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Economics

Should governments impose stricter regulations on large firms?

Frenchman Jean Tirole of the University of Toulouse won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for devising methods to improve regulation of industries dominated by a few large firms. According to Tirole large firms undermine the efficient functioning of the market economy by being able to influence the prices and the quantity of products.

Consequently, this undermines the well being of individuals in the economy. On this way of thinking the inefficiency emerges as a result of the deviation from the ideal state of the market as depicted by the “perfect competition” framework.

In the world of perfect competition a market is characterized by the following features:

  • There are many buyers and sellers in the market

  • Homogeneous products are traded

  • Buyers and sellers are perfectly informed

  • No obstacles or barriers to enter the market

In the world of perfect competition buyers and sellers have no control over the price of the product. They are price takers.

The assumption of perfect information and thus absolute certainty implies that there is no room left for entrepreneurial activity. For in the world of certainty there are no risks and therefore no need for entrepreneurs.

If this is so, who then introduces new products and how? According to the proponents of the perfect competition model any real situation in a market that deviates from this model is regarded as sub-optimal to consumers’ well being. It is then recommended that the government intervene whenever such deviation occurs.

Contrary to this way of thinking, competition is not on account of a large number of participants as such, but as a result of a large variety of products.

The greater the variety is, the greater the competition will be and therefore more benefits for consumer.

Once an entrepreneur introduces a product—- the outcome of his intellectual effort–he acquires 100 per cent of the newly established market.

Following, however, the logic of the popular way of thinking, this situation must not be allowed for it will undermine consumers’ well being. If this way of thinking (perfect competition model) were to be strictly adhered to no new products would ever emerge. In such an environment people would struggle to stay alive.

Once an entrepreneur successfully introduces a product and makes a profit he attracts competition. Notice that what gives rise to the competition is that consumers have endorsed the new product. Now the producers of older products must come with new ideas and new products to catch the attention of consumers.

The popular view that a producer that dominates a market could exploit his position by raising the price above the truly competitive level is erroneous.

The goal of every business is to make profits. This, however, cannot be achieved without offering consumers a suitable price.

It is in the interest of every businessman to secure a price where the quantity that is produced can be sold at a profit.

In setting this price the producer entrepreneur will have to consider how much money consumers are likely to spend on the product. He will have to consider the prices of various competitive products. He will also have to consider his production costs.

Any attempt on behalf of the alleged dominant producer to disregard these facts will cause him to suffer losses.

Further to this, how can government officials establish whether the price of a product charged by a dominant producer is above the so-called competitive price level? How can they know what the competitive price is supposed to be?

If government officials attempt to enforce a lower price this price could wipe out the incentive to produce the product.

So rather than improving consumers’ well being government policies will only make things much worse. (On this, no mathematical methods no matter how sophisticated could tell us what the competitive price level is. Those who hold that game theories could do the trick are on the wrong path).

Again, contrary to the perfect competition model, what gives rise to a greater competitive environment is not a large number of participants in a particular market but rather a large variety of competitive products. Government policies, in the spirit of the perfect competition model, are however destroying product differentiation and therefore competition.

The whole idea that various suppliers can offer a homogeneous product is not tenable. For if this was the case why would a buyer prefer one seller to another? (The whole idea to enforce product homogeneity in order to emulate the perfect competition model will lead to no competition at all).

Since product differentiation is what free market competition is all about it means that every supplier of a product has 100 per cent control as far as the product is concerned. In other words, he is a monopolist.

What gives rise to product differentiation is that every entrepreneur has different ideas and talents. This difference in ideas and talents is manifested in the way the product is made the way it is packaged, the place in which it is sold, the way it is offered to the client etc.

For instance, a hamburger that is sold in a beautiful restaurant is a different product from a hamburger sold in a takeaway shop. So if the owner of a restaurant gains dominance in the sales of hamburgers should he then be restrained for this? Should he then alter his mode of operation and convert his restaurant into a takeaway shop in order to comply with the perfect competition model?

All that has happened here is that consumers have expressed a greater preference to dine in the restaurant rather than buying from the takeaway shop. So what is wrong with this?

Let us now assume that consumers have completely abandoned takeaway shops and buying hamburgers only from the restaurant, does this mean that the government must step in and intervene?

