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Scary Economic News

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The information which I’m passing along to you today might come as a shock to those listening to the usual stock market cheerleaders, who predict good times ahead.  Let’s start with economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  For quite a while, Dr. Hussman has been warning us to avoid drinking the Kool-Aid served by the perma-bulls.  In his latest Weekly Market Comment, Hussman offers yet more sound advice to those under the spell of brokerage propagandists:

I want to emphasize again that I am neither a cheerleader for recession, nor a table-pounder for recession.  It’s just that given the data that we presently observe, an oncoming recession remains the most probable outcome.  When unseen states of the world have to be inferred from imperfect and noisy observable data, there are a few choices when the evidence isn’t 100%.  You can either choose a side and pound the table, or you can become comfortable dwelling in uncertainty, and take a position in proportion to the evidence, and the extent to which each possible outcome would affect you.

With most analysts dismissing the likelihood of recession, I have been vocal about ongoing recession concerns not because I want to align myself with one side, but because the investment implications are very asymmetric.  A slow but steady stream of modestly good economic news is largely priced in by investors, but a recession and the accompanying earnings disappointments would destroy some critical pillars of hope that investors are relying on to support already rich valuations.

Yale Professor Robert Shiller is the guy who invented the term “irrational exuberance”, which was title of his bestselling book – published in May of 1996.  Although the widely-despised, former Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan is often credited with creating the term, Greenspan didn’t use it until December of that year, in a speech before the American Enterprise Institute.  Shiller is most famous for his role as co-creator of the Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, which he developed with his fellow economists Karl Case and Allan Weiss.  While many commentators decried the idiotic economic austerity programs which have been inflicted across Europe, Professor Shiller investigated whether austerity is at all effective in spurring economic growth, seeking a better understanding of austerity’s consequences.  In a recent essay on the subject, Dr. Shiller cited the work by Jaime Guajardo, Daniel Leigh, and Andrea Pescatori of the International Monetary Fund, who recently studied austerity plans implemented by governments in 17 countries in the last 30 years.  The conclusion reached by Professor Shiller should sober-up the “rose-colored glasses” crowd, as well as those aspiring to implement similar measures in the United States:

The austerity plans being adopted by governments in much of Europe and elsewhere around the world, and the curtailment of consumption expenditure by individuals as well, threaten to produce a global recession.

*   *   *

There is no abstract theory that can predict how people will react to an austerity program.  We have no alternative but to look at the historical evidence.  And the evidence of Guajardo and his co-authors does show that deliberate government decisions to adopt austerity programs have tended to be followed by hard times.

Policymakers cannot afford to wait decades for economists to figure out a definitive answer, which may never be found at all.  But, judging by the evidence that we have, austerity programs in Europe and elsewhere appear likely to yield disappointing results.

The really scary news concerning the state of the global economy came in the form of a report published by the World Bank, entitled Global Economic Prospects (Uncertainties and vulnerabilities).  The 157-page treatise was written by Andrew Burns and Theo Janse van Rensburg.  It contains more than enough information to induce a serious case of insomnia.  Here are some examples:

The world economy has entered a very difficult phase characterized by significant downside risks and fragility.

*   *   *

The downturn in Europe and weaker growth in developing countries raises the risk that the two developments reinforce one another, resulting in an even weaker outcome.  At the same time, the slow growth in Europe complicates efforts to restore market confidence in the sustainability of the region’s finances, and could exacerbate tensions.

*   *   *

While contained for the moment, the risk of a much broader freezing up of capital markets and a global crisis similar in magnitude to the Lehman crisis remains.  In particular, the willingness of markets to finance the deficits and maturing debt of high-income countries cannot be assured.  Should more countries find themselves denied such financing, a much wider financial crisis that could engulf private banks and other financial institutions on both sides of the Atlantic cannot be ruled out.  The world could be thrown into a recession as large or even larger than that of 2008/09.

*   *   *

In the event of a major crisis, activity is unlikely to bounce back as quickly as it did in 2008/09, in part because high-income countries will not have the fiscal resources to launch as strong a countercyclical policy response as in 2008/09 or to offer the same level of support to troubled financial institutions.

*   *   *

Developing countries need to prepare for the worst

In this highly uncertain environment, developing countries should evaluate their vulnerabilities and prepare contingencies to deal with both the immediate and longer-term effects of a downturn.

If global financial markets freeze up, governments and firms may not be able to finance growing deficits.

*   *   *

One major uncertainty concerns the interaction of the policy-driven slowing of growth in middle-income countries, and the financial turmoil driven slowing in Europe.  While desirable from a domestic policy point of view, this slower growth could interact with the slowing in Europe resulting in a downward overshooting of activity and a more serious global slowdown than otherwise would have been the case.

