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Another Look at Helicopter Money

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helicopter-money

As President Obama wraps-up his second term, people are looking back to reassess his handling of the Great Recession. During his first year in office, our Disappointer-In-Chief introduced his own version of “trickle-down economics” by way of a bank bailout scheme called the Public-Private Investment Program (PPIP or “pee-pip”).

Despite his July 15, 2008, campaign promise that if he were elected, there would be “no more trickle-down economics”, the President and the Federal Reserve embarked on a course of bailing out the banks, rather than distressed businesses or the taxpayers themselves.

As this writer pointed out on Sept. 21, 2009, Australian economist Steve Keen published a report from his website explaining how the “money multiplier” myth, fed to Obama by the very people who facilitated the financial crisis, would be of no use in the effort to strengthen the economy.

On Aug. 26, 2016, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at the annual rate of just 1.1% during the second quarter of 2016. This graph illustrates the faltering rate of annual GDP expansion since the end of 2014, after the conclusion of the Fed’s quantitative easing program.

Concerns that the United States could be doomed to a Japan-like addiction to monetary stimulus gimmicks have amped-up enthusiasm for the Fed to become more aggressive about raising interest rates. Meanwhile, many economists contend that tightening monetary policy before the economy reaches a robust state could plunge the nation back into recession.

In April 2016, former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke advocated the use of “helicopter money” as a last-resort strategy to jump-start a stalled economy. This provoked a response from economist Steve Keen emphasizing that Bernanke and other mainstream economists have shared a flawed belief that the public’s expectations for a healthy rate of inflation could cause such inflation to occur. In other words: “Inflationary expectations cause inflation.”

Steve Keen consistently emphasizes the need to understand how excessive private debt causes severe economic contraction and financial crises. Specifically, when the level of private debt exceeds GDP by 150% and that level continues to grow – disaster awaits.

So what can be done to keep the debt-to-GDP ratio in check? In this video, Steve Keen and Edward Harrison of the Credit Writedowns website explain how Ben Bernanke’s helicopter could be sent on a debt reduction mission.



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Cliff Notes

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On May 22, the Congressional Budget Office released its report on how the United States can avoid going off the “fiscal cliff” on January 1, 2013.  The report is entitled, “Economic Effects of Reducing the Fiscal Restraint That Is Scheduled to Occur in 2013”.  Forget about the Mayan calendar and December 21, 2012.  The real disaster is scheduled for eleven days later.  The CBO provided a brief summary of the 10-page report – what you might call the Cliff Notes version.  Here are some highlights:

In fact, under current law, increases in taxes and, to a lesser extent, reductions in spending will reduce the federal budget deficit dramatically between 2012 and 2013 – a development that some observers have referred to as a “fiscal cliff” – and will dampen economic growth in the short term.

*   *   *

Under those fiscal conditions, which will occur under current law, growth in real (inflation-adjusted) GDP in calendar year 2013 will be just 0.5 percent, CBO expects – with the economy projected to contract at an annual rate of 1.3 percent in the first half of the year and expand at an annual rate of 2.3 percent in the second half.  Given the pattern of past recessions as identified by the National Bureau of Economic Research, such a contraction in output in the first half of 2013 would probably be judged to be a recession.

As the complete version of the report explained, the consequences of abruptly-imposed, draconian austerity measures while the economy is in a state of anemic growth in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, could have a devastating impact because incomes will drop, shrinking the tax base and available revenue – the life blood of the United States government:

The weakening of the economy that will result from that fiscal restraint will lower taxable incomes and, therefore, revenues, and it will increase spending in some categories – for unemployment insurance, for instance.

An interesting analysis of the CBO report was provided by Robert Oak of the Economic Populist website.  He began with a description of the cliff itself:

What the CBO is referring to is the fiscal cliff.  Remember when the budget crisis happened, resulting in the United States losing it’s AAA credit rating?  Then, Congress and this administration just punted, didn’t compromise, or better yet, base recommendations on actual economic theory, and allowed automatic spending cuts of $1.2 trillion across the board, to take place instead.  These budget cuts will be dramatic and happen in 2012 and 2013.

Spending cuts, especially sudden ones, actually weaken economic growth.  This is why austerity has caused a disaster in Europe.  Draconian cuts have pushed their economies into not just recessions, but depressions.

The conclusion reached by Robert Oak was particularly insightful:

This report should infuriate Republicans, who earlier wanted to silence the CBO because they were telling the GOP their policies would hurt the economy in so many words.  But maybe not.  Unfortunately the CBO is not breaking down tax cuts, when there is ample evidence tax cuts for rich individuals do nothing for economic growth.  Bottom line though, the CBO is right on in their forecast, draconian government spending cuts will cause an anemic economy to contract.

