U.S. Economy: Free Trade vs. Regulation

by: Brian McMorris

First in a Series of Debates on Money Supply, the Federal Reserve and our Economic Crisis

In this post, I debate with a blogger who is a self-proclaimed "Free Trader" / Libertarian. While I am all for market-based capitalism in our American economy, I believe that the innate greed that drives human economic behaviour must be managed to some degree. Regulations are important, especially in the area of money supply and banking. Money is the lifeblood of an economy and must be carefully protected by the national authorities to whom we entrust that responsibility. My opponent calls regulation "Central Planning", which is a big overstatement. I make the argument that our current economic crisis is due to a complete breakdown of that care which comes from prudent regulation. This is now what we need to repair. Please read on:

Free Trader (FT): I’m not sure what you base your opinion on (regarding the inherent strength of the American economy), but from what I understand the fundamentals to be, they show that we’re in for some trouble. This is just the beginning; the crash has not yet happened. Think about the trade deficit, the national debt, the deficit spending…we're... poor, we just don’t know it yet. When done slowly the destruction isn’t as noticeable. But sometimes, as in the case of the housing boom, the Federal Reserve inflates (creates new money) at a tremendous rate. In that instance, there is lots more money chasing the same amount of goods (like houses).

Regulated Capitalist (Me): That was what I thought, too, until about a year ago (early 2008), that it was the Fed that had expanded money supply, driving down interest rates and making cheap loans easily available. Then I read one of Paul McCulley's (PIMCO) columns that talked about the “shadow banking system”, an idea Mr. McCulley attributes to economist Hyman Minsky. What a revelation. Shadow banking in the past 10 years completely swamped the amount of money created by the Federal Reserve. The Fed even tried raising rates in the 2004-07 period to slow money supply growth, with no effect. It was not the Federal Reserve that caused the housing bubble (even Greenspan got caught by surprise on this one), it was the unregulated “Shadow Banking” system making cheap and plentiful money available to home buyers.

What is the Shadow Banking System? It is a Wild West “free market” banking system that came about because of an over-abundance of global savings. During the 1990s and early 2000s, the Western world, especially America, imported more and more goods from Asia. We know this is because of the problems Asian imports caused with labor outsourcing and balance of trade. Labor unions and the political Left made it very clear that the transfer of wealth from America to Asia through free trade was unacceptable. But most people don’t understand the reciprocal problem this exchange created was greater than the loss of jobs.

The economies selling the West their goods (manufactured goods in Asia and increasingly petroleum products from the Middle East) could not hold the dollars they received without experiencing an appreciating currency that would make that currency less competitive globally and also might precipitate deflation in their home market (as savings exceeded consumption making the currency more and more valuable). So, what did they do, they sent their US dollars back to America by buying securities denominated in dollars. At first, they just bought U.S. Treasuries, but soon that was not enough to clear the accumulating dollars and they needed more places to send them. So, they started purchasing securitized packages of mortgages and other American credits (broadly known as “derivatives” today). Wall Street was happy to create and sell those securities and become wealthy on the margins. The buyers were reassured by the triple AAA ratings given those derivatives by American rating agencies (that the buyers may have misunderstood to be government-sponsored entities), as well as by the historical dynamism and relative safety of the American economy.

However, and this is the most important point to understand, this money flowing back into America from other countries was completely unregulated (free market banking), and it was plentiful, measuring into the trillions. It was so plentiful that soon credit standards started to drop to clear all of the available funds and anyone who could “fog a mirror” as the real estate profession likes to say, could get a loan.

Beyond credit derivatives, another source for “shadow banking” money flows were private banks and hedge funds playing the so-called “... trade”. The economies that had strong economic exports in the same period, but with low interest rates (Japan, New Zealand, Australia, even Iceland) became hotspots for borrowing by these private, unregulated, non-bank “free market” entities.

With Glass-Steagall banking regulation a thing of history, hedge funds and other private investors could make themselves into, effectively, a bank. These private “banks” became so by borrowing cheap foreign currency, and then lending (or buying commodities, businesses, real estate) at a higher rate / price. This was all well and good for a while, but the incredible amount of money created, multiples of the American M2 or M3 money supply, swamped markets and caused the pricing bubbles in all asset classes as we observed from 2004 to 2007. It is this “carry trade” unwind in 2008, into early 2009, that has crushed the commodities and energy market the past year and it is the “derivatives” unwind that is crushing the financial, housing and commercial (busines loan) markets.

So, don’t put this economic disaster at the feet of the Fed and Treasury, though characters like Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner are easy and appealing targets. Upon analysis, they were helpless to stop the bubbles and then the crash with current laws and regulations (though Greenspan’s cheerleading in 2004 did not help because it emboldened borrowers). Rather, it was the unregulated Shadow Banking System, administered by the investment banking industry, and run through mortgage brokers with Fannie (FNM) and Freddie (FRE) approval, that caused the disaster.

As for Freddie / Fannie complicity in this deal, that was enabled by some in Congress (led by Dems Frank and Dodd) who wanted to make home ownership a national right rather than a privilege. And it was also given an assist by the Republicans who wanted to extend free markets to the banking system by deregulating them through the abolition of Glass-Steagall and the declawing of the SEC.

The bottom line: we had no national banking problems until free markets got involved. Banking is one industry that cannot be Free. Other crises in banking happened because of insufficient regulation and oversight (including the S&L crisis due to a lack of Federal regulation during the 1980s). Sorry, if I have to make a choice between free markets and central planning where banking is concerned, "Central Planning" wins.

NEXT in the Series: Debating the proper course to deal with money supply contraction / deflation: "a balanced budget, higher taxes and induced consumer saving", or "more of the dog that bit you: money expansion, looser credit, encourage consumer spending"