Archive for the ‘depression’ Category

Cliff note

2 December 2012

Recently I was asked to write a blurb about the omnipresent “fiscal cliff,” and here it is:

“Fiscal cliff” is a good metaphor. Like a real cliff, it’s something you shouldn’t jump off and really shouldn’t even be standing near. Austerity policies like big tax increases and spending cuts would only make a weak economy worse. While we do need to reduce our deficit and debt relative to the size of the economy, this is a long-term problem that needs to be tackled when the economy is back to normal.* In the short term, the goal should be to avoid pushing the economy back into recession. Similarly, we should avoid needlessly rattling financial markets by threatening to jump off fiscal cliffs, shut down the government, or not raise the debt ceiling. Some say the fiscal-cliff threat is needed to prod Congress into reaching a long-term, balanced deficit-reduction deal; but it’s a dangerous game, especially if the deficit cutting starts too soon, like now.

* OK, I’d amend that to say that it’s fine and dandy for Congress to tackle our long-term fiscal shortfall now, as long as they can agree that to start chopping after, not during, the long slump we’re in now. It would be lovely if the House, Senate, and President could agree on a Grand Bargain of sensible tax increases, meaningful reductions in medical costs (the biggest driver of spending increases), and various spending cuts, to take effect once the unemployment rate is back down to 6% or so, but it just ain’t gonna happen, not with a Congress that just came off its most unproductive session in decades.

The logic of the fiscal-cliff threat was that Congress won’t act on the deficit unless the alternative is calamity. While I tend to agree with that, it’s not logical when Congress is threatening itself with calamity. It’s an empty threat, like saying that if I can’t lose thirty pounds by diet and exercise then I’ll amputate my own limbs. When the time comes, we’ll both realize it was just a stupid bluff. I’ll put down my axe and Congress will punt the decision into a later month or year. Remember, that’s how we got to the current fiscal-cliff deadline, after the debt-ceiling debacle of summer 2011.

I honestly don’t expect Congress to take serious action on the debt until and unless the bond market’s longtime love for US Treasury bonds turns to hate, a la Greece. I could be wrong — it looked pretty hopeless in the early 1990s, too, and yet we ended the decade with the budget in surplus. But both the budget and the economy are in bigger holes now.

Bad tidings

16 January 2012

200 posts later, I’m still agreeing with Nouriel “Dr. Doom” Roubini, whose prognosis for the U.S. economy in 2012 is not good.

The best I can say, and this is better than it sounds, is that recovery has a way of taking us economists by surprise. The 1991 and 2001 recessions look short and shallow in hindsight, but they seemed pretty bleak at the time, like classic “liquidity traps” where monetary policy was powerless to prime the pump. And the economy in 1980-82 seemed to be in absolute shambles. Most of the business cycle literature I’ve read deals with the causes of recessions and depressions, but I’m told there’s a substantial literature on the forces of recovery. I plan to acquaint myself with it this year, and to blog a fair bit about where recovery — especially a genuine, non-bubble-driven recovery — might come from.

Good news and bad news

15 December 2011

The good: Initial jobless claims last week were at their lowest level in three and a half years, back to May 2008, before the financial panic hit and before the recession had been declared. The four-week average is at its lowest level since July 2008. Last week’s number still looks high (366,000), but keep in mind that even in good times the number is usually over 300,000 — layoffs are a regular feature of the U.S. labor market. It should also be noted that unlike the recent drop in the official unemployment rate (from 9.0% to 8.6%), this improvement is not mostly an artifact of unemployment people giving up on their job search and dropping out of the labor force. These are initial claims for unemployment insurance, by people who previously were working. So if this number is down, then either there were fewer layoffs or (less likely, I’d think) fewer laid-off workers bothered to apply for unemployment insurance.

The bad: Nearly half of Americans (48%) are either poor or near-poor, according to new Census data. That includes 49 million who are classified as living in poverty, plus 97 million who are classified as “near poor,” defined as having an income between 100 and 200 percent of the poverty line. Once upon a time many people would dismiss Census poverty data by noting that they failed to include government welfare spending and other anti-poverty tax and transfer policies, and also failed to adjust for the huge variation in the cost of living in different regions of the nation. But the new figures reflect the recently revised Census methodology, which answers those objections. One might also object that the low-income threshold is actually quite high — $45,000 for a family of four — but I would guess that the objectors have not tried to support a family of four on that amount lately. The AP article quotes Robert Rector* of the Heritage Foundation with the old conservative argument that many of these people have TV’s, cars, and houses, ergo they’re not really materially deprived, but I think he’s missing a couple things:

