Archive for Hunter Lewis

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Ma) Defines Today’s Progressivism

Nomination_of_Richard_CordrayWarren reviewed eleven tenets of contemporary progressivism in a July 18 speech before Netroots Nation . She should be commended. Very often progressive politicians prefer to talk about “hope and change” rather than what they really stand for. Her list is not free of exaggerated rhetoric, such as claiming the mantle of “science” for herself. When she talks about supporting fast food workers on picket lines, she doesn’t mention the millions she is collecting from labor unions. But, even so, her account contains some honest and useful information.

1. “We believe that Wall Street needs stronger rules and tougher enforcement, and we’re willing to fight for it.”

2. “We believe in science, and that means that we have a responsibility to protect this Earth.”

3. “We believe that the Internet shouldn’t be rigged to benefit big corporations, and that means real net neutrality.”

4. “We believe that no one should work full-time and still live in poverty, and that means raising the minimum wage.”

5. “We believe that fast-food workers deserve a livable wage, and that means that when they take to the picket line, we are proud to fight alongside them.”

6. “We believe that students are entitled to get an education without being crushed by debt.”

7. “We believe that after a lifetime of work, people are entitled to retire with dignity, and that means protecting Social Security, Medicare, and pensions.”

8. “We believe—I can’t believe I have to say this in 2014—we believe in equal pay for equal work.”

9. “We believe that equal means equal, and that’s true in marriage, it’s true in the workplace, it’s true in all of America.”

10. “We believe that immigration has made this country strong and vibrant, and that means reform.”

11. “And we believe that corporations are not people, that women have a right to their bodies. We will overturn Hobby Lobby and we will fight for it. We will fight for it!”

Here are a few questions for Warren.

1.  Since you are willing to fight for stronger rules and tougher enforcement for Wall Street, are you willing to fight for an end to government bail-outs? How will you end them if Wall Street is operated as a subsidiary of Washington? How will you end them if Washington needs big Wall Street firms to buy its bonds with money created by Washington, since Washington is barred from buying its own bonds directly but can do so indirectly through Wall Street? In general, how will you keep government control from wrecking the internal disciplines of the market, which include loss and bankruptcy as well as profit?

2. How will an increase in the minimum wage help those who can’t get any job because of the minimum wage? How will this help teenagers or other young people get their first job?

One of your favorite presidents, Franklin Roosevelt, intervened to keep wages high during the Great Depression. The result was that those who succeeded in keeping their jobs were even better off than before while millions of others were thrown out of work and had nothing.

3. Hasn’t the federal student loan program driven up the cost of a college education, leaving many students worse off than before it existed?

And why is the federal government borrowing at a low interest rate and then charging the students a much higher rate? How can it be right to make a profit off the students and then apply it to the federal budget under a line called “ deficit reduction.”

4. Since you hold that “equal means equal… in all of America,” why do federal programs discriminate in favor of one group over another? Why, to choose just one of many examples, are non-unionized companies barred from federal construction contracts?

5. If corporations are not people, does that mean the government can not only tell them what to do, but even gag them or tell them what to say?

Having reviewed what Warren believes to be the eleven tenets of contemporary progressivism, what does she think that conservatives and libertarians believe? Here it is: “I got mine. The rest of you are on your own.”

Is this what either conservatives or libertarians teach? Is this what markets teach? They teach us to be selfish? Or do they teach us that we had better put our selfishness aside and tend to the needs of customers and employees first if we want to be successful?

People who run businesses are serving the needs of others. And people who work for the government may be just as selfish as anybody else.

Did Senator Warren describe all the tenets of contemporary progressivism? No, she described the ones she wanted to describe. But it’s helpful to have her eleven.

Less Fed Financial Repression Irrational?

220px-Marriner_S._Eccles_Federal_Reserve_Board_BuildingIn a recent Bloomberg Views piece, mainstream economist Noah Smith accused his Austrian  critics of having “brain worms” and even “anti-semitic overtones.” He then mischaracterized what his critics were saying so that he could ridicule it.