In other words, Europe’s economic austerity programs could turn another round of economic contraction into a global catastrophe (as if we needed another).

This is what happens when economic policymaking is left to the plutocrats and their tools.  “Those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”  It appears as though we are well on our way to a second financial crisis – with more severe consequences than those experienced as a result of the 2008 episode.


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Time For Another Victory Lap

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I’m no cheerleader for President Obama.  Since he first became our Disappointer-In-Chief, I have vigorously voiced my complaints about his decisions.  At the end of President Obama’s first month in office, I expressed concern that his following the advice of “Turbo” Tim Geithner and Larry Summers was putting the welfare (pun intended) of the Wall Street banks ahead of the livelihoods of those who voted for him.  I lamented that this path would lead us to a ten-year, Japanese-style recession.  By September of 2010, it was obvious that those early decisions by the new President would prove disastrous for the Democrats at the mid-term elections.  At that point, I repeated my belief that Obama had been listening to the wrong people when he decided to limit spending on the economic stimulus package to approximately half of what was necessary to end the economic crisis:

Even before the stimulus bill was signed into law, the administration had been warned, by way of an article in Bloomberg News, that a survey of fifty economists revealed that the proposed $787 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.

Last week, I was about to write a piece, describing that decision as “Obama’s Tora Bora moment”.  When I sat down at my computer just after 11 p.m. on Sunday, I realized that the timing wouldn’t have been appropriate for such a metaphor.  The President was about to make his historic speech, announcing that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.  Just as many have criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the disaster in the Gulf of Corexit as “Obama’s Katrina Moment”, I believe that the President’s decision to “punt” on the stimulus – by holding it at $862 billion and relying on the Federal Reserve to “play defense” with quantitative easing programs – was a mistake, similar in magnitude to that of allowing Bin Laden to escape at Tora Bora.  The consequences have been enormously expensive (simply adding the $600 billion cost of QE 2 alone to a better-planned stimulus program would have reduced our current unemployment level to approximately 5%).  Beyond that, the advocates of “Austerian” economics have scared everyone in Washington into the belief that the British approach is somehow the right idea – despite the fact that their economy is tanking.  Never mind the fact Australia’s stimulus program was successful and ended the recession in that country.

The Fox Ministry of Truth has brainwashed a good number of people into believing that Obama’s stimulus program (a/k/a the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) was a complete failure.  You will never hear the Fox Ministry of Truth admit that prominent Republican economist Keith Hennessey, the former director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush, pointed out that the 2009 stimulus “increased economic growth above what it otherwise would have been”.  The Truth Ministry is not likely to concede that John Makin of the conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, published this statement at the AEI website:

Absent temporary fiscal stimulus and inventory rebuilding, which taken together added about 4 percentage points to U.S. growth, the economy would have contracted at about a 1 percent annual rate during the second half of 2009.

On the other hand, count me among those who are skeptical that the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy can have any impact on our current unemployment crisis (it hasn’t yet).

Many of Obama’s critics have complained that the Presidential appearance at Ground Zero was an inappropriate “victory lap” – despite the fact that George W. Bush was invited to the event (although he declined).  Not only was that victory lap appropriate – Obama is actually entitled to run another.   As E.J. Dionne pointed out, the controversial “nationalization” of the American auto industry (what should have been done to the Wall Street banks) has become a huge success:

The actual headlines make the point. “Demand for fuel-efficient cars helps GM to $3.2 billion profit,” declared The Washington Post.  “GM Reports Earnings Tripled in First Quarter, as Revenue Jumped 15 Percent,” reported The New York Times.

*   *   *

“Having the federal government involved in every aspect of the private sector is very dangerous,” Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., told Fox News in December 2008.  “In the long term it could cause us to become a quasi-socialist country.”  I don’t see any evidence that we have become a “quasi-socialist country,” just big profits.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, called the bailout “the leading edge of the Obama administration’s war on capitalism,” while other members of Congress derided the president’s auto industry task force.  “Of course we know that nobody on the task force has any experience in the auto business, and we heard at the hearing many of them don’t even own cars,” declared Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, after a hearing on the bailout in May 2009. “And they’re dictating the auto industry for our future? What’s wrong with this picture?”

*   *   *

In the case of the car industry, allowing the market to operate without any intervention by government would have wiped out a large part of the business that is based in Midwestern states.  This irreversible decision would have damaged the economy, many communities and tens of thousands of families.

