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Keeping The Megabank Controversy On Republican Radar

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It was almost a year ago when Lou Dolinar of the National Review encouraged Republicans to focus on the controversy surrounding the megabanks:

“Too Big to Fail” is an issue that Republicans shouldn’t duck in 2012.  President Obama is in bed with these guys.  I don’t know if breaking up the TBTFs is the solution, but Republicans need to shame the president and put daylight between themselves and the crony capitalists responsible for the financial meltdown.  They could start by promising not to stock Treasury and other major economic posts with these, if you pardon the phase, malefactors of great wealth.

One would expect that those too-big-to-fail banks would be low-hanging fruit for the acolytes in the Church of Ayn Rand.  After all, Simon Johnson, former Chief Economist for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has not been the only authority to characterize the megabanks as intolerable parasites, infesting and infecting our free-market economy:

Too Big To Fail banks benefit from an unfair, nontransparent, and dangerous subsidy scheme.  This isn’t a market.  It’s a government-backed distortion of historic proportions.  And it should be eliminated.

Last summer, former Kansas City Fed-head, Thomas Hoenig discussed the problems created by what he called, “systemically important financial institutions” – or “SIFIs”:

… I suggest that the problem with SIFIs is they are fundamentally inconsistent with capitalism.  They are inherently destabilizing to global markets and detrimental to world growth.  So long as the concept of a SIFI exists, and there are institutions so powerful and considered so important that they require special support and different rules, the future of capitalism is at risk and our market economy is in peril.

So why aren’t the Republican Presidential candidates squawking up a storm about this subject during their debates?  Mike Konczal lamented the GOP’s failure to embrace a party-wide assault on the notion that banks could continue to fatten themselves to the extent that they pose a systemic risk:

When it comes to “ending Too Big To Fail” it actually punts on the conservative policy debates, which is a shame.  There’s a reference to “Explore reforms now being considered by the U.K. to make the unwinding of its biggest banks less risky for the broader economy” but it is sort of late in the game for this level of vagueness on what we mean by “unwinding.”  That unwinding part is a major part of the debate.  Especially if you say that you want to repeal Dodd-Frank and put into place a system for taking down large financial firms – well, “unwinding” the biggest financial firms is what a big chunk of Dodd-Frank does.

Nevertheless, there have been occasions when we would hear a solitary Republican voice in the wilderness.  Back in November,  Jonathan Easley of The Hill discussed the views of Richard Shelby (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee:

“Dr. Volcker asked the other question – if they’re too big to fail, are they too big to exist?” Shelby said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”  “And that’s a good question.  And some of them obviously are, and some of them – if they don’t get their house in order – they might not exist.  They’re going to have to sell off parts to survive.”

*   *   *

“But the question I think we’ve got to ask – are we better off with the bigger banks than we were?  The [answer] is no.”

This past weekend, Timothy Haight wrote an inspiring piece for the pro-Republican Orange County Register, criticizing the failure of our government to address the systemic risk resulting from the “too big to fail” status of the megabanks:

The concentration of assets in a few institutions is greater today than at the height of the 2008 meltdown.  Taxpayers continue to be at risk as large financial institutions have forgotten the results of their earlier bets.  Legislation may have aided members of Congress during this election cycle, but it has done little to ward off the next crisis.

While I am a champion for free-market capitalism, I believe that, in some instances, proactive regulation is a necessity.  Financial institutions should be heavily regulated due to the basic fact that rewards are afforded to the financial institutions, while the taxpayers are saddled with the risk.  The moral hazard is alive and well.

So far, there has been only one Republican Presidential candidate to speak out against the ongoing TBTF status of a privileged few banks – Jon Huntsman.  It was nice to see that the Fox News website had published an opinion piece by the candidate – entitled, “Wall Street’s Big Banks Are the Real Threat to Our Economy”.  Huntsman described what has happened to those institutions since the days of the TARP bailouts:

Taxpayers were promised those bailouts would be a one-time, emergency measure.  Yet today, we can already see the outlines of the next financial crisis and bailouts.

The six largest financial institutions are significantly bigger than they were in 2008, having been encouraged to snap up Bear Stearns and other competitors at bargain prices.

