Posts tagged with: Federal Reserve System

Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg has provided his reasoned take on the new document from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace — it’s up at The Corner. While its diagnosis of the world economy is fairly accurate, the council’s treatment plan is lacking in prudential analysis. Gregg’s disappointment is expressed at the end: “For a church with a long tradition of thinking seriously about finance centuries before anyone had ever heard of John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek, we can surely do better.”

He’s got four main points (full text below): (1) the fiat money system that accelerated financial decline wouldn’t be reformed by a world bank; (2) neither would the proliferation of moral hazards, which might in fact be increased; (3) there is no mention in the document of public debt and deficits, which problems face most developed countries and can’t be ignored; (4) there is little reason to believe that a newly created world bank could avoid the mistakes made by the Federal Reserve and other sovereign banks in the lead-up to the 2008 crash.

Despite the Catholic Left’s excited hyperventilating that the document released today by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP) would put the Church “to the left of Nancy Pelosi” on economic issues, more careful reading of “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority” soon indicates that it reflects rather conventional contemporary economic thinking. Unfortunately, given the uselessness of much present-day economics, that’s not likely to make it especially helpful in thinking through some of our present financial challenges.

Doctrinally speaking, there’s nothing new to be found in this text. As PCJP officials will themselves tell you, it’s not within this curial body’s competence to make doctrinal statements that bind Catholic consciences. Moreover, the notion that an increasingly integrated world economy requires some type of authority able to make decisions about what the Church calls “the universal common good” has long been a staple of Catholic social teaching. Such references to a global world authority have always been accompanied by an emphasis on the idea of subsidiarity, and the present document is no exception to that rule. This principle maintains that any higher level of government should assist lower forms of political authority and civil-society associations “only when” (as this PCJP text states) “individual, social or financial actors are intrinsically deficient in capacity, or cannot manage by themselves to do what is required of them.”

But putting aside doctrinal questions, this text also makes claims of a more strictly economic nature. Given that these generally fall squarely into the area of prudential judgment for Catholics, it’s quite legitimate for Catholics to discuss and debate some of this document’s claims. So here are just a few questions worth asking.

First, the text makes a legitimate point about the effects of a disjunction between the financial sector and the rest of the economy. It fails, however, to note that one major reason for this disjunction has been the dissolution of any tie between money and an external object of value that regulates the quantity of money and credit in circulation in the “real” economy.

Between the late 1870s and 1914, such a linkage existed in the form of the classic gold standard. This gave the world remarkable monetary stability and low inflation without any centralized authority. You needn’t be a Ron Paul disciple to recognize that fiat money’s rise is at least partly responsible for the monetary crises this document correctly laments.

Second, this document displays no recognition of the role played by moral hazard in generating the 2008 crisis or the need to prevent similar situations from arising in the future. Moral hazard describes those situations when people are effectively insulated from the possible negative consequences of their choices. This makes them more likely to take risks they wouldn’t otherwise take — especially with other people’s money. The higher the extent of the guarantee, the greater is the risk of moral hazard. It creates, as the financial journalist Martin Wolf writes, “an overwhelming incentive to privatize gains and socialize losses.”

If PCJP were cognizant of this fact, it might have hesitated before recommending we consider “forms of recapitalization of banks with public funds, making the support conditional on ‘virtuous’ behaviours aimed at developing the ‘real economy.’” Such a recapitalization would simply reinforce the message that Wall Street can always turn to taxpayers to bail them out when their latest impossible-to-understand financial scheme goes south. In terms of orthodox Catholic theology, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the one who creates an occasion of sin bears some indirect responsibility for the choices of the person tempted by this situation to do something very imprudent or simply wrong.

Third, given this text’s subject matter, it reflects one very strange omission. Nowhere does it contain a detailed discussion of the high levels of public debt and deficits in many developed economies, the clear-and-present danger they represent to the global financial system, and their negative impact upon the prospects for economic growth (i.e., what gets people out of poverty).

