Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Conservative For Obama

I really enjoy it when I find honest conservatives, linking sincere market analysis to Obama's ideas, of a better way forward. There's still a little hope for us that more will discover the merits of Hyman Minsky's Heinz 57 capitalism's truly fundamental, and profound, yet simple, analyses...
Other great links to Minsky ideas, and others promoting them: Pimco
Pimco Archives
JPRI, Marshall Auerback
Here's another important paper, from the BIS, everyone should read; "A History of Deflation": Link
Here's an eye opening warning from Sybil...

Government Failed, Not The Market

Martin Hutchinson is the author of "Great Conservatives" (Academica Press, 2005) -- details can be found on the Web site

As commentators have come to realize the depth of the economic mess in which the United States is now mired, an increasingly loud theme of their wailings is that the free market has failed, so that we need more government regulation and state control. One expects the Democratic Presidential candidates to take this view (though Barack Obama is mercifully mild on the subject) but we hear it also from John McCain, nominally a Republican. The truth is quite the opposite: the free market has not failed, in the US over the last few decades it was never properly tried. Time after time, bedrock principles of a free market economy have been violated by the corrupt and overblown US government.

The most fundamental way in which free market principles have been violated, central to the entire course of the US economy over the last 13 years, is monetary policy. Economic theory is based on money, the unit of measurement, being fixed in value so that its fluctuations do not affect purchase and sale decisions. It is well known that in the Weimar Republic hyperinflation of 1923 or the Latin American periodic hyperinflations, the economic system does not work properly, because price signals are not properly transmitted through the monetary mechanism and consumers are forced to modify their behavior to take account of the quirks in money. The average apartment-dwelling German consumer of 1923 did not intrinsically need a wheelbarrow, but was forced to buy one anyway to carry his money if he wanted to go shopping, since Diners Club had not yet invented the credit card.

In the United States since 1995, the Federal Reserve has increased the broad money supply -- whether measured by M3, disgracefully discontinued by the Fed in March 2006, or by the St Louis Fed’s Money of Zero Maturity (MZM) -- almost 4% per annum faster than the growth rate of nominal GDP. The true potential increase in money-generated activity may well have been somewhat greater than that, because new and more efficient payment mechanisms, PayPal and the like, have been introduced during that 13 year period – thus one would expect the velocity of money, its ability to generate economic activity, to have increased. This money supply increase was wholly artificial, generated by actions of government, notably former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s bizarre 1993 decision to cease targeting the money supply in forming monetary policy. It had nothing whatever to do with the market.

Wall Street, the Fed and the Clinton and Bush administrations would claim that, since inflation has been modest during the period, the market’s price mechanism has not been distorted and no harm has been done. But that is of course unmitigated twaddle. Because of global outsourcing through the Internet and modern telecoms, consumer prices have not risen much (though more than is admitted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more on which later) but we have been subjected to a series of asset bubbles. First stocks soared in the late 1990s to levels entirely unjustifiable on any reasonable valuation mechanism, with even the Dow Jones Index of 2000 being more than double its proper level. That had happened previously in history, in 1929 in the United States (though 1929’s overvaluation was less egregious) and in 1989-90 in Japan; in both cases it had resulted in a severe economic downturn, the one unprecedented in its depth, the other unprecedented in its duration.

In the US after 2000, the solution was to expand the money supply still further, overriding the market’s natural deflationary corrective mechanisms by forcing real interest rates down to well below zero. That, allied to the “creativity” of the housing finance sector produced a boom in housing that was unprecedented in the United States. When that in turn led to disaster, the Fed over-expanded money supply yet again, and produced a commodity bubble that has pushed the oil price up by 50% in eight months, and is now threatening the entire fabric of the world economy, as well as potentially starving millions of the Third World’s impoverished. While the poor may starve, the rich, either asset owners or, as on Wall Street and in corporate top management, asset manipulators, have done very well indeed from cheap money – much better than they should have done in a truly free market.

These three highly damaging excesses, the stock bubble, the housing bubble and the commodities bubble, all utilized the mechanisms of the free market, but their underlying cause was a government policy: the Fed’s excessive monetary expansion over a 13 year period. Since Jean-Claude Trichet took over the European Central Bank from Wim Duisenberg in late 2003, the ECB has joined in excessive expansionism, pushing euro M3 up by 8.3% annually compared with a 4.3% annual rise in nominal eurozone GDP, the same 4% annual excess of monetary expansion as in the United States. The Bank of Japan, the People’s Bank of China and the Reserve Bank of India have also pursued excessively expansionary monetary policies. International reserves of foreign exchange increased by almost 17% per annum in the decade to December 2007, almost treble the increase in nominal global GDP. The current global inflation was thus inevitable; it is likely to get substantially worse.

The excesses of the housing bubble and the especially damaging nature of the subsequent housing finance collapse were also due to government, in this case misguided regulation. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, those tottering behemoths of the housing finance market, should not exist in a free market system. Their superfluous quasi-government guarantees of housing finance led to the advent of securitization, a pernicious Wall Street product that separated the origination of home loans from their ownership. The interest rate ceilings of the 1970s, followed by the partial cack-handed deregulation of the sector in the 1980s, led to the collapse of the savings and loans, destroying the local system of housing finance that has worked well in other countries and worked perfectly adequately in the US before the 1970s. However it was bank capital regulations, and the loophole that allowed banks to create minimally capitalized special purpose vehicles to hold securitized home mortgages, that produced the subprime bonanza and subsequent collapse. Again, all were actions of government, to which the free market simply reacted.

