Posts Tagged ‘paul krugman’

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.

The only downgrade that matters

22 December 2012

Remember these words: “means of extinguishment.” The full quote is “The creation of debt should always be accompanied with the means of extinguishment,” and it’s from Alexander Hamilton, the father of our national debt. Hamilton believed that the federal government could do the nation a big favor by carrying a debt as long as it had sufficient revenue streams to eventually pay it off; such an arrangement, he said, would give the US “immortal credit,” which could come in very handy whenever we had pressing needs or good public investment opportunities that justified borrowing more money.

This has been on my mind because the (yawn) “fiscal cliff” negotiations, whatever their outcome, are really just the latest round in an endless series of self-destructive battles over whether to honor our own budget commitments by raising the debt ceiling so that we can pay for them. I’ve written about Congress’s debt-ceiling looniness before, and how it would be better not to have such votes at all. Think the proposed budget has too big a deficit? Fine, then don’t vote for it. But to vote for it and then refuse to pay for it is not only cynical and hypocritical, but sows suspicion that the government is a deadbeat.

Standard & Poor’s (S&P) famously downgraded the federal government’s debt in August 2011 (from AAA to AA+), and the other two major bond rating agencies (Moody’s, Fitch) are threatening to do the same if Congress can’t reach some kind of agreement to reduce the debt/GDP ratio in the long term. After the subprime scandal, in which the rating agencies routinely rubber-stamped dodgy subprime mortgage-backed securities as AAA, these agencies have zero credibility, but that doesn’t mean they’re always wrong. The S&P said its downgrade “was pretty much motivated by all of the debate about the raising of the debt ceiling. . . . It involved a level of brinksmanship greater than what we had expected earlier in the year.” Yes — if Congress can’t be counted upon to honor its own commitments, which include paying back the principal and interest on previously issued Treasury bonds, then why should bond buyers regard Treasury bonds as completely safe? The more Congress continues to play these games, the more rational it is to conclude that maybe Treasury bonds are not so safe. (more…)

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 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 other 90%

19 October 2011

That’s who loses from Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” tax plan, according to analysts at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center (jointly run by the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution). Krugman has a quick synopsis.

Income stratum   Impact on after-tax income

  • Bottom 20%       -18.7%
  • 20th-40th %ile  -15.4%
  • 40th-60th %ile  -10.1%
  • 60th-80th %ile   -6.1%
  • 80th-90th %ile  -2.3%
  • 90th-95th %ile  +0.9%
  • 95th-99th %ile  +6.5%
  • Top 1%  +19.7%
  • Top 0.1%  +26.6%

Howard Gleckman of the Tax Policy Center notes, “In Cain’s world, a typical household making more than $2.7 million would pay a smaller share of its income in federal taxes than one making less than $18,000.”

I wrote before that the Cain tax plan seemed calculated to appeal to Republicans whose idea of economic injustice is poor people not paying income tax (which happens because they earn less than the standard deduction and personal exemption. Never mind that they do pay payroll taxes, sales taxes, and excise taxes). But even if you do think the tax system is too generous to the poor, you probably don’t think we should raise taxes on the middle and upper-middle class while cutting taxes on millionaires. In fact, a poll this month found that 64% of Americans wanted to raise taxes on millionaires, including 83% of Democrats, 65% of independents, and 40% of Republicans.

9-9-9 is a joke

13 October 2011

I think this is the first time I’ve ever agreed with Grover Norquist on anything: Herman Cain’s tax plan is bogus. Naturally, old Grover and I have different reasons for thinking it so. He says that having three 9% tax rates — income, profits, and sales — is “like having three needles in your arm.” There’s also the conservative objection that a sales tax is just too easy a way to raise revenue, making it harder for Norquist to realize his dream of starving the government beast and drowning it in the bathtub.

Unlike Norquist and Cain, I’m one of those people who’s against regressive taxes, like, you know, a 9% sales tax. As David Weigel at Slate noted, it seems to be about sticking it to that alleged freeloading 47% who don’t pay income taxes (but do pay payroll, excise, and state income taxes). And, as Bruce Bartlett notes, there’s no mention in Cain’s income tax plan of a personal exemption, so the income tax rate is presumably 9% for everyone. So Cain would raise taxes on nearly half the population by up to 18% of their income.

Once upon a time Republicans boasted about taking poor people off the income tax rolls (as with the Reagan tax reform of 1986 and even the Bush tax cuts of 2001), but times have changed. Demanding that almost half of Americans pay an extra 9% of their income in taxes is now the order of the day, as long as that half is the poorer half.

Oh, and if lowering the top income tax rates to 9% weren’t enough Robin Hood in reverse, Cain’s plan would also exempt capital gains from taxes altogether. Imagine, hedge fund managers might not have to pay income taxes at all!

