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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.


 

Disappointing Diatribe From A Disillusioned Dionne

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Poor E.J. Dionne!  He is suffering through the same transition process experienced by many Obama supporters who have been confronted with the demise of the President’s phony “populist” image.  The stages one passes through when coping with such an “image death” are identical to those described in the Model of Coping with Dying, created in 1969 by Psychiatrist, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. For example, a few weeks ago, Bill Maher was passing through the “Bargaining” stage – at which point he suggested that if we elect Obama to a second term in the White House, the President will finally stand up for all of those abandoned principles which candidate Obama advocated during the 2008 campaign.  As we saw during Friday’s episode of Maher’s Real Time program on HBO, the comedian has now progressed to the “Acceptance” stage, as demonstrated by his abandonment of any “hope” that Obama’s pseudo-populist image might still be viable.

Meanwhile E.J. Dionne appears to be transitioning from the “Denial” stage to the “Anger” stage – as exemplified by his dwelling on the issue of who is to blame for this image death.  Dionne’s conclusion is that “Centrists” are to blame.  Dionne’s recent Washington Post column began with the premise that “centrism has become the enemy of moderation”.  While attempting to process his anger, Dionne has expounded some tortured logic, rambling through an elaborate “distinction without a difference” comparison of “Centrists” with “Moderates”, based on the notion that Moderates are good and Centrists are bad.   Dionne’s article was cross-posted at the Truthdig blog, where many commentors criticized his argument.  One reason why so many Truthdig readers had less trouble accepting the demise of Obama’s false “populist” image, could have been their exposure to the frequent criticism of Obama appearing at that website – as exemplified by this cartoon by Mr. Fish, which appeared immediately to the left of Dionne’s article on Saturday.

An easy way to make sense of Dionne’s thought process at this “Anger” stage is to replace any references to “centrists” or “centrism” by inserting Obama’s name at those points.  For example:

Because centrism Obama is reactive, you never really know what a centrist Obama believes.  Centrists are Obama is constantly packing their his bags and chasing off to find a new location as the political conversation veers one way or another.

*   *   *

Yet the center’s devotees, in politics and in the media, Obama fear(s) saying outright that by any past standards—or by the standards of any other democracy—the views of this new right wing are very, very extreme and entirely impractical.  Centrists Obama worr(ies) that saying this might make them him look “leftist” or “partisan.”

Instead, the center Obama bends.  It He concocts deficit plans that include too little new tax revenue.  It He accepts cuts in programs that would have seemed radical and draconian even a couple of years ago.  It He pretends this crisis is caused equally by conservatives and liberals when it is perfectly clear that there would be no crisis at all if the right hadn’t glommed onto the debt ceiling as the (totally inappropriate) vehicle for its anti-government dreams.

It’s time for moderates to abandon centrism Obama and stop shifting with the prevailing winds.  They need to state plainly what they’re for, stand their ground, and pull the argument their way. Yes, they would risk looking to “the left” of where the center Obama is now – but only because conservatives have pulled it him so far their way.

Toward the end of the piece we see how Dionne is getting some glimpses of the fact that Obama is the problem:

But when this ends, it’s Obama who’ll need a reset.  At heart, he’s a moderate who likes balance.  Yet Americans have lost track of what he’s really for. Occasionally you wonder if he’s lost track himself.  He needs to remind us, and perhaps himself, why he wants to be our president.

In reality, Barack Obama was able to deceive Americans by convincing them that he was for populist causes rather than corporatist goals.  The President never “lost track of what he’s really for”.  He has always been Barry O. Tool – a corporatist.

At the conclusion of Dionne’s essay we learn that – contrary to what we were told by Harry Truman – “the buck” stops at the desks of Obama’s “centrist advisers”:

His advisers are said to be obsessed with the political center, but this leads to a reactive politics that won’t motivate the hope crowd that elected Obama in the first place.  Neither will it alter a discourse whose terms were set during most of this debt fight by the right.

We’ve heard the “blame the advisers” rationale from others who passed through the Kübler-Ross phases at earlier points during the Obama Presidency:  There were those who sought to blame Rahm Emanuel when the “public option” was jettisoned from Obama’s healthcare bill.  We then heard from the “Hope fiends” who blamed Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and Peter Orszag for Obama’s refusal to seriously consider the “Swedish solution” of putting the zombie megabanks through temporary receivership.  In fact, it was Obama making those decisions all along.

I’m confident that once E.J. Dionne reaches the “Acceptance” stage, we will hear some refreshing, centered criticism of President Obama.


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Discipline Problem

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At the conclusion of a single, five-year term as Chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) Sheila Bair is calling it quits.  One can hardly blame her.  It must have been one hell of an experience:  Warning about the hazards of the subprime mortgage market, being ignored and watching the consequences unfold . . .  followed by a painful, weekly ritual, which gave birth to a website called Bank Fail Friday.