The whole issue of a harmful monopoly has no relevancy in the free-market environment. A harmful monopolist is likely to emerge when the government, by means of licenses, restricts the variety of products in a particular market. (The government bureaucrats decide what products should be supplied in the market).

By imposing restrictions and thus limiting the variety of goods and services offered to consumers, government curtails consumers’ choices thereby lowering their well being.

Summary and conclusion

We suggest that the whole idea of government regulating large firms in order to promote competition and defend people’s well being is a fallacy. If anything, such intervention only stifles market competition and lowers living standards.

This year’s Nobel prize in economics awarded to Jean Tirole for developing better regulations to control markets runs against the spirit of the Nobel award.

The idea of Alfred Nobel was to reward a scientist whose invention and discovery bettered people’s lives and well being. Better government controls of markets runs, however, contrary to the spirit of Nobel.

Law

Understanding Deposit Insurance (I): Deposit Insurance is a Creature of the State

Deposit insurance is one of the most misunderstood – and also most dangerous – forms of government intervention into the financial system.

 

Let’s start with the common misconception that deposit insurance is an industry-operated affair independent of the government.

 

In the UK, deposit insurance is provided by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS). To quote from its website:

 

“The FSCS is the UK’s statutory fund of last resort for customers of financial services firms. This means that FSCS can pay compensation to consumers if a financial services firm is unable, or likely to be unable, to pay claims against it. The FSCS is an independent body, set up under the Financial Services & Markets Act 2000 (FSMA).”

 

It also explains that the FSCS is funded by levies on firms authorised to operate by either of the Prudential Regulation Authority or the Financial Conduct Authority.

 

So the FSCS is notionally independent and the guarantees are financed by levies on participating firms.

 

However, this does not mean that deposit insurance is in any way a free-market phenomenon: it is explicitly the creature of legislation and participating firms are compelled not just to join, but to join on dictated terms. This is rather like having a system of compulsory car insurance and, moreover, a compulsory system that mandates the exact terms (including the pricing) of the car insurance itself – compulsory one-size-fits-all.

 

This should set off alarm bells that there might be something wrong with it.

 

And how do we know that its designers designed it properly? We don’t.

 

In fact, we know that they couldn’t possibly have designed it properly, as any rational insurance system would tailor the charges to the riskiness of clients, include co-insurance features and other incentives to moderate risk-taking, have charges that would evolve over time in response to changing market conditions, and so forth. This is insurance 101.

 

This is not how deposit insurance works, however.

 

Most of all, any rational system would have the product delivered by the market, not by some jerry-built contraption dreamt up by committees of legislators and regulators who have neither the knowledge nor the incentive to get it right. One also might add few if any of these people have any experience in or understanding of the industry they are meddling with, but let’s move on.

 

It then occurred to me that perhaps my kids are right and I am too cynical – maybe Father Christmas and the fairies do exist: one should keep an open mind – so I checked out the FSCS website to have a closer look at their system. What I found was a masterpiece of gobbledegook that I highly recommend to other connoisseurs of regulatory gibberish:

 

http://www.fscs.org.uk/industry/funding/levy-information/

 

Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind. My favourite bit is the explanation of the levy calculation that does not explain how the levy is actually calculated.

 

All this said, the banks rather like deposit insurance because it gives them a great marketing tool: bank with us and your money is safe because we are members of the deposit guarantee scheme, and you will get your money back even if we happen to fail.

 

They also like it because they can game the system – taking extra risks and offering higher deposit rates than they would otherwise be able to get away with – in effect, exploiting the risk-taking subsidy created by deposit insurance and passing the extra risks to the fund itself.

 

But surely, if the banks like the system, they would create one themselves if the government didn’t create it for them? No. Were this true, the banks would have done exactly that many years ago, and there would have been no ‘need’ for the state to have intervened to do it for them. The fact is that they didn’t.

 

The reason they didn’t is because the service that deposit insurance provides to the retail customer – reassurance or confidence – is better provided in other ways, most notably, by pursuing conservative lending policies and maintaining high levels of capital. And the reason for this is simply that deposit insurance introduces an additional layer of moral hazard and governance headaches that can be avoided if the banks self-insure via moderate risk-taking and high levels of capital.

