This Time it’s Bernanke’s Housing Bubble

February 19, 2013

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”  These are the simple, yet exceedingly relevant for our times, words of the famous English writer Aldous Huxley.

If only Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke would acquaint himself with this quote.

For three years, between 2001 and 2004, in an effort to boost the economy after the 911 terrorist attacks, his predecessor at the Fed, Alan Greenspan, kept the Federal Funds Interest Rate under two percent.  As a result, cheap money and low introductory teaser rates fueled the largest housing boom in American history.  Then, like all fake boom phases, when interest rates rose it came to an end.  The necessary correction phase started and all the mal-investment of the boom phase was no longer sustainable under higher rates.  Foreclosures increased.  As housing prices fell back to earth, underwater mortgages and abandoned homes were everywhere.  Many still find themselves unemployed and destitute.

Now, instead of letting the market go through a much needed correction after the crisis began, new Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke pursued a policy bent on “stabilizing” the value of assets.  Since 2008, Bernanke’s Fed has kept the Federal Funds Interest Rate close to zero percent and it has increased its balance sheet by just under three trillion dollars by purchasing Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities from member banks.

Some economists believe Chairman Bernanke’s policies have created a housing recovery.  These economists believe this because they haven’t learned from history, especially recent history.

But, according to David Stockman, the former head of the Office of Management and Budget under Reagan, what Bernanke’s policies have created is simply another housing bubble.  He sees a similar combination of artificially low interest rates and speculation producing the current housing boom just like the boom during Greenspan’s tenure.

Nationally, the median price for existing single-family homes was $178,900 in the fourth quarter of 2012, up 10 percent over the same period in 2011.  This marked the greatest year-over-year price increase since the fourth quarter of 2005.

And there are local pockets of even greater price increases in real estate going on.  There is a farmland bubble taking place in the Midwest and Mountain states with non-irrigated cropland prices increasing on average by about 18 percent.  Southern California, Silicon Valley, Washington D.C., and New York City are all experiencing huge real estate booms with prices for pre-construction condos in Manhattan increasing on a bimonthly basis.

It is ridiculous to believe that what we are seeing is anything other than another housing bubble.  Unemployment and underemployment are still very high.  Many employed middle income buyers are still reeling from the last bust.  The huge price increases we are seeing is the work of speculators fueled by Bernanke’s easy money policies.

The bust will come when rates rise, the mal-investments of the boom become unsustainable at the higher rates, and the speculators liquidate their positions leaving small investors holding the bag.  It will be 2008 all over again for many, except this time it will be Ben Bernanke’s Housing Bubble.

Article first published as This Time it’s Bernanke’s Housing Bubble on Blogcritics.

Kenn Jacobine teaches internationally and maintains a summer residence in North Carolina


Deregulation did not Cause Financial Crisis, Welfare Did

September 18, 2010

“The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”

Henry Hazlitt – Economist/Journalist (1894 – 1993)

If only Alan Greenspan, George Bush, and the rest of the economic imbeciles in Washington that gave us the Great Recession would have heeded the words of the great Henry Hazlitt, as a nation we would not have produced so much phony wealth which in turn has caused so much pain.  Leftist wholeheartedly support this view.  As a matter of fact, the current occupier of the Oval Office is fond of constantly reminding Americans that it was George Bush and his Republican Congress from 2001 to 2006 that implemented the policies that caused the worst financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression.  But, while Obama and the left are correct about who caused the crisis they are way off the mark about what the guilty parties actually did to bring it about.

Obama and his ilk claim the cause of our current troubles was the deregulation of the financial services industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  Now, they have to be careful because the major deregulation legislation of this time frame was signed by one their own – President Bill Clinton.  I am of course referring to the law which repealed the Glass/ Steagall Act.  Enacted during the Great Depression, Glass/Steagall prohibited commercial banks from owning investment banks, and vice versa.  It was meant to safeguard commercial banks against failure by making it illegal for them to participate in investment bank practices like securities trading and stock and bond underwriting.

It does seem more than coincidental that the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression has taken place shortly after the repeal of Glass/Steagall.  And to the shallow statist mindset that is all that matters.  But Obama and the left are wrong; repeal of Glass/Steagall did not cause the current financial crisis.  In the first place, as Conn Carroll of the Heritage Foundation has pointed out, Glass/Steagall was “steadily weakened” from the 1970s on by the “complex new financial reality” of the times and by waivers from regulators that made mergers routine – the 1998 merger between Travelers and Citigroup essentially repealed the law once and for all.  Thus, the erosion of the law over 30 some years without any major financial crisis is an indication that the ultimate repeal of what was left of the law in 1999 did not cause the troubles of today.