These banks now have assets worth over 66% of gross domestic product – at least $9.4 trillion – up from 20% of GDP in the 1990s.

*   *   *

The Obama and Romney plan simply appears to be to cross our fingers and hope no Too-Big-To-Fail banks fail on their watch – a stunning lack of leadership on such a critical economic issue.

As president, I will break up the big banks, end future taxpayer bailouts, and restore capitalist principles – competition and creative destruction – to our financial sector.

As of this writing, Jon Huntsman has been the only Presidential candidate – including Obama – to discuss a proposal for ending the TBTF situation.  Huntsman has tactfully cast Mitt Romney in the role of the “Wall Street status quo” candidate with himself appearing as the populist.  Not even Ron Paul – with all of his “anti-bank” bluster, has dared approach the TBTF issue (probably because the solution would involve touching his own “third rail”:  regulation).  Simon Johnson had some fun discussing how Ron Paul was bold enough to write an anti-Federal Reserve book – End the Fed – yet too timid to tackle the megabanks:

There is much that is thoughtful in Mr. Paul’s book, including statements like this (p. 18):

“Just so that we are clear: the modern system of money and banking is not a free-market system.  It is a system that is half socialized – propped up by the government – and one that could never be sustained as it is in a clean market environment.”

*   *   *

There is nothing on Mr. Paul’s campaign website about breaking the size and power of the big banks that now predominate (http://www.ronpaul2012.com/the-issues/end-the-fed/).  End the Fed is also frustratingly evasive on this issue.

Mr. Paul should address this issue head-on, for example by confronting the very specific and credible proposals made by Jon Huntsman – who would force the biggest banks to break themselves up.  The only way to restore the market is to compel the most powerful players to become smaller.

Ending the Fed – even if that were possible or desirable – would not end the problem of Too Big To Fail banks.  There are still many ways in which they could be saved.

The only way to credibly threaten not to bail them out is to insist that even the largest bank is not big enough to bring down the financial system.

It’s time for those “fair weather free-marketers” in the Republican Party to show the courage and the conviction demonstrated by Jon Huntsman.  Although Rick Santorum claims to be the only candidate with true leadership qualities, his avoidance of this issue will ultimately place him in the rear – where he belongs.


 

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Why Au-scare-ity Still Has Traction

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Many economists have been watching Britain’s experiment with austerity for quite a while.  Britain has been following a course of using cuts in government programs along with mass layoffs of public sector workers in attempt to stimulate economic growth.  Back in February, economist Dean Baker made this observation:

Three months ago, I noted that the United States might benefit from the pain being suffered by the citizens of the United Kingdom.  The reason was the new coalition government’s commitment to prosperity through austerity.  As predicted, this looks very much like a path to pain and stagnation, not healthy growth.

That’s bad news for the citizens of the United Kingdom.  They will be forced to suffer through years of unnecessarily high unemployment.  They will also have to endure cutbacks in support for important public services like healthcare and education.

But the pain for the people in England could provide a useful example for the United States.

*   *   *

Prior to this episode, there was already a solid economic case that large public deficits were necessary to support the economy in the period following the collapse of an asset bubble. The point is simply that the private sector is not prepared to make up the demand gap, at least in the short term.  Both short-term and long-term interest rates are pretty much as low as they can be.

*   *   *

From this side of the pond, though, the goal is simply to encourage people to pay attention.  The UK might be home to 60 million people, but from the standpoint of US economic policy, it is simply exhibit A:  it is the country that did what our deficit hawks want to do in the US.

The takeaway lesson should be “austerity does not work; don’t go there.”  Unfortunately, in the land of faith-based economics, evidence does not count for much.  The UK may pursue a disastrous austerity path and those of us in the United States may still have to follow the same road anyhow.

After discussing the above-quoted commentary by Dean Baker, economist Mark Thoma added this:

Yes — it’s not about evidence, it’s about finding an excuse to implement an ideology.  The recession got in the way of those efforts until the idea that austerity is stimulative came along. Thus, “austerity is stimulative” is being used very much like “tax cuts increase revenues.”  It’s a means of claiming that ideological goals are good for the economy so that supporters in Congress and elsewhere have a means of rationalizing the policies they want to put in place.  It’s the idea that matters, and contrary evidence is brushed aside.

