Friday, February 26, 2010

Where Did the Money Come from to Fuel the Housing Bubble?

by Tom Woods

No supporter of the market economy could have been surprised when the recent financial crisis was inevitably blamed on “capitalism” and “deregulation.” The free market, we were told, was a recipe for financial instability. “Advocates of the free market must confront the fact that both the Great Depression and the current financial chaos were preceded by years of laissez-faire economic policies,” wrote Katrina van den Heuvel, editor of The Nation, and author Eric Schlossel, in September 2008.

It is not enough to call this a distortion of the truth. It is a grotesque distortion, worthy of the Soviet politburo. The crisis is in fact the altogether predictable fruit of massive government and central-bank distortions of the economy. That may be why the free-market economists of the Austrian School were practically the only ones to have seen it coming.

There has been much discussion on right-wing radio and in the conservative press about Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which have been described as forms of government intervention that contributed to the financial crisis. To a certain extent that is all well and good: Fannie and Freddie enjoyed special government-granted privileges, along with an implicit bailout guarantee, that allowed them to become much more substantial actors in the secondary mortgage market than would have been possible in a free market. Furthermore, politicizing the lending process and cajoling banks into abandoning traditional standards of creditworthiness cannot make a positive contribution to the health of the banking industry.

But although there is no question that those factors exacerbated the problems that led to the crisis, they are not the primary culprits. Britain has also experienced a housing collapse, even though there is no British analogue of Fannie, Freddie, and the CRA. Moreover, no matter what encouragements these and other institutions may have given to home purchases, where did all the money come from to buy all those houses and drive up their prices so high so quickly?

We should instead focus on the Federal Reserve System, an institution few Americans know much about but which, in addition to systematically undermining the value of the U.S. dollar – which has lost at least 95 percent of its value under the Fed’s supervision – gives rise to the boom-bust business cycle.

A business-cycle primer

Economist F.A. Hayek wanted to understand why the economy moved in a boom-bust pattern – why there was, in the words of the British economist Lionel Robbins, a sudden “cluster of error” among entrepreneurs. Why should the people the market has rewarded in the past for their skill at anticipating consumer demand suddenly commit serious errors and all in the same direction?

Hayek won the Nobel Prize for his answer.

Building on the insights of Ludwig von Mises, who first began to develop what is known as Austrian business-cycle theory in his book The Theory of Money and Credit in 1912, Hayek pinpointed the central bank’s artificial creation of credit as the nonmarket culprit in the business cycle. (Economist Jesús Huerta de Soto applies Austrian business-cycle theory to cycles that occur in countries that have lacked a central bank in his treatise Money, Bank Credit, and Economic Cycles.)

To understand Hayek’s point, which exonerates the free market, consider two scenarios.

Scenario 1. Consider what happens when the public increases its savings. Since banks now have more funds to lend (namely, the saved funds deposited by the public), the rate of interest it charges on loans will fall. The lower interest rates, in turn, stimulate an expansion in long-term investment projects, which are more sensitive to interest rates than short-term projects are. (Think of the difference in the decline in monthly payments that would occur between a 30-year mortgage and a 1-year mortgage if interest rates came down by even 2 percentage points.)

Lower-order stages of production are those stages closest to finished consumer goods: retail stores, services, and the like. Wholesale and marketing are examples of higher-order stages. Mining, construction, and research and development are of still higher order, since they are so remote from the finished good that reaches the consumer. When people’s consumption spending contracts, it is a perfect time for higher-order stages of production to expand: because of people’s additional saving, there is relatively less demand for consumer goods, and the resulting contraction of lower-order stages of production will release resources for use in the higher-order stages.

Scenario 2. Government-established central banks have various means at their disposal to force interest rates lower even without any corresponding increase in saving by the public. (For more on this, see The Mystery of Banking, by Murray N. Rothbard, or his shorter classic, What Has Government Done to Our Money?) Just as in the case in which public saving has increased, the lower interest rates spur expansion in higher-order stages of production.

The difference, though, is a critical one and guarantees that these artificially low interest rates will not yield the happy outcome we saw in Scenario 1. For in this case, people have not decreased their consumption spending. If anything, the low interest rates encourage further consumption. If consumption spending is not constricted, the lower-order stages of production do not contract. And if they do not contract, they do not release resources for use in the higher-order stages of production. Instead of harmonious economic development, there will instead ensue a tug of war for those resources between the higher and lower stages. In the process of this tug of war, the prices of those resources (labor, trucking services, et cetera) will be bid up, thereby threatening the profitability of higher-order projects that were begun without the expectation of this increase in costs.

Read the rest here.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [visit his website; send him mail] is the author of nine books, including two New York Times bestsellers: Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse and The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Read Congressman Ron Paul's foreword to Meltdown.

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