Although the CBO did offer a good solution for avoiding a drive off the fiscal cliff, it remains difficult to imagine how our dysfunctional government could ever implement these measures:

Or, if policymakers wanted to minimize the short-run costs of narrowing the deficit very quickly while also minimizing the longer-run costs of allowing large deficits to persist, they could enact a combination of policies:  changes in taxes and spending that would widen the deficit in 2013 relative to what would occur under current law but that would reduce deficits later in the decade relative to what would occur if current policies were extended for a prolonged period.

The foregoing passage was obviously part of what Robert Oak had in mind when he mentioned that the CBO report would “infuriate Republicans”.  Any plans to “widen the deficit” would be subject to the same righteous indignation as an abortion festival or a national holiday for gay weddings.  Nevertheless, Mitt Romney accidentally acknowledged the validity of the logic underlying the CBO’s concern.  Bill Black had some fun with Romney’s admission by writing a fantastic essay on the subject:

Romney has periodic breakdowns when asked questions about the economy because he sometimes forgets the need to lie.  He forgets that he is supposed to treat austerity as the epitome of economic wisdom.  When he responds quickly to questions about austerity he slips into default mode and speaks the truth – adopting austerity during the recovery from a Great Recession would (as in Europe) throw the nation back into recession or depression.  The latest example is his May 23, 2012 interview with Mark Halperin in Time magazine.

Halperin: Why not in the first year, if you’re elected — why not in 2013, go all the way and propose the kind of budget with spending restraints, that you’d like to see after four years in office?  Why not do it more quickly?

Romney: Well because, if you take a trillion dollars for instance, out of the first year of the federal budget, that would shrink GDP over 5%.  That is by definition throwing us into recession or depression.  So I’m not going to do that, of course.”

Romney explains that austerity, during the recovery from a Great Recession, would cause catastrophic damage to our nation.  The problem, of course, is that the Republican congressional leadership is committed to imposing austerity on the nation and Speaker Boehner has just threatened that Republicans will block the renewal of the debt ceiling in order to extort Democrats to agree to austerity – severe cuts to social programs.  Romney knows this could “throw us into recession or depression” and says he would never follow such a policy.

*   *   *

Later in the interview, Romney claims that federal budgetary deficits are “immoral.”  But he has just explained that using austerity for the purported purpose of ending a deficit would cause a recession or depression.  A recession or depression would make the deficit far larger.  That means that Romney should be denouncing austerity as “immoral” (as well as suicidal) because it will not simply increase the deficit (which he claims to find “immoral” because of its impact on children) but also dramatically increase unemployment, poverty, child poverty and hunger, and harm their education by causing more teachers to lose their jobs and more school programs to be cut.

Mitt Romney is beginning to sound as though he has his own inner Biden, who spontaneously speaks out in an unrestrained manner, sending party officials into “damage control” mode.

This could turn out to be an interesting Presidential campaign, after all.



 

When Pat Robertson Gets It Right and Obama Gets It Wrong

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Of course, televangelist Pat Robertson says lots of strange things.  The host of the Christian Broadcasting Network’s program, The 700 Club has drawn criticism for such absurd statements as his claim that Hurricane Katrina was sent by God to punish America for leaglized abortion as well as his 2003 suggestion that State Department headquarters should be blown-up with a nuclear weapon.

Given that background, it must be particularly painful for President Obama when Pat Roberson is congratulated for speaking out sensibly on an issue which Obama is too timid to address.  Beyond that, when Robertson asserts a position which is supported by clear-thinking, prominent members of society, it must be particularly embarrassing for a President who has abdicated the “bully pulpit”.

Pat Robertson turned some heads in March, when he spoke out in favor of marijuana legalization.  Jesse McKinley of The New York Times discussed the reaction to a pro-legalization statement made by Robertson during a broadcast of The 700 Club:

Mr. Robertson’s remarks were hailed by pro-legalization groups, who called them a potentially important endorsement in their efforts to roll back marijuana penalties and prohibitions, which residents of Colorado and Washington will vote on this fall.

“I love him, man, I really do,” said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of current and former law enforcement officials who oppose the drug war.  “He’s singing my song.”

*   *   *

Mr. Franklin, who is a Christian, said Mr. Robertson’s position was actually in line with the Gospel.  “If you follow the teaching of Christ, you know that Christ is a compassionate man,” he said.  “And he would not condone the imprisoning of people for nonviolent offenses.”

