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Another Slap On the Wrists

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In case you might be wondering whether the miscreants responsible for causing the financial crisis might ever be prosecuted by Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless – don’t hold your breath.  At the close of 2010, I expressed my disappointment and skepticism that the culprits responsible for having caused the financial crisis would ever be brought to justice.  I found it hard to understand why neither the Securities and Exchange Commission nor the Justice Department would be willing to investigate malefaction, which I described in the following terms:

We often hear the expression “crime of the century” to describe some sensational act of blood lust.  Nevertheless, keep in mind that the financial crisis resulted from a massive fraud scheme, involving the packaging and “securitization” of mortgages known to be “liars’ loans”, which were then sold to unsuspecting investors by the creators of those products – who happened to be betting against the value of those items.  In consideration of the fact that the credit crisis resulting from this scam caused fifteen million people to lose their jobs as well as an expected 8 – 12 million foreclosures by 2012, one may easily conclude that this fraud scheme should be considered the crime of both the last century as well as the current century.

During that same week, former New York Mayor Ed Koch wrote an article which began with the grim observation that no criminal charges have been brought against any of the malefactors responsible for causing the financial crisis:

Looking back on 2010 and the Great Recession, I continue to be enraged by the lack of accountability for those who wrecked our economy and brought the U.S. to its knees.  The shocking truth is that those who did the damage are still in charge.  Many who ran Wall Street before and during the debacle are either still there making millions, if not billions, of dollars, or are in charge of our country’s economic policies which led to the debacle.

“Accountability” is a relative term.  If you believe that the imposition of fines – resulting from civil actions by the Justice Department – could provide accountability for the crimes which led to the financial crisis, then you might have reason to feel enthusiastic.  On the other hand if you agree with Matt Taibbi’s contention that some of those characters deserve to be in prison – then get ready for another disappointment.

Last week, Reuters described plans by the Justice Department to make use of President Obama’s Financial Fraud Task Force (which I discussed last January) by relying on a statute (FIRREA- the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act) which was passed in the wake of the 1980s Savings & Loan crisis:

FIRREA allows the government to bring civil charges if prosecutors believe defendants violated certain criminal laws but have only enough information to meet a threshold that proves a claim based on the “preponderance of the evidence.”

Adam Lurie, a lawyer at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft who worked in the Justice Department’s criminal division until last month, said that although criminal cases based on problematic e-mails without a cooperating witness could be difficult to prove, the same evidence could meet a “preponderance” standard.

On the other hand, William K. Black, who was responsible for many of the reforms which followed the Savings & Loan Crisis, has frequently emphasized that – unlike the 2008 financial crisis – the S&L Crisis actually resulted in criminal prosecutions against those whose wrongdoing was responsible for the crisis.  On December 28, Black characterized the failure to prosecute those crimes which led to the financial crisis as “de facto decriminalization of elite financial fraud”:

The FBI and the DOJ remain unlikely to prosecute the elite bank officers that ran the enormous “accounting control frauds” that drove the financial crisis.  While over 1000 elites were convicted of felonies arising from the savings and loan (S&L) debacle, there are no convictions of controlling officers of the large nonprime lenders.  The only indictment of controlling officers of a far smaller nonprime lender arose not from an investigation of the nonprime loans but rather from the lender’s alleged efforts to defraud the federal government’s TARP bailout program.

What has gone so catastrophically wrong with DOJ, and why has it continued so long?  The fundamental flaw is that DOJ’s senior leadership cannot conceive of elite bankers as criminals.

This isn’t (just) about revenge.  Bruce Judson of the Roosevelt Institute recently wrote an essay entitled “For Capitalism to Survive, Crime Must Not Pay”:

In effect, equal enforcement of the law is not simply important for democracy or to ensure that economic activity takes place, it is fundamental to ensuring that capitalism works.  Without equal enforcement of the law, the economy operates with participants who are competitively advantaged and disadvantaged.  The rogue firms are in effect receiving a giant government subsidy:  the freedom to engage in profitable activities that are prohibited to lesser entities.  This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle (like the growth of WorldCom from a regional phone carrier to a national giant that included MCI), so that inequality becomes ever greater.  Ultimately, we all lose as our entire economy is distorted, valuable entities are crushed or never get off the ground because they can’t compete on a playing field that is not level, and most likely wealth is destroyed.

Does the Justice Department really believe that it is going to impress us with FIRREA lawsuits?  We’ve already had enough theatre – during the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission hearings and the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal.  It’s time for some “perp walks”.


 

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Ignoring The Smart People

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The clowns in Washington seem to be going out of their way to ignore the advice of respected economists as they focus on deficit reduction while ignoring the worsening unemployment crisis.  The fact that mainstream news outlets are oblivious to the consequences of foolish economic policy doesn’t really help.  President Obama now finds himself wedded to a policy of economic destruction, while at the mercy of his opponents, simply because he ignored the good advice he was receiving back in 2009.

