Free Markets, Free People

Economics

Predicted vs. Actual

Here’s an interesting little chart I found at Innocent Bystanders.  The light blue line is the Obama administration’s prediction of how terrible unemployment would be if we didn’t pass the stimulus plan.  The dark blue line is the prediction of how much better things would be we did pass it.  The dark red triangles show the actual unemployment statistics.

The Amazing Effectiveness of Stimulus

The Amazing Effectiveness of Stimulus

So, how’s that recovery plan working out for us?  Not so good, apparently.

I merely provide the chart for informational purposes.  I know it’s useless to make any criticisms of the actual performance of the plan, just as it was useless to predict that this is pretty much what would happen.

Besides, saying, “I told you so”, is so churlish and mean.

Podcast for 10 May 09

In this podcast, Michael, and Dale discuss the county’s failing energy and economic policies.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

The intro and outro music is Vena Cava by 50 Foot Wave, and is available for free download here.

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2007, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

How To Kill An Economic Recovery

Hugo Chávez is in the news again, appropriating and nationalizing more of the oil industry in his country.

That sort of move by him has become so routine that it almost isn’t news anymore. But this particular sentence caught my eye and reminded me of what we’ve seen here as well:

This move forms part of a broader assault against the private sector, which Mr Chávez has increasingly blamed as Venezuela slides into recession.

Vilification is a political tactic in use by a certain type of politician, and anyone paying attention to what has been going on in this country has seen it deployed in earnest against the wealthy and certain industry sectors in the US in the last few months. The health care industry is next. And, as in Venezuela, the government is being offered as the best alternative. Yet watching Venezuela, most understand the ramifications of moves such as Chavez is making on the long-term viability of Venezuela’s economy:

But analysts say that by shifting its problems onto its suppliers, PDVSA is storing up even bigger problems for the future. Not only does it lack the ability to operate as efficiently as the service providers, but it sends a grim signal to companies considering investing in Venezuela. Consequently, future oil production is under threat.

While the moves taking place here aren’t as drastic as those in Venezuela, they’re just as problematic. Government appointed board members on auto company boards and government calling the shots in the financial sector aren’t direct takeovers, but they portend a level of government meddling unseen here before. And health care and energy are next.

The key word in the quoted paragraph above is “investing”. Investors are very wary about both the auto and financial industries at this point. They’re wary of the auto industry because government is essentially throwing the bankruptcy procedures out of the window and those investors which should be guaranteed the first seat at the table for the recovery of their investment are now being vilified as “greedy” and pushed to the side. Any reason they or any other investor should take a monetary stake in either of the government controlled auto companies again? And given the experience with autos, don’t you suppose investors in the financial sector are having second thoughts?

Investment is the road to recovery in recessionary times. The moves Hugo Chávez is making in Venezuela are exactly the wrong moves in terms of economic recovery (not to mention being a complete violation of property rights). While not as drastic as Chávez, the moves the Obama administration have made are sending a similar signal to investors.  And that doesn’t bode well for a swift economic recovery.

Health care and energy are next.

~McQ

Another Troubling Sign

What if the Treasury held a bond auction and nobody came?  After today, that’s not a rhetorical question.

Weak demand at a Treasury bond auction touched off worries in the stock market Thursday about the government’s ability to raise funds to fight the recession.

The government had to pay greater interest than expected in a sale of 30-year Treasurys. That is worrisome to traders because it could signal that it will become harder for Washington to finance its ambitious economic recovery plans. The higher interest rates also could push up costs for borrowing in areas like mortgages.

We are moving closer to what I warned about in March, after the UK had a failed auction of 15-year gilts.  Apparently, the Chinese didn’t turn out in force today.  They did however, continue talking about a new reserve currency–one that isn’t the US Dollar.  And apparently they’ve been doing more than talking about it.

