Friday, July 26, 2013

The Summers of our discontent

Jason Linkins @ Huffington Post:
Way way back at the end of this period of time that we like to call "the 1990s," Time magazine featured Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, and Larry Summers on its cover and called them "The Committee To Save The World." And that was basically the moment that put the American economy on the Darkest Timeline. Somewhere, out there, there is a parallel universe where Brooksley Born, Sheila Bair, and ... I don't know, let's say a bottle of sriracha were appointed to the same committee, and there, the economy is humming and Elizabeth Warren didn't even need to run for Senate.
How did that work out?

In the intervening years since the Frio Trio were plastered all over your dentist's office, Greenspan has been forced to admit that his overarching theories were kinda-sorta all cocked up. Rubin ... well, he at least fell into a swimming pool at a big Wall Street to-do at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, in the most cosmically just thing that has ever happened at a political event. But Larry Summers has proven to be the sort of dread beast that even Ash Williams couldn't send off to a spectral dirt nap. Now, it is being rumored that Summers is atop the list of possible replacements for Ben Bernanke at the Federal Reserve.

Lordy, it was just 18 months ago that we were forced to ruminate on the possibility that Summers might end up leading the World Bank. At the time, the best (among many!) arguments against this came from Felix Salmon, who recognized that running the World Bank called for "a very high level of cultural and interpersonal sensitivity," and not, say, a high level of whatever personality traits lead one to opine, "I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable."

Obamacare is still driving Republicans crazy

 Professor Krugman @ NYTs:
Leading Republicans appear to be nerving themselves up for another round of attempted fiscal blackmail. With the end of the fiscal year looming, they aren’t offering the kinds of compromises that might produce a deal and avoid a government shutdown; instead, they’re drafting extremist legislation — bills that would, for example, cut clean-water grants by 83 percent — that has no chance of becoming law. Furthermore, they’re threatening, once again, to block any rise in the debt ceiling, a move that would damage the U.S. economy and possibly provoke a world financial crisis.

Yet even as Republican politicians seem ready to go on the offensive, there’s a palpable sense of anxiety, even despair, among conservative pundits and analysts. Better-informed people on the right seem, finally, to be facing up to a horrible truth: Health care reform, President Obama’s signature policy achievement, is probably going to work. 

And the good news about Obamacare is, I’d argue, what’s driving the Republican Party’s
intensified extremism. Successful health reform wouldn’t just be a victory for a president conservatives loathe, it would be an object demonstration of the falseness of right-wing ideology. So Republicans are being driven into a last, desperate effort to head this thing off at the pass.

Some background: Although you’d never know it from all the fulminations, with prominent Republicans routinely comparing Obamacare to slavery, the Affordable Care Act is based on three simple ideas. First, all Americans should have access to affordable insurance, even if they have pre-existing medical problems. Second, people should be induced or required to buy insurance even if they’re currently healthy, so that the risk pool remains reasonably favorable. Third, to prevent the insurance “mandate” from being too onerous, there should be subsidies to hold premiums down as a share of income. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

U.S. Health Care Spending...Again

The world's least cost-effective health care system. Shirley Wang @ WSJ:

That the U.S spends a lot of money on health care is a refrain many Americans are familiar with, but the latest health expenditure data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development still are striking. Here’s a graph of health-care expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product for the 34 member nations of the OECD between 1980 and 2012. As you can see, there’s one country whose expenditure begins to distinguish itself from all the others — the U.S.
In 2011, the most recent year in which most of the countries reported data, the U.S. spent 17.7% of its GDP on health care, whereas none of the other countries tracked by the OECD reported more than 11.9%. And there’s a debate about just how well the American health-care system works. As the Journal reported recently, Americans are living longer but not necessarily healthier .

"Much of Dodd-Frank is dying on the vine"

Erika Eichelberger @ Mother Jones:
The Dodd-Frank financial reform act of 2010 turns three years old this month. But because of intense Wall Street lobbying, only about a third of the provisions it requires have actually been made into rules by Wall Street regulators, and many have gaping loopholes designed by industry lobbyists. A new analysis by the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit that advocates for government transparency, starkly illustrates why regulatory agencies are so swayed by industry: over the past three years, those whose job it is to police Wall Street have met with big banks 14 times more often than pro-reform groups to discuss proposed Dodd-Frank rules.