 

This should come as no surprise. True confidence does not come from “you can trust us if we screw up because someone else will bail you out” but from “you can trust us because it is demonstrably in our interest to make sure we don’t screw up”. Deposit insurance is an inferior confidence product – one might even say, a confidence trick.

 

We can also look at this another way. Suppose that a group of banks attempted to set up a scheme similar to the current one, of their own free will and with no government intervention. They would soon realise that the scheme was not viable – no bank would want to be liable for the risks the others were taking, with no means of controlling those risks. So it would never get off the ground – and the current system only got off the ground because the state imposed it.

 

In short, deposit insurance is not a creature of the market but a creature of the state, and a decidedly inferior one at that. It is, indeed, a classic instance of that regulatory Gresham’s Law by which state intervention causes the bad to drive out the good. Where have we seen that before?

Economics

A difficult question

In a radio interview recently* I was asked a question to which I could not easily give a satisfactory reply: if the gold market is rigged, why does it matter?
I have no problem delivering a comprehensive answer based on a sound aprioristic analysis of how rigging markets distorts the basis of economic calculation and why a properly functioning gold market is central to all other financial prices. The difficulty is in answering the question in terms the listeners understand, bearing in mind I was told to assume they have very little comprehension of finance or economics.
I did not as they say, want to go there. But it behoves those of us who argue the economics of sound money to try to make the answer as intelligible as possible without sounding like a committed capitalist and a conspiracy theorist to boot, so here goes.

Manipulating the price of gold ultimately destabilises the financial system because it is the highest form of money. This is why nearly all central banks retain a holding. The fact we don’t use it as money in our daily business does not invalidate its status. Rather, gold is subject to Gresham’s Law, which famously states bad money drives out the good. We would rather pay for things in government-issue paper currency and hang on to gold for a rainy day.

As money, it is on the other side of all asset prices. In other words stocks, bonds and property prices can be expected to rise measured in gold when the gold price falls and vice-versa. This relationship is often muddled by other factors, the most obvious one being changing levels of confidence in paper currencies against which gold is normally priced. However, with bond yields today at record lows and equities at record highs this relationship is apparent today.

Another way to describe this relationship is in terms of risk. Banks which dominate asset markets become complacent about risk because they are greedy for profit. This leads to banks competing with one another until they end up ignoring risk entirely. It happened very obviously with the American banking crisis six years ago until house prices suddenly collapsed, threatening to take the whole financial system down. In common with all financial bubbles everyone ignored risk. History provides many other examples.

Therefore, gold is unlike other assets because a rising gold price reflects an increasing perception of general financial risk, ensuring downward pressure on other financial asset prices. So while the big banks are making easy money ignoring risks in equity and bond markets, they will not want their party spoiled by warning signs from a rising gold price.

This is a long way from proof that the gold market is manipulated. But the big banks, and we must include central banks which are obviously keen to maintain financial confidence, have the motive and the means. And if they have these they can be expected to take the opportunity.

So why does it matter if the gold price is rigged? A freely-determined gold price is central to ensuring that reality and not financial bubbles guides us in our financial and economic activities. Suppressing the gold price is rather like turning off a fire alarm because you can’t stand the noise.

*File on 4: BBC Radio4 due to be broadcast on 23 September at 8.00pm UK-time and repeated on 28 September at 5.00pm.

Economics

Bank Run Incentive, Central Bank Bankruptcy, and The Fallacy of the Credit Theory of Money

[Editor’s Note: this is from the World Dollar Foundation, and can be found here]
Part 1: The Bank Run Incentive

There is an incentive to start bank runs due to a) the fallacy of fractional-reserve banking, and b) the fallacy of deposit “guarantees”.

A. The Fallacy of Fractional-reserve banking

A fractional-reserve bank issues more property titles than there is actual underlying property. The total value of property titles cannot exceed the total value of actual underlying property. Therefore, holders of property titles have an incentive to act quickest in withdrawing the actual underlying property. Those who act slowest are the losers, as they fail to withdraw any of the actual underlying property.

