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Ben’s Balance Sheet Blues

By: Peter Schiff

Fed-stimulus-planDuring his testimony before Congress this week, Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke made it a priority to dampen the growing concern that the unprecedented growth of the Fed’s balance sheet presents great risks to the economy. There has been a heightened sense even among normally complacent members of Congress that the Fed could spark a precipitous decline in the economy and the financial markets if and when it seeks to “withdraw liquidity” by selling even a minor portion of its bond portfolio (which is projected to swell to $4 trillion by year end). This is a valid concern that I have been discussing for years.

Gentle Ben soothed these fears by his novel assertion that the Fed doesn’t actually need to sell bonds to neutralize previously injected stimulus. Instead, the Fed could simply allow its bonds to mature, thereby achieving a more natural, and potentially less disruptive unwinding of its gargantuan portfolio. Although his explanation seemed to satisfy many of the Congressman (and the vast majority of the journalists who slavishly dote on Bernanke’s assurances), the idea is completely absurd.

As a result of its previous efforts during “Operation Twist” (which was conducted in order to push down long-term interest rates), the Fed has already swapped hundreds of billions of dollars of short-term securities for Treasury bonds with maturities of ten years or longer. Only a small portion of the Fed’s portfolio, then, becomes due at any given time. The average maturity of the entire portfolio is now over 10 years. There may well come a time when inflation or asset bubbles become so pronounced that aggressive withdrawal of stimulus is needed. Forceful action will only be possible through active selling, not simply by passive maturation.

However, either approach will be insufficient to tighten policy without a simultaneous cessation of buying of newly issued Treasury bonds. After all, to shrink the size of its balance sheet the Fed must stop adding to it…or at least add less than it is subtracting. Even if the Fed had the luxury of holding its bonds to maturity, such a stance would not prevent a collapse in the bond market. The Treasury does not have the cash needed to retire maturing bonds if the Fed stops rolling them over. As the government will have to sell the new bonds to other buyers, one way or another additional supply is going to hit the market.

The Federal government is projected to run trillion dollar deficits for years to come. To cover that gap, the Treasury will need to continuously sell new bonds. This need will persist regardless of the Fed’s policy priorities. For the last few years the Fed has been by far the biggest buyer of Treasuries, in recent times sucking up more than 60 percent of the total issuance. According to some reports, the Fed is expected to buy up to 90 percent of Treasuries in 2013. The only other significant buyers are foreign central banks (who buy for political reasons) and nimble hedge funds. Who does Bernanke expect will fill his shoes when he stops shopping?

To answer that question you must consider the economic environment that would compel the Fed to tighten in the first place. Presumably a period of accelerating economic growth, surging inflation, or rising interest rates would trigger asset sales. In such a situation, who in the world would want to buy low-yielding, long-term government paper while inflation is surging, the dollar is falling, and interest rates are rising? With the Fed on the sidelines, such an investment would be a guaranteed loser. Bernanke claims that the financial conditions will be soothed by an aggressive communications campaign that would let market participants know, in advance, precisely how the Fed intended to dispose of its assets. The cardinal rule in investing is that big players never telegraph their intentions. Fed “transparency” will simply mean that the hedge funds now making money by getting in front of the buying will be making even more money by getting in front of the selling!  There will be no cavalry of new buyers riding to the rescue.

This means that any attempt to tighten, no matter how passive, will result in a significant drop in the price of U.S. Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities. Not only would this inflict massive losses to the value of the Fed’s balance sheet but it would exert enormous upward pressure on interest and mortgage rates that the Fed will be unable to control.

In addition to his absurd “let them mature” gambit, Bernanke also announced other novel policy tools that will supposedly help him orchestrate a successful exit strategy, most notably raising the rates paid on funds held at the Federal Reserve. Such a move is expected to deter banks from lending into a surging economy or to invest in risky assets by enticing them to park cash at the Fed. But how high must these rates go, and how much would it cost the Fed (in reality U.S. taxpayers) to do this effectively? Given how high I believe inflation will become, these payments could be truly staggering. The net result will be a substitution of large operating losses for large portfolio losses (which would have come from bond sales).

