulations at the state and local level. Under laissez-faire capitalism, these too for the most part would be completely abolished and what remained would reflect the same kind of radical reductions in the size and scope of government activity as those carried out on the federal level.
What this brief account has shown is that the politico-economic system of the United States today is so far removed from laissez-faire capitalism that it is closer to the system of a police state. The ability of the media to ignore all of the massive government interference that exists today and to characterize our present economic system as one of laissez faire and economic freedom marks it as, if not profoundly dishonest, then as nothing less than delusional.

Government Intervention Actually Responsible for the Crisis

Beyond all this is the further fact that the actual responsibility for our financial crisis lies precisely with massive government intervention, above all the intervention of the Federal Reserve System in attempting to create capital out of thin air, in the belief that the mere creation of money and its being made available in the loan market is a substitute for capital created by producing and saving. This is a policy it has pursued since its founding, but with exceptional vigor since 2001, in its efforts to overcome the collapse of the stock market bubble whose creation it had previously inspired.

The Federal Reserve and other portions of the government pursue the policy of money and credit creation in everything they do that encourages and protects private banks in the attempt to cheat reality by making it appear that one can keep one's money and lend it out too, both at the same time. This duplicity occurs when individuals or business firms deposit cash in banks, which they can continue to use to make purchases and pay bills by means of writing checks rather than using currency. To the extent that the banks are then enabled and encouraged to lend out the funds that have been deposited in this way (usually by the creation of new and additional checking deposits rather than the lending of currency), they are engaged in the creation of new and additional money. The depositors continue to have their money and borrowers now have the bulk of the funds deposited. In recent years, the Federal Reserve has so encouraged this process, that checking deposits have been created equal to fifty times the actual cash reserves of the banks, a situation more than ripe for implosion.
All of this new and additional money entering the loan market is fundamentally fictitious capital, in that it does not represent new and additional capital goods in the economic system, but rather a mere transfer of parts of the existing supply of capital goods into different hands, for use in different, less efficient, and often flagrantly wasteful ways. The present housing crisis is perhaps the most glaring example of this in all of history.
"Laissez-faire capitalism has a definite meaning, which is totally ignored, contradicted, and downright defiled by such statements…"
Perhaps as much as a trillion-and-a-half dollars or more of new and additional checkbook-money capital was channeled into the housing market as the result of the artificially low interest rates caused by the presence of an even larger overall amount of new and additional money in the loan market. Because of the long-term nature of its financing, housing is especially susceptible to the effect of lower interest rates, which can serve sharply to reduce monthly mortgage payments and in this way correspondingly increase the demand for housing and for the mortgage loans needed to finance it.

Over a period of years, the result was a huge increase in the production and purchase of new homes, rapidly rising home prices, and a further spiraling increase in the production and purchase of new homes in the expectation of a continuing rise in their prices.

To gauge the scale of its responsibility, in the period of time just since 2001, the Federal Reserve caused an increase in the supply of checkbook-money capital of more than 70 percent of the cumulative total amount it had created in the whole of the previous 88 years of its existence — that is, almost 2 trillion dollars.[5] This was the increase in the amount by which the checking deposits of the banks exceeded the banks' reserves of actual money, that is, the money they have available to pay depositors who want cash. The Federal Reserve caused this increase in illusory capital by means of creating whatever new and additional bank reserves were necessary to achieve a federal funds interest rate — that is, the rate of interest paid by banks on the lending and borrowing of reserves — that was far below the rate of interest dictated by the market. For the three years 2001–2004, the Federal Reserve drove the federal funds rate below 2 percent and, from July of 2003 to June of 2004, drove it even further down to approximately 1 percent.

The Federal Reserve also made it possible for banks to operate with a far lower percentage of reserves than ever before. Whereas in a free market, banks would hold gold reserves equal to their checking deposits — or at the very least to a substantial proportion of their checking deposits[6] — the Federal Reserve in recent years contrived to make it possible for them to operate with irredeemable fiat-money reserves of less than 2 percent.

The Federal Reserve drove down the federal funds rate and brought about the vast increase in the supply of illusory capital for the purpose of driving down all market interest rates. The additional illusory capital could find borrowers only at lower interest rates. The Federal Reserve's goal was to bring about interest rates so low that they could not compensate even for the rise in prices. It deliberately sought to achieve a negative real rate of interest on capital, that is, a rate below the rate at which prices rise. This means that a lender, after receiving the interest due him for a year, has less purchasing power than he had the year before, when he had only his principal.

In doing this, the Federal Reserve's ultimate purpose was to stimulate both investment and consumer spending. It wanted the cost of obtaining capital to be minimal so that it would be invested on the greatest possible scale and for people to regard the holding of money as a losing proposition, which would stimulate them to spend it faster. More spending, ever more spending was its concern, in the belief that that is what is required to avoid large-scale unemployment.

As matters have turned out, the Federal Reserve got its wish for a negative real rate of interest, but to an extent far beyond what it wished. It wished for a negative real rate of return of perhaps 1 to 2 percent. What it achieved in the housing market was a negative real rate of return measured by the loss of a major portion of the capital invested. In the words of The New York Times, "In the year since the crisis began, the world's financial institutions have written down around $500 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities. Unless something is done to stem the rapid decline of housing values, these institutions are likely to write down an additional $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion."[7]

This vast loss of capital in the housing debacle is what is responsible for the inability of banks to make loans to many businesses to which they normally could and would lend. The reason they cannot now do so is that the funds and the real wealth that have been lost no longer exist and thus cannot be lent to anyone. The Federal Reserve's policy of credit expansion based on the creation of new and additional checkbook money has thus served to give capital to unworthy borrowers who never should have had it in the first place and to deprive other, far more credit worthy borrowers of the capital they need to stay in businesses. Its policy has been one of redistribution and destruction.

The capital it has caused to be malinvested and lost in housing is capital that is now unavailable for such firms as Wickes Furniture, Linens 'N Things, Levitz Furniture, Mervyns, and innumerable others, who have had to go bankrupt because they could not obtain the loans they needed to stay in business. And, of course, among the foremost victims have been major banks themselves. The losses they have suffered have wiped out their capital and put them out of business. And the list of casualties will certainly grow.

Any discussion of the housing debacle would be incomplete if it did not include mention of the systematic consumption of home equity encouraged for several years by the media and an ignorant economics profession. Consistent with the teachings of Keynesianism that consumer spending is the foundation of prosperity, they regarded the rise in home prices as a powerful means for stimulating such spending. In increasing homeowners' equity, they held, it enabled homeowners to borrow money to finance additional consumption and thus keep the economy operating at a high level. As matters have turned out, such consumption has served to saddle many homeowners with mortgages that are now greater than the value of their homes, which would not have been the case had those mortgages not been enlarged to finance additional consumption. This consumption is the cause of a further loss of capital over and above the capital lost in malinvestment.

A discussion of the housing debacle would also not be complete if it did not mention the role of government guarantees of many mortgage loans. If the government guarantees the principal and interest on a loan, there is no reason why a lender should care about the qualifications of a borrower. He will not lose by making the loan, however bad it may turn out to be.

