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From FDR to Obama – the Destruction of Our Rights

May 26, 2009 1 comment


Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed a “Second Bill of Rights” during his State of the Union Address in 1944. He noted that while “under the protection of certain inalienable rights…our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness….true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” He argued that we “cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.” Under the auspices of “economic security and independence,” FDR laid out the following list of rights for the American people:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

During and after FDR’s presidency, many programs were taken up to establish these so-called rights. The US government implemented a minimum wage with the hopes of providing people with a baseline level of income to be able to pay for life’s necessities, and created unemployment insurance so that people would have sufficient money to purchase goods when they lost their jobs. They created agricultural subsidies to protect farmers. They implemented all sorts of regulations and restrictions to stop (certain) companies from dominating their competitors. They created HUD and devised the CRA to force lenders to finance housing for those who were less well off, to ensure the “American dream of home ownership.” They provided healthcare for the old and poor. They created Social Security to allow the old to receive checks after they were retired. They expanded public education and pushed for everyone to receive a college degree. They empowered the Federal Reserve to flatten the business cycle and protect against recessions.

Today, King Obama looks to be finishing off the dirty work of the progressives of the last century. He is pushing for “fair” credit card charges, universal healthcare, onerous governmental control of business under the guise of environmental protection, government control of college loans and empathetic justices who understand the concerns of everyone who is not white, male or wealthy.

Essential to the justification for this platform is FDR’s argument that there be equality in the pursuit of happiness, and that “individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” What those like FDR and Obama mean is that there is not equality as an outcome of the pursuit of happiness, i.e. equality of condition. By economic security and independence, FDR and the King mean that people need safeguards so that they can keep their jobs, pay for products and be comfortable in retirement.

All of the ends that these progressives seek seem admirable, but the means to achieve them end up making it impossible for the ends to be obtained. Nobody wants to see masses of unemployed, sickly or uneducated people. But the government policies implemented to protect against these problems – to guarantee the “rights” listed above – end up leaving people unemployed, unhealthy and uneducated. They impoverish the citizens by destroying the inalienable rights that even FDR admits allowed the US to gain its strength as the world superpower.

It was not economic security or independence that allowed our country to thrive, but a system in which people voluntarily traded and had the opportunity to innovate and take entrepreneurial risks. Failure, not economic security, had to be a motivator because there was no safeguard against it; no notion of being too-big-to-fail. If you failed, you simply had to pick up and try again. The Federal Reserve in attempting to protect against failure ends up leaving the people economically insecure by decreasing their purchasing power and savings through inflating the money supply, and by incentivizing people to allocate resources improperly through the manipulation of money and credit which leads to the painful boom and bust cycle. The moral hazard created by providing safeguards against failing, be it in business or in one’s own life ends up weakening the people.

Economic security and independence come as a result of our rights to life, liberty and property, not the other way around. The best thing the government can do to ensure these rights, the rights that lead us to maximum wealth, the fullest employment for those who seek it, the best and cheapest medical care and the most practical and affordable education is simply to protect its citizens from attacks on their individual rights. Individual rights, not entitlements. Entitlements beget more entitlements. Entitlements breed laziness in the citizenry. Entitlements cause people to take things for granted. Freedom is the one thing that cannot be taken for granted. As Reagan put it, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”

If you disagree with this in principle, then look at the results of the governments’ policies, those policies representing the antithesis of freedom. The US populace is probably dumber than it has been at any other time in history, even though a greater number of people are graduating from public high schools and attending colleges than ever before. Our economy teeters on the brink of collapse. Our government is larger, more intrusive and more corrupt than it has ever been. It is also effectively bankrupt minus its monopoly power to print money; interesting that it can have this monopoly power while also protecting people from “unfair business competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.”

Other examples of government failures abound. Amtrak is a money-loser, as is essentially all public transportation. If public transportation is not a money-loser, then I would venture to guess that it still isn’t as cheap or efficient as private alternatives. The US postal service is nowhere near as effective as FedEx. The DMV is a joke. The purchasing power of our dollar has decreased by over 95% since being under full control of the Federal Reserve, and we have had more frequent recessions than prior to the Fed’s creation. In countries with nationalized healthcare, we see that the price of better-quality, private healthcare increases, while public healthcare services leave people waiting sometimes for months on end for essential medical procedures. People flee to the US if their lives are in danger with good reason. If King Obama gets his way, they will have nowhere to flee anymore. Ironically, when it comes to almost every sector of our economy, while economists would have you believe that government corrects market failures, it appears that we would be far better if markets corrected government failures.