The Sunlight Foundation reviewed three years worth of meetings that banks, industry lobbyists, corporations, and financial reform advocacy groups had with the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve, and found that these regulators had met 2,118 times with financial institutions, and only 153 time with pro-reform groups. Here's what that looks like, via the Sunlight Foundation:

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Inflation-Mania Cranks & Crackpots

Conservative policy analyst Bruce Bartlett @ NYT's Economix on the "Inflationphobes," who are apparently a...uh...bunch of cranks and crackpots:
When the most recent recession began in December 2007, there was no reason at first to believe that it was any different from those that have taken place about every six years in the postwar era. But it soon became apparent that this economic downturn was having an unusually negative effect on the financial sector that threatened to implode in a wave of bankruptcies. The Federal Reserve reacted by doing exactly what it was created to do — be a lender of last resort and prevent systemic bank failures of the sort that caused the Great Depression and made it so long and severe.

As the Fed lent freely to banks and other financial institutions, its balance sheet grew very rapidly. The reserves of the banking system grew concomitantly; reserves are funds that banks have available for immediate lending that theoretically should lead to credit expansion and new investment by businesses, durable goods purchases by households and so on.

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
During the inflation of the 1970s, most economists became convinced that if the Fed adds too much money and credit to the financial system it will inevitably cause prices to rise. Since the increase in the money supply in 2008 and 2009 was unprecedented, many economists reacted fearfully to the Fed’s actions.

Given the order of magnitude of the increase in bank reserves, from virtually nothing to more than $1 trillion almost overnight and now to more than $2 trillion, it was not unreasonable to be concerned about the potential for Zimbabwe-style hyperinflation.
But inflation fell rather than rising. In the five and a half years since the start of the recession, the consumer price index has risen a total of 10.2 percent. In the five and a half years previously, it rose 17.7 percent. That is, the rate of inflation fell by almost half.

Now, I don’t expect all the people who filled The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page in 2008 and 2009 predicting an imminent rise in inflation to offer a mea culpa, but at some point I think the inflationphobes should at least stop saying that hyperinflation is right around the corner.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Whither Dodd-Frank?

Wonkblog @ WaPo:
Sunday is the third anniversary of the Dodd-Frank Act. To get a sense of how
implementation has been going, I asked 16 people at the forefront of the debate to answer two questions: What has gone better than you had expected? And what has gone worse? – Mike Konczal

Sheila C. Bair served as the 19th chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for a five-year term, from June 2006 through June 2011.

“Things that went better than expected: just about all of the rules where an agency could act alone, e.g., the FDIC’s rules on resolution authority and deposit insurance premiums; the CFPB’s rules on mortgage lending standards; the CFTC’s rules on moving standardized domestic swaps to centralized clearing.

“Things that were bigger problems than expected: just about all of the rules where inter-agency coordination and agreement were required: e.g. tougher bank capital standards, the Volcker Rule, risk retention for securitizers. Between agency squabbling and industry lobbying, Sisyphus could move faster than the agencies in moving these rules.”

Michael S. Barr is a  professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School and former assistant secretary of the treasury for financial institutions, where he was a key architect of the Dodd-Frank Act.

“The opponents of financial reform are losing. There’s a strong, new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, looking out for American households, and Senate Republicans finally relented and confirmed, by a lopsided vote, Rich Cordray as director of the bureau.

Capital requirements are going up, derivatives are coming out of the shadows and major financial firms will be subject to strict supervision and wind-down authority regardless of corporate form. But much remains to be done, from LIBOR reform to the Volcker Rule, and the financial industry will continue to try to lobby, litigate and legislate their way out of the tough new rules. Now is not the time to lose hope, stop fighting or give in, but to renew the commitment to making the financial system fairer and safer.”

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Bernanke: Congress itself poses the greatest risk to growth

Binyamin Applebaum @ NYTs:
WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve’s chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, emphasized on Wednesday that the central bank remains committed to bolstering the economy, insisting that any deceleration in the Fed’s stimulus campaign will happen because it is achieving its goals, not because it has lowered its sights. 

Mr. Bernanke said he still expected to reach that point in the coming months but, in what may have been his final appearance before the House Financial Services Committee, he cautioned that Congress itself posed the greatest risk to growth. 

“The risks remain that tight federal fiscal policy will restrain economic growth over the next few quarters by more than we currently expect, or that the debate concerning other fiscal policy issues, such as the status of the debt ceiling, will evolve in a way that could hamper the recovery,” he told the committee. 

The sluggish economy has been a constant background for Mr. Bernanke’s biannual testimony. Unemployment, at 7.6 percent, remains stubbornly above the Fed’s goals. 