Bair’s tenure at the helm of the FDIC has been – and will continue to be – the subject of some great reading.  On her final day at the FDIC (July 8) The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Ms. Bair in which she warned that short-term, goal-directed thinking could bring about another financial crisis.  She also had something to brag about.  Despite the efforts of Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless and the Obama administration to ignore the malefaction which brought about the financial crisis and allowed the Wall Street villains to profiteer from that catastrophe, Bair’s FDIC actually stepped up to the plate:

This past week, the FDIC adopted a rule that allows the agency to claw back two years’ worth of compensation from senior executives and managers responsible for the collapse of a systemic, non-bank financial firm.

To date, the FDIC has authorized suits against 248 directors and officers of failed banks for shirking their fiduciary duties, seeking at least $6.8 billion in damages.  The rationales the executives come up with to try to escape accountability for their actions never cease to amaze me.  They blame the failure of their institutions on market forces, on “dead-beat borrowers,” on regulators, on space aliens.  They will reach for any excuse to avoid responsibility.

Mortgage brokers and the issuers of mortgage-based securities were typically paid based on volume, and they responded to these incentives by making millions of risky loans, then moving on to new jobs long before defaults and foreclosures reached record levels.

The difference between Sheila Bair’s approach to the financial/economic crisis and that of the Obama Administration (whose point man has been Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner) was analyzed in a great article by Joe Nocera of The New York Times entitled, “Sheila Bair’s Bank Shot”.  The piece was based on Nocera’s “exit interview” with the departing FDIC Chair.  Throughout that essay, Nocera underscored Bair’s emphasis on “market discipline” – which he contrasted with Geithner’s fanatic embrace of the exact opposite:  “moral hazard” (which Geithner first exhibited at the onset of the crisis while serving as President of the Federal Reserve of New York).  Nocera made this point early in the piece:

On financial matters, she seemed to have better political instincts than Obama’s Treasury Department, which of course is now headed by Geithner.  She favored “market discipline” – meaning shareholders and debt holders would take losses ahead of depositors and taxpayers – over bailouts, which she abhorred.  She didn’t spend a lot of time fretting over bank profitability; if banks had to become less profitable, postcrisis, in order to reduce the threat they posed to the system, so be it.  (“Our job is to protect bank customers, not banks,” she told me.)

Bair’s discussion of those early, panic-filled days during September 2008 is consistent with reports we have read about Geithner elsewhere.  This passage from Nocera’s article is one such example:

For instance, during the peak of the crisis, with credit markets largely frozen, banks found themselves unable to roll over their short-term debt.  This made it virtually impossible for them to function.  Geithner wanted the F.D.I.C. to guarantee literally all debt issued by the big bank-holding companies – an eye-popping request.

Bair said no.  Besides the risk it would have entailed, it would have also meant a windfall for bondholders, because much of the existing debt was trading at a steep discount.  “It was unnecessary,” she said.  Instead, Bair and Paulson worked out a deal in which the F.D.I.C. guaranteed only new debt issued by the bank-holding companies.  It was still a huge risk for the F.D.I.C. to take; Paulson says today that it was one of the most important, if underrated, actions taken by the federal government during the crisis.  “It was an extraordinary thing for us to do,” Bair acknowledged.

Back in April of 2009, the newly-appointed Treasury Secretary met with similar criticism in this great article by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson at The New York Times:

Last June, with a financial hurricane gathering force, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Jr. convened the nation’s economic stewards for a brainstorming session.  What emergency powers might the government want at its disposal to confront the crisis? he asked.

Timothy F. Geithner, who as president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank oversaw many of the nation’s most powerful financial institutions, stunned the group with the audacity of his answer.  He proposed asking Congress to give the president broad power to guarantee all the debt in the banking system, according to two participants, including Michele Davis, then an assistant Treasury secretary.

The proposal quickly died amid protests that it was politically untenable because it could put taxpayers on the hook for trillions of dollars.

“People thought, ‘Wow, that’s kind of out there,’ ” said John C. Dugan, the comptroller of the currency, who heard about the idea afterward.  Mr. Geithner says, “I don’t remember a serious discussion on that proposal then.”

But in the 10 months since then, the government has in many ways embraced his blue-sky prescription.  Step by step, through an array of new programs, the Federal Reserve and Treasury have assumed an unprecedented role in the banking system, using unprecedented amounts of taxpayer money, to try to save the nation’s financiers from their own mistakes.

Geithner’s utter contempt for market discipline again became a subject of the Nocera-Bair interview when the conversation turned to the infamous Maiden Lane III bailouts.

“I’ve always wondered why none of A.I.G.’s counterparties didn’t have to take any haircuts.  There’s no reason in the world why those swap counterparties couldn’t have taken a 10 percent haircut.  There could have at least been a little pain for them.”  (All of A.I.G.’s counterparties received 100 cents on the dollar after the government pumped billions into A.I.G.  There was a huge outcry when it was revealed that Goldman Sachs received more than $12 billion as a counterparty to A.I.G. swaps.)