B. The Fallacy of Deposit “Guarantees”

In the event of a systemic run on fractional-reserve banks, all of the actual underlying property is withdrawn. Therefore, no actual underlying property exists with which the government could fulfil deposit “guarantees”, unless new underlying property is created.

However, the government does not create new underlying property at will. Only the central bank can create new underlying property, doing so on the expectation that it is to be repaid, for its subsequent destruction. Therefore, the central bank will not issue the government with the new underlying property to fulfil the deposit “guarantees” with, unless it believes the government can credibly repay it. In other words, the deposits are not “guaranteed” at all by the party that actually has the power to create new underlying property.

If the central bank determines that the government cannot credibly repay, it is a concession that the risk is too high that the central bank cannot meet its own liability to destroy the property (upon its intended repayment). Therefore, the government that forces the central bank (against its wishes) to issue it with new underlying property can perceivably drive the central bank into declaring bankruptcy, jeopardising the entire monetary system.

However, even if we reject the idea that deposit “guarantees” are a fallacy, there is still a big problem. The entire monetary system is jeopardised by the reality that the business model of the central bank is, in fact, bankrupt. This fact is seemingly unbeknownst to even the central bankers themselves, and is covered next in Part 2.

Part 2: The Bankrupt Business Model of the Central Bank

The business model of the central bank is bankrupt due to a) the impossibility of making a profit in the long run, b) the virtual certainty of making a loss in the long run.

A. The Impossibility of Making a Profit in the Long Run

The central bank lends money into existence, and destroys it upon its repayment. It is impossible for more money to be repaid than is lent into existence. Therefore, it is impossible for the central bank to make a profit in the long run.

B. The Virtual Certainty of Making a Loss in the Long Run

All money lent into existence carries the risk of not being repaid. Therefore, it is virtually impossible for the central bank to recover 100% of the money it lends into existence. Therefore, it is virtually guaranteed that the central bank makes a loss in the long run.

In terms of the balance sheet (a “snapshot” of the present affairs) of the central bank, it must be the case that it its liabilities always exceed its assets, provided that the provision for doubtful debts is correctly factored in.

However, in order for the central bank not to be declared bankrupt, it must be held that there is no virtual certainty of making a loss in the long run. Therefore, it must be held that the central bank can recover 100% of the money it lends into existence (with virtual certainty). This incorrect belief is based on a fallacy called the credit theory of money, covered next in Part 3.

Part 3: The Fallacy of the Credit Theory of Money

According to the credit theory of money, the value of money ultimately rests on the obligation of the debtor to pay his debt. It is held that money must, in the long run, return to the creator of the money, for the money keeps being chased by those debtors who have an obligation to pay their debt to the creator of the money.

However, the credit theory of money is a fallacy. The value of money ultimately rests on its use as a medium of exchange, eliminating the inefficient “double coincidence of wants” present in barter. Money can circulate among members of the trading public (in perpetuity) for precisely this reason.

There is no rule that money must eventually return to those who have debts to pay, and indeed this is a highly unrealistic assumption, due to a) market forces in the supply of goods and services, b) market forces in the supply of money.

A. Market forces in the supply of goods and services

In the market economy, there is no rule that those who receive a greater amount of loans must outcompete those who receive a lesser amount of loans. Those who who receive a lesser amount of loans can win in market competition by being more efficient in meeting the demands of the trading public.

In addition, when investment is financed by credit not backed by true saving, it is termed “malinvestment”, as it tends to be inconsistent with the tastes and preferences of consumers and producers, and of the availability of scarce resources, thus increasing the likelihood of defaults.

B. Market forces in the supply of money

By having a (credit) money creator, winners and losers are created as a result of artificial barriers or prejudices or preferences. The recipients of greater amounts of loans tend to be benefitted, but the key winner is, of course, the (credit) money creator itself, as it canperpetually misappropriate wealth from the rest of society.

This fundamentally unfair system means there can be legitimate demand for heterogeneity to be introduced into the money supply. For instance, if in a given time period, the (credit) money creator expands the supply of money by a disproportionately large amount, the market could decide to scale down the value of these monetary units, as it amounts toexpropriation of the existing holders of money. Alternatively, new monetary units could be rejected entirely. There is simply no need to have a growing supply of money in order to have a growing economy. Instances such as these would make it highly challenging for the money to assuredly go back to the debtors of the (credit) money creator.