As we learned last week, the Chinese–who haven’t announced anything about their gold holdings since 2003–casually dropped an announcement that they’d nearly doubled their gold holdings from 19 million to 34 million ounces.  Moreover, this gold, which had previously been kept for foreign trade in an account at the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, has now been transferred to the bank of China, as part the country’s monetary reserves.

I don’t think they’re all that keen on lending us money any more.

This is important because it indicates the extent to which gold is being rehabilitated as a monetary reserve asset, not only by the Chinese monetary authorities but by central bankers around the world. It has been clear that gold was being restored as a more important part of the world’s financial system, with rising investment demand over the past nine years. The Chinese government’s decision to say that this gold belongs in its monetary reserves emphasizes that monetary authorities also are looking at gold with greater interest than they have since the 1960s.

There’s a new reserve currency in town, and it’s yellow and shiny.  What it isn’t is green with pictures of dead presidents on it.  Maybe the Fed’s doubling of M2 the monetary base over the last eight months was a bit…intemperate.

So, the key take-aways here:

1) Higher interest rates possible as auctions fail to find bidders at lower yields.

2)  Billions and billions of dollars floating around, with no place to go but back home.  “Wouldn’t you like to wear $3,000 suits and smoke $75 cigars?  I know I would.”

But, we probably shouldn’t worry. As Glenn Reynolds says, “The country is in the best of hands.”

Knee-capping Recovery

Dale makes an incredibly important point about investment below – investors aren’t going to commit their money to industries which are being manipulated by government for political goals and payoffs.

And, the Wall Street Journal makes a similar argument about corporate taxation and the Obama administration’s apparent plan to compound the problem he hopes to “deincentivize” by driving both investors and US companies off shore..

The energy picture is no rosier. Because there is no comprehensive and clear-cut, long-term energy plan from government, and because it is clear to many that the present administration’s plans for energy involve achieving political goals dictated by government vs. a straight market based plan which would see decentralized signals and decisions determine the energy future, investors are sitting on the sidelines. As Sen. Murkowski said, too many in national government today see the energy sector, and especially the oil and gas industry, as an “ATM to pay for other programs”.

When government is so deeply involved in picking winners and losers, investors are not going to invest. Especially given the example of the car and financial industries.

You can guess what that means in terms of economic recovery, not to mention economic growth. Investment is the engine of economic growth. Without it, nothing sustainable happens. Government can make all the make-work jobs in the world, but until investors commit to the economy, we only mark time economically speaking. If anything government should create a climate that provides incentives for private investors – low taxes, favorable investment rules, etc. to encourage investors to risk their money here in the US.

Instead, we have at least three critical areas where government intrusion and manipulation is having exactly the opposite effect.

~McQ

TARP: The Tragedy Deepens

Michael’s post immediately below deserves to be addressed in some more detail.  Not only is the TARP program pernicious to the banking and financial sector, but it’s implications go much deeper than that, and corrupt the rest of the economy as well.  And most importantly, this is only the beginning.

The corruption expresses itself in a number of ways.  Take a look at the GM/Chrysler situation.  In both cases, the UAW emerge as the clear winners in the bankruptcy proceedings.  In the case of GM, bondholders with $27 billion in bonds are supposed to accept 10% of the company’s equity, while the UAW’s retirement fund, which holds $10 billion in bonds, is supposed to receive 40%, with the Government taking the remainder of the equity. In what possible way is this supportable?

Likewise, in the Chrysler bailout, the UAW will receive 55% of the equity, while Chrysler’s bondholders receive 30 cents on the dollar for their $7 billion investment.

OF course, Chryslers bondholders are balking at this, throwing the compnay into banklruptcy court.  Not that that will save them.  Why?  TARP.  As Thomas Cooley explains:

Chrysler’s dissident lenders have on their side the “absolute priority” bankruptcy rule, which holds that value must be distributed according to the legal priorities of the stakeholders.