Bair continued:  “They didn’t even engage in conversation about that.  You know, Wall Street barely missed a beat with their bonuses.”

“Isn’t that ridiculous?” she said.

This article by Gretchen Morgenson provides more detail about Geithner’s determination that AIG’s counterparties receive 100 cents on the dollar.  For Goldman Sachs – it amounted to $12.9 billion which was never repaid to the taxpayers.  They can brag all they want about paying back TARP – but Maiden Lane III was a gift.

I was surprised that Sheila Bair – as a Republican – would exhibit the same sort of “true believer-ism” about Barack Obama as voiced by many Democrats who blamed Rahm Emanuel for the early disappointments of the Obama administration.  Near the end of Nocera’s interview, Bair appeared taken-in by Obama’s “plausible deniability” defense:

“I think the president’s heart is in the right place,” Bair told me.  “I absolutely do.  But the dichotomy between who he selected to run his economic team and what he personally would like them to be doing – I think those are two very different things.”  What particularly galls her is that Treasury under both Paulson and Geithner has been willing to take all sorts of criticism to help the banks.  But it has been utterly unwilling to take any political heat to help homeowners.

The second key issue for Bair has been dealing with the too-big-to-fail banks. Her distaste for the idea that the systemically important banks can never be allowed to fail is visceral.  “I don’t think regulators can adequately regulate these big banks,” she told me.  “We need market discipline.  And if we don’t have that, they’re going to get us in trouble again.”

If Sheila Bair’s concern is valid, the Obama administration’s track record for market discipline has us on a certain trajectory for another financial crisis.



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The Wrong Playbook

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President Obama is still getting it wrong.  Nevertheless, we keep hearing that he is such a clever politician.  Count me among those who believe that the Republicans are setting Obama up for failure and a loss to whatever goofball happens to win the GOP Presidential nomination in 2012 – solely because of a deteriorating economy.  Obama had the chance to really save the economy and “right the ship”.  When he had the opportunity to confront the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, President Obama violated Rahm Emanuel’s infamous doctrine, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste”.  The new President immediately made a point of squandering the opportunity to overcome that crisis.  I voiced my frustration about this on October 7, 2010:

The trouble began immediately after President Obama assumed office.  I wasn’t the only one pulling out my hair in February of 2009, when our new President decided to follow the advice of Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  That decision resulted in a breach of Obama’s now-infamous campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”.  Obama decided to do more for the zombie banks of Wall Street and less for Main Street – by sparing the banks from temporary receivership (also referred to as “temporary nationalization”) while spending less on financial stimulus.  Obama ignored the 50 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, who warned that an $800 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.  At the Calculated Risk website, Bill McBride lamented Obama’s strident posturing in an interview conducted by Terry Moran of ABC News, when the President actually laughed off the idea of implementing the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting those insolvent banks through temporary receivership.

In September of 2009, I discussed a fantastic report by Australian economist Steve Keen, who explained how the “money multiplier” myth, fed to Obama by the very people who caused the financial crisis, was the wrong paradigm to be starting from in attempting to save the economy.  The Australian professor (Steve Keen) was right and Team Obama was wrong.  In analyzing Australia’s approach to the financial crisis, economist Joseph Stiglitz made this observation on August 5, 2010:

Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister when the crisis struck, put in place one of the best-designed Keynesian stimulus packages of any country in the world.  He realized that it was important to act early, with money that would be spent quickly, but that there was a risk that the crisis would not be over soon.  So the first part of the stimulus was cash grants, followed by investments, which would take longer to put into place.

Rudd’s stimulus worked:  Australia had the shortest and shallowest of recessions of the advanced industrial countries.

On October 6, 2010, Michael Heath of Bloomberg BusinessWeek provided the latest chapter in the story of how America did it wrong while Australia did it right:

Australian Employers Added 49,500 Workers in September

Australian employers in September added the most workers in eight months, driving the country’s currency toward a record and bolstering the case for the central bank to resume raising interest rates.

The number of people employed rose 49,500 from August, the seventh straight gain, the statistics bureau said in Sydney today.  The figure was more than double the median estimate of a 20,000 increase in a Bloomberg News survey of 25 economists.  The jobless rate held at 5.1 percent.

Meanwhile, America’s jobless rate has been hovering around 9 percent and the Federal Reserve found it necessary to print-up another $600 billion for a controversial second round of quantitative easing.  If that $600 billion had been used for the 2009 economic stimulus (and if the stimulus program had been more infrastructure-oriented) we would probably have enjoyed a result closer to that experienced by Australia.  Instead, President Obama chose to follow Japan’s strategy of perpetual bank bailouts (by way of the Fed’s “zero interest rate policy” or ZIRP and multiple rounds of quantitative easing), sending America’s economy into our own “lost decade”.

