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Christina Romer Was Right

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Now it’s official.  Christina Romer was right.  The signs that she was about to be proven correct had been turning up everywhere.  When Charles Kaldec of Forbes reminded us – yet again – of President Obama’s willful refusal to seriously consider the advice of the former Chair of his Council of Economic Advisers, it became apparent that something was about to happen  .  .  .

On Friday morning, the highly-anticipated non-farm payrolls report for April was released by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  Although economists had been anticipating an increase of 165,000 jobs during the past month, the report disclosed that only 115,000 jobs were added.  In other words, the headline number was 50,000 less than the anticipated figure, missing economists’ expectations by a whopping 31 percent.  The weak 115,000 total failed to match the 120,000 jobs added in March.  Worse yet, even if payrolls were expanding at twice that rate, it would take more than five years to significantly reduce the jobs backlog and create new jobs to replace the 5.3 million lost during the recession.

Because this is an election year, Republicans are highlighting the ongoing unemployment crisis as a failure of the Obama Presidency.  On Friday evening’s CNN program, Anderson Cooper 360, economist Paul Krugman insisted that this crisis has resulted from Republican intransigence.  Bohemian Grove delegate David Gergen rebutted Krugman’s claim by emphasizing that Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus program was inadequate to address the task of bringing unemployment back to pre-crisis levels.  What annoyed me about Gergen’s response was his dishonest implication that President Obama’s semi-stimulus was Christina Romer’s brainchild.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The stimulus program proposed by Romer would have involved a more significant, $1.8 trillion investment.  Beyond that, the fact that unemployment continues for so many millions of people who lost their jobs during the recession is precisely because of Barack Obama’s decision to ignore Christina Romer.  I have been groaning about that decision for a long time, as I discussed here and here.

My February 13 discussion of Noam Scheiber’s book, The Escape Artists, demonstrated how abso-fucking-lutely wrong David Gergen was when he tried to align Christina Romer with Obama’s stimulus:

The book tells the tale of a President in a struggle to create a centrist persona, with no roadmap of his own.  In fact, it was Obama’s decision to follow the advice of Peter Orszag, to the exclusion of the opinions offered by Christina Romer and Larry Summers – which prolonged the unemployment crisis.

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The Escape Artists takes us back to the pivotal year of 2009 – Obama’s first year in the White House.  Noam Scheiber provided us with a taste of his new book by way of an article published in The New Republic entitled, “Obama’s Worst Year”.  Scheiber gave the reader an insider’s look at Obama’s clueless indecision at the fork in the road between deficit hawkishness vs. economic stimulus.  Ultimately, Obama decided to maintain the illusion of centrism by following the austerity program suggested by Peter Orszag:

BACK IN THE SUMMER of 2009, David Axelrod, the president’s top political aide, was peppering White House economist Christina Romer with questions in preparation for a talk-show appearance.  With unemployment nearing 10 percent, many commentators on the left were second-guessing the size of the original stimulus, and so Axelrod asked if it had been big enough.  “Abso-fucking-lutely not,” Romer responded.  She said it half-jokingly, but the joke was that she would use the line on television.  She was dead serious about the sentiment.  Axelrod did not seem amused.

For Romer, the crusade was a lonely one.  While she believed the economy needed another boost in order to recover, many in the administration were insisting on cuts.  The chief proponent of this view was budget director Peter Orszag.  Worried that the deficit was undermining the confidence of businessmen, Orszag lobbied to pare down the budget in August, six months ahead of the usual budget schedule.      .   .   .

The debate was not only a question of policy.  It was also about governing style – and, in a sense, about the very nature of the Obama presidency.  Pitching a deficit-reduction plan would be a concession to critics on the right, who argued that the original stimulus and the health care bill amounted to liberal overreach.  It would be premised on the notion that bipartisan compromise on a major issue was still possible.  A play for more stimulus, on the other hand, would be a defiant action, and Obama clearly recognized this.  When Romer later urged him to double-down, he groused, “The American people don’t think it worked, so I can’t do it.”

That’s a fine example of great leadership – isn’t it?  “The American people don’t think it worked, so I can’t do it.”  In 2009, the fierce urgency of the unemployment and economic crises demanded a leader who would not feel intimidated by the sheeple’s erroneous belief that the Economic Recovery Act had not “worked”.

Ron Suskind’s book, Confidence Men is another source which contradicts David Gergen’s attempt to characterize Obama’s stimulus as Romer’s baby.  Last fall, Berkeley economics professor, Brad DeLong had been posting and discussing excerpts from the book at his own website, Grasping Reality With Both Hands.  On September 19, Professor DeLong posted a passage from Suskind’s book, which revealed Obama’s expressed belief (in November of 2009) that high unemployment was a result of productivity gains in the economy.  Both Larry Summers (Chair of the National Economic Council) and Christina Romer (Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers) were shocked and puzzled by Obama’s ignorance on this subject:

“What was driving unemployment was clearly deficient aggregate demand,” Romer said.  “We wondered where this could be coming from.  We both tried to convince him otherwise.  He wouldn’t budge.”