And contrary to the predictions of the critics, government officials were quite capable of working with the market in restructuring the industry. Government didn’t overturn capitalism.  It tempered the market at a moment when its “natural” forces were pushing toward catastrophe. Government had the resources to buy the industry time.

In fairness, President Obama has finally earned some bragging rights, after punting on health care, the stimulus and financial “reform”.  He knows his Republican opponents will never criticize him for his own “Tora Bora moment” – because to do so would require an admission that a more expensive economic stimulus was necessary in 2009.  As a result, it will be up to an Independent candidate or a Democratic challenger to Obama (less likely these days) to explain that the persistent economic crisis – our own “lost decade” – lingers on as a result of Obama’s “Tora Bora moment”.


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Building A Consensus For Survival

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March 29, 2010

In my last posting, I focused on the fantastic discourse in favor of financial reform presented by Thomas Hoenig, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, in a speech before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  In addition to Hoenig’s speech, last week brought us a number of excellent arguments for the cause that is so bitterly opposed by Wall Street lobbyists.  On the same day that Thomas Hoenig delivered his great speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin also addressed that institution to argue in favor of financial reform.  I enjoyed the fact that he rubbed this in their faces:

That is why it is so puzzling that, despite the urgent and undeniable need for reform, the Chamber of Commerce has launched a $3 million advertising campaign against it.  That campaign is not designed to improve the House and Senate bills.  It is designed to defeat them.  It is designed to delay reform until the memory of the crisis fades and the political will for change dies out.

The Chamber’s campaign comes on top of the $1.4 million per day already being spent on lobbying and campaign contributions by big banks and Wall Street financial firms.  There are four financial lobbyists for every member of Congress.

Wolin’s presentation was yet another signal from the Treasury Department that inspired economist Simon Johnson to begin feeling optimistic about the possibility that some meaningful degree of financial reform might actually take place:

Against all the odds, a glimmer of hope for real financial reform begins to shine through.  It’s not that anything definite has happened — in fact most of the recent Senate details are not encouraging – but rather that the broader political calculus has shifted in the right direction.

Instead of seeing the big banks as inviolable, top people in Obama administration are beginning to see the advantage of taking them on — at least on the issue of consumer protection.  Even Tim Geithner derided the banks recently as,

“those who told us all they were the masters of noble             financial innovation and sophisticated risk management.”

Yep.  That was our old pal and former New York Fed President, “Turbo” Tim Geithner, making the case for financial reform before the American Enterprise Institute.  (You remember them — the outfit that fired David Frum for speaking out against Fox News and the rest of the “conservative entertainment industry”.)  Treasury Secretary Geithner made his pitch for reform by reminding his conservative audience that longstanding advocates of the “efficient market hypothesis” had come on board in favor of financial reform:

Now, the recognition that markets failed and that the necessary solution involves reform; that it requires rules enforced by government is not a partisan or political judgment.  It is a conclusion reached by liberals and by conservative skeptics of regulation.

Judge Richard Posner, a leader in the conservative Chicago School of economics, wrote last year, that “we need a more active and intelligent government to keep our model of a capitalist economy from running off the rails.”

And consider Alan Greenspan, a skeptic of the benefits of regulation, who recently said, “inhibiting irrational behavior when it can be identified, through regulation,   . . .   could be stabilizing.”

No wonder Simon Johnson is feeling so upbeat!  The administration is actually making a serious attempt at doing what needs to be done to get this accomplished.

Meanwhile, The New York Times had run a superb article by David Leonhardt just as Geithner was about to address the AEI.  Leonhardt’s essay, “Heading Off the Next Financial Crisis” is a thorough analysis, providing historical background and covering every angle on what needs to be done to clean up the mess that got us where we are today — and to prevent it from happening again.  Here are some snippets from the first page that had me hooked right away:

It was a maddening story line:  the government helped the banks get rich by looking the other way during good times and saved them from collapse during bad times.  Just as an oil company can profit from pollution, Wall Street profited from weak regulation, at the expense of society.

*   *   *

In a way, this issue is more about human nature than about politics.  By definition, the next period of financial excess will appear to have recent history on its side.

*   *   *

One way to deal with regulator fallibility is to implement clear, sweeping rules that limit people’s ability to persuade themselves that the next bubble is different — upfront capital requirements, for example, that banks cannot alter.  Thus far, the White House, the Fed and Congress have mostly steered clear of such rules.

Congratulations to David Leonhardt for putting that great piece together.  As more commentators continue to advance such astute, sensible appeals to plug the leaks in our sinking financial system, there is a greater likelihood that our lawmakers will realize that the economic risk of doing nothing far exceeds the amounts of money in those envelopes from the lobbyists.



