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More Good Stuff From David Stockman

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August 2, 2010

The people described by Barry Ritholtz as “deficit chicken hawks” have their hands full.  Just as some Democrats, concerned about getting campaign contributions from rich people, were joining the ranks of the deficit chicken hawks to support extension of the Bush tax cuts, people from across the political spectrum spoke out against the idea.  As I pointed out on July 19, President Reagan’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) – David Stockman – spoke out against extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, during an interview with Lloyd Grove of The Daily Beast:

The Bush tax cuts never should’ve been passed because, one, we couldn’t afford them, and second, we didn’t earn them  …

The infamous former Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, had already spoken out against the Bush tax cuts on July 16, during an interview with Judy Woodruff on Bloomberg Television.  In response to Ms. Woodruff’s question as to whether the Bush tax cuts should be extended, Greenspan replied:  “I should say they should follow the law and let them lapse.”

When Alan Greenspan appeared on the August 1 broadcast of NBC’s Meet The Press, David Gregory directed Greenspan’s attention back to the interview with Judy Woodruff, and asked Mr. Greenspan if he felt that all of the Bush tax cuts should be allowed to lapse.  Here is Greenspan’s reply and the follow-up:

MR.GREENSPAN:  Look, I’m very much in favor of tax cuts, but not with borrowed money.  And the problem that we’ve gotten into in recent years is spending programs with borrowed money, tax cuts with borrowed money, and at the end of the day, that proves disastrous.  And my view is I don’t think we can play subtle policy here on it.

MR. GREGORY:  You don’t agree with Republican leaders who say tax cuts pay for themselves?

MR. GREENSPAN:  They do not.

The drumbeat to extend the Bush tax cuts has been ongoing.  Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, claimed on July 23, that those tax cuts would be one way of providing stimulus for the economy – provided that such a move were to be offset “with increased revenue or lower spending.”  Increased revenue?  Does that mean that people – other than those earning in excess of $250,000 per year – should make up the difference by paying higher taxes?

On July 31, David Stockman came back with a huge dose of common sense, in the form of an op-ed piece for The New York Times entitled, “Four Deformations of the Apocalypse”.  It began with this statement:

IF there were such a thing as Chapter 11 for politicians, the Republican push to extend the unaffordable Bush tax cuts would amount to a bankruptcy filing.  The nation’s public debt — if honestly reckoned to include municipal bonds and the $7 trillion of new deficits baked into the cake through 2015 — will soon reach $18 trillion.  That’s a Greece-scale 120 percent of gross domestic product, and fairly screams out for austerity and sacrifice.  It is therefore unseemly for the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, to insist that the nation’s wealthiest taxpayers be spared even a three-percentage-point rate increase.

The article included a boxcar full of great thoughts – among them was Stockman’s criticism of the latest incarnation of voodoo economics:

Republicans used to believe that prosperity depended upon the regular balancing of accounts — in government, in international trade, on the ledgers of central banks and in the financial affairs of private households and businesses, too.  But the new catechism, as practiced by Republican policymakers for decades now, has amounted to little more than money printing and deficit finance — vulgar Keynesianism robed in the ideological vestments of the prosperous classes.

Mr. Stockman took care to lay blame at the foot of the man he described in the Lloyd Grove interview as an “evil genius” – Milton Friedman – who convinced President Nixon in 1971 to “to unleash on the world paper dollars no longer redeemable in gold or other fixed monetary reserves.”

Despite the fact that tax cuts are considered by many as the ultimate panacea for all of America’s economic problems, David Stockman set the record straight about how the religion of taxcut-ology began:

Through the 1984 election, the old guard earnestly tried to control the deficit, rolling back about 40 percent of the original Reagan tax cuts.  But when, in the following years, the Federal Reserve chairman, Paul Volcker, finally crushed inflation, enabling a solid economic rebound, the new tax-cutters not only claimed victory for their supply-side strategy but hooked Republicans for good on the delusion that the economy will outgrow the deficit if plied with enough tax cuts.