The urgency of our current predicament is lost on the asshats vested with the responsibility and authority to implement a “course correction”.  As I pointed out last month, bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO made an effort to debunk the myth that balancing the budget “will magically produce 20 million jobs over the next 10 years”.  More recently, Princeton economics professor and former vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Blinder, wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal entitled, “Our National Jobs Emergency”.  After discussing the most recent non-farm payrolls report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Professor Blinder made this observation:

The horrific June employment number made it two in a row.  With the latest revisions, job growth in May is now estimated to have clocked in at only 25,000 jobs.  So that’s 25,000 and 18,000 in consecutive months.  Given the immense size of total U.S. payroll employment (around 131 million) and the sampling error in the survey, those numbers are effectively zero.  Job creation has stopped for two months.

If we were at 5% unemployment, two bad payroll reports in a row would be of some concern yet tolerable.  But when viewed against the background of 9%-plus unemployment, they are catastrophic.

*   *   *

All this adds up to a national jobs emergency.  Tragically, however, it is not being treated as such.  When is the last time you heard one of our national leaders propose a serious job-creating program?

The operative word here is “serious.”  Every day brings new proposals to slash government spending.  But as I noted on this page last month, those are ways to kill jobs, not create them.  As a matter of fact, despite all the cries of “big government” or even “socialism,” public-sector employment has been falling.

Fortunately, Professor Blinder had some good ideas for private-sector job creation.  One such idea was a tax credit for firms that create new jobs:

As one concrete example, companies might be offered a tax credit equal to 10% of the increase in their wage bills (over 2011 levels, say).  No increase, no reward.

You might think Republicans would embrace an idea like that. After all, it’s a business tax cut and all the new jobs would be in the private sector.  But you’d be wrong.  Frankly, I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s seen as “left-wing social engineering.”

Professor Blinder then proposed an alternative:

Suppose we allow firms to repatriate profits at some super-low tax rate, but only to the extent that they increase their wage payments subject to Social Security.  For example, if XYZ Corporation paid wages covered by Social Security of $1.5 billion in 2011, and then boosted that amount to $1.6 billion in 2012, it would be allowed to repatriate $100 million at a tax rate of 5% or 10% instead of the usual 35% rate.  The tax savings to the company would thus be $25 million-$30 million for raising its payroll by $100 million.  That’s a powerful incentive.

Did anyone in Washington pay serious attention to Professor Blinder’s Wall Street Journal article  . . .  or were they all too busy shorting Treasuries to give a damn?

Oxford-educated economist Martin Wolf wrote a piece for the Financial Times, in which he lamented the antics of those entrusted with the power of managing financial and economic policy:

It is not that tackling the US fiscal position is urgent.  At a time of private sector deleveraging, it is helpful.  The US is able to borrow on easy terms, with yields on 10-year bonds close to 3 per cent, as the few non-hysterics predicted.  The fiscal challenge is long term, not immediate.  A decision not to allow the government to borrow to finance the programmes Congress has already mandated would be insane…. Yet, astonishingly, many of the Republicans opposed to raising the US debt ceiling do not merely wish to curb federal spending:  they enthusiastically desire a default.  Either they have no idea how profound would be the shock to their country’s economy and society of a repudiation of debt legally contracted by their state, or they fall into the category of utopian revolutionaries, heedless of all consequences.

*   *   *

These are dangerous times.  The US may be on the verge of making among the biggest and least-necessary financial mistakes in world history.  The eurozone might be on the verge of a fiscal cum financial crisis that destroys not just the solvency of important countries but even the currency union and, at worst, much of the European project.  These times require wisdom and courage among those in charge of our affairs.  In the US, utopians of the right are seeking to smash the state that emerged from the 1930s and the second world war.  In Europe, politicians are dealing with the legacy of a utopian project which requires a degree of solidarity that their peoples do not feel.  How will these clashes between utopia and reality end? In late August, when I return from my break, we may know at least some of the answers.

At this point, those “answers” are beginning to look pretty scary.  Of course, the Republicans are not the only ones to blame.  Let’s take a look at the wonderful job Mike Whitney of CounterPunch did when he dropped the entire matter back onto President Obama’s lap:

How do you light a fire under Washington, that’s the question?  Is Congress even aware that we’re undergoing a major jobs crisis or are they too busy bickering over tax cuts for fatcats or how much money they can divert from Social Security to Wall Street?

Look; unemployment is over 9% and rising.  The states are firing tens of thousands of teachers and public employees every month because they need to balance their budgets and they’re not taking in enough revenue.  The stimulus is dwindling (which means that fiscal policy is actually contractionary in real terms) And the 10-year Treasury has dipped below 3 percent (as of Monday morning.)  In other words, the bond market is signaling “recession”, even while the dope in the White House is doing his utmost to slice $4 trillion off the deficits.

Does that make any sense?

Maybe if you’re Herbert Hoover, it does.  But it makes no sense at all if you were elected with a mandate to “change” the way Washington operates and put the country back to work.  Obama is just making a bad situation worse by gadding about in his golf togs blabbering about belt tightening.  It’s enough to make you sick.

Get with the program, Barry, or resign.  That would be even better.  Then maybe we can find someone who’s serious about running the country.

