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We Took The Wrong Turn

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October 7, 2010

The ugly truth has raised its head once again.  We did it wrong and Australia did it right.  It was just over a year ago – on September 21, 2009 – when I wrote a piece entitled, “The Broken Promise”.  I concluded that posting with this statement:

If only Mr. Obama had stuck with his campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”, we wouldn’t have so many people wishing they lived in Australia.

I focused that piece on 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 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.

With the passing of time, it has become painfully obvious that President Obama took the country down the wrong path.  The Australian professor (Steve Keen) was right and Team Obama was wrong.  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.

Fast-forward to 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 Jobs 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 — back in the States — on October 6, ADP released its National Employment Report for September, 2010.  It should come as no surprise that our fate is 180 degrees away from that of Australia:  Private sector employment in the U.S. decreased by 39,000 from August to September on a seasonally adjusted basis, according to the ADP report.   Beyond that, October 6 brought us a gloomy forecast from Jan Hatzius, chief U.S. economist for the ever-popular Goldman Sachs Group.  Wes Goodman of Bloomberg News quoted Hatzius as predicting that the United States’ economy will be “fairly bad” or “very bad” over the next six to nine months:

“We see two main scenarios,” analysts led by Jan Hatzius, the New York-based chief U.S. economist at the company, wrote in an e-mail to clients.  “A fairly bad one in which the economy grows at a 1 1/2 percent to 2 percent rate through the middle of next year and the unemployment rate rises moderately to 10 percent, and a very bad one in which the economy returns to an outright recession.”

Aren’t we lucky!  How wise of President Obama to rely on Larry Summers to the exclusion of most other economists!

Charles Ferguson, director of the new documentary film, Inside Job, recently offered this analysis of the milieu that facilitated the opportunity for Larry Summers to inflict his painful legacy upon us:

Then, after the 2008 financial crisis and its consequent recession, Summers was placed in charge of coordinating U.S. economic policy, deftly marginalizing others who challenged him.  Under the stewardship of Summers, Geithner, and Bernanke, the Obama administration adopted policies as favorable toward the financial sector as those of the Clinton and Bush administrations — quite a feat.  Never once has Summers publicly apologized or admitted any responsibility for causing the crisis.  And now Harvard is welcoming him back.

Summers is unique but not alone.  By now we are all familiar with the role of lobbying and campaign contributions, and with the revolving door between industry and government.  What few Americans realize is that the revolving door is now a three-way intersection.  Summers’ career is the result of an extraordinary and underappreciated scandal in American society:  the convergence of academic economics, Wall Street, and political power.

*     *     *

Now, however, as the national recovery is faltering, Summers is being eased out while Harvard is welcoming him back.  How will the academic world receive him?  The simple answer:  Better than he deserves.

Australia is looking better than ever  —  especially when you consider that their spring season is just beginning right now     .   .   .




Voters Got Fooled Again

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September 13, 2010

With mid-term elections approaching, the articles are turning up all over the place.  Newsweek’s Howard Fineman calls them pre-mortems:  advance analyses of why the Democrats will lose power in November.  Some of us saw the handwriting on the wall quite a while ago.  Before President Obama had completed his first year in office, it was becoming clear that his campaign theme of “hope” and “change” was just a ruse to con the electorate.   On September 21, 2009, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Broken Promise”, based on this theme:

Back on July 15, 2008 and throughout the Presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised the voters that if he were elected, there would be “no more trickle-down economics”.  Nevertheless, his administration’s continuing bailouts of the banking sector have become the worst examples of trickle-down economics in American history — not just because of their massive size and scope, but because they will probably fail to achieve their intended result.  Although the Treasury Department is starting to “come clean” to Congressional Oversight chair Elizabeth Warren, we can’t even be sure about the amount of money infused into the financial sector by one means or another because of the lack of transparency and accountability at the Federal Reserve.

