Archive for July, 2011

Fed up with Bernanke?

31 July 2011

Greg Mankiw has a good column in today’s NYT in defense of embattled Fed Chair Ben Bernanke. How embattled is Bernanke? Mankiw notes an (admittedly unscientific) online CNBC poll from June, in which the question was “Do you have confidence in the way Ben Bernanke is handling the economy?” 95% of respondents answered no.

Mankiw says the Fed has done basically all it can to combat the Little Depression (unfortunately “all it can” is not enough), while steering clear of high inflation. The core inflation rate in recent years has been just 2%, widely believed to the Fed’s unofficial target inflation rate. Mankiw suggests making that 2% target official, but otherwise sees no obvious room for improvement in Bernanke’s performance.

I tend to agree that Bernanke’s Fed has done about all that monetary policy can do here, but Scott Sumner, one of the more interesting monetary thinkers I’ve come across lately, says the Fed actually has a lot more ammunition in its arsenal and compares the situation to the early 1930s, when the Fed increased the monetary base but needed to do a lot more to stem the massive tide of bank failures and monetary collapse. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find the specifics of his argument, but I’ll share them with you when I do.

Sumner, by the way, loves the idea of a 2% inflation target and even suggests that Mankiw be appointed to the Fed’s Board of Governors. Maybe Mitt Romney (to whom Mankiw is an adviser) can do that next year.

Uh oh, the 14th amendment might not help here

30 July 2011

Many, including Bill Clinton, have said the debt ceiling is unconstitutional because it goes against the 14th amendment’s clause that the validity of the public debt shall not be questioned. However, it’s also been pointed out that interest on the debt is a relatively small obligation of the government and can easily be paid for out of incoming revenues ($29 B in interest, $172 B in revenues, for August after the 2nd). So it seems to me that a reasonable interpretation of the 14th amendment is that it applies to the government’s debt obligations but not to their obligations to anyone else — government employees, contractors, retirees, veterans, etc. Perhaps that’s why President Obama has said his lawyers don’t think invoking the 14th amendment is a promising solution.

Tom Geoghegan, one of my favorite writers on politics and the law (his book Which Side Are You On? even manages to make organized labor funny), suggests a different “constitutional option”: Article I. Sections 8 and 9 of Article I list the powers of Congress and the limits on those powers, which are quite limited. Article 10, Powers Prohibited of States, says no state shall pass any “Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts.” (Geoghegan’s March article on the subject is also worth reading.) Geoghegan says it’s implied that this would extend to Congress, too, but I’m not so sure — Section 8 gives Congress all sorts of powers that are prohibited of states, as well as the power to “provide for .. the general welfare of the United States,” and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the “general welfare” clause became a lot more expansive around 1937 (after the kerfuffle over the Court’s resistance to the New Deal and FDR’s attempt to pack the court by increasing the number of justices; the so-called “switch in time that saved nine”). The conservative majority on the Court could conceivably rule that keeping the debt ceiling constant would aid the general welfare by forcing reductions in the size of government or in the burden of the debt on future generations. Lame, far-fetched arguments, to be sure, but those have carried the day rather recently with the Court.

So it’s unclear what the way out of this morass will be. If the debt ceiling is not raised, we most likely get a partial government shutdown, which will go on until the Republicans in Congress decide that it’s hurting them at least as much as it’s hurting Obama and the Democrats (see: 1995-96). If we’re lucky, the Republicans realize that before Aug. 2, and the nation is spared a shutdown.

What Treasury triage might look like

29 July 2011

Good piece here by Jane Sasseen of Yahoo News, about what might happen on Aug. 3, if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling. Without being able to borrow any more money, the government would have a shortfall of $135 billion for the rest of August. That is, the government’s legally obligated payments would still be $307 billion and its expected revenues from all sources would be only $172 billion. Altogether, the “federal government makes payments to some 80 million individuals, companies and entities every month.” Who would get stiffed?

There’s no official order of triage, but it’s widely agreed that Treasury bondholders would get paid first. They’re owed hundreds of billions, but most of that comes from selling new bonds. Only the interest ($29 billion for August) comes out the budget, so the government can be counted on to cover it, rather than do any more damage to its credit rating and future interest rates than it already has.

What seems most likely, according to an expert quoted in the article, is a partial government shutdown, as in 1995:

‘”A de facto shutdown of the government is the real threat, not default, ” says Greg Valliere, chief political strategist for the Potomac Research Group.’

Bad time to work for the federal government. Humorist Andy Borowitz had it right: Let’s save money by paying Congressmen per accomplishment.

Taking their chances on the wall of debt

29 July 2011

This morning’s surprise news is that, after last night’s fiasco in which House Speaker John Boehner could not round up enough votes for his own deficit reduction plan, 10-year Treasury bond prices are not only not down, they’re actually up, by a good bit. Interest rates on Treasuries, which move in the opposite direction as T-bond prices, are down 10 basis points to 2.84% (as of 11:14 a.m.). What gives?

Well, for one, the bond market may not have been expecting much from Boehner. The media had already been saying that he’s a much-weakened House Speaker, after watching his failure to rein in his Tea Party faithless. And any House Republican plan would likely be dead on arrival in the Senate anyway.

Another possibility is that as it becomes more likely that the government bumps up against the current debt ceiling on Aug. 2, that counterintuitively, T-bonds might actually be seen as safer, as Chris Isidore writes in CNNMoney. Why? Because the single biggest actor on the U.S. economic stage, the federal government, would be officially dysfunctional, even more so than it is now. Today through Aug. 1, at least, the government can meet all of its financial obligations. If Aug. 2 is indeed D-Day, then on Aug. 2 the government becomes a deadbeat, at least to somebody. And quite likely, it would not be T-bondholders. This assumes that (1) the government would still be allowed to issue more debt in order to pay off its maturing debt and (2) the Treasury would prioritize the interest on that maturing debt above its other obligations. As notes on NPR this morning, most commentators seem to agree that it is in the national interest to not stiff any of our bondholders, as an actual default would surely cause interest rates to skyrocket. If Aug. 2 is the beginning of Treasury triage time, then the government would more likely stiff someone else, like government employees (please please start with members of Congress!) and government claimants who lack political clout (i.e., not seniors or the military). This creates a lot of chaos, as people don’t know when they’ll be paid, which makes them less likely to spend or repay money and creates pressure on credit markets. In sum, the market reaction may just be the usual “flight to safety” that occurs when markets think conditions are about to get worse and also more chaotic. This would be consistent with the beating that stocks have been taking lately.

It may also be that the bond market is reacting to other news, like the dreadful GDP figures that just came out today. Real GDP in the second quarter grew just 1.3% (worse than the consensus forecast of 1.8%), and first quarter growth was revised drastically downward to 0.4% (from 1.9%). These numbers are “growth recession” territory (where the economy grows but not fast enough to generate enough jobs to keep unemployment from rising), consistent with the rise in unemployment (from 9.0% to 9.2%) over the last few months. As with the debt-ceiling brinkmanship, these new signs of economic weakness are a plausible reason to pull money out of stocks and put it into Treasury bonds.

But why Treasury bonds, you ask, and not another safe haven? The simple answer seems to be that there are woefully few alternatives. As Isidore puts it:

‘U.S. Treasuries are such a massive market — about $9.8 trillion — that they dwarf the markets of other so-called “safe havens” such as gold, top-rated corporate debt or the bonds of other countries with AAA ratings.’

So worldwide investors still like their chances on the wall of debt that is U.S. Treasuries.

P.S. Richard Thompson’s duet partner here is not Linda Thompson, but Christine Collister.

Feeling 1932 (updated, Aug. 1)

28 July 2011

I’ve written already that the best deal on the debt ceiling would simply be to raise it (or better still, abolish it), without attaching it to a bill that punishes the economy further by slashing spending and/or raising taxes. The last thing this ailing economy needs is a Grand Bargain to reduce the current deficit. It was disastrous policy during the Great Depression — first by Congress and President Hoover in 1932, then by Congress and President Roosevelt in 1937. I would have thought those historic blunders would not be repeated, but I guess it’s always a mistake to assume that politicians know economics or history. But I’ve said all that before.

What I want to point out here is that we’re due for some ill-timed spending cuts (and maybe tax increases), regardless of what Congress does in the next week. Remember that $787 billion stimulus package that Congress passed in early 2009? It was spread out over two years, so roughly $400 billion a year, about $250 billion of which was spending and $150 billion tax cuts, almost all in 2009-2011. So that stimulus is just about “spent.” The main tax cuts, like extending the patch for the alternative minimum tax, will probably be maintained because they’re politically popular, but the spending almost surely will not. So that’s an abrupt drop of about $250 billion in government spending, or about 2% of GDP, over the next year. This chart from James Fallows’ blog for The Atlantic shows the projected big drop in fiscal stimulus from “Relief measures.” That’s the trouble with stimulus — it’s finite. Congress passes these things reluctantly, and if the economy still needs stimulating when it’s over, people are more likely to conclude that it failed rather than that it was too small (which it was) or that it spared us even worse devastation (which it did).

Now it is possible, perhaps even probable, that Congress will fail to pass any deficit-reduction deal and will end up raising the debt ceiling anyway — after all, that’s what’s happened virtually every previous time that a debt-ceiling vote has come up. But even if Congress ends up not inflicting any new wounds on the economy, we’re looking at big-time deficit reduction that will do plenty of damage on its own.

UPDATE, 1 Aug. 2011: Actually, it looks like it’s already happened. In the dismal GDP figures released last week, the government’s contribution to real GDP growth was negative 1.2 percentage points in the first quarter of 2011, with about two-thirds of the decline coming from the federal government. Government purchases account for about 20% of GDP, so cuts in government purchases reduce GDP. “Fiscal drag,” the economists call it. Federal government purchases fell 9.4% in the first quarter (the unwinding of the stimulus surely had much to do with this), and state and local government purchases fell 3.4%. (In the second quarter federal purchases rose 2.2% and state and local purchases again fell 3.4%.)

P.S. The title’s musical inspiration is forty years off and I’ve used it before, but hey, it’s a good song.

Not shaken, not stirred

25 July 2011

So far, the Treasury bond market seems remarkably unconcerned about Washington politicians’ abject failure to reach an agreement on raising the debt ceiling. As of 3:20 pm Monday, after a weekend of dashed hopes for a bipartisan agreement for deficit reduction, the interest rate on 10-year T-bonds was 3.00%, up just 4 basis points from Friday’s close of 2.96%. I admit, I woke up expecting more of a negative reaction from the bond market. What gives?

From what I’ve read, there seem to be two factors at work here, of which the bond market is well aware:

(1) The debt ceiling drama has happened before, and those in the bond market expect Congress to raise the ceiling in time, just as they always have before (with the exception of 1979*). In all, Congress has raised the debt ceiling 74 times since 1962, including an average of once a year since 2001. Barry Ritholtz provides an excellent compendium of newsbites about past debt ceiling votes.

(2) Washington tends to go down to the wire on these deals, and this year “the wire” is Aug. 2, i.e., eight days away. Again, history suggests they’ll get a deal done this time, too.

* The 1979 episode has oddly disappeared down the memory hole, despite two months of hostage-taking over the current debt ceiling and despite the fact that the temporary default of 1979 — it lasted two weeks and was caused by a combination of Capitol Hill shenanigans and computer problems at the Treasury — caused Treasury interest rates to be an estimated 50 basis points higher for years, costing taxpayers billions in increased interest payments on the debt and slowing the economy. (Hat tips: Andrew Sullivan, Bruce Bartlett. The 50-basis-points estimate is from finance professors Terry Zivney & Dick Marcus.)

So is this summer’s repugnant, reckless, Republican posturing over this issue all that different from past obstruction by Democrats and Republicans over the necessary and obvious business of raising the debt limit so that the government can honor its commitments to creditors, employees, contractors, retirees, etc.? I haven’t seen anything this extreme since I started following politics, but then again that’s only been 30 years, and this time-wasting exercise that is the debt-ceiling vote has been around since 1917. (It probably served a purpose back then, as we were entering a world war.) If this time is different, the difference may be the simple fact that a great many Republicans (not just Michele Bachmann and the Tea Partiers but 53% of all Republicans, according to a Pew Research Center poll) think it will be no big deal if the debt limit is not raised by Aug. 2, or perhaps if it is not raised at all. Since President Obama clearly does and is unwilling to press for a clean vote to raise the debt limit with no strings attached, they’ve got him over a table.

shaken, not stirred

Yes, kick the can down the road

20 July 2011

I don’t say this often, but Eric Cantor is half right. The Republican House Majority Leader’s mantra in the current debate over a long-term budget fix has been “You don’t raise taxes in a recession.” That is good policy advice, and any Keynesian economist would tell you the same. Tax increases lower GDP, indirectly, by lowering people’s disposable income — if they have less money, most people will spend less money, so consumption drops. But any Keynesian economist would also tell you, “Don’t cut spending in a recession.” Cuts in government spending directly lower GDP and indirectly lower it by lowering the consumption of laid-off government workers and government contractors. So neither tax increases nor spending cuts are a good idea in this time of 9.2% unemployment.

(It’s a pity that Cantor doesn’t understand the second part, or pretends not to. But not a surprise. Misrepresenting Keynes is a cottage industry among Republican politicians and pundits. Ezra Klein notes that Cantor wrote in his campaign manifesto of last year that Keynesianism is the theory that “government can be counted on to spend more wisely than the people.” But I digress . . .)

Right now, we’re told August 2 is the deadline for an agreement by Congress to raise the national debt ceiling or face a partial government shutdown in which some Treasury bondholders, government employers, government contractors and/or other government creditors won’t get paid. I’ve written again and again that the whole concept of a debt ceiling is self-destructive and a waste of time — and, as usual, The Onion says it better than I ever could — but the “grand bargain” that the president seeks could easily be self-destructive as well. Both Democrats and Republicans say they want to pass a long-term deficit reduction plan that reduces the national debt by several trillion dollars over the next decade. That’s fine in a broad sense, as health care costs continue to jump by leaps and bounds, two wars continue to drain our resources, and federal taxes as a share of GDP are at their lowest level in a half-century. But if the tax increases and spending cuts kick in while the economy is still in this Little Depression, with unemployment well above its normal range of 5-7%, then the grand bargain becomes a starvation diet.

If we could just fine all politicians and pundits a dollar each time they say “we can’t afford to kick the can down the road any more,” we could pay off the national debt. Barring that, we can at least question that bit of conventional wisdom, telling them, no, it’s not a good idea to raise taxes or cut spending while the economy is still in the tank, and any plan to do either or both that kicks in while unemployment is still above 7% is a bad one. Worse than defaulting on the government’s obligations? Probably not. But a lot worse than doing nothing on both fronts.

Pouring water on a drowning man

10 July 2011

Today’s New York Times editorial, “The Worst Time to Slow the Economy,” says it all. Voting against raising the debt ceiling is foolish even in the best of times, and it’s insanity right now. Congress already voted to raise the debt ceiling, or to do the equivalent, when it passed a budget with a deficit. It makes no sense for Congress to vote on the budget again.

Is the economy already in a double-dip recession? The rising unemployment rate (up to 9.2% for June, as announced on Friday, or 16.2% using the more inclusive U-6 unemployment rate) suggests it might be. See John Nichols’s column in The Nation for a good account of the unemployment crisis. Nichols says this is President Obama’s biggest problem, pointing out that no president since FDR has won reelection when unemployment was over 8%. (Nichols said over 7%, but he may have meant “over 7% and change,” as Reagan won reelection in 1984 when unemployment was about 7.5%. But at least it was falling, as it was for FDR in 1936 and 1940.)

While Nichols is correct that high unemployment is Obama’s biggest problem, it’s still true that the debt-ceiling impasse is Obama’s biggest worry. An act of supreme self-sabotage like not raising the debt ceiling could put the economy into free fall. As far as I can tell, Republicans who say it’s no big deal, like most of their presidential candidates, either (1) cynically are hoping it brings about an economic avalanche that sweeps Obama out of power or (2) cluelessly believe the Tea Party rhetoric about how “spending” has caused our current woes and think any shock that compels spending cuts will actually be good for the economy. It’s as if they were taught government purchases were a negative entry into GDP instead of a positive, i.e., GDP = Consumption + Investment + Net eXports – Government purchases, instead of GDP = C + I + G + NX.

If we’re lucky, the Constitution — in particular, the line in the 14th Amendment that says “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned” — will save the day. The whole concept of a debt ceiling as something that Congress can refuse to raise, even to pay off previously issued debt, looks unconstitutional to me. (Former Reagan adviser Bruce Bartlett has forcefully raised this option.) But then again, it’s up to the Supreme Court to make that determination, and, as far as I know, nobody has asked them to yet. Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe, in a New York Times op-ed that I otherwise tended to find unconvincing, points out that someone with standing would have to sue the government and that “increased interest rates would have already inflicted terrible damage by the time the Supreme Court ruled on the matter.”

So maybe the Constitution won’t ride to the rescue. Is there hope for a long-term bipartisan budget deal that could convince Congressional Republicans to raise the debt ceiling? And could such a deal be amenable to those of us who don’t want to shred the social safety net? I guess we’ll find out in a couple weeks.