*   *   *

And while Mr. Robertson said his earlier hints at support for legalization had led to him being “assailed by those who thought that it was terrible that I had forsaken the straight and narrow,” he added that he was not worried about criticism this time around.

“I just want to be on the right side,” he said.  “And I think on this one, I’m on the right side.”

It appears as though Pat Robertson is on the right side of another issue, with his recent comment about the Obama Justice Department’s failure to prosecute those responsible for causing the financial crisis.  While reading a great posting on Washington’s Blog about institutional corruption, I encountered a link to a piece by James Crugnale of the Mediaite blog, which focused on Robertson’s praise of Iceland for prosecuting its banksters and setting an example for countries such as the United States:

 “Guess what country is getting itself out of a financial problem by some draconian measures?” Robertson asked his co-host Terry Meeuwsen.  “Greece?” she asked.  “No, not even close.  Iceland!”  Robertson exclaimed.  “They are putting people in jail.  Prime ministers are being indicted.  They are going after banks.  The people said the banks are ripping us off.  We don’t like what they did, and they brought our country to ruin.  Suddenly, Iceland is turning around and they look like a big success story!”

“Think we could learn something?” Meeuwsen asked.

“We sure could!” Roberson continued.  “We could start putting all of those bankers in jail.  There was not one banker prosecuted and so many people were lying, and so-called “no-doc loans” and liars’ loans, and none of them have been held accountable.  I’m not for putting people in jail.  I’m sick of these – we’ve got too many penalties.  Too many penalties, too many criminal sanctions, too many people in prison.  But here is an opportunity for the people who wanted, you know, to enforce laws, to enforce that one.  There must be some laws against lying on documents.  I’m sure there are.”

“Lying to banks is a super no-no,” he added.  “It has criminal sanctions, but nobody so far has had to pay the price, but Iceland is leading the way and their GDP is growing, and all of a sudden, they were in a terrible mess, terrible mess, and look what is happening!”

With the release of the Department of Labor’s non-farm payrolls report for April, attention is again being focused on the issue of whether President Obama did enough to help the country recover from the financial crisis.  As the aforementioned Washington’s Blog essay made clear, the institutional corruption facilitated by the Obama administration’s failure to prosecute the culprits who caused the financial meltdown has brought even more harm to the American economy.  Consider this passage from the Washington’s Blog piece:

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says that we have to prosecute fraud or else the economy won’t recover:

The legal system is supposed to be the codification of our norms and beliefs, things that we need to make our system work.  If the legal system is seen as exploitative, then confidence in our whole system starts eroding.  And that’s really the problem that’s going on.

***

I think we ought to go do what we did in the S&L [crisis] and actually put many of these guys in prison.  Absolutely.  These are not just white-collar crimes or little accidents.  There were victims.  That’s the point.  There were victims all over the world.

***

Economists focus on the whole notion of incentives.  People have an incentive sometimes to behave badly, because they can make more money if they can cheat.  If our economic system is going to work then we have to make sure that what they gain when they cheat is offset by a system of penalties.

Think about it:  Joe Stiglitz and Pat Robertson are on the same page, while President Obama is somewhere else.  Yikes!


 

Austeri-FAIL

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I have never accepted the idea that economic austerity could be at all useful in resolving our unending economic crisis.  I posted my rant about this subject on December 19, 2011:

The entire European economy is on its way to hell, thanks to an idiotic, widespread belief that economic austerity measures will serve as a panacea for the sovereign debt crisis.  The increasing obviousness of the harm caused by austerity has motivated its proponents to crank-up the “John Maynard Keynes was wrong” propaganda machine.  You don’t have to look very far to find examples of that stuff.  On any given day, the Real Clear Politics (or Real Clear Markets) website is likely to be listing at least one link to such a piece.  Those commentators are simply trying to take advantage of the fact that President Obama botched the 2009 economic stimulus effort.  Many of us realized – a long time ago – that Obama’s stimulus measures would prove to be inadequate.  In July of 2009, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Second Stimulus”, wherein I pointed out that another stimulus program would be necessary because the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was not going to accomplish its intended objective.  Beyond that, it was already becoming apparent that the stimulus program would eventually be used to support the claim that Keynesian economics doesn’t work.  Economist Stephanie Kelton anticipated that tactic in a piece she published at the New Economic Perspectives website  . . .