In November of 2009, Matt Taibbi wrote an article for Rolling Stone entitled,“Obama’s Big Sellout”.  Taibbi’s essay inspired Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns to write his own critique of Obama’s first eleven months in office.  Beyond that, Mr. Harrison’s assessment of the fate of proposed financial reform legislation turned out to be prescient.  Remember – Ed Harrison wrote this on December 11, 2009:

As you probably know, I have been quite disappointed with this Administration’s leadership on financial reform.  While I think they ‘get it,’ it is plain they lack either the courage or conviction to put forward a set of ideas that gets at the heart of what caused this crisis.

It was clear to many by this time last year that the President may not have been serious about reform when he picked Tim Geithner and Larry Summers as the leaders of his economic team.  As smart and qualified as these two are, they are rightfully seen as allied with Wall Street and the anti-regulatory movement.

At a minimum, the picks of Geithner and Summers were a signal to Wall Street that the Obama Administration would be friendly to their interests.  It is sort of like Ronald Reagan going to Philadelphia, Mississippi as a first stop in the 1980 election campaign to let southerners know that he was friendly to their interests.

I reserved judgment because one has to judge based on actions.  But last November I did ask Is Obama really “Change we can believe in?” because his Administration was being stacked with Washington insiders and agents of the status quo.

Since that time it is obvious that two things have occurred as a result of this ‘Washington insider’ bias.  First, there has been no real reform.  Insiders are likely to defend the status quo for the simple reason that they and those with whom they associate are the ones who represent the status quo in the first place.  What happens when a company is nationalized or declared bankrupt is instructive; here, new management must be installed to prevent the old management from covering up past mistakes or perpetuating errors that led to the firm’s demise.  The same is true in government.

That no ‘real’ reform was coming was obvious, even by June when I wrote a brief note on the fake reform agenda.  It is even more obvious with the passage of time and the lack of any substantive reform in health care.

Second, Obama’s stacking his administration with insiders has been very detrimental to his party.  I imagine he did this as a way to overcome any worries about his own inexperience and to break with what was seen as a major factor in Bill Clinton’s initial failings.  While I am an independent, I still have enough political antennae to know that taking established politicians out of incumbent positions (Joe Biden, Janet Napolitano, Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, Kathleen Sebelius or Tim Kaine) jeopardizes their seat.  So, the strategy of stacking his administration has not only created a status quo bias, but it has also weakened his party.

Mr. Harrison’s point about those incumbencies is now being echoed by many commentators – most frequently to point out that Janet Napolitano was replaced as Governor of Arizona by Jan Brewer.  Brewer is expected to win in November despite her inability to debate or form a coherent sentence before a live audience.

Bob Herbert of The New York Times recently wrote a great piece, in which he blasted the Democrats for failing to “respond adequately to their constituents’ most dire needs”:

The Democrats are in deep, deep trouble because they have not effectively addressed the overwhelming concern of working men and women:  an economy that is too weak to provide the jobs they need to support themselves and their families.  And that failure is rooted in the Democrats’ continued fascination with the self-serving conservative belief that the way to help ordinary people is to shower money on the rich and wait for the blessings to trickle down to the great unwashed below.

It was a bogus concept when George H.W. Bush denounced it as “voodoo economics” in 1980, and it remains bogus today, no matter how hard the Democrats try to dress it up in a donkey costume.

I was surprised to see that Howard Fineman focused his campaign pre-mortem on President Obama himself, rather than critiquing the Democratic Party as a whole.  At a time when mainstream media pundits are frequently criticized for going soft on those in power in order to retain “access”, it was refreshing to see Fineman point out some of Obama’s leadership flaws:

The president is an agreeable guy, but aloof, and not one who likes to come face to face with the enemy. Sure, GOP leaders were laying traps for him from the start.  And it was foolish to assume Mitch McConnell or John Boehner would play ball.  But Obama doesn’t really know Republicans, and he doesn’t seem to want to take their measure.  (Nor has he seemed all that curious about what makes Democratic insiders tick.)  It’s the task of the presidency to cajole people, including your enemies, into doing what they don’t want to do if it is good for the country.  Did Obama think he could eschew the rituals of politics — that all he had to do was invoke His Hopeness to bring people aboard?

Well, people aren’t on board and that’s the problem.  The voters were taken for chumps and they were fooled by some good campaign propaganda.  Nevertheless, as President George W. Bush once said:

Fool me once – shame on – shame on you.  Fool me – You can’t get fooled again!