In the final analysis, there is not one good or service that the government provides that is cheaper and better than the equivalent one in the private sector, with the caveat that in terms of defense, only the government can coordinate the forces necessary to effectively protect us. And even then, the government outsources weapons development and certain tactical supports to private defense companies. And even then, the government screws up at times in the way it carries out its wars.

I want to reiterate that only the market can provide the people with the best goods and services at the best prices. This is the same for credit as it is for housing as it is for healthcare. If you take the market out of the equation and try to centrally plan, in the end you impoverish society and leave a nation to anarchy and revolution. Through a dictatorship, which is what the Second Bill of Rights effectively creates (a tyrannical government), you create the unemployed and the hungry that FDR speaks of.

With the burgeoning deficits at the state and national levels, the impending tsunami of inflation and the undermining of the rule of law and protection of life, liberty and property by our leaders, it looks as if in their quest to grant us the Second Bill of Rights, they have also destroyed the rights granted to us by an authority higher than that of our politicians, our natural ones.

Market as Regulator

April 7, 2009 4 comments


Regulators

We regulate any stealing of his property

And we damn good too

But you cant be any geek off the street,

Gotta be handy with the steel if you know what I mean, earn your keep!
Regulators!!! mount up!

The epic words of Warren G in many respects seem to sum up our government’s regulatory regime. Guys like Barney and Timmy clearly are “handy with the steel,” in their ability to influence businesses. They also in many respects do regulate stealing, ultimately robbing investors and businessmen in creating moral hazard for the bond and shareholders and all sorts of barriers to entry for the firms.

Yet recently amidst the market fallout there have been calls left and right for some sort of even more powerful “super-regulator.” After all, given that our regulatory architecture seems to have failed us this time, why not create an even bigger and stronger one to prevent the crisis next time?

Just like all government attempts to stop future crises, be it in healthcare or food and drugs, regulation always perpetuates the problems, creating greater ones down the road. In the financial system, we see perhaps the greatest case AGAINST regulation. Let us examine my seemingly counterintuitive claim.

The first and most obvious reason against regulation is that it creates a significant amount of moral hazard. If one has the SEC there to ensure that financial institutions are seemingly playing by the rules, or the FDIC there to ensure that even if a bank is insolvent, one will be able to receive his deposits (up to a point), then this encourages one to take far greater incremental risks than one otherwise would. After all, with the seal of approval of a government institution, why would you ever get your hands dirty in analyzing the institutions in which you entrust your money?

This problem is especially pervasive when it comes to the credit ratings agencies, namely Moody’s, S&P and Fitch, who are designated “Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations” by the SEC. Individual investors and institutional investors alike had become reliant on these agencies to gauge the risk of default of individual companies and securities, only for many of these companies and securities to blow up in their faces during this crisis. Had people actually gone in and done the risk analysis themselves, as opposed to relying on ratings assigned to companies largely by government decree, I would argue that people would have taken far more prudent positions with their capital.

Further, without this pseudo-cartel of agencies, I would imagine there would grow hundreds if not thousands of competing private firms to do independent analysis, greatly benefitting the investor without the time or knowledge to do financial analysis. Sure some of these companies might partake of fraudulent activities themselves, but they would either lose credibility and have to fix up their act to compete, or be prosecuted for the fraud they perpetrated. I admit that in this case, you do need law enforcement when it comes to fraud, but it is far more likely (given all of the times that private companies for example had uncovered the Madoff scheme before the regulators ever did anything) that the authorities would be able to react were market participants able to signal fraud to them. Still, at the very least the consumer would have far more choice in determining which analysis was best.

This brings us to another problem with government regulation – the fact that it is done by government monopoly. Government officials just like businessmen are prone to error. Unlike businessmen however, they lack a profit motive to work efficiently and prudently. To this end, if we see how ineffectual the DMV is, why should the SEC or FDIC or SIPC or any of these other alphabet-soup agencies be any more trusted? Sure, many of the people that work for these agencies previously worked in private industry, but remember that this in itself creates many a conflict of interest. Madoff himself had ties to the SEC, which may have helped him keep his Ponzi scheme alive for so many years.

