Is Alan Greenspan Really That Good?

Forecasts & Strategies
Personal Snapshots
January 2001

Is Alan Greenspan Really That Good?
By Mark Skousen

“He played the game, skillfully …. He helped breath life into the vision of America as strong, the best, invincible.” -Bob Woodward, Maestro: Greenspan’s Fed and the American Boom

Last month I listened on audiotape to Bob Woodward’s new book, Maestro (Simon & Schuster), the inside story of Alan Greenspan and his long tenure as chairman of the world’s most powerful central bank. Woodward gave Greenspan extremely high marks for his ability to manipulate interest rates and keep the American economy stable and growing. He also felt that Greenspan was one of the first economists to recognize the surprise jump in productivity in the United States in the early 1990s. As a result, Greenspan fought against efforts to raise interest rates during most of the 1990s.

Certainly Greenspan has achieved remarkable success as measured by the low level of price inflation in the 1990s, and his handling of various crises (1987 crash, 1990-91 recession, Long Term Capital Management fiasco and the 1997 Asian meltdown). He has also been willing to raise interest rates when the American boom appeared to be getting out of hand (1994 and 2000) and thereby engineering a soft landing.

On the negative side, I give him low marks for opposing tax cuts in the 1990s, creating an asset inflation by pumping too much money into the economy after the 1997 Asian meltdown, and buying into the Y2K computer glitch problem in 1999. He’s been too easy, too long and too tight since he’s been chairman. But by far his worse decision was before he became Fed chairman. In 1983, he chaired the Social Security reform commission and refused to even entertain the idea of privatization. Instead he raised taxes and broadened the tax base. Ayn Rand, his mentor, must have been turning over in her grave.

What If Social Security Was Like a 401(k)?

Forecasts & Strategies
Personal Snapshots
December 2000

by Mark Skousen

“Of all social institutions, business is the only one created for the express purpose of making and managing change…. Government is a poor manager.” -Peter F. Drucker, “The Sickness of Government,” The Age of Discontinuity (1969)

In the ongoing debate over the privatization of Social Security, one story has been overlooked: The private sector in the United States has already solved its own pension fund crisis by converting their old “defined benefit” plans into individualized 401(k)s.

Here’s the story: After World War II, major U.S. companies added generous pension plans to their employee benefit programs. These “defined benefit” plans largely imitated the federal government’s Social Security plan. Companies placed funds into a large investment pool based on employees’ salaries, the trust fund was managed by company officials, and a monthly retirement income was projected for all employees when they retired at age 65.

The Old Pension Plan System Fails

But over the years, corporate executives recognized serious difficulties with their traditional pension plans, similar to the problems Social Security faces today. Corporations confronted huge unfunded liabilities as retirees lived longer and managers invested too conservatively in government bonds and blue-chip “old economy” stocks. Newer employees were also angered when they changed jobs or were laid off and didn’t have the required “vested” years to receive benefits from the company pension plan. Unlike Social Security, most corporate plans were not transferable. The Employment Retirement Income Security ACT (ERISA), passed in 1974, imposed regulations on the industry in an attempt to protect pension rights, but the headaches, red tape and lawsuits grew during an era of downsizing, job mobility and longer life expectancies.

The New Individualized Solution

The new corporate solution was a spin-off of another legislative invention-the Individual Retirement Account (IRA). The 401(k) rapidly became the business pension of choice, and there is no turning back. These “defined contribution” plans solve all the headaches facing traditional corporate “defined benefit” plans. Under 401(k) plans, employees, not company officials, control their own investments (by choosing among a variety of no-load mutual funds). Corporations no longer face unfunded liabilities because there is no guaranteed projected benefit. And workers and executives have complete mobility; they can move that, 401k savings to a new employer or roll it over into an IRA.

According to recent Labor Department statistics, there are about nine times more defined-contribution plans than defined-benefit plans. Almost all of the major Fortune 500 companies have switched to 401(k) plans or hybrid “cashbalance” plans. Companies that still operate old plans include General Motors, Procter & Gamble, Delta Airlines and The New York Times Company. IBM, a company that once guaranteed lifetime employment, switched to a “cashbalance” plan two years ago, giving its 100,000 employees an individual retirement account that they can take with them in a lump sum if they leave the company before retirement (long-service workers are still eligible for IBM’s old defined-benefit plan). But virtually all “new economy” companies, such as Microsoft, AOL and Home Depot, offer 401(k) plans only.

Congress could learn a great deal studying the changes corporate America has made in pension fund reform. Converting Social Security into personal investment accounts is a step in the right direction, a policy change already achieved in Chile and other nations. Unfortunately, government – unlike business – is not prone to innovation. As Peter Drucker notes, “Government can gain greater girth and more weight, but it cannot gain strength or intelligence.” Hopefully, Bush will prove me wrong.

