Quotulatiousness

March 16, 2013

More on the Cyprus banking situation

Filed under: Business, Economics, Europe — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:44

At Forbes, Tim Worstall explains why the mandatory levy on bank accounts is an epic facepalm:

There’s nothing particularly bad about making depositors carry some of the load of a bank failure. Indeed, it has something to recommend it: if it happens occasionally then people will take more care over where they put their money and what the banks do with it.

However, there’s a very great difference between allowing depositors without government insurance to take losses and actually reneging on the previously promised government insurance. And it’s that second that they’re actually doing here. [. . .]

Under the system until yesterday all depositors in Cypriot banks were insured up to the value of €100,000 with any one bank. Today that solemn and governmental promise has been shown to be false. And not even the European Union nor the European Central Bank are going to make them stick to it. Indeed, very much the other way around. The EU and ECB are insisting that the Cyprus authorities breach this deposit insurance provision.

As I say, there’s nothing wrong with making uninsured depositors take some of the pain. Certainly nothing at all wrong with making those with large deposits take a haircut. The problem is when government has said “we’ll insure this” and when push comes to shove they say “err, no, we won’t”. And the problem with this is that it makes all future EU deposit insurance worth that much less.

February 27, 2013

QotD: “There ought to be a law”

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Before 25-30 years ago, most people had a sense of what the law was, without having to go to law school, because they understood, intuitively, that some things were bad. Mala in se, the law calls it — “bad in itself.”

But the criminal codes have proliferated mala prohibata offenses — “bad just because the law has prohibited it” — like evil freedom-eating Tribbles for 30 years.

Do you know what you are currently permitted to do? Do you know what you will face a criminal penalty for doing?

You don’t. None of us are aware of the myriad laws we’re breaking every day, simply by doing things that seem obviously legal but some vicious Marxist bureaucrat somewhere decided to put you in jail for.

And this state of affairs works out perfectly for the Marxists.

30 years ago, you’d just assume that anything that wasn’t obviously contrary to morality was legal. That is, you’d have a built-in default setting of assuming liberty. And that assumption of liberty would then propel you to take actions.

But now, you have to assume that many things that aren’t contrary to morality are illegal anyway. And so you now have — quel coincidence! — a built-in default setting of assuming prohibition. And that assumption that many of the things you’d like to do are illegal and criminal thereby reduces your desire to take any action at all.

You become docile, unmotivated, compliant, and risk-averse.

And this state of affairs works out perfectly for those who would control you. Only half the things you’d like to do are actually criminal, but you assume the rest might be too, thus putting it in your head you need State Permission to take virtually any action besides going to work and, of course, paying the state its dues.

Ace, “Enemy of the State”, Ace of Spades HQ, 2013-02-26

January 30, 2013

Sequestration cuts must be more likely to happen because the sob stories are getting traction

Filed under: Economics, Government, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:53

Tad Dehaven thinks the upsurge in horror stories about what sequestration will do to the US economy means it’s more likely that those cuts will actually take place:

The odds that $85 billion in “unthinkable, draconian” sequestration spending cuts will go into effect in March as scheduled are looking better. The odds must be getting better because, as if on cue, the horror stories have commenced.

A perfect example is an article in the Washington Post that details the angst and suffering being experienced by federal bureaucrats and other taxpayer dependents over the mere possibility that the “drastic” cuts will occur. You see, the uncertainty surrounding the issue has forced government employees to draw up contingency plans. Contingency plans? Oh, the humanity!

[. . .]

I certainly believe that Washington’s bouncing from one manufactured fiscal crisis to the next is detrimental to the economy, but my sympathy lies with the private sector – not the federal bureaucracy. It’s the private sector that has been suffering under the constant uncertainty surrounding federal tax and regulatory policy. And let’s not forget that there is no public sector without the private sector – the former existing entirely at the latter’s expense.