As I have said many times before, the Fed has no credible exit strategy. Its portfolio is far too large, and the economy, the housing market, the banks, and the government, are far too dependent on ultra-low interest rates to allow Bernanke any real options. In truth, his only exit strategy is to just talk about an exit strategy. Bernanke’s contention that the Fed need not sell any of its bonds is the closest thing yet to an official admission of this fact. Not too long ago Bernanke made the absurd claim that his intention to sell the bonds on the Fed’s balance sheet meant that he was not monetizing debt. How times have changed.

Bernanke is banking on the hope that his policies will jump start the economy which will then be able to motor along on its own.  However, the current era of cheap money and fiscal stimulus will never create an economy that is capable of standing on its own legs. Instead, it is propping up a parasitic economy that is completely dependent on the very supports the Fed believes it can one day remove. But if the Fed does not remove them on its own, the markets eventually will.

Bernanke also defended himself against some members of Congress, particularly economically savvy New Jersey representative Scott Garrett, who pointed out the hypocrisy of Bernanke’s claims that Fed policies are responsible for the recent rise in home prices (while simultaneously absolving the Fed of any responsibility for rising home prices during the real estate bubble). To justify this claim, Bernanke made the self-serving distinction that while the Fed is currently purchasing mortgage-backed securities (in order to lower mortgages rates and boost home prices), no such actions existed prior to the 2008 financial crisis. As a result, he claims the Fed could not have been responsible for the bubble.  On this point he is dead wrong.

Fed policy during the mid-years of the last decade had an enormous effect on mortgage rates and home prices. By holding short-term rates too low for too long, the Fed was responsible for the proliferation of Adjustable Rate Mortgages and the popularity of the ultra-low teaser rates without which the housing bubble never could have been inflated so large in the first place.

In other words, the Fed broke it then, but it sure can’t fix it now.

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Good news about private enterprise

walmartGood news about private enterprise. Despite fervent attempts to have it destroyed it will survive.  Not only that but it will win in the long run. Some may not see it now due to, what it may seem to be, incompetence and lack of efficiency at the public sector level. Some, whose views are still blurred, continue to be convinced the private enterprise brought the economy down to its knees. Nevertheless, private enterprise will triumph. It always did even under repressive systems whether known as the black market or the underground market.

I often shop at Walmart. I have always been satisfied with my local Walmart’s customer service. It’s not just the prices or convenience that draw me back there often but their recent addition of chic clothing lines, variety of cosmetics, and (so far) qualified electronics advise. I even bought a pair of cross-trainers for $19.99 which I found myself wearing just about everywhere not just at the gym. Yes, they are made in China, but what isn’t made in China nowadays? We ought to give big thanks to the national government and its policies of destroying manufacturing in our country but that’s another story.

Walmart has certainly come a long way. Once in a while I even use their money services such as a couple of weeks ago when I purchased a money order. As you may be aware many public entities don’t accept personal checks for payment of services so this was my case when dealing with a government office. My situation was simple. I made the money order payable to the wrong government office and it was sent back to me along with a rejection of the service I was in need of. Never mind I got the instructions directly from their website.

So I needed my problem solved. I needed to cancel the money order with the wrong name, get a credit for the dollar amount, and have a new money order issued. Never had to deal with anything like this before so I thought it would be a tough one to solve. I went back to Walmart for help. Sure, I had to wait in line about 15 minutes and I know that for someone who is in a hurry that may not be that convenient. However 15 minutes was worth the wait to accomplish my mission.

When I wait I usually have the habit to observe, whether it’s people or events. Donuts, soda pop, and processed foods in a shopping basket are not the emblem of healthy aging, for example. I see it as a direct ticket to the hospital. Store cleanliness invites me back to the store. Watching elderly couples gives me hope that wisdom has meaningful purpose in our world. I then proceeded to watch the employee who was going to help me. Blond, blue eyed, and young; about 27 years of age in my estimation. He helped four people who were ahead of me in line. He helped his manager who needed his help. He multi tasked. He kept his calm no matter how overwhelming his responsibilities were becoming. By the time my turn came I expected to see a sign of a break down. His face was like I was his first customer for the day, no sign of distress. I explained my concern with the money order. I did not have a receipt with me. If I did I would have made his life easier because he would have been able to track down the transaction faster. My mistake. But he did find a way to help me. It took longer time and most importantly knowledge how to do it. He went the extra mile, no commission, no bonus as incentive, he just did the right thing. He had all this and more yet how many people take the time today to recognize such values from a Walmart employee?