A substantial number of mortgage loans carried such guarantees. For example, a New York Times article describes the Department of Housing and Urban Development as "an agency that greased the mortgage wheel for first-time buyers by insuring billions of dollars in loans." The article describes how HUD progressively reduced its lending standards: "families no longer had to prove they had five years of stable income; three years sufficed… lenders were allowed to hire their own appraisers rather than rely on a government-selected panel … lenders no longer had to interview most government-insured borrowers face to face or maintain physical branch offices," because the government's approval for granting mortgage insurance had become automatic.

The Times' article goes on to describe how "Lenders," such as Countrywide Financial, which was among the largest and most prominent, "sprang up to serve those whose poor credit history made them ineligible for lower-interest 'prime' loans." It notes the fact that "Countrywide signed a government pledge to use 'proactive creative efforts' to extend homeownership to minorities and low-income Americans."[8] "Proactive creative efforts" is a good description of what lenders did in offering such bizarre types of mortgages as those requiring the payment of "interest only," and then allowing the avoidance even of the payment of interest by adding it to the amount of outstanding principal. (Such mortgages suited the needs of homebuyers whose reason for buying was to be able to sell as soon as home prices rose sufficiently further.)

Just as vast numbers of houses were purchased based on an unfounded belief in an endless rise in their prices, so too vast numbers of complex financial derivatives were sold based on an unfounded belief that the Federal Reserve System actually had the power it claimed to have of making depressions impossible — a power which the media and most of the economics profession repeatedly affirmed.

Derivatives have received such a bad press that it is necessary to point out that the insurance policy on a home is a derivative. And many of the derivatives that were sold and which are now creating problems of insolvency and bankruptcy, namely, "credit default swaps (CDSs)," were insurance policies in one form or another. Their flaw was that unlike ordinary homeowners' insurance, they did not have a sufficient list of exclusions.

Homeowners' policies make exclusions for such things as damage caused by war and, in many cases, depending on the special risks of the local area, earthquakes and hurricanes. In the same way, the more complex derivatives should have made an exclusion for losses resulting from financial collapse brought on by Federal Reserve–sponsored massive credit expansion. (If it is impossible actually to write such an exclusion, because many of the losses may occur before the nature of the cause becomes evident, then such derivatives should not be written and the market will no longer write them because of the unacceptable risks they entail.) But decades of brainwashing by the government, the media, and the educational system had convinced almost everyone that such collapse was no longer possible.

Belief in the impossibility of depressions played the same role in the creation and sale of "collateralized debt obligations (CDOs)." Here disparate home mortgages were bundled together and securities were issued against them. In many cases, large buyers bundled together collections of such securities and issued further securities against those securities. As more and more homeowners have defaulted on their loans, the result has been that no one is able directly to judge the value of these securities. To do so, it will be necessary to disentangle them down to the level of the underlying individual mortgages. Such tangles of securities could never have been sold in a market not overwhelmed by the propaganda that depressions are impossible under the government's management of the financial system.

Finally, a discussion of the housing debacle would not be complete if it did not include mention of forms of virtual extortion that served to encourage loans to unworthy borrowers. Thus, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia writes,
The Community Reinvestment Act [CRA] … is a United States federal law designed to encourage commercial banks and savings associations to meet the needs of borrowers in all segments of their communities, including low- and moderate-income neighborhoods … CRA regulations give community groups the right to comment or protest about banks' non-compliance with CRA. Such comments could help or hinder banks' planned expansions.
The meaning of these words is that the Community Reinvestment Act gives the power to "community groups," to determine in an important respect the financial success or failure of a bank. Only if they are satisfied that the bank is making sufficient loans to borrowers to whom it would otherwise choose not to lend, will it be permitted to succeed. The most prominent such community group is ACORN.

Part and parcel of the environment that has made an act such as the CRA possible, is threats of slander against banks for being "racist" if they choose not to make loans to people who are poor credit risks and also happen to belong to this or that minority group. The threats of slander go hand in glove with intimidation from various government agencies that exercise discretionary power over the banks and are in a position to harm them if they do not comply with the agencies' wishes. The same points apply to mortgage lenders other than banks.

What this extensive analysis of the actual causes of our financial crisis has shown is that it is government intervention, not a free market or laissez-faire capitalism, that is responsible in every essential respect.

The Laissez-Faire Myth and the Marxism of the Media

The myth that laissez faire exists in the present-day United States and is responsible for our current economic crisis is promulgated by people who know practically nothing whatever of sound, rational economic theory or the actual nature of laissez-faire capitalism. They espouse it despite, or rather because of, their education at the leading colleges and universities of the country. When it comes to matters of economics, their education has steeped them entirely in the thoroughly wrong and pernicious doctrines of Marx and Keynes. In claiming to see the existence of laissez faire in the midst of such massive government interference as to constitute the very opposite of laissez faire, they are attempting to rewrite reality in order to make it conform with their Marxist preconceptions and view of the world.

"Decades of brainwashing by the government, the media, and the educational system … convinced almost everyone that such collapse was no longer possible."
They absorb the doctrines of Marx more in history, philosophy, sociology, and literature classes than in economics classes. The economics classes, while usually not Marxist themselves, offer only highly insufficient rebuttal of the Marxist doctrines and devote almost all of their time to espousing Keynesianism and other, less-well-known anticapitalistic doctrines, such as the doctrine of pure and perfect competition.
Very few of the professors and their students have read so much as a single page of the writings of Ludwig von Mises, who is the preeminent theorist of capitalism and knowledge of whose writings is essential to its understanding. Almost all of them are thus essentially ignorant of sound economics.

When I refer to the educational system and the media as Marxist, I do not intend to imply that its members favor any kind of forcible overthrow of the United States government or are necessarily even advocates of socialism. What I mean is that they are Marxists insofar as they accept Marx's views concerning the nature and operation of laissez-faire capitalism.

They accept the Marxian doctrine that in the absence of government intervention, the self-interest, the profit motive — the "unbridled greed" — of businessmen and capitalists would serve to drive wage rates to minimum subsistence while it extended the hours of work to the maximum humanly endurable, imposed horrifying working conditions, and drove small children to work in factories and mines. They point to the miserably low standard of living and terrible conditions of wage earners in the early years of capitalism, especially in Great Britain, and believe that that proves their case. They go on to argue that only government intervention in the form of pro-union and minimum-wage legislation, maximum-hours laws, the legal prohibition of child labor, and government mandates concerning working conditions, served to improve the wage earner's lot. They believe that repeal of this legislation would bring about a return to the miserable economic conditions of the early 19th century.

They view the profits and interest of businessmen and capitalists as unearned, undeserved gains, wrung from wage earners — the alleged true producers — by the equivalent of physical force, and hence regard the wage earners as being in the position of virtual slaves ("wage slaves") and the capitalist "exploiters" as being in the position of virtual slave owners. Closely connected with this, they regard taxing the businessmen and capitalists and using the proceeds for the benefit of wage earners, in such forms as social security, socialized medicine, public education, and public housing, as a policy that serves merely to return to the wage earners some portion of the loot allegedly stolen from them in the process of "exploitation."

In full agreement with Marx and his doctrine that under laissez-faire capitalism the capitalists expropriate all of the wage earner's production above what is necessary for minimum subsistence, they assume that the government's intervention harms no one but the immoral businessmen and capitalists, never the wage earners. Thus not only the taxes to pay for social programs but also the higher wages imposed by pro-union and minimum-wage legislation are assumed simply to come out of profits, with no negative effect whatever on wage earners, such as unemployment. Likewise for the effect of government-imposed shorter hours, improved working conditions, and the abolition of child labor: the resulting higher costs are assumed simply to come out of the capitalists' "surplus value," never out of the standard of living of wage earners themselves.