By fiscal year 2009, the tax-cutters had reduced federal revenues to 15 percent of gross domestic product, lower than they had been since the 1940s.

Stockman’s discussion of “the vast, unproductive expansion of our financial culture” is probably just a teaser for his upcoming book on the financial crisis:

But the trillion-dollar conglomerates that inhabit this new financial world are not free enterprises.  They are rather wards of the state, extracting billions from the economy with a lot of pointless speculation in stocks, bonds, commodities and derivatives.  They could never have survived, much less thrived, if their deposits had not been governmentguaranteed and if they hadn’t been able to obtain virtually free money from the Fed’s discount window to cover their bad bets.

On the day following the publication of Stockman’s essay, Sarah Palin appeared on Fox News Sunday – prepared with notes again written on the palm of her hand – to argue in support of extending the Bush tax cuts.  Although her argument was directed against the Obama administration, I was fixated on the idea of a debate on the subject between Palin and her fellow Republican, David Stockman.  Some of those Republicans vying for their party’s 2012 Presidential nomination were probably thinking about the same thing.




Financial Reform Might Actually Happen

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April 12, 2010

The long-overdue need for financial reform is finally getting some serious attention in Washington.  As banking lobbyists continue to grease palms in the Senate, we are beginning to hear a number of novel ideas from some clever commentators, focused on preventing another financial crisis.

On April 9, John Mauldin published a thought-provoking essay entitled, “Reform We Can Believe In”.  At one point in the piece, Mauldin considered the question that has been hanging over our heads for the past eighteen months:

What happens if we do nothing?

What happens when we have the next credit crisis, when a major sovereign government defaults, as I think will happen?  It will be a body blow to many banks, especially in Europe.  Once again, we could have banks worried about lending to each other or taking letters of credit, which would be a disaster for world trade and the recovery we are now in.

That we (and Europe and Britain) have taken so long to enact real reform has the potential to really put the world at risk.  In the next crisis, we will not have the tools available to stem the tide that we did the last time.  Rates are already low.  Do you think we could pass another TARP?  The Fed’s balance sheet is already bloated.  It could get much worse unless we get financial reforms that have some bite.

All this debating about a consumer protection agency and where it should be and all the other trivia is wasting time.  Fix the big things. Credit default swaps. Too big to fail.  Leverage. Then worry about the details.

Although I left out Mauldin’s suggestion to “leave the Fed alone” from that last paragraph, his essay contains a fantastic explanation of how the Federal Reserve System is organized.  Best of all, Mauldin spent plenty of time reflecting on Milton Friedman’s suggestion that we program a computer to set monetary policy, instead of leaving that authority with the Fed:

Let me be clear.  There are a lot of things not to like about the Federal Reserve System.  I think it was Milton Friedman who said we would be better off with a computer determining monetary policy.  A quote from an interview with him is instructive.  When asked “Do you still think it would be a good idea to have a computer run monetary policy?” he answered:

“Yes.  Of course it depends very much on how the computer is programmed.  I am not saying that any computer program would do.  In speaking of that, I have had in mind the idea that a computer would produce, for example, a constant rate of growth in the quantity of money as defined, let us say, by M2, something like 3% to 5% per year.  There are certainly occasions in which discretionary changes in policy guided by a wise and talented manager of monetary policy would do better than the fixed rate, but they would be rare.

“In any event, the computer program would certainly prevent any major disasters either way, any major inflation or any major depressions.  One of the great defects of our kind of monetary system is that its performance depends so much on the quality of the people who are put in charge.  We have seen that in the history of our own Federal Reserve System.