Inflation has sagged to the lowest pace on record. Growth continues at a “modest to moderate pace,” the Fed said Wednesday in its monthly beige book survey of economic conditions across the country, released separately from Mr. Bernanke’s testimony.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

"A Call to Battle on Bank Leverage"

Former chief IMF economist Simon Johnson @ NYT's Economix:
On Tuesday, federal banking regulators opened an important new phase of the debate on how safe very large financial institutions should become. The next round of argument will be intense; the focus has shifted to the specific and high-stakes question of how much leverage big banks can have – i.e., how much of each dollar on their balance sheet they should be allowed to fund with debt rather than with equity.

The people who run global megabanks would rather fund them with relatively more debt and less equity. Equity absorbs losses, but these very large companies are seen as too big to fail – so they benefit from implicit government guarantees. A higher degree of leverage – meaning more debt and less equity – means more upside for the people who run banks, while the greater downside risks are someone else’s problem (the central bank, the taxpayer or, more broadly, you).

Thursday, July 11, 2013

"Income, Race and Voting

Professor Krugman ventures into Poli Sci, @ NYTs:
Still thinking about the new GOP idea — hey, let’s go for white voters! Why didn’t we think of that before? ... I’m venturing into political science territory here,and would be happy to have real experts weigh in; but I’m pretty sure I have the basics right here.

So, let’s look at some exit poll data, and cross-tab it with Census income data. In the figure below, the red lines show the income-voting relationship from the Times summary of exit polls, which also supplies the broad ethnic group data. For incomes, I use Census data on median household income for 2011, which is also available for regions. For voting I use Alabama to represent the South, Ohio to represent the Midwest.

So here’s my picture:

Contrary to what some people keep saying, people with higher incomes, other things equal, tend to vote Republican. Cut through the noise and fog, and it is true that Democrats broadly want to redistribute income down, and Republicans want to redistribute income up — and on average, voters get that (which is why “libertarian populism” is hot air). But race and ethnicity also matter, a lot. What you can see right away is that there are three groups that are fairly anomalous.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

"The Lagging Public Sector"

Floyd Norris @ NYT's Economix:
Private sector employment in the United States is growing at about the same rate it did during the best days of the last decade.

The difference is in the government. It continues to shed workers.

Year-over-year change in employment.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, via Haver Analytics  Year-over-year change in employment.
The above chart shows the annual change in employment for the private sector, and for government jobs, since the end of 2002.

Over the last 12 months, private sector employment rose 2 percent. That is down a little from the 2.5 percent rate early last year, but it is about the same as the rate of growth in the fall of 2005.

But government employment continues to fall. It is down 0.2 percent, which is the best year-over-year showing since 2009, when the government cutbacks were starting to be felt.

On a monthly basis, over the last 12 months the economy added an average of 191,000 jobs a month in the private sector, and cut public sector employment by 3,000 jobs a month.

Politicians lamenting the slow pace of recovery might, logically, look for ways to increase hiring in the sector that is lagging the most.

(A note on the data: I used figures before seasonal adjustments, which is possible since annual changes presumably take care of seasonal adjustment. And I dropped from the numbers the temporary surge in government jobs caused by hiring for the 2010 census. Without that change, there would have been a rise in government employment in 2010 and a much steeper decline in 2011.)

Friday, July 5, 2013

Infrastructure repair is key to growth

 Barry Ritholz @ The Big Picture:
If you have spent much time traveling around the United States, you likely have noticed that our infrastructure looks a bit worn and tired and in need of some refreshing. If you spend much time traveling around the world, however, you will notice that our infrastructure is shockingly bad. So bad that it’s not an exaggeration to declare it a national disgrace, a global embarrassment and a massive security risk.Not too long ago, the infrastructure of the United States was the envy of the world. We had an extensive interstate highway system, deep-water ports connected to a well-developed rail system and a new airport in every major city (and most minor ones). Electricity was accessible to the vast majority of the nation’s residents, as was Ma Bell’s telephone network.

That was then. In the ensuing decades, we have allowed the transportation grid to get old and out of shape. Our interstate highway system is in disrepair; our bridges are rusting away, with some collapsing now and then. The electrical grid is a patchwork of jury-rigged fixes, vulnerable to blackouts and foreign cyberattacks. The cell system of the United States is a laughingstock versus Asia’s or Europe’s coverage. There are very few things that are done better by government mandate than by the free market, but cell coverage is one of them. Broadband, almost as laughable as our cell coverage, is another.