In my case the Walmart employee was better qualified to solve problems than the government office which had wrong information on their website. The government office employs people, just as Walmart does. What is then the difference between the two of them? Hiring qualification guidelines. To a private enterprise, an employer’s requirement is that an employee knows how to solve problems. For a private enterprise, the customer is always right.

Not so with a government entity. Their guidelines come from a higher level. Their positions are secure as long as there are tax payer money to “fund” them. Their positions are not based on productivity or efficiency. Bureaucrats punch in and punch out. Just as in the former centralized systems like the communist countries of the Eastern Block or China, we have seen that such a system is not sustainable and thus its lifespan is limited.

There is a battle between the public system and the private enterprise. The good news is that it is the people of private enterprise who will assure the victory. Whether it’s Walmart or any other business whose people are competent to solve your problem be sure to let him know you appreciate it. I did and he blushed with humility.

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Inflation Propaganda Exposed

Economists who hold the popular view that expanding the money supply will provide the best medicine for our ailing economy dismiss the inflationary concerns of monetary hawks, like me, by pointing to the supposedly low inflation that has occurred during the current period of rampant Fed activism. In a recent blog post aimed specifically at me, Paul Krugman noted that the sub 2.5% increases in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) over the past few years are all that is needed to prove me wrong. In fact, Krugman and others have even suggested that the CPI itself overstates inflation and that the Fed would be better able to help the economy if less strict methodologies were used.  However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the CPI is essentially meaningless as it woefully under reports rising prices.

Magazines and newspapers provide a good case in point. The truth has not been exposed through the economic reporting that these outlets provide, but in the prices that are permanently fixed to their covers. For instance, from 1999 to 2012 the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s (BLS) “Newspaper and Magazine Index” (a component of the CPI) increased by 37.1%. But a perusal of the cover prices of the 10 most popular newspapers and magazines (WSJ, Washington Post, Time, Sports Illustrated, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People, NY Times, USA Today, and the LA Times) over the same time frame showed an average cover price increase of 131.5% (3.5 times faster than the BLS’ stats). This is not even in the same ballpark.

Some defenders of the BLS may conclude that prices were held down by the availability of free online news content or the convenience of digital delivery. But that is beside the point. Prior to the digital age, the BLS could have claimed that newspaper costs were held down by public libraries that provided free access. It’s also true that online publications deliver less value on some fronts. Not only do many people enjoy the tactile process of reading physical newspapers or magazines, but they offer the secondary value in helping to kindle fires, housebreak puppies, pack dishes, and line birdcages.

Another stunning example is found in health insurance costs, which is a major line item for most families. According to the BLS we can all breathe easy on that front because their “Health Insurance Index” increased a mere 4.3% (total) in the four years between 2008 and 2012. Interestingly, over the same time, the Kaiser Survey of Employer Sponsored Health Insurance showed that the cost of family health insurance rose 24.2% (5.5 times faster). But even if the BLS had reported higher costs, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the CPI itself. Believe it or not, health insurance costs are assigned a weighting of less than one percent of the overall CPI. In contrast, the Kaiser Survey revealed that in 2012 the average total cost for family health insurance coverage was $15,745, or almost one third of the median family income.

If the BLS could be so blatantly wrong in reporting the prices of newspapers and health insurance, should we believe that they are more accurate on all other sectors? If the inaccuracy of these two components were consistent with the rest of the CPI’s components, inflation could now be reported in double-digits!

Even more egregious than the manner in which prices are currently reported is the way that CPI methods have been changed over the years to insure that most increases are factored out. Since the 1970’s, the CPI formula has changed so thoroughly that it bears scant resemblance to the one used during the “malaise days” of the Carter years. Main stream economists dismiss criticism of the changes as tin hat conspiracy theories. But given the huge stakes involved, it’s hard to believe that institutional bias plays no role. Government statisticians are responsible for coming up with the formulas, and their bosses catch huge breaks if the inflation numbers come in low. Human behavior is always influenced by such incentives.