This wasn’t very conducive to a dialogue. His last Bloomberg piece, out on July 10, is better. It offers a specific proposal: don’t raise today’s ultra low interest rates.  Unfortunately it doesn’t say whether this advice is forever, or for now. But it is a specific proposal.

This is all the more helpful because it is difficult to tease specific proposals out of mainstream ( usually Keynesian) economists. For example, during and after the Crash the best known Keynesian economists ( Krugman, Shiller, Romer, Yellen etc.) kept saying we needed more government stimulus of the economy, but refused to give us the exact prescription.

This was very convenient when the stimulus failed; they could just claim that there hadn’t been enough. Never mind that they had refused to tell us in the first place how much was needed or for how long.

In his latest piece, Noah Smith not only says that short term interest rates should stay where they are, close to zero, and well below even reported inflation. He further argues that these giveaway interest rates ( made available to Wall Street, not to Main Street) are not creating a stock market or other asset bubble like the dot com or housing bubbles.

Smith then gives us what he calls Finance 101. Here is what he says: “The value of a financial asset is the discounted present value of its future payoffs, and when the discount rate — of which the Fed interest rate is a component — goes down, the true fundamental value of risky assets goes up mechanically and automatically. That’s rational price appreciation, not a bubble.”

Let’s see. The Fed artificially represses interest rates for now, with no guarantee that they won’t go bounding back up anytime in the future, even the near future, but stocks should be valued as if the artificially repressed rates are permanent. Sorry, this isn’t “rational” and it certainly isn’t Finance 101.

Smith further notes that “bubbles form when people think they can find some greater fool to sell to.” Hm. Why do people expect to find “greater fools” at some times and not other times?

George W. Bush famously said that “Wall Street got drunk” before the 2008 crash. But where did the cheap alcohol come from, if not from the rivers of new cash created by the Fed and delivered to the bars in Manhattan and around the world?

Even Smith admits that “there’s laboratory evidence for bubbles, too — it’s by far the most-researched phenomenon in experimental finance. And it’s true that when you give traders in the lab more cash, you get more and bigger bubbles.” Exactly. More cash, cheap cash, and the promise of bail-outs. It’s a deadly combination.

Smith even argues against his position when he thinks he is arguing for it. He says that “the Fed has been regulating the monetary base for many decades, and for a lot of that time there were no big bubbles.” Right again. The Fed isn’t operating as it did in the pre-Greenspan era. Far from following a “cautious, middle-of-the-road policy, It has embraced radical and recklessly untested new methods of money creation and interest rate repression that would have horrified earlier Fed boards and chairmen.

The main thrust of Smith’s piece is that interest rates should not be raised. For reasons he does not give, repressing interest rates and driving up stock prices are entirely rational while increasing rates is “irrational.” Rate reductions are wise policy; rate increases are a “blunt hammer.“

This echoes Keynes’s argument in the General Theory that the way to create a boom is to lower interest rates and the way to keep it going is to lower them further. Unfortunately history reveals that this doesn’t work; it just feeds bubbles. And even Keynes did not argue for forcing interest rates below inflation.

Smith has at least a glimpse of what his critics find troubling. He asks: “ what good is a crash to prevent a crash?,” but acknowledges that the critics have a “mental model …[of]… a little pain now to prevent a lot of pain later.” That’s it. They don’t want a crash at all; but they certainly don’t want an even bigger crash than the last one in 2008.

Smith rejoinder is curious: “If the rise in prices has been a rational response to Fed easing, then there’s no need for such medicine; causing a crash today will just cause a crash today, period.” But, as we have already noted, this only makes sense if the Fed will hold rates down forever and never bring them back up.

If the Fed will at some point bring them back up or perhaps even lose control of them, there will have to an adjustment. The only question is whether it would be healthier to have it now, or later, after even more new money has flooded the economy and created even more mal-investment and unrepayable debts.

Solving these problems for the long run requires abolishing the Fed  and restoring honest money and banking practices. But, for now, maintaining giveaway rates for favored special interests just makes everything worse.

http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-07-10/what-good-is-a-crash-to-prevent-a-crash

Negative Interest Rates– Only The Start?