At this point, it does not appear as though the voters who supported President Obama and company in 2008 are willing to let themselves get fooled again.  At least the Republicans admit that their primary mission is to make life easier for rich people at everyone else’s expense.  The fact that the voters hate being lied to – more than anything else – may be the one lesson the Democrats learn from this election cycle.




The Broken Promise

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September 21, 2009

We expect those politicians aiming for re-election, to make a point of keeping their campaign promises.  Many elected officials break those promises and manage to win another term anyway.  That fact might explain the reasoning used by so many pols who decide to go the latter route  —  they believe they can get away with it.  Nevertheless, many leaders who break their campaign promises often face crushing defeat on the next Election Day.  A good example of this situation arose during the Presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush, who assured America:  “Read my lips:  No new taxes!” in his acceptance speech (written by Peggy Noonan) at the 1988 Republican National Convention.  Although he didn’t enact any new taxes during his sole term in office, he also promised the voters that he would not raise existing taxes after telling everyone to read his lips.  When he broke that promise after becoming President, he was confronted with the “read my lips” quote by everyone from Pat Buchanan to Bill Clinton.

Back on July 15, 2008 and throughout the Presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised the voters that if he were elected, there would be “no more trickle-down economics”.  Nevertheless, his administration’s continuing bailouts of the banking sector have become the worst examples of trickle-down economics in American history — not just because of their massive size and scope, but because they will probably fail to achieve their intended result.  Although the Treasury Department is starting to “come clean” to Congressional Oversight chair Elizabeth Warren, we can’t even be sure about the amount of money infused into the financial sector by one means or another because of the lack of transparency and accountability at the Federal Reserve.  (I seem to remember the word “transparency” being used by Candidate Obama.)  Although we are all well-aware of the $750 billion TARP slush fund that benefited the banks to some degree, speculation as to the amount given (or “loaned”) to the banks by the Federal Reserve runs from $2 trillion to as high as $6 trillion.  So far, the Fed has managed to thwart efforts by some news organizations to learn the ugly truth.  As Pat Choate reported for The Huffington Post:

Bloomberg News filed a federal lawsuit in November 2008 in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan) challenging that stonewalling and won the case.  Chief U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska on August 24 ruled that the Fed had “improperly withheld agency records” giving it a week to disclose daily reports on its loans to banks and other financial institutions.

Three days later, Federal Reserve lawyers asked the courts for a delay so that they could make an expedited appeal of her decision.  Several major banks, operating through an organization named “The Clearing House,” filed a supporting brief with the appeals court, claiming that the Federal Reserve had provided its members emergency funds under an agreement not to identify the recipients or the loan terms.

The Clearing House brief described its members as, “[T]he most important participants in the international banking and payments systems and among the world’s largest intermediaries in interbank funds transfers.”  They include ABN Amro Bank, N.V. (Dutch), Bank of America, The Bank of New York Mellon, Citibank, Deutsche Bank Trust (Germany), JP MorganChase Bank, UBS (Switzerland), and Wells Fargo.

*   *   *

Why are the Fed and the banks fighting so hard to keep the loan details secret?  Congress and taxpayers cannot know until they have the information the Federal Reserve is keeping from them, but several plausible explanations exist.

One is that the Fed has taken a great deal of worthless collateral and is propping up failed companies and banks.  A second is that the information will make the issue of paying out huge Wall Street bonuses in 2009 politically radioactive, particularly if it turns out the payments are dependent on these federal loans.

Finally, the Federal Reserve probably does not want that information to be part of the forthcoming Senate hearings on the re-confirmation of Ben Bernanke, current Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

President Obama’s failure to keep his campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics” is rooted in his decision to rely on the very same individuals who caused the financial crisis — to somehow cure the nation’s economic ills.  These people (Larry Summers, “Turbo” Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke) have convinced Mr. Obama that “trickle-down economics” (i.e. bailing out the banks, rather than distressed businesses or the taxpayers themselves) would be the best solution.