The newer CPI methodologies are designed to report not just on price movements, but on spending patterns, consumer choices, substitution bias, and product changes. In other words, the metrics have been altered to track not so much the cost of things, but the cost of living (or more accurately, the cost of surviving). But if you simply focus on price, especially on those staple commodity goods and services that haven’t radically changed in quality over the years, the under reporting of inflation becomes more apparent.

As reported in our Global Investor Newsletter, we selected BLS price changes for twenty everyday goods and services over two separate ten-year periods, and then compared those changes to the reported changes in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) over the same period. (The twenty items we selected are: eggs, new cars, milk, gasoline, bread, rent of primary residence, coffee, dental services, potatoes, electricity, sugar, airline tickets, butter, store bought beer, apples, public transportation, cereal, tires, beef, and prescription drugs.)

We know that people do not spend equal amounts on the above items, and we know their share of income devoted to them has changed over the decades. But as we are only interested in how these prices have changed relative to the CPI, those issues don’t really matter. We chose to look at the period between 1970 and 1980 and then again between 2002 and 2012, because these time frames both had big deficits and loose monetary policy, and they straddle the time in which the most significant changes to the CPI methodology took effect. And while the CPI rose much faster in the 1970’s, the degree to which the prices of our 20 items outpaced the CPI was much higher more recently.

Between 1970 and 1980 the officially reported CPI rose a whopping 112%, and prices of our basket of goods and services rose by 117%, just 5% faster. In contrast between 2002 and 2012 the CPI rose just 27.5%, but our basket increased by 44.3%, a rate that was 61% faster. And remember, this is using the BLS’ own price data, which we have already shown can grossly under-estimate the true rate of increase. The difference can be explained by how CPI is weighted and mixed. The formula used in the 1970’s effectively captured the price movements of our twenty everyday products. But in the last ten years it has been quite a different story.

If these price changes in our experiments had been fully captured, CPI could currently be high enough to severely restrict Fed action to stimulate the economy. Instead, the Fed is operating as if inflation is extremely low. As a result, they are making a huge policy mistake that will come back to haunt us. During the last decade the Fed spent many years denying the existence of a housing bubble, even as a mountain of evidence piled up to the contrary. That error caused the Fed to hold interest rates too low for too long, blowing more air into the bubble and imposing enormous negative consequences on the economy. The Fed, now similarly blind to the inflation threat, is repeating its mistake, only this time the negative consequences will be even more dire.

Apart from the statistical problems that hide inflation, there are also macroeconomic factors that have helped keep prices down despite the quantitative easing. Massive U.S. trade deficits and foreign central bank dollar accumulation mean that much of the printed money winds up in foreign bank vaults, not U.S. shopping centers. As foreign consumer goods flow in, and dollars flow out, a lid is kept on domestic prices. In effect, our inflation is exported as foreign central banks monetize our deficits and recycle their surpluses into U.S. Treasuries. The demand has pushed down bond yields which has allowed the U.S. government to borrow inexpensively. Of course, when the flows reverse, bond prices will fall, yields will climb, and a tidal wave of dollars will wash up on American shores, drowning consumers in a sea of inflation.

Unlike Krugman and the Keynesians, I would argue that it is impossible to create something from nothing. I believe that printing a dollar diminishes the value of all existing dollars by an aggregate amount equal to the purchasing power of the new dollar. The other side takes the position that the new money creates tangible economic growth and  that real economic value can therefore be created by putting zeroes onto a piece of paper. I think that those making such absurd claims should bear the burden of proof. For more on the interesting topic of hidden inflation, see my video that I just posted.

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No More ‘isms’

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By Ron Paul

The great news is the answer is not to be found in more “isms.” The answers are to be found in more liberty which cost so much less. Under these circumstances spending goes down, wealth production goes up, and the quality of life improves.

Just this recognition — especially if we move in this direction — increases optimism which in itself is beneficial. The follow through with sound policies are required which must be understood and supported by the people.