Obama’s willful refusal to heed the advice of Cristina Romer has facilitated the persistence of our nation’s unemployment problem.  As Ron Suskind remarked in the previously-quoted passage:

The implications were significant.  If Obama felt that 10 percent unemployment was the product of sound, productivity-driven decisions by American business, then short-term government measures to spur hiring were not only futile but unwise.

There you have it.  Despite the efforts of Obama’s apologists to blame Larry Summers or others on the President’s economic team for persistent unemployment, it wasn’t simply a matter of “the buck stopping” on the President’s desk.  Obama himself  has been the villain, hypocritically advocating a strategy of “trickle-down economics” – in breach of  his campaign promise to do the exact opposite.

As Election Day approaches, it becomes increasingly obvious that the unemployment situation will persist through autumn – and it could get worse.  This is not Christina Romer’s fault.  It is President Obama’s legacy.  Christina Romer was right and President Obama was wrong.


 

Geithner Redeems Himself – For Now

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I’ve never been a fan of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.  Nevertheless, I have to give the guy credit for delivering a great speech at the Economic Club of Chicago on April 4.  The event took place in a building which was formerly home to an off-track betting parlor, with an “upscale” section called The Derby Club (where Gene Siskel spent lots of time and money)  – in an era before discretionary income became an obsolete concept.

At a time when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is suffering from “buyer’s remorse” after bankrolling the election of ideologues opposed to infrastructure spending, Geithner spoke out in favor of common sense.  We have come a long, painful way from the days when the Chamber of Commerce aligned itself against the interests of the “little people”.  As Keith Laing reported for The Hill, the Chamber no longer considers “stimulus” to be such a dirty word.  Laing discussed the joint efforts by the Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO executive Edward Wytkind to advance the transportation bill through a Congressional roadblock:

“We’re going to be pounding away during the recess to get House members to know they’ve got to check their party at the door,” Wytkind said of Republicans in the House who opposed accepting the Senate’s transportation bill.

Other transportation supporters were similarly pessimistic.  U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive director of transportation and infrastructure Janet Kavinoky said the 90-day extension could lead to a longer agreement, but only if lawmakers get right back to work after the two-week recess.

“No length of time is going to be good for construction or business, but at least 90 days provides a length of time Congress could get a long-term bill done,” Kavinoky said.  “But the House in particular is going to have their nose to the grindstone, or whatever metaphor you want to use, to get a bill off the House floor and into a conference.”

The timing could not have been better for someone in a position of national leadership to deliver a warning that premature austerity policies (implemented before economic recovery gains traction) can have the same destructive consequences as we are witnessing in Europe.  To his credit, Tim Geithner stepped up to the plate and hit a home run.  Here are his most important remarks, delivered in Chicago on Wednesday:

Much of the political debate and the critiques of business lobbyists misread the underlying dynamics of the economy today.  Many have claimed that the basic foundations of American business are in crisis, critically undermined by taxes and regulation.

And yet, business profits are higher than before the crisis and have recovered much more quickly than overall growth and employment.  Business investment in equipment and software is up by 33 percent over the past 2 ½ years.  Exports have grown 24 percent in real terms over the same period.  And manufacturing is coming back, with factory payrolls up by more than 400,000 since the start of 2010.

The business environment in the United States is in numerous ways better than that of many of our major competitors, as measured by international comparisons of regulatory burden, the tax burden on workers, the quality of legal protections of property rights, the ease of starting a business, the availability of capital, and the broader flexibility of the economy.

The challenges facing the American economy today are not primarily about the vibrancy or efficiency of the business community.  They are about the barriers to economic opportunity and economic security for many Americans and the political constraints that now stand in the way of better economic outcomes.

These challenges can only be addressed by government action to help speed the recovery and repair the remaining damage from the crisis and reforms and investments to lay the foundation for stronger future growth.

This means taking action to support growth in the short-term – such as helping Americans refinance their mortgages and investing in infrastructure projects – so that we don’t jeopardize the gains our economy has made over the last three years.

And it means making the investments and reforms necessary for a stronger economy in the future. Investments in things like education, to help Americans compete in the global economy.  Investments in innovation, so that our economy can offer the best jobs possible.  Investments in infrastructure, to reduce costs and increase productivity.  Policies to expand exports. And reforms to improve incentives for investing in the United States – including reform of our business tax system.

