Posts tagged with: financial crisis

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Friday, October 31, 2008

According to a report from the Zenit News Service, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, recently insisted that the “logic” of the market be changed. He said that the logic “was till (sic) now that of maximum gain, and therefore the most investments possible directed toward obtaining maximum benefit. And this, according to the social doctrine of the Church, is immoral.” This is because, according to the Cardinal, the market “should be able to benefit not just those who invest capital, but those who participate in the step of making it grow, that is, those who work.”

Aside from the fact that some of the terms he used are too vague to make any judgment about, like “maximum benefit,” the economics in his statement would be more appropriate of a kid, rather than a Cardinal. So, let’s learn some economics.

Firstly, money has alternative uses. If I have some excess wealth, I am going to invest it in the things which give me the highest return. Why would I do this? Because, those projects which promise the highest return, taking risk into account, will produce the things that people want most, and hence will give me more “bang for the buck.” For example, would you invest your money in a carpentry business run by me? I wouldn’t—because I can’t hammer a nail. No wants a carpenter who does not know what he is doing. But would you invest in McDonald’s? Sure. Most everyone eats at McDonald’s, and kids especially love the place. And what do the people who patronize McDonald’s get out of it? They get a food for which they willingly and freely exchange money, and feel the better off for doing so, or they would not do it. And who supplies the food? The workers, in exchange for their discounted marginal revenue product. In other words, they exchange their time for the money equivalent of what they produce. Why are people paid different wages? They get different wages because their output is different. The work of the person who sweeps up, while necessary or he would not have been hired, is worth less than the work of the person who puts the burgers together. The burger guy’s work is not worth as much as the trained manager who is responsible for coordinating the whole operation. None of this would be possible without the people who ponied up the money in the first place expecting a high return for the money the usage of which they were willing to forgo. If this is immoral and against the social doctrine of the Church, then I am Santa Claus. If fact, to have an economy worthy of the name at all without this investment process would be worthy only of a figure like Santa Claus.

I have long argued in my writings that churchmen who have no real economic training or understanding prescind from making remarks like this which mislead the faithful, and portray the sui generis (self-generating) free market economy as an operation run from the top by a few greedy people constantly plotting to withhold wealth from the ordinary folks.

Lastly, the Cardinal remarks, “All of us should collaborate in the good of all.” This is exactly what the market does, except for those who are not able or refuse to participate in it, much of which is caused by political interference with the process, such as governments who punish provinces in Africa which are in rebellion and refuse to allow food supplies to reach the people in those provinces, or Western politicians who, in exchange for votes, have created generations of people addicted to government checks, rather than productive work and advancement.

I wonder what His Eminence thinks of government-imposed protective tariffs the purpose of which is to keep the goods of foreign workers from competing with domestic goods, in return for support from corporations and unions in the domestic industry. This prevents globalization—it prevents the wealth of the United States and other well-off countries from going to them for the products they work to produce.

Gee, Cardinal Martino, get a clue.

Read more from Dr. Luckey at “Catholic Truths on Economics.”

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Monday, October 27, 2008

The famous Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, despaired for the future of the free market system. The reason for this despair was that the excess wealth of the system would create educated folks who would turn on the very system that created them. Their education would make them into anti-capitalist ideologues, who would then kill the goose that laid the golden egg. He did not think that those who participated in the creation of such enormous wealth would be in any position to fight back, and this for two reasons: firstly, business people do not tend to be men of letters, so they are unable to mount arguments defending the system; secondly, the job of the business executive is the survival of the company, and thus, he will concentrate on those things required to weather the storm, not be controversial.

The man who is probably the most famous Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises, despaired for the future of the free market system due to envy. Various sectors of society, academic, non-productive, uneducated, etc., would envy the wealth of the producers in society, and end up by finding means to take away that wealth and give it to the lesser productive people, despite the fact that they did not earn it, and therefore, are not entitled to it.

Our present political situation has a combination of both of these views. Both presidential candidates are in favor of redistribution of wealth, albeit one is more open about it. And very few business people are saying “no!” to any of it with a few exceptions, such as the president of BB&T Bank, who wrote an open letter to Congress asking why his totally solvent bank should be punished for the stupidity of the others.