But there is good evidence that the generation coming of age at the present time is supportive of moving in the direction of more liberty and self-reliance. The more this change in direction and the solutions become known, the quicker will be the return of optimism.

Our job, for those of us who believe that a different system than the one that we have had for the last 100 years, has driven us to this unsustainable crisis, is to be more convincing that there is a wonderful, uncomplicated, and moral system that provides the answers. We had a taste of it in our early history. We need not give up on the notion of advancing this cause.

It worked, but we allowed our leaders to concentrate on the material abundance that freedom generates, while ignoring freedom itself. Now we have neither, but the door is open, out of necessity, for an answer. The answer available is based on the Constitution, individual liberty and prohibiting the use of government force to provide privileges and benefits to all special interests.

After over 100 years we face a society quite different from the one that was intended by the Founders. In many ways their efforts to protect future generations with the Constitution from this danger has failed. Skeptics, at the time the Constitution was written in 1787, warned us of today’s possible outcome. The insidious nature of the erosion of our liberties and the reassurance our great abundance gave us, allowed the process to evolve into the dangerous period in which we now live.

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Ron Paul…Too Good For America

By U.S. Rep. Ron Paul
Wednesday, November 14, 2012

This may well be the last time I speak on the House floor. At the end of the year I’ll leave Congress after 23 years in office over a 36 year period. My goals in 1976 were the same as they are today: promote peace and prosperity by a strict adherence to the principles of individual liberty.

It was my opinion, that the course the United States embarked on in the latter part of the 20th Century would bring us a major financial crisis and engulf us in a foreign policy that would overextend us and undermine our national security.

To achieve the goals I sought, government would have had to shrink in size and scope, reduce spending, change the monetary system, and reject the unsustainable costs of policing the world and expanding the American Empire.

The problems seemed to be overwhelming and impossible to solve, yet from my view point, just following the constraints placed on the federal government by the Constitution would have been a good place to start.

How Much Did I Accomplish?

In many ways, according to conventional wisdom, my off-and-on career in Congress, from 1976 to 2012, accomplished very little. No named legislation, no named federal buildings or highways — thank goodness. In spite of my efforts, the government has grown exponentially, taxes remain excessive, and the prolific increase of incomprehensible regulations continues. Wars are constant and pursued without congressional declaration, deficits rise to the sky, poverty is rampant, and dependence on the federal government is now worse than any time in our history.

All this with minimal concerns for the deficits and unfunded liabilities that common sense tells us cannot go on much longer. A grand but never-mentioned bipartisan agreement allows for the well-kept secret that keeps the spending going. One side doesn’t give up one penny on military spending, the other side doesn’t give up one penny on welfare spending, while both sides support the bailouts and subsidies for the banking and corporate elite. And the spending continues as the economy weakens and the downward spiral continues. As the government continues fiddling around, our liberties and our wealth burn in the flames of a foreign policy that makes us less safe.

The major stumbling block to real change in Washington is the total resistance to admitting that the country is broke. This has made compromising, just to agree to increase spending, inevitable since neither side has any intention of cutting spending.

The country and the Congress will remain divisive since there’s no “loot left to divvy up.”

Without this recognition the spenders in Washington will continue the march toward a fiscal cliff much bigger than the one anticipated this coming January.

I have thought a lot about why those of us who believe in liberty, as a solution, have done so poorly in convincing others of its benefits. If liberty is what we claim it is- the principle that protects all personal, social, and economic decisions necessary for maximum prosperity and the best chance for peace — it should be an easy sell. Yet history has shown that the masses have been quite receptive to the promises of authoritarians which are rarely if ever fulfilled.

To Be Continued

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Defending the Slumlord

Mises Daily: Tuesday, July 17, 2012 by

To many people, the slumlord — alias ghetto landlord and rent gouger — is proof that man can, while still alive, attain a satanic image. Recipient of vile curses, pincushion for needle-bearing tenants with a penchant for voodoo, perceived as exploiter of the downtrodden, the slumlord is surely one of the most hated figures of the day.

