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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   .  .  .



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.


 

European Sovereign Debt Crisis Gets Scary

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The simplest explanation of the European sovereign debt crisis came from Joe Weisenthal at the Business Insider website.  He compared the yield on the 5-year bond for Sweden with that of Finland, illustrated by charts, which tracked those yields for the past year:

Basically they look identical all through the year up until November and then BAM.  Finnish yields are exploding higher, right as Swedish yields are blasting lower.

The only obvious difference between the two:   Finland is part of the Eurozone, meaning it can’t print its own money. Sweden has no such risk.

While everyone’s attention was focused on the inability of Greece to pay the skyrocketing interest rates on its bonds, Italy snuck up on us.  The Italian debt crisis has become so huge that many commentators are voicing concern that “sovereign debt contagion” across the Eurozone is spreading faster than we could ever imagine.  The Los Angeles Times is now reporting that Moody’s Investors Service is ready to hit the panic button:

Throwing more logs on the Eurozone fire, Moody’s Investors Service said early Monday that the continent’s debt crisis now is “threatening the credit standing of all European sovereigns.”

That’s a not-so-subtle warning that even Moody’s top-rung Aaa ratings of countries including Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands could be in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, every pundit seems to have a different opinion about how the crisis will unfold and what should be done about it.  The latest buzz concerns a widely-published rumor that the IMF is preparing a 600 billion euro ($794 billion) loan for Italy.  The problem with that scenario is that most of those billions would have to come from the United States – meaning that Congress would have to approve it.  Don’t count on it.  Former hedge fund manager, Bruce Krasting provided a good explanation of the Italian crisis and its consequences:

I think the Italian story is make or break.  Either this gets fixed or Italy defaults in less than six months.  The default option is not really an option that policy makers would consider.  If Italy can’t make it, then there will be a very big crashing sound.  It would end up taking out most of the global lenders, a fair number of countries would follow into Italy’s vortex.  In my opinion a default by Italy is certain to bring a global depression; one that would take many years to crawl out of.  The policy makers are aware of this too.

So I say something is brewing.  And yes, if there is a plan in the works it must involve the IMF.  And yes, it’s going to be big.

Please do not read this and conclude that some headline is coming that will make us all feel happy again.  I think headlines are coming.  But those headlines are likely to scare the crap out of the markets once the implications are understood.

In the real world of global finance the reality is that any country that is forced to accept an IMF bailout is also blocked from issuing debt in the public markets.  IMF (or other supranational debt) is ALWAYS senior to other indebtedness of the country. That’s just the way it works.  When Italy borrows money from the IMF it automatically subordinates the existing creditors. Lenders hate this.  They will vote with their feet and take a pass at Italian new debt issuance for a long time to come.  Once the process starts, it will not end.  There will be a snow ball of other creditors.  That’s exactly what happened in the 80’s when Mexico failed; within a year two dozen other countries were forced to their debt knees.  (I had a front row seat.)

I don’t see a way out of this box.  The liquidity crisis in Italy is scaring us to death, the solution will almost certainly kill us.

Forcing taxpayers to indemnify banks which made risky bets on European sovereign debt is popular with K Street lobbyists and their Congressional puppets.  This has led most people to assume that we will be handed the bill.  Fortunately, there are some smart people around, who are devising better ways to get “out of this box”.  Economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, proposed this idea to facilitate significant writedowns on Greek bonds while helping banks cope the impact of accepting 25 percent of the face value of those bonds, rather than the hoped-for 50 percent:

Given the extremely high leverage ratios of European banks, it appears doubtful that it will be possible to obtain adequate capital through new share issuance, as they would essentially have to duplicate the existing float.  For that reason, I suspect that before this is all over, much of the European banking system will be nationalized, much of the existing debt of the European banking system will be restructured, and those banks will gradually be recapitalized, post-restructuring and at much smaller leverage ratios, through new IPOs to the market.  That’s how to properly manage a restructuring – you keep what is essential to the economy, but you don’t reward the existing stock and bondholders – it’s essentially what we did with General Motors.  That outcome is not something to be feared (unless you’re a bank stockholder or bondholder), but is actually something that we should hope for if the global economy is to be unchained from the bad debts that were enabled by financial institutions that took on imponderably high levels of leverage.

Notably, credit default swaps are blowing out even in the U.S., despite leverage ratios that are substantially lower (in the 10-12 range, versus 30-40 in Europe).  As of last week, CDS spreads on U.S. financials were approaching and in some cases exceeding 2009 levels.  Bank stocks are also plumbing their 2009 depths, but with a striking degree of calm about it, and a definite tendency for scorching rallies on short-covering and “buy-the-dip” sentiment.  There is a strong mood on Wall Street that we should take these developments in stride.  I’m not convinced.  Our own measures remain defensive about the prospective return/risk tradeoff in the stock market.