Yet, what follows in the Post article is boo-hoo after boo-hoo without the slightest regard to those who are paying for it or whether the whiner’s agency could use some belt-tightening

January 7, 2013

Discounting for total political dysfunction

Filed under: Business, Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:30

The Economist reports on last week’s “deal” in Congress and why the markets are still able to function in spite of the almost unprecedented level of political uncertainty:

Markets now live in the policy equivalent of Beirut in 1982. They have adjusted to perpetual political dysfunction. Over the last eight weeks, as the fiscal cliff talks stumbled, revived, collapsed, then came to life again, market movements were surprisingly narrow, and much of them could be explained by tax considerations as investors prepared for higher capital gains and dividend rates. The sang froid perplexed many of us who follow the policy process for a living and knew how high the stakes were. But perhaps we were too close to it. You can steep yourself in the intricacies of political coalitions, the electoral calendar, the makeup of the executive, senate and house, the interaction of permanent and temporary fiscal policy and such arcana as reconciliation, filibusters and blue slips, and yet still not know how to model the outcome. The fiscal cliff perfectly illustrated this: the people closest to the process didn’t know any better how it would end than those reading the newspapers, or not reading the newspapers, for that matter. There were just too many moving parts.

Richard Bookstaber once attributed the evolutionary success of the cockroach to coarse decision rules: it ignores most of the information around it and responds only to simple signals. Investors do something similar when confronted with hopeless complexity. They boil it down to a binary question: disaster/no disaster. Then they ignore all the idiosyncratic inputs and ask: what does experience suggest the probability of disaster is? Four times in the last two years, politicians went up to some do-or-die deadline without going over: in December, 2010, when the Bush tax cuts first came up for expiration; in April, 2011, when the federal government nearly shut down for lack of discretionary spending authority; the following August, when Treasury was days away from hitting the hard debt ceiling; and December, 2011, when the payroll tax cut first came up for expiration. In each case, one side, or both blinked; tax rates never went up, the government never shut down, and Treasury did not stop paying bills, much less default. It was, arguably, a better record than in 1995-96 when the federal government shut down twice and Bill Clinton threatened to suspend social security payments if Newt Gingrich’s Republicans didn’t raise the debt ceiling. Ignore the specifics of the latest episodes, and the logical conclusion is that despite their differences, both sides have powerful incentives to avoid disaster, so they will.

And who are the policy experts to say otherwise? For all the twists and turns, the cliff negotiations ended up where the median market participant a few months ago assumed they would: with a short-term fix and the remainder stuffed in a can and kicked down the road.

What’s that odd whistling sound coming from Wall Street?

January 21, 2012

Robert Johnson: How to save Economics

Filed under: Economics, Education, History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:10

Writing in Time, Robert Johnson has a few recommendations to rescue the field of economics from its current state:

First, economists should resist overstating what they actually know. The quest for certainty, as philosopher John Dewey called it in 1929, is a dangerous temptress. In anxious times like the present, experts can gain great favor in society by offering a false resolution of uncertainty. Of course when the falseness is later unmasked as snake oil, the heroic reputation of the expert is shattered. But that tends to happen only after the damage is done.

Second, economists have to recognize the shortcomings of high-powered mathematical models, which are not substitutes for vigilant observation. Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow saw this danger years ago when he exclaimed, “The math takes on a life of its own because the mathematics pushed toward a tendency to prove theories of mathematical, rather than scientific, interest.”

[. . .]

The third remedy for repairing economics is to reintroduce context. More research on economic history and evidence-based studies are needed to understand the economy and overcome the mechanistic bare-bones models the students at Harvard objected to being taught.

[. . .]

Fourth, we must acknowledge the intimate, inseparable relationship between politics and economics. Modern debates about who caused the financial crisis — ­government or the private financial sector — are almost ­nonsensical. We are living in an era of money politics and large powerful interests that influence the laws and regulations and their enforcement. In order to catalyze the evolution of economics, research teams would benefit from multidisciplinary interaction with politics, psychology, anthropology, sociology and history.

H/T to Tim Harford for the link.