A growth strategy for the American economy requires more than promises to cut taxes and spending.

We have to be willing to do things, not just cut things.

To expand exports, we have to support programs like the Export-Import Bank, which provides financing at no cost to the government for American businesses trying to compete in foreign markets.

To make us more competitive, we have to be willing to make larger long-term investments in infrastructure, not just limp forward with temporary extensions.

Any credible growth agenda has to recognize that there are parts of the economy, like the financial system, that need reform and regulation.  Businesses need to be able to rely on a more stable source of capital, with a financial system that allocates resources to their most productive uses, not misallocating them to an unsustainable real estate boom.

Cutting government investments in education and infrastructure and basic science is not a growth strategy.  Cutting deeply into the safety net for low-income Americans is not financially necessary and cannot plausibly help strengthen economic growth. Repealing Wall Street Reform will not make the economy grow faster – it would just make us more vulnerable to another crisis.

This strategy is a recipe to make us a declining power – a less exceptional nation.  It is a dark and pessimistic vision of America.

Is this simply another example of the Obama administration’s habit of  “doing the talk” without “doing the walk”?  Time will tell.


 

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No Consensus About the Future

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As the election year progresses, we are exposed to wildly diverging predictions about the future of the American economy.  The Democrats are telling us that in President Obama’s capable hands, the American economy keeps improving every day – despite the constant efforts by Congressional Republicans to derail the Recovery Express.  On the other hand, the Republicans keep warning us that a second Obama term could crush the American economy with unrestrained spending on entitlement programs.  Meanwhile, in (what should be) the more sober arena of serious economics, there is a wide spectrum of expectations, motivated by concerns other than partisan politics.  Underlying all of these debates is a simple question:  How can one predict the future of the economy without an accurate understanding of what is happening in the present?  Before asking about where we are headed, it might be a good idea to get a grip on where we are now.  Nevertheless, exclusive fixation on past and present conditions can allow future developments to sneak up on us, if we are not watching.

Those who anticipate a less resilient economy consistently emphasize that the “rose-colored glasses crowd” has been basing its expectations on a review of lagging and concurrent economic indicators rather than an analysis of leading economic indicators.  One of the most prominent economists to emphasize this distinction is John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  Hussman’s most recent Weekly Market Comment contains what has become a weekly reminder of the flawed analysis used by the optimists:

On the economy, our broad view is based on dozens of indicators and multiple methods, and the overall picture is much better described as a modest rebound within still-fragile conditions, rather than a recovery or a clear expansion.  The optimism of the economic consensus seems to largely reflect an over-extrapolation of weather-induced boosts to coincident and lagging economic indicators — particularly jobs data.  Recall that seasonal adjustments in the winter months presume significant layoffs in the retail sector and slow hiring elsewhere, and therefore add back “phantom” jobs to compensate.

Hussman’s kindred spirit, Lakshman Achuthan of the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI), has been criticized for the predictiction he made last September that the United States would fall back into recession.  Nevertheless, the ECRI reaffirmed that position on March 15 with a website posting entitled, “Why Our Recession Call Stands”.  Again, note the emphasis on leading economic indicators – rather than concurrent and lagging economic indicators:

How about forward-looking indicators?  We find that year-over-year growth in ECRI’s Weekly Leading Index (WLI) remains in a cyclical downturn . . .  and, as of early March, is near its worst reading since July 2009.  Close observers of this index might be understandably surprised by this persistent weakness, since the WLI’s smoothed annualized growth rate, which is much better known, has turned decidedly less negative in recent months.

Unlike the partisan political rhetoric about the economy, prognostication expressed by economists can be a bit more subtle.  In fact, many of the recent, upbeat commentaries have quite restrained and cautious.  Consider this piece from The Economist:

A year ago total bank loans were shrinking.  Now they are growing.  Loans to consumers have risen by 5% in the past year, which has accompanied healthy gains in car sales (see chart).  Mortgage lending was still contracting as of late 2011 but although house prices are still edging lower both sales and construction are rising.

*   *   *

At present just four states are reporting mid-year budget gaps, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures; this time last year, 15 did; the year before that, 36. State and local employment, which declined by 655,000 between August 2008 and last December – a fall of 3.3% – has actually edged up since.

*   *   *

Manufacturing employment, which declined almost continuously from 1998 through 2009, has since risen by nearly 4%, and the average length of time factories work is as high as at any time since 1945.  Since the end of the recession exports have risen by 39%, much faster than overall GDP.  Neither is as impressive as it sounds:  manufacturing employment remains a smaller share of the private workforce than in 2007, and imports have recently grown even faster than exports as global growth has faltered and the dollar has climbed.  Trade, which was a contributor to economic growth in the first years of recovery, has lately been a drag.

