Monday, December 7, 2009

Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan, and the 8 Trillion dollar bubble...

With Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke up for confirmation of his new term, it bears remembering that - although he wasn't known by the public at the time - now-Chairman Bernanke was on both the Fed Board of Governors (under Greenspan) and the US Council of Economic Advisors. As Dean Baker points out (and has repeatedly mentioned in the past), Bernanke thus bears a substantial amount of responsibility for not reigning in the rampant financial and real estate speculation that led to this whole mess in the first place.

In the midst of all the political changes associated with the Obama era, it is important to remember that the current crisis has its roots as far back as Clinton's second term. In fact, if there is one thing I object to about the Obama administration, it is that the current economic policy team has been in the halls of power for well over a decade, and has presided over the persistent deregulation of financial markets worldwide. Bernanke, Summers, Geithner, and Greenspan were largely responsible for many of the causes of the current mess. I previously posted a discussion of the domestic causes of the crisis here.

For a refresher, they were:
(1) Interest rates, since 1980s stagflation, were kept perpetually below 6%, even in boom periods. These low rates helped feed the dot-com boom, speculation in Mexico and Asia (and Russia) in the mid-1990s, and the bubbles preceding the current crisis.
(2) Deregulation of financial markets under Clinton, approved of and argued for by both Larry Summers and Alan Greenspan (and implicitly by Ben Bernanke, given the Fed's position at the time). This is eerily reminiscent of the problems surrounding nearly every major financial crisis since 1990 - including the Savings and Loan Crisis, the Mexican peso crisis, and the Asian Financial crisis.
(3) The persistent maintenance of a strong dollar vis-a-vis, particularly, the Chinese renminbi. This led to a persistent current account deficit, and related capital account surplus, fueling the speculative bubbles. Again, as Dean Baker has pointed out, these imbalances are well within our control (though his proposed solution might be a bit extreme). Incidentally, this is also why the "China will dump US debt" scare is a sham.

The imbalances discussed above are readily recognized by any graduate student in economics or political economy - in fact, some of my undergraduates with minimal economics training have noticed them as well. It is utterly inexcusable that Bernanke, Summers, et al. failed to recognize their importance, and such ignorance can only be explained by either (a) greed or (b) ideological blindness in the face of clear evidence. In the first case, these individuals are corrupt; in the second, they are wholly incompetent.

It is time we said enough is enough.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Chavez rounds up the bankers

Barack Obama could learn a lot from Hugo Chavez - at least in how to deal with the bankers. Maybe if we would follow his example, we could finally break the "Wall Street-Treasury Complex" and prevent the ridiculous lobbying by the financial industry.

BIS targets wrong people....

Apparently the BIS is worried about China's loosening of monetary policy potentially creating systemic risk.

That's all well and good, except for the fact that (a) the economy is still growing rapidly, (b) China's growth is fueled by exports, so an international investment glut is unlikely, to say the least, and most importantly (c) large lenders in China are maintaining Capital Adequacy ratios over 11 per cent.

When the banks collapsed in the Asian crisis of 1997-8, capital adequacy ratios were a mere 2-3%. In fact, standard provisioning under Basel II still runs in the 4% range. So, financial collapse, especially now that the major crisis has stabilized and international regulations are (hopefully) tightening, seems unlikely to say the least - especially in an economy where growth is NOT fueled by speculative bubbles. In short, China's looser monetary policy is far more constrained than the US and EUs policies, and backed by a much more solidly growing economy.

Dear BIS, please stop picking on the developing world, and start paying attention to the speculative financial markets fueling the current crisis - the ones in the US and EU!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Proposed Financial Transactions Tax is...

The single best idea for preventing another financial crisis and ensuring job growth in the middle class.

See the proposal here:

Justifications can be found here (the PDF file is especially useful; other links indicate broad-based support).

Monday, November 30, 2009

Right to Life and Universal Health Care

If you read the headlines on the health care debate, you know that the most recent excuse to oppose a public option is that it might fund abortions. Understandably, this is opposed by most right-to-life advocates. What is ironic is that many right-to-life advocates also oppose universal care on grounds of cost or socialism. After all, the right to life also provides the strongest case for the health care package as a whole!

If you find yourself opposed to universal coverage, especially if you are an advocate of the right to life, ask yourself this: is it any more "moral" for a premature infant to die because her parents don't have insurance and couldn't afford proper postnatal care? What about a four year old boy with leukemia - do worries about US debt levels trump his right to live? Are our capitalist ideals more important than making sure a baby girl with pneumonia continues to breathe?

It is time we realized that we can't have it both ways. Either we support a right to life, in which case we support universal coverage, enforced by a public option - or we don't support a right to life at all.

Monday, June 29, 2009

I'm Sorry, But Iran's Election is Not a Fraud.

Here's some evidence:

See this op-ed from CEPR.

See this survey reported in the Washington Post.

See this expert opinion, and this explanation of why American "Iran experts" are misguided.

None of this means that the protests are unimportant, but it does mean that we should think before uncritically accepting media "experts" reports as the truth.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Potential Progressive Victories...