Another strong market incentive is to switch to an alternative monetary system, such as one with the use of precious metals such as gold or silver, or one with the use of World Dollar, a new currency based on the idea that the ultimate basis for money, a social convention, is for it to be issued to everyone, equally. If the market does switch, the (credit) money risks declining rapidly in value, even to the extent of becoming entirely worthless.

Economics

Signs Of The Fed’s Era Of Secrecy Coming To An End

The Federal Reserve increasingly is attracting scrutiny across the board.  Now add to that a roller coaster of a thriller, using a miracle of a rare device, shining a light into the operations of the Fed — that contemporary riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: Matthew Quirk’s latest novel, The Directive.

“If I’ve made myself too clear, you must have misunderstood me,” Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan once famously said.  The era of a mystagogue Fed may be ending.  Recently, the House Government Oversight Committee passed, and referred to the full House, theFederal Reserve Transparency Act of 2014.  This legislation is part of the legacy of the great former Representative Ron Paul.  It popularly is known as “Audit the Fed.” How ironic that a mystery novel proves a device to dispel some of the Fed’s obscurantist mystery.

Novelist/reporter Matthew Quirk’s The Directive does for he Fed what Alan Drury did for Senate intrigue with his Pulitzer Prize winning Advise and Consent, what Aaron Sorkin did for the White House in The West Wing and, now, what Beau Willimon, is doing for the Congress with House of Cards.  Quirk takes the genre of political thriller into virgin territory: the Fed. Make to mistake.  Engaging the popular imagination has political potency.  As Victor Hugo, nicely paraphrased, observed: Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.

Quirk, according to his website,“studied history and literature at Harvard College. After graduation, he spent five years at The Atlantic reporting on crimes, private military contractors, the opium trade, terrorism prosecutions, and international gangs.”  His background shows. Quirk’s writings drips with the kind of eye for the telling detail that only a canny reporter, detective, or spy possesses.  (Readers will learn, just in passing, the plausible identity of the mysterious “secure undisclosed location” where the vice president was secreted following 9/11.)

If you like Ludlum you are certain to like Quirk.  And who isn’t intrigued by such a mysteriously powerful entity as the Fed?  Booklist calls The Directive a “nonstop heart-pounding ride in which moral blacks and whites turn gray in the ‘efficient alignment of power and interests’ that is big time politics.”  Amen.

The Directive describes an effort to rob the biggest bank in the world.  The object of the heist is not the tons of gold secured in the basement of 33 Liberty Street. (As Ian Fleming pointed out, in Goldfinger it logistically is impossible to move the mass of so much gold quickly enough to effect a robbery.)  Rather, Quirk uses as his literary device, with a touch of dramatic license, the interception of the Federal Open Market Committee’s directive to the trading desk of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to raise (or lower) interest rates in order to use that insider information to make a fast killing.

Lest anyone doubt the power of such insider information consider William Safire’s report, from his White House classic memoir Before the Fall, of the weekend at Camp David before Nixon “closed the gold window.”

After the Quadriad meeting, the President remained alone while the rest of the group dined at the Laurel Cabin.   The no-phone-calls edict was still in force, raising some eyebrows of men who had shown themselves to be trustworthy repositories of events. but the 6’8″, dour Treasury Under Secretary Volcker explained a different dimension to the need for no leaks:  “Fortunes could be made with this information.”  Haldeman, mock-serious, leaned forward and whispered loudly, “Exactly how?”  The tension broken, Volcker asked Schulz, “How much is your budget deficit?”  George estimated, “Oh, twenty three billion or so — why?”  Volcker looked dreamily at the ceiling.  “Give me a billion dollars and a free hand on Monday, and I could make up that deficit in the money markets.”

Safire provides context making Volcker’s integrity indisputable lest anyone be tempted to misinterpret this as a trial balloon.

This columnist has been inside the headquarters of the Fed, including, many years ago, the boardroom.  Quirk:

Every eight weeks or so, a committee gathers near the National Mall in a marble citadel known as the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve.  Twenty-five men and women sit at a long wooden table with an inset of black stone shined to a high gloss.  By noon they decide the fate of the American economy.