The impact this crisis will have on the stock market explains why mainstream news media coverage has consistently understated the magnitude of the situation.  It will be interesting to observe how the “happy talk” gets amped-up as the situation deteriorates.


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More Bad Press For Goldman Sachs

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July 16, 2009

They can’t seem to get away from it, no matter how hard they try.  Goldman Sachs is finding itself confronted with bad publicity on a daily basis.

It all started with Matt Taibbi’s article in Rolling Stone.  As I pointed out on June 25, I liked the article as well as Matt’s other work.  His blog can be found here.  His article on Goldman Sachs employed a good deal of hyperbolic rhetoric which I enjoyed  —  especially the metaphor of Goldman Sachs as a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”.  Nevertheless, many commentators took issue with the article, especially focusing on the subtitle’s claim that “Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression”.  I took that remark as hyperbole, since it would obviously require over 120 megabytes of space to document “every major market manipulation since the Great Depression” — so I wasn’t disappointed about being unable to read all that.  Some of Taibbi’s critics include Megan McArdle from The Atlantic and Joe Weisenthal at Clusterstock.

On the other hand, Taibbi did get a show of support from Eliot “Socks” Spitzer during a July 14 interview on Bloomberg TV.  Mr. Spitzer made some important points about Goldman’s conduct that we are now hearing from a number of other sources.  Spitzer began by emphasizing that because of the bank bailouts “Goldman’s capital was driven to virtually nothing — because we as taxpayers gave them access to capital — they made a bloody fortune” (another vampire squid reference).  Spitzer voiced the concern that Goldman is simply going back to proprietary trading and taking advantage of spreads, following its old business model.  He argued that, a result of the bailouts:

. . . their job should be, from a macroeconomic perspective, to raise capital and put it into sectors that create jobs.  If they’re not getting that done, then why are we supporting them the way we have been?

This sentiment seems to be coming from all directions, in light of the fact that on July 14, Goldman reported second-quarter profits of 3.44 billion dollars — while on the following day, another TARP recipient, CIT Group disclosed that it would likely file for bankruptcy on July 17.  On July 16, The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial entitled:  “A Tale of Two Bailouts” comparing Goldman’s fate with that of CIT.  The article pointed out that since Goldman’s risk is subsidized by the taxpayers, the company might be more appropriately re-branded as “Goldie Mac”:

We like profits as much as the next capitalist.  But when those profits are supported by government guarantees or insured deposits, taxpayers have a special interest in how the companies conduct their business.  Ideally we would shed those implicit guarantees altogether, along with the very notion of too big to fail.  But that is all but impossible now and for the foreseeable future.  Even if the Obama Administration and Fed were to declare with one voice that banks such as Goldman were on their own, no one would believe it.

If there is a lesson in this week’s tale of two banks, it’s that it won’t be enough to give the Federal Reserve a mandate to “monitor” systemic risk.  Last fall’s bailouts are reverberating through the financial system in a way that is already distorting the competition for capital and financial market share.  Banks that want to be successful will also want to be more like Goldman Sachs, creating an incentive for both larger size and more risk-taking on the taxpayer’s dime.

Robert Reich voiced similar concern over the fact that “Goldman’s high-risk business model hasn’t changed one bit from what it was before the implosion of Wall Street.”  He went on to explain:

Value-at-risk — a statistical measure of how much the firm’s trading operations could lose in a day — rose to an average of  $245 million in the second quarter from $240 million in the first quarter. In the second quarter of 2008, VaR averaged $184 million.

Meanwhile, Goldman is still depending on $28 billion in outstanding debt issued cheaply with the backing of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.  Which means you and I are still indirectly funding Goldman’s high-risk operations.

*   *   *

So the fact that Goldman has reverted to its old ways in the market suggests it has every reason to believe it can revert to its old ways in politics, should its market strategies backfire once again — leaving the rest of us once again to pick up the pieces.

At The Huffington Post, Mike Lux reminded Goldman that despite its repayment of $10 billion in TARP funds, we haven’t overlooked the fact that Goldman has not repaid the $13 billion it received for being a counterparty to AIG’s bad paper or the “unrevealed billions” it received from the Federal Reserve.  This raises a serious question as to whether Goldman should be allowed to pay record bonuses to its employees, as planned.  Didn’t we go through this once beforePaul Abrams is mindful of this, having issued a wake-up call to “Turbo” Tim Geithner and Congress.

As long as we keep reading the news, each passing day provides us with yet another reminder to feel outrage over the hubris of the people at Goldman Sachs.