This is the mindset of the whole of the left and in particular of the members of the educational system and media. It is a view of the profit motive and the pursuit of material self-interest as inherently lethal if not forcibly countered and rigidly controlled by government intervention. As stated, it is a view that sees the role of businessmen and capitalists as comparable to that of slave owners, despite the fact that businessmen and capitalists do not and cannot employ guns, whips, or chains to find and keep their workers but only the offer of better wages and conditions than those workers can find elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, the educational system and media share the view of Marx that laissez-faire capitalism is an "anarchy of production," in which the businessmen and capitalists run about like chickens without heads. In their view, rationality, order, and planning emanate from the government, not from the participants in the market.

As I say, this, and more like it, is the intellectual framework of the great majority of today's professors and of several generations of their predecessors. It is equally the intellectual framework of their students, who have dutifully absorbed their misguided teachings and some of whom have gone on to become the reporters and editors of such publications as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, and the overwhelming majority of all other newspapers and news magazines. It is the intellectual framework of their students who are now the commentators and editors of practically all of the major television networks, such as CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN.[9] And it is this intellectual framework within which the media now attempts to understand and report on our financial crisis.

In their view, laissez-faire capitalism and economic freedom are a formula for injustice and chaos, while government is the voice and agent of justice and rationality in economic affairs. So firmly do they hold this belief, that when they see what they think is evidence of large-scale injustice and chaos in the economic system, such as has existed in the present financial crisis, they automatically presume that it is the result of the pursuit of self-interest and the economic freedom that makes that pursuit possible. Given this fundamental attitude, the principle that guides contemporary journalists so-called is that their job is to find the businessmen and capitalists who are responsible for the evil and the government officials who set them free to commit it, and, finally, to identify and support the policies of government intervention and control that will allegedly eliminate the evil and prevent its recurrence in the future.

Their fear and hatred of economic freedom and laissez-faire capitalism, and their need to be able to denounce it as the cause of all economic evil, is so great that they pretend to themselves and to their audiences that it exists in today's world, in which it clearly does not exist even remotely. By making the claim that laissez faire exists and is what is responsible for the problem, they are able to turn the full force of their hatred for actual economic freedom and laissez-faire capitalism against each and every sliver of economic freedom that somehow manages to exist and which they decide to target. That sliver, they project, is part and parcel of the starvation of the workers in the inhuman exploitation of labor that, in their ignorance, they take for granted is imposed by capitalists under laissez faire. Their brainwashed audience — as much the product of the contemporary educational system as they themselves — then quickly follows suit and obliges their efforts to arouse hatred.

The result is summed up in words such as these, which appeared in one of the same New York Times articles I quoted earlier:
"We now have a collective anger, disgust, over our whole financial system and it's obvious we're going to get a regulatory backlash…" [with] a spillover effect to other industries because voters have the perception that "big companies are animals and they need to be put in their cages."[10]
In this way the enemies of capitalism and economic freedom are able to proceed in their campaign of economic destruction and devastation. They use the accusation of "laissez faire" as a kind of ratchet for increasing the government's power. For example, in the early 1930s they accused President Hoover of following a policy of laissez faire, even as he intervened in the economic system to prevent the fall in wage rates that was essential to stop a reduced demand for labor from resulting in mass unemployment. On the basis of the mass unemployment that then resulted from Hoover's intervention, which they succeeded in portraying as "laissez faire," they deceived the country into supporting the further massive interventions of the New Deal.
"The enemies of capitalism and economic freedom … use the accusation of 'laissez faire' as a kind of ratchet for increasing the government's power."
Today, they continue to play the same game. Always it is laissez faire that they denounce, and whose alleged failures they claim need to be overcome with yet more government regulations and controls. Today, the massive interventions not only of the New Deal, but also of the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society, and of all the administrations since, have been added to the very major interventions that existed even in the 1920s and to which Hoover very substantially added. And yet we still allegedly have laissez faire. It seems that so long as anyone manages to move or even breathe without being under the control of the government, laissez faire allegedly continues to exist, which serves to make necessary yet still more government controls.

The logical stopping point of this process is that one day everyone will end up being shackled to a wall, or at the very least being compelled to do something comparable to living in a zip code that matches his social security number. Then the government will know who everyone is, where he is, and that he can do nothing whatever without its approval and permission. And then the world will be safe from anyone attempting to do anything that benefits him and thereby allegedly harms others. At that point, the world will enjoy all the prosperity that comes from total paralysis.

[1] See http://www.volunteertv.com/international/headlines/29762874.html.
[2] Steve Lohr, "Intervention Is Bold, but Has a Basis in History," October 14, 2008, p. A14.
[3] Jackie Calmes, "Both Sides of the Aisle See More Regulation," October 14, 2008, p. A15.
[4] Landon Thomas Jr. and Julia Werdigier, "Britain Takes a Different Route to Rescue Its Banks," October 9, 2007, p. B7.
[5] I arrive at these figures by calculating total checking deposits in January of 2001 and in August of 2008 as the sum of those contained in M1, the "sweep" accounts compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and money market mutual fund deposits, both retail and institutional. From these respective totals I subtract total bank reserves as of the same dates. I then subtract the result for 2001 from that for 2008 and divide the difference by the sum calculated for 2001.
[6] If the creation of checkbook money in excess of currency holdings is in fact an attempt at cheating, as I described it earlier, then it follows that a free market would actually require a 100 percent reserve.
[7] Joe Nocera, "Shouldn't We Rescue Housing?" October 18, 2008, p. B1.
[8] David Streitfeld and Gretchen Morgenson, "The Reckoning, Building Flawed American Dreams," October 19, 2008, p. A26.
[9] For a comprehensive refutation of all aspects of this intellectual framework, see George Reisman, Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996), chapters 11, 14, and passim.
[10] Jackie Calmes, loc. cit.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Thanks to the Government, We're Headed Toward Socialism!