The indictment is manifold: he charges unconscionably high rents; he allows his buildings to fall into disrepair; his apartments are painted with cheap lead paint, which poisons babies; and he allows junkies, rapists, and drunks to harass the tenants. The falling plaster, the overflowing garbage, the omnipresent roaches, the leaky plumbing, the roof cave-ins and the fires, are all integral parts of the slumlord’s domain. And the only creatures who thrive in his premises are the rats.

The indictment, highly charged though it is, is spurious. The owner of ghetto housing differs little from any other purveyor of low-cost merchandise. In fact, he is no different from any purveyor of any kind of merchandise. They all charge as much as they can.

First consider the purveyors of cheap, inferior, and secondhand merchandise as a class. One thing above all else stands out about merchandise they buy and sell: it is cheaply built, inferior in quality, or secondhand. A rational person would not expect high quality, exquisite workmanship, or superior new merchandise at bargain rate prices; he would not feel outraged and cheated if bargain rate merchandise proved to have only bargain rate qualities. Our expectations from margarine are not those of butter. We are satisfied with lesser qualities from a used car than from a new car. However, when it comes to housing, especially in the urban setting, people expect, even insist upon, quality housing at bargain prices.

But what of the claim that the slumlord overcharges for his decrepit housing? This is erroneous. Everyone tries to obtain the highest price possible for what he produces, and to pay the lowest price possible for what he buys. Landlords operate this way, as do workers, minority group members, socialists, babysitters, and communal farmers. Even widows and pensioners who save their money for an emergency try to get the highest interest rates possible for their savings.

According to the reasoning that finds slumlords contemptible, all these people must also be condemned. For they “exploit” the people to whom they sell or rent their services and capital in the same way when they try to obtain the highest return possible.

But, of course, they are not contemptible — at least not because of their desire to obtain as high a return as possible from their products and services. And neither are slumlords. Landlords of dilapidated houses are singled out for something that is almost a basic part of human nature — the desire to barter and trade and to get the best possible bargain.

The critics of the slumlord fail to distinguish between the desire to charge high prices, which everyone has, and the ability to do so, which not everyone has. Slumlords are distinct, not because they want to charge high prices, but because they can. The question that is therefore central to the issue — and that critics totally disregard — is why this is so.

What usually stops people from charging inordinately high prices is the competition that arises as soon as the price and profit margin of any given product or service begins to rise. If the price of Frisbees, for example, starts to rise, established manufacturers will expand production, new entrepreneurs will enter the industry, used Frisbees will perhaps be sold in secondhand markets, etc. All these activities tend to counter the original rise in price.

If the price of rental apartments suddenly began to rise because of a sudden housing shortage, similar forces would come into play. New housing would be built by established real estate owners and by new ones who would be drawn into the industry by the price rise. Old housing would tend to be renovated; basements and attics would be pressed into use. All these activities would tend to drive the price of housing down, and cure the housing shortage.

If landlords tried to raise the rents in the absence of a housing shortage, they would find it difficult to keep their apartments rented. For both old and new tenants would be tempted away by the relatively lower rents charged elsewhere.

Even if landlords banded together to raise rents, they would not be able to maintain the rise in the absence of a housing shortage. Such an attempt would be countered by new entrepreneurs, not party to the cartel agreement, who would rush in to meet the demand for lower priced housing. They would buy existing housing and build new housing.

Tenants would, of course, flock to the noncartel housing. Those who remained in the high-price buildings would tend to use less space, either by doubling up or by seeking less space than before. As this occurs it would become more difficult for the cartel landlords to keep their buildings fully rented.

Inevitably, the cartel would break up, as the landlords sought to find and keep tenants in the only way possible: by lowering rents. It is, therefore, specious to claim that landlords charge whatever they please. They charge whatever the market will bear, as does everyone else.

An additional reason for calling the claim unwarranted is that there is, at bottom, no really legitimate sense to the concept of overcharging. “Overcharging” can only mean “charging more than the buyer would like to pay.” But since we would all really like to pay nothing for our dwelling space (or perhaps minus infinity, which would be equivalent to the landlord paying the tenant an infinite amount of money for living in his building), landlords who charge anything at all can be said to be overcharging. Everyone who sells at any price greater than zero can be said to be overcharging, because we would all like to pay nothing (or minus infinity) for what we buy.