As I pointed out on November 4, 2010  . . .  someone has to challenge Obama for the 2012 Democratic nomination and I have someone in mind   .   .   .


 

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The Monster Is Eating Itself

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Back on February 10, 2009 – before President Obama had completed his first month in office – two students at the Yale Law School, Jeffrey Tebbs and Ady Barkan, wrote an article which began with the point that the financial crisis was caused by the recklessness and greed of Wall Street executives.  Tebbs and Barkan proposed a “windfall bonus tax” on those corporate welfare queens of Wall Street, at the very moment when budget-restrained states began instituting their own economic austerity measures so that The Monster could be fed:

Last week, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell proposed a state budget that slashes crucial public services, including deep cuts to health care for kids and pregnant women, higher education and consumer protection.  She says that the cuts are necessary to close our state’s budget shortfall, but she’s apparently unwilling to increase taxes on Connecticut’s millionaires.

That is to say, while your hard-earned tax dollars are funding Christmas bonuses for Wall Street’s jet-set, Connecticut’s government will be cutting the programs and services that are crucial to your health and safety and to the vitality of our communities.

Since that time, “reverse Robin Hood” economic policies, such as the measures proposed by Governor Rell, have become painfully widespread.  As an aside:  Despite the fact that Governor Rell announced on November 9, 2009 that she would not seek re-election, the conservative Cato Institute determined that Rell was the only Republican Governor worthy of a failing grade on the Institute’s 2010 Fiscal Policy Report Card.

The entity I refer to as “The Monster” has been on a feeding frenzy since the financial crisis began.  Other commentators have their own names for this beast.  Michael Collins of The Economic Populist calls it “The Money Party”:

The Money Party is a very small group of enterprises and individuals who control almost all of the money and power in the United States.  They use their money and power to make more money and gain more power.  It’s not about Republicans versus Democrats.  The Money Party is an equal opportunity employer.  It has no permanent friends or enemies, just permanent interests.  Democrats are as welcome as Republicans to this party.  It’s all good when you’re on the take and the take is legal.  Economic Populist

*   *   *

The party is also short on compassion or even the most elementary forms of common decency.  It’s OK to see millions of people evicted, jobless, without health care, etc., as long as short term profits are maintained for those CEO bonuses and other enrichment for a tiny minority.  It’s perfectly acceptable for this to go on despite available solutions.  If you don’t look, it’s not there should be their motto.

Beyond that, The Monster’s insensitivity has increased to the point where it has actually become too numb to realize that the tender morsel it is feasting on happens to be its own foot.  Until last year, The Monster had nearly everyone convinced that America would enjoy a “jobless recovery”, despite the fact that the American economy is 70 percent consumer-driven.  Well, the “jobless recovery” never happened and the new “magic formula” for economic growth is deficit reduction.  As I discussed in my last posting, Bill Gross of PIMCO recently highlighted the flaws in that rationale:

Solutions from policymakers on the right or left, however, seem focused almost exclusively on rectifying or reducing our budget deficit as a panacea. While Democrats favor tax increases and mild adjustments to entitlements, Republicans pound the table for trillions of dollars of spending cuts and an axing of Obamacare.  Both, however, somewhat mystifyingly, believe that balancing the budget will magically produce 20 million jobs over the next 10 years.

Simon Johnson, who formerly served as Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund, conducted a serious analysis of whether such “fiscal contraction” could actually achieve the intended goal of expanding the economy.  The fact that the process has such an oxymoronic name as “expansionary fiscal contraction” should serve as a tip-off that it won’t work:

The general presumption is that fiscal contraction – cutting spending and/or raising taxes – will immediately slow the economy relative to the growth path it would have had otherwise.

*   *   *

There are four conditions under which fiscal contractions can be expansionary.  But none of these conditions are likely to apply in the United States today.

*   *   *

The available evidence, including international experience, suggests it is very unlikely that the United States could experience an “expansionary fiscal contraction” as a result of short-term cuts in discretionary domestic federal government spending.

Economist Stephanie Kelton explained that the best way to lower the federal budget deficit is to reduce unemployment:

The bottom line is this:  As long as unemployment remains high, the deficit will remain high.  So instead of continuing to put the deficit first, it’s time get to work on a plan to increase employment.

Here’s the formula:  Spending creates income.  Income creates sales.  Sales create jobs.

If you think you can cut the deficit without destroying jobs, dream on.

Dr. Kelton has identified the problem:  Deficit reduction schemes which disregard the impact on employment.  Nevertheless, The Monster is determined to press ahead with a “deficits first” agenda, regardless of the consequences.  The Monster will have its way because its army of lobbyists has President Obama under control.  As a result, we can expect increased unemployment, a diminished tax base, less consumer spending, less demand, decreased corporate income, lower GDP and more deficits.  The Monster’s gluttony has placed it on a course of self-destruction.  Perhaps that might be a good thing – if only it wouldn’t cause too much pain for the rest of us.