July 19, 2011

US business is “frightened to death of the weird political philosophy of the President”

Filed under: Economics, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:08

You don’t normally find stem-winders like this in quarterly business updates, especially from self-described Democrats:

You bet and until we change the tempo and the conversation from Washington, it’s not going to change. And those of us who have business opportunities and the capital to do it are going to sit in fear of the President. And a lot of people don’t want to say that. They’ll say, God, don’t be attacking Obama. Well, this is Obama’s deal and it’s Obama that’s responsible for this fear in America.

The guy keeps making speeches about redistribution and maybe we ought to do something to businesses that don’t invest, their holding too much money. We haven’t heard that kind of talk except from pure socialists. Everybody’s afraid of the government and there’s no need soft peddling it, it’s the truth. It is the truth. And that’s true of Democratic businessman and Republican businessman, and I am a Democratic businessman and I support Harry Reid. I support Democrats and Republicans. And I’m telling you that the business community in this company is frightened to death of the weird political philosophy of the President of the United States. And until he’s gone, everybody’s going to be sitting on their thumbs.

August 27, 2010

Uncertain economic conditions mean weak growth

Filed under: Economics, Government, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:01

As I’ve argued before, the economy won’t start to really recover until the political situation stabilizes. In an article from earlier this year, Robert Higgs makes this point very well:

The explosion of the federal government’s size, scope, and power since the middle of 2008 has created enormous uncertainties in the minds of investors. New taxes and higher rates of old taxes; potentially large burdens of compliance with new energy regulations and mandatory health-care expenses; new, intrinsically arbitrary government oversight of so-called systemic risks associated with any type of business — all of these unsettling possibilities and others of substantial significance must give pause to anyone considering a long-term investment, because any one of them has the potential to turn what seems to be a profitable investment into a big loser. In short, investors now face regime uncertainty to an extent that few have experienced in this country — to find anything comparable, one must go back to the 1930s and 1940s, when the menacing clouds of the New Deal and World War II darkened the economic horizon.

Unless the government acts soon to resolve the looming uncertainties about the half-dozen greatest threats of policy harm to business, investors will remain for the most part on the sideline, protecting their wealth in cash hoards and low-risk, low-return, short-term investments and consuming wealth that might otherwise have been invested. If this situation continues for several years longer, the U.S. economy may well suffer its second “lost decade” for much the same reason that it suffered its first during the 1930s.

Unfortunately, the incentives for politicians are biased toward meddling, so don’t anticipate a slowing down of political “fixes” any time soon. If the US mid-term elections later this year return a “gridlocked” government, the economy might start to adapt to the current conditions and only then will any significant growth begin to take place. Given a relatively static political situation, businesses can at least make some plans based on their regulatory/legislative conditions as they are. Until some kind of stability is established, no businessperson in their right mind will take on major new plans: entrenching your existing business is far safer, while trying to do something radically different incurs too much risk. Risk, that is, over and above the “ordinary” risk of expansion, launching new products, or entering new markets.

June 28, 2010

Tackle the debt, reduce regulatory uncertainty to tackle economic woes

Filed under: Economics, Europe, Government, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:59

In a difficult business environment, companies take precautions to avoid getting deeper into debt or engaging in risky new projects. Companies and individuals do this because the penalty for getting too deeply into debt is bankruptcy: at best, you survive financially but in much reduced circumstances. Governments, despite evidence to the contrary, seem to think they’re immune to this problem and pile on additional debt even when there’s no reasonable short-term hope of getting out of debt. They should learn from Margaret Thatcher’s approach:

A group of 346 noted economists had just written a scathing open letter to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, predicting that her tough fiscal policies would “deepen the depression, erode the industrial base, and threaten social stability.” Thatcher wanted to make absolutely certain her unpopular attack on huge deficits and rampant spending, in the face of high unemployment and a weak economy, was the right one.

So Thatcher summoned Meltzer, along with a group of trusted advisors, to explain why the experts were wrong. Even leaders of her own party advised Thatcher to make what they called a ‘U-Turn,’ and enact a big spending program to pull Britain out of recession. “Our job was to explain why lower deficits and spending discipline were the key to recovery,” recalls Meltzer.

