Posts Tagged ‘dean baker’

Blame Canada?

17 June 2013

Unlike the USA and most of western Europe in 2008-2009, Canada did not have a financial crisis. Quite a few columns and articles were written about the superior stability of Canada’s financial system, which is much more concentrated but is apparently much more tightly regulated and has captured far fewer politicians and regulators than its US counterpart. I meant to blog about that but never got around to it.

Which makes Krugman’s recent post about Canada‘s still-raging housing bubble fascinating reading. In brief: housing prices in Canada experienced much the same run-up as US housing prices in the mid-2000s but instead of plummeting after 2007, have kept on rising. They are now more than double their 1975 level, whereas US house prices peaked at about 190% of that level. Canadian household debt as a percentage of income also never stopped rising and is now slightly above the US ratio.

Does this mean Canada is headed for a financial crisis? Not necessarily. Canada’s financial sector still looks sedate compared to its high-flying, reckless US counterpart. But you can have a collapsing bubble and severe recession without a financial crisis. Canada did not escape the worldwide 2008 recession and has made a fair recovery, but it is not hard to see where the next big blow could come from. Dean Baker has emphasized that the recent US financial crisis depended far less on subprime borrowing, securitization, credit default swaps, and the other usual suspects and much more on the collapse of a multi-trillion-dollar housing bubble, and the loss of all that wealth and wealth-driven consumption. Not surprisingly, Baker liked Krugman’s post. He adds that the collapse of the housing bubble could be even worse in Canada because 30-year fixed-rate mortgages never took hold in Canada (as they did in the US during the New Deal). The standard mortgage in Canada has to be paid off or refinanced in five years, so when interest rates rise from their current record lows (1% is the current benchmark short-term rate in Canada), millions of homeowners could see their monthly payments shoot up. The scenario is similar to the expiration of low “teaser rates” on adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) in the US in 2006-2008, but could be even worse, as the five-year limit appears more common in Canada than ARMs were in America. Could large numbers of defaults on “underwater mortgages” (where amount owed exceeds market value of house) happen in Canada, too?

I love Canada, but if I were to move there today, I’d rent.

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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.

 

What’s dragging the economy down?

27 August 2011

This recent observation by Dean Baker got me thinking:

‘As noted in today’s lesson on accounting identities, the share of GDP devoted to investment in equipment and software is almost back to its pre-crisis level. And, the saving rate is still below its post-war average, meaning that consumption is high, not low.’

The point about investment is particularly notable. All through this Little Depression we’ve been hearing that companies are reluctant to invest, whether because of pessimism about future sales (me, for example) or because of uncertainty about future taxes and regulations (conservatives). A bit less than half of  investment is in equipment and software, so it’s good news that that’s largely come back. The larger part of investment, structural investment (both commercial and residential), is still hurting, however; I’d think the reasons are related to the post-2007 woes in the housing and real estate sector in general.

The Commerce Department’s quarterly GDP reports are a godsend for trying to pinpoint what areas of the economy are strong and which are week. The reports have three one-page tables: Table 1 gives the annualized real percent change for the various GDP components, broken down into a couple dozen sub-components; Table 2 gives the contribution of each one to real GDP growth (e.g., if increased investment caused GDP growth to be 1.0% instead of 0.0%, its contribution is listed as 1.0%); Table 3 gives the dollar value of each component and sub-component. Yesterday’s report contains revised figures for the second quarter of this year, and quarterly figures dating back to 2007. What do they tell us?

First, looking at the yearly figures, in 2008 and 2009, the two years when real GDP actually fell, investment fell even more sharply, and consumption fell somewhat, with positive contributions from net exports and (secondarily) government purchases making up some of the difference. Okay, that’s not news, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

Turning to the quarterly figures, we’ve now had two full years of rising real GDP dating back to the third quarter of 2009, but from 2010:I to 2011:I that growth slowed in every single quarter: 3.9, 3.8, 2.5, 2.3, 0.4%. It rebounded to a still-anemic 1.0% in 2011:II. Those last few growth rates are not enough to keep the unemployment rate from rising, which is the definition of a “growth recession.”