5856811567_c7ef991796_bAs Ryan McMaken noted on June 5,  the European Central Bank has instituted negative interest rates for member banks. This could soon spread to the US and also to consumer accounts. If so, you would find money taken out of your bank account each quarter unless you spend it. Some observers think that in the US at least it will start with higher account fees, which will be stealth negative interest rates, and then move to overtly negative rates.

The idea is that if low rates are not yet persuading you to spend, then why not punish you even more for saving. To make this more effective, there would also be a push for all electronic money, to keep you from stashing any away from the confiscation agents. Ken Rogoff, leading Harvard (and Republican) economist has just recommended this to facilitate negative interest rates and in general to increase government control over cash.

This is far from the only “innovation” that could be coming our way. In a speech on June 4, San Francisco Fed Chairman John Williams suggested that the Fed should at least take a look at “nominal income targeting.” He said this could be “a creative way to bend the curve in terms of macroeconomic and financial stability trade-offs.” What this gobbledegook means is that the Fed would simply create money and then distribute it to parties in danger of bankruptcy and foreclosure.

Isn’t that a great idea? Why stop with the bail-out of big banks when you can bail out anyone who gets in financial trouble? That would guarantee the zombification of the economy that is already well underway. Bad business ideas and badly managed companies would live forever at the expense of good ideas and well managed companies.

Here are some other daft ideas being discussed in central banking and other circles:

1. Take a leaf from Japan by forcing banks to lend in return for Fed support.

2. Hold interest rates down but simultaneously drive inflation up to as much as 5-6%. With real interest rates at negative 5%, borrowing will soar. What isn’t clear in this scenario is why lenders will want to lend, but they can always be forced to do so.

3. Create even more money and use it to buy corporate bonds, stocks, real estate, anything that can be bought, which will flood the economy with money.

Some of the ideas waiting in the wings are not monetary. They include:

4. The government should set an annual borrowing target for the economy. If it isn’t being met by the private sector, government will itself step in and borrow to achieve the target. Who cares how the borrowed money is spent, so long as it is spent?

5. The government should issue bonds that will never be repaid. Not simply replaced with new bonds as at present—never repaid.

6. Employers should have to seek government permission to lay off or fire a worker. This idea of Paul Krugman’s is already true to a large degree in France, with the result that employers are very reluctant to hire anyone.

These days government economic managers are like mad tinkerers. Aldo Leopold said that the first rule of tinkering is that you don’t throw away the parts. But the Keynesian PhDs in charge of our economy are disassembling the economy at too fast a pace to listen.

Thomas Piketty on Inequality and Capital

6736In today’s Mises Daily, Hunter Lewis and Peter Klein discuss Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century:

Thomas Piketty, a 42-year-old economist from French academe has written a hot new book: Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The U.S. edition has been published by Harvard University Press and, remarkably, is leading the best seller list; the first time that a Harvard book has done so. A recent review describes Piketty as the man “who exposed capitalism’s fatal flaw.”

Imagine if We Had Free Prices!

If you were asked how we should go about achieving real economic growth throughout the economy rather than just certain sectors of it, what would you suggest?  Would you revisit the Keynesian toolbox and call for a really, really big stimulus instead of just another really big one?  Would you impose more controls on business, especially the financial sector?  Some people want to revive Glass-Steagall, the gem from the Depression era that was abandoned in 1999 — sound good to you?.  How about officially merging the Fed and the Treasury — i.e., turn “monetary policy” over to the government?  Perhaps you’d break out Sheila Bair’s plan to allow each American household to “borrow $10 million from the Fed at zero interest”? Her proposal was tongue-in-cheek, you say? Ms. Bair, the former head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, proposed a plan that in its essentials would be received enthusiastically by those in the know —  provided it was confined to special interests. But if it’s good for some, why not everyone?

“Look out 1 percent, here we come,” Ms. Bair trumpeted.