A Move towards Market Socialism

Daily Article by | Posted on 10/16/2008
"They want people to play market as children play war, railroad, or school. They do not comprehend how such childish play differs from the real thing it tries to imitate." – Ludwig von Mises
The recent financial crisis has renewed interest in old issues. The Bush administration has announced plans to buy $85 billion in preferred stock in what are (for the time being) private financial institutions, like Bank of America, J.P. Morgan, Wells Fargo, and Morgan Stanley. The total commitment by the Treasury is set at $250 billion. While this move by the Treasury Department into the financial industry is unique in American history, it has precedents elsewhere, and has been debated many times.
Karl Marx proposed "centralization of credit in the banks of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly." Years later, so-called "market socialists" like Oscar Lange, Abba Lerner, and H.D. Dickinson proposed state control over credit and financial capital. While these market socialists accepted trade and the use of money with consumer goods, markets for capital goods would be simulated and markets for financial capital would be wholly replaced by central planning. Capital investment would therefore be determined by state officials, rather than by competition for funds in financial markets. Lange was particularly clear about how the state would determine the overall rate and pattern of capital investment. State officials would set the overall rate of capital accumulation, instead of interest rates. State officials would also determine the pattern of investment, instead of profit-seeking capitalists and entrepreneurs.
Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek defended capitalism from its Marxian and market-socialist enemies. Mises attributed special significance to financial markets and private financial institutions. After all, it is financial markets that determine the rate and pattern of future capital investment in capitalism.[1] Since socialism is defined by communal control of capital, this system requires state control of investment and finance. Socialism therefore means replacing private dividends with social dividends and interest rates with edicts. All private speculation and credit must be prohibited if capital is truly to become communal property. Capitalism works because it eliminates inept managers of production automatically through bankruptcy, while extending greater industrial control to competent capitalists.
The elimination of markets for capital goods and financial capital introduces arbitrary and political forces into the determination of capital investment. In capitalism, money prices direct capital investment. Socialist officials necessarily lack money prices relating to capital goods because the markets that form these prices are incompatible with socialist aims and ideals. Socialist officials will not determine investment by rational calculations in terms of money, but will be guided by political expediency.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was seen by many people as a final verdict on socialism as an economic system. Whatever one might have thought about socialist ideals, the system was itself seen as unworkable. Yet, in only fifteen years, we have come to a point where a Lange-type system is close to being implemented. Of course, the federal government already holds strong regulatory powers over financial institutions. The regulation of American finance introduces an element of politics in financial markets. However, federal regulation of financial markets puts the voting public in the position of an active stakeholder in financial markets. With limited government and laissez faire, voters are passive stakeholders in financial markets. To put it simply, regulation changes the role but not the position of voters and interest groups in these markets.
The purchase of preferred stock by the federal government alters the position of the general citizenry regarding financial institutions. If implemented, this plan will move voting citizens from the position of active stakeholders to that of actual shareholders. It is not yet clear if the federal government will be an active or silent partner in the aforementioned financial institutions.[2] But, given the historical record, it seems highly unlikely that the federal government would gain a $250 billion interest in these institutions without asserting some influence over their operations. It appears likely that the American public will become active shareholders in some of the largest and most important financial institutions.
The Bush buyout plan is being implemented "to restore confidence in the battered banking system." The Bush approach is not, however, the only way. The Bank of East Asia has also faced difficulties. When depositors began to withdraw money en masse, Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-Shing began buying up shares. This move by Li Ka-Shing helped restore depositor confidence, and rightly so. The Bank of East Asia is well capitalized and has minimal stakes in Lehman and AIG. Of course, Li Ka-Shing made this move for personal profit, but this did help stabilize the financial situation in the Far East. The Hong Kong approach stands in stark contrast to the Bush administration's new policy. Hong Kong is standing by its capitalist institutions by allowing private investors to deal with the current crisis, as well they should. Free-market capitalism transformed Hong Kong from a poverty-stricken victim of the Second World War to its current prosperous condition.
The Bush administration is going beyond its well-established record of intervention by implementing partial socialization of numerous financial firms. It does seem that we are at the crossroads. Will we move in the direction of Lange's market socialism, or will we opt for greater freedom and prosperity?
"They want to abolish private control of the means of production, market exchange, market prices, and competition. But at the same time they want to organize the socialist utopia in such a way that people could act as if these things were still present." – Ludwig von Mises
The prospects for avoiding further losses of economic freedom seem poor. Presidential candidate Barack Obama has declared that the current financial crisis is the result of deregulation that has "shredded" necessary regulatory controls. While Obama's belief in recent deregulation of financial markets is factually incorrect, his call for greater regulation might actually be preferable to the Bush administration's plan for partial socialization of banking and finance.
The overall record of private capital markets is one of unprecedented economic success. Financial capitalism has raised living standards to previously unimagined heights. Government regulation of financial markets has caused problems and setbacks. In fact, our current crisis is due largely to the strictures of the Community Reinvestment Act and Federal Reserve interest-rate policy. But regulation has not reversed the general trend towards greater prosperity.
The track record of state-controlled capital investment through state-owned banking and financial institutions is equally clear, but opposite in its results. Socialized investment has failed so consistently that one must wonders why the Bush administration would claim that its buyout of banks will restore public confidence. Why would anyone have confidence in the federal government's ability to direct matters of finance and investment? One need only look at the federal deficit and the burden of unfunded entitlements like Social Security to gauge the ineptitude of federal financial management. We are at the crossroads, and, unfortunately, our future course is being charted by George W. Bush and Henry Paulson.
Dickinson, H.D. The Economics of Socialism (1939).
Hayek, F.A. Collectivist Economic Planning (1935).
Lange, O.R. On the Economic Theory of Socialism (1938).
Lerner, A.P. The Economics of Control (1944).
MacKenzie, D.W. "Social Dividends, Bureaucratic Rules, and Entrepreneurial Discretion." Under final revision for The Eastern Economic Journal.
Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto (1848).
Mises, Ludwig von. Socialism, an Economic and Sociological Analysis (1922).
—— Human Action (1949).
Solomon, et al., "US to Buy Stakes in Nation's Largest Banks," The Wall Street Journal A1 (October 14, 2008).
[1] For example, see Mises 1922, p. 121; 1949, p. 257.
[2] Preferred stock generally does not come with the usual voting rights for stockholders. However, some preferred shares allow voting a few key issues, and preferred shares may be convertible into common shares.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Gov't Caused the Financial Mess, NOT the Free Market!

The Founding Father of Crony Capitalism

Daily Article by | Posted on 10/21/2008

As soon as the federal government announced its trillion-dollar bailout (for starters) of Wall Street plutocrats, defenders of the bailout pulled out what they apparently believed was their secret weapon: the myth of Alexander Hamilton as the alleged inventor of American capitalism. Hamilton, they said, would approve of the bailout. Case closed. How could anyone dispute "the architect of the American economy"?

Forbes.com immediately published an article entitled "Alexander Hamilton versus Ron Paul" to make the point that libertarian critiques of the bailout should be dismissed, since Hamilton was such a great statesman compared to Congressman Paul and his supporters. The Wall Street Journal Online published a piece by business historian John Steele Gordon in which he argued that our real problem is that central banking is not centralized enough; called for a financial-market dictator/regulator; supported the bailout; and, most importantly, blamed the current economic crisis on … Thomas Jefferson! Jefferson opposed America's first central bank, Hamilton's bank of the United States, and was a hard-money advocate. It is this kind of libertarian, free-market thinking, said Gordon, that is the cause of the current crisis.

What all this frantic Hamilton idolatry demonstrates is how the myth of Alexander Hamilton is the ideological cornerstone of the American system of crony capitalism financed by a huge public debt and legalized counterfeiting through central banking. It is this system that is the real cause of the current economic crisis — contrary to the false proclamations issued by Forbes.com and the Wall Street Journal.

We live in "Hamilton's republic," as the writer Michael Lind has proudly stated. Americans may like to quote Jefferson, George Will once wrote, but we live in Hamilton's country. This is true, but it is not the blessing that people like Lind, Will, and others proclaim. Just the opposite is true, as I argue in my new book, Hamilton's Curse: How Jefferson's Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution — And What It Means for America Today.

The Real Hamilton

Hamilton was the intellectual leader of the group of men at the time of the founding who wanted to import the system of British mercantilism and imperialistic government to America. As long as they were on the paying side of British mercantilism and imperialism, they opposed it and even fought a revolution against it. But being on the collecting side was altogether different. It's good to be the king, as Mel Brooks might say.