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Rethinking The Stimulus

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February 22, 2010

On the anniversary of the stimulus law (a/k/a the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — Public Law 111-5) there has been quite a bit of debate concerning the number of jobs actually created by the stimulus as opposed to the claims made by Democratic politicians.  For their part, the Democrats take pride in the fact that John Makin of the conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, recently published this statement at the AEI website:

Absent temporary fiscal stimulus and inventory rebuilding, which taken together added about 4 percentage points to U.S.growth, the economy would have contracted at about a 1 percent annual rate during the second half of 2009.

A few months ago, I had a discussion with an old friend and the subject of the stimulus came up.  My beefs about the stimulus were that it did not offer the necessary degree of immediate relief and that a good chunk of it should have gone directly into the hands of the taxpayers.

I recently read a blog posting by Keith Hennessey, the former director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush, which expressed some opinions similar to my own on what the stimulus should have offered.  Although Mr. Hennessey preferred the traditional panacea of tax cuts as the primary means for economic stimulus, he made a number of other important points.  With so much fear being expressed about the possibility of a “double-dip” recession, our government could find itself in the uncomfortable position of considering another stimulus bill.  If that day comes, we have all the more reason to look back at what was right and what was wrong with the 2009 stimulus.

Keith Hennessy began with this statement:

Unlike many critics of the stimulus law, I think that fiscal policy can increase short-term economic growth, especially when the economy is in a deep recession.  In other words, I think that fiscal stimulus is a valid concept.  This does not mean that I think that every increase in government spending, or every tax cut, (a) increases short-term economic growth or (b) is good policy.

At the end of his second paragraph, he got to the part that was music to my ears:

If the Administration had instead put $862 B directly into people’s hands, you would have seen more immediate spending and economic growth than we did, even if people had saved most of it.

In contrast, government spending is powerful but painfully slow.  If the government spends $1 on building a road, eventually that entire $1 will enter the economy and increase GDP growth.  Your bang-for-the-deficit-buck is extremely high.  The problem is that bang-for-the-buck doesn’t help us if that bang occurs two or three or four years from now.

*   *   *

I would instead prefer that people be allowed to spend and save the money how they best see fit.  My preferred path also has less waste and bureaucracy.

A bit later in the piece, Hennessey said some things that probably caused a good number of the CPAC conventioneers reach for the Tums:

I agree with the Administration that last year’s stimulus law increased economic growth above what it otherwise would have been.  I agree that employment is higher than it would have been without a stimulus.

Of course, Hennessey complained that “The law was poorly designed and inefficient” — in part because the money was funneled through federal and state bureaucracies — another valid point.  Then, he got to the important issue:

Given a decision last year to do a big fiscal stimulus, I would have preferred, in this order:

1.  putting all the money into a permanent reduction in income and capital taxes;

2.  putting all the money into a temporary reduction in income and capital taxes;

3.  putting all the money into transfer payments;

4.  what Congress and the President did.

Given the policy preferences of the President, his team’s big policy mistake last year was to let Congress turn a reasonable macroeconomic fiscal policy goal into a Congressional spending toga party.  Given his policy preferences, the President should have insisted that Congress put all the money into (2) and (3) above.  He would have had a bigger macro stimulus bang earlier.

In case you’re wondering what “transfer payments” are — you need to think in terms of “wealth transfer”.  In this case, it concerns situations where the government gives away money to people who aren’t rich.  A good example of this was the stimulus program that took place under President Bush.  Individuals with incomes of less than $75,000 received a $300 “stimulus check” and households with joint incomes under $150,000 got $600.

My own stimulus idea would involve a “tax rebate” program, wherein the taxpayers receive a number of $50 vouchers based on the amount of income tax they paid the previous year.  The recipients would then be instructed to go out and buy stuff with the vouchers.  So what if they spent it on imported merchandise?  The American retailers and shipping companies would still make money, finding it necessary to hire people.  The vouchers would display the person’s name and address.  In order to use the vouchers, identification would be needed, so as to prevent resale.  The maximum amount of cash change one could get back from a voucher-funded purchase would be $10.

Hopefully, we won’t need another stimulus program.  However, if we do, I suggest that the government simply give us vouchers and send us shopping.