UPDATES

Death of Leader, Communist Party USA: Two months ago, Gus Hall, 90, longtime leader of the Communist Party USA died. In reading Hall’s life story in The New York Times, I was reminded of my father’s own story as an FBI agent in the 1940s, when he was an undercover agent and spied on Gus Hall in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1948, Hall was convicted of espionage under the Smith Act and spent eight years in prison. My father, Leroy Skousen, lived a fascinating life as a missionary, FBI agent, lawyer, and anticommunist speaker. His life has been written up in a book titled Thunder Broke the Heavens, available from Skousen Publishing Co., P.O. Box 2488, Winter Park, Florida 32790, $20 postpaid (checks/cash only).

Bankrupt Millionaires

Personal Snapshots
Forecasts & Strategies
October 2000

Bankrupt Millionaires
by Mark Skousen

“In the midst of the biggest economic boom ever, millionaires are going bankrupt.” – Forbes (October 2, 2000)

Last March, I reported the findings of Professor Thomas J. Stanley, author of The Millionaire Next Door and The Millionaire Mind, that the rich are model citizens-frugal, well-educated, balanced, religious and happily married. But according to the October 2 Forbes, a growing number of millionaires are going bust. Doctors, lawyers, accountants and executives are declaring chapter 7 and 13 bankruptcies at record numbers during this time of prosperity, due to bad business decisions, poor budgeting, overuse of credit cards and divorce. I also know a few financial gurus who continue to dispense advice yet are strapped (but I won’t mention any names).

There are several important lessons here:

(1) An above-average income is no guarantee of financial success. Forbes describes individuals earning $300,000 a year, and some with assets exceeding $5 million, going under. Las Vegas singer Wayne Newton was earning a million dollars a year when he went bankrupt in the early 1990s. (He blamed it on his advisors for getting him into leveraged real estate projects.) Earning more money is not the answer to one’s financial problems-living within your budget is.

(2) Open-ended credit card and business debt is a major source of trouble. If you can’t pay off your credit cards every month, you are headed for trouble. Replace them with debit cards or the American Express card, which requires you to pay off your obligation every month.

(3) Avoid margin debt and leveraged business ventures. The majority of busted millionaires made the mistake of getting in over their heads in leveraged real estate deals and highflying stocks. In many cases, greed drove them to put too much of their savings into one risky scheme.

(4) Most importantly, always spend less than you make, year after year. This advice may sound simplistic, but I’m amazed at how often it is violated.

The Best Book on Avoiding Bankruptcy

There are some excellent books on the subject: Rich Man, Poor Man by Robert T. Kiyosaki, The Wealthy Barber, by David Chilton or High Finance on a Low Budget, by my wife, Jo Ann, and me (all available through amazon.com). But the classic work on the subject is The Richest Man in Babylon (New Library edition). I require it in all my investment classes. It tells the story of Arkad: “In old Babylon there once lived a certain very rich man named Arkad. Far and wide he was famed for his great wealth. Also was he famed for his liberality. He was generous in his charities. He was generous with his family. He was liberal in his own expenses. But nevertheless each year his wealth increased more rapidly than he spent it.”

How could Arkad accomplish this financial miracle of being a big spender and yet still grow richer every year? Simple. Whether he earned a lot or a little, he always set aside at least 10 percent of his income, which he religiously saved and invested. He scrupulously avoided living beyond his means. Thus, in times when he earned more, he could afford to spend more-even as he added to his net worth.

My Financial Life Story

I read The Richest Man of Babylon when I was a young adult and have followed it ever since with great success. I started college with $50 in my pocket, but have always lived frugally. I pay cash for everything, including big-ticket items like cars. I seldom buy stocks on margin. I put aside 10%-20% of my income every year through my pension plan and Automatic Investment Plans (AIP) with various brokers. Like Arkad, I spend money liberally on my family, church, charities and other good causes (such as the Foundation for Economic Education). My only major debt was my home, and I paid off my mortgage several years ago, so I am totally debt free. Yes, I invest frequently in high-risk ventures, but I always diversify enough to keep out of trouble.

If you haven’t read The Richest Man in Babylon, I suggest you do so. It is entertaining and enlightening-and will keep you financially straight.

Having Their Cake

Economics on Trial
Ideas on Liberty
October 2000

Having Their Cake
by Mark Skousen

“The duty of ‘saving’ became nine-tenths of virtue and the growth of the cake the object of true religion.” -JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES (1)

In his 1920 bestseller, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, John Maynard Keynes made a profound observation about the success of capitalism before the Great War. He lauded “the immense accumulations of fixed capital” built up by the “new rich” during the half century before the war and compared the huge capital investment of this golden era to a “cake,” noting how “vital” it was that the cake “never be consumed;” but continue to “grow.”

Keynes was intensely optimistic about the prospects of humanity, “if only the cake were not cut but was allowed to grow in the geometrical proportion predicted by Malthus for population.” Rapid capital accumulation would result in the elimination of “overwork, overcrowding, and underfeeding,” and workingmen “could proceed to the nobler exercises of their faculties.”

Alas, it was not to be. The First World War destroyed Keynes’s dream of universal progress. The cake was consumed. “The war has disclosed the possibility of consumption to all and the vanity of abstinence to many.” (2)

War isn’t the only enemy of capital accumulation. Since World War II, the greatest threat to capital formation (the growth of the cake) has been the direct and indirect taxation of capital.

Take, for example, the federal estate tax. The estate tax is often viewed as an “inheritance” tax and even a “death” tax. But it’s much worse than that. It’s also a tax on capital. An estate’s taxable property includes stocks, bonds, business assets, real estate, coins and collectibles-all after-tax, afterconsumption investments.

If your net worth exceeds $675,000, your heirs will be forced to pay at least 18 percent to the IRS. The tax rate hits a confiscatory 55 percent at a mere taxable estate of $3 million.

Capital is the lifeblood of the economy. Capital investment finances new technology, new production processes, quality improvements, jobs, and economic growth in general. When those investment funds are taxed-$28 billion in 1998-the funds are removed from the investment pool and transferred to Washington, where they are consumed. For the most part the funds are consumed through government expenditures and “transfer payments” (welfare, salaries of government workers, and so on).

The estate tax also creates economic distortions. It encourages individuals to engage in “estate planning,” expensive legal exercises to avoid the death tax. It forces individuals to buy insurance policies they would not otherwise buy and create tax-exempt trusts and foundations that they would not ordinarily create. Undoubtedly, millions of fiends are transferred every year into foundations and charities just to avoid estate taxes. Charitable giving and public foundations have become big business, but what is the price? Mismanagement and waste are common features in these nonbusiness organizations.

Another Inefficient Tax: Capital Gains Taxes

Perhaps an even more sinister tax is the capital gains tax. If you sell an asset (stock, bond, commodity, real estate, or collectible), the profits are taxed between 20 and 40 percent, depending on how long you held the asset. (If you hold for more than a year, the maximum rate is 20 percent.) This is a terrible penalty on capital. It means that every time a stock or other asset is traded outside a taxexempt vehicle, 20 to 40 percent of the profits are removed from the private economy and sent to Washington, never to be invested again. With the recent bull market on Wall Street, annual capital gains taxes have exceeded $100 billion. What a terrible drain on the economy.

Capital gains taxes also result in economic inefficiency. Because of the high tax on capital gains, many investors refuse to sell their assets. They may prefer to switch into a potentially more profitable investment, but they stay with their original investment because they hate the idea of paying Uncle Sam. Clearly, capital would be more efficiently allocated to its more productive use without this burdensome profits tax.

The United States can learn a lot from foreign nations. Hong Kong has a flat 15 percent personal income tax, a 16.5 percent corporate income tax, and no tax at all on capital gains. In fact, most of the New Industrial Countries in Southeast Asia do not tax capital gains.

Thus capital can move freely throughout Hong Kong and around the world without distortion. And the cake has grown rapidly because of capital’s tax-free status. Hong Kong does have an estate tax on values exceeding HK$7 million, but the maximum rate is only 18 percent. (3)

Fortunately, the U.S. government has recently recognized the negative drain these taxes have on the economy. It has reduced long-term capital gains, and Congress has even entertained a bill to abolish federal estate taxes altogether.

Eliminating taxes on estates and capital gains has been criticized as a break for the rich. Moreover, critics say, estate taxes should be kept in order to establish a level playing field. They argue, “Children and grandchildren of wealthy people didn’t earn inherited money. They should have to work for it, just as their parents did. Inheritances create disincentives to work.”

But these critics fail to understand the broader implications of a large tax-free estate and tax-free capital gains. Everyone-not just the rich-benefits from eliminating these taxes because wealthy people’s capital would be left intact, invested in the stock market, businesses, farms, banks, insurance companies, real estate, and other capital assets, thus insuring strong economic growth and a high standard of living for everyone. As Ludwig von Mises once stated, “Do they realize that every measure leading to capital decumulation jeopardizes their prosperity?” (4)

As an investment adviser, I share the concern that unrestricted inheritances to children or grandchildren can be morally corrupting, but there are other solutions besides a confiscatory tax. For example, a will can limit the use of inherited funds until a certain age of responsibility is reached, or a trust can offer matching funds as a way to encourage work and responsibility.