Government regulators also create problems in that they make costly work for businesses and investors. SARBOX and other forms of compliance cost businesses small and large millions each year, while the regulators’ decisions to allow off-balance-sheet financing in many ways incentivized companies to hide the risks that should have been plain as day to investors. All of this is bad for transparency and efficiency, two things regulators are supposed to encourage.

On the other hand, there is the crazy idea of letting the market serve as the regulator. I would argue that discerning, self-interested investors have the best judgment when it comes to the valuation because they are responsible for their money. For it is the market that assigns a price to securities – riskier ones command a higher risk premium. Companies that make mistakes, be it through poor compensation standards that reward incompetence, poor investment projects, etc will face prohibitive borrowing costs and lower stock prices, and ultimately if the market so chooses be taken under. It is this playing field that ensures regulation. The mercy of the market will hold people accountable. Government regulators, government-empowered ratings agencies and others merely create the moral hazard that stops this system from functioning properly.

When government regulators set a precedent of bailing people out for bad behavior under the guise that a company is “too big to fail,” you further destroy the regulation of the market. You encourage excessive risk-taking; you encourage striving for short-term gains at the cost of long-term sustained profitability. You hurt the investors who are trying to signal through bond and share prices that a firm is in bad shape, and ultimately hurt taxpayers if you make the private problems of some investors into the public problems of all Americans. To let bureaucrats go in and say that a company is stable, often disingenuously, as opposed to letting investors speak with their money is as arbitrary as it is abominable.

The fact of the matter is that government doesn’t want to let the market work as it did in blowing up companies with worthless assets (even if it was the moral hazard built into system and intervention that caused creation and investment in these assets), because it will hurt the interests that prop the elected officials up, destroy their own wealth, undermine their power (wouldn’t want to waste a crisis) and further cause unrest amongst the populace.

But the short-term dislocation versus the long-run fiscal and moral decay of the country is incomparable. The former will lead to an economy and a nation made stronger; the ladder to tyranny. The problem in our nation is that if you are a politician and trying to get reelected, you make this calculation and hope that things don’t collapse at the wrong time, namely under your watch. Interestingly, this sacrifice of long-term sustainability for short-term gain is just the calculation made by many at the banks who played with essentially free house money (courtesy of the Fed), leading us to the crisis today. But let these same government officials who in large part mucked things up the first time around gain even greater control over the economy. I dare you.

Moral Hazard at Qdoba

February 15, 2009 2 comments

Americans Could Learn a Lot from Dwight Schrute

Drudge always happens to find a way to capture outrageous stories that reflect the times we’re living in. To this end, I could not believe this nugget regarding a worker at Qdoba. Apparently, in order for one to receive unemployment insurance, one needs to be officially fired. So the brilliant fellow in this story decided that the best way to do this was to wreak havoc on the restaurant, throwing pots and pans along with food all over the place. This is reminiscent of the type of scene one would find in my fraternity house common room on a weekend morning.

What this reflects however is moral hazard at its lowest common denominator. A man is so desperate to receive compensation for being laid off that he tries to intentionally get himself fired. Honestly, what is the world coming to? And I would bet that this is not an isolated incident. Because we have built in a social safety net to our society, we have created the conditions for people to become lazier, less hard working and more profligate. We feel that because the government has X, Y and Z programs that we will have nothing to fear come retirement; or even be rewarded if we rowdy a Qdoba restaurant (why would you ever denigrate an institution that makes such a delectable burrito!?). It is akin to the way a high school student drives a car bequeathed to him, versus a car that he purchases with his own money. Trust me, I speak from experience here.

The fact of the matter is that in the case of the nation, the social safety net devours the very system that was able to support it, until it kills the system from within. The social safety net would have never been considered had we not been able to develop an economy wealthy enough to sustain it. Yet it is this socialist system that has grown so big that it may cause our government to default someday — either that or print up enough money to devalue the massive unfunded liabilities lurking over the next twenty years. Moral hazard has placed a debt burden on future generations. The Ponzi scheme of everyone paying into a system to distribute advantages to certain people will collapse because it will be unsustainable.

Thankfully, the laws of economics are color-blind and class-blind. They are just in that they weed out failed operations, fraudulent schemes and profligate people. They provide pain when a government immorally tries to stop the markets from functioning as they should. In the long run, they reward the savers, the prudent businessmen and the innovators. But you can be sure that until such time as things collapse to the point where we abandon a mixed economy and the welfare state, there will be far more people like the man above who seek to con the system for personal gain. Only after the fall will the deserving people prosper.