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© 2008 – 2018 John T. Burke, Jr.

Looking Beyond The Smokescreen

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We bloggers have the mainstream news outlets to thank for our readership.  The inane, single-minded focus on a particular story, simply because it brings a huge audience to one’s competitors, regularly provides the driving force behind programming decisions made by those news producers.  As a result, America’s more discerning, critical thinkers have turned to internet-based news sources (and blogs) to familiarize themselves with the more important stories of these turbulent times.

Robert Oak, at The Economic Populist website, recently expressed his outrage concerning the fact that a certain over-publicized murder trial has eclipsed coverage of more important matters:

For over a week we’ve heard nothing else by the press but Casey Anthony.  Imagine what would happen if Nancy Grace used her never ending tape loop rants of hatred against tot mom to spew and prattle about the U.S. economy? Instead of some bizarre post traumatic public stress disorder, stuck in a rut, obsessive thought mantra, repeating ad nauseum, she’s guilty, we might hear our politicians are selling this nation down the river.

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Folks, don’t you think the economy is just a little more important and actually impacts your lives than one crime and trial?  The reality is any story which really impacts the daily lives of working America is not covered or spun to fiction.

The fact that “our politicians are selling this nation down the river” has not been overlooked by Brett Arends at MarketWatch.  He recently wrote a great essay entitled, “The Next, Worse Financial Crisis”, wherein he discussed ten reasons “why we are doomed to repeat 2008”.  Of the ten reasons, my favorite was number 7, “The ancient regime is in the saddle”:

I have to laugh whenever I hear Republicans ranting that Barack Obama is a “liberal” or a “socialist” or a communist.  Are you kidding me?  Obama is Bush 44.  He’s a bit more like the old man than the younger one.  But look at who’s still running the economy: Bernanke. Geithner. Summers. Goldman Sachs. J.P. Morgan Chase. We’ve had the same establishment in charge since at least 1987, when Paul Volcker stood down as Fed chairman.  Change?  What “change”?  (And even the little we had was too much for Wall Street, which bought itself a new, more compliant Congress in 2010.)

As the 2012 campaign season begins, one need not look too far to find criticism of President Obama. Nevertheless, as Brett Arends explained, most of that criticism is a re-hash of the same, tired talking points we have been hearing since Obama took office.  We are only now beginning to hear a broader chorus of pushback from commentators who see Obama as the President I have often described as the “Dissapointer-In-Chief”.  Marshall Auerback wasn’t so restrained in his recent appraisal of Obama’s maladroit response to our economic crisis, choosing instead to ratify a well-deserved putdown, which most commentators felt obligated to denounce:

It may not have been the most felicitous choice of phrase, but Mark Halperin’s characterization of Barack Obama was not far off the mark, even if he did get suspended for it.  The President is a dick, at least as far as his understanding of basic economics goes.  Obama’s perverse fixation with deficit reduction uber alles takes him to areas where even George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan dared not to venture.  Medicare and Social Security are now on the table.  In fact entitlements of all kinds (excluding the myriad of subsidies still present to Wall Street) are all deemed fair game.

To what end?  Deficit control and deficit reduction, despite the fact that at present, the US has massive excess capacity including millions of unemployed and underemployed, a negative contribution from net exports, and a stagnant private spending growth horizon.  Yet the President marches on, oblivious to the harm his policies would introduce to an already bleeding economy, using the tired analogy between a household and a sovereign government to support his tired arguments.  It may have been impolitic, but “dick” is what immediately sprang to mind as one listened incredulously to the President’s press conference, which went from the sublime to the ridiculous.

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Let’s state it again:  households do not have the power to levy taxes, to issue the currency we use, and to demand that those taxes are paid in the currency it issues.  Rather, households are users of the currency issued by the sovereign government.  Here the same distinction applies to private businesses, which are also users of the currency.  There’s a big difference, as all us on this blog have repeatedly stressed:  Users of a currency do face an external constraint in a way that a sovereign issuer of its currency does not.

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The President has the causation here totally backward.  A growing economy, characterized by rising employment, rising incomes and rising capacity utilization causes the deficit to shrink, not the other way around.  Rising prosperity means rising tax revenues and reduced social welfare payments, whereas there is an overwhelming body of evidence to support the opposite – cutting budget deficits when there is slack private spending growth and external deficits will erode growth and destroy net jobs.

The increasing, widespread awareness of Obama’s mishandling of the economic crisis has resulted in a great cover story for New York Magazine by Frank Rich, entitled, “Obama’s Original Sin”.  While discussing Rich’s article, Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism lamented the fact that Obama is – again – the beneficiary of undeserved restraint:

Even Rich’s solid piece treats Obama more kindly that he should be.  He depicts the President as too easily won over by “the best and the brightest” in the guise of folks like Robert Rubin and his protégé Timothy Geithner.

We think this characterization is far too charitable.  Obama had a window in time in which he could have acted, decisively, to rein the financial services in, and he and his aides chose to let it pass and throw their lot in with the banksters.  That fatal decision has severely constrained their freedom of action, as we explain .  .  .

Miscreants such as Casey Anthony serve as convenient decoys for public anger.  Hopefully, by Election Day, the voters will realize that Casey Anthony isn’t to blame for the pathetic state of America’s economy and they will vote accordingly.