This columnist never has stepped foot inside the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, much less its trading floor(s).  Few have entered that sanctum sanctorum.  By taking his readers inside Quirk provides his readers a narrative grasp to how the Fed does what it does.

Quirk:

[T]he Fed is by design very friendly to large New York banks.  When the committee in DC decides what interest rates should be, they can’t simply dictate them to the banks.  They decide on a target interest, and then send the directive to the trading desk at the New York Fed to instruct them about how to achieve it.  The traders upstairs go into the markets and wheel and deal with the big banks, buying and selling Treasury bills and other government debts, essentially IOUs from Uncle Sam.  When the Fed buys up a lot of those IOUs, they flood the economy with money; when they sell them, they take money out of circulation.

They are effectively creating and destroying cash.  By shrinking or expanding the supply of money in the global economy, making it more or less scarce, they also make it more or less expensive to borrow; the interest rate.  In this way, trading back and forth with the largest banks in the world, they can drive interest rates toward their target.

The amount of actual physical currency in circulation is only a quarter of the total monetary supply.  The rest is just numbers on a computer somewhere.  When people say the government can print as much money as it wants, they’re really talking about the desk doing its daily work of resizing the monetary supply—tacking zeros onto a bunch of electronic accounts—that big banks are allowed to lend out to you and me.

***

Every morning, on the ninth floor of the New York Fed, the desk gets ready to go out and manipulate the markets according to the instructions laid out in the directive.  Its traders are linked by computer with twenty-one of the largest banks in the world.  When they’re ready to buy and sell, in what are called open market operation, one trader presses a button on his terminal and three chimes — the notes F-E-D — sound on the terminals of his counterparties.  Then they’re off to the races.

There are usually eight to ten people on that desk, mostly guys in their late twenties and early thirties, and they manage a portfolio of government securities worth nearly $4 trillion that backs our currency.  Without it, the bills in your wallet would be as worthless as Monopoly cash.  The traders on that floor carry out nearly $5.5 billion in trades per day, set the value of every penny you earn or spend, and steer the global economy.

As Quirk recently told Matthew Yglesias, at Vox.com:

I was casting about for the biggest hoards of money in the world, and you get to the Federal Reserve Bank in New York fairly quickly. But that’s been done. Then I learned more and more about the trading desk, and my mind was blown.

You get to have this great line where you say, “There’s $300 billion worth of gold in the basement, but the real money is on the ninth floor.” …

I was a reporter in Washington for a while, and I thought, “Oh, the Fed sets interest rates,” because that’s always what people say. But as you dig into it, you realize that the Fed just has to induce interest rates to where they want to be. They have to trade back and forth with these 19 or 20 banks, and they have 8‑10 guys at this trading desk, trading about $5.5 billion a day. That’s actually how the government prints money and expands and contracts the monetary supply.

It’s this high wire act. You explain it to people and they say, “Oh, it’s a conspiracy thriller.” You say, “No, no. That’s the real part. I haven’t gotten to the conspiracy yet.” But it’s a miracle that it works.

Quirk’s own dual mandate? Combine fast-paced drama with a peek behind the scenes of the world’s biggest bank, providing vivid entertainment while teaching more about the way that one of the most powerful and mysterious institutions in the world works. In The Directive Matthew Quirk shakes, rather than stirs, his readers brilliantly.

Originating at Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphbenko/2014/08/04/signs-of-the-feds-era-of-secrecy-coming-to-an-end/

Economics

Understanding Argentina’s Coming Default

[Editor’s note: this piece first appeared on mises.org]

At the time of this writing, Argentina is a few days away from formally defaulting on its debts.How could this happen three times in just twenty-eight years?

Following the 2001 default, Argentina offered a debt swap (a restructuring of debt) to its creditors in 2005. Many bondholders accepted the Argentine offer, but some of them did not. Those who did not accept the debt swap are called the “holdouts.” When Argentina started to pay the new bonds to those who entered the debt swap (the “holdins”), the holdouts took Argentina to court under New York law, the jurisdiction under which the Argentine debt has been issued. After the US Supreme Court refused to hear the Argentine case a few weeks ago, Judge Griesa’s ruling became final.