It has finally become apparent to most rational thinkers that economic austerity is of no use to any national economy’s attempts to recover from a severe recession.  There have been loads of great essays published on the subject this week and I would like to direct you to a few of them.

Henry Blodget of The Business Insider wrote a great piece which included this explanation:

This morning brings news that Europe may finally be beginning to soften on the “austerity” philosophy that has brought it nothing but misery over the past several years.

The “austerity” idea, you’ll remember, was that the huge debt and deficit problem had ushered in a “crisis of confidence” and that, once business-people saw that governments were serious about debt reduction, they’d get confident and start spending again.

That hasn’t worked.

Instead, spending cuts have led to cuts in GDP which has led to greater deficits and the need for more spending cuts.  And so on.

On April 23, Nicholas Kulich wrote an article for The New York Times which began with the ugly truth that austerity has turned out to be a fiasco:

With political allies weakened or ousted, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s seat at the head of the European table has become much less comfortable, as a reckoning with Germany’s insistence on lock-step austerity appears to have begun.

“The formula is not working, and everyone is now talking about whether austerity is the only solution,” said Jordi Vaquer i Fanés, a political scientist and director of the Barcelona Center for International Affairs in Spain.  “Does this mean that Merkel has lost completely?  No.  But it does mean that the very nature of the debate about the euro-zone crisis is changing.”

A German-inspired austerity regimen agreed to just last month as the long-term solution to Europe’s sovereign debt crisis has come under increasing strain from the growing pressures of slowing economies, gyrating financial markets and a series of electoral setbacks.

Joe Weisenthal of The Business Insider provided us with this handy round-up of essays proclaiming the demise of economic austerity.  Here is his own nail in the coffin:

As we wrote this morning, the bad news for Angela Merkel is that the jig is up: There’s almost nobody left who is willing to go along with the German idea that the sole solution forEurope is spending discipline and “reform,” whatever that means.

One of the best essays on this subject was written by Hale Stewart for The Big Picture.  The title of the piece was “People Are Finally Figuring Out: Austerity is Stupid”.

Those in denial about the demise of economic austerity have found it necessary to ignore the increasing refutations of the policy from conservative economists, which began appearing early this year.  The most highly-publicized of these came from Harvard economic historian Niall Ferguson.  Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) criticized the policy on a number of occasions, such as his posting of January 11, 2012:

Austerity measures in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and France combined with escalating trade wars ensures the recession will be long and nasty.

One would think that a consensus of reasonable people, speaking out against this ill-conceived policy, should be enough to convince The Powers That Be to pull the plug on it.  In a perfect world   .  .  .



Tales From The Dark Side

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Regular readers of this blog know that I frequently discuss my skepticism about the true state of America’s economy.  It gets painful listening to the “usual cheerleaders” constantly tell us about the robust state of our economy.  The most recent Federal Reserve Beige Book serves as the Bible for these true believers.  One need only check in on a few of the websites listed on my blogroll (at the right side of this page) to find plenty of opinions which run contrary to the current dogma that America is on its way to a full economic recovery.

One of my favorite websites from this blogroll is Edward Harrison’s Credit Writedowns.  When I visited that site this evening, I was amazed at the number of contrarian commentaries posted there.  One piece, “The economy is nowhere near as robust as stocks would have you believe” dealt with one of my favorite subjects:  the Federal Reserve’s inflation of the stock market indices by way of quantitative easing.  Here is an interesting passage from Harrison’s essay:

My view is that the stock market has gotten way ahead of itself.  Easy money has caused people to pile into risk assets as risk seeks return in a zero-rate environment.  The real economy is nowhere near as robust as the increase in shares would have you believe. Moreover, even the falling earnings growth is telling you this.

Bottom line: The US economy is getting a sugar high from easy money, economic stimulus, and the typical cyclical aides to GDP that have promoted some modest releveraging.  But the underlying issues of excess household indebtedness, particularly as related to housing and increasingly student debt, will keep this recovery from being robust until more of the debts are written down or paid off.  That means the cyclical boost that comes from hiring to meet anticipated demand, construction spending, and increased capital spending isn’t going to happen at a good clip.  Meanwhile, people are really struggling.

The hope is we can keep this going for long enough so that the cyclical hiring trends to pick up before overindebted consumers get fatigued again.  Underneath things are very fragile. Any setback in the economy will be met with populist outrage – that you can bet on.

Another posting at Credit Writedowns was based on this remark by financier George Soros:  ”People don’t realize that the system has actually collapsed.”