But economic recovery doesn’t have to wait for all of America’s imbalances to be corrected.  It only needs the process to advance far enough for the normal cyclical forces of employment, income and spending to take hold.  And though their grip may be tenuous, and a shock might yet dislodge it, it now seems that, at last, they have.

A great deal of enthusiastic commentary was published in reaction to the results from the recent round of bank stress tests, released by the Federal Reserve.  The stress test results revealed that 15 of the 19 banks tested could survive a stress scenario which included a peak unemployment rate of 13 percent, a 50 percent drop in equity prices, and a 21 percent decline in housing prices.  Time magazine published an important article on the Fed’s stress test results.  It was written by a gentleman named Christopher Matthews, who used to write for Forbes and the Financial Times.  (He is a bit younger than the host of Hardball.)  In a surprising departure from traditional, “mainstream media propaganda”, Mr. Matthews demonstrated a unique ability to look “behind the curtain” to give his readers a better idea of where we are now:

Christopher Whalen, a bank analyst and frequent critic of the big banks, penned an article in ZeroHedge questioning the assumptions, both by the Fed and the banks themselves, that went into the tests.  It’s well known that housing remains a thorn in the side of the big banks, and depressed real estate prices are the biggest risk to bank balance sheets.  The banks are making their own assumptions, however, with regards to the value of their real estate holdings, and Whalen is dubious of what the banks are reporting on their balance sheets. The Fed, he says, is happy to go along with this massaging of the data. He writes,

“The Fed does not want to believe that there is a problem with real estate. As my friend Tom Day wrote for PRMIA’s DC chapter yesterday:  ‘It remains hard to believe, on the face of it, that many of the more damaged balance sheets could, in fact, withstand another financial tsunami of the magnitude we have recenlty experienced and, to a large extent, continue to grapple with.’ ”

Even those that are more credulous are taking exception to the Fed’s decision to allow the banks to increase dividends and stock buybacks.  The Bloomberg editorial board wrote an opinion yesterday criticizing this decision:

 “Good as the stress tests were, they don’t mean the U.S. banking system is out of the woods.  Three major banks – Ally Financial Inc., Citigroup Inc. and SunTrust Banks Inc. – didn’t pass, and investors still don’t have much faith in the reported capital levels of many of the rest.  If the Fed wants the positive results of the stress tests to last, it should err on the side of caution in approving banks’ plans to pay dividends and buy back shares – moves that benefit shareholders but also deplete capital.”

So there’s still plenty for skeptics to read into Tuesday’s report.  For those who want to doubt the veracity of the banks’ bookkeeping, you can look to Whalen’s report.  For those who like to question the Fed’s decision making, Bloomberg’s argument is as good as any.  But at the same time, we all know from experience that things could be much worse, and Tuesday’s announcement appears to be another in a string of recent good news that, unfortunately, comes packaged with a few caveats.  When all is said and done, this most recent test may turn out to be another small, “I think I can” from the little recovery that could.

When mainstream publications such as Time and Bloomberg News present reasoned analysis about the economy, it should serve as reminder to political bloviators that the only audience for the partisan rhetoric consists of “low-information voters”.  The old paradigm – based on campaign funding payola from lobbyists combined with support from low-information voters – is being challenged by what Marshall McLuhan called “the electronic information environment”.  Let’s hope that sane economic policy prevails.


 

Congress Under The Microscope

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The November 13 broadcast of 60 Minutes, which featured a piece by Steve Kroft about Congressional insider trading, gave some needed momentum to the effort seeking a ban on the practice.  I originally wrote about this activity in September of 2009:

A recent report by American Public Media’s Steve Henn revealed how the law prohibiting “insider trading” (i.e. acting on confidential corporate information when making a transaction involving that company’s publicly-traded stock) does not apply to members of Congress.  Remember how Martha Stewart went to prison?  Well, if she had been representing Connecticut in Congress, she might have been able to interpose the defense that she was inspired to sell her ImClone stock based on information she acquired in the exercise of her official duties.

*   *   *

Mr. Henn’s report went on to raise concern over the fact that there is nothing to stop members of Congress from acting on such information to the detriment of their constituents in favor of their own portfolios.

In February of 2011, I discussed the subject again, including the history of Congressman Brian Baird’s introduction of  H.R.682, the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act” (STOCK Act) in January of 2009.  On November 14, I was pleased to report that a conservative pundit – Peter Schweizer – a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution – had joined the battle against Congressional insider trading:

A new book by Peter Schweizer – Throw Them All Out – deals with this very subject.  The book’s subtitle is reminiscent of the point I tried to make in my February posting:  “How politicians and their friends get rich off insider stock tips, land deals and cronyism that would send the rest of us to prison”.