Next, by looking at which institutions brought on the financial carnage one can conclude that Glass/Steagall’s repeal was inconsequential.  Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch all went belly up as investment banks without commercial bank divisions.  The granddaddy of them all, AIG is an insurance company with no commercial banking division.  Washington Mutual was a savings bank that went bankrupt because of the many sub-prime mortgage loans it made that went bad.  Lastly, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac did not fall under the jurisdiction of Glass/Steagall and their bailouts are on target to hit $1 trillion at the rate home prices continue to fall.  So in reality Glass/Steagall would not have prevented any of these firms from causing so much trouble for the economy.  Further, it has been argued with a lot of validity that the repeal of Glass/Steagall has actually benefitted taxpayers in this crisis.  It has reduced their losses that would have been incurred by direct government bailout by allowing Bear Stearns to be purchased by JPMorgan Chase and Merrill Lynch to be scooped up by Bank of America.  All things considered equal, the repeal of Glass/Steagall has been a blessing in disguise for our economy.

Lastly, it is ridiculous to believe that the repeal of Glass/Steagall would cause bankers and investors to become so reckless and irresponsible with their resources that they would risk their economic viability.  It just wouldn’t happen.  Knowing that they could lose everything, their robust salaries and benefits, personal wealth, good name of their companies, and their own professional reputations most CEOs take great care to honor the fiduciary responsibilities they are given.

But, some obviously do not.  As we have seen it was not on account of the repeal of Glass/Steagall.  Those that gambled with others’ money to get rich quick did it because of statist government policy not libertarian deregulation.

The simple fact is that the Great Recession was caused solely by irresponsible welfare policies of Washington.  These welfare policies specifically targeted homeowners and banks.  Undeterred by the bubble and ultimate crash he caused in the 1990s, Alan Greenspan kept interest rates too low for too long again in the early 2000s after 911.  At the same time, President Bush stated that he was about to “use the mighty muscle of the federal government” to make homeownership more available for more Americans.  He got Congress to spend up to $200 million a year to assist first-time homebuyers with down payments.  He pressured mortgage lenders to make sub-prime loans because “Corporate America has a responsibility to work to make America a compassionate place.”  Lastly, he caused immense moral hazard by getting Fannie and Freddie to guarantee all the junk loans being made, again to the tune of potentially $1trillion.

The banksters that closed the deals all along the financial food chain knew that if their get-rich quick scheme ever failed, Alan Greenspan and his Fed and the full financial resources of Uncle Sam would be there to catch their fall.  This precedent was set in the 1930s with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the savings and loan bailout of the 1980s, and as recently as 1998 when Greenspan’s Fed bailed out hedge fund Long-Term Capital management.  Sure enough, the banksters were correct as Greenspan’s protégé Ben Bernanke and treasury secretary Hank Paulson frightened Congress into appropriating over $800 billion toward the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

When Bush, Greenspan, and their legislative accomplices on the Hill launched this massive welfare program for banks and homebuyers after 911, they did not take into account the words of Henry Hazlitt.  They only considered the immediate effects for two groups in society.  Even years later, when Bernanke and Paulson informed the president of the enormous economic catastrophe that our country was about to face and they pressured him to sign off on government bailouts for their banking buddies, Bush was said to have remarked “How did we get here?”

We got here because of government intervention into the economy not deregulation.  Unfortunately we are going to stay here because Obama is doing exactly what Bush did before him – provide cheap money and encourage borrowing through government funding (tax credits for first time homebuyers) and guarantees.  Maybe that is why Obama and the left are so keen to blame deregulation for the crisis.  They use it as a smokescreen to hide the failures of the welfare state in the past and the failures we will experience in the future.

Article first published as Deregulation did not Cause the Financial Crisis, Welfare Did on Blogcritics.

Rothbard as Prophet – Part 1

May 10, 2009

Federal Reserve Bank chairman Ben Bernanke is touted as an expert on the Great Depression.  Many would say we are fortunate to have him heading our central bank at this time when our economy is suffering through its worst crisis since that dreadful epoch 80 years ago. Yet others believe Bernanke is far from an expert on anything economic given his choice of policies since the current crisis began.  One thing is for sure, Bernanke’s study of the Great Depression did not include reading the works of Murray Rothbard.  For if he had, he certainly would not be pursuing his current policies as leader of the Fed.