  • Poverty is a relative measure as well as an absolute measure. Yes, $45,000 would have been opulence for, say, a family in colonial America (which apparently had the highest standard of living in the world at the time). But colonial families grew their own food, spun their own cloth, and were otherwise generally self-sufficient. Also, yesterday’s luxuries often become today’s necessities. For example, two decades ago I spent about $25 a month to stay connected, in the form of basic landline service. Today, staying connected costs me about $350 a month, for cable TV and Internet, cellphone, etc. You can live without all those things, but when everyone around you has them, you will know deprivation. Just because it’s a social construct doesn’t mean it’s bogus.
  • The burden of consumer debt: Entering the recession, consumer debt was at an all-time high relative to income. Household debt service payments averaged 14% of income and about 28% for renters. Since the recession began, many households are obviously much poorer and finding it much harder to make those payments. Many have, of course, not merely fallen behind but lost their houses and other collateral. The overall debt-service-to-income statistics show that households are successfully deleveraging,with the number down to 11%, but the average surely hides a lot of variation. I expect debt is weighing very, very heavily on most near-poor households — those that still have their houses, that is.

When members of a household are unemployed or underemployed, they are probably just barely keeping up with the living standards of the community or even their own living standards of a couple months or years ago. It’s gotta be painful. Pundits and politicians ignore that reality at their own peril.

(*Also the same person from whom I first heard the suggestion that government policy on poverty should be based on the words of the apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “That if any would not work, neither should he eat.” I last heard it from Michele Bachmann.)

Epic fail

21 November 2011

The so-called “supercommittee” of six Democrats and six Republicans, charged last summer with drafting a deal for $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over ten years, failed to do so by today’s deadline. The so-called teeth in last summer’s agreement to form a supercommittee was that Congress would either accept their proposal or submit to $1.2 trillion in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts. Is this good news, bad news, or irrelevant?

Good, says Paul Krugman. To be precise, he said that last week. His reasoning was that cutting spending is counterproductive in a time of economic depression, as it will just exacerbate the depression, so it’s best that they didn’t make a deal to cut spending. Today, he’s a bit more nuanced, noting a Bloomberg.com story about how the supercommittee’s failure is rattling markets but highlighting this aspect of the story (Krugman’s words):

‘. . . what it actually says is that market players fear that the absence of a debt deal means no stimulus. So the actual fear is not that spending won’t be cut enough, it is that it will be cut too much — which actually makes sense, and is consistent with the action in stock and bond markets.

‘But how many readers will get that? The way it’s presented reinforces the false notion that the deficit is the problem.’

Bad, says Kevin Drum. At least if you’re someone like Kevin Drum, Paul Krugman, or me, who thinks it’s foolish to cut social spending in a depression and really isn’t all that keen on slashing the social safety net in general. Unlike Krugman, Drum thinks many if not most of the automatic spending cuts will go into effect. The deal is only good if you’re a Republican who lives to cut social programs. In other words, the Democrats got rolled again, just as in the bogus “debt ceiling authorization” debate. Drum:

‘In any case, this should basically be viewed as a total victory for Republicans. Any alternative plan would have included some tax increases, so failure to come up with an alternative means that we get a big deficit reduction that’s 100% spending cuts, just like they wanted. And the 50-50 split between domestic and defense cuts was always sort of a joke. Republicans never had any intention of allowing the Pentagon’s half of the cuts to materialize, and the domestic spending half of the cuts was about as big as they wanted them to be. Big talk aside, they know bigger cuts would run the risk of seriously pissing off voters.

‘So Republicans got domestic spending cuts that were about as big as they really wanted. They know they’ll never have to implement most of the defense cuts. And there are no tax increases.’

Irrelevant, say the bond markets. The demand for ten-year U.S. Treasury bonds was actually up slightly today, whereas really bad news about the long-term U.S. fiscal position should send demand down and interest rates up. Either the market regards $1.2 trillion over 10 years as no big deal (and it is rather small compared with a national debt of $14 trillion), or they were expecting the supercommittee to fail all along. Or both.