And then there’s the issue of lost revenue from slashing tax rates and shrinking the tax base for the affluent. The basic rationale for progressive taxation is that it raises more revenue more easily than flat or regressive taxation. Cain claims that his upper-income tax cuts would spur so much prosperity that they’d pay for themselves. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.


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:

The deficits between politicians’ ears

17 August 2011

‘This isn’t hard. Hire people to build things with the free money the world is offering us.’

— Jay Ackroyd, at Eschaton (Hat tip: Brad DeLong)

Well, yeah. We should worry about the long-term deficit, but when the world is ready to lend us more money at zero real interest rates, the world clearly has other priorities. And so should we — like the 16% of the labor force that’s either unemployed or underemployed. What might we do with all this money the world is so eager to lend us?

The closest thing to a proposal to build things that’s come out of Washington lately is an infrastructure bank, to fund various improvements in the nation’s roads, bridges, levees, and such. A recent Bloomberg editorial praises the idea, and Pres. Obama is urging Congress to create such a bank. The obstacle, not surprisingly, is Congressional Republicans who view all domestic spending as “pork.” In this case, however, the pork is more like bacon bits. From the WSJ:

‘Under the White House plan, the infrastructure bank would augment current highway and transit programs. The bank would receive $30 billion over six years and would issue grants, loans and other financial tools.’

$5 billion a year? Barely a drop in the giant bucket that is the U.S. output gap. And barely a dent in our nation’s gaping infrastructure needs, which the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates as costing $2.2 trillion over 5 years. Way to think big, Mr. President. As Krugman wrote recently, the battle in Washington is between Republicans who want to do nothing and Democrats who want to do very, very little. And outside the beltway, we have a Republican presidential front-runner who thinks that doing anything to help the economy before November 2012 is not only wrong but treasonous.

But heroically assuming for a minute that Washington actually wanted to employ people to fix the nation’s infrastructure, the ASCE’s website provides ample details about where to do it. Talk about “shovel-ready projects.” Meanwhile, my former professor David F. Weiman recounts some of the infrastructural marvels of the New Deal. Even a longtime Great Depression researcher (me) was amazed:

‘The New Deal’s Public Works and Works Progress administrations spurred rapid productivity growth in the midst of the Depression. New roads and electrical power networks paved the way for post-World War II economic expansion built around the automobile and the suburban home. Astonishing 21st-century innovations such as next-day FedEx deliveries and Wi-Fi still rely on these aging investments. We associate FDR with massive hydroelectric dam projects — including the Grand Coulee and Hoover dams in the West, and the Tennessee Valley Authority in the South — but the New Deal also electrified rural America through cooperatives that distributed cheap, reliable power. Nearly 12 percent of Americans still belong to these collectives. Without the New Deal, they would be stuck in the much darker 1920s.

‘As would modern travelers. Without the New Deal, New York commuters would be without the FDR Drive, the Triboroughand Whitestone bridges, and the Lincoln and Queens-Midtown tunnels. There would be no air traffic at LaGuardia and Reagan National airports. D.C.’s Union Station, wired for electricity during the New Deal, would have a very different food court. Between New York and Washington, Amtrak runs on rails first electrified during the New Deal.

‘Out West, the New Deal gave us Golden Gate Bridge access ramps, the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge, the first modern freeways, and San Francisco and LAX airports. Between the coasts, it brought more than 650,000 miles of paved roads, thousands of bridges and tunnels, more than 700 miles of new and expanded runways, improvements to railroad lines, and scenic routes such as the mid-South’s Natchez Trace Parkway. Without the New Deal, of course, some of these would have eventually been built by state and local governments or the private sector — years after America’s recovery from the Depression.

‘Moreover, private infrastructure improvements would have bypassed poor regions such as the South. Because of its vision and virtually unlimited borrowing capacity, the New Deal underwrote Southern modernization with new roads, hospitals, rural electrification and schools. These public investments paid off. After 50 years of stagnation, average Southern incomes began to catch up with the national average during the New Deal era.’

Granted, economic historians have long criticized FDR’s New Deal deficits as being too small to restore the economy to full employment, but neither were they insignificant. An average of 3.5 million workers a year worked in New Deal jobs. From the above it’s clear that a great many of those jobs produced great gains for America’s infrastructure, economy, and society.

What more could the Fed do? (cont’d)

11 August 2011

The New York Times joins the chorus of complaints that the Fed has not done enough to jump-start this stalling economy. In yesterday’s lead editorial the gray lady ruefully notes that Ben Bernanke basically ruled out further quantitative easing when he said at the Fed’s June meeting that it would not happen unless there was a heightened risk of deflation. Then the editorial offers a paragraph’s worth of additional measures the Fed could take. One by one:

‘For starters, the Fed could take modest steps, like shifting its portfolio toward bonds with longer maturities, which would help to keep long-term rates low and nudge investors into riskier investments.’

