The Laffer Curve is misleading and dangerous

October 3, 2017

The logic underlying the Laffer Curve is that the greater the tax on production, the lesser the amount of production. As a broad-brushed economics principle this is reasonable, but the Laffer Curve itself is bogus. Unfortunately, this bogus curve is being used to justify bad government policy.

Before I get into why it is bogus and how it is being used to justify bad policy, here is a representation of the Laffer Curve from an Investopedia article:

Laffer Curve

And here is how the Laffer Curve is described in the above-linked article:

The Laffer Curve suggests that, as taxes increase from low levels, tax revenue collected by the government also increases. It also shows that tax rates increasing after a certain point (T*) would cause people not to work as hard or not at all, thereby reducing tax revenue. Eventually, if tax rates reached 100%, shown as the far right on his curve, all people would choose not to work because everything they earned would go to the government. Governments would like to be at point T*, because it is the point at which the government collects maximum amount of tax revenue while people continue to work hard.

One of the problems with the Laffer Curve is that the relationship between tax rates and tax revenue cannot be expressed as a simple curve. In fact, it can’t be expressed by any curve. This is because tax revenue is affected by a myriad of variables, not just the average tax rate. However, there are much bigger problems.

A second problem is that the Laffer Curve puts the focus on maximising government revenue when the focus of economists should be on maximising living standards. A related problem is that by putting the focus on tax rates the Laffer Curve takes the focus away from what really matters, which is the total amount spent by the government. All else remaining the same, higher government spending combined with a lower average tax rate is worse for the economy than lower government spending combined with a higher average tax rate. The reason is that if the government is running a deficit, then reducing the tax rate and simultaneously increasing government spending will quicken the pace at which private-sector savings are siphoned to the government. This happens because a government deficit can only be funded by private-sector savings.

Another problem is that there is often a big difference between the official tax rate and the effective tax rate. For example, the US corporate tax rate is presently 35%, but the average rate of corporate tax actually paid in the US is only 22%. For the purpose of this discussion let’s assume, however, that a change in the tax rate would initially lead to a proportional change in the amount of tax being paid. That is, let’s assume for the sake of argument that a 5% reduction in the US corporate tax rate would initially lead to an average reduction of 5% in the corporate tax burden. Having made this assumption we get to an additional problem.

The additional problem is that the Laffer Curve implies a potential outcome that is, as far as I can tell, impossible. If the Laffer Curve is right, then the government taking less money from the private sector potentially would result in both the government and the private sector ending up with more money. Unless I am missing something this could only be possible if the money supply were to increase, meaning that at its core the Laffer Curve relies on a form of monetary illusion.

The biggest problem of all, though, is that the Laffer Curve is downright dangerous to the extent that it seemingly removes the need to implement cuts in government spending to fund cuts in taxes. Thanks to the support provided by this bogus curve, unscrupulous and/or ignorant politicians can promote tax-cutting plans that have no offsetting spending cuts based on the idea that lower tax rates will eventually bring about a counter-balancing increase in tax revenue. The potential result is a tax-cutting plan that quickens the pace at which private-sector savings are siphoned to the government, that is, a tax-cutting plan that leads to slower economic progress.

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Why the Fed’s balance sheet reduction will be more interesting than watching paint dry

September 25, 2017

Janet Yellen has quipped that the Fed’s balance-sheet reduction program, which will start at $10B/month in October-2017 and steadily ramp up to $50B/month over the ensuing 12 months, will be as boring as watching paint dry. However, like many financial-market pundits she is underestimating the effects of the Fed’s new monetary plan.

In the old days, hiking the Fed Funds rate (FFR) involved reducing the quantity of bank reserves and the money supply, but that is no longer the case. Hiking the FFR is now achieved by raising the interest rate that the Fed pays to banks on reserves held at the Fed, which means that hiking the FFR now leads to the Fed injecting reserves into the banking system. This was explained in previous blog posts, including “Tightening without tightening (or why the Fed pays interest on bank reserves)“, “New tools for manipulating interest rates“, and “Loosening is the new tightening“.

In other words, under the new way of operating that was implemented in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, hiking the FFR does not tighten monetary conditions. In fact, given that hikes in the FFR now result in more money being pumped INTO the banking system, an argument could be made that a hike in the FFR is now more of a monetary loosening than a monetary tightening. It is therefore not surprising that the rate hikes implemented by the Fed over the past two years had no noticeable effect on anything.