Given these facts, how could governments provide the aforementioned public funds when they are already so heavily in debt and already tottering under the weight of existing fiscal obligations? By raising taxes? Even Bill Clinton thinks that’s not a great idea in an economic slowdown. Indeed, the basic demands of commutative justice indicate that governments need to meet their current obligations to existing creditors before they can even consider contributing to further bailouts.

Fourth, the document calls for the creation of some type of world central bank. Yet its authors seem unaware that much of the blame for our present economic mess is squarely attributable to central banks. Here one need only note that the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policies from 2000 onwards played an indispensible role in creating America’s housing-market bubble, the development of questionable securities products, and the subsequent 2008 meltdown.

Calls for a global central bank aren’t new. Keynes argued for such an organization 75 years ago. But why, given national central banks’ evident failures, should anyone suppose that a global central bank wouldn’t fall prey to the same errors? The folly of a centralized supranational body like the European Central Bank setting a one-size-fits-all interest-rate for economies as different as Greece and Germany should now be evident to everyone who doesn’t live in the fantasy world inhabited by EU bureaucrats. Indeed, it is simply impossible for any one individual or organization to know what is the optimal interest-rate for every country in the EU, let alone the world.

Plenty of other critiques could — and no doubt will — be made of some of the economic claims advanced in this PCJP document. As if in anticipation of this criticism, the document states, “We should not be afraid to propose new ideas.” That is most certainly true. Unfortunately, many of its authors’ ideas reflect an uncritical assimilation of the views of many of the very same individuals and institutions that helped generate the world’s most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression. For a church with a long tradition of thinking seriously about finance centuries before anyone had ever heard of John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek, we can surely do better.

Economic historian Brian Domitrovic has an interesting post up at his Forbes blog, Past & Present, on the proximate causes of the 2008 meltdown. According to Domitrovic, uncoordinated, even “weird” fiscal and budgetary policy in the early 2000s kept investors on the sidelines, and then flooded the system with easy money. The chickens came home to roost in 2008 (and they’re still perched in the coop).

In 2000, as the stock market was treading water in the context of the mammoth surplus and the electoral contest over fiscal policy, it was indicating that investors wanted to see what would ensue. What came was poorly-crafted tax policy and movement to gobble up the surplus on the spending side.

[After the crash of 2001-2003 and brief recession] the Federal Reserve stepped in to try to pick up the slack since fiscal policy had gotten weird. It was then, 2001-2003, that the Fed plumbed new lows in the federal funds rate

Finally, in 2003, Bush announced that the marginal rate of the income tax would be taken down immediately and somewhat substantially, to 35%. The Fed pivoted to raise rates, giving us an approximation of the Reagan-Volcker policy mix of the 1980s of real tax cuts and tight-ish money.

But for several years, too much money had been in the system, and it proceeded to migrate to monetary policy hedges, above all oil and land, the latter especially desirable because housing debt was fulsomely guaranteed.

Not only were these policies imprudent from a cold hard economic point of view, they weren’t capable of producing the human benefits they were supposed to. The false compassion of Bush-era conservatism is tied up with both the over-spending of the 2000s and the imprudent loans encouraged by an ultra-low interest rate environment and the “Ownership Society” of the 2004 campaign.

Government compassion does nothing to empower the poor—rather than pulling them out of poverty, it encourages reliance and assails their dignity. No matter how nice everyone’s being, nothing changes. And while some of the instincts behind the Ownership Society were right, the idea that it would be good for people to own houses they couldn’t properly afford was destructive. It severed the natural connection between labor and its results.

Domitrovic goes on:

The primary question we must ask about the 2000s is not what caused the crisis as the decade came to a close, but why was growth so subpar the whole time? Ultimately financial crises reflect the declining potential of the real economy to deliver…

And of course the economy will not grow and wealth will not be created under policies which undermine the dignity of Man’s labor. By reducing economics to fiscal calculus, academics and policy makers throw out half their toolbox: if the fiscal and budgetary warnings weren’t enough from 2000 to 2008, there were also human and moral warnings. Domitrovic (who, to be clear, is not one of those who has thrown out half his toolbox) concludes:

By rights, today we should not be mired in economic malaise; rather, we should be enjoying a fourth decade of prosperity on the heels of the roaring 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.