The only member of the Clinton administration who deserves Obama’s ear is being ignored.  Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, has been repeatedly emphasizing that President Obama is making a huge mistake by attempting to follow the Clinton playbook:

Many of President Obama’s current aides worked for Clinton and vividly recall Clinton’s own midterm shellacking in 1994 and his re-election two years later – and they think the president should follow Clinton’s script. Obama should distance himself from congressional Democrats, embrace deficit reduction and seek guidance from big business.  They assume that because triangulation worked for Clinton, it will work for Obama.

They’re wrong.  Clinton’s shift to the right didn’t win him re-election in 1996. He was re-elected because of the strength of the economic recovery.

By the spring of 1995, the American economy already had bounced back, averaging 200,000 new jobs per month.  By early 1996, it was roaring – creating 434,000 new jobs in February alone.

Obama’s 2011 reality has us losing nearly 400,000 jobs per month.  Nevertheless, there is this misguided belief that the “wealth effect” caused by inflated stock prices and the current asset bubble will somehow make the Clinton strategy relevant.  It won’t.  Instead, President Obama will adopt a strategy of “austerity lite”, which will send America into a second recession dip and alienate voters just in time for the 2012 elections.  Professor Reich recently warned of this:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently stated the Republican view succinctly:  “Less government spending equals more private sector jobs.”

In the past I’ve often wondered whether they’re knaves or fools.  Now I’m sure.  Republicans wouldn’t mind a double-dip recession between now and Election Day 2012.

They figure it’s the one sure way to unseat Obama.  They know that when the economy is heading downward, voters always fire the boss.  Call them knaves.

What about the Democrats?  Most know how fragile the economy is but they’re afraid to say it because the White House wants to paint a more positive picture.

And most of them are afraid of calling for what must be done because it runs so counter to the dominant deficit-cutting theme in our nation’s capital that they fear being marginalized.  So they’re reduced to mumbling “don’t cut so much.”  Call them fools.

If inviting a double-dip recession weren’t dumb enough – how about a second financial crisis?  Just add more systemic risk and presto! The banks won’t have any problems because the Fed and the Treasury will provide another round of bailouts.  Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns recently wrote an essay focused on Treasury Secretary Geithner’s belief that we need big banks to be even bigger.

Even if the Republicans nominate a Presidential candidate who espouses a strategy of simply relying on Jesus to extinguish fires at offshore oil rigs and nuclear reactors – Obama will still lose.  May God help us!


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Not Getting It Done

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August 9, 2010

Are the Democrats trying to lose their majorities in both the Senate and the House in November?  Their two biggest accomplishments, the healthcare “reform” bill and the financial “reform” bill haven’t really impressed the electorate.  According to a Gallup Poll, voter reaction to the passage of the “Affordable Healthcare Act” is 49 percent contending that the bill is a “good thing” as opposed to 46 percent who believe it is a “bad thing”, with 5 percent undecided.  Criticism of the “Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010” has been widespread, as I have previously discussed here, here and here.  The latest critique of the bill came from Professor Thomas F. Cooley, of the Stern School of Business at NYU.  His Forbes article entitled, “The Politics Of Regulatory Reform”, was based on this theme:

The awareness of how close we came to paralyzing the financial system created an opportunity to do something truly significant to make the system safer and more in tune with the needs of our economy.  Sadly, because all things in Washington are political, we fumbled the ball.

Rahm Emanuel’s infamous doctrine, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste” is apparently being disregarded by Rahm Emanuel and company at The White House.  Of course, the entire economic catastrophe has provided the Obama administration with a boatload of crises – most of which have already gone to waste.  For example, consider this fiasco-in-progress:  The “small business” sector plays such an important role in keeping Americans employed, a bill to facilitate lending to small businesses has been sponsored by Senator Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana).  An August 7 report by Sharon Bernstein of the Los Angeles Times provided this update on the status of the measure:

The small business loan assistance ran into trouble in the Senate when members from both parties began attaching amendments to support their favored causes.

The ineffective efforts of Senate Democrats are unfairly souring public opinion on their more unified counterparts in the House.  In attempt to redeem the image of Congressional Dems, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi scheduled a special session of Congress for Tuesday, August 10, (an interruption of their August recess) to pass a $26-billion bill to avert public employee layoffs.

With the passing of time, it has become more obvious that President Obama’s biggest mistake since taking office was his weak leadership in promoting the economic stimulus effort.  Many commentators have expressed the opinion that Christina Romer’s resignation as chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors was based on her frustration with the under-funded stimulus program.

I recently wrote an “I told you so” piece, referencing my July, 2009 prediction that it would eventually become necessary for President Obama to introduce a second stimulus bill because the $787 billion proposal would prove inadequate.  At his blog, liberal economist Paul Krugman similarly reminded readers of his prediction about the consequences for failing to pass an effective stimulus bill:

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.  Mr. 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.