As an indication that the innovations in housing finance were not driven by a true free market, the cost of home loans increased from an average of 108 basis points above 20 year mortgages in 1972-78 to 122 points above that average in 2000-06. If an innovation increases the price of a product to the consumer, we can be certain that the innovation, like the CAFÉ automobile fuel economy standards of the 1980s, was directed by government, not the market.

To operate properly, the modern free market needs accurate economic statistics. Before 1900, the economy operated satisfactorily without such statistics, though swings in the business cycle were more extreme since planning for inventory and capital expenditure was more difficult. Lack of statistics thus has a cost, but only a moderate one. Much larger than the cost of no statistics, however, is the cost of inaccurate statistics that are nevertheless regarded by the market as credible. Those can produce distortions lasting many years, including excessive consumption and excessive asset price inflation. The short term effect of dishonest statistics may be positive, like that of embezzlement (which increases GDP through the multiplier effect until the victim discovers his loss.) However the long term effect in destruction of both value and confidence is far greater and more prolonged; indeed in some respects it may be permanent.

We can thus blame the government for significant economic distortion over the last decade, through its falsification of inflation figures. The Boskin Commission of 1996 allowed the government to “adjust” inflation figures by taking account of “hedonic” effects, by which supposedly products improved in quality in ways not captured by inflation calculations. The example always given was the tech sector, in which processing power doubled every 18 months. Thus following Boskin US price indices were adjusted to take account of that doubling, being rebased every year in order to take account of each subsequent year’s progress in processor power. There are three problems with this. First, doubling processor power does not anything like double the benefit one gets from a computer; the computers of today are at most twice as “hedonic” as those of 1998, not 64 times as hedonic as predicted by their increase in processing power. Second, the annual rebalancing allows the price benefits in the tech sector to be repeated every year, as though computers were now available for $5. Third, the Boskin methodology took no account of the costs imposed on consumers through technology, for example the negative hedonic effect of automated telephone help lines, which appear deliberately designed to maximize the time wasted and minimize the probability of getting the consumer’s problem solved.

(As an aside, US taxpayers and the economy generally dodged a bullet when the Presidential candidacy of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani collapsed. Not only was his chief foreign policy advisor Norman Podhoretz, author of “World War IV – the long global struggle against Islamofascism” -- think for a moment of the budgetary effect of that approach to security policy -- but his chief economic advisor was Michael Boskin. Phew!)

The Boskinized price indices are thus downward biased, probably by about 0.8%-1% per annum, thus saving the government trillions of dollars on social security payments for the unfortunate elderly. As well as ripping off old folk, this has caused a number of distortions. Since nominal GDP is known, real GDP growth rates are distorted upwards by the same amount as price indices are distorted downwards. Likewise, productivity growth figures are also distorted upwards – the “productivity miracle” relied upon by Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan for his misguided monetary policy was a mere statistical fiction. With such distortion it is little wonder that the voting public has come to suspect published economic growth figures, or to assume that even more of such growth has gone to “the rich” than is actually the case.

The price index distortion has since January 2008 grown even worse, through the use (or more probably misuse) of seasonal adjustments, by which “unadjusted” price indices are smoothed for seasonal effects, providing a supposedly more accurate picture of consumer price inflation. Such seasonal adjustments are ignored in setting social security and bond indexation – there is thus no further cash fraud against the public. However adjustments have been used to produce spuriously low consumer price inflation figures, certainly in March and April 2008, thus propping up the stock market and appearing to justify the Fed in its manic loosening of monetary policy.

March’s consumer price index was adjusted down by 0.6%, from 0.9% to 0.3%, while April’s was adjusted down by 0.4%, from 0.6% to 0.2% -- both “adjusted” figures were greeted by the stock market with a sharp upward move. In the ten years to 2007, no seasonal adjustment has ever exceeded 0.3%, plus or minus; the probabilities that the March and April seasonal adjustments were randomly arrived at by the same method as those of the last decade were thus 0.18% and 2.3% respectively (so the probability of two such anomalies in successive months was 0.0041%, about 1 in 25,000.) If the raw March and April figures are adjusted by the average March and April seasonal adjustments of the last decade, consumer price inflation in those two months averaged 7.4% per annum. Needless to say, neither the bond market, where 10-year Treasuries yield 3.9%, nor the stock market, within 10% of its overblown all-time high, comes close to reflecting this. Again, the losses and poor investment decisions caused by this massively false market are due to the government, not market failure.

There are many other “market failures” which are in reality due to government manipulation. Real wage rates for low-skill US employees have dropped sharply in the last 30 years, primarily due not to globalization and free trade but to government’s failure to enforce immigration laws, which has led to excessive low-cost illegal immigrant wage competition. The shortage of graduate engineers is due to the H1B visa program, which lets in floods of engineers but not lawyers – so the average earnings of a young graduate lawyer are more than twice those of an equivalently qualified young graduate engineer. Distortions in agriculture policy are notoriously the result of government meddling, reportedly about to get worse with the new $300 billion farm bill. (It is however not true that all of the world’s high food prices are caused by US ethanol subsidies – an even more important cause is excessively lax US and global monetary policy.) The number of lobbyists in Washington has more than doubled since 2000 – so consequently has the level of wasteful earmarks and destructive special interest legislation. McCain’s “cap and trade” environment proposal would open up a huge new arena for government favor-shopping – and do almost nothing to reduce carbon emissions, even were such a reduction desirable (Obama’s proposal is somewhat more market-oriented.)

Don’t let anybody tell you in this election season that the “market has failed.” In the United States since about 1995, it has never been allowed to operate properly.

1 comment:

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