The nomination of Janet Yellen to chair the Federal Reserve has come down to this: a referendum on quantitative easing and zero interest rates. The money-printing program that Ben Bernanke started five years ago this month remains Yellen’s answer for how the economy will get back on solid ground. Yet in her appearance at Thursday’s Senate Banking hearing, a bipartisan group of senators expressed dismay that Fed money printing has widened the wealth gap while fueling potential asset bubbles.
Whatever air was left in the tank of quantitative easing was let out early last week when former Fed official Andrew Huszar, the director of its $1.25 trillion mortgage-backed security purchase program, wrote a devastating Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Confessions of a Quantitative Easer,” in which he declared the program “the greatest backdoor Wall Street bailout of all time.” Huszar disclosed that he and other Fed managers expressed their concerns about this outcome early on, but they were ignored as the Federal Open Market Committee moved from a macroeconomic to a more special interest rationale. “Now the only obsession seemed to be with the newest survey of financial-market expectations or the latest in-person feedback from Wall Street’s leading bankers and hedge-fund managers,” he wrote.
At first, it was fun—this parlor game of guessing who the Obama administration will appoint as the next chairman of the Federal Reserve. We all assumed it would be Janet Yellen, because she’s a woman. And then suddenly we had Larry Summers all over the leading financial newspapers receiving multiple endorsements from respected economists. There were sly references to his intellectual prowess and invaluable experience, not to mention (but they always did) his connections with Obama’s closest advisers on economic and financial matters.
Now this little diversion for monetary policy wonks is shaping up to be a referendum on banking deregulation efforts and “sensitive gender issues”—even as the president emphasizes wealth inequality as the defining problem for a nation unable to regain its economic footing and start growing again despite four years of unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus.
“When wealth concentrates at the very top, it can inflate unstable bubbles that threaten the economy,” intoned President Obama in his Knox College speech on July 24. “When middle-class families have less to spend, businesses have fewer customers.”
A winning agenda for a political party must simultaneously satisfy the requirements of economic effectiveness and political success. Ronald Reagan had such an agenda in the 1980s. Subsequent Republican presidential candidates have not. The opportunity now is great. Far from having a free hand after reelection, President Obama is constrained by the same economic and political realities as everyone else. This is why his first act of 2013 was to sign into law a tax code in which the top rate on labor income is about twice the rate on property income, disappointing the dominant faction of his own party.
The four basic principles of successful American political economy may be summarized simply:
1. Current peacetime government consumption of goods and services should be funded by current taxation, not money creation—thus limiting peacetime government borrowing to an amount equal to government-owned investments of the same or lesser duration. This principle was first enunciated and implemented under President George Washington.
2. Current consumption of true public goods (such as national defense and administration of justice) should be funded with an income tax levied about equally on labor and property income. This principle was first implemented under Abraham Lincoln.
3. More narrowly targeted “quasi-public” goods, which benefit many but not all citizens, should have dedicated funding. Social benefits for specified individuals (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, primarily) should be financed by payroll taxes on individuals, not by income or property taxes. This principle was first applied under Franklin D. Roosevelt at the insistence of his Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau.
The counterpart to this policy is that subsidies to property owners (e.g., tax-advantaged savings accounts and product, corporate, and banking subsidies) should be financed by taxes on property income (such as interest, dividends, rents, or capital gains), not payroll or income taxes.
4. Government’s size and methods should be strictly limited in order not to displace private jobs, or cause general unemployment or disinvestment in people and property. This was attempted by Ronald Reagan (with its success limited by factors we will describe).
In these days of unprecedented monetary activism by the Federal Reserve, including massive purchases every month of federal government debt, it’s nice to see even a fledgling amount of resistance from attentive citizens. A bill now making its way through the Virginia legislature would establish a joint subcommittee “to study the feasibility of a metallic-based monetary unit.”
Last night the House voted 65-32 to approve the bill; now it goes before the Virginia Senate. “The need to establish a sound money unit was deemed so essential for assuring the success of the United States that Thomas Jefferson personally assumed the task of defining the dollar as a fixed standard of value,” the measure notes.
“Our nation’s most fundamental principles – equal rights, rule of law, private property rights, individual liberty – still require a dependable dollar to be meaningfully preserved.”
The bill, if passed, would seek to examine the impact of the Fed’s intervention in banking and credit markets – resulting in near-zero returns on savings accounts and retirement funds – with an eye toward considering “whether a metallic basis for United States currency might engender a more stable money unit consistent with limited government.”
Are we talking about a gold standard? Too soon to tell. But the study would surely seek input from leading monetary experts and constitutional scholars sympathetic to the need for a more rules-based monetary policy – such as Lewis Lehrman and James Grant.
Who caused the financial collapse? Just about everyone.
To appreciate this landmark work it is necessary to know a bit about the author’s background.
John Allison is not only a banker-entrepreneur; he is also a recognized intellectual leader of American business. Moreover, Allison’s financial expertise is a product of his personal biography: In a mere two decades, he built BB&T (Branch Banking & Trust Co.), a comparatively small Southern bank of $4.5 billion in assets, into a $152-billion financial enterprise, making it one of America’s largest and most profitable banks. But unlike many overpaid, underperforming CEOs, Allison focused his leader-manager skills—at modest compensation—on behalf of his employees, customers, and shareholders.
Briefly stated, Allison’s core principles begin with an unapologetic dedication to customer-oriented banking and carefully managed risk-taking as sound and effective means to long-term profitability and high returns on capital. BB&T deploys an uncommon means to sustain the bank’s dedicated corporate culture: continuous, serious, systemic employee education aimed at the formation of leaders, executives, and well-trained employees at every level. A core goal of every employee must be to focus on making every client profitable and successful on a risk-adjusted financial basis—that is, through conservative banking. False financial products were neither fabricated nor widely distributed during the bubble years (such products having been an important cause of the financial crisis). Monthly employee readings in philosophy and economics are mobilized to reinforce the core principles.
At the center of this banking philosophy is the development of the full potential of each employee, and each client, of the bank: This strategy, Allison argues, is the optimum path to shareholder, customer, and employee enrichment. Many firms pretend to such a strategy; Allison earned a national reputation because he actually carried it out, and successfully, in a banking system engaged during the bubble years in a “race to the bottom.”
In a free-market society, it is hard to exaggerate the importance of such a corporate culture. And in business, the individual conscience, dedicated to long-term rational self-interest, is the indispensable condition of a minimally regulated free market. It is striking that Allison’s strategy was vindicated by good returns on capital; it is equally striking that BB&T’s corporate culture was proven right in the financial crisis and Great Recession, as BB&T experienced not a single quarterly loss during the financial earthquake of 2007-2009.
It is necessary to know all this in order to understand the importance of The Financial Crisis and the Free Market Cure. As the head of a major American bank, Allison was witness to the decisions of government, Federal Reserve leaders, and banking CEOs that led to a huge speculative bubble and the collapse of the financial system, including Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, virtually the entire cartel of big banks and brokers, and major companies. Allison guides us, with a gimlet eye, through taxpayer-subsidized bailouts of these wards of the state, focusing on a reckless, insolvent, privileged financial oligarchy—subsidized by a feckless Fed, a dilatory Treasury, and a politicized FDIC. The coercive power of the federal government, and the moral hazard of excessive regulation, is dissected and debunked.