There seems to be an effort in many quarters to deny that the financial crisis ever happened.  Although it will eventually become absolutely imperative to get deficits under control, most sober economists emphasize that attempting to do so before the economy begins to recover and before the unemployment crisis is even addressed – would destroy any chance of economic recovery.  Barack Obama’s opponents know that the easiest route toward subverting the success of his re-election campaign involves undermining any efforts toward improving the economy to any degree by November of 2012.  Beyond that, the fast-track implementation of a British-style austerity program could guarantee a double-dip recession, which could prove disastrous to Obama’s re-election hopes.  As a result, the pressure is on to initiate some significant austerity measures as quickly as possible.  The propaganda employed to expedite this effort involves scaring the sheeple into believing that the horrifying budget deficit is about to bite them in the ass right now.  There is a rapidly increasing drumbeat to crank-up the scare factor.

Of course, the existence of this situation is the result of Obama’s own blunder.  Although he did manage to defeat Osama bin Laden, President Obama’s February, 2009 decision to “punt” on the economic stimulus program – 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.  In his own “Tora Bora moment”, President Obama decided to rely on the advice of the very people who helped cause the financial crisis, by doing more for the zombie banks of Wall Street and less for Main Street – by sparing the banks from temporary receivership (also referred to as “temporary nationalization”) while spending less on financial stimulus.  Obama ignored the 50 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, who warned that an $800 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.  In April of 2009, Obama chose to parrot the discredited “money multiplier” myth, fed to him by Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner, in order to justify continuous corporate welfare for the megabanks.  If Obama had followed the right course, by pushing a stronger, more infrastructure-based stimulus program through the Democrat-controlled Senate and House, we would be enjoying a more healthy economy right now.  A significant number of the nearly fifteen million people currently unemployed could have found jobs from which they would now be paying income taxes, which reduce the deficit.  But that didn’t happen.  President Obama has no one else to blame for that error.  His opponents are now attempting to “snowball” that mistake into a disaster that could make him a one-term President.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich saw this coming back in March:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently stated the Republican view succinctly:  “Less government spending equals more private sector jobs.”

In the past I’ve often wondered whether they’re knaves or fools.  Now I’m sure.  Republicans wouldn’t mind a double-dip recession between now and Election Day 2012.

They figure it’s the one sure way to unseat Obama.  They know that when the economy is heading downward, voters always fire the boss.  Call them knaves.

What about the Democrats?  Most know how fragile the economy is but they’re afraid to say it because the White House wants to paint a more positive picture.

And most of them are afraid of calling for what must be done because it runs so counter to the dominant deficit-cutting theme in our nation’s capital that they fear being marginalized.  So they’re reduced to mumbling “don’t cut so much.”  Call them fools.

Professor Simon Johnson, former Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund, recently brought the focus of the current economic debate back to where it belongs:

In the nation’s latest fiscal mood swing, the mainstream consensus has swung from “we must extend the Bush tax cuts” (in December 2010) towards “we must immediately cut the budget deficit.”  The prevailing assumption, increasingly heard from both left and right, is that we already have far too much government debt – and any further significant increase will likely ruin us all.

This way of framing the debate is misleading – and very much at odds with US fiscal history.  It masks the deeper and important issues here, which are much more about distribution, in particular how much are relatively wealthy Americans willing to transfer to relatively poor Americans?

*   *   *

The real budget debate is not about a few billion here or there – for example in the context of when the government’s “debt ceiling” will be raised.  And it is not particularly about the last decade’s jump in government debt level – although this has grabbed the headlines, this is something that we can grow out of (unless the political elite decides to keep cutting taxes).

The real issue is how much relatively rich people are willing to pay and on what basis in the form of transfers to relatively poor people – and how rising healthcare costs should affect those transfers.

As the Tea Partiers flock to movie theaters to watch Atlas Shrugged, perhaps it’s time for a porno send-up, based on a steamy encounter between Ayn Rand and Gordon Gekko called, Greed Feels Good.


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