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The Federal Reserve Is On The Ropes

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November 23, 2009

Last February, Republican Congressman Ron Paul introduced HR 1207, the Federal Reserve Transparency Act of 2009, by which the Government Accountability Office would be granted authority to audit the Federal Reserve and present a report to Congress by the end of 2010.  On May 21, Congressman Alan Grayson, a Democrat from Florida, wrote to his Democratic colleagues in the House, asking them to co-sponsor the bill. The bill eventually gained over 300 co-sponsors.  By October 30, Congressman Mel Watt, a Democrat from North Carolina, basically “gutted” the bill according to Congressman Paul, in an interview with Bob Ivry of Bloomberg News.  Watt subsequently proposed a competing measure, which was aided by the circulation of a letter by eight academics, who were described as a “political cross-section of prominent economists”.  Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post disclosed on November 18 that the purportedly diverse, independent economists were actually paid stooges of the Federal Reserve:

But far from a broad cross-section, the “prominent economists” lobbying on behalf of the Watt bill are in fact deeply involved with the Federal Reserve.  Seven of the eight are either currently on the Fed’s payroll or have been in the past.

After HR 1207 had been undermined by Watt, an amendment calling for an audit of the Federal Reserve was added as amendment 69B to HR3996, the Financial Stability Improvement Act of 2009.  The House Finance Committee voted to approve that amendment on November 19.  This event was not only a big win for Congressmen Paul and Grayson — it also gave The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim the opportunity for a “victory lap”:

In an unprecedented defeat for the Federal Reserve, an amendment to audit the multi-trillion dollar institution was approved by the House Finance Committee with an overwhelming and bipartisan 43-26 vote on Thursday afternoon despite harried last-minute lobbying from top Fed officials and the surprise opposition of Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who had previously been a supporter.

*   *   *

“Today was Waterloo for Fed secrecy,” a victorious Grayson said afterwards.

Scott Lanman of Bloomberg News pointed out that this battle was just one of many legislative onslaughts against the Fed:

The Fed’s powers and rate-setting independence are under threat on several fronts in Congress.  Separately yesterday, the Senate Banking Committee began debate on legislation that would strip the Fed of bank-supervision powers and give lawmakers greater say in naming the officials who vote on monetary policy.

*   *   *

Paul and other lawmakers have accused the Fed of lax oversight of banks and failing to avert the financial crisis.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is feeling even more heat because the Senate Banking Committee will begin hearings concerning Bernanke’s reappointment as Fed Chair.  The hearings will begin on December 3, the same day as President Obama’s jobs summit.  Senate Banking Committee chair, Chris Dodd, revealed to videoblogger Mike Stark that Bernanke’s reappointment is “not necessarily” a foregone conclusion.

Let’s face it:  the public has finally caught on to the fact that the mission of the Fed is to protect the banking industry and if that is to be accomplished at the public’s expense — then so be it.  Back at The Huffington Post, Tom Raum explained how this heightened awareness of the Fed’s activities has resulted in some Congressional pushback:

Many lawmakers question whether the Fed’s money machine has mainly benefited financial markets and not the broader economy.  Lawmakers are also peeved that the central bank acted without congressional involvement when it brokered the 2008 sale of failed investment bank Bear Stearns and engineered the rescue of insurer American International Group.

Tom Raum echoed concern about the how the current increase in “anti-Fed” sentiment might affect the Bernanke confirmation hearings:

Should Bernanke be worried?

“Not only should be worried, he’s clearly ratcheted up his game in terms of his communications with Congress,” said Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Ornstein said the Fed bashing this time is different from before, with “a broader base of support.  And it’s coming from people who in the past would not have hit the Fed.  There’s a lot of populist anger out there — on the left, in the center and on the right.  And politicians are responsive to that.”

Populist anger with the Fed will certainly change the way history will regard former Fed chairman, Alan Greenspan.  Fred Sheehan’s new book:  Panderer to Power:  The True Story of How Alan Greenspan Enriched Wall Street and Left a Legacy of Recession, could not have been released at a better time.  At his blog, Sheehan responded to five questions about Greenspan, providing us with a taste of what to expect in the new book.  Here is one of the interesting points, demonstrating how Greenspan helped create our current crisis:

The American economy’s recovery from the early 1990s was financial.  This was a first.  The recovery was a product of banks borrowing, leveraging and lending to hedge funds.  The banks were also creating and selling complicated and very profitable derivative products.  Greenspan needed the banks to grow until they became too-big-to-fail.  It was evident the “real” economy — businesses that make tires and sell shoes — no longer drove the economy.  Thus, finance was given every advantage to expand, no matter how badly it performed.  Financial firms that should have died were revived with large injections of money pumped by the Federal Reserve into the banking system.

It’s great to see Congress step up to the task of exposing the antics of the Federal Reserve.  Let’s just hope these efforts meet with continued success.



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