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Obama On The Ropes

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You’ve been reading it everywhere and hearing it from scores of TV pundits:  The ongoing economic crisis could destroy President Obama’s hopes for a second term.  In a recent interview with Alexander Bolton of The Hill, former Democratic National Committee chairman, Howard Dean warned that the economy is so bad that even Sarah Palin could defeat Barack Obama in 2012.  Dean’s statement was unequivocal:  “I think she could win.”

I no longer feel guilty about writing so many “I told you so” pieces about Obama’s failure to heed sane economic advice since the beginning of his term in the White House.  A chorus of commentators has begun singing that same tune.  In July of 2009, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Second Stimulus”, wherein I predicted that our new President would realize that his economic stimulus program was inadequate because he followed the advice from the wrong people.  After quoting the criticisms of a few economists who warned (in January and February of 2009) that the proposed stimulus would be insufficient, I said this:

Despite all these warnings, as well as a Bloomberg survey conducted in early February, revealing the opinions of economists that the stimulus would be inadequate to avert a two-percent economic contraction in 2009, the President stuck with the $787 billion plan.  He is now in the uncomfortable position of figuring out how and when he can roll out a second stimulus proposal.

President Obama should have done it right the first time.  His penchant for compromise – simply for the sake of compromise itself – is bound to bite him in the ass on this issue, as it surely will on health care reform – should he abandon the “public option”.  The new President made the mistake of assuming that if he established a reputation for being flexible, his opposition would be flexible in return.  The voting public will perceive this as weak leadership.

Stephanie Kelton recently provided us with an interesting reminiscence of that fateful time, in a piece she published on William Black’s New Economic Perspectives website:

Some of us saw this coming.  For example, Jamie Galbraith and Robert Reich warned, on a panel I organized in January 2009, that the stimulus package needed to be at least $1.3 trillion in order to create the conditions for a sustainable recovery.  Anything shy of that, they worried, would fail to sufficiently improve the economy, making Keynesian economics the subject of ridicule and scorn.

*   *   *

In July 2009, I wrote a post entitled, “Gift-Wrapping the White House for the GOP.” In it, I said:

“If President Obama wants a second term, he must join the growing chorus of voices calling for another stimulus and press forward with an ambitious program to create jobs and halt the foreclosure crisis.”

With the recent announcement of Austan Goolsbee’s planned departure from his brief stint as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, much has been written about Obama’s constant rejection of the “dissenting opinions” voiced by members of the President’s economics team, such as those expressed by Goolsbee and his predecessor, Christina Romer.  Obama chose, instead, to paint himself into a corner by following the misguided advice of Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  Ezra Klein of The Washington Post recently published some excerpts from a speech (pdf) delivered by Professor Romer at Stanford University in May of 2011.  At one point, she provided a glimpse of the acrimony, which often arose at meetings of the President’s economics team:

Like the Federal Reserve, the Administration and Congress should have done more in the fall of 2009 and early 2010 to aid the recovery.  I remember that fall of 2009 as a very frustrating one.  It was very clear to me that the economy was still struggling, but the will to do more to help it had died.

There was a definite split among the economics team about whether we should push for more fiscal stimulus, or switch our focus to the deficit.  A number of us tried to make the case that more action was desperately needed and would be effective.  Normally, meetings with the President were very friendly and free-wheeling.  He likes to hear both sides of an issue argued passionately.  But, about the fourth time we had the same argument over more stimulus in front of him, he had clearly had enough.  As luck would have it, the next day, a reporter asked him if he ever lost his temper.  He replied, “Yes, I let my economics team have it just yesterday.”

By May of 2010, even Larry Summers was discussing the need for further economic stimulus measures, which I discussed in a piece entitled, “I Knew This Would Happen”.  Unfortunately, most of the remedies suggested at that time were never enacted – and those that were undertaken, fell short of the desired goal.  Nevertheless, Larry Summers is back at it again, proposing a new round of stimulus measures, likely due to concern that Obama’s adherence to Summers’ failed economic policies could lead to the President’s defeat in 2012.  Jeff Mason and Caren Bohan of Reuters reported that Summers has proposed a $200 billion payroll tax program and a $100 billion infrastructure spending program, which would take place over the next few years.  The Reuters piece also supported the contention that by 2010, Summers had turned away from the Dark Side and aligned himself with Romer in opposing Peter Orszag (who eventually took that controversial spin through the “revolving door” to join Citigroup):

During much of 2010, Obama’s economic advisers wrestled with a debate over whether to shift toward deficit reduction or pursue further fiscal stimulus.

Summers and former White House economist Christina Romer were in the camp arguing that the recession that followed the financial markets meltdown of 2008-2009 was a unique event that required aggressive stimulus to avoid a long period of stagnation similar to Japan’s “lost decade” of the 1990s.

Former White House budget director Peter Orszag was among those who cautioned against a further big stimulus, warning of the need to be mindful of ballooning budget deficits.

By the time voters head to the polls for the next Presidential election, we will be in Year Four of our own “lost decade”.  Accordingly, President Obama’s new “Jobs Czar” – General Electric CEO, Jeffrey Immelt – is busy discussing new plans, which will be destined to go up in smoke when Congressional Republicans exploit the opportunity to maintain the dismal status quo until the day arrives when disgruntled voters can elect President Palin.  Barack Obama is probably suffering from some awful nightmares about that possibility.