By rights indeed, but our economists have cast off right, and reduced their science to a materialist one.

My editorial, “Intergenerational Ethics and Economics,” appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality (more details about that issue here). In this short piece I explore some of the implications and intergenerational consequences of public debt. For this I take my point of departure with the much-discussed “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” but I also point out the importance of considering opportunity cost and how that concept has been applied in an analogous conversation about climate change. Focusing particularly on the current generations of workers, however, I observe:

Younger workers have not had as much time in the workplace to earn wages, collect benefits, and save, as those who have been working for decades and are nearing or have already entered retirement. As we learn from what has been called the “miracle of compounding interest,” small deductions of available capital at earlier points in time have major consequences for long-term growth.

In a recent piece for City Journal, Nicole Gelinas reflects on the federal government’s move to take on troubled securities from private firms. She writes,

The politicians we elect have three choices—the same choices they had four years ago. They can admit that this debt isn’t worth much and allow the financial sector to bear the consequences. They can hope that the Fed tries to use inflation to raise the price of everything else, making the debt seem a lighter burden in comparison. Or they can maintain their silence, letting the financial sector take another half-decade or more to make enough money on new ventures so that it can finally admit what it should have admitted back in the fall of 2007: bad debt is never good. At least the Fed acknowledges this strategy: it says that it’s using “time” to manage toxic securities and “minimize disruption to the financial markets.” But prolonging government control of financial markets just prolongs investors’ uncertainty.

Her conclusion underscores what I contend in the editorial about the importance of opportunity cost and the intergenerational effects of (in)action: “As the Fed notes, the cost of this policy isn’t measured in dollars but in something more precious: time. Washington’s refusal to confront the debt problem is costing millions the most productive years of their lives.”

Also in the current issue of the journal, James Alvey explores “James M. Buchanan on the Ethics of Public Debt and Default.” Buchanan has a good deal of interest to say on these questions, and Alvey concludes that “Buchanan’s favorite policy agenda, constitutional/legal limitations on public spending, deficits, and debt, needs to be revisited.”

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
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In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Back to Budget Basics,” I argue that the public debt crisis facing the federal government is such that “All government spending, including entitlements, defense, and other programs, must be subjected to rigorous and principled analysis.” This piece summarizes much of my analysis of various Christian budget campaigns over the last week (here, here, and here).

There are things that are more or less central to the primary task of government, and our spending priorities should reflect that relative proximity. Things like defense spending, whether or not these funds could be spent better and more efficiently, are central to the role of the federal government. Various kinds of social spending, whether or not they are good and effective, are not clearly so central.

I cite the example of Abraham Kuyper as a model to follow in attempting to outline the various responsibilities of social institutions, especially the church and the government, with respect to poverty. Kuyper first says that any resort to government aid for the poor is “a blot on the honor” of Jesus Christ. This relief is first and foremost a task for Christians, not the government. But he also adds that if and when Christians fail in their charitable callings, the State must intervene, “quickly and sufficiently” (snel en voldoende). The “sufficiency” of this response lies at least in part in its ability to address the need and move on, stepping in quickly, addressing the problem sufficiently, and stepping back out.

We have gotten to where we are in this country in part, at least, because private and Christian charity did not fulfill its mandate, at least not completely. But the whole point of “sufficient” government intervention is to be a stop-gap, a last and temporary resort, that provides space for other institutions to step back in and resume their basic responsibilities. It is thus not a permanent and primary purpose of government, particularly at the federal level, to provide direct material assistance to the poor.

My fear is that the social spending at the federal level has moved far beyond intervening “quickly and sufficiently,” and has increasingly crowded out other subsidiary institutions from meeting needs more locally and less centrally. What we need now is not to privilege such government intervention as a fixture of our society, but to reinvigorate and empower other institutions to relieve these burdens from the government. Otherwise government intervention often becomes an obstacle to, rather than a servant of, true justice.