The economy had three consecutive strong quarters in 2010:IV-2011:II, with real GDP growth of almost 4%. What drove that little spurt? In the first two cases, investment, especially inventory investment (which means companies were optimistically producing in expectation of higher sales and/or failed to sell much of what they produced). Equipment and software investment made a modest contribution, and structural investment again made a negative contribution. In the third quarter, investment again led the way (this time sparked by equipment and software), with consumption closely behind. Notably, despite the federal stimulus, the total government contribution to GDP growth was slightly negative in those first two quarters (state and local retrenchment more than offset the federal stimulus) and modest in the third quarter (of note: the modest federal contribution of 0.71% was actually the second-highest since the stimulus began, with the highest being 1.09% in 2009:II. Draw your own conclusion. Mine is that the stimulus was way too small.)

What caused growth to be so slow in the first two quarters of 2011? Government retrenchment led the way, with respective contributions of -1.23% and -0.18%. In the first quarter, most of the retrenchment was at the federal level (-0.81%), which probably represents the winding down of the stimulus. In the second quarter, state and local government retrenchment shaved 0.34% off GDP, while the federal contribution was slightly positive. Also in the first quarter, a surge in imports mostly negated the contribution of increased consumption (1.47%-1.35%).

If we want to look for positives, here are the components of real GDP that grew by at least 3% (annualized, and 3% is about the historic norm for GDP growth) in both quarters of 2011:

  • investment in equipment and structures: 8.7%, 7.9%
  • exports: 7.9%, 3.1%

Not bad, but too small in relation to the economy to lead economic growth. Investment in structures was still poor (with a combined contribution to GDP growth in the two quarters of about zero), and rising imports more than offset the improvement in exports. Perhaps the key thing that sticks out is that even without the drags on the economy from government retrenchment and negative net exports, the positive parts of the economy were themselves fairly weak. Consumption contributed just 1.47% and 0.30% respectively; investment just 0.47% and 0.78%. Even without the drags from government and net exports, that’s total growth of just 1.94% and 1.08%. This is still a very slowly recovering economy, still a Little Depression. It also looks like there’s way too much vacant housing and physical plant out there for many people to want to build.

What more could the Fed do?

5 August 2011

I don’t claim to have the answer to this question. Those who propose an answer other than “nothing” don’t get a lot of airtime, but Dean Baker, one of my favorite gadfly economists, is one of them. He writes today that it is wrong, wrong, wrong to say that the Fed has run out of ammunition. While it is true that the Fed has lowered its usual policy target, the federal funds rate, as far as it can go (0-0.25%) and blown through two unusual policy actions known as quantitative easing (QE), there are other options that every policy economist has heard about. (Whether they’re wise options or not is the real question.) I’ll turn it over to Baker:

‘The Fed could do another round of quantitative easing, although this is likely to have a limited impact. It could also target a long-term interest rate, for example putting a 1.0 percent interest rate target on 5-year Treasury bonds.’

QE3 might well happen, although as Baker notes the impact is likely to be limited, as was the case with QE2. Since QE2 did not seem to roil financial markets, my sense is that there will be a QE3, with a slight downward push on medium- and long-term interest rates. But given the low business and consumer borrowing with today’s low interest rates, I doubt that nudging them further down will make a noticeable difference.

Targeting a long-term interest rate implies a more aggressive form of QE, where the Fed buys and sells long-term bonds in such a way as to control the market for those bonds. This is more than it does in its open market operations for Treasury bills, which are about hitting a target for the fed funds rate (the interest rate on loans of reserves between banks), not controlling the T-bill rate. I’m instinctively a bit leery of handing that much control over the bond market to the Fed, and I suspect financial markets would like it even less.

‘Alternatively, the Fed could pursue a path that Bernanke himself had advocated for Japan when he was still a Princeton professor. It could target a higher rate of inflation, for example 4 percent. This would have the effect of reducing real interest rates. It would also lower the debt burden of homeowners, which could allow them to spend more money.’

I’m really skeptical of this one on two fronts.