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Morgenson Watch Continues

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I was recently reminded of the late Tanta (a/k/a Doris Dungey) of the Calculated Risk blog, who wrote the recurring “Morgenson Watch” for that site.

As soon as I saw the title of Gretchen Morgenson’s most recent article at the top of the Sunday link list at Real Clear Politics, I suspected there would be trouble:  “U.S. Has Binged.  Soon It’ll Be Time to Pay the Tab.”  After reading as far as the first sentence of the second paragraph, my concern was validated.  Here’s how the piece began:

SAY this about all the bickering over the federal debt ceiling:  at least people are talking openly about our nation’s growing debt load.  This $14.3 trillion issue is front and center – exactly where it should be.

Into the fray comes a thoughtful new paper by Joseph E. Gagnon, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, which studies economic policy.

The Peterson Institute was formerly the Institute for International Economics, founded by C. Fred Bergsten.  It was subsequently taken over by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, a foundation established and managed by Richard Nixon’s former Commerce Secretary (and co-founder of Blackstone Group), Pete Peterson.  The Peterson Institute is a “think tank” (i.e. propaganda mill) most recognized for its advocacy of “economic austerity” (which usually involves protecting the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and the impoverished).

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, is always quick to rebut the pronouncements of those economists, acting as “hired guns” to spread the gospel of the Peterson Institute.  Needless to say, once Gretchen Morgenson began to parrot the Peterson Institute dogma in her aforementioned article, Yves Smith didn’t hesitate to pounce:

I’m generally a Gretchen Morgenson fan, since she’s one of the few writers with a decent bully pulpit who regularly ferrets out misconduct in the corporate and finance arenas. But when she wanders off her regular terrain, the results are mixed, and her current piece is a prime example. She also sometimes pens articles based on a single source, which creates the risk of serving as a mouthpiece for a particular point of view.

(As an aside, a good example of this process has been Ms. Morgenson’s continuing fixation on “mortgage mania” as a cause of the financial crisis after having been upbraided by Barry Ritholtztwice – for “pushing the Fannie-Freddie CRA meme”.)

After pointing out Morgenson’s uncritical acceptance of the economic model used in the Peterson Institute report (by Gagnon and Hinterschweiger) Yves Smith directed our attention to the very large elephant in the room:  the proven fact that au-scare-ity doesn’t work in our post-financial crisis, anemic-growth milieu.  Ms. Smith focused on this aspect of the Peterson Institute report:

It also stunningly shows the howler of the Eurozone showing improvements in debt to GDP ratios as a result of the austerity programs being implemented. The examples of Latvia and Ireland have demonstrated that austerity measures have worsened debt to GDP ratios, dramatically in both cases, and the same deflationary dynamics look to be kicking in for Spain.

The article repeats the hoary cliche that deficit cuts must be made to “reassure the markets” as in appease the Bond Gods. Gee, how is that working out in Europe, the Peterson Institute’s obedient student?

Ms. Smith supported her argument with this report, which appeared in Bloomberg News on May 27:

European confidence in the economic outlook weakened for a third straight month in May as the region’s worsening debt crisis and surging commodity costs clouded growth prospects.

An index of executive and consumer sentiment in the 17- member euro region slipped to 105.5 from 106.1 in April, the European Commission in Brussels said today. Economists had forecast a drop to 105.7, the median of 27 estimates in a Bloomberg survey showed. The euro-area economy is showing signs of a slowdown as governments toughen austerity measures to lower budget gaps as investors grow increasingly concerned that Greece may default, while oil-driven inflation squeezes household incomes. European manufacturing growth slowed this month….

Be sure to read Yves Smith’s entire essay, which addressed the tired canard about those phantom “bond vigilantes”, etc.  Ms. Smith’s closing paragraph deserves repetition:

But the idea of government spending has become anathema in the US, despite plenty of targets (start with our crumbing infrastructure).  The banks got first dibs on the “fix the economy” money in the crisis, and continue to balk at measures that would shrink a bloated and highly leveraged banking sector down to a more reasonable size.  Evidence already shows the size of the banking sector is constraining growth, yet a full bore campaign is on to gut social spending out of a concern that sometime down the road the size of the government sector will serve as a drag on the economy.  In addition, the banksters need to preserve their ability to go back to the well the next time they crash the markets for fun and profit.  So the attack on deficits is financial services industry ideology, packaged to make it look like it’s good for the little guy. We have too many people who should know better like Morgenson enabling it.

The reader comments to Ms. Smith’s essay were quite interesting.  Many of the readers who have been outraged by Smith’s ongoing rebuttals to the Peterson Institute gospel and other Austerian dogma would do well to familiarize themselves with this bit of legalese:

EXCLUSION OF SOCIAL SECURITY FROM ALL BUDGETS Pub. L. 101-508, title XIII, Sec. 13301(a), Nov. 5, 1990, 104 Stat. 1388-623, provided that:  Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the receipts and disbursements of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund and the Federal Disability Insurance Trust Fund shall not be counted as new budget authority, outlays, receipts, or deficit or surplus for purposes of – (1) the budget of the United States Government as submitted by the President, (2) the congressional budget, or (3) the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985.