The reality has turned out even worse than Krugman’s prediction because we are now approaching September 2010 – an election year – and the unemployment rate is being understated at 9.5 percent.  The conflation Krugman discussed has manifested itself in the narrative of the Tea Party movement.  In September of 2009, I discussed why Obama should have been listening to Australian economist Steve Keen, who – by that point – was saying basically the same thing:

So giving the stimulus to the debtors is a more potent way of reducing the impact of a credit crunch — the opposite of the advice given to Obama by his neoclassical advisers.

Economist Joseph Stiglitz recently provided us with this update about how the global financial crisis is affecting Australia in August of 2010:

Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister when the crisis struck, put in place one of the best-designed Keynesian stimulus packages of any country in the world.  He realized that it was important to act early, with money that would be spent quickly, but that there was a risk that the crisis would not be over soon.  So the first part of the stimulus was cash grants, followed by investments, which would take longer to put into place.

Rudd’s stimulus worked:  Australia had the shortest and shallowest of recessions of the advanced industrial countries.

Meanwhile, President Obama and the Democrats have decided to utilize a mid-term campaign strategy of assessing all of the blame for our current financial chaos on President George W. Bush.  Criticism of this approach has been voiced by people outside of the Republican camp.  Frank Rich of The New York Times lamented the lack of message control exercised by the Democrats and their ill-advised focus on the Bush era:

But rather than wait for miracles or pray that Bushphobia will save the day, Democrats might instead start playing the hand they’ve been dealt.  Elections, the cliché goes, are about the future, not the past.  At the very least they’re about the present.

At this point in American history, it’s becoming more obvious that the two-party system has served no other purpose than to perpetuate the careers of blundering grafters.  The voting public must accept the reality that the only way it will be honestly and effectively represented in Washington is by independent candidates.  The laws that keep those independents off the ballots must be changed.




Avoiding The Kool-Aid

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November 5, 2009

Ask NOT what your country can do for you  —

But ask what your country can do for its largest banks.

—  “Turbo” Tim

All right  .  . .  “Turbo” Tim Geithner didn’t really say that (yet) but we’ve all seen how his actions affirm that doctrine.  Former federal banking regulator, Professor William Black, recently criticized Geithner for not protecting the taxpayers when Turbo Tim bailed out CIT Group to the tune of 2.4 billion dollars this past summer.  CIT has now filed for bankruptcy.  Henry Blodget of The Business Insider described Professor Black’s outrage over this situation:

The government was in no way obligated to lend the struggling CIT money and, in fact, initially refused to provide it bailout funds.  More importantly, being the lender of last resort, the government should have guaranteed we’d be the first to get paid if CIT eventually filed Chapter 11.  By failing to do so, “it’s like he [Geithner] burned billions of dollars again in government money, our money, gratuitously,” says Black.

After Tuesday’s election defeats for the Democrats in two gubernatorial races, the subject of “bailout fatigue” has been getting more attention.

Acting under the pretext of “transparency” the Obama administration has developed a strategy of holding meetings for people and groups with whom the administration knows it is losing credibility.  Jane Hamsher of FiredogLake.com has written about the Obama team’s efforts to keep the disaffected Left under control by corralling these groups into what Hamsher calls “the veal pen”.  She described one meeting wherein Rahm Emanuel used the expression “f**king stupid” in reference to the critics of those Democrats opposing the public option in proposed healthcare reform legislation.

A different format was followed at what appeared to be a “message control” conference, held on Monday at the Treasury Department.  This time, the guest list was comprised of a politically diverse group of financial bloggers.  One attendee, Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, described the meeting as “curious”:

None of us knew in advance how many attendees there would be; there were eight of us at a two-hour session, Interfluidity, Marginal Revolution, Kid Dynamite’s World, Across the Curve, Financial Armageddon, Accrued Interest, and Aleph (and of course, others may have been invited who had scheduling conflicts).

*   *   *

It wasn’t obvious what the objective of the meeting was (aside the obvious idea that if they were nice to us we might reciprocate.  Unfortunately, some of us are not housebroken).  I will give them credit for having the session be almost entirely a Q&A, not much in the way of presentation.  One official made some remarks about the state of financial institutions; later another said a few things about regulatory reform.  The funniest moment was when, right after the spiel on regulatory reform, Steve Waldman said, “I’ve read your bill and I think it’s terrible.”  They did offer to go over it with him.  It will be interesting to see if that happens.

*   *   *

My bottom line is that the people we met are very cognitively captured, assuming one can take their remarks at face value.  Although they kept stressing all the things that had changed or they were planning to change, the polite pushback from pretty all the attendees was that what Treasury thought of as major progress was insufficient.

*   *   *

Several of us raised questions about whether what their vision for the industry’s structure was and that the objective seemed to be to restore the financial system that got us in trouble in the first place.

