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Morgenson Watch Continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Screw The People And Save The Banks

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The economic crisis in Ireland (and the rest of Europe) has resulted in a morass of published commentaries, some of which make sense and most of which don’t.  Sometimes it appears as though the writer hasn’t really formed an opinion on the issue, even though the tone of the article seems to be expressing one.  The problem experienced in Ireland is the same as it is everywhere else:  During tough economic times, governments always choose to bail out the banks regardless of the expense and suffering to be endured by the citizens.  The Pragmatic Capitalist recently upbraided the writer of one of the more poorly-thought-out essays dealing with the Irish predicament:

Sheila Bair, the head of the FDIC, has remained one of the more levelheaded and helpful leaders during the financial crisis.  But in an op-ed in the Washington Post this morning she took a decisive turn for the worse when she waded into waters that were certain to drown her.  Bair is now echoing the cries that have been heard across Ireland for the last 2 years – cries of fiscal austerity.  Of course, the USA is nothing like Ireland and has an entirely different monetary system, but Bair ignores all of this (in fact proves she is entirely ignorant of this).  What’s sad is that Bair clearly understands that this crisis is still largely hurting Main Street America   .   .   .

To the extent that the Irish situation bears any resemblance to what we are experiencing (or may soon experience) in the United States, economist John Hussman has written the best essay on this issue.  Hussman began with this point, made by another economist:

“If you have bad banks then you very urgently want to clean up your banks because bad banks go only one way:  they get worse. In the end every bank is a fiscal problem.  When you have bad banks, it is in a political environment where it is totally understood that the government is going to bail them out in the end.  And that’s why they are so bad, and that’s why they get worse.  So cleaning up the banks is an essential counterpart of any attempt to have a well functioning economy.  It is a counterpart of any attempt to have a dull, uninteresting macroeconomy.  And there is no excuse to do it slowly because it is very expensive to postpone the cleanup.  There is no technical issue in doing the cleanup.  It’s mostly to decide to start to grow up and stop the mess.”

MIT Economist Rudiger Dornbusch, November 1998

The TARP bailout was not the only time when our government chose a temporary fix (as in cure or heroin injection) at great taxpayer expense.  I’ve complained many times about President Obama’s decision to scoff at using the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting the zombie banks through temporary receivership.  John Hussman discussed the consequences:

If our policy makers had made proper decisions over the past two years to clean up banks, restructure debt, and allow irresponsible lenders to take losses on bad loans, there is no doubt in my mind that we would be quickly on the course to a sustained recovery, regardless of the extent of the downturn we have experienced.  Unfortunately, we have built our house on a ledge of ice.

*   *   *

As I’ve frequently noted, even if a bank “fails,” it doesn’t mean that depositors lose money.  It means that the stockholders and bondholders do.  So if it turns out, after all is said and done, that the bank is insolvent, the government should get its money back and the remaining entity should be taken into receivership, cut away from the stockholder liabilities, restructured as to bondholder liabilities, recapitalized, and reissued.  We did this with GM, and we can do it with banks.  I suspect that these issues will again become relevant within the next few years.

The present situation

Europe will clearly be in the spotlight early this week, as a run on Irish banks coupled with large fiscal deficits has created a solvency crisis for the Irish government itself and has been (temporarily) concluded with a bailout agreement.  Ireland’s difficulties are the result of a post-Lehman guarantee that the Irish government gave to its banking system in 2008.  The resulting strains will now result in a bailout, in return for Ireland’s agreement to slash welfare payments and other forms of spending to recipients that are evidently less valuable to society than bankers.

*   *   *

Over the short run, Ireland will promise “austerity” measures like Greece did – large cuts in government spending aimed at reducing the deficit.  Unfortunately, imposing austerity on a weak economy typically results in further economic weakness and a shortfall on the revenue side, meaning that Ireland will most probably face additional problems shortly anyway.

The “austerity” approach is more frequently being used as a dividing line to distinguish “liberal” economists from “conservative” economists.  The irony here is that many so-called liberal politicians are as deeply in the pocket of the banking lobby as their conservative counterparts.  Economist Dean Baker recently wrote an article for The Guardian, urging Ireland to follow the example of Argentina and simply default on its debt:

The failure of the ECB or IMF to take steps to rein in the bubble before the crisis has not made these international financial institutions shy about using a heavy hand in imposing conditions now.  The plan is to impose stiff austerity, requiring much of Ireland’s workforce to suffer unemployment for years to come as a result of the failure of their bankers and the ECB.

While it is often claimed that these institutions are not political, only the braindead could still believe this.  The decision to make Ireland’s workers, along with workers in Spain, Portugal, Latvia and elsewhere, pay for the recklessness of their country’s bankers is entirely a political one.  There is no economic imperative that says that workers must pay; this is a political decision being imposed by the ECB and IMF.

Bloomberg News columnist, Matthew Lynn wrote a great article for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, setting out five reasons why Ireland should refuse a bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to opt for default as the logical approach.

Pay close attention to how your favorite politicians weigh-in on the Irish situation.  It should give you a fairly good tip as to what actions those pols can be expected to take when the Wall Street bankers dash back to Capitol Hill for TARP 2 The Sequel.


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Still Wrong After All These Years

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June 21, 2010

I’m quite surprised by the fact that people continue to pay serious attention to the musings of Alan Greenspan.  On June 18, The Wall Street Journal saw fit to publish an opinion piece by the man referred to as “The Maestro” (although – these days – that expression is commonly used in sarcasm).  The former Fed chairman expounded that recent attempts to rein in the federal budget are coming “none too soon”.  Near the end of the article, Greenspan made the statement that will earn him a nomination for TheCenterLane.com’s Jackass of the Year Award:

I believe the fears of budget contraction inducing a renewed decline of economic activity are misplaced.

