Is This What You Wanted?

In my blogging, in my other research and in investing, I gain some degree of comfort from being criticized by both bulls and bears. Worst of all would be no criticism; it would mean that I am not saying much. Criticism from both sides means that I am probably not blindly taking a partisan view, or talking my own book.

Briefly this evening, I want to point out some of the costs of our current monetary policies. Now, some things are going well, and the Fed might want to take some credit.  But the costs are soft costs, ones that are preferable to systemic financial collapse. That said, there are smarter and dumber ways to do bailouts. When I criticized the Bear Stearns bailout, I tried to point out how there have been better ways of doing bailouts from history, and that the Fed should have known this. I understand that the Fed may have felt rushed at the time, leading to a suboptimal decision, but they should be better read on economic history. Bailouts should be very painful for those bailed out, or else others line up for them.

Well, now that there has been one bailout, why not more? Other shaky areas of the economy could use a bailout… student lenders, homedebtors, home lenders, etc. Are they less worthy than Bear Stearns? Ignore the student lenders, because they pose little systemic risk. If housing prices fall another 20%, the systemic risk issues could be severe. Consider there two quotes from the article:

“There is no way to put the genie back in the bottle,” Minneapolis Fed President Gary Stern said in an interview with Fox Business Network on April 18. “What worries me most about where we wind up is that we will have an expansion of the safety net without adequate incentives to contain it.”

and

Richmond Fed chief Jeffrey Lacker and policy adviser Marvin Goodfriend wrote in a 1999 paper that central bank lending creates ever-expanding expectations. “The rate of incidence of financial distress that calls for central bank lending should tend to increase over time,” they wrote. That “creates a potentially severe moral-hazard problem.”

We’re on that slippery slope now. Should the Fed bend monetary policy even more to compensate for areas of lending where they have inadequate control? To the extent that you believe in central banking, central banks should deal with the big issues, and leave the little ones alone. Lend at a penalty rate during a crisis; don’t try to make things normal. Where there is systemic risk, stand behind the core but not the fringe; defend debt claims, and wipe out equity claims.

Or, consider the second order effects that our monetary policy creates: the weak dollar and the responses that foreign governments must follow: let their export sector wither, or follow US policy down, and accept more inflation. It will take a long time for the US to lose its reserve currency status, but we are on that path. Here’s to the day when we have to borrow in the currencies of oil exporters, or China. (Please no. 🙁 )

Or, consider the troubles that the states are in, since they have to run balanced budgets, unlike the Federal government, which can borrow in dollars, and inflate the currency as needed. I follow state tax revenues; it is an excellent coincident read on the economy. Well, sales tax revenues are falling. Also, some states are considering one of the “dumbest ideas ever” — pension bonds (borrowing to fund pension plans, relying on clever investing to beat the rate paid on the bonds). New Jersey lost big on their last attempt at pension bonds. Far better to consistently fund municipal pensions through general revenues. For those that have read me before on municipal pensions, their claim to fame is that they make private sector funding look good.

Finally, to end on a less sad note, is Iceland looking better, or , is it just part of an overall bear market rally?  (What of Argentina?)   My guess is the latter, but maybe they have successfully defended their currency. Then again, we can look at Brazil, which is now investment grade on one side (from S&P). Good news follow good policies, and Brazil has been on the right track — they have become a net creditor, unlike the US. Hey, maybe the Real should be a reserve currency.