It was Hamilton who coined the phrase "The American System" to describe his economic policy of corporate welfare, protectionist tariffs, central banking, and a large public debt, even though his political descendants, the Whig Party of Henry Clay, popularized the slogan. He was not well schooled in the economics of his day, as is argued by such writers as John Steele Gordon. Unlike Jefferson, who had read, understood, and supported the free-market economic ideas of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Baptiste Say (whom Jefferson invited to join the faculty of the University of Virginia), Richard Cantillon, and Turgot (a bust of whom still sits in the entrance to Monticello), Hamilton either ignored or was completely unaware of these ideas. Instead, he repeated the mercantilist myths and superstitions that had been concocted by apologists for the British mercantilist state, such as Sir James Steuart.

Hamilton championed the cause of a large public debt — which he called "a public blessing" — not to establish the credit of the US government or to finance any particular public works projects but for the Machiavellian idea of tying the interests of the more affluent to the state: being government bondholders, they would, he believed, then support all of his grandiose plans for heavy taxation and a government much larger than what was called for in the Constitution. He was right. They, along with Wall Street investment bankers who have marketed the government's bonds, have always provided effective political support for bigger government and higher taxes. That is why Wall Street investment bankers were first in line for a bailout, administered by one of their fellow investment bankers, Treasury Secretary Paulson.

Hamilton argued for a large standing army not because he feared an invasion by France or England, but because he understood that the European monarchs had used such armies to intimidate their own citizens when it came to tax collection. Evidence of this is the fact that Hamilton personally led some 15,000 conscripts into Western Pennsylvania (with George Washington) to attempt to quell the famous Whiskey Rebellion. He was eventually put in charge of the entire expedition, and rounded up two dozen tax protesters, every one of whom he wanted to hang. They were all pardoned by George Washington, however, to Hamilton's everlasting regret.

In a publication entitled "A History of Central Banking in America" the Fed proudly labels Hamilton as its founding father, boasting that he even spoke just like a contemporary Fed chairman. The First Bank of the United States, which was opposed by Jefferson and Madison, created 72 percent inflation in its first five years of operation, as Murray Rothbard wrote in A History of Money and Banking in the United States. It was not rechartered in 1811, but was resurrected by Congress in 1817, after which it created America's first boom-and-bust cycle, which led to the Panic of 1819, the title of another of Rothbard's great works on American economic history.

After years of generating political corruption and economic instability, Hamilton's bank finally came to an end by the early 1840s, thanks to President Andrew Jackson. This led to the twenty-year "free banking" era. Hamiltonian central banking was resurrected once again in the 1860s with the National Currency Acts. This is an important reason why some historians have labeled the postwar decades as a period of "Hamiltonian hegemony."

When Anna Schwartz, Michael Bordo, and Peter Rappaport evaluated this precursor to the Fed in an academic publication, they concluded that it was characterized by "monetary and cyclical instability, four banking panics, frequent stock market crashes, and other financial disturbances" (see their paper in Claudia Goldin, ed., Strategic Factors in Nineteenth-Century Economic Growth). Naturally, the government's response to all of this economic panic and instability caused by centralized banking was to create an even more centralized banking system with the Federal Reserve Act.

Hamilton is perhaps best known among economists for his Report on Manufactures. In his 1905 biography of Hamilton, William Graham Sumner wrote that Hamilton's report advocated "the old system of mercantilism of the English school, turned around and adjusted to the situation of the United States." Thomas Jefferson also wrote that Hamilton's "schemes" for protectionism, corporate welfare, and central banking were "the means by which the corrupt British system of government could be introduced into the United States." They were right.

Hamilton's reputation as having had great expertise in economics and finance has been greatly exaggerated, wrote Sumner, who also wrote that Hamilton's economic thinking was marred by "confusion and contradiction" and that Hamilton was "befogged in the mists of mercantilism." Unfortunately for us, all of Hamilton's bad ideas "proved a welcome arsenal to the politicians" who succeeded him, noted Sumner.

At the constitutional convention Hamilton proposed a permanent president who would appoint all the governors of the states and would have veto power over all state legislation. His opponents correctly interpreted this as advocating a monarchy and, worse yet, a monarchy based on mercantilism. The reason for consolidating all political power first in the central government, and then in the hands of one man, the permanent president, was so that an American mercantilist empire could be centrally planned and controlled without any dissenters, such as tax protestors or free traders who resided in the various states. Hamilton (and his political heirs) understood that forced national uniformity is the only way in which such a central-planning scheme could work. The socialists of the 20th century understood this as well.

Hamiltonian mercantilism is essentially the economic and political system that Americans have lived under for several generations now: a king-like president who rules through "executive orders" and disregards any and all constitutional constraints on his powers; state governments that are mere puppets of the central government; corporate welfare run amok, especially in light of the most recent outrage, the Wall Street Plutocrat Bailout Bill; a $10 trillion national debt ($70 trillion if one counts the government's unfunded liabilities); a perpetual boom-and-bust cycle caused by the Wizard of Oz–like central planners at the Fed; constant military aggression around the world that only seems to benefit defense contractors and other beneficiaries of the warfare state; and more than half of the population bribed with subsidies of every kind imaginable to support the never-ending growth of the state. This is Hamilton's curse on America — a curse that must be exorcized if there is to be any hope of resurrecting American freedom and prosperity.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Financial Crisis Solution: Gov't Should Do NOTHING!

Good and Bad Credit

Daily Article by | Posted on 10/16/2008

Business Dunce
Did Chairman Bernanke learn the correct lesson from the Great Depression?

On Wednesday October 8 the Federal Reserve, European Central Bank, and four other central banks lowered interest rates in an emergency coordinated bid to ease the economic effects of the financial crisis.

The Fed, ECB, Bank of England, Bank of Canada, and Sweden's Riksbank each cut their benchmark rates by half a percentage point. Furthermore, China's central bank lowered its key one-year lending rate by 0.27 percentage points. According to a joint statement by the central banks,

The recent intensification of the financial crisis has augmented the downside risks to growth and thus has diminished further the upside risks to price stability. Some easing of global monetary conditions is therefore warranted.

The Fed's decision brought its benchmark rate to 1.5%. The ECB's main rate is now 3.75%; Canada's fell to 2.5%; the U.K.'s rate dropped to 4.5%; and Sweden's rate declined to 4.25%. China cut interest rates for the second time in three weeks, reducing the main rate to 6.93%. One day earlier the Reserve Bank of Australia had lowered its policy rate — the cash rate — by 1% to 6%.

Only a day earlier Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke announced that the US central bank is ready to intervene in the commercial paper market. The Fed will now buy commercial paper issued by corporations — meaning the US central bank will make direct loans to corporations.

It seems that Bernanke is ready to push trillions of dollars to keep the monetary system alive.

Bernanke is of the view that a major reason for the Great Depression of 1930s was the failure of the US central bank to act swiftly to revive the paralyzed credit market. By "swift action," Bernanke means massive monetary pumping.

The Fed chairman continuously reminds us that at least he has learned the lesson of the Great Depression and will make sure that the error that the Fed made then will not be repeated again.

At the conference to honor Milton Friedman's ninetieth birthday, Bernanke apologized to Friedman on behalf of the Fed for not pumping enough money to prevent the Great Depression:

Let me end my talk by abusing slightly my status as an official representative of the Federal Reserve. I would like to say to Milton and Anna: Regarding the Great Depression. You're right, we did it. We're very sorry. But thanks to you, we won't do it again.

(Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz wrote that the key factor behind the Great Depression was the failure by the Fed to pump large doses of money.)

Central-bank policy makers have said that the key for economic growth is a smooth flow of credit. For them (in particular, for Bernanke) it is credit that provides the foundation for economic growth and raises individuals' living standards. From this perspective, it makes a lot of sense for the central bank to make sure that credit flows again.

Following the teachings of Friedman and Keynes, it is an almost-unanimous view among experts that if lenders are unwilling to lend, then it is the duty of the government and the central bank to keep the flow of lending going.

For instance, if in the commercial-paper market lenders are not there, then the Fed should step in and replace these lenders. The important thing, it is held, is that various businesses that rely on the commercial-paper market to keep their daily operations going should be able to secure the necessary funding.

Will the increase in money pumping by central banks unfreeze credit markets? Experts believe that this will do the trick. If the current dosage of pumping won't work, then the central bank must continue to push more money until credit markets start moving again, so it is believed.

It is true that credit is the key for economic growth. However, one must make a distinction between good credit and bad credit. It is good credit that makes real economic growth possible and thus improves people's lives and well-being. False credit, however, is an agent of economic destruction and leads to economic impoverishment.

Good Credit versus Bad Credit

There are two kinds of credit: that which would be offered in a market economy with sound money and banking (good credit); and that which is made possible only through a system of central banking, artificially low interest rates, and fractional reserves (bad credit).

Banks cannot expand good credit as such. All that they can do in reality is to facilitate the transfer of a given pool of savings from savers (lenders) to borrowers. To understand why, we must first understand how good credit comes to be and the function it serves.

Consider the case of a baker who bakes ten loaves of bread. Out of his stock of real wealth (ten loaves of bread), the baker consumes two loaves and saves eight. He lends his eight remaining loaves to the shoemaker in return for a pair of shoes in one week's time. Note that credit here is the transfer of "real stuff," i.e., eight saved loaves of bread from the baker to the shoemaker in exchange for a future pair of shoes.

Also, observe that the amount of real savings determines the amount of available credit. If the baker had saved only four loaves of bread, the amount of credit would have only been four loaves instead of eight.

Note that the saved loaves of bread provide support to the shoemaker, i.e., they sustain him while he is busy making shoes. This means that credit, by sustaining the shoemaker, gives rise to the production of shoes and therefore to the formation of more real wealth. This is a path to real economic growth.

Money and Credit

The introduction of money does not alter the essence of what credit is. Instead of lending his eight loaves of bread to the shoemaker, the baker can now exchange his saved eight loaves of bread for eight dollars and then lend those dollars to the shoemaker. With eight dollars, the shoemaker can secure either eight loaves of bread (or other goods) to support him while he is engaged in the making of shoes. The baker is supplying the shoemaker with the facility to access the pool of real savings, which among other things includes eight loaves of bread that the baker has produced. Note that without real savings, the lending of money is an exercise in futility.

Observe that money fulfills the role of a medium of exchange. Hence, when the baker exchanges his eight loaves for eight dollars, he retains his real savings by means of the eight dollars. The money in his possession will enable him, when he deems it necessary, to reclaim his eight loaves of bread or to secure any other goods and services. There is one provision here: that the flow of production of goods continues; without the existence of goods, the money in the baker's possession will be useless.

The existence of banks does not alter the essence of credit. Instead of the baker lending his money directly to the shoemaker, the baker lends his money to the bank, which in turn lends it to the shoemaker.

In the process, the baker earns interest for his loan while the bank earns a commission for facilitating the transfer of money between the baker and the shoemaker. The benefit that the shoemaker receives is that he can now secure real resources in order to be able to engage in his making of shoes.

Despite the apparent complexity that the banking system introduces, the act of credit remains the transfer of saved real stuff from lender to borrower. Without the increase in the pool of real savings, banks cannot create more credit. At the heart of the expansion of good credit by the banking system is an expansion of real savings.

Now, when the baker lends his eight dollars, we must remember that he has exchanged for these dollars eight saved loaves of bread. In other words, he has exchanged something for eight dollars. So when a bank lends those eight dollars to the shoemaker, the bank lends fully "backed-up" dollars so to speak.

False Credit Is an Agent of Economic Destruction

Trouble emerges however if, instead of lending fully backed-up money, a bank engages in fractional-reserve banking, the issuing of empty money, backed up by nothing.

When unbacked money is created, it masquerades as genuine money that is supposedly supported by real stuff. In reality, however, nothing has been saved. So when such money is issued, it cannot help the shoemaker, since the pieces of empty paper cannot support him in producing shoes — what he needs instead is bread. But, since the printed money masquerades as proper money, it can be used to "steal" bread from some other activities and thereby weaken those activities.

This is what the diversion of real wealth by means of money "out of thin air" is all about. If the extra eight loaves of bread aren't produced and saved, it is not possible to have more shoes without hurting some other activities — activities that are much higher on the priority lists of consumers as far as life and well-being are concerned. This in turn also means that unbacked credit cannot be an agent of economic growth.

Rather than facilitating the transfer of savings across the economy to wealth-generating activities, when banks issue unbacked credit they are in fact setting in motion a weakening of the process of wealth formation. It has to be realized that banks cannot relentlessly pursue unbacked lending without the existence of the central bank, which, by means of monetary pumping, makes sure that the expansion of unbacked credit doesn't cause banks to bankrupt each other.

We can thus conclude that, as long as the increase in lending is fully backed up by real savings, it must be regarded as good news, since it promotes the formation of real wealth. False credit, which is generated "out of thin air," is bad news: credit which is unbacked by real savings is an agent of economic destruction.

Fed and Treasury Actions Only Make Things Worse

Neither the Fed nor the Treasury is a wealth generator: they cannot generate real savings. This in turn means that all the pumping that the Fed has been doing recently cannot increase lending unless the pool of real savings is expanding. On the contrary, the more money the Fed and other central banks are pushing, the more they are diluting the pool of real savings.

Yet most commentators are of the view that, given the present fragile state of the financial system, the central bank and the government must intervene to prevent the collapse. But how can the government and the central bank help in this regard? How can the central bank or the government generate more real savings?

The only thing that the government and the central bank can do is to redistribute the real savings from other people and give it to banks. Now, if the pool of real savings is still expanding this can "work" — and lending might flow again — but the overall pool of real savings will weaken as a result of the transfer of real savings from the nonbanking sector to the banking sector. If, however, the pool of real savings is falling, then it will not be possible to increase the flow of lending.

Why Doing Nothing Is the Best Policy to Revive the Economy

Given the growing likelihood that the pool of real savings is in serious trouble, does this mean that the flow of credit will remain frozen? What can be done to unfreeze the flow is to allow the interest rate to find its own level.

With a weakening real economy, lenders will be willing to lend only at the interest rate that allows for higher risk and for the fact that less real savings is available, all other things being equal. At a much higher interest rate, the so-called financial crisis and the shortage of credit will vanish.

The problem then is not with the credit market as such but with the fact that the central banks are pushing massive amounts of money and trying to force interest rates artificially lower. This of course makes it even less attractive for lenders to enter the credit market. Hence the shortage (i.e., the credit crunch) is the result of the central bank not allowing interest rates to reflect the levels that are in line with the facts of reality.

Why then are authorities resisting market forces and allowing the crunch to persist?