U.S. 10-year 1.959% -0.051

The Occupy movement, seriously

17 November 2011

picture with textI’d been meaning to write about the Occupy Wall Street movement, but now I’m intimidated, having just read Mohammed el-Erian’s eloquent take on the movement. Although el-Erian, as CEO of the PIMCO investment behemoth, is about as high up the 1% tree as one can be, he is more than sympathetic to the movement. Sympathy is easy. It’s also easy to criticize the movement for its lack of unity and seeming cacophony of voices. But El-Erian, unlike many observers, sees beyond the surface and makes out a powerful, “peaceful drive for social justice,” not unlike the protests in Tunisia and his home country of Egypt:

OWS may pale in comparison to these country examples. Yet it would be both foolish and arrogant to dismiss three important similarities:

First, the desire for greater social justice is a natural consequence of a system shown to be blatantly unfair in its operation and, to make things worse, incapable of subsequently holding accountable people and institutions.

In the US, it is about a system that privatized massive gains and then socialized huge losses; allowed bailed-out banks to resume past behavior with seemingly little regulatory and legal consequences; and is paralyzed when it comes to alleviating the suffering of victims, including millions of unemployed (too many of whom are becoming long-term unemployed, slipping into poverty, and losing access to safety nets). The result is a visible and growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in today’s America.

Second, OWS’s followers will grow as our economy continues to experience sluggish growth, persistently high joblessness, and budgetary pressures that curtail spending on basic social services (such as education and health). Other internal and external realities will also play a role.

At home, our elected representatives seem incapable as a group to respond properly to severe economic and social challenges. Continuous (and increasingly nasty) political bickering undermines the required trio of common purpose, joint vision, and acceptance of shared short-term sacrifices for generalized long-term benefits.

Internationally, Europe’s deepening debt crisis amplifies headwinds undermining an already sluggish American economy that, in the absence of better policy responses, is on the brink of another recession, Should the economy slip from treading to taking on water, the social implications would be profound given that we already have high unemployment, a large fiscal deficit and, with policy interest rates already floored at zero, little policy flexibility.

Third, advances in social media help overcome communication and coordination problems that quickly derailed similar protests in the more distant past.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. I can only hope that el-Erian will speak out forcefully for better government policies, namely the type of wholesale changes that we need to tackle these huge problems that he identifies.

We’re caught in a trap

15 November 2011

This just in: The Federal Reserve does not control the universe.

Stated differently: The economy is in a liquidity trap (macroeconomists). Or, monetary policy has shot its wad (Pres. Obama to economic adviser Christina Romer in their first meeting, according to Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men). Krugman has been saying this for three years now, and so have a lot of other economists. But until today, I had yet to hear it from a Fed official. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has called for Congress to pursue a more expansionary policy fiscal policy, thus implying but not explicitly saying that the Fed has done just about all it can. But in a speech today, Chicago Fed President and Federal Open Market Committee member Charles Evans had the guts to state the obvious:

I largely agree with economists such as Paul Krugman, Mike Woodford and others who see the economy as being in a liquidity trap: Short-term nominal interest rates are stuck near zero, even while desired saving still exceeds desired investment. This situation is the natural result of the abundance of caution exercised by many households and businesses that still worry that they have inadequate buffers of assets to cushion against unexpected shocks. Such caution holds back spending below the levels of our productive capacity. For example, I regularly hear from business contacts that they do not want to risk hiring new workers until they actually see an uptick in demand for their products. Most businesses do not appear to be cutting back further at the moment, but they would rather sit on cash than take the risk of further expansion.”

Evans went on to suggest a number of measures the Fed should still take, like buying up more mortgage-backed securities to get the housing market going (I’m still on the fence on that one — yes, this is the economy’s weakest sector, but how do you do this without reinflating the housing bubble?), while keeping mum on the subject of whether this would do anything more than just nudge the economy forward, as opposed to bringing us anywhere near full employment. I suppose the question is moot, as long as nobody else is willing to act. Congress is not only unwilling to consider fiscal stimulus but seems to be on the verge of massive budget cuts, either by following the “super committee’s” blueprint or letting an autopilot crash the plane.

Hat tip to Judith Osofsky for today’s video:

Dean Baker on banks, bailouts, and reform

14 November 2011

Naked Capitalism has an excellent two-part interview with Dean Baker, one of the Cassandras who spotted the housing bubble years before it burst and who has been a much-needed gadfly in the ointment of economic news reporting and the economics profession. Baker’s new book, The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive, is available for free download here, including in Kindle and Nook formats. Here are some highlights from the interview, conducted by Philip Pilkington. I’ve highlighted in boldface some lines I found particularly compelling:

PP: Moving on, in the book you make the claim that had the financial system been allowed to melt down we would not actually have ended up in another Great Depression. This is not to say that you don’t recognise that letting the financial system melt down would have caused a lot of problems – for banks, of course, but also for pension funds and the like – but you say that those in charge of the bailouts exaggerated the importance of the financial sector. Could you explain briefly what you mean by this? And what do you think should have been done at the time of the bailouts?

