Sunday, June 30, 2013

"The Always Wrong Club"

Paul Krugman, via Floyd Norris, rounds up the usual suspects:
Aha. Floyd Norris reminds us of the 23-economist letter from 2010, warning of
dire consequences — “currency debasement and inflation” — from quantitative easing. The signatories are kind of a who’s who of wrongness, ranging from Niall Ferguson to Amity Shlaes to John Taylor. And they were wrong again.

But that won’t diminish their reputations on the right, even a bit. How do I know that? Well, also on the list — presumably because they asked him to be there — is Kevin Hassett, co-author of Dow 36,000 and also a prominent denier of the existence of a housing bubble. Fool me once, fool me twice, fool me yet again — hey, never mind.

Quite amazing.

"What to Do with the Hypertrophied Financial Sector?"

hy·per·tro·phy  (hi-pûr-tro-fe)
n. pl. hy·per·tro·phies
A nontumorous enlargement of an organ or a tissue as a result of an increase in the size rather than the number of constituent cells.
intr. & tr.v. hy·per·tro·phied
To grow or cause to grow abnormally large.
Back in 2011, I wrote:
In 1950, finance and insurance in the United States accounted for
2.8% of GDP…. Today, it is 8.4% of GDP…. If the US were getting good value from the extra 5.6% of GDP that it is now spending on finance and insurance--the extra $750 billion diverted annually from paying people who make directly useful goods and provide directly useful services--it would be obvious in the statistics… diverting that large a share of resources away from goods and services directly useful this year is a good bargain only if it collectively has a substantial amount of what financiers call "alpha", only if it boosts overall annual economic growth by 0.3%--or 6% per 25-year generation….
Why has the devotion of a great deal of skill and enterprise to finance and insurance sector not paid obvious economic dividends? There are two sustainable ways to make money in finance: find people with risks that need to be carried and match them with people with unused risk-bearing capacity, or find people with such risks and match them with people who are clueless but who have money…
Over the past year and a half, in the wake of Thomas Philippon and Ariel Resheff's estimate that 2% of U.S. GDP was wasted in the pointless hypertrophy of the financial sector, evidence that our modern financial system is less a device for efficiently sharing risk and more a device for separating rich people from their money--a Las Vegas without the glitz--has mounted. Bruce Bartlett points to Greenwood and Scharfstein, to Cechetti and Kharoubi's suggestion that financial deepening is only useful in early stages of economic development, to Orhangazi's evidence on a negative correlation between financial deepening and real investment, and to Lord Adair Turner's doubts that the flowering of sophisticated finance over the past generation has aided either growth or stability.

Inflation is too damned low!

We constantly hear noise about the inflation bugaboo. Not because we're experiencing inflation, but because it's a convenient scare word in certain circles wedded to the economics of austerity. But, of course, inflation is the least of our problems - in fact, if anything "inflation is too damned low!"

Binyan Applebaum @ The New York Times' Economix shows that "Yes, We Have No Inflation":

      Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis 
Inflation remained sluggish in May. Prices continued to rise at the slowest pace in at least half a century, up just 1.1 percent over the previous year, the Bureau of Economic Analysis said Thursday. While some other measures of inflation are rising a little more quickly, the Federal Reserve regards this one as most accurate.
Slow inflation may sound like a good thing, but it’s not. Particularly not now.
Economic research suggests that inflation is best in moderation. Price increases lead to wage increases, which makes it easier to repay existing debts, like mortgages, and more attractive to incur new debts, like borrowing to start a company.
Inflation also functions as a kind of economic WD-40, easing shifts in the allocation of resources.  It is easier for struggling companies and industries to adjust by withholding cost-of-living increases than by seeking to impose wage cuts.
Perhaps most importantly, moderate inflation keeps the economy at a safe distance from deflation, or general price declines, which can freeze activity as would-be buyers wait for lower prices. Such a buffer would be particularly valuable now because the Fed is already stretching the limits of its ability to stimulate the economy, leaving the United States unusually vulnerable to any new shocks...

Saturday, June 22, 2013

"How Austerity Has Failed"

Martin Wolf @ New York Review of Books focuses on Europe's massive policy failure:
Austerity has failed. It turned a nascent recovery into stagnation. That imposes huge and unnecessary costs, not just in the short run, but also in the long term: the costs of investments unmade, of businesses not started, of skills atrophied, and of hopes destroyed.
What is being done here in the UK and also in much of the eurozone is worse than a crime, it is a blunder. If policymakers listened to the arguments put forward by our opponents, the picture, already dark, would become still darker.

How Austerity Aborted Recovery

Is Ben Bernanke abandoning the real economy?

 Economist Jared Bernstein worries about the Fed Chairman:
OK, clearly the markets aren’t listening to me—not exactly a surprise.  But they’re not
listening to Ben either, who’s been saying that the economy’s getting a bit better, so interest rates are going up.  And at some point, sooner than later, he and his buds are going to start adding a bit less juice to the punch bowl.  Surely, markets, (he’s saying) you didn’t think this easy money party was going to last forever?  After all, central banks in healthy economies don’t have $3.4 trillion balance sheets and hold rates at zero.

Here’s a little sample of what’s on the wires re markets and Ben right now—if they were going out, they’d need couples’ therapy (“Markets, I think Ben is trying to tell you something…can you tell Ben why you’re having trouble hearing him?”).

Bernanke and Markets, Crazed and Confused

Bernanke Speaks, and Markets Tumble

Bernanke Sneezes, Global Markets Catch a Cold

So I don’t really know what to make of the markets and I suspect they’re just going to be volatile for a while.  Like I said yesterday, it’s the real economy I’m worried about, and I used to have a friend in Ben when it came to that.  Now, I’m not so sure.

Friday, June 21, 2013

OMFG - Niall Ferguson opens his mouth again!

Niall Ferguson, that stain on Harvard University's increasingly shaky reputation, was last seen attacking John Maynard Keynes for "the gay." He's back - Dean Baker does the debunking:
Harvard's standing in economic policy debates took a big hit when the famous Reinhart-Rogoff 90 percent debt-to-GDP growth cliff was shown to be the result of a simple spreadsheet error. Niall Ferguson's strange rant in the Wall Street Journal about the United States becoming the land of government regulation continues the downhill slide.

The gist of the piece is that the country is going down the road to economic stagnation and suffocating bureaucracy because of excessive regulation. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the main villain in this story.

It's fair to say that just about everything in the piece is wrong. Starting with the meat, rather than being some horrible burden for small businesses, the main effect of the ACA on the vast majority of small businesses will be to provide them with a subsidy if they offer their workers insurance. The mandate only applies to firms that employ more than 50 workers, most of whom already provide insurance that would meet the mandate anyhow. So these engines of innovation will grind to a halt if the government offers them subsidies for insurance? Interesting theory.

Ratings Agency Fraud & the Financial Crisis - Who knew?

Matt Taibbi talks with Chris Hayes about the collusion between ratings agencies
and banksters that fueled the financial crisis.  The question remains - will anyone
go to jail for this fraudulent conspiracy?  Not likely.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Stephen Colbert explains the current housing market

Monday, June 17, 2013

Taxes and income inequality

Kevin Drum @ Mother Jones:

Here's a remarkable chart from EPI. Actually, no: Strike that. It's true that in a normal world it would be remarkable, but in the world we live in it's actually totally unsurprising. It illustrates the rise in income inequality over the past three decades (top dark blue line),  and as you can see, it's been rising steadily. Totally unsurprising.

But then author Andrew Fieldhouse did another calculation. The middle blue line shows rising inequality after you account for taxes and transfers. But what if we had the same tax system we did in 1979? Well, inequality still would have gone up, but it would have gone up significantly less (bottom light blue line). In other words, during an era in which the rich were getting richer anyway, we deliberately set out to reduce their tax burdens so that they could become even richer...

Instead of trying to ameliorate the effects of a broad economic trend, we've done everything we possibly can to accelerate it. That includes tax policy, financial deregulation, trade policy, anti-labor policy, and much more. And since there's approximately zero evidence that any of this has actually increased economic growth, it means that U.S. policy for the past 30 years has been aggressively dedicated to shifting income share away from the poor and middle class and into the pockets of the already rich...

The foreclosure horrors continue

More than a year after the national mortgage settlement over robosigning crimes, the systematic abuses continue. Bloomberg:
Bank of America Corp. (BAC), the second-biggest U.S. lender, rewarded staff with cash bonuses and gift cards for meeting quotas tied to sending distressed homeowners into foreclosure, former employees said in court documents.

Mortgage workers falsified records and were told to delay U.S. loan-assistance applications by requesting paperwork that the Charlotte, North Carolina-based bank had already received, according to statements from ex-employees filed last week in federal court in Boston. The lender improperly disqualified applicants to the Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, according to a May 23 statement from Simone Gordon, a loss-mitigation specialist who left the company in 2012.

Bank of America Corp. is being sued by homeowners who didn't receive permanent loan modifications after making payments under trial programs, according to court papers. Photographer: Davis Turner/Bloomberg 

“We were regularly drilled that it was our job to maximize fees for the bank by fostering and extending delay of the HAMP modification process by any means we could,” Gordon said. Managers instructed staff to “delay modifications by telling homeowners who called in that their documents were ‘under review,’ when in fact, there had been no review,” she said.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The truth about "Job Creators"

The real "Job Creators" are the Middle Class - from Hullabaloo:
Nick Hanauer, successful entrepreneur and one percenter, gave testimony on income inequality a few days ago before the U.S. Senate. His testimony in full should be posted in every break room in America:
For 30 years, Americans on the right and left have accepted a
particular explanation for the origins of  Prosperity in capitalist economies. It is that rich business people like me are “Job Creators.” That if taxes go up on us or our companies, we will create fewer jobs. And that the lower our taxes are, the more jobs we will create and the more general prosperity we'll have.

Many of you in this room are certain that these claims are true. But sometimes the ideas that we know to be true are dead wrong. For thousands of years people were certain, positive, that earth was at the center of the universe. It’s not, and anyone who doesn’t know that would have a very hard time doing astronomy.