Michael Panzner of Financial Armageddon and When Giants Fall adopted Ms. Smith’s description of the event, adding a few observations of his own:

  • . . . it wasn’t clear that there was a “plan B” in place if things do not recover in 2010 as many mainstream analysts expect.  In fact, the suggestion from one official was that the tenure of the current crisis would likely be nearer the shorter end of expectations.
  • There was also a bit of a disconnect between the remarks various Treasury officials have made in public forums and what was said at the meeting.  … Yesterday, however, a number of those present clearly acknowledged that things could (still) go wrong and said such fears kept them awake at night.  While that is not unusual in and of itself, at the very least it adds to doubts I and others have expressed about the true state of the financial system and the economy.
  • Finally, the meeting seemed to confirm the strong grip that Wall Street has on the levers of legislative power.

The most informative rendition of the events at the conclave came from Kid Dynamite, whose two-part narrative began with a look at how Michael Panzner interrupted a Treasury official who was describing the Treasury’s current focus “on reducing the footprint of economic intervention cautiously, quickly and prudently”:

Michael Panzner jumped right in, addressing a concept I’ve written about previously – that of  “extend and pretend,” or “delay and pray” – the concept of attempting to avoid recognizing actual losses and or insolvencies, and growing out of them after enough time.  Panzner called it “fake it ‘till you make it.”  I mentioned that I felt like we were undergoing a “Ponzi scheme of confidence” – but that confidence mattered less than ever in the current environment where, contrary to perhaps the prior 10 years, confidence can no longer be “spent.”

Kid Dynamite’s report contained too many great passages for me to quote here without running on excessively.  Just be sure to read his entire report, including Part II (which should be posted by the time you read this).

David Merkel of The Aleph Blog also submitted a two-part report (so far — with more to come) although Part 2 is more informative.  Here are some highlights:

As all bloggers there will note, those from the Treasury were kind, intelligent, funny … they were real people, unlike the common tendency to demonize those in DC.

*   *   *

To the Treasury I would say, “Markets are inherently unstable, and that is a good thing.”  They often have to adjust to severe changes in the human condition, and governmental attempts to tame markets may result in calm for a time, and a tsunami thereafter.

*   *   *

As for the bank stress-testing, one can look at it two ways: 1) the way I looked at it at the time — short on details, many generalities, not trusting the results.  (Remember, I have done many such analyses myself for insurers.) or, 2) something that gave confidence to the markets when they were in an oversold state.  Duh, but I was dumb — the oversold market rallied when it learned that the Treasury had its back.

John Jansen from Across The Curve included his report on the meeting within his usual morning posting concerning the bond market on November 4.   In a subsequent posting that afternoon, he referred his readers to the Kid Dynamite report.  Here’s what Mr. Jansen did say about the event:

. . .  those officials expressed real concern about the downside risks to the economy (as did blogger Michael Panzner of Financial Armageddon) and since I think that the relationship between the Treasury and the Federal Reserve has morphed into something somewhat incestuous I suspect that the Federal Reserve will not jump off the reservation and take the first baby steps to exiting its easy money policy.

The report at the Accrued Interest blog drew some hostile comments from readers who seemed convinced that Accrued was the only blogger there who actually drank the Kool-Aid being served by the Treasury.  Their reaction was easily understandable after reading this remark (which followed a breach of protocol with the admission that Turbo Tim was there in the flesh):

It was a fascinating experience and I have to admit, it was just plain cool to be within the bowels of power like that.

Huh?  All I can say is:  If you like being in powerful bowels, just take a cruise over to duPont Circle.  Actually — it was at his next statement where he lost me:

I am also on record as saying that Geithner was a good choice for Treasury secretary.

— and then it was all downhill from there.

The administration’s “charm offensive” has moved to the dicey issue of financial reform, where it is drawing criticism from across the political spectrum.  Given the fact that they have all but admitted to a strategy of simply reading The Secret and willing everything to get better by their positive thoughts  — Michael Panzner might as well start writing Financial Armageddon — The Sequel.



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Simon Johnson In The Spotlight

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October 12, 2009

An ever-increasing number of people are paying close attention to a gentleman named Simon Johnson.  Mr. Johnson, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, now works at MIT as Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Sloan School of Management.  His Baseline Scenario website is focused on the financial and economic crises.  At the Washington Post website, he runs a blog with James Kwak called The Hearing.  Last spring, Johnson turned more than a few heads with his article from the May 2009 issue of The Atlantic, “The Quiet Coup”, in which he explained that what happened in America during last year’s financial crisis and what is currently happening with our economic predicament is “shockingly reminiscent” of events experienced during financial crises in emerging market nations (i.e. banana republics and proto-capitalist regimes).

On October 9, Joe Nocera of The New York Times began his column by asking Professor Johnson what he thought the Wall Street banks owed America after receiving trillions of dollars in bailouts.  Johnson’s response turned to Wednesday’s upcoming fight before the House Financial Services Committee concerning the financial reforms proposed by the Obama administration:

“They can’t pay what they owe!” he began angrily.  Then he paused, collected his thoughts and started over:  “Tim Geithner saved them on terms extremely favorable to the banks.  They should support all of his proposed reforms.”