John Mauldin recently provided us with a thorough explanation of why Greenspan’s statement is wrong:

There are loud calls in the US and elsewhere for more fiscal constraints.  I am part of that call.  Fiscal deficits of 10% of GDP is a prescription for disaster.  As we have discussed in previous letters, the book by Rogoff and Reinhart (This Time is Different) clearly shows that at some point, bond investors start to ask for higher rates and then the interest rate becomes a spiral.  Think of Greece.  So, not dealing with the deficit is simply creating a future crisis even worse than the one we just had.

But cutting the deficit too fast could also throw the country back in a recession.  There has to be a balance.

*   *   *

That deficit reduction will also reduce GDP.  That means you collect less taxes which makes the deficits worse which means you have to make more cuts than planned which means lower tax receipts which means etc.  Ireland is working hard to reduce its deficits but their GDP has dropped by almost 20%! Latvia and Estonia have seen their nominal GDP drop by almost 30%!  That can only be characterized as a depression for them.

Robert Reich’s refutation of Greenspan’s article was right on target:

Contrary to Greenspan, today’s debt is not being driven by new spending initiatives.  It’s being driven by policies that Greenspan himself bears major responsibility for.

Greenspan supported George W. Bush’s gigantic tax cut in 2001 (that went mostly to the rich), and uttered no warnings about W’s subsequent spending frenzy on the military and a Medicare drug benefit (corporate welfare for Big Pharma) — all of which contributed massively to today’s debt.  Greenspan also lowered short-term interest rates to zero in 2002 but refused to monitor what Wall Street was doing with all this free money.  Years before that, he urged Congress to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act and he opposed oversight of derivative trading.  All this contributed to Wall Street’s implosion in 2008 that led to massive bailout, and a huge contraction of the economy that required the stimulus package.  These account for most of the rest of today’s debt.

If there’s a single American more responsible for today’s “federal debt explosion” than Alan Greenspan, I don’t know him.

But we can manage the Greenspan Debt if we get the U.S. economy growing again.  The only way to do that when consumers can’t and won’t spend and when corporations won’t invest is for the federal government to pick up the slack.

This brings us back to my initial question of why anyone would still take Alan Greenspan seriously.  As far back as April of 2008 – five months before the financial crisis hit the “meltdown” stage — Bernd Debusmann had this to say about The Maestro for Reuters, in a piece entitled, “Alan Greenspan, dented American idol”:

Instead of the fawning praise heaped on Greenspan when the economy was booming, there are now websites portraying him in dark colors.  One site is called The Mess That Greenspan Made, another Greenspan’s Body Count.  Greenspan’s memoirs, The Age of Turbulence, prompted hedge fund manager William Fleckenstein to write a book entitled Greenspan’s Bubbles, the Age of Ignorance at the Federal Reserve.  It’s in its fourth printing.

The day after Greenspan’s essay appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Howard Gold provided us with this recap of Greenspan’s Fed chairmanship in an article for MarketWatch:

The Fed chairman’s hands-off stance helped the housing bubble morph into a full-blown financial crisis when hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and other unregulated derivatives — backed by subprime mortgages and other dubious instruments — went up in smoke.

Highly leveraged banks that bet on those vehicles soon were insolvent, too, and the Fed, the U.S. Treasury and, of course, taxpayers had to foot the bill.  We’re still paying.

But this was not just a case of unregulated markets run amok.  Government policies clearly made things much worse — and here, too, Greenspan was the culprit.

The Fed’s manipulation of interest rates in the middle of the last decade laid the groundwork for the most fevered stage of the housing bubble.  To this day, Greenspan, using heavy-duty statistical analysis, disputes the role his super-low federal funds rate played in encouraging risky behavior in housing and capital markets.

Among the harsh critiques of Greenspan’s career at the Fed, was Frederick Sheehan’s book, Panderer to Power.  Ryan McMaken’s review of the book recently appeared at the LewRockwell.com website – with the title, “The Real Legacy of Alan Greenspan”.   Here is some of what McMacken had to say:

.  .  .  Panderer to Power is the story of an economist whose primary skill was self-promotion, and who in the end became increasingly divorced from economic reality.  Even as early as April 2008 (before the bust was obvious to all), the L.A. Times, observing Greenspan’s post-retirement speaking tour, noted that “the unseemly, globe-trotting, money-grabbing, legacy-spinning, responsibility-denying tour of Alan Greenspan continues, as relentless as a bad toothache.”

*   *   *

Although Greenspan had always had a terrible record on perceiving trends in the economy, Sheehan’s story shows a Greenspan who becomes increasingly out to lunch with each passing year as he spun more and more outlandish theories about hidden profits and productivity in the economy that no one else could see.  He spoke incessantly on topics like oil and technology while the bubbles grew larger and larger.  And finally, in the end, he retired to the lecture circuit where he was forced to defend his tarnished record.

The ugly truth is that America has been in a bear market economy since 2000 (when “The Maestro” was still Fed chair).  In stark contrast to what you’ve been hearing from the people on TV, the folks at Comstock Partners put together a list of ten compelling reasons why “the stock market is in a secular (long-term) downtrend that began in early 2000 and still has some time to go.”  This essay is a “must read”.  Further undermining Greenspan’s recent opinion piece was the conclusion reached in the Comstock article:

The data cited here cover the major indicators of economic activity, and they paint a picture of an economy that has moved up, but only from extremely depressed numbers to a point where they are less depressed.  And keep in mind that this is the result of the most massive monetary and fiscal stimulus ever applied to a major economy.  In our view the ability of the economy to undergo a sustained recovery without continued massive help is still questionable.

As always, Alan Greenspan is still wrong.  Unfortunately, there are still too many people taking him seriously.