Disregarding as spurious the claim that the slumlord overcharges, what of the vision of rats, garbage, falling plaster, etc.? Is the slumlord responsible for these conditions?

Although it is fashionable in the extreme to say “yes,” this will not do. For the problem of slum housing is not really a problem of slums or of housing at all. It is a problem of poverty — a problem for which the landlord cannot be held responsible. And when it is not the result of poverty, it is not a social problem at all.

Slum housing with all its horrors is not a problem when the inhabitants are people who can afford higher quality housing, but prefer to live in slum housing because of the money they can save thereby.

Such a choice might not be a popular one, but other people’s freely made choices that affect only them cannot be classified as a social problem. If that could be done, we would all be in danger of having our most deliberate choices, our most cherished tastes and desires characterized as “social problems” by people whose taste differs from ours.

Slum housing is a problem when the inhabitants live there of necessity — not wishing to remain there, but unable to afford anything better. Their situation is certainly distressing, but the fault does not lie with the landlord. On the contrary, he is providing a necessary service, given the poverty of the tenants.

For proof, consider a law prohibiting the existence of slums, and therefore of slumlords, without making provisions for the slum dwellers in any other way, such as providing decent housing for the poor or an adequate income to buy or rent good housing. The argument is that if the slumlord truly harms the slum dweller, then his elimination, with everything else unchanged, ought to increase the net well-being of the slum tenant.

But the law would not accomplish this. It would greatly harm not only the slumlords but the slum dwellers as well. If anything, it would harm the slum dwellers even more, for the slumlords would lose only one of perhaps many sources of income; the slum dwellers would lose their very homes.

They would be forced to rent more expensive dwelling space, with consequent decreases in the amount of money available for food, medicines, and other necessities. No. The problem is not the slumlord — it is poverty. Only if the slumlord were the cause of poverty could he be legitimately blamed for the evils of slum housing.

Why is it then, if he is no more guilty of underhandedness than other merchants, that the slumlord has been singled out for vilification? After all, those who sell used clothes to Bowery bums are not reviled, even though their wares are inferior, the prices high, and the purchasers poor and helpless. Instead of blaming the merchants, however, we seem to know where the blame lies — in the poverty and hopeless condition of the Bowery bum.

In like manner, people do not blame the owners of junkyards for the poor condition of their wares or the dire straits of their customers. People do not blame the owners of “day-old bakeries” for the staleness of the bread. They realize, instead, that were it not for junkyards and these bakeries, poor people would be in an even worse condition than they are now in.

Although the answer can only be speculative, it would seem that there is a positive relationship between the amount of governmental interference in an economic arena, and the abuse and invective heaped upon the businessmen serving that arena. There have been few laws interfering with the “day-old bakeries” or junkyards, but many in the housing area. The link between government involvement in the housing market and the plight of the slumlord’s public image should, therefore, be pinpointed.

That there is strong and varied government involvement in the housing market cannot be denied. Scatter-site housing projects, “public” housing and urban renewal projects, and zoning ordinances and building codes, are just a few examples. Each of these has created more problems than it has solved. More housing has been destroyed than created, racial tensions have been exacerbated, and neighborhoods and community life have been shattered.

In each case, it seems that the spillover effects of bureaucratic red tape and bungling are visited upon the slumlord. He bears the blame for much of the overcrowding engendered by the urban renewal program. He is blamed for not keeping his buildings up to the standards set forth in unrealistic building codes that, if met, would radically worsen the situation of the slum dweller. Compelling “Cadillac housing” can only harm the inhabitants of “Volkswagen housing.” It puts all housing out of the financial reach of the poor.

Perhaps the most critical link between the government and the disrepute in which the slumlord is held is the rent control law. For rent control legislation changes the usual profit incentives, which put the entrepreneur in the service of his customers, to incentives that make him the direct enemy of his tenant-customers.

Ordinarily the landlord (or any other businessman) earns money by serving the needs of his tenants. If he fails to meet these needs, the tenants will tend to move out. Vacant apartments mean, of course, a loss of income. Advertising, rental agents, repairs, painting, and other conditions involved in re-renting an apartment mean extra expenditures.