Bloomberg News has been running a multi-installment series of articles by financial analyst Gary Shilling, which are focused on the question of whether the United States will avoid a recession in 2012.  In the third installment of the series, Shilling said this:

In the first two installments, I laid out the reasons why the U.S. economy, despite current strong consumer spending and the recent euphoria of investors over stocks, will weaken into a recession as the year progresses, led by renewed consumer retrenchment.

If my forecast pans out, the Federal Reserve and Congress may be compelled to take further action to bolster the economy.

*   *   *

Meanwhile, a number of economic indicators are pointing in the direction of a faltering economy.  The Economic Cycle Research Institute index remains in recession territory.  The ratio of coincident to lagging economic indicators, often a better leading indicator than the leading indicator index itself, is declining.  Electricity generation, though influenced by the warm winter, is falling rapidly.

One of the most popular blogs among those of us who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid being served by the “rose-colored glasses crowd” is Michael Panzner’s Financial Armageddon.  In a recent posting, Mr. Panzner underscored the fact that those of us who refuse to believe the “happy talk” are no longer in the minority:

In “Americans Agree: There Is No Recovery,” I highlighted a recent Washington PostABC News poll, noting that

no matter how you break it down — whether by party/ideology, household income, age, or any other category — the majority of Americans agree on one thing: there is no recovery.

But the fact that things haven’t returned to normal isn’t just a matter of (public) opinion. As the Globe and Mail’s Market Blog reveals in “These Are Bad Days for Garbage,” the volume of waste being created nowadays essentially means that, despite persistent talk (from Wall Street, among others) of a renaissance in consumer spending, people are continuing to consume less and recycle more than they used to.

Many people (especially commentators employed by the mainstream media) prefer to avoid “dwelling on negativity”, so they ignore unpleasant economic forecasts.  Others appear trapped in a new-age belief system, centered around such notions as the idea that you can actually cause the economy to go bad by simply perceiving it as bad.  Nevertheless, the rest of us have learned (sometimes the hard way) that effective use of one’s peripheral vision can be of great value in avoiding a “sucker punch”.  Keep your eyes open!


 

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When the Music Stops

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Forget about all that talk concerning the Mayan calendar and December 21, 2012.  The date you should be worried about is January 1, 2013.  I’ve been reading so much about it that I decided to try a Google search using “January 1, 2013” to see what results would appear.  Sure enough – the fifth item on the list was an article from Peter Coy at Bloomberg BusinessWeek entitled, “The End Is Coming:  January 1, 2013”.  The theme of that piece is best summarized in the following passage:

With the attention of the political class fixated on the presidential campaign, Washington is in danger of getting caught in a suffocating fiscal bind.  If Congress does nothing between now and January to change the course of policy, a combination of mandatory spending reductions and expiring tax cuts will kick in – depriving the economy of oxygen and imperiling a recovery likely to remain fragile through the end of 2012.  Congress could inadvertently send the U.S. economy hurtling over what Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently called a “massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases.”

Peter Coy’s take on this impending crisis seemed a bit optimistic to me.  My perspective on the New Year’s Meltdown had been previously shaped by a great essay from the folks at Comstock Partners.  The Comstock explanation was particularly convincing because it focused on the effects of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing programs, emphasizing what many commentators describe as the Fed’s “Third Mandate”:  keeping the stock market inflated.  Beyond that, Comstock pointed out the absurdity of that cherished belief held by the magical-thinking, rose-colored glasses crowd:  the Fed is about to introduce another round of quantitative easing (QE 3).  Here is Comstock’s dose of common sense:

A growing number of indicators suggest that the market is running out of steam.  Equities have been in a temporary sweet spot where investors have been factoring in a self-sustaining U.S. economic recovery while also anticipating the imminent institution of QE3.  This is a contradiction.  If the economy were indeed as strong as they say, we wouldn’t need QE3.  The fact that market observers eagerly look forward toward the possibility of QE3 is itself an indication that the economy is weaker than they think.  We can have one or the other, but we can’t have both.

After two rounds of quantitative easing – followed by “operation twist” – the smart people are warning the rest of us about what is likely to happen when the music finally stops.  Here is Comstock’s admonition:

The economy is also facing the so-called “fiscal cliff” beginning on January 1, 2013.  This includes expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the payroll tax cuts, emergency unemployment benefits and the sequester.  Various estimates placed the hit to GDP as being anywhere between 2% and 3.5%, a number that would probably throw the economy into recession, if it isn’t already in one before then.  At about that time we will also be hitting the debt limit once again.   U.S. economic growth will also be hampered by recession in Europe and decreasing growth and a possible hard landing in China.