... which I interpret to mean progress in health care, education, and worker's rights. Here are a few interesting links:

(1) the Healthy Families Act (still in Congress) would require employers of 15 or more workers to provide a minimum 7 days of sick leave to full time employees (30+ hours per week). 

(2) It looks like education loan originators (like Sallie Mae) and the health insurance companies are backpedaling and toning down their demands based on where they think the political winds are blowing. See this link

(3) The Paid Vacation Act (just introduced by Alan Greyson) would mandate a full week of paid vacation for employers of 50 or more workers, and would increase the minimum to two weeks of paid vacation three years after enactment. 

Monday, March 23, 2009

Geithner's plan to save the banks...

In order to help everyone cut through all the nonsense being spouted about financial bailouts and Geithner's plan, here's the basic concept of what the government is trying to do. I've tried to keep in as non-technical as possible, but there is some accounting lingo, because you can't get away from it in banking. I've also provided, below my quick op-ed, the link to the treasury documents and a thorough op-ed by Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Baker is a lefty economist, similar to Stiglitz and Krugman, but this particular article provides very solid analysis of the pitfalls of Geithner's approach.

Essentially, to fix the financial system, the government had three broad options:

(1) Sit back and do basically nothing, while encouraging the Fed to keep interests rates low. Allow "zombie" banks (those in the red) to borrow money from the Fed at 0 or 0.25%, invest that money in stable assets (e.g. 90-day treasury bonds) and use the spread on those bonds to gradually pay the losses on bad loans. This is the worst option for the economy, and similar to what Japan did in the 1990s. Under that approach, it could take a decade for the banks to recover, prologing the recession and keeping credit tight. People would still suffer, but they couldn't easily point a finger at the government, because they wouldn't have an obvious policy with big numbers to blame. Besides, the zombie banks are still being subsidized at the expense of those wanting to save in the economy (because of low interest rates), its just a blanket subsidy that those without economics/finance background won't notice.

(2) Temporarily nationalize the banks, inspect their books, and forcibly divest them of all the toxic assets. This approach would require the government to somehow value the assets - either by using the current market value (currently about 30 cents on the dollar), or some other method. Stiglitz, Baker, Krugman, and other left-of-center economists prefer this approach, and would like the valuation to be close to the reduced market price, to minimize the potential subsidies to the bank. Sweden used this approach in it's banking crisis, and had good success with it.
--- The upside: This approach also functions as a stress test, telling the government which banks are merely illiquid (don't have enough short-term cash to cover their debt) versus those that are insolvent (have more debt than assets, period). Given the government control of the banks, they could leave the illiquid ones alone, after removing the bad assets, but could use the nationalization to break up the insolvent banks - allowing the risky divisions (e.g. those focused on home lending) to go under, while keeping the profitable divisions as seperate companies. This also reduces the problem of banks that are "too big to fail." Also, if it turns out that the market is underpricing assets (possible, in the current panic), and the government pays less than they're worth, later on the road we make a profit (this has happened before, when the US bailed out Mexico in the mid-90s).
--- The downside: This arguably takes much more up-front government money, because they directly purchase the asset - which makes it a hard sell. Also, if the assets lose value, the government takes a loss (though this can happen under Geithner's plan, too). Lastly, the government might be under pressue from the bankers to overvalue the assets when they buy them - particularly because the public has no idea what they're worth.

(3) Some form of hybrid public-private approach, where the government entices private investors to purchase the bad assets, to remove them from the bank's balance sheets. Essentially, under Geithner's plan, the government creates a restricted market for these assets, by guarenteeing a loan to private investors. So, an investor will put 15% down, borrow the remaining 85% from the government at a low rate, and buy the asset. Also, the investor wouldn't have to pay back the government for the loan, if the asset went bad - so the only loss they would take is their initial investment of 15% of the asset price.
--- The upside: This approach takes less money down. Also, it harnesses the market to do the pricing for the government, requiring less staff time and (again, arguably) potential for screw-up by the government officials. It also (arguably) minimizes the potential losses on the part of the government, because they are simply providing a loan.
--- The downside: The biggest problem is that this "market" is distorted, because the government is subsidizing the purchase of the assets. Investors will be more willing to take risks, overpricing the assets of the banks, and leaving the government to pick up the tab. The higher price asset means that the government may end up spending as much or more money than it would in a simple nationalization plan. Also, the government is not as likely to make money on this plan, because they are loaning investors money at a low fixed rate, in order to buy mortgages that are likely to default. That low rate is likely much less than the potential value of the bad asset if it eventually pays off. After all, why take out a loan if you (the investor) won't profit on the deal? Lastly, the government doesn't have control over the individual banks, however temporarily, so we are likely to be left with the current "megabanks" who - in the event of another bubble - will put us through all of this again.

Hopefully that wasn't too confusing. In any case...

Here are the actual documents distributed by Treasury:

Here is an interesting op-ed analyzing the potential downfalls of this approach:

Friday, March 20, 2009

Spitzer as Columnist

Just a quick one here - Eliot Spitzer is apparently an excellent columnist, despite his personal problems. For some excellent commentary on the current economic crisis, problems facing governors, AIG, and the stimulus package, see the link below.