I include myself among those who are “generally” Gretchen Morgenson fans.  Nevertheless, it has become obvious that with Tanta gone, the spirit of “Morgenson Watch” shall endure for as long as the frailties of being a New York Times pundit continue to manifest themselves.


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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?

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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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No Justice For The Wicked

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Although the drumbeat continues, I remain skeptical as to whether any of the criminals responsible for causing the financial crisis will ever be brought to justice.  In the weeks before President Obama’s Inauguration, the foremost question on my mind was whether the new administration would take the necessary steps to change the culture of corruption on Wall Street:

As we approach the eve of the Obama Administration’s first day, across America the new President’s supporters have visions of “change we can believe in” dancing in their heads.  For some, this change means the long overdue realization of health care reform.  For those active in the Democratic campaigns of 2006, “change” means an end to the Iraq war.  Many Americans are hoping that the new administration will crack down on the unregulated activities on Wall Street that helped bring about the current economic crisis.

On December 15, Stephen Labaton wrote an article for the New York Times, examining the recent failures of the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the environment at the SEC that facilitates such breakdowns.

At that time, I also focused on the point made in a commentary by Michael Lewis and David Einhorn, which appeared in the January 3 New York Times:

It’s not hard to see why the S.E.C. behaves as it does.  If you work for the enforcement division of the S.E.C. you probably know in the back of your mind, and in the front too, that if you maintain good relations with Wall Street you might soon be paid huge sums of money to be employed by it.

I concluded that piece with a rhetorical question:

Let’s hope our new President, the Congress and others pay serious attention to what Lewis and Einhorn have said.  Cleaning up Wall Street is going to be a dirty job.  Will those responsible for accomplishing this task be up to doing it?

By March 23, 2009, it had become obvious that our new President was more concerned about the “welfare” (pun intended) of the Wall Street banks than the well-being of the American economy.  I began my posting of that date with this statement:

We the people, who voted for Barack Obama, are about to get ripped off by our favorite Hope dealer.

On August 27 of that year, I wrote another piece expressing my disappointment with how things had (not) progressed.  My October 1, 2009 posting focused on the fact that H. David Kotz, Inspector General of the Securities and Exchange Commission, issued two reports, recommending 58 changes to improve the way the agency investigates and enforces violations of securities laws, as a result of the SEC’s failure to investigate the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme.  The reports exposed a shocking degree of ineptitude at the SEC.

After the release of the report by bankruptcy examiner Anton Valukas, pinpointing the causes of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, I lamented the fact that the mainstream media hadn’t shown much concern about the matter, despite the terrible fraud exposed in the report.  Nevertheless, by the next day, I was able to highlight some great commentaries on the Valukas Report and I felt optimistic enough to conclude the piece with this thought:

We can only hope that a continued investigation into the Lehman scandal will result in a very bright light directed on those privileged plutocrats who consider themselves above the law.

If only  . . .

By the eve of the mid-term elections, I had an answer to the question I had posed on January 5, 2009 as to whether our new President and Congress would be up to the task of cleaning up Wall Street:

One common theme voiced by many critics of the Obama administration has been its lack of interest in prosecuting those responsible for causing the financial crisis.  Don’t hold your breath waiting for Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless to initiate any criminal proceedings against such noteworthy individuals as Countrywide’s Angelo Mozilo or Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers.  On October 23, Frank Rich of The New York Times mentioned both of those individuals while lamenting the administration’s failure to prosecute the “financial crimes that devastated the nation”:

The Obama administration seems not to have a prosecutorial gene.   It’s shy about calling a fraud a fraud when it occurs in high finance.
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Since Obama has neither aggressively pursued the crash’s con men nor compellingly explained how they gamed the system, he sometimes looks as if he’s fronting for the industry even if he’s not.

The special treatment afforded to the perpetrators of the frauds that helped create the financial crisis wasn’t the only gift to Wall Street from the Democratically-controlled White House, Senate and Congress.  The financial “reform” bill was so badly compromised (by the Administration and Senate Democrats, themselves) as it worked its way through the legislative process, that it is now commonly regarded as nothing more than a hoax.

By the close of 2010, I noted that an expanding number of commentators shared my outrage over the likelihood that we would never see any prosecutions result from the crimes that brought about the financial crisis:

A recent article written by former New York Mayor Ed Koch began with the grim observation that no criminal charges have been brought against any of the malefactors responsible for causing the financial crisis:

Looking back on 2010 and the Great Recession, I continue to be enraged by the lack of accountability for those who wrecked our economy and brought the U.S. to its knees.  The shocking truth is that those who did the damage are still in charge.  Many who ran Wall Street before and during the debacle are either still there making millions, if not billions, of dollars, or are in charge of our country’s economic policies which led to the debacle.

