Posts Tagged ‘senate’

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.

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Automatic destabilizers

4 July 2010

Going into this fourth of July weekend, we learned that the U.S. economy shed 125,000 jobs from May to June and that 16.5% of Americans are either unemployed, involuntary working part-time, or have given up looking.  (That’s the “U-6 unemployment rate.”)  We also learned that median duration of unemployment is now almost six months; it rose to 25.5 weeks, up from 18.2 weeks a year ago.

Last week the House of Representatives voted to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, as is customary in times of very high unemployment, but the Senate failed to do the same.  The 58-38 vote in favor was not enough to overcome that repugnant, anti-democratic obstacle known as the filibuster. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he and the Republicans could not support the extension of benefits unless they were paid for with equivalent spending cuts elsewhere, like in the stimulus bill.  In other words, prudence dictates that we rob Peter to pay Paul.

It’s one thing to be against a stimulus package because the country’s debt level is too high.  It’s not my position, but it is the position of reasonable, otherwise Keynesian-minded economists like Willem Buiter and Jeffrey Sachs.  But traditionally a big thing that mitigates recessions is the “automatic stabilizers” of which occur even without Congress passing new tax cuts or spending programs.   Taxes go down because incomes are down, and spending on unemployment and welfare benefits goes up because more people qualify for them.  For Congress to cut off one of the most important automatic stabilizers is not only callous but sheer idiocy.  Yes, the national debt is a problem, but there are fates worse than debt.  Obsessing about debt during an economic depression is like worrying about cellulite while you’re starving to death.  (Krugman piles on here and here.)

Here’s hoping that the ranks of the unemployed soon include McConnell and the other senators who opposed extending unemployment benefits.  (The would be every Republican except the two from Maine, and Democrat Ben Nelson.)

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:

Too big, too bad, too late: Greenspan speaks

5 May 2010

Simon Johnson has yet another fine post on the need to break up the biggest banks, for the sake of financial stability.  Unfortunately, he notes, it looks like it ain’t gonna happen, that the SAFE Banking Act sponsored by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Ted Kaufman (D-DE) won’t make it anywhere near the Senate floor.*

The post includes a remarkable quote by Alan Greenspan, who now seems to get it:

“For years the Federal Reserve had been concerned about the ever larger size of our financial institutions. Federal Reserve research had been unable to find economies of scale in banking beyond a modest-sized institution. A decade ago, citing such evidence, I noted that ‘megabanks being formed by growth and consolidation are increasingly complex entities that create the potential for unusually large systemic risks in the national and international economy should they fail.’ Regrettably, we did little to address the problem.”

Now, Greenspan is a bit like the Bible, Shakespeare, or Adam Smith — comb through all his words and you can probably find something to support your position, whatever it is.  But it is striking that he acknowledges the lack of economies of scale brought by big banks and their potential for systemic damage.  His regret at not addressing the problem would be more constructive if he could find a concrete proposal to support, like Sen. Kaufman’s bill, for example.  (I’m reminded of the old quote A little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than much knowledge that is idle.)

* Update:  The Brown-Kaufman SAFE Banking Amendment did make it to the Senate floor on May 6, but it was voted down, 33-61.  The roll call vote is here.  About two-thirds of Democrats voted for it, along with three Republicans.  Among the Democrats voting No were Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd and New York’s Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

Exiled From Main St. / Start Breaking Up

18 April 2010

Thomas Hoenig, president of the Kansas City Fed and one of the most incisive critics of the “too big to fail” policy, has an op-ed in today’s NYT about the current financial reform bill before Congress.  He says it does far too little to end “too big to fail” — while it sets up a mechanism for big failing financial institutions to be put under FDIC receivership, those financial institutions would still have the political clout to snag a bailout instead.

This may be true, but it seems to be a drawback in any financial reform bill that doesn’t call for the biggest financial institutions to be broken up into smaller ones that are not too big to fail, i.e., which can go bankrupt without significant systemic risk to the economy.  Koenig has spoken elsewhere on the need to break up the biggest banks.  It’s a position that finds favor among many liberal economists,including James Kwak of the Baseline Scenario (see previous link).  Rep. Paul Kanjorski of Scranton, PA has proposed an amendment to give the government power to preemptively break up any financial institution whose failure would impose giant costs on the U.S. economy, but the Senate Banking Committee apparently has nothing like that on the table yet.  Alas, the political clout of the big banks may well be enough to make bank size restrictions a non-starter in the Senate.  Simon Johnson of The Baseline Scenario says much the same thing here.

Hoenig says that another provision of the bill actually makes things worse by narrowing the Fed’s supervisory role to just the nation’s 12 largest banks, most of which are headquartered in NYC.  I do not know what the logic of this provision is, and Hoenig doesn’t say; maybe the idea is for the other banks to be supervised by the FDIC and/or other agencies instead.  Whatever it is, Hoenig thinks the Fed needs to give just as much attention to the other 6,700 as to the top 12.  As he points out, that would seem to be the whole point of having 11 regional Fed banks besides the one in New York.

UPDATE:  Simon Johnson puts it a lot more plainly right here.  For the record, Paul Krugman has his doubts that breaking up the banks would help much — see the last three paragraphs of this recent column.  I’m with Simon Johnson here.  By all means, crack down on fraudulent finance at institutions large and small, but I don’t see how you limit the power of the big banks without limiting their size, too.