On December 28, J.R. Dunn – consulting editor of the conservative American Thinker, enthusiastically weighed-in with a supportive review of Peter Schweizer’s book.  Beyond that, Dunn’s opening remarks addressed the greater problem:

Crony capitalism is the most serious current danger to the American community, a threat not simply to government or the economy, but to our very way of life.  It is the worst such threat since the trusts and monopolies of the early 20th century, and in much the same way. Cronyism is one of the major forces behind the establishment of the corrupt pseudo-aristocracy that has been taking shape in this country over the past two decades, a synthetic privileged class made up in large part of politicians, hustlers, and hangers-on who have become expert in exploiting the rest of us.

Fortunately, we have now reached a point where greater scrutiny is being used to investigate the manner in which Congress-cretins enrich themselves while in office.  David Richards wrote a great piece for the Daily Mail, which focused on the fact that over the past 25 years, the median net worth of a member of Congress has nearly tripled while the income of an average U.S. family has actually fallen:

Against a backdrop of a vast budget deficit and fears of the fragility of the economy, analysis by the Washington Post shows that the median net worth of a member of Congress has nearly tripled over 25 years while the income of an average U.S. family has actually fallen.

It calculated that their median net worth, between 1984 and 2009 and excluding home equity, rose from $280,000 to $725,000.

Over those same 25 years the wealth of the average U.S. family slipped from $20,500 from $20,600, a University of Michigan study shows.

The Daily Mail article went on to point out that members of Congress are actually doing significantly better than America’s most wealthy citizens – who are so zealously defended by critics of the Occupy Wall Street movement:

The New York Times’ report into the wealth of members of Congress found that they were also getting rich compared with affluent Americans.

It found that the median net worth of members of Congress rose 15 per cent from 2004 to 2010 as the net worth of the richest 10 per cent of the country remained for the most part flat.

This disparity between those they represent also translated into a wider gap in their experiences of the economy, the Post found.

It interviewed Gary Myers, the son of a bricklayer, a Republican who entered Congress in 1975. He said his experience of having worked as a foreman in a steel mill shaped his outlook and led him to vote in favour of raising the minimum wage and helped him to understand the need for workers to have a safety net.

‘It would be hard to argue that the work in the steel mill didn’t give me a different perspective,’ he told the Post. ‘I think everybody’s history has an impact on them.’

The same area is now represented by Republican Mike Kelly who was elected last year. After graduating he married the heiress to an oil fortune and took over his father’s car dealership where he had worked as a youngster.

He told the paper he believed he was overtaxed already and that unemployment benefits made some people less willing to look for employment.

On the other hand, there is one Congressman’s investment portfolio, which is being criticized for other reasons.  In fact, I’m sure that many investment analysts are having a good laugh as they read Jason Zweig’s recent posting for his new Total Return blog at The Wall Street Journal:

Yes, about 21% of Rep. Paul’s holdings are in real estate and roughly 14% in cash.  But he owns no bonds or bond funds and has only 0.1% in stock funds.  Furthermore, the stock funds that Rep. Paul does own are all “short,” or make bets against, U.S. stocks. One is a “double inverse” fund that, on a daily basis, goes up twice as much as its stock benchmark goes down.

The remainder of Rep. Paul’s portfolio – fully 64% of his assets – is entirely in gold and silver mining stocks.  He owns no Apple, no ExxonMobil, no Procter & Gamble, no General Electric, no Johnson & Johnson, not even a diversified mutual fund that holds a broad basket of stocks.  Rep. Paul doesn’t own stock in any major companies at all except big precious-metals stocks like Barrick Gold, Goldcorp and Newmont Mining.

*   *   *

Rep. Paul appears to be a strict buy-and-hold investor who rarely trades; he has held many of his mining stocks since at least 2002. But, as gold and silver prices have fallen sharply since September, precious-metals equities have also taken a pounding, with many dropping 20% or more.  That exposes the risk in making a big bet on one narrow sector.

At our request, William Bernstein, an investment manager at Efficient Portfolio Advisors in Eastford, Conn., reviewed Rep. Paul’s portfolio as set out in the annual disclosure statement.  Mr. Bernstein says he has never seen such an extreme bet on economic catastrophe.  “This portfolio is a half-step away from a cellar-full of canned goods and nine-millimeter rounds,” he says.

There are many possible doomsday scenarios for the U.S. economy and financial markets, explains Mr. Bernstein, and Rep. Paul’s portfolio protects against only one of them:  unexpected inflation accompanied by a collapse in the value of the dollar.  If deflation (to name one other possibility) occurs instead, “this portfolio is at great risk” because of its lack of bonds and high exposure to gold.