Another perspective on financial reform came from Jim McTague in the April 12 edition of Barron’s.  He began with the remark that both the House and Senate reform bills lack adequate measures for “efficient and intelligent policing”.  Nevertheless, the solution he embraced was simple:

The aptly named Richard Vigilante, who recently co-wrote a book called Panic with Minneapolis-based hedge-fund legend Andrew Redleaf, suggests this approach:  Force all firms managing other people’s money to publish their investment positions in detail before the market opens; this would include hedge funds.  Then, the short sellers could punish ineptness before it spreads by betting heavily against a particular institution’s stupid decisions.

“Bankers would hate it.  It’s their worst nightmare,” says Vigilante, whom I met with at Firehook bakery on Washington’s Farragut Square.  If the system had been in place in 2006, short sellers would have stamped out the smoldering subprime mania before it had a chance to spread, he asserts.

His suggestion is both brilliant and a model of simplicity — it could protect consumers against all kinds of risky financial products — but it will never become reality.

Bankers would scream about the need to protect their proprietary-trading information.  And, as was the case with health-insurance “reform,” Congress is bent on ramming a bill, no matter how flawed, through the legislative sausage works in order to mollify an uncommonly angry electorate before Nov. 2.  To entertain new ideas at this juncture, even good ones, would upset the ambitious timetable.

Like health care, the new financial regulatory regime is built atop the cracked masonry of the old one.  The same flatfoots who were on patrol when the subprime caper went down will be given larger beats to walk.  They will be overseen by a brain trust, a Council of Regulators, culled from their ranks, who, like chemical sniffers, would seek to uncover systemic threats to the volatile financial system.  In fact, COR is the core of the whole scheme.

The proposal for a Council of Regulators has drawn a good deal of criticism, primarily because it would be chaired by the Treasury Secretary.  Matthew Bishop and Michael Green, authors of The Road From Ruin, had this to say about a Council of Regulators in a recent Huffington Post piece:

Indeed, with the Treasury Secretary in the chair, would this council really face down the political leaders and try to stop an emerging bubble spreading a feelgood factor across the nation (as bubbles do, before they burst)?  Even in his pomp Alan Greenspan knew that a Fed chairman couldn’t risk being too gloomy about the economy and keep his job. What chance then of a Treasury Secretary, a cabinet member, being so bold?

Rather than another layer on top of the dysfunctional existing regulatory system, America needs to sweep away its absurd proliferation of regulators and replace them with a powerful super regulator, independent of day-to-day politics and empowered to do the job properly.

Regardless of what the final product will include – one thing is becoming increasingly likely:  Some semblance of financial reform legislation will eventually become enacted.  It won’t be perfect but anything will be better than what we have now.  (Well, almost anything  .  .  .)



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Black And Reich

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April 16, 2009

I guess it’s because I was using TurboTax to work on my income tax return for the past few days, that I was constantly reminded of Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  Criticism continues to abound concerning the plan by Turbo Tim and Larry Summers for getting the infamous “toxic assets” off the balance sheets of our nation’s banks.  It’s known as the Public-Private Investment Program (a/k/a:  PPIP or “pee-pip”).  I recently read an article by a couple of Economics professors named Laurence J. Kotlikoff (Boston University) and Jeffrey Sachs (Columbia University) wherein they referred to this plan as the GASP (Geithner And Summers Plan).  Their bottom line:

The Geithner-and-Summers Plan should be scrapped.  President Obama should ask his advisors to canvas the economics and legal community to hear the much better ideas that are in wide circulation.

One of the harshest critics of the PPIP is William Black, an Economics professor at the University of Missouri.  Professor Black gained recognition during the 1980s while he was deputy director of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC).  During that time, the FSLIC helped block an attempted sale of Charles Keating’s Lincoln Savings and Loan, which was subsequently seized by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, despite opposition from five United States Senators, who became known as the Keating Five.  A recent interview with Professor Black by Jack Willoughby of Barrons revealed that Black’s aversion to the PPIP starts with the fact that it is being implemented by Geithner and Summers:

We have failed bankers giving advice to failed regulators on how to deal with failed assets.  How can it result in anything but failure?  If they are going to get any truthful investigation, the Democrats picked the wrong financial team.  Tim Geithner, the current Secretary of the Treasury, and Larry Summers, chairman of the National Economic Council, were important architects of the problems.  Geithner especially represents a failed regulator, having presided over the bailouts of major New York banks.

