Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Failed ideas of economists

Here's John Tammy, a senior economist with H.C. Wainwright Economics, writing of Joseph Stiglitz, and the Failed Ideas of Economists
In a recent article for Vanity Fair, Stiglitz engaged in falsehoods and contradictions in order to blame capitalism for our present troubles. It would perhaps be better for him and other elite economists to simply look in the mirror.

Indeed, while Alan Greenspan’s light trashing of free markets has surely earned him a place in economic purgatory, the blame being passed his way for the housing boom and bust is not rooted in reality. Many even on the Right blame low nominal rates of interest on Greenspan’s watch for the latter, but then history shows housing has traditionally done best when interest rates are rising.

More realistically, weak currencies are the biggest drivers of nominal home-price gains, and for evidence we need only study Richard Nixon’s second presidential term and Jimmy Carter’s lone term to find that much like this decade, housing was frothy under both. Stiglitz argues that Greenspan had a role here for turning on “the money spigot” with “full force” earlier in the decade, but then money supply is vastly overrated as an indicator of a currency’s direction. For evidence, we need only compare the ‘70s and ‘80s when money creation by the Fed was the same, but achieved opposite results. If Stiglitz is looking for someone to blame here, he would do better to finger a Bush Treasury that embraced a weak dollar with great vigor.

Stiglitz says Greenspan should have been more vigilant about curbing “predatory” lending to low-income households and “liar loans”, but when we consider how the Right talked up “America’s Ownership Society” in concert with politicians from the Left eager for Fannie and Freddie to expand their mandate into the subprime space, it seems folly to assume that Greenspan could have blunted this bipartisan bout with political correctness. Stiglitz decries the innovation that made these loans possible, but then loans are always risky, and they’re only problematic when the very regulators and politicians whose actions he espouses seek to privatize the gains from same, while socializing the losses.

While he served President Clinton, Stiglitz claimed he did not support the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and that repeal changed the culture of banking, thus making way for the various failures in our midst. What he ignores is that with the exception of Citigroup, the majority of financial failures involved investment banks lacking a commercial-bank affiliation. Indeed, imagine what might have happened if regulations had kept commercial banks from serving as White Knights in this whole financial mess (see J.P. Morgan & Bank of America), and more broadly, what a shame that regulations kept other cash rich companies such as Wal-Mart from buying greatly weakened financial institutions in order to enter the banking space themselves.

Stiglitz regularly seeks to elevate regulation as the path to financial health, but then contradicts himself in decrying a 2004 SEC decision in which investment banks were allowed to increase their debt-to-capital ratios “from 12:1 to 30:1, or higher”. The question Stiglitz fails to ask is whether regulation was in fact the problem. Indeed, the ’04 SEC decree essentially allowed risk-oriented banks to hide behind the very regulations that Stiglitz would like more of. Did it ever occur to him that absent a muscular SEC, self-interested investors with their money on the line might have regulated the investment banks themselves; allowing firms with a history of investment success higher debt-to-capital ratios, while curbing the activities of those thought to be unworthy?

On the tax front, Stiglitz claims that the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts “played a pivotal role in shaping the background conditions of the current crisis.” According to him, “they did very little to stimulate the economy.” About the 2001 “reductions”, he would have a point in that stimulus and tax breaks for select industries are by definition an economic retardant. But there again lies a contradiction in that while he correctly decries the imposition of Henry Paulson’s awful TARP, his reasoning has to do with Paulson’s failure to do anything “about the source of the problem, namely all those foreclosures.” Put simply, Stiglitz didn’t like the welfare that characterized Bush's Stimulus I, but somehow welfare for irresponsible homebuyers is a good thing.

Regarding the ’03 cuts, if economic growth is the certain result of productive work effort bolstered by investment, and it is, how is it that lower penalties on both would harm ours or any economy? More important, Stiglitz contradicts himself again in noting the massive amount of “foreign” oil that reached our shores in subsequent years. Indeed, imports of any kind are merely a reward for productive economic activity. If the ’03 cuts had hurt the economy, this would have revealed itself through less, not more in the way of imports. Stiglitz would also do well to remember that we’re not “independent” when it comes to all manner of goods, but far from economically enervating, this lack of self-sufficiency is a positive for Americans mostly doing that which they do best. Put simply, self-sufficiency of the economic variety is merely a kind term for poverty.

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