1. John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1920), p. 20.
2. Ibid., pp. 20-21.
3. For an excellent summary of tax policies throughout the world, see International Tax Summaries, published annually by Coopers & Lybrand (New York: John Wiley & Sons).
4. Ludwig von Mises, Planning for Freedom, 4th ed. (South Holland, Ill.: Libertarian Press, 1980), p. 208.

What It Takes to Be an Objective Scholar

Economics on Trial
IDEAS ON LIBERTY
April 2000

What It Takes to Be an Objective Scholar
by Mark Skousen

“It was the facts that changed my mind.” -Julian Simon (1)

During the 1990s we watched the Dow Jones Industrial Average increase fourfold and Nasdaq stocks tenfold. Yet there were well-known investment advisers-some of them my friends-who were bearish during the entire period, missing out on the greatest bull market in history. (2)

How is this possible? What kind of prejudices would keep an intelligent analyst from missing an overwhelming trend? In the financial business the key to success is a willingness to change your mind when you’re wrong. Stubbornness can be financially ruinous. When a market goes against you, you should always ask, “What am I missing?”

Over the years, I’ve encountered three kinds of investment analysts: those who are always bullish; those who are always bearish; and those whose outlook depends on market conditions. I’ve found that the third type, the most flexible, are the most successful on Wall Street.

Confessions of a Gold-Bug Technician

A good friend of mine is a technical analyst who searches the movement of prices, volume, and other technical indicators to determine the direction of stocks and commodities. Most financial technicians are free of prejudices and will invest their money wherever they see a positive upward trend, and avoid (or sell short) markets that are seen in a downward trend. But my friend is a gold bug and no matter what the charts show, he somehow interprets them to suggest that gold is ready to reverse its downward trend and head back up. Equally, he always seems to think the stock market has peaked and is headed south. As a result, throughout the entire 1990s he missed out on the great bull market on Wall Street and lost his shirt chasing gold stocks.

I also see this type of prejudice in the academic world. Some analysts are anti-market no matter what. Take, for example, Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., who puts out the annual State of the World and other alarmist surveys and data. He gathers together all kinds of statistics and graphs showing a decline in our standard of living and the growing threat of population growth, environmental degradation, the spread of the AIDS virus, and so on. For example, despite clear evidence of sharply lower fertility rates in most nations, Brown concludes, “stabilizing population may be the most difficult challenge of all.” (3)

Too bad Julian Simon, the late professor of economics at the University of Maryland, is no longer around to dispute Brown and the environmental doomsdayers. Simon was as optimistic about the world as Brown is pessimistic. Simon’s last survey of world economic conditions, The State of Humanity, was published in 1995. That book, along with his The Ultimate Resource (and its second edition), came to the exact opposite of Brown’s conclusions. “Our species is better off in just about every measurable material way.” (4)

Yet Julian Simon was not simply a Pollyanna optimist. He let the facts affect his thinking. In the 1960s, Simon was deeply worried about population and nuclear war, just like Lester Brown, Paul Ehrlich, and their colleagues. But Simon changed his mind after investigating and discovering that “the available empirical data did not support that theory.” (5)

Scholars Who See the Light

The best scholars are those willing to change their minds after looking at the data or discovering a new principle. They admit their mistakes when they have been proven wrong. You don’t see it happen often, though. Once a scholar has built a reputation around a certain point of view and has published books and articles on his pet theory, it’s almost impossible to recant. This propensity applies to scholars across the political spectrum.

We admire those rare intellectuals who are honest enough to admit that their past views were wrong. For example, when New York historian Richard Gid Powers began his history of the anticommunist movement, his attitude was pejorative. He had previously written a highly negative book on J. Edgar Hoover, Secrecy and Power. Yet after several years of painstaking research, he changed his mind: “Writing this book radically altered my view of American anticommunism. I began with the idea that anticommunism displayed America at its worst, but I came to see in anticommunism America at its best.” (6) That’s my kind of scholar.

1. Julian L. Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996), preface.
2. See the revealing article, “Down and Out on Wall Street,” New York Times, Money & Business Section, Sunday, December 26, 1999.
3. Lester R. Brown, Gary Gardner, and Brian Halweil, Beyond Malthus (New York: Norton, 1999), p. 30.
4. Julian L. Simon, The State of Humanity (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995), p. 1.
5. Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2, preface.
6. Richard Gid Powers, Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism (Free Press, 1996), p. 503.