Most recently, Matt Taibbi has written another great article for Rolling Stone entitled, “Why Isn’t Wall Street in Jail?”.  It’s nice to know that the drumbeat for justice continues.  Taibbi’s essay provided a great history of the crisis, with a particular emphasis on how whistleblowers were ignored, just as Harry Markopolos was ignored when (in May of 2000) he tried to alert the SEC to the fact that Bernie Madoff’s hedge fund was a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme.  Here is a great passage from Matt Taibbi’s essay:

In the past few years, the administration has allocated massive amounts of federal resources to catching wrongdoers — of a certain type.  Last year, the government deported 393,000 people, at a cost of $5 billion.  Since 2007, felony immigration prosecutions along the Mexican border have surged 77 percent; nonfelony prosecutions by 259 percent.  In Ohio last month, a single mother was caught lying about where she lived to put her kids into a better school district; the judge in the case tried to sentence her to 10 days in jail for fraud, declaring that letting her go free would “demean the seriousness” of the offenses.

So there you have it.  Illegal immigrants:  393,000.  Lying moms:  one.  Bankers:  zero.  The math makes sense only because the politics are so obvious.  You want to win elections, you bang on the jailable class. You build prisons and fill them with people for selling dime bags and stealing CD players.  But for stealing a billion dollars?  For fraud that puts a million people into foreclosure?  Pass.  It’s not a crime.  Prison is too harsh.  Get them to say they’re sorry, and move on.  Oh, wait — let’s not even make them say they’re sorry.  That’s too mean; let’s just give them a piece of paper with a government stamp on it, officially clearing them of the need to apologize, and make them pay a fine instead.  But don’t make them pay it out of their own pockets, and don’t ask them to give back the money they stole. In fact, let them profit from their collective crimes, to the tune of a record $135 billion in pay and benefits last year.  What’s next?  Taxpayer-funded massages for every Wall Street executive guilty of fraud?

Wouldn’t it be nice if public opinion meant more to the Obama administration than campaign contributions from Wall Street banksters?




Summers Solstice

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November 27, 2008

We are now approaching the winter solstice (December 21 – the time at which the sun is at its most southern distance from the equator during the year – a/k/a:  “the shortest day of the year” for those of us in the northern hemisphere).  President-elect Obama’s appointment of Larry Summers as Director of the National Economic Council reminds me of another definition of the word “solstice”:  a turning point.  For all his faults (most notably, his infamous remarks as President of Harvard University, about the involvement of women in the study of science) he is no longer considered so much of a “supply sider” as a centrist in the world of economics.  Summers has apparently passed a turning point in his economic philosophy.

For those unfamiliar with Larry Summers, David Leonhardt’s article, “The Return of Larry Summers” in the November 25 New York Times is worth reading. I’ve been hearing reverberations of Leonhardt’s commentary throughout the mainstream media lately.  Here is an important observation from Mr. Leonhardt’s piece:

He (Summers) is also the centrist who has made it safe for other centrist Democrats to move to the left.  Both times I’ve interviewed Mr. Obama this year, he has brought up Mr. Summers, unbidden, and pointed out that Mr. Summers was now writing a lot more about the plight of the middle class than about budget deficits.  At Monday’s news conference, Mr. Obama called him “a thought leader.”

The “thought leader” remark came up in the following context when Barack Obama announced his appointment of Summers to the National Economic Council post on November 24.

As a thought leader, Larry has urged us to confront the problems of income inequality and the middle class squeeze, consistently arguing that the key to a strong economy is a strong, vibrant, growing middle class.

This idea is at the core of my own economic philosophy and will be the foundation of all of my economic policies. And as one of the great economic minds of our time, Larry has earned a global reputation for being able to cut to the heart of the most complex and novel policy challenges.

Looking back to June 10, 2007, we find another article in the New York Times written by David Leonhardt, entitled:  “Larry Summers’s Evolution”.  As we revisit this commentary in light of our current economic crisis, the pronouncements made by Summers seem almost prophetic:

The model that most appeals to Summers is, in fact, the United States — in the decades after World War II.  At the time, this country was opening itself to more global competition, by rebuilding Europe and signing financial agreements like Bretton Woods.  But it was also taking concrete steps to build the modern middle class.  In addition to the G.I. Bill, there were the Federal Housing Administration, the Interstate Highway System and a very different tax code.  The history of progressivism “has been one of the market being protected from its own excesses,” Summers says.  “And I think now the challenge is, again, to protect a basic market system based on open trade and globalization, to make it one that works for everyone or for almost everyone, at a time when market forces are often producing outcomes that seem increasingly problematic to middle-class families.”

That essay inspired The Economist to post a piece on its Free Exchange blog on the following day, entitled “Has Larry Summers Gone Soft?”

Nevertheless, conservative writers such as Kevin Hassett of Forbes still think of Summers as an opponent to increased capital gains taxation and hence, an advocate of “supply side” economics.   Conservative writer, David Harsanyi of the Denver Post exhibited similar enthusiasm about the appointment of Summers.  However, in the November 24 National Review, Larry Kudlow saw Obama’s appointment of Summers as a move to the center:

As for Summers, while he has been mau-maued by Democratic feminists and some of the unions, he is a tough, clear-headed thinker who has for years tried to merge Keynesian and supply-side policies.  No mean feat.