Unfortunately, the bankruptcy code also holds that the absolute priority rule can be modified if a two-thirds majority can convince the court that it makes legal or business sense. Two-thirds of the lenders can force the holdouts to go along with them in a procedure called a cram-down.

That is exactly what is likely to happen. Citi, JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, all major recipients of TARP Funds, all deep in the pocket of the Treasury, agreed to the administration’s plan.

So, the government, holding TARP over the heads of the banks, can now abrogate the generally used bankruptcy rules, and force through a sweetheart deal for a favored political client, the UAW.  But, in so doing, they enlarge the damage to the country’s economy by sounding a warning that government funds are dangerous because the government’s first priority is to re-write the rules to reward their special friends.  The uncertaintly that creates keeps investors on the sidelines.

Many investors are sitting on the sidelines, as is much money. Why? Because it is impossible to know what the rules of the game are. And that’s because the administration and the Congress keep changing the rules in capricious ways in pursuit of larger political objectives.

Megan McArdle make some of the same points, highlighting the danger inherent in such an approach by the government.

Countries that use their banking systems this way don’t get good results.  If you’re a fairly uncorrupt developed country, you get slower growth and bloated “critical” sectors that are usually more critical in providing campaign support, lavishly remunerated make-work jobs, and photo ops, than any products the public actually wants.  Then, if something like Japan happens, you have a twenty-year “lost decade” while everyone pretends as hard as hard can be that everything is all right, in the sincere but misguided believe [sic] that wishing hard enough will make it so.

One wonders if Ms. McArdle now thinks back on her support of Mr. Obama during the last election as “sincere but misguided”.  But I digress.

IN any event, the government has moved full steam ahead with the approach Ms. McArdle decries.  And it will continue to do so. How do we know this?  because of the way the Chrysler bankruptcy is being handled.

I heard repeatedly from progressives, in the run-up to the bankruptcy case, that the holdouts were unreasonably holding out for a trivial improvement–about 500 million dollars.  But if it was so trivial, why didn’t the government just put the extra money in, rather than jeopardizing confidence in the bankruptcy system–and the creditworthiness of a large swathe of unionized firms?  $500 million is about the price of one cup of coffee per American, a trivial sum relative to the overall budget.  This move has shown potential partners that government funds are dangerous, and potential lenders that union firms are risky bets; both have probably cost American citizens more than they saved.  So why did the government risk so much for so little gain?

You know the answer, don’t you?  Because they’re planning to do it again.

And to the extent they keep doing so, and keeping the financial sector in line via the TARP funds, investors will increasingly keep their money out of the game.  Why should they do otherwise?  Any investment in any entity with any relationship to TARP, either directly, or via creditors, is a target for the government to re-write the rules of investment and bondh0lding to ensure their special friends get a nice cut of the action.

True, it’s hard to have much sympathy for either GM or Chrysler.  But the issue now goes far beyond them.  Cooley, again:

There is at least some poetic justice in this outcome. The unions, whose years of work rules, and pension and health care deals helped sink the company, will have to eat their own cooking from now on. But their future success needs not only labor but capital.

Why would private capital get involved when the rules of the game are so capricious? No one would take that gamble when it is clear that, in dealing with the government, private capital will always take a back seat to politically powerful entities.

And that is the larger worry that current policy has neglected. Firms and markets can function quite well within a framework of rules. Indeed, rules are good for the orderly conduct of business. But when rules get imposed or dispensed with willy-nilly in the interests of politics, it is very dangerous. We have should have learned this lesson long ago.

But, apparently, we didn’t.  Don’t worry, though.  I’m fairly certain we’ll re-learn it in due course.

What really offends me the most in all this is not that the government is acting in the interest of favored clients, although that’s extraordinarily offensive.  That’s what governments do.

I think the thing that offends me the most is the sheer stupidity of the thing.

Tax Internet Sales – “Fiscal Relief” For The States

Down economy? Tax revenues in the toilet? Don’t worry Bunky, government will always find a way to keep it’s revenue stream full:

The days of buying online to avoid paying sales taxes may soon be over.