Technically, all of the good news seems to have been discounted by the market rally of the last three years and the last few months.  The market is heavily overbought, sentiment is extremely high, daily new highs are falling and volume is both low and declining.  In our view the odds of a significant decline are high.

Charles Biderman is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of TrimTabs Investment Research.  He was recently interviewed by Chris Martenson.  Biderman’s primary theme concerned the Federal Reserve’s “rigging” of the stock market through its quantitative easing programs, which have steered so much money into stocks that stock prices have now become a “function of liquidity” rather than fundamental value.  Biderman estimated that the Fed’s liquidity pump has fed the stock market “$1.8 billion per day since August”.  He does not believe this story will have a happy ending:

In January of ’10, I went on CNBC and on Bloomberg and said that there is no money coming into stocks, and yet the stock market keeps going up.  The law of supply and demand still exists and for stock prices to go up, there has to be more money buying those shares.  There is no other way in aggregate that that could happen.

So I said it has to be coming from the government.  And everybody thought I was a lunatic, conspiracy theorist, whatever.  And then lo and behold, on October of 2011, Mr. Bernanke then says officially, that the purpose of QE1 and QE2 is to raise asset prices.  And if I remember correctly, equities are an asset, and bonds are an asset.

So asset prices have gone up as the Fed has been manipulating the market. At the same time as the economy is not growing (or not growing very fast).

*   *   *

At some point, the world is going to recognize the Emperor is naked. The only question is when.

Will it be this year?  I do not think it will be before the election, I think there is too much vested interest in keeping things rosy and positive.

One of my favorite economists is John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  In his most recent Weekly Market Comment, Dr. Hussman warned us that the “music” must eventually stop:

What remains then is a fairly simple assertion:  the primary way to boost corporate profits to abnormally high – but unsustainable – levels is for the government and the household sector to both spend beyond their means at the same time.

*   *   *

The conclusion is straightforward.  The hope for continued high profit margins really comes down to the hope that government and the household sector will both continue along unsustainable spending trajectories indefinitely.  Conversely, any deleveraging of presently debt-heavy government and household balance sheets will predictably create a sustained retreat in corporate profit margins.  With the ratio of corporate profits to GDP now about 70% above the historical norm, driven by a federal deficit in excess of 8% of GDP and a deeply depressed household saving rate, we view Wall Street’s embedded assumption of a permanently high plateau in profit margins as myopic.

Will January 1, 2013 be the day when the world realizes that “the Emperor is naked”?  Will the American economy fall off the “massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases” eleven days after the end of the Mayan calendar?  When we wake-up with our annual New Year’s Hangover on January 1 – will we all regret not having followed the example set by those Doomsday Preppers on the National Geographic Channel?

Get your “bug-out bag” ready!  You still have nine months!


 

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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.


 

Once Upon A Crisis

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As the 2012 Presidential election campaign heats up, there is plenty of historical revisionism taking place with respect to the 2008 financial / economic crisis.  Economist Dean Baker wrote an article for The Guardian, wherein he debunked the Obama administration’s oft-repeated claim that the newly-elected President saved us from a “Second Great Depression”:

While the Obama administration, working alongside Ben Bernanke at the Fed, deserves credit for preventing a financial meltdown, a second great depression was never in the cards.

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The attack on the second Great Depression myth is not simply an exercise in semantics.  The Obama Administration and the political establishment more generally want the public to be grateful that we managed to avoid a second Great Depression. People should realize that this claim is sort of like keeping our kids safe from tiger attacks.  It’s true that almost no kids in the United States are ever attacked by tigers, but we don’t typically give out political praise for this fact, since there is no reason to expect our kids to be attacked by tigers.

In the same vein, we all should be very happy we aren’t in the middle of a second Great Depression; however, there was never any good reason for us to fear a second Great Depression.  What we most had to fear was a prolonged period of weak growth and high unemployment.  Unfortunately, this is exactly what we are seeing.   The only question is how long it will drag on.

Joe Weisenthal of The Business Insider directed our attention to the interview with economist Paul Krugman appearing in the current issue of Playboy.  Krugman, long considered a standard bearer for the Democratic Party’s economic agenda, was immediately thrown under the bus as soon as Obama took office.  I’ll never forget reading about the “booby prize” roast beef dinner Obama held for Krugman and his fellow Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz – when the two economists were informed that their free advice would be ignored. Fortunately, former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was able to make sure that pork wasn’t the main course for that dinner.  Throughout the Playboy interview, Krugman recalled his disappointment with the new President.  Here’s what Joe  Weisenthal had to say about the piece:

There’s a long interview with Paul Krugman in the new Playboy, and it’s excellent.

