Posts Tagged ‘congress’

Self-inflicted wounds: Nov. 23 edition

14 August 2011

Another Kabuki dance has commenced in Washington, now that Congressional leaders of both parties have made their selections for the Gang of Twelve charged with crafting $1.5 trillion in savings in 2013-2022. They have until Nov. 23 to agree on a package of savings. If Congress can’t pass that package, then $1.2 billion of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts (no tax increases) would kick in.

I’d place my bets on none of those things happening. Here’s what I foresee:

1. Negotiations among the twelve constantly are on the verge of breaking down along party lines, especially on the issue of tax increases. Possibly they are unable to reach a compromise at all. Even if they do, few of them will throw much weight behind it.

2. If a budget plan emerges, getting majority support in the House and 60 votes (or 51 votes, if nobody filibusters it) in the Senate will prove impossible. The partisan acrimony will look like open warfare.

3. With the specter of $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts, including maybe $500 billion in Pentagon cuts, the Secretaries of Defense, Homeland Security, and other agencies, joined by citizens and interest groups all over the nation, will howl that these cuts would devastate our country. Congress’s approval rating will plummet even further, to about the same level as the Taliban’s.

4. Congress will pass a new bill that says, um, nevermind about all those spending cuts. (This is an inherent problem in trying to tell future Congresses what to do, or even telling oneself what to do a little ways down the road.) Republicans will continue to pummel Obama and the Democrats for overspending, but neither side will be able to push a new deficit-reduction plan through both houses of Congress.

Now, what about the reaction of the markets to all this? I think that most of the market already expects something like this and has basically priced it in. It’s decades-old news that Congress has no stomach for long-term deficit reduction, and obvious by now that the partisan split in this Congress is among the worst ever. If the above predictions come to pass, then the markets and economy will get worse, as this failure becomes definite. As I’ve written before, I think the market is reacting less to the U.S. debt burden than to continued evidence that U.S. politicians are simply not doing their job when it comes to dealing with the Little Depression. I think they’re appalled that Congress and the White House are wasting so much time on this doomed debt deal and have basically painted themselves into a corner with this Nov. 23 deadline and automatic-spending-cuts mechanism. They see the writing on the wall; either Obama, Boehner, Reid, et al. don’t or each side is cynically thinking that they can spin this fiasco-in-waiting to their advantage. Either way, they’re not doing their job. They’ve set themselves up to fall, each side hoping that the other falls further.

No reason to get excited

1 August 2011

President Obama and Congressional leaders have apparently reached a deal on reducing the deficit, which might end the debt-ceiling crisis for now, assuming Congress passes it. Cause for celebration? More like cause for heavy sighs. I’ve been saying over and over that cutting government spending in an economic slump makes the slump worse. The best that can be said about it is that the (real-world political) alternative is worse, i.e., not raising the debt ceiling.

In a front-page article in today’s NYT a chorus of economists make the same point. In a time of slack demand, don’t weaken demand further by cutting government spending. The headline (from MSNBC.com’s republished version):

“Economists warn cuts to federal spending ill-timed:
Debt deal to spend less on US economy puts recovery at risk, experts say.”

The Times could have put this story on its front page months ago. Too late — by now, slashing social spending has gone from Republican fantasy to Washington Wisdom.

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.

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

The political economy of the financial crisis, in a picture

25 February 2011

From Mother Jones, this is a picture of what the Senate would look like if its 100 seats went not to the current senators but to the interest groups that have been their largest donors over their careers. The green one, which would have 57 seats, is Finance, Insurance and Real Estate. Lawyers and Lobbyists would have 25 seats. No other group would have more than 5.

Too big to say no to

4 May 2009

Banking news of note this past week:

  • A bill to allow bankruptcy court judges to modify the terms of troubled mortgages, “cramming down” the amounts owed so as to avoid foreclosures and make these debts and troubled assets more manageable, failed in the Senate, getting just 45 votes.   En route to the bill’s failure, its chief sponsor, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said the banks “are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place.”  The NYT noted that the White House, despite backing the bill, did not go to bat for it in its final days.
  • The Treasury has delayed the release of its “stress tests” of the 19 largest banks, apparently because their credulous-looking certification that all 19 banks are currently solvent is not rosy enough for some of the banks, notably Citigroup.  Word is that Citi and Bank of America are contesting the results, even though the tests (1) appear to have used the banks’ own questionable data on the values of their toxic assets and (2) minimize the amount of hypothetical “stress” these banks might be subject to, by entertaining only fairly optimistic worst-case scenarios.  Various economists have said the tests were rigged in the banks’ favor, but evidently some banks are pushing to make them even more so.  Yves Smith offers the full bill of indictment here.

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