DB: The point here is that we know how to reflate an economy. Massive government spending will do it. It got us out of the Great Depression, although not until World War II created the political consensus for the level of spending that was necessary to actually do the job.

A financial collapse cannot condemn us to a decade of stagnation and high unemployment. That only comes about from a prolonged period of political failure. If we had allowed the banks to collapse in the financial panic of 2008 then we would [still?] have had the opportunity to pick up the pieces and get the economy back on track with a massive stimulus program.

Of course it was best to not let the banks collapse. However the bailout should have come with real conditions that would have ensured the financial system was fundamentally restructured. This would have included breaking up the too big to fail banks (on a clear timetable, not necessarily at that time), serious caps on compensation, a commitment to principal write-downs and other real conditions.

At that time the banks were desperate. Without a big dose of public money they would almost certainly have been insolvent, so they would have had little choice but to accept whatever conditions were imposed. As it was, they almost got President Obama thanking them for taking taxpayer dollars in the bailout.

PP: Any ideas about what could be done with the banks now? Or is the damage already done?

DB: We still need to reform and downsize the financial sector. We don’t have the same leverage over the banks as we did at the peak of the crisis when we could have slapped whatever conditions we wanted on the loans and guarantees they needed to stay alive, but Congress can still pass laws that will rein in the industry.

At the top of the list is a financial speculation tax. A modest tax on financial transactions will do much to reduce the rents in the industry and to eliminate or drastically reduce short-term trading that serves no productive purpose. It will also raise a ton of money.

The second thing is breaking up the too big to fail banks. There is no justification for allowing banks to be able to borrow at below market interest rates because they enjoy an implicit government guarantee.

The third item on my list would be re-instating a Glass-Steagall type separation between commercial and investment banking. The Volcker rule, which limits proprietary trading by banks with insured deposits, was a step in the right direction. However it looks as though the industry is using the rule-making process to turn the law into Swiss cheese. It is likely that most banks will be able to find loopholes that will allow them to do as much proprietary banking as they want.

Anyhow, these would be my top three reforms. Politically, all of them would be very tough sells right now. By contrast, at the peak of the crisis, the industry would have voluntarily agreed to the last two in order to get the money they needed to stay alive.

PP: You write in the book that the idea that the banks repaid all the money from TARP is misleading. Could you explain this, because this myth is very prevalent in the mainstream media?

DB: Yes, this is really kind of a joke. The banks got loans at way below market interest rates from the government, and we are supposed be grateful that they repaid the loans? The difference between the market interest rate and the rate they actually paid amounted to a huge subsidy. This is something that anyone with even a passing familiarity with business or economics would recognize, which is why it is so insulting when political figures go around yapping about how the money was repaid with interest.

To see this point, suppose the government gives me a 30-year mortgage at 1 percent interest. If I make all my payments and pay off the mortgage has the government made money? By the logic of the politicians claiming that we profited by the bailout, the answer is yes.

A serious assessment would look at what the market rate for these loans was at the time they were made. To take one example, just before we lent $5 billion to Goldman through TARP, Warren Buffet lent $5 billion himself. He got twice the interest and a much more generous deal on warrants. Plus he knows that it was likely that the government would bail out Goldman if it got in trouble.

Elizabeth Warren commissioned a study of the implicit subsidies in the bailouts when she was head of the TARP oversight panel. As I recall, it came to over $100 billion on just the first batch of TARP loans to the large banks. This didn’t count the value of later TARP lending, the much larger lending programs from the Fed, nor the extensive set of guarantees provided by the Fed, Treasury, and the FDIC.

All of these commitments involved enormous subsidies. In the business world firms pay huge amounts of money if they want their debt to be guaranteed. And everyone understands that a below market loan is essentially a gift. That is why it is so insulting when they try to imply that the public has profited from these loans.

You can make the argument that it was good policy to subsidize the financial industry to get through the crisis, but to pretend that we did not subsidize them is just dishonest.

Incidentally, the reforms Baker suggests are similar to those recently suggested by Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi as a starting point for the Occupy Wall Street protesters. More on those later.

 

The world economy’s “Mingya!” moment?