We tend to write a lot about his economic commentary here, but he probably doesn’t get enough credit for his commentary on politics, and his assessment of how things will play out.

Go back and read this column, from March 2009, and you’ll see that he basically called things correctly, that the stimulus would be too small, and that the GOP would be emboldened and gain success arguing that the problem was that we had stimulus at all.

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At least as Krugman sees it, the times called for a major boost in spending and so on, and Obama never had any intention to deliver.

What follows is the prescient excerpt from Krugman’s March 9, 2009 essay, referenced by Joe Weisenthal:

The broader public, by contrast, favors strong action.  According to a recent Newsweek poll, a majority of voters supports the stimulus, and, more surprising, a plurality believes that additional spending will be necessary.  But will that support still be there, say, six months from now?

Also, an overwhelming majority believes that the government is spending too much to help large financial institutions.  This suggests that the administration’s money-for-nothing financial policy will eventually deplete its political capital.

So here’s the picture that scares me:  It’s September 2009, the unemployment rate has passed 9 percent, and despite the early round of stimulus spending it’s still headed up.  Obama finally concedes that a bigger stimulus is needed.  But he can’t get his new plan through Congress because approval for his economic policies has plummeted, partly because his policies are seen to have failed, partly because job-creation policies are conflated in the public mind with deeply unpopular bank bailouts.  And as a result, the recession rages on, unchecked.

In early July of 2009, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Second Stimulus”, in which I observed that President Obama had already reached the milestone anticipated by Krugman for September of that year.  I made a point of including a list of ignored warnings about the inadequacy of the stimulus program.  Most notable among them was the point that there were fifty economists who shared the concerns voiced by Krugman, Stiglitz and Jamie Galbraith:

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.

Mike Grabell of ProPublica has written a new book entitled, Money Well Spent? which provided an even-handed analysis of what the stimulus did – and did not – accomplish.  As I pointed out on February 13, some of the criticisms voiced by Mike Grabell concerning the programs funded by the Economic Recovery Act had been previously expressed by Keith Hennessey (former director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush) in a June 3, 2009 posting at Hennessey’s blog.  I was particularly intrigued by this suggestion by Keith Hennessey from back in 2009:

Had the President instead insisted that a $787 B stimulus go directly into people’s hands, where “people” includes those who pay income taxes and those who don’t, we would now be seeing a stimulus that would be:

  • partially effective but still quite large – Because it would be a temporary change in people’s incomes, only a fraction of the $787 B would be spent.  But even 1/4 or 1/3 of $787 B is still a lot of money to dump out the door.  The relative ineffectiveness of a temporary income change would be offset by the enormous amount of cash flowing.
  • efficient – People would be spending money on themselves. Some of them would be spending other people’s money on themselves, but at least they would be spending on their own needs, rather than on multi-year water projects in the districts of powerful Members of Congress.  You would have much less waste.
  • fast – The GDP boost would be concentrated in Q3 and Q4 of 2009, tapering off heavily in Q1 of 2010.

Why did the President not do this?  Discussions with the Congress began in January before he took office, and he faced a strong Speaker who took control and gave a huge chuck of funding to House Appropriations Chairman Obey (D-WI).  I can think of three plausible explanations:

  1. The President and his team did not realize the analytical point that infrastructure spending has too slow of a GDP effect.
  2. They were disorganized.
  3. They did not want a confrontation with their new Congressional allies in their first few days.

Given the fact that the American economy is 70% consumer-driven, Keith Hennessey’s proposed stimulus would have boosted that sorely-missing consumer demand as far back as two years ago.  We can only wonder where our unemployment level and our Gross Domestic Product would be now if Hennessey’s plan had been implemented – despite the fact that it would have been limited to the $787 billion amount.


 

Niall Ferguson Softens His Austerity Stance

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I have previously criticized Niall Ferguson as one of the gurus for those creatures described by Barry Ritholtz as “deficit chicken hawks”.  The deficit chicken hawks have been preaching the gospel of economic austerity as an excuse for roadblocking any form of stimulus (fiscal or monetary) to rehabilitate the American economy.  Ferguson has now backed away from the position he held two years ago – that the United States has been carrying too much debt

Henry Blodget of The Business Insider justified his trip to Davos, Switzerland last week by conducting an important interview with Niall Ferguson at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.  For the first time, Ferguson conceded that he had been wrong with his previous criticism about the level of America’s sovereign debt load, although he denied ever having been a proponent of “instant austerity” (which is currently advocated by many American politicians).  While discussing the extent of the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, Ferguson re-directed his focus on the United States:

I think we are going to get some defaults one way or the other.  The U.S. is a different story.  First of all I think the debt to GDP ratio can go quite a lot higher before there’s any upward pressure on interest rates.  I think the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve realized that there are good analogies for super powers having super debts.  You’re in a special position as a super power.  You get, especially, you know, as the issuer of the international reserve currency, you get a lot of leeway.  The U.S. could conceivably grow its way out of the debt.  It could do a mixture of growth and inflation.  It’s not going to default.  It may default on liabilities in Social Security and Medicare, in fact it almost certainly will.  But I think holders of Treasuries can feel a lot more comfortable than anyone who’s holding European bonds right now.

BLODGET: That is a shockingly optimistic view of the United States from you.  Are you conceding to Paul Krugman that over the near-term we shouldn’t worry so much?

FERGUSONI think the issue here got a little confused, because Krugman wanted to portray me as a proponent of instant austerity, which I never was.  My argument was that over ten years you have to have some credible plan to get back to fiscal balance because at some point you lose your credibility because on the present path, Congressional Budget Office figures make it clear, with every year the share of Federal tax revenues going to interest payments rises, there is a point after which it’s no longer credible.  But I didn’t think that point was going to be this year or next year.  I think the trend of nominal rates in the crisis has been the trend that he forecasted.  And you know, I have to concede that. I think the reason that I was off on that was that I hadn’t actually thought hard enough about my own work.  In the “Cash Nexus,” which I published in 2001, I actually made the argument that very large debts are sustainable, if your borrowing costs are low. And super powers – Britain was in this position in the 19th century – can carry a heck of a lot of debt before investors get nervous.  So there really isn’t that risk premium issue. There isn’t that powerful inflation risk to worry about.  My considered and changed view is that the U.S. can carry a higher debt to GDP ratio than I think I had in mind 2 or 3 years ago.  And higher indeed that my colleague and good friend, Ken Rogoff implies, or indeed states, in the “This Time Is Different” book.  I think what we therefore see is that the U.S. has leeway to carry on running deficits and allowing the debt to pile up for quite a few years before we get into the kind of scenario we’ve seen in Europe, where suddenly the markets lose faith.  It’s in that sense a safe haven more than I maybe thought before.

*   *   *

There are various forces in [the United States’] favor. It’s socially not Japan.  It’s demographically not Japan. And I sense also that the Fed is very determined not to be the Bank of Japan. Ben Bernanke’s most recent comments and actions tell you that they are going to do whatever they can to avoid the deflation or zero inflation story.

Niall Ferguson deserves credit for admitting (to the extent that he did so) that he had been wrong.  Unfortunately, most commentators and politicians lack the courage to make such a concession.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman has been dancing on the grave of the late David Broder of The Washington Post, for having been such a fawning sycophant of British Prime Minister David Cameron and Jean-Claude Trichet (former president of the European Central Bank) who advocated the oxymoronic “expansionary austerity” as a “confidence-inspiring” policy:

Such invocations of the confidence fairy were never plausible; researchers at the International Monetary Fund and elsewhere quickly debunked the supposed evidence that spending cuts create jobs.  Yet influential people on both sides of the Atlantic heaped praise on the prophets of austerity, Mr. Cameron in particular, because the doctrine of expansionary austerity dovetailed with their ideological agendas.

Thus in October 2010 David Broder, who virtually embodied conventional wisdom, praised Mr. Cameron for his boldness, and in particular for “brushing aside the warnings of economists that the sudden, severe medicine could cut short Britain’s economic recovery and throw the nation back into recession.”  He then called on President Obama to “do a Cameron” and pursue “a radical rollback of the welfare state now.”

Strange to say, however, those warnings from economists proved all too accurate.  And we’re quite fortunate that Mr. Obama did not, in fact, do a Cameron.

Nevertheless, you can be sure that many prominent American politicians will ignore the evidence, as well as Niall Ferguson’s course correction, and continue to preach the gospel of immediate economic austerity – at least until the time comes to vote on one of their own pet (pork) projects.

American voters continue to place an increasing premium on authenticity when evaluating political candidates.  It would be nice if this trend would motivate voters to reject the “deficit chicken haws” for the hypocrisy they exhibit and the ignorance which motivates their policy decisions.


 

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Keeping The Megabank Controversy On Republican Radar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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


 

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