Because if interest rates were allowed to be higher, many bubble activities would become unprofitable, and would cease.

Most of those in a position to influence policy are of the view that this would lead to a serious economic slump and therefore should not be allowed. Supporting bubble activities with easy money further impoverishes wealth generators and delays the prospects of a meaningful economic recovery. The pumping by the Fed will distort the interest-rate structure further and worsen the credit crunch. The best policy is for the Fed to do nothing as soon as possible. By doing nothing, the Fed will enable wealth generators to accumulate real savings. The policy of doing nothing will force various activities that add too little or nothing to the pool of real savings to disappear. This will make make the generation of wealth much more rewarding.

As time goes by, the expanding pool of real savings will work towards the lowering of interest rates. This in turn will provide a base for the further expansion of various wealth-generating activities. Therefore, the sooner the Fed stops tampering, the sooner an economic recovery will emerge.

America's Great Depression
The Lesson They Refuse to Learn

If the pool of real savings is still growing, then doing nothing (and allowing the interest rate to reflect reality) will allow the recession to be short lived and economic recovery to emerge as fast as possible. (At a higher interest rate, various bubble activities will go belly up. As a result, more real savings will become available to wealth generators. This in turn will work towards the lowering of interest rates.)

We suggest that decades of reckless monetary policies by the Fed have severely depleted the pool of real savings. More of these same loose policies cannot make the current situation better. On the contrary, such policies only further delay the economic recovery.

By impoverishing wealth generators, the current policies of the government and the Fed run the risk of converting a short recession into a prolonged and severe slump.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Henry Hazlitt on the Bailout

Daily Article by | Posted on 10/15/2008

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson needs to change his reading list. Instead of reading the balance sheets and income statements of the failing banking industry, he needs to read Henry Hazlitt's classic book Economics in One Lesson. It will cost Paulson far less than the $700 billion that he is spending on the bailout, and he might just learn a little economics in the process.

Hazlitt delivers his "one lesson" in chapter 1, and proceeds to spend the rest of the book giving examples. His lesson, based on the work of Frédéric Bastiat, is that "the art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."

For example, in chapter 2, Hazlitt delivers the well-known "broken window fallacy" in which a hoodlum breaks a shopkeeper's window with a rock. The common folk see it as a tragedy, but an astute Washington bureaucrat could argue that it creates new jobs for glaziers. As Hazlitt points out, though, any resources that the shopkeeper spends on the new window would have been used elsewhere, perhaps for a new suit. So while the glazier gets new business, the tailor loses the same amount of business. There is no net benefit; in fact there is a net loss. Absent the hoodlum, the shopkeeper would have had both a window and a new suit; given the hoodlum, the shopkeeper has a window but no suit. Even though the damage was to the window, it is the suit that is lost to the shopkeeper and, hence, to society.

In chapter 6, entitled "Credit Diverts Production," Hazlitt discusses government lending policies, such as additional credit to farmers or business owners. However, he points out, the recipients of such programs are rarely the more-productive farmers and business owners. After all, the more-productive people are able to borrow their money from private lenders. It is only the less-productive individuals and firms, unable to get funds on the free market, that must turn to government.

For example, suppose that there is a farm for sale. A private lender would normally be willing to lend money to farmer A who has proven his abilities in the past, rather than to farmer B, who has demonstrated a lower level of productivity than has A. However, because government taxes citizens or borrows money itself in capital markets, private lenders have fewer funds available to lend to A. Instead, government lends the money to B on the grounds that B is underprivileged, in need of a hand, or some other politically based argument. The more productive borrower, A, loses out on the scarce land while the less productive borrower, B, gains the resources. Because the less-productive individual acquires the scarce resource, there will be less total production, and the entire society is worse off.

Read by Jeff Riggenbach

Further, Hazlitt states, the government takes bigger risks with taxpayers' money than private lenders take with their own money. Private lenders who make bad loans will go bankrupt and be forced out of business. But when the government gets involved, it lends funds for riskier ventures since the bureaucrats who approve the loan face no personal recriminations — much less loss of profit — for error.

In other words, private lenders would take Action A while government lenders would take Action B, and Action B is the less-productive path. After all, there is no need for government to take Action A: it can be handled quite well in the free market.

So it is with the current rash of bailouts. Whatever the final price tag — $500 billion, $750 billion, $1 trillion, more — the fact is that government gets its money either from taxes, borrowing, or the printing press. It is hard to raise taxes by $1 trillion on short notice, and since there is a small hurdle that slows the government's ability to print the money,[1] we know that government will issue bonds. In other words, government will borrow the money from private capital markets.

As Hazlitt points out, though, the private capital markets (those that aren't bankrupt and standing in line for a bailout) would otherwise lend their funds to more-productive ventures. If private capital wants to lend directly to the failing banks, it is already capable of doing so. The fact that such private capital is not lending to the banks is a clear indication that the government's current bailout is contrary to free-market principles.

The argument that the government is somehow pumping new capital into the market is absurd. Government is actually borrowing the money from the capital markets that it is in turn injecting into the capital markets. There is no additional source of funding; there is only a diversion of funds from more-productive outlets to less-productive outlets, with government acting as the middleman.

Economics in One Lesson
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson needs to read this book.

So when Henry Paulson argues that it is necessary to pump money into credit markets to prevent them from freezing up, he doesn't bother to realize that the money he pumps into the credit markets is coming directly out of the very same credit markets. He is doing little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic; shuffling the money from one set of financial intermediaries to another does not increase either liquidity or solvency. It merely delays the problem for a few brief moments.

Even the failing banks pay lip service to their fiduciary responsibility, but any privately funded firm that took money from more-productive people to give it to less-productive people would soon go out of business. Only the government can violate Hazlitt's logic and survive, because only government can socialize its losses through the tax system.


[1] The government issues bonds to private borrowers and then the Fed creates the new money to buy them, rather than the government directly printing the new money. It's a very small hurdle.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Article: Financial Crisis and Recession

Daily Article by | Posted on 10/6/2008

The severe financial crisis and resulting worldwide economic recession we have been forecasting for years are finally unleashing their fury. In fact, the reckless policy of artificial credit expansion that central banks (led by the American Federal Reserve) have permitted and orchestrated over the last fifteen years could not have ended in any other way.

The expansionary cycle that has now come to a close was set in motion when the American economy emerged from its last recession in 1992 and the Federal Reserve embarked on a major artificial expansion of credit and investment, an expansion unbacked by a parallel increase in voluntary household saving. For many years, the money supply in the form of banknotes and deposits (M3) has grown at an average rate of over ten percent per year (which means that every six or seven years the total volume of money circulating in the world has doubled). The media of exchange originating from this severe fiduciary inflation have been placed on the market by the banking system as newly created loans granted at extremely low (and even negative in real terms) interest rates. The above fueled a speculative bubble in the shape of a substantial rise in the prices of capital goods, real-estate assets, and the securities that represent them and are exchanged on the stock market, where indexes soared.

Curiously, as in the "roaring" years prior to the Great Depression of 1929, the shock of monetary growth has not significantly influenced the prices of the subset of goods and services at the final-consumer level of the production structure (approximately only one third of all goods). The decade just past, like the 1920s, has seen a remarkable increase in productivity as a result of the introduction on a massive scale of new technologies and significant entrepreneurial innovations which, were it not for the "money and credit binge," would have given rise to a healthy and sustained reduction in the unit price of the goods and services all citizens consume. Moreover, the full incorporation of the economies of China and India into the globalized market has gradually raised the real productivity of consumer goods and services even further. The absence of a healthy "deflation" in the prices of consumer goods in a period of such considerable growth in productivity as that of recent years provides the main evidence that the monetary shock has seriously disturbed the economic process.

Economic theory teaches us that, unfortunately, artificial credit expansion and the (fiduciary) inflation of media of exchange offer no shortcut to stable and sustained economic development, no way of avoiding the necessary sacrifice and discipline behind all voluntary saving. (In fact, particularly in the United States, voluntary saving has not only failed to increase, but in some years has even fallen to a negative rate.)

Indeed, the artificial expansion of credit and money is never more than a short-term solution, and often not even that. In fact, today there is no doubt about the recessionary consequence that the monetary shock always has in the long run: newly created loans (of money citizens have not first saved) immediately provide entrepreneurs with purchasing power they use in overly ambitious investment projects (in recent years, especially in the building sector and real-estate development). In other words, entrepreneurs act as if citizens had increased their saving, when they have not actually done so.

Widespread discoordination in the economic system results: the financial bubble ("irrational exuberance") exerts a harmful effect on the real economy, and sooner or later the process reverses in the form of an economic recession, which marks the beginning of the painful and necessary readjustment. This readjustment invariably requires the reconversion of the entire real productive structure, which inflation has distorted.

The specific triggers of the end of the euphoric monetary "binge" and the beginning of the recessionary "hangover" are many, and they can vary from one cycle to another. In the current circumstances, the most obvious triggers have been the rise in the price of raw materials, particularly oil, the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States, and finally, the failure of important banking institutions when it became clear in the market that the value of their debts exceeded that of their assets (mortgage loans granted).

At present, numerous self-interested voices are demanding further reductions in interest rates and new injections of money, which permit those who desire it to complete their investment projects without suffering losses.

Nevertheless, this "flight into the future" would only temporarily postpone problems at the cost of making them far more serious later. The crisis has hit because the profits of capital-goods companies (especially in the building sector and in real-estate development) have disappeared due to the entrepreneurial errors provoked by cheap credit, and because the prices of consumer goods have begun to rise faster than those of capital goods.

At this point, an inevitable, painful readjustment begins, and in addition to a drop in production and an increase in unemployment, we are now seeing a very harmful rise in the prices of consumer goods (stagflation).

The most rigorous economic analysis and the coolest, most balanced interpretation of recent economic and financial events lead inexorably to the conclusion that central banks (which are in fact monetary central-planning agencies) cannot possibly succeed in finding the most advantageous monetary policy at every moment. This is exactly what became clear in the case of the failed attempts to plan the former Soviet economy from above.

To put it another way, the theorem of the economic impossibility of socialism, which the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek discovered, is fully applicable to central banks in general, and to the Federal Reserve and (at one time) Alan Greenspan and (currently) Ben Bernanke in particular. According to this theorem, it is impossible to organize society, in terms of economics, based on coercive commands issued by a planning agency, since such a body can never obtain the information it needs to infuse its commands with a coordinating nature. Indeed, nothing is more dangerous than to indulge in the "fatal conceit" — to use Hayek's useful expression — of believing oneself omniscient or at least wise and powerful enough to be able to keep the most suitable monetary policy fine-tuned at all times. Hence, rather than soften the most violent ups and downs of the economic cycle, the Federal Reserve and, to a lesser extent, the European Central Bank, have most likely been their main architects and the culprits in their worsening.

Therefore, the dilemma facing Ben Bernanke and his Federal Reserve Board, as well as the other central banks (beginning with the European Central Bank), is not at all comfortable. For years they have shirked their fiduciary responsibility, and now they find themselves in a blind alley. They can either allow the recessionary process to begin now, and with it the healthy and painful readjustment, or they can procrastinate with a "hair of the dog" cure. With the latter, the chances of even more severe stagflation in the not-too-distant future increase exponentially. (This was precisely the error committed following the stock market crash of 1987, an error that led to the inflation at the end of the 1980s and concluded with the sharp recession of 1990-1992.)

Furthermore, the reintroduction of a cheap-credit policy at this stage could only hinder the necessary liquidation of unprofitable investments and company reconversion. It could even wind up prolonging the recession indefinitely, as occurred in the Japanese economy, which, after all possible interventions were tried, ceased to respond to any stimulus involving credit expansion or Keynesian methods.

It is in this context of "financial schizophrenia" that we must interpret the latest "shots in the dark" fired by the monetary authorities (who have two totally contradictory responsibilities: both to control inflation and to inject all the liquidity necessary into the financial system to prevent its collapse). Thus, one day the Fed rescues AIG, Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, and the next it allows Lehman Brothers to fail, under the amply justified pretext of "teaching a lesson" and refusing to fuel moral hazard. Finally, in light of the way events were unfolding, the US government announced a $700 billion plan to purchase illiquid (i.e., worthless) assets from the banking system. If the plan is financed by taxes (and not more inflation), it will mean a heavy tax burden on households, precisely when they are least able to bear it.

In comparison, the economies of the European Union are in a somewhat less poor state (if we do not consider the expansionary effect of the policy of deliberately depreciating the dollar, and the relatively greater European rigidities, particularly in the labor market, which tend to make recessions in Europe longer and more painful). The expansionary policy of the European Central Bank, though not free of grave errors, has been somewhat less irresponsible than that of the Federal Reserve. Furthermore, meeting the requirements for admission to the euro currency bloc (convergence) involved a healthful and significant rehabilitation of the chief European economies. Only a few countries on the periphery, like Ireland and especially Spain, engaged in considerable credit expansion from the time they initiated their processes of convergence.

The case of Spain is paradigmatic. The Spanish economy underwent an economic boom that was due, in part, to real causes (liberalizing structural reforms which originated with José María Aznar's administration). Nevertheless, the boom was also largely fueled by an artificial expansion of money and credit, which grew at a rate nearly three times the corresponding rates in France and Germany.

Spanish economic agents essentially interpreted the decrease in interest rates which resulted from the convergence process in the easy-money terms traditional in Spain: a greater availability of easy money and mass requests for loans from Spanish banks (mainly to finance real-estate speculation), loans which these banks have granted by creating the money ex nihilo while European central bankers looked on unperturbed. When faced with the rise in prices, the European Central Bank has remained faithful to its mandate and has decided not to lower interest rates despite the difficulties of those members of the Monetary Union which, like Spain, are now discovering that much of their investment in real estate was in error and are heading for a lengthy and painful reorganization of their real economy.

"The reckless policy of artificial credit expansion could not have ended in any other way."

Under these circumstances, the most appropriate policy would be to liberalize the economy at all levels (especially in the labor market) to permit the rapid reallocation of productive factors (particularly labor) to profitable sectors. Likewise, it is essential to reduce public spending and taxes, in order to increase the available income of heavily indebted economic agents who need to repay their loans as soon as possible.

Economic agents in general and companies in particular can only rehabilitate their finances by cutting costs (especially labor costs) and paying off loans. Essential to this aim are a very flexible labor market and a much more austere public sector. These factors are fundamental if the market is to reveal as quickly as possible the real value of the investment goods produced in error and thus lay the foundation for a healthy, sustained economic recovery in a future that, for the good of all, we hope is not too distant.