Posts tagged ‘Great Depression’

05/10/2012

Housing Crisis: “Easy Credit” Not Cause

While Republicans attributed the 2008 housing collapse to many factors during the 2011 and 2012 debates, including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, “easy credit,” and “loans to people who could not afford them,” they never really hit the nail on the head, because they never even mentioned “adjustable interest rates.”

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were not in and of themselves a problem. In the Great Depression, when housing crashed the first time, the Congress responded in 1938 by establishing “Fannie Mae,” the Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA), which created a “secondary mortgage market” by accepting the assignment of mortgage notes from banks in consideration for cash, so banks could promptly turn around and make more loans. It was good public policy, because it effectively increased the sum of money available for lending, and increased the level of home ownership. There is no reason today to abolish that concept.

After Fannie proved useful, the Republicans in Congress made the mistake of converting it into a “mixed ownership corporation” in 1950, by allowing private investors to purchase its common stock. They also erred in 1968 by making Fannie 100% privately-owned, while maintaining their line of credit to the U.S. Treasury. Since Fannie wanted only lower risk private mortgages, Freddie Mac, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (FHLMC), was created to accept the riskier notes, made by the FHA, VA, and FmHA. While the privatization of Fannie made it harder to monitor, that mistake did not cause the recent housing meltdown.

Some argued “easy credit” and relaxed lending standards contributed to the crisis, as borrowers were no longer required to put 20% down, or sufficiently prove a credit worthiness. As the crash hit and the values of many mortgages went underwater, many borrowers had little or nothing to lose, and simply walked away from their obligations. While this sounds like a possible cause, if the borrowers had stayed employed, and their interest rates remained unchanged, they would have continued making their monthly payments, and no defaults would have occurred. “Easy credit” allowing people to buy with small or non-existent down-payments had nothing to do with why they defaulted.

Mortgage Notes, containing “adjustable interest rates” which could escalate or balloon to unsustainable levels over time, were the real problem. Notes that allowed “interest only” payments, reduced no principle, and left borrowers in a perpetual state of debt, were also a menace. Once rates jumped upward for borrowers who had no extra cash, breaches were inevitable. Lenders like Countrywide should have been stopped from making such bad loans. President Obama said in his Jan. 25, 2012 speech, mortgages were sold to people who could not afford them, by lenders who knew it, and this is why regulations are needed to prevent financial fraud.

The way to get back to financial stability in the housing market is to outlaw “adjustable interest rates,” and permit only “fixed interest rates.” If borrowers had the certainly of knowing a monthly payment that could never change, defaults would have been limited to only those who lost their jobs, and the downturn in the housing market would have been relatively mild.

05/09/2012

Obama Inherited the Great Recession

The way many Republicans and right-wingers talk about the American economy, one might think the Great Recession of 2008 was somehow single-handedly caused by President Obama, but in case we have forgotten, the crash occurred under the watch of President George W. Bush, and when he vacated the White House in Jan. 2009, he left behind several major economic problems.

OBAMA NOT TO BLAME: While Gov. Romney repeatedly said during the Republican debates, he did not blame Obama for the Great Recession, he dishonesty suggested Obama’s policies were somehow responsible for making it deeper, and causing it to go on longer than it should have.

WHAT WOULD ROMNEY HAVE DONE? But what would Romney have done if he had been President in Jan. 2009? What if he had inherited the Great Recession?

HOUSING CRISIS: The housing market had collapsed, as the value of millions upon millions of homes, all across the country, had dropped to roughly half their previous values. Many suddenly realized they owed far more on their mortgages than their homes were worth. Their residences were considered “underwater.” As the Fed used Monetary Policy to keep lending interest rates low, Obama instituted a homeowners program to allow refinancing at lower rates. If Romney would have been President, he would have taken no action to get private homeowners out from their underwater status. It is just wrong to suggest millions of homes could have recovered from their depressed values in just 4 years.

BANKING MELTDOWN: Banks and some insurance companies were collapsing as the Bush Administration, followed by Obama, did everything they could to shore them up with government bailout loans. While it is now easy to say we should have just let them go bankrupt, the ripple effect of a free market free-fall would have been catastrophic. A hands-off policy would have triggered another Great Depression, with major economic failures in all economic sectors, bringing record levels of unemployment.

AUTO BANKRUPTCY: The recession caused General Motors and Chrysler to lose so many sales, they faced bankruptcy, and no private bank was able to lend them any money. The only option was a federal bailout loan, but Romney repeatedly opposed any financial help whatsoever for the beleaguered auto industry. If he had been President, these major industrial employers would have gone bankrupt, and the ripple effect would have killed thousands upon thousands of additional jobs at component part factories throughout the industrial Midwest. Once again, inaction would have turned the Great Recession into another Great Depression.

WALL STREET CRASH: Obama inherited a stock market that had crashed, and a Wall Street trading system that was dealing in unregulated derivatives, contributing greatly to the problem. While Democrats took action by passing the Dodd-Frank bill to eliminate financial abuses, the Republicans held firm to a hands-off business as usual approach. What would Romney have done?

HIGH UNEMPLOYMENT: When Obama took office, the level of unemployment was literally sky-rocking by the hour. Obama did what any reasonable President would have done, by signing a job stimulus bill, designed to help people get back to work. While the federal government used Keynesian economics through deficit spending to prime the pump, Republican Governors in nearly 30 states did exactly the opposite, which was counterproductive, by laying off people, and making the recession worse.

A pure capitalist total free market response to the Great Recession would have triggered a Great Depression. The history of the 1929 Stock Market crash, and the subsequent four years of inaction under President Hoover, proved that point. Governments must do what they can to help the nation out of a deep recession, and it appears Obama did as good a job as any President could have.

06/13/2011

Tariffs: Why We Abandoned Them

Since the U.S. was founded, politicians debated the virtues of free trade versus protective tariffs. Historically, the industrial North manufactured goods and advocated the imposition of protective tariffs to make products made in Europe more expensive than our own. On the other hand, the agricultural South desired reciprocal free trade, because they had no industry to protect, and wanted to export cotton and tobacco, without facing retaliatory tariffs.

Alexander Hamilton argued infant American industries needed protection to give them time to develop and compete against more established European companies. After the American Revolution, President Washington approved a Congressional Act that placed tariffs on foreign goods (1789). Presidents Madison, Monroe, and John Q. Adams, also signed laws protecting American industries.

Southern Democrats were able to lower tariffs, at least before the Civil War. Andrew Jackson was the first President to openly support free trade (1828) and Presidents Tyler (1841-45), Polk (1846), and Buchanan (1857), vetoed and reduced them.

President Lincoln, an Illinois Republican, promoted industrial growth, and favored tariffs in the 1860 election, causing the South to secede, and triggering the American Civil War (1861-65).

After the war, tariffs became the norm in U.S. trade for the next seven decades. President Harrison, a Northern Republican, raised them to new highs, under the McKinley Act (1890). Ohio Republicans, Taft (1909) and Harding (1922) also increased them.

Following the 1929 Stock Market crash, President Hoover, an Iowa Republican, believed more protection was the answer, as he signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act (1930), raising U.S. import duties 60%, to an all-time high. This caused foreigners to impose retaliatory duties, reduced international trade, and exacerbated the Great Depression. When it became clear high tariffs were making the depression even worse, policy makers turned to free trade economists for answers.

Economists explained that tariffs on imported goods caused retail prices to rise, as they were simply added to the cost of the goods sold. Consumers, not foreign manufacturers, ultimately ended up paying tariffs. Economists argued they created a net societal loss.

They also explained that when nations use tariffs, other countries respond by enacting retaliatory tariffs, which negatively affect exports. If for example the U.S. placed tariffs on French wine, and France retaliated by imposing duties on the import of U.S. autos, the export industries in both nations would lose.

Since the Great Depression, the U.S. has been involved in a long march away from protective tariffs and towards free trade. President Franklin Roosevelt set the U.S. on a new course, by signing the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act (1934), which delegated to him the authority to lower tariffs, product by product.

For the past 75 years, both political parties have embraced free trade, because they fear tariffs decrease international trade, harm national export industries, and hurt domestic consumers, with higher prices. What they have ignored is the other side of the coin. The abandonment of tariffs also explains why U.S. factories have been closing, and why American workers are losing their jobs.

06/02/2011

Farm Subsidies: Created For A Reason

With current budget deficits and a growing national debt, some have asked whether we should eliminate U.S. farm subsidies, but a better question is: Why were they created in the first place?

The agricultural free market collapsed in the Great Depression, and could not recover on its own, because the farm economy stubbornly defied normal supply and demand curves. Agriculture was not like other economic sectors, because everyone needed to eat, and food demand remained constant. Since food demand never changed, the only variable that affected price was supply.

The supply problem, which continues today, is the production of more food than farmers can sell. U.S. farming is so efficient it creates an oversupply, which in turn pushes prices down, often below the cost of production. Although U.S. farmers were making enough food in the 1930s to feed the world, in the free market, they were unable to earn a living wage. They responded to low prices, by redoubling their efforts, and producing even more, with a hope of selling more, but this additional supply caused prices to drop even further, and took the entire farm sector to the brink.

The issue in 1934 was how to ensure a sustainable price for food, given the reality that supply routinely exceeded demand. Liberals argued for controls on agricultural supply, and subsidized minimum prices, to guarantee economic stability. The New Deal Democrats proceeded to make radical changes, as they replaced the capitalist free market system with a controlled economy. It was like creating a farm minimum wage. Once the government set the price for food, surpluses in supply became irrelevant.

The question now is whether the U.S. should once again adopt the capitalist agricultural free market that failed so miserably in the Great Depression. If there is one thing we sometimes learn from history, is that we don’t learn from history. If agriculture goes back to the unregulated free market that ushered in the Great Depression, it is reasonable to predict the system will fail again.

Terminating subsidies will return agriculture, a valuable necessity, to the chaos of free market forces. Excessive supply in relation to demand will cause prices to bottom out again. This will in turn trigger bankruptcies, and the ultimate loss of the farm sector.

While consumers may gain in the short run, once the domestic farm sector is out-of-business, the U.S. will become dependent on foreign producers, imported food supplies from abroad, and prices set in a global market place, well beyond our control.

A controlled economy using supply management and subsidized price controls is not an evil. We should think twice before we end the supply and price controls that have met our needs since 1934.