On Saturday, Australian economist Steve Keen published a fantastic report from his website, explaining how the “money multiplier” myth, fed to Obama by the very people who caused the crisis, was the wrong paradigm to be starting from in attempting to save the economy.  Here’s some of what Professor Keen had to say:

While economic outsiders like myself, Michael Hudson, Niall Ferguson and Nassim Taleb argue that the only way to restart the economic engine is to clear it of debt, the government response, has been to attempt to replace the now defunct private debt economic turbocharger with a public one.

In the immediate term, the stupendous size of the stimulus has worked, so that debt in total is still boosting aggregate demand.  But what will happen when the government stops turbocharging the economy, and waits anxiously for the private system to once again splutter into life?

I am afraid that all it will do is splutter.

This is especially so since, following the advice of neoclassical economists, Obama has got not a bang but a whimper out of the many bucks he has thrown at the financial system.

In explaining his recovery program in April, PresidentObama noted that:

“there are a lot of Americans who understandably think that government money would be better spent going directly to families and businesses instead of banks – ‘where’s our bailout?,’ they ask”.

He justified giving the money to the lenders, rather than to the debtors, on the basis of  “the multiplier effect” from bank lending:

the truth is that a dollar of capital in a bank can actually result in eight or ten dollars of loans to families and businesses, a multiplier effect that can ultimately lead to a faster pace of economic growth. (page 3 of the speech)

This argument comes straight out of the neoclassical economics textbook.  Fortunately, due to the clear manner in which Obama enunciates it, the flaw in this textbook argument is vividly apparent in his speech.

This “multiplier effect” will only work if American families and businesses are willing to take on yet more debt:  “a dollar of capital in a bank can actually result in eight or ten dollars of loans”.

So the only way the roughly US$1 trillion of money that the Federal Reserve has injected into the banks will result in additional spending is if American families and businesses take out another US$8-10 trillion in loans.

*   *   *

If the money multiplier was going to “ride to the rescue”, private debt would need to rise from its current level of US$41.5 trillion to about US$50 trillion, and this ratio would rise to about 375% — more than twice the level that ushered in the Great Depression.

This is a rescue?  It’s a “hair of the dog” cure:  having booze for breakfast to overcome the feelings of a hangover from last night’s binge.  It is the road to debt alcoholism, not the road to teetotalism and recovery.

Fortunately, it’s a “cure” that is also highly unlikely to work, because the model of money creation that Obama’s economic advisers have sold him was shown to be empirically false over three decades ago.

*    *    *

I’ve recently developed a genuinely monetary, credit-driven model of the economy, and one of its first insights is that Obama has been sold a pup on the right way to stimulate the economy:  he would have got far more bang for his buck by giving the stimulus to the debtors rather than the creditors.

*    *    *

The model shows that you get far more “bang for your buck” by giving the money to firms, rather than banks.  Unemployment falls in both case below the level that would have applied in the absence of the stimulus, but the reduction in unemployment is far greater when the firms get the stimulus, not the banks: unemployment peaks at over 18 percent without the stimulus, just over 13 percent with the stimulus going to the banks, but under11 percent with the stimulus being given to the firms.

*    *    *

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.

This could also be one reason that the Australian experience has been better than the USA’s:  the stimulus in Australia has emphasized funding the public rather than the banks (and the model shows the same impact from giving money to the workers as from giving it to the firms — and for the same reason, that workers have to spend, so that the money injected into the economy circulates more rapidly.

*    *    *

Obama has been sold a pup by neoclassical economics:  not only did neoclassical theory help cause the crisis, by championing the growth of private debt and the asset bubbles it financed; it also is undermining efforts to reduce the severity of the crisis.

This is unfortunately the good news:  the bad news is that this model only considers an economy undergoing a “credit crunch”, and not also one suffering from a serious debt overhang that only a direct reduction in debt can tackle.  That is our actual problem, and while a stimulus will work for awhile, the drag from debt-deleveraging is still present.  The economy will therefore lapse back into recession soon after the stimulus is removed.

You can be sure that if we head into a “double-dip” recession as Professor Keen expects, the President will never hear the end of it.  If only Mr. Obama had stuck with his campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”, we wouldn’t have so many people wishing they lived in Australia.



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