Mr. Johnson continued, “What gets me is that the banks have continued to oppose consumer protection.  How can they be opposed to consumer protection as defined by a man who is the most favorable Treasury Secretary they have had in a generation?  If he has decided that this is what they need, what moral right do they have to oppose it?  It is unconscionable.”

This week’s battle over financial reform has been brewing for quite a while.  Back on May 31, Gretchen Morgenson and Dan Van Natta wrote a piece for The New York Times entitled, “In Crisis, Banks Dig In for Fight Against Rules”:

Hotly contested legislative wars are traditional fare in Washington, of course, and bills are often shaped by the push and pull of lobbyists — representing a cornucopia of special interests — working with politicians and government agencies.

What makes this fight different, say Wall Street critics and legislative leaders, is that financiers are aggressively seeking to fend off regulation of the very products and practices that directly contributed to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  In contrast, after the savings-and-loan debacle of the 1980s, the clout of the financial lobby diminished significantly.

In case you might be looking for a handy scorecard to see which members of Congress are being “lobbied” by the financial industry and to what extent those palms are being greased, The Wall Street Journal was kind enough to provide us with an interactive chart.  Just slide the cursor next to the name of any member of the House Financial Services Committee and you will be able to see how much generosity that member received just during the first quarter of 2009 from an entity to be affected by this legislation.  The bars next to the committee members’ names are color-coded, with different colors used to identify specific sources, whose names are displayed as you pass over that section of the bar.  This thing is a wonderful invention.  I call it “The Graft Graph”.

On October 9, Simon Johnson appeared with Representative Marcy Kaptur (D – Ohio) on the PBS program, Bill Moyers Journal.  At one point during the interview, Professor Johnson expressed grave doubts about our government’s ability to implement financial reform:

And yet, the opportunity for real reform has already passed. And there is not going to be — not only is there not going to be change, but I’ll go further.  I’ll say it’s going to be worse, what comes out of this, in terms of the financial system, its power, and what it can get away with.

*  *   *

BILL MOYERS:  Why have we not had the reform that we all knew was being — was needed and being demanded a year ago?

SIMON JOHNSON:  I think the opportunity — the short term opportunity was missed.  There was an opportunity that the Obama Administration had.  President Obama campaigned on a message of change.  I voted for him.  I supported him.  And I believed in this message.  And I thought that the time for change, for the financial sector, was absolutely upon us.  This was abundantly apparent by the inauguration in January of this year.

SIMON JOHNSON:  And Rahm Emanuel, the President’s Chief of Staff has a saying.  He’s widely known for saying, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’.  Well, the crisis is over, Bill.  The crisis in the financial sector, not for people who own homes, but the crisis for the big banks is substantially over.  And it was completely wasted.  The Administration refused to break the power of the big banks, when they had the opportunity, earlier this year.  And the regulatory reforms they are now pursuing will turn out to be, in my opinion, and I do follow this day to day, you know.  These reforms will turn out to be essentially meaningless.

Sound familiar?  If you change the topic to healthcare reform, you end up with the same bottom line:  “These reforms will turn out to be essentially meaningless.”  The inevitable watering down of both legislative efforts can be blamed on weak, compromised leadership.  It’s one thing to make grand promises on the campaign trail — yet quite another to look a lobbyist in the eye and say:  “Thanks, but no thanks.”  Toward the end of the televised interview, Bill Moyers had this exchange with Representative Kaptur:

BILL MOYERS:   How do we get Congress back?  How do we get Congress to do what it’s supposed to do?  Oversight.  Real reform.  Challenge the powers that be.

MARCY KAPTUR:  We have to take the money out.  We have to get rid of the constant fundraising that happens inside the Congress.  Before political parties used to raise money; now individual members are raising money through the DCCC and the RCCC.  It is absolutely corrupt.

As we all know, our system of legalized graft goes beyond the halls of Congress.  During his Presidential campaign, Barack Obama received nearly $995,000 in contributions from the people at Goldman Sachs.  The gang at 85 Broad Street is obviously getting its money’s worth.



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Obama The Centrist

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January 12, 2009

It was almost one year ago when the conservative National Journal rated Barack Obama as “the most liberal senator in 2007”.  Of course, that was back during the primary season of the 2008 Presidential campaign, when many people believed that the “liberal” moniker should have been enough to sink Obama’s Presidential aspirations.  Now, with the Inaugural just a week away, we are hearing the term “centrist” being used to describe Obama, often with a tone of disappointment.

