Archive for June, 2009

Where credit ain’t due: The rating agencies

22 June 2009

For once, I agree wholeheartedly with a Wall Street Journal editorial.  (OK, I could do without the mixed sports metaphor in the title (“A Triple-A Punt.” How bush league).  The piece raps the Obama Administration’s new financial reform plan for giving the credit rating agencies a free pass.  Some key excerpts:

‘The government-anointed judges of risk at Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch inflicted upon investors the AAA-rated subprime mortgage-backed security. They also inflicted upon the world’s nest eggs the even more opaque AAA-rated collateralized debt obligation (CDO). Without the ratings agency seal of approval — required by SEC, Federal Reserve and state regulation for many institutional investors — it would have been nearly impossible to market the structured financial products at the heart of the crisis. Yet Team Obama suggests only that regulators reduce the agencies’ favored role “wherever possible.”. . .

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A fate worse than debt

21 June 2009

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, a nation that chooses deficit reduction over its economic health will soon have neither.

A story that I’d missed a couple days ago was the results of new polls from the NYT and the WSJ, allegedly finding Americans to be apoplectic about the federal budget deficit and down, down, down on the $787 spending stimulus.  The poll results are described by Catherine Rampell of Economix, Paul Krugman on his blog, and Andrew Leonard on Salon.  Considering the disastrous effects of budget cutting during the Great Depression (first in 1932 under Hoover, then in 1937 under FDR), the results does not seem to bode well for future recovery efforts.  “A nation of Herbert Hoovers” was Salon‘s headline.

It’s easy to read these poll results and conclude that Americans want the economy placed on a starvation diet.  But is that the correct conclusion?  Rampell takes a closer look at the NYT poll and isn’t so sure.  She points out another question, which asks what America’s biggest problem is, and notes that only 2% say the budget deficit.  That puts it well behind the economy (38%), jobs (19%), and “health care” (7%).   An accompanying chart of Gallup poll results since the 1930s show that not since the mid-1990s has the budget deficit been seen as the nation’s top problem by more than 5% of the public.

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The Regulator Guys

18 June 2009

The Obama Administration’s new Financial Regulatory Reform plan hit the streets yesterday.  At 85 pages, it’s a lot to digest.  Today’s Washington Post has pretty good coverage, including this excellent summary chartJoe Nocera of the New York Times has some pointed criticisms, the gist of which is that Obama’s reforms, unlike FDR’s, do not go far enough.

Probably the biggest step forward is that the plan calls for giving someone the authority to close and liquidate insolvent financial behemoths like AIG and Citigroup.  Right now, the FDIC can shut down failing banks, but nobody can do the same with financial supermarkets like AIG and Citigroup.  In a similar view, it also empowers the Fed to oversee huge, systemically important financial institutions and require them to hold more reserves and take fewer risks.  Both of these changes seem to go a long way toward resolving that tension between moral hazard and “too big to fail.”

Another step that looks welcome is the establishment of a Consumer Finance Protection Agency, along the lines suggested by the estimable Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law Professor who chairs the Congressional Oversight Panel that monitors the TARP bailouts.  In this 2004 interview with Bill Moyers she offers a critical, detailed assessment of credit-card-company abuses and sensible ideas for reform.  Her two-part interview with Jon Stewart this past April is worth watching as well.  Warren has been rumored as the person to lead this new agency.  Had an effective consumer protection agency been in place earlier this decade, we might have avoided the stampede into dubious adjustable-rate mortages and option ARMs.  Not surprisingly, the financial services industry is critical of the idea of such an agency.

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Good news with a big grain of salt

18 June 2009

actual grain of salt

The Economist looks at the decline in jobless claims over the past four weeks and declares the U.S. recession to have “cleared the hump” (equivalent to “bottomed out,” from a “been down so long it looks like up to me” perspective).  But they predict a less-than-robust recovery:

‘It’s the return to the jobless recovery. And what that means for the population groups most affected—blue collar workers, those with less education, and so on—is that for years to come, work will be difficult to find and wages will lag. The recession will not end for everyone at the same time. Millions of workers will continue to struggle years after output numbers get out of the red.’

(h/t: Vanessa Cruz)

A commenter suggests that the decline in jobless claims may just mean that a lot of people’s unemployment insurance ran out, which, given the millions of long-term unemployed, is plausible.

Some stronger signs that recovery is on the horizon are in the just-released Index of Leading Economic Indicators, by the Conference Board.  The index looks at ten different economic data series (including unemployment claims) which tend to move in the same direction as the overall economy but a few months earlier.  Seven of those indicators were up in May; three were down.  Overall, the index grew 1.2%, its second monthly gain in a row and its largest gain since March 2004.

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Bottoming out?

17 June 2009

I’ve been skeptical all along.  So have Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman. It’s hard to say we’ve hit bottom when industrial production continues to fall, by 1.1% in May and by 13.4% over the past year, the worst 12-month showing since 1946.  Industrial capacity utilization is at a record-low 68.3%.  (The capacity utilization data go back to 1948.)

But it does appear that some economic indicators, like employment, are at least declining at a slower rate, so “bottoming out,” as opposed to “has already bottomed out,” may be appropriate.  The question is how long it’ll take for the economy to start growing again, as opposed to staying at a low level.  James Kwak of The Baseline Scenario offers a good rundown of the “green shoots” debate here.

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Deflation

17 June 2009

For all the talking heads’ bloviating about the massive inflation to come from current Fed policies and the spending stimulus, as well as the media’s eagerness to pronounce the recession over, you can be forgiven for not noticing that deflation has not exactly gone away.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced yesterday that over the past 12 months wholesale prices dropped 5 percent and today that over the same span consumer prices dropped 1.3%; the respective declines were the largest since 1949 and 1950.

I said a few months ago that I was not particularly worried about deflation, and I’m still not, as it seems mild by historical standards and because expansionary Fed policies are making sure that money-stock growth is strong.  But an awful lot of people have assumed away the recession and are now wringing their hands about the threat of inflation, and these data suggest both impulses are premature.*

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Selective-attention deficit disorder

15 June 2009
debt/gdp ratio

debt/gdp ratio

So who’s the party of fiscal responsibility again?  That mantle seems to be claimed by whichever party does not occupy the White House.  In the late 1970s, Ronald Reagan and other Republicans charged that Jimmy Carter’s deficits (although puny in retrospect) were inflationary and needed to be stopped.  As president in the 1980s, Reagan presided over the largest deficits ever (in absolute terms) and the first-ever major peacetime increase of the national debt-to-GDP ratio in history.   Leading Democrats pounded him for the deficits, and Reagan swatted them away as “born-again budget balancers.”  Dick Cheney said later (quoted in one of the Bush 43 administration tell-all books), “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.”  Economists by and large weren’t buying it, but aside from relatively high real interest rates and relatively low levels of business investment, the economy was prospering as it hadn’t in two decades, and Democratic attacks on Republican deficits found little traction.  Just ask Walter Mondale.

As we can see from the red line in the diagram, courtesy of my former professor Willem Buiter, the debt/GDP ratio (our best measure of the overall burden of federal deficits and debt):

  • mostly fell during the 1970s, as appears to be the norm for the economy in peacetime (at least in non-recession years);
  • more than doubled during the 1980s and all through Bush 41’s presidency, from about 24% to 54%, likely due to tax cuts, the Reagan military buildup, and the growth of health care costs and entitlements spending;
  • fell sharply during the Clinton years to about 34% in 2000, likely due mostly to the booming economy and the post-USSR “peace dividend”;
  • rose sharply in the Bush 43 presidency, likely due initially to the 2001 recession, tax cuts, and Medicare prescription drug expansion, then to the Iraq and Afghan wars, rising health care and entitlement costs, the aging of the population (including early baby boomer retirements), and of course the 2008 recession and bank bailouts.