The ruling requires Argentina to pay 100 percent of its debt to the holdouts at the same time Argentina pays the restructured bonds to the “holdins.” Argentina is not allowed, under Griesa’s ruling, to pay some creditors but not others. The payment date was June 30. Because Argentina missed its payment, it is now under a 30-day grace period. If Argentina does not pay by the end of July it will, again, be formally in default.

This is a complex case that has produced different, if not opposite, interpretations by analysts and policy makers. Some of these interpretations, however, are not well-founded.

How Argentina Became a Bad Debtor

An understanding of the Argentine situation requires historical context.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Argentina implemented the Convertibility Law as a measure to restrain the central bank and put an end to the hyperinflation that took place in the late 1980s. This law set the exchange rate at one peso per US dollar and stated that the central bank could only issue pesos in fixed relation to the amount of US dollars that entered the country. The Convertibility Law was, then, more than just a fixed-exchange rate scheme. It was legislation that made the central bank a currency board where pesos were convertible to dollars at a “one to one” ratio. However, because the central bank had some flexibility to issue pesos with respect to the inflow of US dollars, it is better described as a “heterodox” rather than “orthodox,” currency board.

Still, under this scheme, Argentina could not monetize its deficit as it did in the 1980s under the government of Ricardo Alfonsín. It was the monetization of debt that produced the high inflation that ended in hyperinflation. Due to the Convertibility Law during the 1990s, Carlos Menem’s government could not finance the fiscal deficit with newly created money. So, rather than reduce the deficit, Menem changed the way it was financed from a money-issuance scheme to a foreign-debt scheme. The foreign debt was in US dollars and this allowed the central bank to issue the corresponding pesos.

The debt issued during the 1990s took place in an Argentina that had already defaulted on its debt six times since its independence from Spain in 1816 (arguably, one-third of Argentine history has taken place in a state of default), while Argentina also exhibited questionable institutional protection of contracts and property rights. With domestic savings destroyed after years of high inflation in the 1980s (and previous decades), Argentina had to turn to international funds to finance its deficit. And because of the lack of creditworthiness, Argentina had to “import” legal credibility by issuing its bonds under New York jurisdiction. Should there be a dispute with creditors, Argentina stated it would accept the ruling of New York courts.

Many opponents of the ruling today claim that Argentina’s creditors have conspired to take away Argentine sovereignty, but the responsibility lies with the Argentine government itself, which has established a long record of unreliability in paying its debts.

The Road to the Latest Default

These New York-issued bonds of the 1990s had two other important features besides being issued under New York legal jurisdiction. The incorporation of theparipassu clause and the absence of the collective action clause. The paripassuclause holds that Argentina agrees to treat all creditors on equal terms (especially regarding payments of coupons and capital). The collective action clause states that in the case of a debt restructuring, if a certain percentage of creditors accept the debt swap, then creditors who turn down the offer (the “holdouts”) automatically must accept the new bonds. However, when Argentina defaulted on its bonds at the end of 2001, it did so with bonds that included theparipassu clause but which did not require collective action by creditors.

Under the contract that Argentina itself offered to its creditors, which did not include the collective action clause, any creditor is entitled to receive 100 percent of the bonus even if 99.9 percent of the creditors decided to enter a debt swap. And this is precisely what happened with the 2001 default. When Argentina offered new bonds to its creditors following the default, the “holdouts” let Argentina know that under the contract of Argentine bonds, they still have the right to receive 100 percent of the bonds under “equality of conditions” (paripassu) with those who accepted the restructuring. That is, Argentina cannot pay the “holdins” without paying the “holdouts” according to the terms of the debt.

The governments of Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Kirchner, however, in another sign of their contempt for institutions, decided to ignore the holdouts to the point of erasing them as creditors in their official reports (one of the reasons for which the level of debt on GDP looks lower in official statistics than is truly the case).

It could be said that Judge Griesa had to do little more than read the contract that Argentina offered its creditors. In spite of this, much has been said in Argentina (and abroad) about how Judge Griesa’s ruling damages the legal security of sovereign bonds and debt restructuring.