At least Congressman Ron Paul is authentic enough to “place his money where his mouth is” when criticizing Federal Reserve monetary policy.

As election year progresses, the current trend of “turning over rocks” to investigate the financial dealings of those in Congress could make things quite interesting.


 

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Looking Beyond The Smokescreen

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We bloggers have the mainstream news outlets to thank for our readership.  The inane, single-minded focus on a particular story, simply because it brings a huge audience to one’s competitors, regularly provides the driving force behind programming decisions made by those news producers.  As a result, America’s more discerning, critical thinkers have turned to internet-based news sources (and blogs) to familiarize themselves with the more important stories of these turbulent times.

Robert Oak, at The Economic Populist website, recently expressed his outrage concerning the fact that a certain over-publicized murder trial has eclipsed coverage of more important matters:

For over a week we’ve heard nothing else by the press but Casey Anthony.  Imagine what would happen if Nancy Grace used her never ending tape loop rants of hatred against tot mom to spew and prattle about the U.S. economy? Instead of some bizarre post traumatic public stress disorder, stuck in a rut, obsessive thought mantra, repeating ad nauseum, she’s guilty, we might hear our politicians are selling this nation down the river.

*   *   *

Folks, don’t you think the economy is just a little more important and actually impacts your lives than one crime and trial?  The reality is any story which really impacts the daily lives of working America is not covered or spun to fiction.

The fact that “our politicians are selling this nation down the river” has not been overlooked by Brett Arends at MarketWatch.  He recently wrote a great essay entitled, “The Next, Worse Financial Crisis”, wherein he discussed ten reasons “why we are doomed to repeat 2008”.  Of the ten reasons, my favorite was number 7, “The ancient regime is in the saddle”:

I have to laugh whenever I hear Republicans ranting that Barack Obama is a “liberal” or a “socialist” or a communist.  Are you kidding me?  Obama is Bush 44.  He’s a bit more like the old man than the younger one.  But look at who’s still running the economy: Bernanke. Geithner. Summers. Goldman Sachs. J.P. Morgan Chase. We’ve had the same establishment in charge since at least 1987, when Paul Volcker stood down as Fed chairman.  Change?  What “change”?  (And even the little we had was too much for Wall Street, which bought itself a new, more compliant Congress in 2010.)

As the 2012 campaign season begins, one need not look too far to find criticism of President Obama. Nevertheless, as Brett Arends explained, most of that criticism is a re-hash of the same, tired talking points we have been hearing since Obama took office.  We are only now beginning to hear a broader chorus of pushback from commentators who see Obama as the President I have often described as the “Dissapointer-In-Chief”.  Marshall Auerback wasn’t so restrained in his recent appraisal of Obama’s maladroit response to our economic crisis, choosing instead to ratify a well-deserved putdown, which most commentators felt obligated to denounce:

It may not have been the most felicitous choice of phrase, but Mark Halperin’s characterization of Barack Obama was not far off the mark, even if he did get suspended for it.  The President is a dick, at least as far as his understanding of basic economics goes.  Obama’s perverse fixation with deficit reduction uber alles takes him to areas where even George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan dared not to venture.  Medicare and Social Security are now on the table.  In fact entitlements of all kinds (excluding the myriad of subsidies still present to Wall Street) are all deemed fair game.

To what end?  Deficit control and deficit reduction, despite the fact that at present, the US has massive excess capacity including millions of unemployed and underemployed, a negative contribution from net exports, and a stagnant private spending growth horizon.  Yet the President marches on, oblivious to the harm his policies would introduce to an already bleeding economy, using the tired analogy between a household and a sovereign government to support his tired arguments.  It may have been impolitic, but “dick” is what immediately sprang to mind as one listened incredulously to the President’s press conference, which went from the sublime to the ridiculous.

*   *   *

Let’s state it again:  households do not have the power to levy taxes, to issue the currency we use, and to demand that those taxes are paid in the currency it issues.  Rather, households are users of the currency issued by the sovereign government.  Here the same distinction applies to private businesses, which are also users of the currency.  There’s a big difference, as all us on this blog have repeatedly stressed:  Users of a currency do face an external constraint in a way that a sovereign issuer of its currency does not.

*   *   *

The President has the causation here totally backward.  A growing economy, characterized by rising employment, rising incomes and rising capacity utilization causes the deficit to shrink, not the other way around.  Rising prosperity means rising tax revenues and reduced social welfare payments, whereas there is an overwhelming body of evidence to support the opposite – cutting budget deficits when there is slack private spending growth and external deficits will erode growth and destroy net jobs.