So what? you ask . . .

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Symbiotic twin killings

11 June 2009

What caused the crisis?  It seems like most of the plausible answers I’ve heard come down to one of two basic explanations:

(1) “We were living beyond our means” — Congressman Dan Maffei (D-NY), in a WRVO Community Forum in Syracuse last week that included, um, me.  Sounded very reasonable coming from Congressman Maffei, less so coming from stockbroker/ investment advisor/ author Peter Schiff on the other night’s “Daily Show”, probably because of the diametrically opposite policy prescriptions the two draw.  Maffei backs the stimulus bill and wants to see the economy recover as soon as possible; Schiff is an adherent of the Austrian school and thinks a good old bloodletting (oops, “liquidation” or “correction”) is just what the doctor ordered.  Either way, this explanation has a lot going for it, as it explains the rash of subprime mortgage borrowing, home equity loans, maxed-out credit cards, etc.

(2) A “global savings glut” led to stock and housing bubbles, which finally burst — Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, Nobel economist / NYT columnist Paul Krugman.  The idea here is that while we spendthrift Americans were running up huge debts, people in other countries, notably China and Japan, as well as the minority of wealthy Americans with high savings rates, had large pools of savings seeking a good risk-adjusted return.   And they invested much of it here, in Treasury bonds, thereby keeping U.S. interest rates low; in the stock market, reinflating the late 1990s bubble; in the corporate bond market, lowering rates on all bonds, even junk bonds; and in real estate, largely through securitized collections of other people’s mortgages.  (By some accounts, demand created its own supply of mortgage-backed securities — after the 2001 stock debacle, investors were looking for an alternative to stocks and thought real estate looked promising.)  A particular problem here seems to be that many investors opted for wildly risky investment vehicles, like investing in “diverse” portfolios of dodgy mortgages or blindly handing their money over to a Bernie Madoff or a Robert Allen Stanford, without realizing they were risky.

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Still too big to fail

11 June 2009

. . . and too big to regulate.  JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and seven other megabanks got permission from the Obama Administration to repay their combined $68 billion in TARP debt to the government.  The government made a profit on the loans, and the banks are now out from the under the thumb of the TARP restrictions on executive pay and hiring.  Win-win, right?

Well, no, not for the taxpayers who are still implicitly on the hook for these ten behemoths should anything go wrong.  They are no more regulated than they were before the crisis, and there is no FDIC-like resolution system in place that would allow for the orderly failure of these financial supermarkets should they become insolvent (again?).   It would be rational for their managers to conclude that the institutions are still “too big to fail” and to return to reckless decision-making a la “heads I win, tails the taxpayers lose.”  Today’s Financial Times has an excellent editorial on the matter.   Wish I’d written it myself; the next best thing is to cut and paste most of it here:

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Printing money?

10 June 2009

Trivia question:  How much money has the Federal Reserve printed in its entire ninety-five-year history?

Answer:  $0.  The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, part of the federal government’s Department of the Treasury, prints all the money.  And none of those bills become “money” (i.e., part of the money supply, M1 or M2) until they’re held by the public anyway.

Am I being pedantic?  After all, those dollar bills are “Federal Reserve Notes” and are delivered to the twelve Federal Reserve Banks upon request.   I don’t think it’s pedantic, though, as there’s a world of difference between printing money and dropping it from a helicopter (as described in countless economics classrooms and which would be very inflationary) and how those bills actually do hit the street (generally not covered in econ classes, an omission that has always mystified me*, and which is not so inflationary).

Anyway, what brought on this post is the constant chatter in the media and the blogosphere about how the government or the Fed is printing money.   (Of course this chatter is most pronounced on the right.  The three minutes I heard of Limbaugh’s show this year were devoted to some witless sarcasm about we should all be allowed to print counterfeit money because the government is already doing it.  Har de har.)

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