Posts Tagged ‘wall street journal’

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.
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The Fed does not print money

23 December 2010

The Fed creates reserves, not money.  I’ve covered this one before.  Fed Chair Ben Bernanke has been making the same distinction lately, though it seems he’s muddied it in the past.

Once again:  The Fed creates reserves, not money.  The Fed buys securities from banks and pays for them by giving the banks reserves, e.g., if it buys a $1000 Treasury bond from a bank, it pays the bank by adding $1000 to the bank’s reserve account  at the Fed.  This is not the same thing as giving the banks money, because it ain’t money unless it’s (1) cash circulating outside of the banking system or (2) in someone’s checking, savings, or other deposit account at a bank or money-market fund.

This distinction might sound nitpicky, but it’s all-important.  The process by which these reserves become money is the process by which monetary policy works, or fails to work.  What’s supposed to happen is this:

Fed creates reserves –> banks loan out reserves to households and businesses –> households and businesses spend those funds (raising the Consumption and Investment parts of GDP, hence raising GDP) –> whoever gets paid by them deposits some of those funds in the banks or in money-market funds, and spends some of it –> whoever gets that money deposits some of it and spends some of it –> etc.  Money does get created, indirectly, when those loans are deposited or redeposited in the banking system, but not before then.

That’s what happens when monetary policy works.  (And yes, there may be some inflation, if the increased demand for consumption and investment goods isn’t met by an increase in their availability.)  But that’s not what’s been happening since 2008 — the Fed has been creating reserves, and banks have mostly been sitting on those reserves.  Thus no big increase in Consumption, Investment, or GDP, and no corresponding increase in the money supply.

When someone says “The Fed prints money,” what they’re really saying is that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Where credit ain’t due: The rating agencies

22 June 2009

For once, I agree wholeheartedly with a Wall Street Journal editorial.  (OK, I could do without the mixed sports metaphor in the title (“A Triple-A Punt.” How bush league).  The piece raps the Obama Administration’s new financial reform plan for giving the credit rating agencies a free pass.  Some key excerpts:

‘The government-anointed judges of risk at Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch inflicted upon investors the AAA-rated subprime mortgage-backed security. They also inflicted upon the world’s nest eggs the even more opaque AAA-rated collateralized debt obligation (CDO). Without the ratings agency seal of approval — required by SEC, Federal Reserve and state regulation for many institutional investors — it would have been nearly impossible to market the structured financial products at the heart of the crisis. Yet Team Obama suggests only that regulators reduce the agencies’ favored role “wherever possible.”. . .

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