Probably the most authoritative work on the Great Depression of Rothbard’s storied career was, America’s Great Depression. Written in 1949, the text is a solid analysis of those policies and personalities that brought on the financial and economic collapse of America in the 1930s.  Rothbard’s work dispels the myths taught in public schools that Hoover was a free marketer and the Great Depression was caused by the shortcomings of capitalism.  Informative for understanding what caused the 1929 recession and for what turned it into the Great Depression, today the book stands as a prophetic manuscript for where we are headed economically. 

Readers of the book will be appalled to realize that there are significant similarities between the decade preceding the crash of 1929 and the decade preceding our current financial and economic crisis.  For one thing, in both time periods the Federal Reserve had well-respected chairman at the helm, Benjamin Strong and Alan Greenspan.  These banking helmsmen were respected because they were both viewed as the great caretakers of America’s economy.  Their policies were revered for the economic booms that they produced.  When things got choppy, administrations of both decades could count on the financial maestros at the Fed to right the ship back on a course to prosperity.

Of course, both maestros used inflationary policies to achieve their ends.  Inflationary used here refers to inflating the money supply.  Strong used banker’s acceptances to inflate the money supply and continually put off downturns.  He also loaned money to brokerage houses, no less onerous than lending to banks, thereby producing the bubble that’s eventual popping is regarded as the beginning of the depression.  Greenspan, on the other hand, was the master of the low interest rate in keeping the boom going.  His lowering of the fed funds rate to practically zero percent for two years after the 2001 recession is regarded as the initial catalyst for the crisis we now face.  He also monetized over $6 trillion worth of federal debt to keep the “prosperity” rolling.  In all circumstances, both Strong and Greenspan pulled off the illusion that prosperity through inflation has no costs.

Indeed, at both times the illusion seemed like reality.  The stock market soared, many companies produced more than was needed in the 1920s and many Americans bought more house than they could afford in the 2000s.  Despite a growing money supply, a general rise in prices (inflation) did not materialize in the 1920s.  Rothbard attributes this to the offsetting effect of the high productivity of the decade.  In essence, too much money was not chasing too few goods as the 20s was a time of great production.

In contrast and more ominously, the inflationary effects of Greenspan’s policies were concealed by government manipulation of the consumer price index (CPI).  The most basic staples of life, food and energy, are no longer a part of the inflation index.  Additionally, the way government statisticians calculated the number changed over time.  For instance, the cost of buying a home increased significantly through the decade due to high demand, yet the CPI was adjusted by bureaucrats to counterbalance the effect this data would have on inflation statistics by increasing the weight of the costs of the depressed rental market upwards in the calculation.  Thus, the inflationary effects of the policies of both Strong and Greenspan were not evident at the time of their inflating, the economy appeared to be growing, and so everyone, politicians, business leaders, and economists were happy.

And the illusions of prosperity were perpetuated because no one in the know ever objected to what was going on.  Presidents, legislators, and economists were silent during both periods about any concern they may have had about the direction of the U.S. economy.  In fact, Hoover and Bush, both liked to say that the economy had “sound fundamentals.”   Yes, as long as the Fed chiefs increased the supply of money and the government statistics were favorable all was well in Mudville.  Thus, in 1929, like in 2008, policymakers were blindsided by their respective crises.

Even Ben Bernanke, the so called expert on the Great Depression, didn’t realize Greenspan was repeating history by egregiously inflating the money supply in the early 2000s.  Even Bernanke didn’t recognize the crisis after it hit.  Makes you wonder what he studied to learn about the Great Depression?  Clearly, it was not the work of Murray Rothbard.

The entire text of America’s Great Depression has been graciously placed online as a PDF file by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.  It can be accessed at:  America’s Great Depression

In Defense of Capitalism

September 20, 2008

September 20, 2008

The economy of the United States is not a pure capitalist system.  We operate economically under what economists like to call a “mixed system”.   This is a system that combines elements of a market economy with elements of a planned economy.  It is because of this mixed economic approach that Treasury Secretary Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke determined that it was within their authority to nationalize Freddie, Fannie, and AIG in the name of stabilizing the financial markets.  In a purely capitalist system, these bailouts would have been impossible.  Quite frankly, the crisis that caused those bailouts to happen in the first place would not have happened if we were a pure capitalist country.