 

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Grasping Reality With The Opinions Of Others

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In the course of attempting to explain or criticize complex economic and financial issues, it usually becomes necessary to quote from the experts – often at length – to provide an understandable commentary.  Nevertheless, it was with great pleasure that I read about a dust-up involving Megan McArdle’s use of a published interview conducted by Bruce Bigelow of Xconomy, without attribution.  The incident was recently discussed by Brad DeLong.  (If you are a regular reader of Professor DeLong’s blog, you might recognize the title of this posting as a variant on the name of his website.)  Before I move on, it will be necessary to expand this moment of schadenfreude, due to the ironic timing of the controversy.  On March 7, Time published a list of “The 25 Best Financial Blogs”, with McArdle’s blog as number 15.  Aside from the fact that many worthy bloggers were overlooked by Time (including Mish and Simon Johnson) the list drew plenty of criticism for its inclusion of McArdle’s blog.  Here are just some of the comments to that effect, which appeared on the Naked Capitalism website:

duffolonious says:

Megan McArdle?  Seriously?  I’ve seen so many people rip her to shreds that I’ve completely ignored her.

Is she another example of nepotism?  Like Bill Kristol.

Procopius says:

Basically yes, although not quite as blatant.  Her old man was an inspector of contracting in New York City.  He got surprisingly rich.  From that he went to starting his own contracting business.  He got surprisingly rich.  Then he went back to New York City in an even higher level supervisory job.  He got surprisingly rich.  So Megan went to good schools and had her daddy’s network of influential “friends” to help her with her “job search” when she graduated.  Of course, she’s no dummy, and did a professional job of networking with all the “right” people she met at school, too.

For my part, in order to discuss the proposed settlement resulting from the investigation of the five largest banks and mortgage servicers conducted by state attorneys general and federal officials (including the Justice Department, the Treasury and the newly-formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) I will rely on the commentary from some of my favorite financial bloggers.  The investigating officials submitted this 27-page proposal as the starting point for what is expected to be a weeks-long negotiation process, possibly resulting in some loan modifications as well as remedies for those who faced foreclosures expedited by the use of “robo-signers” and other questionable practices.

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism criticized the settlement proposal as “Bailout as Reward for Institutionalized Fraud”:

The argument defenders of the deal make are twofold:  this really is a good deal (hello?) and it’s as far as the Obama Administration is willing to push the banks, so we have to put a lot of lipstick on this pig and resign ourselves to political necessities.  And the reason the Obama camp is trying to declare victory and go home is that it is afraid that any serious effort to deal with the mortgage mess will reveal the insolvency of the banks.

Team Obama had put on a full court press since March 2009 to present the banks as fundamentally sound, and to the extent they needed more dough, the stress tests and resulting capital raising took care of any remaining problems.  Timothy Geithner was even doing victory laps last month in Europe.  To reverse course now and expose the fact that writedowns on second mortgages held by the four biggest banks and plus the true cost of legal liabilities from the mortgage crisis (putbacks, servicer fraud, chain of title issues) would blow a big hole in the banks’ balance sheets and fatally undermine whatever credibility the officialdom still has.

But the fallacy of their thinking is that addressing and cleaning up this rot would lead to a financial crisis, therefore anything other than cosmetics and making life inconvenient for the banks around the margin is to be avoided at all costs.  But these losses exist already.  The fallacy lies in the authorities’ delusion that they are avoiding creating losses, when we are in fact talking about who should bear costs that already exist.

The perspective taken by Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns focused on the extent to which we can find the fingerprints of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on the settlement proposal.  Ed Harrison emphasized the significance of Geithner’s final remarks from an interview conducted last year by Daniel Gross for Slate:

The test is whether you have people willing to do the things that are deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand, knowing that they’re necessary to do and better than the alternatives.

From there, Ed Harrison illustrated how Geithner’s roadmap has been based on the willingness to follow that logic:

More than ever, Tim Geithner runs the show for economic policy. He is the last man standing of the Old Obama team.  Volcker, Summers, Orszag, and Romer are all gone.  So Geithner’s vision of bailouts and settlements is the one that carries the most weight.

What is Geithner saying with his policies?

  • The financial system was on the verge of collapse.  We all know that now – about US banks and European ones too.  Fed Chair Ben Bernanke has said so as has Bank of England head Mervyn King.  The WikiLeaks cables affirmed systemic insolvency as the real issue most demonstrably.
  • When presented with a choice of Japan or Sweden as the model for crisis resolution, the US felt the Japan banking crisis response was the best historical precedent.  It is still unclear whether this was a political or an economic decision.
  • The most difficult political aspect of the banking crisis response was socialising bank lossesAll banking crisis bailouts involve some form of loss socialisation and this is a policy which citizens find abhorrent.  That’s what Geithner meant most directly about ‘deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand’.
  • Using pro-inflationary monetary policy and fiscal stimulus, the U.S. can put this crisis in the rear view mirror.  Low interest rates and a steep yield curve combined with bailouts, stress tests, dividend reductions and private capital will allow time to heal all wounds.  That is the Geithner view.
  • Once the system is healthy again, it should expand.  The reason you need to bail the banks out is that they have expansion opportunities abroad.  As emerging markets develop more sophisticated financial markets, the Treasury secretary believes American banks are well positioned to profit.  American finance can’t profit if you break up the banks.

I would argue that Tim Geithner believes we are almost at that final stage where the banks are now healthy enough to get bigger and take share in emerging markets.  His view is that a more robust regulatory environment will keep things in check and prevent another financial crisis.

I hope this helps to explain why the Obama Administration is keen to get this $20 billion mortgage settlement done.  The prevailing view in the Administration is that the U.S. is in a fragile but sustainable recovery.  With emerging markets leading the economic recovery and U.S. banks on sounder footing, now is the time to resume the expansion of U.S. financial services.  I should also add that given the balance sheet recession in the U.S., the only way banks can expand is via an expansion abroad.

I strongly disagree with this vision of America’s future economic development.  But this is the road we are on.

Will those of us who refuse to believe in Tinkerbelle face the blame for the next financial crisis?


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