At this point, many pundits are attempting to “read the tea leaves” for hints as to whether President Obama will act to reverse the Bush tax cuts or let them expire in 2011.  The consensus suggests that he may simply let them expire.  This has drawn some anxious criticism from the left.  On the November 25 broadcast of the program, Democracy Now, author Naomi Klein made the following remark about Obama’s appointment of Summers:  “I think this is really troubling.”  However, on that same program, economics professor Robert Kuttner (the chief economics adviser to Rep. Dennis Kucinich) explained that he was “less pessimistic” than Ms. Klein about the Summers appointment:

I think even Larry Summers, because he is such an opportunist, has lately been calling for very large stimulus package, has been calling for tighter regulation of banks.

The influence of Larry Summers on the Obama Administration’s economic policy will be a continuing saga for the next few years.  At this point, the “change you can believe in” seems to absorb more than a little input from the center.

The Home Stretch

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October 27, 2008

We are entering the final week of the longest Presidential campaign in our nation’s history.  At the same time, the world economy continues to flirt with chaos and our nation’s equities market indices are diving at a faster pace than Superman’s swooping down from the sky to save Lois Lane from a potential rapist.  Some stockbrokers believe that an abrupt and decisive nosedive in the markets might have a cathartic effect and finally bring us to the long-awaited “bottom”, from which there would be only one place to go:  up.  Rock musician Tom Petty wrote a song about the death of his mother, called: Free Fallin’.  That song has recently become the theme for America’s stock markets.  The situation has become so bad that many fear it may be necessary for the feds to suspend equities trading until all of the nervous investors and frenzied hedge fund managers have a chance to gather their wits.  Would the government really intervene and close the stock markets for a day or more?

There is one authority who earned quite a bit of “street cred” when our current economic crisis hit the fan.  He is Nouriel Roubini, an economist at the Stern School of Business at New York University.  He earned the nickname “Doctor Doom” when he spoke before the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on September 7, 2006 and described, in precise detail, exactly what would bring the financial world to its knees, two years later.  As reported by Ben Sills and Emma Ross-Thomas in the October 24 edition of Bloomberg:

Roubini said yesterday that policy makers may need to shut down financial markets for a week or two as investors dump assets. Trading in futures on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average was limited today after declines of more than 6 percent.

This week brings us more earnings reports and new housing starts that could send already skittish investors (as well as terrified hedge fund managers) on a “panic selling” binge.  Could this trigger a market shutdown by the government as predicted by Dr. Roubini?  If so, we may find the markets closed for the final days before the Presidential election.  The Republicans and their media trumpet, Fox News, would likely seize upon such a development, characterizing it as validation of their claim that the investing public fears a “socialist” Obama Presidency.  In reality, there would be no way to measure the impact of the election results on the equities markets under such circumstances.  If the markets were kept closed until after the election, there would be quite a number of investors, chomping at the bit to dump their portfolios during the hiatus, ready to do so as soon as the markets re-opened.  On the other hand, Stuart Schweitzer, global market strategist at JP Morgan Private Bank appeared on the October 24 broadcast of the PBS program, Nightly Business Report, and explained what to really expect about the impact of the Presidential election on the securities markets.  Schweitzer believes that regardless of who is elected, once we get past Election Day, there will be a sense of certainty established as to who will be making economic policy going forward into the new Presidential term.  This fact in itself, regardless of what that economic policy might become, will eliminate the element of uncertainty that breeds some degree of the fear in the hearts of investors.

If the stock markets really end up being closed during the final days before the election, we would likely see more havoc than calming.  The timing would prove too irresistible for conspiracy theorists to ignore.  Some would see it as a plot by the Republicans to conceal how bad the economy really is.  Others might see it as a ploy by “Washington elites” (a term used by some in reference to Obama supporters) to conceal widespread fear of putting a “communist” in charge of our nation.  The smartest course from here would be for the Federal Reserve Board’s FOMC (Federal Open Market Committee) to undertake a responsible, public relations role when it meets on Tuesday.  They should be ready to explain to the public what has really been happening in the markets:  an unregulated species of investments called “hedge funds” has been causing mayhem on the trading floors.  Many (if not most) of these hedge funds are going broke and they are attempting to secure a place in the line for Federal bailout money.  They have caused equities trading to function more like eBay:  the only market movement that matters over the course of any given day is what takes place during the final three minutes before the closing bell, when the hedge fund managers dump stocks.  On eBay, the winning bid for an item is usually made during the minute before an auction ends.  Unlike eBay, the stock market numbers can go up or down.  These days, the index movement prior to the closing bell is usually seismic (in one direction or the other).   It was never like this before.  These trading patterns often trigger pre-established “stop loss orders” to sell stocks, usually established by individual investors upon purchase of those stocks.  The result is an avalanche of “sell” orders at the end of the day.  The FOMC needs to explain this disease to the public and let us know the Fed is working on a cure.  Closing the markets in the final days before a Presidential election will not be a cure.  Such a move will just create a scab that will quickly be picked away by an investing public that needs to ease up on the caffeine and go out for a walk.