I particularly enjoyed Black’s characterization of the PPIP’s use of government (i.e. taxpayer) money to back private purchases of the toxic assets:

It is worse than a lie.  Geithner has appropriated the language of his critics and of the forthright to support dishonesty.  That is what’s so appalling — numbering himself among those who convey tough medicine when he is really pandering to the interests of a select group of banks who are on a first-name basis with Washington politicians.

The current law mandates prompt corrective action, which means speedy resolution of insolvencies.  He is flouting the law, in naked violation, in order to pursue the kind of favoritism that the law was designed to prevent.  He has introduced the concept of capital insurance, essentially turning the U.S. taxpayer into the sucker who is going to pay for everything.  He chose this path because he knew Congress would never authorize a bailout based on crony capitalism.

For the past month or so, I’ve been hearing many stock market commentators bemoan the fact that there is so much money “on the sidelines”.  In other words, people with trading accounts are letting their money sit in brokerage money market accounts, rather than risking it in the stock markets.  I believe that many of these people are so discouraged by the sleazy environment on Wall Street, they are waiting for things to get cleaned up before they take any more chances in a casino where so many games are rigged.  In the Barrons interview, Black made a point that reinforced my opinion:

His (Geithner’s) use of language like “legacy assets” — and channeling the worst aspects of Milton Friedman — is positively Orwellian.  Extreme conservatives wrongly assume that the government can’t do anything right.  And they wrongly assume that the market will ultimately lead to correct actions.  If cheaters prosper, cheaters will dominate.  It is like Gresham’s law:  Bad money drives out the good.  Well, bad behavior drives out good behavior, without good enforcement.

By asking Professor Black a few simple, straightforward questions (in layperson’s language) Jack Willoughby got some fantastic and refreshing information in return (also in layperson’s language) making this article a “must read”.  As Black and many others have pointed out, these huge financial institutions must be broken down into smaller businesses.  Why isn’t this being undertaken?  Professor Black looks to where the buck stops:

Obama, who is doing so well in so many other arenas, appears to be slipping because he trusts Democrats high in the party structure too much.

These Democrats want to maintain America’s pre-eminence in global financial capitalism at any cost.  They remain wedded to the bad idea of bigness, the so-called financial supermarket — one-stop shopping for all customers — that has allowed the American financial system to paper the world with subprime debt.  Even the managers of these worldwide financial conglomerates testify that they have become so sprawling as to be unmanageable.

Another critic of the Geithner-Summers PPIP is former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich.  Reich is now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.  His April 6 blog entry discussed the fact that the top 25 hedge fund managers earned a total of $11.6 billion last year:

But what causes me severe heartburn is that these are exactly the sort of investors Tim Geithner is trying to lure in to buy troubled assets from banks, with an extraordinary offer financed by you and me and other taxpayers:  If it turns out the troubled assets are worth more than these guys pay for them, they could make a fortune.  If it turns out the assets are worth less, these guys won’t lose a thing because we taxpayers will bail them out.  Plus, they get to pick only the highest-rated of the big banks’ bad assets and can review them carefully before buying.

What a deal.  Why can’t you and I get in on this bonanza? Because we’re too small.  The government will designate only about five big investor funds — run or owned by the richest of the rich — as potential buyers.  Hedge funds fit the bill perfectly.

It’s nice to know that more and more prominent individuals in the world of economics and public policy are taking the ethical stand against a program based on the principle of “socialized loss and privatized gain”.  I just hope President Obama doesn’t take too long to realize that these people are right and that the Geithner – Summers team is wrong.