Many readers are familiar with the anecdote about a 1681 meeting between French finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert and a group of businessmen that included one M. Le Gendre.  Colbert, a mercantilist, was eager for industry to prosper because it would boost tax revenue . . . sort of a fatten-the-goose approach to economics.  When he asked how their government could be of service to the business community, Le Gendre famously replied, “Laissez-nous faire” — “Let us be.”

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The Hidden Motive Behind Quantitative Easing

220px-Marriner_S._Eccles_Federal_Reserve_Board_Building Foreign individuals and businesses long ago cut back on their purchases of U.S. bonds. Their place was taken by foreign central banks. The central banks simply created money in their own currency and used it to buy our bonds.

The Federal Reserve always knew that we couldn’t rely on foreign central banks to buy our bonds forever. This may be the main reason it began the program called quantitative easing, in which the Fed created money out of thin air specifically to buy back U.S. debt.

Quantitative easing may have been intended to be a kind of insurance policy. If foreign central bank buying of U.S. bonds collapsed, the Fed would already have a program in place to buy them back itself.

The Fed  said that quantitative easing was meant to create U.S. jobs, but this never made much sense. Even a hard core proponent of QE, Fed official William Dudley ( formerly of Goldman Sachs), admitted that the Fed’s own economic models could not explain how creating money out of thin air and using it to buy U.S. bonds would increase employment. Some link to rising stock prices could be demonstrated, if only through the cheap financing of corporate stock buy-backs, but then rising stock prices could not be shown to create jobs either.

One inference from this was that chairman Ben Bernanke, and now new chairman Janet Yellen, were just taking wild stabs in the dark. A more reasonable inference is that they had another reason for QE, one which they did not want to acknowledge.

Viewed in this way, the 2008 bail-out should be viewed not as a bail-out of Wall Street, but rather  as a bail-out of Washington. The Federal Reserve feared that the market for government bonds was about to collapse, which would lead to soaring interest rates, and a complete collapse of our bubble financed government.

The Fed did not have the option of creating money and buying debt directly from the Treasury. That would be illegal. The Treasury must first sell its bonds to Wall Street, after which the Fed can then use its newly created money to buy them back. Hence, in order to rescue the Treasury, the Fed felt it had to rescue Wall Street.

This is a simplification of what happened, and only part of the story, but it is the untold part of the story, and in all likelihood the most important part. The Fed was in a panic in 2008, but not primarily about what might happen to Wall Street, and certainly not about what might happen to Main Street. It was in a panic over what might happen to government finance.

This interpretation is strengthened by new information contained in former Treasury secretary Hank Paulson’s recent book. He revealed that Russia tried in 2008 to persuade China to join in a collaborative effort to dump U.S. bonds in order to bring down the U.S. financial system. Although China refused to do so at the time, its government would clearly like to end dollar dominance, and has  been paring U.S. bond purchases.

At the moment,  Janet Yellen’s worries about finding buyers of government bonds can only be getting worse. For much of last year, foreign central bank purchases of U.S. bonds in aggregate fell. As of October of 2013, they had been negative for three and six months. Then they turned up a smidge, only to fall again, so that the last three months show a decrease of just over 12%.

It is known that Russia withdrew its U.S. bonds from custody of the Fed after the Crimea invasion, and has either been selling or could sell at any time. It will no doubt try again to persuade other countries to join in undermining the U.S. bond market and replacing the dollar as the mainstay of world trade.

Under these circumstances, it should not be surprising that the Fed is today taking only baby steps to reduce its program of creating new money to buy U.S. bonds. This program is probably not just meant to revive the economy, which it has not done and cannot do. It is more likely designed as a desperate and in the long run counterproductive effort to finance the U.S. government and save today’s dollar dominated financial system.

The Fed Is Not Following The Law

799px-Handcuffs01_2003-06-02Some of the games being played behind closed doors by the Fed are not only troubling. They are not even legal.

It was a clear violation of Section 14 (B) of the Federal Reserve Act for the Fed to respond to the Crash of 2008 by buying $1.5 trillion of mortgages not guaranteed by the federal government. The agency hid behind Section 13.3 language allowing a broad scope of action under “unusual and exigent circumstances,” but the statute states clearly that Section 13.3 loans can only be short term and backed by high quality collateral, a requirement that was blatantly ignored.

It was also a violation of both the Fed statute and the Constitution to offload potential Fed losses from its hedge fund-like operations onto the Treasury, as was done stealthily via a note to the Fed’s Statistical Release H 4.1 dated January 6, 2011. The notion of the Treasury (i.e. The taxpayers) having to bail out the Fed is not just a theoretical possibility. The Fed’s annual report just released shows a $53 billion unrealized loss.

It would also appear to be a violation of the Constitution to locate the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created by the Dodd-Frank Act inside the agency. The Constitution requires that all government expenditures be authorized and funded by Congress. The Fed has always been treated as an exception. It uses income on securities it has bought with newly created money to pay its bills and has not even been subject to Congressional oversight.

Having a secretive, self-funded, extra-constitutional agency inside government was bad enough when the Fed consisted of seven governors and a few staff members. The new Consumer Bureau already employs an estimated 1,359 people and keeps growing. Many of these employees were transferred from other government agencies where they formerly had been counted as part of the federal budget, but are now suddenly off-budget. If this is allowed to stand, what other federal agencies will be slipped inside the Fed in future in order to reduce the reported Federal deficit?

Some of the Fed’s actions since the Crash have been perfectly legal, but also designed to escape detection by the press and public. For example, in the dark days of the 2008 crash, a provision was buried deep in the TARP bill passed by Congress authorizing the Fed to pay interest to banks on their lending reserves. This made it legal for the Fed to print money and hand it over to the banks in unlimited amounts. One wonders how many members of Congress were aware they were passing this?

Today the Fed pays ¼ of 1 percent interest on trillions of dollars of unused bank reserves. An estimated 37% of that is paid to foreign banks. This is a grey area legally. One wonders how many members of Congress know about it.

During the Crash itself, as much as 70% of Fed discount window loans seem to have gone to foreign banks at rates as low as 0.01%. In other words, we made huge gifts to foreign banks.

If the economy gets overheated, the Fed says that it will simply increase the interest it is paying on bank reserves to ensure that those reserves aren’t turned into loans to business and consumers. But the more money that is created to pay interest on unused reserves, the bigger the unused reserves become. In typical government style, a problem will be alleviated short term only at the cost of making it worse in the future.

After reading this post, you might conclude that someone should sue the Fed over its illegal actions. Unfortunately taking the Fed to court is easier said than done. Under federal law, you must have “standing” to sue. Ordinary citizens are deemed not to have standing. Under recent court decisions, even banks do not seem to have standing, despite their being regulated by the Fed.

Fed illegality can best be addressed by Congressional action. Congress created the Fed and can reform it or even shut it down. There are critics of the Fed in Congress, but not nearly enough of them. And there are reasons why Congress mostly leaves the Fed alone.

It is the Fed that backstops federal deficit spending. Without the Fed, government could not continue indefinitely spending more than its tax revenue. So long as politicians think they benefit from the expansion of government and runaway spending, they will not want to reform the Fed.

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Why Are Obamacare Exchange Policies So Bad?

6608Hunter Lewis writes in today’s Mises Daily:

Insurance companies respond to this dilemma in the only way they think they can. They squeeze the doctors fees and gamble that enough of them will go along to take care of the policy holders. Will this gamble pay off? It is doubtful.

Many doctors, doctor networks, and hospitals are already refusing to go along, so the policy holder will be stuck with insurance that is useless because no doctor will take it. Expect to see hospital emergency rooms flooded with even more patients under Obamacare, and expect to see the waits get even longer.

Older and sicker insurance customers may think they like the idea of price controls that work in their favor. But will they like insurance companies taking every available legal means to discourage their buying a policy or staying on that policy? Would you want to be covered by a company that does not want your business?

With Medicaid enrollees swelled by Obamacare, and much private insurance turned into what John Goodman calls “Medicaid Lite,” what will happen to medicine? The most likely result will be large numbers of doctors taking early retirement and fewer talented young people entering the field. The supply of medicine will shrink while the demand, fueled by government subsidies, increases.