But there is another culprit in this maelstrom. This culprit is the business person. Why? With tongue-in-cheek apologies to neo-classical (mathematical) economic theory, the purpose of a company is not to make a profit. As John Paul II said in Centesimus Annus, a profit is a sign of the health of a company, and therefore is good and necessary. But anyone who has taken a management course knows that the purpose of the company, aside from producing what the customers want, is to increase the wealth of the stockholders. This is different than making a profit, although profit is an integral part of it. Wealth is different than profit. Profit is a short run measurement of the short run health of the company. Wealth, by its very nature is long run. Profit appears on the financial statements of a company in mere money terms, and the accountants who produce those statements do not even take inflation into account. So a company could have an increase in profit, but not an increase in items sold, merely because they had to raise prices to accommodate the fall in the value of the dollar. But executives today are a slave to the profit line in the financial statements. They have a need to impress their boards and stockholders now by sacrificing the long term growth of the enterprise. (more…)

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, October 16, 2008

While efforts to explain the financial crisis will continue for years (historians are still debating the causes of the Great Depression, eight decades later), it seems certain that its genesis cannot be fully understood without some recourse to the moral dimension of human action in the economy. Acton Institute commentators—Jonathan Witt, David Milroy, Sam Gregg—have already weighed in on the question.

Economists have long deplored the poor savings rate in the United States, arguing that our ever-increasing debt load (national and personal) would eventually come back to haunt us. British intellectual Peter Heslam points out that this problem is essentially moral, a failure to value the traditional virtue of thrift.

He writes:

Hebrew and Christian scriptures support a theology of thrift. Literally, thrift means ‘prosperity’ or ‘well-being’, meanings encompassed in the Hebrew notion of shalom, which is central to the biblical theme of redemption. True, Jesus warned against laying up treasure on earth. But his warning is against greed and miserliness, which undermine thrift.

The only puzzling note Heslam hits is his final exhortation for government to push the sale of bonds. Granted that treasury bonds represent savings on the part of their buyers and granted that this is a better use of income than gambling, the other side of the coin is that bonds represent government borrowing from its people—not a good strategy for decreasing national indebtedness.

Better to put the money into stocks, corporate bonds, even passbook savings and certificates of deposit. This kind of saving is investment, the lifeblood of the market economy.

(The point here dovetails with Jordan Ballor’s endorsement of stewardship, posted as I typed this.)

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, September 18, 2008

As the US-incited global financial situation continues to worsen, ever shriller assertions of blame will be cast on one culprit or another. It’s my belief that any development of this magnitude always stems from multiple and interacting causes, but that doesn’t make very good copy.

Thomas Frank in the Wall Street Journal yesterday fingers deregulation (and by explicit implication the Republicans who champion it) as the criminal instigator of the financial crisis. Six weeks from election day, Frank has a transparently political goal, but let’s leave that aside. He writes:

There is simply no way to blame this disaster, as Republicans used to do, on labor unions or over-regulation. No, this is the conservatives’ beloved financial system doing what comes naturally. Freed from the intrusive meddling of government, just as generations of supply-siders and entrepreneurial exuberants demanded it be, the American financial establishment has proceeded to cheat and deceive and beggar itself — and us — to the edge of Armageddon. It is as though Wall Street was run by a troupe of historical re-enactors determined to stage all the classic panics of the 19th century.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in financial sector regulation, and it may well be that some more (or different? or fewer?) regulations could have played some role in averting this catastrophe. But I suspect there are a couple other causes that are equally or more important, and that call into question the contention that more government involvement will prevent such problems in the future.

1. If the crisis is in large part due to overly risky loan practices and the investment vehicles connected to them, then might the existence of federal backing (e.g., its de facto guarantee of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae) and the promise of such backing (based on the fact of past bailouts and the belief that more bailouts might be forthcoming) have caused or at least aggravated the problem? In other words, government involvement helped to create the bad incentives that got us here. If financial dealers had known that the market would operate in a truly free fashion, they would never have made the decisions they did.

2. If greed played a role in the creation of the crisis, which most people of every political persuasion seem willing to grant, then what is regulation to do about it? Financial whizzes are notoriously good at circumventing government regulation. If this kind of “capitalism” needs to be curbed, moral sensibility is going to make more progress than regulatory manipulation. I’m not saying that greed can ever be eliminated, just that we need to be realistic about the prospects of success for regulation, which is fraught with unintended consequences, makes life more difficult for conscientious law-abiders, and creates a drag on the economy (the last thing we need at the moment). As Sam Gregg aptly put it at the conclusion of his Acton Commentary this week: “Could there be a better demonstration that there can be no markets without morality?”