On Sunday, January 11, David Ignatius wrote an op-ed piece for The Washington Post, entitled:  “Mr. Cool’s Centrist Gamble”.  Mr. Ignatius spelled out how Obama moved toward the political center after his election, beginning with the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, to appointing a Cabinet “which is so centrist it almost resembles a government of national unity”:

Since Election Day, he has taken a series of steps to co-opt his opponents and fashion a new governing majority.  It’s an admirable strategy but also a high-risk one, since the “center,” however attractive it may be in principle, is often a nebulous political never-never land.

Obama’s bet is that at a time of national economic crisis, the country truly wants unity.

The President-elect’s appearance on ABC’s January 11 broadcast of This Week with George Stephanopoulos motivated Glenn Greenwald to write on Salon.com that the interview:

. . .  provides the most compelling — and most alarming — evidence yet that all of the “centrist” and “post-partisan” chatter from Obama’s supporters will mean what it typically means:  devotion, first and foremost, to perpetuating rather than challenging how the Washington establishment functions.

Mr. Greenwald (an attorney with a background in constitutional law and civil rights litigation) began his article by taking issue with the characterization by David Ignatius that Obama’s centrist approach is something “new”.  Greenwald pointed out that for a Democratic President to make a post-election move to the center is nothing new and that Bill Clinton had done the same thing:

The notion that Democrats must spurn their left-wing base and move to the “non-ideological” center is the most conventional of conventional Beltway wisdom (which is why Ignatius, the most conventional of Beltway pundits, is preaching it).  That’s how Democrats earn their Seriousness credentials, and it’s been that way for decades.

Greenwald then focused on a point made by Mr. Obama in response to a question posed by George Stephanopoulos concerning whether the detention facility at Guantanamo will be closed within the first 100 days of the new Presidency.  The President-elect responded that:

It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize and we are going to get it done but part of the challenge that you have is that you have a bunch of folks that have been detained, many of whom who may be very dangerous who have not been put on trial or have not gone through some adjudication.  And some of the evidence against them may be tainted even though it’s true.  And so how to balance creating a process that adheres to rule of law, habeas corpus, basic principles of Anglo American legal system, by doing it in a way that doesn’t result in releasing people who are intent on blowing us up.

The magic words in Obama’s response that caught Glenn Greenwald’s attention were:  “creating a process”.  Why should due process require creation of a new process outside of our court system?  Mr. Greenwald suspects that this “new process” will be one that allows for the admission of evidence (confessions, etc.) obtained by torture.  If what Mr. Obama has in mind is a process that will protect the secrecy of legitimately-classified information, that is one thing.  Nevertheless, I share Mr. Greenwald’s skepticism about the need for an innovative adjudication system for those detained at Guantanamo.

George Stephanopoulos made a point of directing Mr. Obama’s attention to “the most popular question” on the Change.gov website.  It came from Bob Fertik of New York City, who asked:

Will you appoint a special prosecutor ideally Patrick Fitzgerald to independently investigate the greatest crimes of the Bush administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping?

The response given by the President-elect involved a little footwork:

We have not made final decisions, but my instinct is for us to focus on how do we make sure that moving forward we are doing the right thing.

Glenn Greenwald’s analysis of Mr. Obama’s performance on This Week, did not overlook that part of the interview:

Obama didn’t categorically rule out prosecutions — he paid passing lip service to the pretty idea that “nobody is above the law,” implied Eric Holder would have some role in making these decisions, and said “we’re going to be looking at past practices” — but he clearly intended to convey his emphatic view that he opposes “past-looking” investigations.  In the U.S., high political officials aren’t investigated, let alone held accountable, for lawbreaking, and that is rather clearly something Obama has no intention of changing.

Obama’s expressed position on whether to prosecute the crimes of the Bush administration is fairly consistent with what he has been saying all along.  Frank Rich covered this subject in his January 10 New York Times editorial:

The biggest question hovering over all this history, however, concerns the future more than the past.  If we get bogged down in adjudicating every Bush White House wrong, how will we have the energy, time or focus to deal with the all-hands-on-deck crises that this administration’s malfeasance and ineptitude have bequeathed us?  The president-elect himself struck this note last spring.  “If crimes have been committed, they should be investigated,” Barack Obama said.  “I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of Republicans as a partisan witch hunt, because I think we’ve got too many problems we’ve got to solve.”

Henry Waxman, the California congressman who has been our most tireless inquisitor into Bush scandals, essentially agreed when I spoke to him last week.  Though he remains outraged about both the chicanery used to sell the Iraq war and the administration’s overall abuse of power, he adds:  “I don’t see Congress pursuing it. We’ve got to move on to other issues.”  He would rather see any prosecutions augmented by an independent investigation that fills in the historical record.  “We need to depoliticize it,” he says.  “If a Democratic Congress or administration pursues it, it will be seen as partisan.”

Welcome to Barack Obama’s post-partisan world.  The people at the National Journal are probably not the only ones disappointed by Obama’s apparent move to the political center.  It appears as though we will be hearing criticism about the new administration from all directions.  When he disappoints centrists, you can read about it here.