Thatcher was regally unamused by arcane jargon. “Being right on the economics wasn’t enough,” intones Meltzer. “She made it clear that our job was to explain it so she could understand it. If we didn’t, she made it clear we were wasting her time. She’d say, ‘You’re not telling me what I need to know.'”

Thatcher stuck with draconian policies, invoking the battle chant “The Lady’s Not for Turning.” She launched Britain on years of balanced budgets, modest spending increases, falling joblessness, and extraordinary economic growth.

The classic Keynesian theory called for governments to run deficits during tough economic times in order to “prime the pump”: using government money to make up for the lack of private spending in the economy for a short period of time, until the private sector recovered. Governments worldwide grabbed on to this theory, but dispensed with the balancing notion that as soon as the economy recovered, the government had to pay off that debt to return to a balanced budget (or even go into surplus).

Politicians, as a class, love spending money. The more money, the better. They also have remarkably short timelines: the life of this parliament, the next election, pension eligibility date1. Anything that happens beyond that short window of time isn’t important. Spending money the government doesn’t have now is a good thing, to a sitting politician. Paying off the debt later can be left to some mythical future politician.

The other problem that individuals and companies have, but governments don’t, is uncertainty due to regulatory change. Governments don’t have that worry because they’re the ones making the rules (and ignoring them when it’s politically convenient). If you want to depress investment in a given area of your economy, a swift way of doing so is to start faffing with the rules governing that sector. Until you stop changing rules, no company in that sector is going to spend any more than they absolutely have to spend, because you’re creating regulatory uncertainty beyond normal operating levels.

Multiply this by the number of separate government branches involved in making (overlapping, and sometimes conflicting) rules and you can get most major companies to stop expansion, reduce sales, slow or even cease hiring staff until the regulatory environment settles out and the “real” new operating conditions become clear.

[1] Interestingly enough, today happens to be the day that 75 members of parliament qualify for their lifetime gold-plated pensions. I didn’t realize that when I posted this item. Thanks for the heads-up, Kevin Gaudet.

October 22, 2009

Wage controls for high earners

Filed under: Economics, Politics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:44

As if the government hadn’t inserted itself into too many things already, they’re now retroactively deciding that some corporate executives need a pay cut:

The Obama administration plans to order companies that have received exceptionally large amounts of bailout money from the government to slash compensation for their highest-paid executives by about half on average, according to people familiar with the long-awaited decision.

The cuts will affect 25 of the most highly paid executives at each of five major financial companies and two automakers, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plan has not been made public. Cash salaries will be cut by about 90 percent compared with last year, they said.

Oh, this is going to go just great, because — of course — there’ll be no negative effects of this bold move, right? Nobody will make different decisions in future out of fear of the government second-guessing them after the fact and reversing or modifying the call.

Uncertainty is the worst enemy of a free economy: you have to have some confidence in the stability of the legal structure in which you have to work in order to make rational long-term business decisions. As I wrote back in March,

The economic picture is unsettled, which sharply reduces the dependability of long-term and even short-term forecasting. Businesses depend on forecasting to make investments, create jobs, increase or decrease production, and pretty much every other part of their operations. Uncertainty is normal, but high levels of uncertainty act to depress all economic activity . . . and the US government playing kingmaker with the heads of major corporations is a hell of way to create more uncertainty.

The specific merits of the Richard Wagoner dismissal are unimportant compared to the extra measure of uncertainty injected into the economy as a whole. If President Obama and his team can dismiss Wagoner, why not the heads of any bank accepting government funding? Why not other corporate officers (corporate directors have already been ousted at government whim)? At what level does the government’s self-created new power stop?

The direction the US federal government has set will do nothing to settle economic worries, and much to increase them. The clear belief on the part of the administration is that they are better able to pick the winners and losers of economic activity of which most of them have no practical experience. That is a modern definition of hubris.

Brain farts like this latest one just introduce huge amounts of uncertainty into the long-term plans of every company. This is no way to encourage recovery.

As several people have noted, if Barack Obama’s administration was determined to destroy the US economy . . . what would they have done differently?

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