The increasing, widespread awareness of Obama’s mishandling of the economic crisis has resulted in a great cover story for New York Magazine by Frank Rich, entitled, “Obama’s Original Sin”.  While discussing Rich’s article, Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism lamented the fact that Obama is – again – the beneficiary of undeserved restraint:

Even Rich’s solid piece treats Obama more kindly that he should be.  He depicts the President as too easily won over by “the best and the brightest” in the guise of folks like Robert Rubin and his protégé Timothy Geithner.

We think this characterization is far too charitable.  Obama had a window in time in which he could have acted, decisively, to rein the financial services in, and he and his aides chose to let it pass and throw their lot in with the banksters.  That fatal decision has severely constrained their freedom of action, as we explain .  .  .

Miscreants such as Casey Anthony serve as convenient decoys for public anger.  Hopefully, by Election Day, the voters will realize that Casey Anthony isn’t to blame for the pathetic state of America’s economy and they will vote accordingly.


 

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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

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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.

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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.

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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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Magic Numbers

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As soon as I got a look at the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on April 1, I knew that the cheerleaders from the “rose-colored glasses” crowd would be trumpeting the onset of some sort of new era, or “golden age”.  I wasn’t too far off.  My own reaction to the BLS report was similar to that expressed by Bill McBride of Calculated Risk:

The March employment report was another small step in the right direction, but the overall employment situation remains grim:  There are 7.25 million fewer payroll jobs now than before the recession started in 2007 with 13.5 million Americans currently unemployed.  Another 8.4 million are working part time for economic reasons, and about 4 million more workers have left the labor force.  Of those unemployed, 6.1 million have been unemployed for six months or more.

Nevertheless, the opening words of the BLS report, asserting that nonfarm payroll employment increased by 216,000 in March, were all that the cheerleaders wanted to hear.  My cynicism about the unjustified enthusiasm was shared by economist Dean Baker:

Okay, this celebration around the jobs report is really getting out of hand.  Both the Post and Times had front page pieces touting the good news.  The Post gets the award for being the more breathless of the two   .   .   .

Brad DeLong had some fun letting the air out of the party balloons floating around in a brief piece by Gregory Ip of The Economist.  Mr. Ip began with this happy thought:

TURN off the alarms.  After several weeks when the data pointed to a recovery still struggling to achieve escape velocity, the March employment report provided reassuring evidence that, at a minimum, it is still gaining altitude.

After completely deconstructing Mr. Ip’s essay by emphasizing the painfully not-so-happy undercurrents lurking within the piece (apparently included out of concern that the Federal Reserve might take away the Quantitative Easing crack pipe) Professor DeLong re-visited Ip’s initial statement in the sobering light of day:

There is “recovery” in a sense that the output gap and the employment gap are no longer shrinking — and so that real GDP is growing at the rate of growth of potential output.  But this is not reason to “turn off the alarms.”  This is not reason to talk about “pieces [of recovery] … falling into place.”  And I am not sure I would describe this as “gaining altitude” with respect to the state of the business cycle.

The exploitation of the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report for bolstering claims that economic conditions are better than they really are is just the latest example of how the beauty of a given statistic can exist in the eye of the beholder – depending on the context in which that statistic is presented.   Economist David J. Merkel recently wrote an interesting essay, which concluded with this important admonition:

Be wary.  Look at a broader range of statistics, and take apart the existing statistics.  Don’t just take the pronouncements of our government at face value.  They are experts in saying what is technically true, while implying what is false.  Be wary.

David Merkel’s posting focused on the positive spin provided by a representative of Morgan Stanley concerning 4th Quarter 2010 Gross Domestic Product.  Merkel’s analysis of this statistic included some good advice:

In 4Q 2010 real GDP rose 3.1%, while real Gross Domestic Purchases fell 0.2%.  Why?  Energy and other import costs rose which depressed the price indexes for GDP versus Gross Domestic Purchases.

Over the long haul, the two series are close to equal, but when they diverge, they tell a story.  The current story is that average consumers in the US are doing badly, while those benefiting from high corporate profits, and increasing exports are doing well.

In general, I am not impressed with statistics collected by our government, or how they use them.  But it’s useful to understand what they mean — to understand the limitations of the statistics, so that when naive/conniving politicians use them wrongly, one can see through the error.

David Merkel’s point about “understanding the limitations of the statistics” is something that a good commentator should “fess up to” when discussing particular stats.  Michael Shedlock’s analysis of the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report provides a refreshing example of that type of candor:

Given the total distortions of reality with respect to not counting people who allegedly dropped out of the work force, it is hard to discuss the numbers.

The official unemployment rate is 8.8%.  However, if you start counting all the people that want a job but gave up, all the people with part-time jobs that want a full-time job, all the people who dropped off the unemployment rolls because their unemployment benefits ran out, etc., you get a closer picture of what the unemployment rate is.  That number is in the last row labeled U-6.

While the “official” unemployment rate is an unacceptable 8.8%, U-6 is much higher at 15.7%.

Things are much worse than the reported numbers would have you believe.

That said, this was a solid jobs report, not as measured by the typical recovery, but one of the better reports we have seen for years.

On the negative side, wages are not keeping up with the CPI, wage growth is skewed to the top end, and full time jobs are hard to come by.

At the current pace, the unemployment number would ordinarily drop, but not fast.  However, many of those millions who dropped out of the workforce could start looking if they think jobs may be out there.  Should that happen, the unemployment rate could rise, even if the economy adds jobs at this pace.  It is very questionable if this pace of jobs keeps up.

In other words, if a significant number of those people the BLS has ignored as having “dropped out of the workforce” prove the BLS wrong by actually applying for new job opportunities as they appear, the BLS will have to reconcile their reporting with that “new reality”.  Perhaps many of those “phantom people” were really there all along and the only thing preventing their detection was the absence of job opportunities.  As those “workforce dropouts” return to the BLS radar screen by applying for new job opportunities, the BLS will report it as a “rise” in the unemployment rate.  In reality, that updated statistic will reflect what the unemployment rate had been all along.  An improving job market will just make it easier to face the truth.




How States Can Save Billions

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We’ve been reading a lot about fallout lately.  The Fukushima power plant disaster is now providing a lasting legacy all over the world.  This animation from the French national meteorological service, Météo-France, illustrates how the spread of the Fukushima fallout is migrating.

For the past three years, we have been living with the fallout from a financial “meltdown”, which resulted from deregulation, greed and the culture of “pervasive permissiveness” at the Federal Reserve, as discussed in the Financial Crisis Inquiry Report.  The fallout from the financial meltdown has also spread across the entire world.  Different countries have employed different approaches for coping with the situation.  In Ireland, the banks were bailed out at taxpayer expense, crippling that nation’s economy for generations to come.  As a result, the Irish citizens fought back, went to the polls and ousted the perfidious politicians who helped the banks avoid responsibility for their transgressions.   On the other hand, in Portugal, the government refused to impose austerity measures on the citizens, who should not be expected to pay the price for the financial mischief that gave rise to the current economic predicament.  Given the additional fact that Portugal, as a nation, was not a “player” in the risky games that nearly brought down the world economy, the recent decision by the Portuguese parliament is easy to understand.

In our own country, the various states have found it quite difficult to balance their budgets.  High unemployment, which refuses to abate, and depressed real estate valuation have devastated each state’s revenue base.  Because the states cannot print money, as the Federal Reserve does in order to pay the federal government’s bills, it has become necessary for the states to rely on creative gimmicks to reverse their misfortunes.  Most states had previously deployed numerous “economic development projects” over the years.  Such projects are taxpayer-funded subsidies to attract corporations and entice them to establish local operations.  Rex Nutting of MarketWatch recently took a critical look at those programs:

And yet, study after study show that these subsidies create few, if any, net jobs.  For instance, California’s Enterprise Zone program – which is supposed to boost business in 42 economically distressed communities – has cost the taxpayers $3.6 billion over 27 years, but to no avail.  A legislative analyst report in 2005 found that “EZs have little if any impact on the creation of new economic activity or employment.” Read more from the legislative analyst report.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed to kill the EZ program and the even-more expensive redevelopment agency program, but he faces an uphill fight in the Legislature.  Such subsidies are popular with the legislators who receive boatloads of campaign contributions from businesses lucky enough to find a government teat to latch on to.

Nationwide, such giveaways from state and municipal governments amounted to more than $70 billion in 2010, according to Kenneth Thomas, a political scientist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, who has specialized in studying these subsidies.  That’s more than the states collect in corporate income taxes in a good year.  Read about Thomas’s book: “Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital”

And that $70 billion is twice as much money as would be required to fully fund the pensions owed to state and local government workers, the very same pensions that budget-cutting politicians across the country claim are responsible for the fiscal hole we’re in.

What Rex Nutting has suggested amounts to the elimination of a significant number of corporate welfare programs.  He has also dared to challenge the corporatist mantra that corporate welfare “creates jobs”.  We are supposed to believe that the only way states can balance their budgets is through the imposition of draconian austerity programs, designed to force the “little people” to – once again – pay the tab for Wall Street’s binge.  Because the voters have no lobbyists to protect their own interests, venal state and local politicians have set about slashing public safety expenditures (through mass layoffs of police and firefighters), closing parks and libraries, as well as under-funding public school systems.

Never mind that state and local governments could save $70 billion by cutting just one form of corporate welfare.  They would rather let you watch your house burn down.  You can’t afford that house anyway.


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