  1. I don’t think it’s all that easy for the Fed to raise the inflation rate when the economy is stagnant. (The exception — stagflation in the 1970s — was a case where people lost all confidence in the Fed, and it’s not an episode anyone wants to repeat.) All the textbook models I’ve seen of inflation have it coming from either higher aggregate demand (the horse to inflation’s cart, not the other way around, and precisely what’s lacking in this depression) or from an increase in the money supply. And increasing the money supply is not as simple as dropping cash from a helicopter. In the real world the money supply increases as part of a multi-step process: the Fed gives banks excess reserves, banks willingly loan out those excess reserves to willing borrowers, those borrowers spend them, the cash gets deposited into bank accounts, which are part of the money supply. Note the “willing” parts in there — banks have to be willing to loan out their excess reserves, instead of sitting on huge piles of them as they’re doing now, and households and firms have to be willing to borrow money, instead of holding back out of economic anxiety.
  2. Doubling the Fed’s target rate of inflation (it’s now 2%, unofficially) would not only be a political non-starter, likely leading to Congressional hearings or legislation to change the Fed’s charter, but it seems to rely on massive money illusion, i.e., a public too stupid to know what the inflation rate is. Financial markets can make big mistakes, but ignoring the inflation rate is generally not one of them. As Irving Fisher noted a century ago, if the expected inflation rate jumps from 2% to 4%, then nominal interest rates will also jump by 2 percentage points, leaving expected real interest rates (the ones that matter) unchanged. It is true that real interest rates on old loans and the real burden of old debt would fall, which would be good for debtors and ought to provide a net stimulus to the economy. But creditors would regard a planned inflation hike to 4% as theft, which could not be good for confidence overall and might inhibit future lending. Raising the inflation target to the historic norm of 3% would be better, but then we’re back to the question in (1): How?

I’m still looking for alternative stimuli the Fed could try, including different forms that QE3 could take. If you’ve got any ideas, the comments section is happy to have ’em.

Unconfident consumers

29 June 2010

Well, can you blame them?

After two bubble-based expansions, in which first a tech stock bubble (1990s) and then a housing bubble (2000s) helped fuel huge levels of consumer debt, it seems rational for consumers to conclude that they’ve been living beyond their means and hence to retrench.  Today’s report of a 10-point drop in an already-low consumer confidence index is some hard cheese just the same.

The linked story, above, is a good one in that it actually provides information as to what is a “normal” or “good” level of the index.  90 is pretty good, 100 means “strong growth.”  So this month’s reading of 52.9 (again, down 10 points from May’s) is awful.  The best that can be said for it is that it’s double its all-time low of 25.3 in February 2009.

The story also mentions weakness in the housing market, where the Commerce Dept. reported Wednesday that new-home sales in May dropped 33% from their April level.  While a big drop is not shocking in view of the April 30 expiration of big tax credits for homebuyers, it was larger than expected, and the annualized rate of 300,000 new homes purchases is the lowest in the history of the Commerce Dept.’s survey (which began in 1963).  Again, considering the giant bubble in the housing market that preceded the current slump, it seems plausible to me that we have not yet hit bottom, i.e., the market may still have some correcting to do.

I hate to sound like a liquidationist, but if it’s true that the economy was on steroids thanks to a housing bubble and a frenzy of consumer debt, then our “natural” standard of living may be a good bit lower than we’d care to admit.

UPDATE, July 4:  Dean Baker says the housing bubble still has some deflating to do, in particular in California, New York, and Illinois.  He says house prices in those states are still way over trend levels and still abnormally high in relation to rents.

Financial reform bill: Better than nothing

22 May 2010

This week the Senate passed a financial reform bill that’s at least a bit tougher than looked possible a couple weeks ago.  Paul Krugman has a concise rundown on it right here:

“What’s good? Resolution authority, which was sorely lacking last year; consumer protection; derivatives traded through clearinghouses; ratings reform, thanks to Al Franken; tighter capital standards for big players, although with too much discretion to regulators.