In other words, QE3, or QE2 on steroids. Normally the Fed targets the shortest of short-term rates (the fed funds rate) and does so through its open market purchases and sales of short-term T-bills. And T-bills are the security of choice because the Fed does not want to make too big a splash (at least not directly) in the markets for particular bonds. The logic here is the reverse: of course the Fed wants to make a splash in the bond market by lowering long-term interest rates — that’s the penultimate goal of monetary policy, behind stimulating business investment and consumer spending. In today’s extraordinary circumstances, ending the Little Depression seems more important than not disrupting the bond market. So it’s hard to argue against this one, other than to note that the Fed would probably be monetizing a lot more of the federal debt than otherwise, which could raise inflation fears. (Of note: In the early 1930s Keynes thought the central banks should buy up long-term debt so as to lower long-term interest rates, too. So this isn’t exactly a new idea.)

‘It could reduce the interest it pays on the banks’ huge reserves or even tax the reserves to try to encourage more lending.’

Absolutely. Reduce it to 0%, which was the rate on reserves prior to 2008. Bernanke’s main rationale paying interest on reserves, as I understand it, was to reassure the markets that the huge pools of bank reserves, which the Fed created in response to the crisis, would not lead to a runaway inflation when the economy began to recover and banks loaned those reserves out. The idea was that as the economy recovered the Fed would “soak up” those reserves by raising the interest rate on them so that banks would be less inclined to loan them out. At this point, however, hardly anyone seem to be worried about the inflation threat posed by those reserves. They’re more worried about how they continue to just sit there. Lowering the rate to zero can only help, though maybe not by much.

‘It could also resume buying Treasuries or other securities to provide additional monetary stimulus.’

This is a lot like the first suggestion. It could get more radical if the “other securities” are things like mortgage-backed securities, in which case it’s more like QE1 (when the Fed effectively bought up many of the toxic subprime securities, thereby taking them off the market). This brings to mind the dramatic proposal by Joseph E. Gagnon of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, which has gotten a lot of attention lately. Gagnon: “First and foremost, the Federal Reserve should announce an additional $2 trillion of asset purchases, including longer-term Treasury bonds, agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS), and foreign exchange. This is more than three times the size of the woefully underpowered quantitative easing of late last year (dubbed QE2) and it should be accompanied by a clear statement that more is forthcoming if the economy continues to underperform.” I haven’t digested Gagnon’s proposal yet, but this is what a radical proposal looks like. Krugman and Brad DeLong seem to like it.

‘A more aggressive strategy would be letting inflation rise above the Fed’s comfort level of 2 percent or so to, say, 4 percent. That could help the economy by easing the repayment of debt.’

This would have promise if the Fed could actually control the rate of inflation like that. As I’ve written before, I don’t think it can, not when the economy is in a depression and seems to be tending on its own more toward deflation than to 4% inflation. The Fed has already flooded the banking system with reserves; when they don’t get loaned out (as so many of them haven’t), they don’t raise aggregate demand, the money supply, or the price level.

In sum: The first two steps seem worth taking, but are probably too modest to have much impact. The third step can be about as big as the Fed wants it to be; it has the most potential, though as with QE1 just moving a lot of assets from the private sector onto the Fed’s balance sheet doesn’t necessarily generate a surge of private investment. The fourth step looks impossible at present, even without the inevitable political resistance to the Fed backing down on inflation.

Did S&P’s downgrade actually help the Treasury bond market?

8 August 2011

Yes, I think it did. As of 2:53 pm, the yield on ten-year Treasuries has plunged 20 basis points to an ultra-low 2.36%, their lowest level of the year. It’s the stock markets that are a bloodbath today, with the S&P 500 and Nasdaq down about 6%. Prices for the safe havens of gold and Treasury bonds are both way up. Inasmuch as the S&P downgrade has upped the fear factor, it’s hurt stocks and helped T-bonds.

To qualify this: The S&P’s role here has likely been vastly overstated by the media. (Krugman has already lost his lunch over this one, so I don’t have to.) For starters, when U.S. markets opened this morning, the T-bond market didn’t show much of a reaction either way (down just 2 basis points in the late morning, i.e., basically unchanged) and the stock markets’ initial tumble was not out of line with what they’d been doing the past two weeks (the S&P 500 fell almost 11%), going into the weekend. The snowballing of money out of the stock market and into the T-bond market is something that happened later in the day, not a plausible initial reaction to the downgrade. But plausibly the downgrade added to the general climate of fear, which got a lot more heated by the afternoon, so  . . . it still seems that agent 6373 has accomplished her mission.