I mentioned in a blog post a few weeks ago that there has been a significant tightening of US monetary conditions since late last year, but this has not been due to the actions of the Fed. Rather, the rate of US monetary inflation has dropped substantially over the past 10 months due to a decline in the pace of commercial-bank credit expansion. As an aside, the substantial drop in the US monetary inflation rate would have affected the stock market in a bearish way by now if not for the offsetting effect of rapid euro-zone monetary inflation.

The Fed’s first genuine step along the monetary tightening path will happen within the next few weeks when it begins to shrink its balance sheet*. When this happens it will mark a momentous change in the monetary backdrop, and given that it will happen after the US monetary inflation rate has already tumbled it is likely to have financial-market consequences that are far more exciting than watching paint dry.

*The fact that the balance-sheet reduction will take place via the non-reinvestment of proceeds received from maturing securities rather than the selling of securities is neither here nor there. An X$/month balance-sheet reduction is an X$/month balance-sheet reduction, regardless of how it occurs.

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Home ownership bounces from a 50-year low

September 19, 2017

In a 2015 blog post titled “Unintended Consequences” I explained that policies implemented by the Clinton and Bush administrations to boost the rate of home ownership not only had unintended consequences, but the opposite of the intended consequence. This post is a brief update on the US home ownership situation.

As evidenced by the following chart, the government was initially successful in its endeavours. The home-ownership rate sky-rocketed during the second half of the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s as it became possible for almost anyone to borrow money to buy a house. As also evidenced by the following chart, the home-ownership rate subsequently collapsed. The collapse was an inevitable consequence of people throughout the economy first responding to the Fed’s and the government’s incentives to take on excessive debt and then finding themselves in drastically-weakened financial situations.

The home ownership rate ended up bottoming in Q2-2016 at a 50-year low.

homeownership_190917

No one in the government or at the Fed has ever admitted culpability for the mortgage-related debt binge that led to the spectacular rise and equally-spectacular fall in the US home-ownership rate. Apparently, it was a market failure.

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Commodities and the Commodity Currencies

September 18, 2017

[This blog post is an excerpt from a TSI commentary published about two weeks ago.]

The Australian Dollar (A$) and the Canadian Dollar (C$) are called “commodity currencies” for a reason. The reason is that regardless of what’s happening in their associated local economies, on a multi-year basis they will usually trend in the same direction as broad-based commodity indices.

Since 2001 there have been three major rallies in the A$, each lasting about 2.5 years. These 2.5-year rallies are indicated by vertical red lines and notes on the following chart. Our assumption, which is also indicated on the following chart, is that the fourth 2.5-year A$ rally began in early-2016. In other words, we are guessing that the A$ upward trend that began in early-2016 will continue until around mid-2018. As well as being based on the lengths of previous major upward trends, this guess is based on what we expect from commodity prices.

Speaking of commodity prices, in addition to the A$ the chart shows the GSCI Spot Commodity Index (GNX). Unsurprisingly, each of the 2.5-year A$ rallies indicated on the chart coincided with an upward-trending GNX. In terms of price direction, the main difference between the post-2001 performance of the A$ and the post-2001 performance of GNX is that GNX trended upward from the beginning of 2002 until its blow-off top in mid-2008 whereas the A$ experienced a flat 2-year correction during 2004-2005.

Mainly for interest’s sake (pun intended), the chart also shows the yield on the 10-year T-Note. The 10-year interest rate had a downward bias during two of the A$’s 2.5-year rallies and an upward bias during the third rally. We expect that it will have an upward bias over the course of the current (fourth) rally.

The next chart shows the relationship between the C$ and commodity prices as represented by GNX. If anything, with one notable 6-month exception the positive correlation between the C$ and GNX has been even stronger than the positive correlation between the A$ and GNX. The notable exception occurred during the first half of 2008, when a speculative blow-off move to the upside in the commodity markets was accompanied by a decline in the C$. This divergence was a warning that the commodity-price gains would prove to be temporary.

We are expecting the upward trends in the commodity indices and the commodity currencies to extend well into next year, although it’s likely that short-term corrections will begin soon.

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