A bill is expected to be introduced to Congress this week that would force retailers like eBay and Amazon.com to start collecting sales taxes on behalf of states from people who shop online or through mail order.

Of course if you know anything about government you also know this was inevitable. However, it is lines like the following which make my blood boil:

“This would be fiscal relief for the states that wouldn’t require any money from the federal government,” said Neal Osten, a senior policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, which is drafting the bill.

Osten pointed to a recent study that said state sales tax collections fell to their lowest levels in 50 years at the end of 2008.

My earnings are not there to be “fiscal relief” for profligate states who find themselves with budget shortfalls due to poor budgetary practices. Osten seems to think this is some sort of money tree he’s discovered. More importantly, he seems to view the money as rightfully the government’s, not that of the wage earner. And notice, it is a lobbying group with a vested interest in the outcome writing the legislation. What happened to that promise about “no lobbyists” the new administration made? Special interest democracy is alive and well.

Of course a recession is a great time to pass tax legislation like this – why not cool another segment of the economy by giving priority to government tax collections over spurring economic growth?

The more I observe these lunatics and consider their blinkered and ignorant view of the economic world, the less confidence I have that they’ll figure out that the way out of a recession is to cut taxes, not pass new ones.

~McQ

Survey Finds Some Americans Not Averse To Price Controls

Very interesting opinion survey from the Center For Consumer Freedom. Essentially it’s about price control. Check out the first three questions and the responses:

B1 Do you think Congress should cap the interest and fees charged on short-term loans at 75 cents a week for a $100 loan?

* YES 56%
* NO 36%
* DON’T KNOW 8%

B2 Cell phones and other mobile devices can be expensive. Would you support a bill in Congress to cap the costs of cell phone service so that lower income families are able to afford these products?

* YES 57%
* NO 41%
* DON’T KNOW 2%

B3 AUTOMOBILES have risen in price dramatically over the PAST TEN YEARS. Inexpensive, high-quality vehicles are harder to find.

Would you support a bill in Congress to cap the costs of certain kinds of cars so that more families can purchase a safe, reliable vehicle?

* YES 55%
* NO 42%
* DON’T KNOW 2%

So, when it comes to items which are expensive and (and I’m guessing here) the public identifies as an industry which makes too much profit (or has been vilified as such), they’re all for capping the price on them (apparently never watching TV and seeing the competing commercials for all of this, indicating market competition has most likely pared those profits down considerably).

Speaking of TVs, and coffee as well, suddenly the public isn’t so hot on capping prices:

B4 COFFEE prices have risen dramatically over the PAST DECADE, with many locations charging more than $3.00 for a basic cup of coffee.

Would you support a bill in Congress to cap the costs of coffee and other hot beverages to a more reasonable level?

* YES 39%
* NO 59%

B5 The price of televisions has risen in the past few years. The government should cap the price that electronics companies can charge for new televisions, since many new technology changes require a new television. Would you say you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree or strongly disagree with this statement?
[RECORD ONE ANSWER]

1. STRONGLY AGREE 18%
2. SOMEWHAT AGREE 21%
3. SOMEWHAT DISAGREE 24%
4. STRONGLY DISAGREE 32%

56% disagree that TVs should have prices capped. And 59% say “no” to capping the cost on a cup of coffee.

I would love to see the reasoning behind the answers given on this survey, because it would appear that if you believe that government should be controlling prices, you wouldn’t differentiate between cell phones and coffee, and certainly not between TVs and cars.

I have to go with my first inclination here – the public is more likely to call for price controls on the products of industries which have been vilified by the press and government. Banks (loans), auto makers and telecommunications have all suffered from various levels of vilification rencently and in the recent past.

Coffee, however, is still “Juan Valdez”.

Unfortunately, even if true, it means that a majority of Americans have no problem with government price controls – it just means they require the industry to be out of favor before they do. And industry “vilification”, as we’ve witnessed lately, that’s certainly something this administration is more than willing to do. Above are your results.