The problem is not Judge Griesa’s ruling. The problem is that Argentina had decided to once again prefer deficits and unrestrained government spending to paying its obligations. Griesa’s ruling suggests that a default cannot be used as a political tool to ignore contracts at politician’s convenience. In fact, countries with emerging economies should thank Judge Griesa’s ruling since this allows them to borrow at lower rates given that many of these countries are either unable or unwilling to offer credible legal protection to their own creditors. A ruling favorable to Argentina’s government would have allowed a government to violate its own contracts, making it even harder for poor countries to access capital.

We can simplify the case to an analogy on a smaller scale. Try to explain to your bank that since it was you who squandered your earnings for more than a decade,you have the right to not pay the mortgage with which you purchased your home. When the bank takes you to court for not paying your mortgage, explain to the judge that you are a poor victim of evil money vultures and that you have the right to ignore creditors because you couldn’t be bothered with changing your unsustainable spending habits. When the judge rules against you, try to explain to the world in international newspapers how the decision of the judge is an injustice that endangers the international banking market (as the Argentine government has been doing recently). Try now to justify the position of the Argentine government.

Ethics

Gold price fix: enter the lawyers

First we had a glut of gold. “We Buy Your Gold” on every street corner.

Then the accusations of price rigging (having a “spot fix” with five banks on conference call doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that there won’t be collusion).
Continue reading “Gold price fix: enter the lawyers”

Economics

Timely call to open up UK legal tender laws

According to some media sources Douglas Carswell MP is today bringing a bill to the House of Commons that aims to demonopolise the UK’s legal tender laws. Very much a sign of the times, I believe you will hear a lot more about this idea in the days and weeks ahead. Already, the BBC has picked it up here.

A Conservative MP is to call for a basket of foreign currencies to be made legal tender in the UK.

Such a move would protect savers by allowing them to hold the currency least likely to be devalued, Douglas Carswell will argue in the Commons.

And it would allow consumers to shop around for the best currency deal – perhaps via a smart phone application – when buying goods in shops or online.

Read the whole article.

Law

Stephan Kinsella goes from strength to strength

Back in 1995, I came across this fabulous journal article written by Stephan Kinsella called Legislation and the Discovery of Law in a Free Society. It made a huge impression on me and I will never forget its insights and teachings.

Sixteen years on, I am not only in contact with Stephan but I have just become aware of his latest book, Louisiana Civil Law Dictionary, described here.  No doubt having an esoteric interest for Louisiana practitioners and lawyers, my understanding is that this work will also be of interest to anyone interested in the continental, Roman, civil, Spanish and French legal traditions.

Law

Libertarian Legal Theory

We are pleased to promote this upcoming course from the Mises Academy:

Stephan Kinsella, a libertarian attorney and writer, Senior Fellow with the Mises Institute and editor of Libertarian Papers, is teaching his second Mises Academy course later this month, entitled “Libertarian Legal Theory: Property, Conflict, and Society.”

This is a 6 week course to be held on Monday evenings, 9pm-1030pm EST (New York time) (Jan. 31-Mar. 11, 2011), with “office hours” later in the week for followup questions at an earlier time more suitable for students in Europe and elsewhere.

Kinsella describes the course in his article “Introduction to Libertarian Legal Theory,” Mises Daily (Jan. 3, 2011), and what the Mises Academy is like in “Teaching an Online Mises Academy Course,” Mises Daily (Jan. 10, 2011).

His previous Mises Academy course, Rethinking Intellectual Property: History, Theory, and Economics, was very popular with students, one noting:

Thank you so very much for all the excellent work — very few classes have really changed my life dramatically, actually only 3 have, and all 3 were classes I took at the Mises Academy, starting with Rethinking Intellectual Property (PP350) (the other two were EH476 (Bubbles), and PP900 (Private Defense)). …The IP class was a total blast — finally (finally) sound reasoning. All the (three) classes I took dramatically changed the way I see the world. I’m still digesting it all, to tell the truth. Very few events in my life have managed to make me feel like I wished I was 15 all over again. Thank you. …

Further description of the Mises Academy may be found in Daniel Sanchez’s Mises Daily article The Significance and Success of the Mises Academy.

More information on the Libertarian Legal Theory course may be found at http://academy.mises.org/courses/libertarian-legal-theory/.