Many commentators have said that the unfolding crises in Italy, Spain, and the European Central Bank are both more dire and more unpredictable than the revelation that Washington is so dysfunctional that even a disgraced ratings agency thinks so. The weekend’s bigger announcement may have been that of ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet that the ECB would try to alleviate Italy’s and Spain’s debt crises by buying up huge chunks of their debt. Otherwise known as monetizing the debt, the modern-day equivalent of printing money to pay the bills.* The announcement seems to have helped Italy’s and Spain’s sovereign debt markets a bit, as interest rates on those bonds fell slightly, but it casts doubts on the ECB’s credibility as a tough-minded central bank that doesn’t go around picking up the tab for member countries’ large debts.

* You might ask: Doesn’t the Federal Reserve do the same thing when it buys U.S. Treasury bills, notes, and bonds as part of its open market operations and “quantitative easing”? Not quite, though it does count as monetizing the debt. The big difference is that the Fed, with a few distant exceptions like during the world wars, does not try to buy up U.S. government debt just to help out the government. (Will they still be so above the fray if and when hardly anybody wants to buy U.S. Treasuries? I’ll leave that one for my libertarian commenters.)


6 August 2011

For years I taught money and banking under the impression that U.S. Treasury bonds carried no rating at all. I thought they didn’t need to be rated and that the rating agencies agreed. I thought the fact that bondholders accepted lower interest rates on Treasuries than on any other bonds, even AAA-rated bonds of other entities, meant they regarded T-bonds as the least risky (and most liquid) bonds out there. A related issue is whether there’s any point in rating the debt of national governments whose finances are an open book, unlike those of corporations who open their books for the rating agencies but don’t have to for the public.

Standard & Poor’s downgrading last night of Treasuries from AAA to AA+ reminded me of all that. Do bondholders really need S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch to tell them whether T-bonds are safe? Anybody who follows the U.S. fiscal news  — e.g., anyone in the bond market — would have their own judgment on the matter. Call me cynical, but I find the timing of the announcement suspicious. First, it comes rather late, as it was clear five days ago that the Budget Control Act of 2011 was going to pass and what the substance of it would be. Second, it comes at the start of the weekend, two days before the markets reopen; that’s plenty of time for other news to come along and offset whatever effect S&P’s announcement has on the markets. My cynical hunch is that S&P is afraid the announcement will have no effect on the T-bond market, thereby underscoring their own credibility rating, which has been F ever since it came to light in 2008 that they’d been rubber stamping toxic bundles of subprime mortgages as AAA. I think their announcement is their way of gambling that if the T-bond market ever does go south, they can say they called it first. (Kind of like those ridiculous predictions every week on “The McLaughlin Group.”)

As usual, Krugman nails it. He acknowledges that the intransigence of Congressional Republicans makes any kind of meaningful long-term debt deal unlikely, but says:

‘On the other hand, it’s hard to think of anyone less qualified to pass judgment on America than the rating agencies. The people who rated subprime-backed securities are now declaring that they are the judges of fiscal policy? Really?

‘Just to make it perfect, it turns out that S&P got the math wrong by $2 trillion, and after much discussion conceded the point — then went ahead with the downgrade.’

In passing the Budget Control Act, Washington lawmakers put deficit reduction ahead of job creation, against the wishes of the public, Keynesian economists, and even (apparently) the stock market. Yet it wasn’t enough for S&P, who say the way out of this hole is to dig even deeper. No, S&P, slashing spending and raising taxes in a depression doesn’t improve our financial health. Krugman again:

‘More than that, everything I’ve heard about S&P’s demands suggests that it’s talking nonsense about the US fiscal situation. The agency has suggested that the downgrade depended on the size of agreed deficit reduction over the next decade, with $4 trillion apparently the magic number. Yet US solvency depends hardly at all on what happens in the near or even medium term: an extra trillion in debt adds only a fraction of a percent of GDP to future interest costs, so a couple of trillion more or less barely signifies in the long term. What matters is the longer-term prospect, which in turn mainly depends on health care costs.

‘So what was S&P even talking about? Presumably they had some theory that restraint now is an indicator of the future — but there’s no good reason to believe that theory, and for sure S&P has no authority to make that kind of vague political judgment.

‘In short, S&P is just making stuff up — and after the mortgage debacle, they really don’t have that right.’

Ironically, the U.S. attained its AAA rating in 1941, just as we were heading into World War II and the (publicly held) national debt was about to explode, to about 140% of GDP, roughly double what it is now. S&P evidently took the long view then.