~McQ

The “Economics” of Obama’s First 100 Days, Part 2

In addition to Bruce’s post below, chartng the rise in debt since Pres. Obama took office, I think it’s important to look at whether we can find historical parallels, and try to identify how closely such parallels may apply to the current economic situation in the US.  Fortunately, a historic parallel–and a very close on at that–comes easily to hand.

Does this look familiar?  If not, it probably will...

Does this look familiar? If not, it probably will...

The chart on the right is a comparison of how Japan’s increase in debt since 1989 compares with the performance of the Nikkei stock index.

As the authors of the chart point out:

[I]f large increases in government debt were the key to economic prosperity, Japan would be in the greatest boom of all time. Instead, their economy is in shambles. After two decades of repeated disappointments, Japan is in the midst of its worst recession since the end of World War II. In the fourth quarter, their GDP declined almost twice as fast as that of the U.S. or the EU. The huge increase in Japanese government debt was created when it provided funds to salvage failing banks, insurance and other companies, plus transitory tax relief and make-work projects.

In 2008, after two decades of massive debt increases, the Nikkei 225 average was 77% lower than in 1989, and the yield on long Japanese Government Bonds was less than 1.5% (Chart 6). As the Government Debt to GDP ratio surged, interest rates and stock prices fell, reflecting the negative consequences of the transfer of financial resources from the private to the public sector (Chart 7). Thus, the fiscal largesse did not restore Japan to prosperity. The deprivation of private sector funds suggested that these policy actions served to impede, rather than facilitate, economic activity.

They say that insanity can be defined of repeating past actions with the expectation of a different outcome.  If so, how do we characterize the current government activity in response to the economic situation?

Happily–if that is the appropriate word–we may be able to put to rest fears of hyperinflation.

The bottom line, however, is that it is totally incorrect to assume that the massive expansion in reserves created by the Fed is inflationary. Economic activity cannot move forward unless credit expansion follows reserves expansion. That is not happening. Too much and poorly financed debt has rendered monetary policy ineffective.

So, we’ve got that going for us.

The “Economics” of Obama’s First 100 Days

I put economics is [“”] for a reason. And that has to do with the fact that there was little about the first 100 days which had much to do with economics and certainly wasn’t economical. Feast your eyes on this. Yes, it’s from the GOP, but “numbers is numbers”, folks, and check out the quote attached to the chart:

chart-first100

Heritage also weighs in with a few trenchant observations:

In his first 100 days, President Obama will have quadrupled the budget deficit he inherited while pledging to cut it in half, which would still leave a deficit double the size it was in January 2009.

Make sure you get that – quadrupled the budget deficit within 100 days. Promised to cut budget deficit in half. Even if he does that, it will still be twice the size of the budget deficit in Jan 2009 when he made the promise. Yup, smoke and mirrors.

The President came into office promising a “net spending cut” then signed the stimulus bill, which will dump $9,400 in new debt on the average American household. Under CBO’s estimate, if some programs become permanent, this would skyrocket to $26,600 per American household.

And we are reminded that there is nothing more permanent than a temporary government program (REA anyone?).

Just to give this all a little more perspective:

In his first 100 days, President Obama proposed a budget that would dump a staggering $9.3 trillion in new debt—$68,000 per household—into the laps of American children. This is more debt than has been accumulated by all previous Presidents in American history combined.

And yeah, for the lefties that includes the “selected but not elected” George W. Bush among all the president’s combined. Or said another way, 44 is spending more than the previous 42 combined (and no I didn’t screw up, Grover Cleveland was president twice at two different times).

So while you see the informationally deprived “celebrating” the “accomplishments” of his first 100 days, don’t forget that those yet to be born aren’t going to be quite as enamored with Obama as the present spendthrifts who think he’s doing such a great job economically.

~McQ