In addition, the landlord who fails to meet the needs of the tenants may have to charge lower rents than he otherwise could. As in other businesses, the customer is “always right,” and the merchant ignores this dictum only at his own peril.

But with rent control, the incentive system is turned around. Here the landlord can earn the greatest return not by serving his tenants well, but by mistreating them, by malingering, by refusing to make repairs, by insulting them. When the rents are legally controlled at rates below their market value, the landlord earns the greatest return not by serving his tenants, but by getting rid of them. For then he can replace them with higher-paying non-rent-controlled tenants.

If the incentive system is turned around under rent control, it is the self-selection process through which entry to the landlord “industry” is determined. The types of people attracted to an occupation are influenced by the type of work that must be done in the industry.

If the occupation calls (financially) for service to consumers, one type of landlord will be attracted. If the occupation calls (financially) for harassment of consumers, then quite a different type of landlord will be attracted. In other words, in many cases the reputation of the slumlord as cunning, avaricious, etc., might be well-deserved, but it is the rent control program in the first place that encourages people of this type to become landlords.

If the slumlord were prohibited from lording over slums, and if this prohibition were actively enforced, the welfare of the poor slum dweller would be immeasurably worsened, as we have seen. It is the prohibition of high rents by rent control and similar legislation that causes the deterioration of housing. It is the prohibition of low-quality housing by housing codes and the like that causes landlords to leave the field of housing.

The result is that tenants have fewer choices, and the choices they have are of low quality. If landlords cannot make as much profit in supplying housing to the poor as they can in other endeavors, they will leave the field. Attempts to lower rents and maintain high quality through prohibitions only lower profits and drive slumlords out of the field, leaving poor tenants immeasurably worse off.

It should be remembered that the basic cause of slums is not the slumlord, and that the worst “excesses” of the slumlord are due to governmental programs, especially rent control. The slumlord does make a positive contribution to society; without him, the economy would be worse off. That he continues in his thankless task, amidst all the abuse and vilification, can only be evidence of his basically heroic nature.

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Walk the Talk

Interviewed Wednesday by King World News after the Federal Reserve chairman’s press conference, Euro-Pacific Capital’s Peter Schiff remarked, “Whenever Ben Bernanke opens his mouth you want to sell anything that is related to the United States.” Indeed, gold and silver investors watching the TV screen with one eye and the gold and silver futures screen with the other were probably shouting, “Wait! Keep talking, Benny!,” as Bernanke walked off the stage at 3:15 p.m. Eastern time. But as much as Bernanke and the financial establishment are building the fundamentals for the precious metals, they are also engineering the ruin of a great country. Click HERE to read excerpts from Schiff’s interview. And I highly recommend you read Peter Schiff’s book, Crash Proof.

So, is the dollar going to survive during this decade? Those unfamiliar with the fundamentals of macro-economics may be inclined to say “yes”. Reality is that the national debt is unsustainable and the dollar is on the verge of losing its world reserve status. Keynesian Economics practiced for the past decades is clear that is not working. The decline of the dollar is associated with potentially a major loss in the purchasing power and this is the time to take the bull by the horns and position yourself to not only survive but to thrive.

So, how do you do that? In times such as these converting your dollars into tangible assets may be one of the smartest things in your life. Silver, gold, and other commodities are very desirable. Forget about the optimists that say we’re on the path of an economic recovery and don’t buy into the idea that gold or silver are in a bubble phase. The value of these commodities is being suppressed due to the avalanche of paper gold and paper silver created by Wall Street.

Real estate is another hard asset that if bought today in the long run will make you a happy camper. There are many ways to invest in real estate, you can do it as an active or a passive investor. You can buy the real property or you can invest in a fund that invests in real estate. Whatever your level of comfort is go for it.

When making the decision assess the opportunity by the following factors and ask yourself…

  • does it generate substantial revenues during good times and bad times?
  • is it made out of real assets that don’t vanish?
  • does it maintain its capital value?
  • does it keep up with inflation?
  • is it made out of assets that satisfy one or more human needs (housing, food, energy, means of exchange)?
  • can it be passed on to heirs and generate passive income for them?

Looking at the big picture this is the time to Walk the Talk.  Need someone to help you get started? Contact me now…

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