That is not to say that capitalism is perfect.  But, in the current environment we must brace ourselves against the endless onslaught against the system which has made our country number one economically for some time now.  You see the politicians are really just poor sports that have never grown up and never like to admit fault for anything.  McCain, Obama, members of Congress, and the Administration will babble on about how the greed and unbridled actions of others are the culprits for the subprime crisis.  They will talk tough about how they are going to go after the bad guys and bring them to justice.  They will propose new regulations to prevent this from ever happening again.  In short, they will attempt to socialize us to believe that only a capitalist system with the ruling elite (themselves) in charge is good for the country.  They are all liars and are hereby permanently banned from the shrine of Free Market Economics.

Throwing out accusations and speaking in vague generalities is easy.  That is what the politicians do all the time.  So instead, let’s look at some examples of where capitalism has been blamed for a crisis that the politicians actually started.  We have all heard about the greed and lack of regulations that caused the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s.  But, it is never mentioned by the politicians how the crisis came to be in the first place.  For that we go back to the year of my birth, 1964.  Lyndon Johnson, the patron saint of the welfare/ warfare state, had just begun to rebuild that institution on our shores.  With the passage of his so called “Great Society” and increased funding for a military conflict in Southeast Asia, the United States government, through the Federal Reserve Bank, printed money over and above the limit mandated by the gold reserves held by the government at the time.  By the late 1960s, foreign holders of U.S. dollars realizing that their asset would soon be worth much less, demanded, as they were entitled to, an exchange of their devalued dollars for American gold.  The hemorrhaging of U.S. gold reserves that ensued was so great that Richard Nixon closed the gold window in 1971 to prevent a default.  He effectively opened the door to future wild spending by Uncle Sam. 

These actions by our leaders: increased spending and lifting the last vestige of the gold standard would set the stage for the savings and loan crisis.  Little did policy makers know at the time, that printing money to monetize debt was addictive and would eventually lead to inflation.  This was probably because most of them had never heard of the Austrian School of Economics and because some years later Richard Nixon declared that “we are all Keynesians now”.  Nonetheless, savings and loan banks through the 1970s played by the rules paying interest on savings accounts and providing mortgages to borrowers.  The problem came in the late 1970s when faced with high inflation from the spending binge the Fed had to increase interest rates to 21 percent in an attempt to control rising prices.  This hurt the savings and loan banks in two ways.  First, a government regulation that placed a ceiling on the interest rates savings and loans could offer to their depositors caused a transfer of funds from low rate savings and loan savings accounts to new higher rate money market accounts in other banks.   Second, savings and loan banks had much of their money tied up in low, fixed rate, long term mortgages.  As the Fed increased interest rates it made these mortgage backed assets virtually worth nothing.  Thus, government spending which forced the Fed to raise interest rates ultimately caused the savings and loan crisis.  By 1980, before deregulation, many savings and loans were already insolvent.  Politicians are disingenuous when they say the savings and loan crisis was caused by the greed of the bankers; it was caused by the misguided policies of the politicians of the time.

Now, flip the calendar forward a decade to the 1990s.  Through the decade, the “Maestro” Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, had kept interest rates artificially low while continuing to pump more dollars into the economy to keep the good times rolling.  By the end of the decade, we had the bubble.  Of course, we were told by Washington that this was the fault of greedy techies who were corrupt and had unbridled behavior.  At the end of the day, I didn’t expect Washington to come clean and admit culpability, but I did expect them to learn from their mistake so it wouldn’t happen again.

Then, it did happen again.  The “Maestro” lowered interest rates to one percent to stimulate the economy after 911.   In the meantime, Congress revised the Community Reinvestment Act, which cajoled community banks to make loans to bad risk borrowers.  With an implicit guarantee from Uncle Sam, Fannie and Freddie took on more and more mortgage loans.  With more money in the pipeline, laws forcing banks to make at least some bad loans, and moral hazard, the federal government had tied and given the noose to the financial community to hang itself. 

Again, like in the 80s and the 90s, the cause of the crisis according to the ruling elite is with those greedy bankers.  Again they are being disingenuous.  In the 1980s, Congress instituted the Resolution Trust Corporation to liquidate the bad assets of the insolvent savings and loans.  In the end it cost the taxpayers $150 billion.  Today, Congress is considering a similar approach to liquidate the bad assets of the insolvent financial institutions.  This time the costs will be in the trillions. 

The capitalist system is not perfect, but it is eons better than the bastardized economic system Washington has given us.  History has proven that the price of money is better determined by the market than a central bank.  History has also proven that a commodity backed currency not the political whims of politicians and financial bureaucrats is the best way to rein in the size of government, protect purchasing power and asset value, and in the end avoid catastrophes like the one we are about to encounter.