“What’s missing? Hard leverage limits; size caps; not much in the way of restoring Glass-Steagall. If you think that too big to fail is the core problem, it’s disappointing; if you think that shadow banking is the core, as I do, not too bad.”

Dean Baker has some additional words here on Al Franken’s credit-rating-agencies reform amendment, which would eliminate the huge grades-for-sale conflict of interest of having companies being rated pay the rating agency for their work.  Instead, the Securities and Exchange Commission will assign the rating agency for each new securities issue.

The Senate bill also includes a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which will be technically independent, as reformers had been pushing for and industry had been furiously opposing.  However, the agency will be housed within the Federal Reserve, which reformers had opposed because of the Fed’s dismal track record on consumer protection over the past decade.  Supposedly the agency will not have to answer to the Fed’s leadership, but we’ll have to see how that works out in practice.  I have not yet seen any word on whether the fabulous Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law professor who had been advocating for this agency, would still be interested in heading it.

All told, the bill still leaves much to be desired — Simon Johnson and James Kwak at The Baseline Scenario decry its lack of hard capital requirements or bank size restrictions — but looks a whole lot better than nothing:

Quote of the day

24 January 2010

Where only so much credit is due:

“Preventing the collapse of the financial system should probably seen as being comparable to a major league outfielder catching a long fly ball. It’s not that easy, but major league outfielders do it.”

Dean Baker, taking issue with the NYT’s contention that Tim Geithner and Larry Summers have gotten too little credit for preventing an all-out financial collapse in the USA.  Baker points out that no major country saw its financial system collapse in this crisis, so the US performance in this regard was nothing special by today’s standards.

Health care: out of options?

16 August 2009

Economist Richard Thaler has a thought-provoking, argumentative piece in today’s NYT that takes a critical look at the current debate about a public option, or government-run option, for health insurance. The gist of Thaler’s column is that having a public option is unlikely to make much of a difference, at least if it is required to break even. Interesting stuff, especially coming from a sometime Obama adviser and top behavioral economist.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean has a new book out about health care which says a public option is absolutely essential for serious reform, but evidently Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius have backtracked on that one or were not so keen on it in the first place. Thaler reminds us that the two key issues here are (1) covering the uninsured and (2) bringing down costs. Whether and how that can be done with health insurance cooperatives, the leading proposed alternative to a public option, will be two of the big questions in the weeks to come.

UPDATE, August 18: Rethinking the Economy has a pointed rebuke to Thaler.  So does Dean Baker.  Both suggest he dismisses the public option much too blithely.

What the #$*! do we know!?

6 July 2009

WhatTheBleep2Didn’t see the movie, but the title is one that any student of economics must ponder on a regular basis. Case in point: our attempts to understand the current crisis, which is the reason I set up this blog in the first place. While there does seem to be a general consensus that the crisis involved the bursting of a bubble of some kind, there seems to be strong disagreement on the specifics, even among economists who are smart, fair, and thorough.

A few weeks ago I noted that there were two basic explanations of the crisis that were both plausible and consistent with each other:  (1) overindebted Americans whose luck finally ran out and (2) a global savings glut. Money inflows from abroad helped fuel the housing and stock-market bubbles, and also made U.S. interest rates cheaper, thus making it easier for spendthrift Americans to keep on borrowing. Americans have been living beyond their means since 1981 (we know this because the trade balance has been negative during that time, meaning that imports have made up the gap between what we purchase and what we produce), and foreigners have been our eager enablers by purchasing U.S. stocks, bonds, property, and other assets. Aggregate statistics show that American indebtedness increased greatly in the past decade — to the highest levels since 1929! — and of course the housing market (and to a lesser extent the stock market) became a historic bubble in this decade. The usual story is that the runups in stock and housing prices encouraged Americans to spend more and more, even to the point of going further into debt, as their equity was rising and in many cases, like home equity loans, they could even borrow against it. Then the housing bubble burst, and the stock bubble followed suit, and suddenly Americans were a lot less wealthy and therefore cut back their spending, causing GDP to fall.

Still sounds plausible, but is it true? Some recent empirical studies cast a lot of doubt on both of those explanations.

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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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