10 November 2011

“Italy Is Now the Biggest Story in the World,” says Kevin Drum. And he’s not talking about Joe Paterno (whose story I confess to having spent a lot more time following lately than Italy’s). But this is bad: another Eurozone country with a high debt/GDP ratio, soaring interest rates on its government debt, and no currency of its own that could depreciate to revive net exports, and no central bank of its own to expand the supply of credit. Just like Greece, except that Italy’s economy is about six times as large. It’s the fourth-largest economy in all of Europe, in fact.

For months people have been nervously watching Europe’s toxic cauldron of economic depression, austerity, sovereign debt crises, and bank funding problems (verging on crisis), and wondering if and when Europe’s problems might lead to a double-dip recession (or, as I’d call it, a recession within a depression, a la 1937). I wonder if someone else has already written the headline “Italy: Waiting for the Other Boot to Drop” yet.

P.S. If you’ve never heard the expression “Mingya!” then you obviously don’t live in Oswego. The Urban Dictionary will set you straight.

The big banks are still socializing the losses; or, Sympathy for the stockholder

20 October 2011

The original bank bailout may have been repaid in full, but the big banks are still socializing the losses. This time, it’s among their shareholders. Brad DeLong offers some specifics:

‘Investors in Goldman Sachs have lost more than half their money since 2007 . . .

‘Investors in Morgan Stanley have lost more than three-quarters of their money since 2007 . . .

‘Investors in Citigroup have lost 93% of their money since 2007 . . .

‘Investors in Bank of America have lost 85% of their money since 2007 . . .

‘Investors in Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch lost more than 90% if their investments as well . . .’

DeLong’s charts (click above link to see them) show that even after bank stocks started to rebound in fall 2009, the losses have still been huge.

One might think this is just a case of the rich getting poorer, but it’s not that simple. In fact, the distributional consequences seem to run the other way. The stockholders, most of whom are middle-class and upper-middle-class folks, are getting hammered. About half of the population owns stock (granted, the wealthy own most of it), so about half of The Other 99% own stock and are seeing their retirement portfolios shrink along with the rest of their savings. (If you own stock at all, you probably own a lot of big bank stock, because they are weighted heavily in index funds, other mutual funds, and pension funds.)

How has the reduced market value of these firms affected the executives and highest-paid employees at the big banks? Not much, apparently. While I don’t have precise data handy, there have been reports all through this Lesser Depression of huge payouts to bankers, including yesterday’s news of Morgan Stanley. It’s happening in England, too.

DeLong’s post includes some excellent comments about how the banks’ poor performance has affected their shareholders and their high-level employees so differently. There’s a technical term for it: looting.

P.S. The Wall Street Journal reports that bank losses have been huge of late. Goldman Sachs lost money in the second quarter of this year, and has had six straight year-over-year quarterly losses. Goldman’s stock is down 39% for the year, and Bank of America’s is down 50%. No mention of how (or whether) bonuses will be affected.

The ones that never knock

9 October 2011

Stay in school, kids. At least till you’re 25, or maybe for as long as you can. That’s the message of the wildly different unemployment rates for college graduates age 20-24 versus age 25 and over.

The September 2011 unemployment rate for college graduates was 4.2%, which sounds pretty good, even though it’s more than double what it was before the recession. However, that’s for college graduates age 25 and over. I reported this a couple days ago but didn’t have a separate rate for younger college graduates, since that wasn’t in last Friday’s BLS employment report. But the data do exist. The New York Times mentioned today that the jobless rate for college grads under age 25 averaged an eye-popping 9.6% over the past year. Before the recession it was just 3.7%. Which sent me scurrying to The Google.

The latest BLS Current Population Survey shows that the rate was 8.1% as of last month — trending down, but still historically high and only a percentage point less than the overall unemployment rate. And this is just by the official definition of unemployment, which doesn’t include discouraged job-seekers who’ve stopped looking, involuntary part-timers, or college grads working in “high school” (or less) jobs that don’t require a college degree. Evidently it’s a lot easier to keep a “college job” than to land one.

Staying in school past college seems almost necessary, too, considering that median pay for moderately young (age 25 to 34) college grads with bachelor’s degree is almost 10% lower than it was a decade ago.

As bad as it is for young college grads, it’s vastly worse for those with less education. Unemployment rates for 20-24 year-olds by educational attainment:

  • some college, no degree: 12.9%
  • high school diploma or GED: 22.4%
  • no high school diploma: 28.5%

With hordes of unemployed young people, thousands of them engaged in mass protests in Wall Street and other locales, this country is reminding me a lot of Europe in the early 1980s. Which makes a bunch of classic English punk and post-punk songs timely again. I’ll go with this one: