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Mitch Daniels, Bush's OMB Director, Is Deluded About the Severity of the 2001 Recession Print
Monday, 28 February 2011 05:27

Morning Edition featured an interview with Mitch Daniels in which he was asked about whether he thought the Bush tax cuts were a good idea. Mr. Daniels, who was director of the Office of Management and Budget at the time, responded by saying that the tax cuts were widely credited (referring to the 2001 recession), "with the shallowness and the swiftness of recovery from that recession."

In fact, the recession was not short and mild. It led to what was at the time the longest period without job growth since the Great Depression. NPR should have pointed out Mr. Daniels' mistake.

[This is corrected from an earlier version, that confused Daniels' wording to wrongly imply that he said most people did not notice the recession. He had actually said that they did not see the recession coming.]

 

jobs-01-04

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

 
Prosecuting Wall Street Fraud: Lessons for Joe Nocera Print
Monday, 28 February 2011 05:00

Joe Nocera used his column this weekend to comment on the fact that none of the Wall Street honchos who got rich pushing bad loans are being prosecuted. Nocera notes that Angelo Mozila, the former CEO of Countrywide, the huge subprime lender, still thinks that he did a great thing by getting moderate income people into homes. He concludes that this would have made it difficult to prosecute Mozila since "delusion is an iron-clad defense."

The issue of Mr. Mozila's beliefs about the good he was doing is beside the point in terms of bringing successful prosecution. The immediate issue is that Countrywide was issuing and selling large numbers of fraudulent mortgages. The fraud in these mortgages involved mortgage agents deliberately putting down false financial information about the borrowers (at their own initiative, not the borrower's) to allow them to qualify for loans for which they would not otherwise be eligible. These loans were then resold in the secondary market. This was a widespread practice at Countrywide and other subprime lenders.

A prosecutor would typically proceed by getting clear documentation about a large number of fraudulent mortgages being issued from a particular office. This would include depositions from the mortgage agents themselves as to whether they knew that they were putting down false information. Presumably some would answer "yes," especially if they were being offered a deal in exchange for cooperating. They would then be questioned as to whether their bosses knew that they were issuing fraudulent mortgages.

With enough low level people saying that issuing fraudulent mortgages was in fact a company policy, the prosecutor would then go after an office manager. The plan would be to threaten several office managers with long prison sentences for fraud, unless they talked about Countrywide's overall policy.

There are two possible stories. One is that the higher-ups somehow did not know what many outside observers knew about their own company (i.e. they were issuing fraudulent mortgages on a large scale) or that Mozila and other top executives were not idiots and in fact knew exactly what was taking place at their company. By threatening those lower down in the corporate hierarchy with long jail sentences, a prosecutor would be more likely to be in a position to put Mr. Mozila behind bars. This would be true whether or not he thought his fraud was ultimately a good thing because it promoted home ownership.

There would be a similar chain in connection with people like Richard Fuld, the CEO of Lehman and other top executives. The point would be to establish that these companies were securitizing fraudulent loans on a large scale. The people putting together the mortgage backed securities were either unbelievably negligent, by not knowing anything about the mortgages they were buying, or criminals who resold mortgages they knew to be fraudulent. Whether they thought this was a good thing is besides the point.

 
Doesn't Anyone Have Anything Bad to Say About Jacob Lew? Print
Saturday, 26 February 2011 08:46

Not in the Washington Post they don't. The paper ran a lengthy fluff piece that did not present a single critical comment about Mr. Lew.

One item that the Post could have mentioned is that Lew and his colleagues in the Clinton administration, who it notes are all back in top positions in the Obama administration, ignored the growth of the stock bubble and stood by as the over-valued dollar led to an enormous trade deficit. The collapse of the bubble in 2000-2002 gave the country what was at the time the longest period without job growth since the Great Depression. The economy only recovered from that slump as a result of the growth generated by the housing bubble. 

 
The Washington Post STILL Has Not Heard About the Housing Bubble Print
Saturday, 26 February 2011 08:27

The Washington Post had a front page article on the downward revision to 4th quarter GDP reported by the Commerce Department yesterday. The article cited higher oil prices and state and local budget cuts as the two major threats to growth in the immediate future.

Remarkably, the article did not mention falling house prices. Since their peak last summer when the first time buyers tax credit expired, house prices have fallen by more than 4.0 percent. They are currently falling at the rate of 1.0 percent a month. This would imply a drop of more than 15 percent by the end of 2011, which would correspond to a loss $2.4 trillion in housing wealth. A loss of wealth of this magnitude would reduce annual consumption by $120-$140 billion.

This loss of consumption due to a drop in housing prices would be a considerably larger blow to the economy than either the budget cuts and tax increases attributable to the state budget shortfalls or a rise in the price of oil that is twice as large as what we have seen to date. It is amazing that the Post is oblivious to the situation in the housing market even after the collapse of the bubble threw the economy into the worst downturn in 70 years.  

 
The Post Wants YOU to Lose Your Job to Ease Its Concern About Inflation Print
Friday, 25 February 2011 08:04

It seems as though the Washington Post's editorial board is losing sleep over inflation. Its lead editorial notes the recent rise in commodity prices and then warns that:

"Core inflation does indeed remain well within the Fed's safety range, but it has nevertheless begun trending upward, and one leading forecaster, Deutsche Bank Economic Research, says it could hit 2.1 percent, the upper limit of the Fed's usual target range, by the end of 2011. That could force the Fed to raise interest rates, slowing growth before unemployment has returned to pre-recession levels, in order to preserve its inflation-fighting credibility."

Actually, 2.1 percent inflation is not "the upper limit of the Fed's usual target range." The Fed never explicitly set a target range and there are a range of views among the Fed's open market committee (the body that sets interest rates) as to how high inflation can go before it poses any problem to the economy. For example, back in 1999 Chairman Ben Bernanke argued that in comparable circumstances Japan's central bank should deliberately target a higher rate of inflation in the range of 3-4 percent to lower real interest rates.

As a practical matter, the inflation rate has rarely been below 2.1 percent. As can be seen, there was only one year in the decades of both the 80s and the 90s when the inflation rate was below the level that the Post wants the Fed to have as the top end of its target range.

annual_inflation_5504_image001
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

 

There is no obvious reason that the Fed should feel "forced" to raise interest rates if the core inflation rate happens to edge above 2.0 percent to preserve its credibility. Such an increase in interest rates would mean throwing more people out of work.

There are already tens of millions of people who have lost their jobs and/or their homes because of the Fed's mismanagement of the economy. There is no reason that the Fed should deliberately put more people out of work just because the Post editors and their friends have irrational fears about inflation.

 
Overplaying the Impact of Oil Prices Print
Friday, 25 February 2011 06:50

The NYT had a front page article warning that the rise in oil prices could slow economic growth. The article hugely overstates the potential impact of the price rises that we have seen to date as indicated by an estimate that appears in the article.

At one point it tells readers that:

"Mr. Lafakas [an economist at Moody's Analytics] estimates that oil prices are on track to average $90 a barrel in 2011, from $80 in 2010, an increase that would offset nearly a quarter of the $120 billion payroll tax cut that Congress had intended to stimulate the economy this year."

It is worth remembering that the payroll tax cut was only a portion of the stimulus package that included the extension of the Bush tax cuts, the extension of emergency unemployment benefits, and 100 percent expensing for business investment. It is unlikely that anyone would have paid too much attention if the tax cut had been 2.5 or 1.5 percent instead of 2.0 percent. In other words, the impact on economic growth of this rise in oil prices is not likely to be very noticeable.

At one point the article also includes the comment:

"After a few false starts, housing prices have slid further."

Actually, the decline in house prices following the "false starts" was entirely predictable. The first-time buyer tax credits that Congress put in place supported the market by pulling purchases forward. It was inevitable that demand and prices would fall after these credits expired.

 
David Brooks Sings the Praises for Mitch Daniels Print
Friday, 25 February 2011 06:22

David Brooks thinks that Mitch Daniels would be a great president, or at least this is what he said in his column today. Brooks' case centers on the outstanding job that Daniels has done as governor of Indiana. Brooks is especially impressed with the extent to which Daniels has improved the state's fiscal situation.

While that may be interesting to some, most people are probably most concerned about jobs. (Remember the recession?) If we compare job growth in Indiana with job growth (or more accurately loss) with its mostly Democratically governed neighbors, it doesn't look especially good.

Book1_15615_image001
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

 

Indiana lost 6.5 percent of its jobs between December of 2004 (the month before Daniels took office) and December of 2010. This beats Michigan's 13.0 percent and Ohio's 7.7 percent, but is worse than Illinois' loss of 5.2 percent of its jobs. It's also worse than the loss of 3.3 percent of jobs in Wisconsin and 0.2 percent of jobs in Iowa.

I suppose that Daniels campaign slogan can be "better than Michigan."

 
Does a 13 Percent Drop in Homes Prices Since June "Reflect an Improved Economy"? Print
Thursday, 24 February 2011 06:09

According to the Washington Post it does. The Post reported on the modest rise in existing home sales in January reported by the National Association of Realtors. The increase in sales was accompanied by a sharp plunge in prices with the median sale price now 13.1 percent below the recent high set in June.

As the article suggests, it appears that many investors were buying up foreclosed properties at low prices. This is a necessary part of the return to normal in the housing market, but it is a bit misleading to describe this story as reflecting an improved economy.

 
Chris Farrell Nails It on Marketplace Radio Print
Thursday, 24 February 2011 05:58
He told listeners this morning that the government deficit problem is a health care problem. It's too bad that people in Washington can't hear this.
 
The Impact of Oil Prices on Economic Growth Print
Thursday, 24 February 2011 05:26

An NYT article discussing the impact of higher oil prices on the economy told readers that:

"As a general rule of thumb, every $10 increase in the price of a barrel of oil reduces the growth of the gross domestic product by half a percentage point within two years."

There is no source cited for this rule of thumb, which implies an extraordinarily large impact of oil prices on GDP. For example, the fall of oil prices from an average of $91 a barrel in 2008 to $53 a barrel in 2009 should have added almost two percentage points to GDP growth in the last two years.

The article later gives a more conventional rule of thumb, that each 1 cent increase in gas prices takes $1 billion out of consumers' pockets. These two rules of thumb appear inconsistent. A $10 increase in the price of a barrel of oil would imply an increase in gas prices of about 25 cents. This would reduce the money available for other consumption by about $25 billion a year. If the impact is doubled to account for other uses of oil (e.g. home heating, electricity, etc.) this would reduce the money available for spending by $50 billion, approximately 0.3 percent off GDP.

Of course the reduction in spending will not be 100 percent of the higher price of oil, many consumers will dip into their savings, just as they would in response to a temporary tax increase. In addition, some of the gain from higher oil prices goes to U.S. producers of oil, either as domestic production or importers with higher profits. While higher earnings for producers will have less impact on increasing spending than higher oil prices will have on reducing spending, the impact will not be zero.

On net, it is unlikely that the actual impact of a $10 increase in the price of a barrel of oil would be even half as large as the rule of thumb described in this article. A substantial rise in the price of oil would still have a substantial impact on the economy, but not nearly as much as this article claims.

 
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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.

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