My argument today is this: In the same way that it’s a fact that the sun, not earth is the center of the solar system, it’s also a fact that the middle class, not rich business people like me are the center of America’s economy.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

"How Elite Economic Hucksters Drive America’s Biggest Fraud Epidemics"

William Black is a former bank regulator and author of "The Best Way To Rob a Bank Is To Own One"  - via Naked Capitalism:
What do you get when you throw together economic fraudsters, plutocrats and opportunistic criminals? A financial crisis, that’s what. If you look back over the massive frauds that have swept the country in recent decades, from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s to the 2007-'08 financial crash, this deadly combination always appears.
A dangerous cycle begins when prominent economists pander to plutocrats and bought politicians, who reward them with top posts, where they promote the perverse economic policies that cause fraud epidemics. Crises develop, and millions of people are ripped off. Those who fight for truth are ignored or ruined. The criminals get wealthier, bolder and more politically powerful, and go on to hatch even more devastating cons.
The three most recent financial crises in U.S. history were driven by a special type of fraud called “control fraud” — cases where the officers who control what look like legitimate entities use them as “weapons” to commit crimes. Each time, Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, played a catastrophic role. First, his policies created the fraud-friendly (criminogenic) environment that produces epidemics of control fraud, then he failed to identify those epidemics and incipient crises, and finally, he failed to counter them.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

On the lack of serious discussion or an honest opposition

Professor Krugman channels the outrage at alleged GOP "policy wonks" who are little more than ethically-challenged propagandists:
I fairly often receive mail pleading with me to take a more even tone, to have a respectful discussion with people on the other side rather than calling them fools and knaves. And you know, I do when I can. But the truth is that on most of the big issues confronting us, there just isn’t anyone to have a serious discussion with. Ezra Klein offers a nice illustration of this point today, in his takedown of Avik Roy on Obamacare in California.
The thing you want to bear in mind is that Roy is widely considered a good example of a reformist conservative, not to mention a health policy wonk. So what does this reform-minded wonk have to say about Obamacare?

Klein tries really hard to keep his temper even; too hard, I think, because I wonder how many readers will stay with him all the way through. But to cut to the chase, Roy claims that Obamacare will cause soaring insurance rates, using a comparison that is completely fraudulent — and I say fraudulent, not wrong, because he is indeed enough of a policy wonk here to know that he is pulling a fast one.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Reinhart And Rogoff's Pro-Austerity Research Now Even More Thoroughly Debunked By Studies

Mark Gongloff @ Huffington Post:
The debunking of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff continues.

The Harvard economists have argued that mistakes and omissions in their
influential research on debt and economic growth don't change their ultimate austerity-justifying conclusion: That too much debt hurts growth.

But even this claim has now been disproved by two new studies, which suggest the opposite might in fact be true: Slow growth leads to higher debt, not the other way around.
In a post at Quartz, University of Michigan economics professor Miles Kimball and University of Michigan undergraduate student Yichuan Wang write that they have crunched Reinhart and Rogoff's data and found "not even a shred of evidence" that high debt levels lead to slower economic growth.

And a new paper by University of Massachusetts professor Arindrajit Dube finds evidence that Reinhart and Rogoff had the relationship between growth and debt backwards: Slow growth appears to cause higher debt, if anything.

The Unemployed Need Bold, Creative Moves from the Fed

Mark Thoma @ Fiscal Times:
The Federal Reserve has increased the size of its balance sheet nearly four-fold
since the onset of the financial crisis, from around $870 billion in 2007 to $3.35 trillion today. This has caused people like Peter Schiff to predict that we are headed for a severe outbreak of inflation. An inflation problem is just round the corner we’ve been told again and again since 2008, yet inflation remains below the Fed’s 2% target, long-run inflation expectations are well-anchored, and there is little evidence in recent data that inflation is or will be a problem. 

Why is inflation so low?

More on the persistence of low inflation

Catherine Rampell @ New York Times Economix:
The personal consumption expenditures, or P.C.E., price index, which the Fed has said it prefers to other measures of inflation, fell from March to April by 0.25 percent. On a year-over-year basis, it was up by just 0.74 percent. Those figures are quite low by historical standards, and helped push consumer spending up. (Measured in nominal terms, consumer spending fell slightly in April. After adjusting for inflation, it rose.)

When looking at price changes, a lot of economists like to strip out food and energy, since costs in those spending categories can be volatile. Instead they focus on so-called “core inflation.” On a monthly basis, core inflation was flat. But year over year, this core index grew just 1.05 percent, which is the lowest pace since the government started keeping track more than five decades ago.

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, via Haver Analytics. The core P.C.E. price index refers to the price index change for personal consumption expenditures, excluding food and energy.                             Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, via Haver Analytics. The core P.C.E. price index refers to the price index change for personal consumption expenditures, excluding food and energy.

Low inflation may be one reason that consumers have proven so resilient in recent months (in addition to the lift they’re getting from rising home prices). A measure of consumer sentiment released Friday by the University of Michigan surged in May, and is at its highest level since July 2007.