Archive for September, 2011

WTF, S&P???

26 September 2011

How did I miss this one? Bloomberg News, on Aug. 31, reported that Standard & Poor’s is still giving its highest rating, AAA, to subprime-mortgage-backed securities:

Standard & Poor’s is giving a higher rating to securities backed by subprime home loans, the same type of investments that led to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, than it assigns the U.S. government….

More than 14,000 securitized bonds in the U.S. are rated AAA by S&P, backed by everything from houses and malls to auto- dealer loans and farm-equipment leases, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

(Hat tip: Simon Johnson.)

Better than nothing

26 September 2011

. . . is how I’d describe this month’s major developments on the fiscal and monetary policy front, namely Pres. Obama’s new jobs proposal and the Fed’s decision to reallocate its Treasury bond portfolio so as to try to push long-term interest rates down.

The Fed’s decision is simpler, so I’ll start with that one. Last Wednesday the Federal Open Market Committee kept its fed funds rate target unchanged at 0-0.25% and announced that it would sell most of its short-term T-bill portfolio and replace it with longer-term T-notes and T-bonds. This is quite a bit less than the “QE3” (quantitative easing, round 3) that many in the market were hoping for, as it does not involve a net increase in the Fed’s Treasury holdings, and the stock markets took a tumble that afternoon. The media quickly dubbed the Fed’s move “Operation Twist,” after a similar action in 1961. Nobody expects this move to have more than a marginal impact, not when mortgage and other long-term interest rates are already at historic lows, but it’s hard to argue against a positive marginal impact, purchased at so little cost. A Wall Street Journal editorial notes that the 1960s Operation Twist lowered long-term interest rates by about 0.20 percentage points, and “Some experts said that was enough to make the program effective; others deemed it a failure.” It seems to me that any reduction in unemployment from this move, however small, is welcome news at a time of 14 million unemployed.

The President’s new jobs bill is a more complicated animal. (Note that they’ve dropped the term “stimulus package,” apparently out of belated recognition that “jobs bill” is simpler and sounds more appealing and also because the $787 billion stimulus of 2009 is unpopular. I’ve been over this one before: leading estimates are that it saved a few million jobs, which is good, but it was supposed to save all of them, and that obviously didn’t happen. Thus it is unpopular.) The main complication is that it has no chance whatsoever of passing, given knee-jerk opposition to all things Obama in the Republican-controlled House and the Republican-filibuster-strength minority in the Senate. This despite the fact that, as Obama said, that virtually everything in it has been supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. (To be fair, not much in it has been supported by Republicans recently, i.e., since Obama became president.)

Specifics: The American Jobs Act (its official name) has a price tag of $447 billion, most of which apparently would be spent during the next 12 months, so roughly the same yearly amount as the 2009 stimulus. More than half of that is a $240 billion cut in payroll taxes, including a reduction in the payroll tax paid by workers, a cut in the employer share for small businesses, and a tax holiday for new employees. The next biggest item is $140 billion for infrastructure and local aid, notably transportation, retaining and rehiring teachers and first responders, and modernizing public schools. The last area is $62 billion for unemployment insurance extensions, tax credits for hiring the long-term unemployed, and subsidized employment for low-income individuals.

All of this seems reasonable, maybe too reasonable. In a less toxic political environment, this proposal would pass, but just like the 2009 stimulus, it would be way too small to fill America’s jobs deficit. The payroll tax has already been cut to 4.2% (down from about 6.2%), and the jobs bill would cut it to 3.1%, or about $11 on every $1000 of income.  Small potatoes. And while poorer workers would surely spend their payroll tax cut, upper-middle class and upper-class workers would probably save much of theirs. The current payroll tax cut is set to expire at the end of this year, and Republicans aren’t crazy about it (they prefer permanent tax cuts aimed at “job creators” in the top tax brackets) but don’t want to be cast by Democrats as favoring tax increases for the little guy, so a further extension of the 4.2% payroll tax rate seems likely.

The payroll tax holiday and ($4000) tax credit for hiring the unemployed should also be expected to have a positive but marginal impact on employment. The number one question in any prospective employer’s mind is “Can I sell the extra output that this person would produce?” Tax holidays and tax credits make a Yes more likely, but only if the product demand is strong enough to almost warrant hiring the person in the first place. Still, we economists live at the margin, and as with the Fed’s Operation Twist, anything that creates jobs at minimal cost is a positive thing.

And now on to costs. This is the main area where I have a problem with the president’s proposal. Obama says the program is fully funded, when really that’s the last thing we should be worrying about during a depression.The more you offset the new spending and tax cuts with spending cuts and tax increases elsewhere, the less stimulus you have. Obama said the program will be paid for by additional spending cuts in the future, closing corporate tax loopholes, and reinstating the “millionaire’s tax” on personal income. (Note: We last had a $1 million tax bracket in 1940, in nominal terms. Adjusting for inflation, we last had a $1 million tax bracket in 1973.) If the spending cuts are sufficiently far off in the future, like when the unemployment rate is back below 6%, they should do little macroeconomic damage. Ditto the closing of tax loopholes — which probably have little to do with hiring anyway — and the millionaire’s tax. As far as I can tell, those tax increases — and some others that I would support, like taxing hedge fund managers’ salaries as ordinary labor income instead of at the lower capital gains rate — would take effect immediately. While I don’t buy the Republican rhetoric about every rich person being a Job Creator, I still don’t think raising taxes in a depression is a good idea. It can wait.

Labors lost: Six reasons

5 September 2011

The Christian Science Monitor‘s Mark Trumbull has an excellent new piece, “Six Reasons Why America Can’t Create Jobs.” Namely:

1) ‘The rent-a-worker economy’: a reliance on contract workers and outsourcing. Contract workers are easier to let go when conditions worsen. And having made do with less, many companies are eager to try to do the same even when conditions improve.

2) ‘The résumé gap’: a lack of skilled workers, or least of workers with the skills businesses want.

3) ‘Rise of the “plutonomy”‘: an increasingly skewed distribution of wealth is bad for aggregate demand because the rich don’t consume as much of their income as poor and middle-class people do.

4) ‘The China syndrome’: China can make high-tech products too, and often more cheaply than we can, even after taking productivity differentials into account.

5) ‘Somebody start a company!’: ‘. . . start-up activity has plunged. Running 25 percent below its 2006 peak, it is at its slowest pace since the Labor Department began tracking the activity in 1994.’ Reasons cited are tight funding and ‘high uncertainty and low confidence about launching new ventures in a weak economy.’

6) ‘When a home is a dungeon’: The mortgage debt overhang is still large — 11 million Americans are “underwater,” i.e., they owe more on their mortgages than their homes are currently worth. For this and other reasons, consumers are less willing to spend, even relative to a year ago.

The article tries to end on a hopeful note by citing some companies that are actively hiring, but it also notes, ‘Still, overall the country would need to generate about 21 million new jobs by the end of the decade in order to return to a 5 percent jobless rate.’ Let’s do the math: September 2011 to December 2019 is 8*12 + 4 = 100 months. So the economy would have to generate an average of 210,000 jobs per month for the next eight years (and four months) to get unemployment back to its average rate for 1997-2007. Keep that number in mind every time you see a monthly employment report. Number of times since last summer that the U.S. added 210,000 jobs in a month: 2. And the total for August was 210,000 jobs short of that goal.

Labor Day joke

5 September 2011

Q: If there’s a Labor Day, why isn’t there a Capital Day?

A: Every day is Capital Day.

How dead is Keynes? Very.

3 September 2011

Eric Alterman hits the nail right on the head right here. Just as E. Cary Brown concluded about New Deal fiscal policy in the 1930s, the problem wasn’t that Keynesian fiscal stimulus was tried and found wanting, it’s that it wasn’t tried. Or was barely tried. In the 1930s the federal deficits were too small, were largely offset by budget cutting at the state and local level, and were reversed by a misguided attempt at budget balancing in 1936-37. Sound familiar? A key difference between then and now, however, is that Pres. Roosevelt and the Democratic Congresses of the 1930s believed in direct government job creation. The New Deal added an average of 3.5 million workers per year to the federal payroll. Pres. Obama was under great political pressure to keep that number at zero, and to hope that job creation would come from tax cuts (not promising, since much of that money gets saved or spent on imports) and government contracts (also not promising, since profit-maximizing contractors try to economize on labor costs).

For the last few quarters the government has actually been cutting spending and as a result its contribution to GDP growth has actually been negative. Yes, that’s from too little government, not too much.

Alas, this famous passage by Keynes no longer seems to be true:

‘The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.’

One could argue that Keynesian economics gave way to another academic branch of economics, like monetarism or new classical economics, but I see little in recent political or policy debates to suggest that either of those schools is being consulted. What about supply-side economics, you ask? It’s not really an academic school of economics, more a fig leaf for certain vested interests. Consider for, example former Reagan budget director David Stockman’s famous admission that the Kemp-Roth/Reagan “supply side” tax cuts were really just a Trojan Horse for cutting taxes on the rich.

Speaking of Reagan, his declaration thirty years ago that “government is the problem” seems to have become the  guiding light for economic policy-making in America. Score one for “the power of vested interests.”


3 September 2011

Dammit, Krugman’s stealing my thunder again — this time, by adding alternative and classic rock YouTube links to his blog posts. Despite his Nobel, he’s modest enough to admit he’s been out of the musical loop since 1990 and to ask his readers for suggestions. I sent mine in. Hope you get to comment #340, Paul. It includes a link to the music page that I’ve been updating for about ten years.

Meanwhile, Loudon Wainwright III has a song about Krugman: